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Dance on the Way Down

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Lay down and lay down again and again

The night is now fallen o'er river and fen

Rise up and rise up from my lonely tower

My dear one is lying alone in the bower

Gondorian song, late Third Age—exact origins unknown

…and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.

J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country

So come dance this silence down through the morning.

Counting Crows, "Mr. Jones"

Evening is falling, and the healer stands at the edge of the gardens and calls the girl back to her. The night will be cool, for autumn has finally arrived. They have come through the worst days of the summer, when the stones of the City themselves seem to sweat; the winter's thin rimes of frost have not yet arrived.

"And how was your stroll with young Lord Elboron, Eirien?" she asks when the girl arrives.

"It was lovely!" she exclaims. Then she colors at the enthusiasm in her own voice, round cheeks flushing a half-shade darker than her gingery hair.

"Very well, then." The healer smiles, brows lifted. "Take this back to the kitchens, and then we shall do a bit more practice before you leave for the night." She notices the way the girl's eyes shine and she adds, "I suppose you should wish to tell me all about it?"

Eirien blushes more deeply as she closes a hand around the cup that the woman holds out to her, but she nods before she moves off through the fading light, humming softly to herself.

* * *

"Make your knot a bit tighter up there. And remember to always be quick about it if you can."

Eirien is studying bone-setting, and the healer watches the girl's face as she furrows her brow, bites her lower lip in deep concentration on the task at hand. Valar, but this one can be read like a book—she will have to learn better.

The healer tests the practice-sling that Eirien has just set on her right arm, fingering the knots and touching the taut stretches of white linen. The south ward of the Houses of Healing is nearly empty. Yellow torchlight illuminates the wide-spaced rows of beds, each one neatly dressed in its blankets and sheets.

"Very good, Eirien. Your best one yet, in fact." The girl beams. "Now, one more try on the left arm, and that will be all for the evening." Eirien leans forward to dismantle the sling she has made, soft fingers picking at the ties at the healer's shoulder until the wrinkled cloth comes loose in her hands.

"Now, what was it you were saying before I interrupted?"

"Oh," says the girl, looking up. She is sitting on the edge of the bed across from the healer, carefully refolding the material in her lap. "Oh—just that he was terribly funny as well—Lord Elboron, that is. And quite clever."

"Well, that's good. One would hope that the Steward's heir would be at least somewhat clever. To have one who is quite clever is a blessing, indeed. Now, come here again. It's my left arm that's broken this time, and I'm in dreadful agony."

"Will Captain Iorlas be all right, Ma'am?" Eirien asks as she works. It was Eirien who greeted the ailing Captain of the Guard at the iron gates of the Houses earlier this evening—the Captain of the Guard, escorted by none other than the young Lord Elboron.

"Yes, he will be quite all right. Simply a touch of cold; and I suspect he is of hardy stock." Eirien had conducted the Steward's son around the paths of the gardens; the healer could not help but remember another young couple who had slowly treaded those same walkways nearly twenty years ago, as if they could perhaps try to outpace their sorrows together.

But then, the children were so different that for a moment she wondered why she had been reminded in the first place; their laughter had been audible as she sat across from the Captain, who studied her over his herbal concoction as they spoke. You tended my hand once, he had said, and held out his palm so that she could see the mark. Many of the soldiers are now not so forthcoming with their scars. They hide them and hoard them along with their accompanying memories. He would have looked young, then, she thinks. Or maybe not. Most of them looked much too young to her.


"Yes, Eirien?"

"Do you think that I am silly?"

"I think that you are quite silly." The girl's face falls.

"But I think," the healer goes on, "that in these times, silliness is one of the best qualities a girl your age can hope to possess."



"Were you silly when you were a girl, ma'am?"

"Very," she smiles. "In my own peculiar way."

"Finished," says Eirien, sitting back once more. The healer looks down to inspect the girl's handiwork. She tests it, tries to move her left arm. Perhaps she should have paid more attention to what Eirien was doing, particularly to the tightness of this final practice-sling…

"Valar, girl—what are you trying to do, bind me like a hen for market?" Eirien opens her mouth, but no sound comes out. Then she catches the gleam in the woman's eye, and she bursts out in a fit of giggling. Her voice is sweet and high when she laughs, and it echoes over and over against the torch-lit walls of the empty ward.

