- J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country
And we’ll remember this,
When we are old and ancient,
Though the specifics might be vague.
- The Decemberists, “July! July!”
Three cheers for my parents, lonely failed experiments,
Three cheers for my parents, lonely failed experiments.
- The Arcade Fire, “The Woodland National Anthem”
…to meet at sunup on the third day after evaluation. All new recruits shall then proceed to the arms-master for measurement and assessment. Training assessment will be completed ‘twixt the third and fourth week of the second month of evaluation…
His steps echoed down the Citadel corridor as he walked slowly, thoughtfully.
…guard duty shall be assigned in order of rank and age, ascending, and in accordance to the positioning within the Citadel lower and upper floors. Captain, we encourage you to suggest any further revisions to the training schedule, as you see fit…
He wore the uniform of the Citadel Guard - all silver-lined black livery, with the White Tree glowing against his doublet and a White Tree clasp on the shoulder of his mantle. His dark curls sprang wildly forward, while his beard had grown full and dark, creeping down his neck.
…hope this letter reaches you in good health and eagerly await your hasty response. The council meeting shall be held on Orgaladh, the fourth day of Narquelië, King’s Reckoning, in the seventeenth year of the Fourth Age…
He was reading a piece of unrolled parchment, frowning. Apart from his booted tread, he could hear only the snapping torches, the wind howling outside, and his own occasional sniffle.
One step. Two steps. Three steps, and he turned the corner. Just as he did so, he halted abruptly, and brought a hand to his mouth. He reeled back – eyes squinted shut – before snapping his head forward with a loud, resounding sneeze. Two Citadel Guardsmen began to laugh.
"Ho, ho! Captain, you've gone and caught yourself a cold, it seems!"
"Aye, my lord, are you feeling well? You look flushed, sir."
Iorlas, Captain of the Citadel Guard, Protector of Minas Tirith, Loyal Servant of King Elessar Telcontar of the Reunited Kingdom and everything else, glared. His glowering must have been particularly miserable, for the two guardsmen - his younger nephew, Borlas, and Elboron, the Steward's son - immediately stifled their chuckles. Borlas, twenty-eight, was biting his lower lip, hiding his smile. His hair was swept back from how he had worn his helmet, his stubble was too long. Elboron, fourteen, had just recently trimmed his auburn locks, and he was watching Iorlas now in amused concern.
"I am not flushed, Elboron," Iorlas said thickly, shaking the dampness out of his report.
"Aye, sir, of course not," Elboron agreed.
"And I do not have a fever."
"Indeed, I did not think you did."
"Bah! Do not coddle me, boy!" Iorlas snapped.
"Captain," Borlas frowned. "Lady Ana will be upset if you return home with a fever. And what of Yáviérë?"
Iorlas groaned. Indeed. The day after tomorrow was the Harvest Feast, and his wife would never forgive him if he fell ill on the day of the festivities. Especially not this year. This year they celebrated their first ten years together. Nineteen years of peace, ten years of marriage, and he had promised the girls they could come to the Citadel's royal autumnal ball if they behaved...
Naturally, worrying that he should fall ill only made him all the more perceptive of his every ache and pain. It was true: his muscles felt stiff and sore, as if he had overexerted himself. Yet apart from sitting through a council meeting and checking on the newest sentries during their archery practice, he had done little today. His head was pounding, and he had awoken with an acute pressure between his eyes. And he felt cold. Did he feel cold? Possibly he felt cold – colder than usual. This was not good.
Giving himself a firm and silent scolding, he glared again at the young men. They both straightened under his gaze.
"Borlas, why have you removed your helmet? Elboron? Do you think that since we are nigh the holidays the Guard is any less precise?"
They did not reply, but instead hastened to put their helmets back on. Once they did so, fumbling and clattering and bumping elbows, they resumed their rigid, military stares.
Iorlas frowned. "When do you two finish duty?"
"In several – ” Borlas began, but in that moment the evening bell began to toll. He smiled, still staring ahead. “Now, Captain.”
