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To Labor and to Wait
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The Guardsman

“Do not look at it,” she tells me, and of course I have to look as soon as she says this. I let my gaze go to the table between us, where my hand rests limply, palm up. The girl’s dark head is bent over it. Her face, like mine, is impassive. She is intent upon her needle and her thread; a row of stitches is growing over the long gash in my skin. I would not call it pleasant, but I take a grim sort of pleasure in knowing I have borne much worse in the past without complaint—a soldier’s pleasure.

It happened this morning: my hand slipped as I was honing my dagger—a thing that has never occurred in all the years I have carried a blade. I clutched at my bloody palm with my right hand and cursed myself hoarse—cursed myself, and my weapon, and my aching limbs, and the dimness of the battlements at dawn, and the early spring chill that had seeped through my cloak. And above all else I cursed the Black Land itself, that it had found Gondor in her hour of weakness, and that now I must battle its minions with one hand maimed. It went on in this fashion until my brother gripped my shoulder and sent me to the Houses. “Get you some proper care, while you still are able,” he said, gently. “But first,” he added, “get you out of earshot. I do not care to listen to you howl all the morrow.”

And I suppose it is good to sit here, biting back my pain, and it is good to have a girl sit opposite me. Strange to see a girl, though, for we are at war, are we not? I let the cool air fill me, and now the black death-rotted wings graze at the edges of my mind, as they often seem to do when all else is still, just as the fell cries bloom in my ears when all else is quiet.

I suppress a shudder just as she is putting in the final stitch—or very nearly suppress it.

“I told you not to look,” she chides me. Ah, if only ‘twere so easy as that. There is a neat seam running down the center of my palm, like a newly mended garment. I wonder, does she believe she will live to see the ending of this war?

“Thank you,” I say.

“You are welcome.” She ties off the thread without meeting my eye, then swiftly lifts my wrist and places a light kiss on the edge of my hand. “Now get you gone, soldier.”


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