* * *

Eirien's house is not far from the woman's, and so she walks with the girl on the nights when she is able. Eirien's mother appreciates it. Warm firelight flickers in the windows of nearly all the dwellings of the Fourth Circle. One of the other healers in the Houses has come to Minas Tirith from Ithilien, and she laments the lack of trees in the City: no great forests here, no reds and golds to color the autumn.

Ah, but in Ithilien there are no homes joined wall to wall and stone to stone, no honeycombed orange light glowing in white frames. That is our autumn.For living in the City is a lesson in compensation, in the sweet subversion of the things you might expect elsewhere. But of course she had held her tongue.

Eirien is singing to herself as they walk, singing in the soft, lilting voice of young girls who have not yet learned how to be rueful. Something about the falling night, and the river, and a tower. And then the woman recognizes it; it is a song from the long days of the Shadow and the Siege; a pretty, sad tune, lament and lullaby both.

"Where did you learn that?"

The girl stops singing and looks at her suddenly through the darkness, the way she does when she is called out of a daydream. "Oh—my ma taught it to me. She used to sing it to me when I was little and could not fall asleep."

They pass a merchant carting his wares back home, wooden wheels creaking over worn flagstones. Two young boys scurry by.

"Do you know it, then, Ma'am?" Eirien asks.

"I do, though I've not heard it in years. Not since…"

"Not since the War?" Eirien ventures. "Aye. Perhaps not since the War."

"My ma said that she sang it a great many times when she was a lass."

"Did she?"

"Aye, Ma'am." They have come to Eirien's house, where the girl has her own warm hearth awaiting her.

"Good-night, Eirien. Tell your mother hello for me."

"I will. Good-night!"

"Oh—and Eirien?"

"Yes, Ma'am?"

"A good Harvest to you!"

"Thank you, Ma'am. And to you, as well!" The door clicks shut behind the girl, and the woman stands there for a moment before turning to go home to her own family.

* * *

There had been many versions of the song, no two quite the same. Different singers had changed the order of the verses, perhaps inventing new words or excising the ones they disliked, each addition or subtraction depending on place, on experience, on the age of the singer and the depth of his or her worry and hope. By the time of the waning days of the Third Age, they sang in Ithilien of shadows falling over river and fen. In Amroth there was a verse about dark seas beneath a dark sky. And in the City, the voices of the young maidens who sang as they worked spiraled high into solemn towers of white stone. For every note there was a niche or a crevice somewhere in Gondor.

* * *

Their children—though they will not be children for very much longer, she thinks—have bid them goodnight after supper. As she undresses for bed, her husband places a kiss on her bare shoulder and asks her why is she humming that horrid sentimental old song? She swiftly covers herself with her night-dress. He smirks at his wife's feigned primness.

You, she says, are far more sentimental than I have ever been, my darling one. She sits down on their bed and he settles in beside her.

How does it go, near the end? I'll never again see the one I love? Absolutely horrid. It's a pretty song. Never again see the one I adore—that was it. Horrid.

Then sing me a happier song. You never sing to me.

You would complain of my voice.

Well. Perhaps I would. But that is beside the point.

* * *

They married young. In their first year together they were still coming off the ragged edge of the War. Their first bed was narrow and rickety. Time is the blessed spoils of the battle, they had been told. You are safe now, and you will not die tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that. You have all the time you like, all the years of your lives, that you may glut yourselves and grow fat on them.

They could not quite believe it all at first: they were shielding their eyes, blinking timidly into the sun. There was an urgency to things, a tender raw stretch that had not yet healed. The days were sweet, and when she looks back on them she recalls the sort of fragile light that dies on the horizon at dusk.

Everyone had the nightmares in those days. Common as a touch of cold, one of the men from her husband's unit said with a rueful smile: common as a stuffy nose, a sore head. Some nights her husband woke screaming, woke with tears in his eyes, and she would draw him back down to the mattress with her arms about him, murmuring reassurance in his ear until she felt him uncoil against her. On those nights she would lie there, aching with love and dismay, staring into the darkness with his head on her chest. My husband, she thought, passing her fingers through his hair: My husband.