Iorlas frowned. And even though Elboron smiled at the sound of the bell’s tolling, neither guardsman made a move as Iorlas stood before them. Elboron’s eyes flickered to him.
Finally, with a dismissive wave and a loud, congested snort, Iorlas said thickly, “Very well, very well. Be off. You need not wait for the night guard to relieve you – I’ve placed them all about the Great Hall tonight.” He coughed, hacking for a moment, before clearing his throat. “Go on, then. There shall be a grand chaos awaiting you in the barracks.”
“Captain…” Elboron said slowly. He frowned. “Captain, I do not mean to be forward, but you seem truly unwell. Perhaps ‘twould be better if we escorted you to the Houses of Healing?”
Iorlas was about to raise his voice in outrage, but any roar was quickly cut off by another violent sneeze. The two young men took a startled step back. Once Iorlas regained his composure, he wagged the rolled-up parchment in Elboron’s face. The boy had taken much after his father – he had Faramir’s eyes, his nose, his low voice. In truth, Iorlas had grown rather fond of Elboron in the past few months of the boy’s training – though he was careful to never show this affection lest the other soldiers think it favoritism.
“Sweet Valar, boy!” Iorlas exclaimed. “The day I go to the Houses of Healing because I am ‘unwell’ is the day I go there to die! Now get you to the barracks, else I put you on stable duty for the next sennight!”
Elboron flushed. “Aye, sir…”
“Choleric as ever, uncle,” Borlas laughed as he worked to remove his helmet, “Pay our captain no heed, Elboron, he is irascible.” His helmet came off with a soft pop. “Uncle, the boy is right. And we are taking you to the Houses of Healing whether you wish it or not. Your nose is as red as a drunkard’s.”
With much grumbling and angry outbursts, the two guardsmen managed to half-drag their captain out of the Citadel, through the Court of the Fountain, down the main stairs and onto the sixth circle. Iorlas was just complaining about coddling youth, and soft-hearted soldiers, and how in the days of the Ring War, the hardened guardsmen would never have made such a fuss, when they reached the Houses of Healing.
An iron-wrought gate opened up to a gravel path. Beyond that, the path crossed the neatly-kept gardens, trailing flat and white up to the portico of the first House.
The setting sun cast its pink-orange rays on the white marble of the House. A chill wind breezed through the gardens, shifting the dry leaves. The sky was crisp and clear. Iorlas could not smell much, but he fancied he could feel the scent of comfrey drifting from the garden. Elboron was standing off to Iorlas’s right, watching the traffic on the street. A few noblemen walked past, bundled up and shivering; a nursemaid was scolding a young child to slow down as he ran past; a messenger on horseback went clopping by.
“Well, I shall go to Lady Ana’s, Captain, to alert her of your late arrival,” Borlas announced. The young man was silhouetted dark in the growing twilight. Iorlas scowled at him.
“For Valar’s sake, Borlas, don’t tell her I’m at the Houses of Healing for a simple cold,” Iorlas groused. “Tell her… tell her what you will, invent some fiction. But tell her I shall be home for supper.”
Borlas clicked his heels and bowed crisply. “Of course, Captain.” He smiled at Elboron. “Do not make late to the barracks, Elboron.”
“Nay, of course not,” Elboron said.
Borlas grinned, clapped the younger guardsman on the shoulder and gave a mock-formal salute to Iorlas. Iorlas grumbled a little more, but good-naturedly, and soon Borlas was striding down the main street, whistling. Iorlas sighed. He did not trust Borlas to be quick about his task; his nephew would no doubt be waylaid by one of the sweetmeat shops on the fifth circle.
“Off you go, Elboron,” Iorlas said. “You need not tarry here with an old man.”
Elboron was looking at the garden beyond the gate. “My lord, may I linger still? I have never been in the Houses of Healing – and my parents have spoken much of them.” He turned to look up at Iorlas. “’Twas here that they met, I think.”
“’Twas indeed,” Iorlas grinned. “Well, come, then.”
And so Iorlas dragged open the gate, bid Elboron to go first, and then followed the young auburn head as it bobbed down the path. Their steps crunched against the gravel, and, as they approached the colonnaded arcade which opened up before the main door, they could hear the singing larks in the garden to their left. A few healer women were walking down the gallery, and they nodded kindly as Iorlas and Elboron passed. The gravel paths wrapped around all the Houses, branching off to the right and left, as well as diagonally through the central garden.
Iorlas was not well-versed in herb lore, but he recognized the wide mint leaves, the spiked holly, the clumps of sage. The garden had been dedicated to the Ernil i Pheriannath, and it was the halflings who had helped much in the replanting of this green patch. Iorlas remembered that blistering summer day, years ago, when he had come to see to some wounded comrades and he had found the two periannath, Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took, on their knees, digging their small hands in the rich, dark soil, chatting about the qualities of herbs with an elderly wise-woman. But those were the days after the war, when everything seemed to glow, vibrant and alive and treasured.
Iorlas imagined he would never feel that brilliance again – he had long since grown accustomed to peace. But, sometimes, he could still feel a whispered reminder in the warm breeze against his cheek, or the scent of his wife’s skin in the morning.
After another brief coughing fit, Iorlas slammed Elboron’s back jovially. He smiled, still squinting from his congestion. “Young Elboron, you are wrong on one count, however. This is not your first time here, though mayhap you do not recall your first visit.”
“Oh?” Elboron turned, for he had been scanning the grounds, and he smiled.
“Nay,” Iorlas grinned, sucked in one gurgling snort. “On one of your parents’ visits… you must have been two or three years old. ‘Twas for Mettarë; a year when they thought to bring you. Though,” he laughed hoarsely, “after your behavior at the Great Hall, they promptly exiled you back to Emyn Arnen with the nurse!”
Elboron laughed as well, rolling his eyes. “Please, Captain, not that story again… it seems not one soul in Minas Tirith has not heard that tale…”
“Indeed, you are a notoriety.”
They arrived to the main door – a wide, wooden door, bolt-locked, flanked by two oil lamps. The white marble was blackened on either side where the smoke from the lamps had soiled it. Elboron gave the knocker one large clunk and then turned back to Iorlas.
“Captain, did you know the halfling prince?” Elboron asked softly.
Iorlas shook his head. “Not very well. Bergil was a friend of his; he has some amusing stories.”
There was some noise from within: locks being turned, a scrape of metal. Finally, the door swung open to reveal a plump, young drudge with bright eyes and a still-childish face. She was about Elboron’s age.
“A fair evening to you, my lady,” Elboron said with a nod of his head. “We come in search of some drug, for Captain Iorlas has come down with fever.”
The girl’s eyes widened, and Iorlas hastened to say, with a rough voice, “Nay, nay. ‘Tis but a cold. And I am in something of a hurry. A simple draught would suffice.”
“Aye, my lords, certainly,” she nodded and stepped aside, opening the door for them. “Please, do come inside.”
Some time later, Iorlas found himself sitting in a wooden chair by a window, his cloak thrown over his shoulder, waiting for the healer to arrive. He had sent Elboron off with the drudge, a girl named Eirien, so that the girl could show the young prince all of the Houses. In the meantime, another girl had led Iorlas to a clean, simple room, and there a young healer had felt his brow and asked him a few questions before disappearing with promise to return.
There was a bowl of lavender-scented water on the stand, and the windows were open to reveal the neatly trimmed rows of shrubs, level, moving off into the evening gloom. Iorlas could hear the small fountain, further towards the center of the garden, and, if he arched his neck back, he could see Elboron and the girl walking its perimeter. The boy had still been wearing his armor and plumed helmet when they had come from the Citadel, but he had shed all of that now, assuming Iorlas would be a while, and he was wearing his green doublet with the White Tree embossed on the front. Dressed like so, the boy seemed a gangly Faramir. He even had the same mannerisms: hands clasped behind his back, head bowed as he listened, raising a finger to make a point. The way he tilted his head back when he laughed.
Twilight had passed now, and the only light in the gardens came from the torches.
The door clicked open and an older healer arrived. Iorlas stood. She was a woman around Ana’s age. She had dark hair with a streak of grey, and a serious expression. She was carrying a tall glass and a pouch.
“I apologize for the wait, Captain,” she said with a slight curtsy.
“Nay, ‘tis nothing.”
“Here,” she handed Iorlas the glass, “I have made some chamomile tea with honey. That shall ease your throat and your head. Also, this is an herbal mix which you may take with you.”
Iorlas blew on his tea and took a careful sip. It scalded him – though immediately its fragrance opened up some of his congestion, burned down his throat and eased the scratchiness. He smiled. “Thank you, my lady.”
The woman bobbed her head courteously. He watched her as he drank, thinking casually on how she kept her hair up, when he remembered most women would wear their hair covered in the years of the War. They would wear white cloths in the Houses, he remembered – though now he saw only the younger nurses and drudges doing this, whereas this woman wore her hair uncovered, pulled up in a clasp. Perhaps they did not need to cover their hair anymore, Iorlas thought, without the flow of wounded soldiers from Osgiliath, Ithilien, the first circle…
Iorlas took a large swallow of tea, enough to burn his throat.
The healer was not looking at him, but was watching Elboron and Eirien out the window, and Iorlas studied her. He wondered what she had looked like – twenty years ago, when the girls had worn their hair up and the thought of the Houses of Healing had always sent a shiver of dread through his gut.
Thinking of that, he felt the slightest stir of memory, and, after a moment, he asked, “My lady, forgive me, but you seem somewhat familiar. I could swear we have met before.”
She turned to look at him, her brow knit.
“Nay, Captain, I do not think so…” After a moment, she added, “Though, in truth, I do not remember all of our visitors, so perhaps you are right.”
He smiled a little, drank his tea. Outside, soft voices drifted through the air. The torches on the outer walls snapped.
As Iorlas finished his tea, his sense of smell slowly returned, and he inhaled, grateful. He still felt that heaviness between his eyes, but at least he could enjoy a few moments of easy breathing. And – amidst the smell of his own stale sickness – he caught the scent of marjoram coming from the ceramic pots on the window. And a wave of nostalgia struck him – a tumble of memories – causing his stomach to give a small flip, for he had always disliked the Houses of Healing in his youth as a soldier. But he remembered now: he had been in this room before.
“Aye!” he exclaimed. “I have it. We know each other from the days nigh the Siege, my lady. You tended my hand once.”
She cocked her head. “In truth, sir?”
“Aye, aye, I am sure of it.” He looked down at the palm of his free hand, where a faint scar trailed. He showed it to her. “Here. I remember it clearly. ‘Twas a day or two ere the Siege began in earnest. I had cut my hand while sharpening my blade.” He chuckled slightly. “I remember you told me not to look, and I did anyway.”
She smiled, though she squinted. “To be honest, sir, I do not remember.” Her smile flickered. “There is much of that time that has faded, thankfully.”
“Aye…” Iorlas admitted. “I know not what reminded me – ‘twas the smell of this place, maybe – but I too have… forgotten much.” He fidgeted for a moment, staring into his tea, before adding, “Though there are some… details which I can recall with perfect clarity.” He forced a smile, raised his palm again. “Like this, for example. ‘Twas the only time I have ever injured myself so carelessly.”
The healer returned his smile, and, from outside, there was a burst of laughter from Elboron and the drudge. The healer clucked her tongue in mock exasperation, quick to change the mood.
“Eirien is such a silly girl.” She sighed. “In my youth here, ‘twould have been improper for those two to walk around so.” She nodded before adding, “Though I make no ill assumptions of the young Lord Elboron.”
Iorlas scoffed at the etiquette. “Aye, much has changed. We are not so old, you and I, yet there are days when I feel I could be the grandsire to most of these young soldiers! These young ones, they are – they are a different generation, by my troth.” He let his gaze wander back outside. “I was much more serious at Elboron’s age.” He shook his head. “They are a different youth.”
Iorlas and the healer met eyes for a moment. And then the healer smiled, earnest.
“They enjoy a different youth.”
“Aye, better. Thank you, Elboron.”
Elboron gave an endearing snort as they walked out of the Houses of Healing together. Once they reached the gate, where Elboron held it open for Iorlas, they went out onto the street. It was dark now, and most of the sixth circle’s main way was empty. A carriage drove past, the horses snorting in the night. Iorlas and Elboron walked quietly – Elboron had sent a page to the barracks with his armor. The stars above them: bright, clean.
A cold wind passed. Elboron had stuffed his hands into his doublet’s pockets, and he was shivering a little. Looking at him, his easy smile, his chattering teeth, Iorlas could not believe he had ever been that young.
“My father is like you, Captain. ‘Tis impossible to have him take tea if his head aches, or lie down if he is weary.” Elboron frowned. “Actually, now that I think of it, my mother is the same.” He laughed; a boyish squeak.
“Ah, well, Elboron. We old men and women are made of firmer stuff than you young ones.”
At that, Elboron rolled his eyes. “Captain, you are not old. You’re not past fifty!”
When Iorlas finally returned to his home in the fifth circle, the lanterns were lit and the doorwarden greeted him with a crisp good evening, my lord. Iorlas had sent Elboron off after they had reached the arch to the fifth circle. During their walk, the young lad had cheerfully elaborated all that he had discussed with Eirien. When Iorlas had asked, joking, what the lad thought of the girl, Elboron had grinned, bright red, but said nothing.
Now, as a servant opened the door for him and took his mantle and the pouch from him, Iorlas could hear his wife and daughters upstairs. He took the steep stairs leading to the second floor, and there, as he turned the corner and entered the dining room, all brightly lit and sparkling, he saw his family waiting for him at the table. His daughters, Menel and Silivren, bolted up with a happy, “Father!”
He gave a hoarse cough as they collided into him. “Menny Penny and Silly Sili! You girls should be in bed, ‘tis late!”
“We wan’ed ta wait, Papa,” little Sili said. She was looking up at him, giggling – her grey eyes wide and a little red with sleepiness. Menel was trying to push her younger sister out of the way, and was tugging at his surcoat. One of the clasps in her hair had come undone.
The elderly nursemaid swooped in, ready to pry the girls off.
“Warnil kept the soup warm for you,” Ana was saying as she approached. “Though the girls dined with Borlas earlier.”
“Big Borlas!” Sili exclaimed with a happy cry.
“Borlas said he’s going to take me to the third circle fair, Father,” Menel said, quickly overriding her younger sister in volume. “He said we can go on Yáviérë! Can I, Father?”
Iorlas gave Menel’s curls another shake before bringing his hand up and tugging at a strand of his wife’s hair. Ana smiled, leaned forward, and they shared a brief kiss before she placed the back of her hand against his brow.
“Hmm.” She frowned. “Perhaps it is bedtime for you as well, husband.”
The nursemaid began to coax the girls away from their father. They clung to him, protesting, before the elderly woman distracted them with promise of a story before bed. They squealed with delight, and began to shout out the names of heroes and places and tales.
Iorlas took his wife’s hand, kissed it. “Aye, tell Warnil to keep the soup for tomorrow. Tonight I am weary.”
“If you fall ill on Yáviérë, husband – ”
“ – you shall sell me on the Haradrim slave markets. I know, my heart, I know.”
Ana laughed brightly – and Iorlas saw, perfectly, clearly, the second circle tavern wench he had married so many years ago; his modest, comical girl who had laughed away the gossip of a high-bred Citadel Guardsman marrying into a nameless poor family from the lower quarters. The nursemaid had finally convinced the girls to leave, and Iorlas could hear their loud giggles and pounding feet as they ran down the corridor.
He leaned in and kissed his wife again on the cheek, and he could just smell her scent – herbal soap and the scent of rosewater – through his stuffed nose. And it was in that moment, fleeting, fragile, that he felt again that sensation – the brilliance of peace – just as he had felt it in that summer, nearly twenty years ago.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.