He did the same for her whenever it was necessary, of course. They had an unspoken agreement never to ask what the other had dreamt.

Now, nearly twenty years later (Has it really been that long? she marvels), he has fallen asleep before she has. She listens to his slow, deep breathing, feels his weight and his warmth beside her. She has spent so much of her life learning the peculiarities of things, the way the flesh lies over bone, the quiet languages of marrow and blood. It is dark, but in her mind she can see the whole of him, every edge and hollow of his body, the thin lines that have bloomed gradually at the corners of his eyes over the years. (Once he unlaced his shirt and took her hands in his, tracing them over every fading, silvery mark on his skin, yielding up his history: and this one from a dull orc-blade near the Anduin, and this one from a Southron, I cannot remember where, exactly. And this. And this.) But still, she thinks. Still, it will take a lifetime and more to learn this man.

Lay down and lay down again and again…

And after she closes her eyes, she remembers the captain who came to the Houses today. And then she slides further back as she drifts into sleep, back to glimpses of one grey, chilled morning before the Siege: narrow seam of stitches, the slender moment of impulse, a brief brush of the lips on skin.

Oh. So that was him.

* * *

But before it had spread and changed so, the earliest and simplest lines of the song had perhaps been hammered out in strains of toil. Lay down and lay down, rise up and rise up. Someone had murmured to themselves, someone had chanted in the dark, and the murmurs and the chants had somehow cleaved themselves to the melody. As if they had always been meant to fit there.

* * *

The following night, the great hall on the Sixth Circle is resplendent in light and laughter for the Harvest Ball. The music rings cheerfully in the air, and the rich scents of autumn spices waft from the kitchens as the City reaps its summer bounty. Many, many years ago she might have idled about the edge of the dance with a friend or two, like those slender, nervous-eyed young ladies she glimpses now. Poorly feigning indifference, waiting for the young men to notice them. Now she is content—mostly content—to stand by the wall and act the chaperone.

Her daughter, her eldest, was but a few moments ago chatting with some curly-headed young lad, but now she stands side by side with her father, and the healer can truly appreciate how alike they are. The sharp, sudden angles of their smiles, their narrow hands, and the pale blue eyes—so arresting in a city full of greys.

Another song begins. The hall grows more crowded by the minute, all the while becoming warmer and noisier. Slowly she presses her way between the knots of revelers, passes through the archway. A few steps more, and she is outside, beneath the stars. She pulls her shawl more tightly about her shoulders, savoring the cool air for a few moments. In the days of the War she hungered for solitude, longing to be apart from the other healers and the soldiers, and all the endless sprawling needs of both. She had kept her eyes closed. She had wandered in gardens. And now she notices that she is not the only one lingering outside the hall. He is standing across the walkway, dressed in the black and silver of the Citadel Guard, profile outlined in the pale light that spills from the entryway. Could that be—

"Sir?" He turns, blinks at her, dark eyes large beneath dark curls. "Captain?"

Captain Iorlas smiles in recognition, creases settling into the mild hollows of his cheeks. Still a soldier's face, even after all these years, she realizes—sometimes she can see the same in her husband.

"Good even to you, lady."

"And to you, sir. How are you faring?"

"Much better, thank you. Those herbs from your Houses did their job well. You saved me a trip South, for my wife had threatened to sell me on the Haradrim slave markets if I were ill on Yáviérë."

"Is that so?" she laughs.

"Aye, it is. And I do not even know what the current price is for aging Gondorian soldiers!"

"No, nor do I, sir."

"Though it seems not to matter now, for my young nephew has had the impudence to steal away my wife for a dance."

She clicks her tongue in mock disapproval, wonders if he was married before the War, or if he wed after, like she did. For the space between was so wide…

"Well, that is not proper." She smiles. "Likewise, my daughter has claimed her father—she fancies she can teach him all the fashionable new dance-steps." She shakes her head, as if in resignation.

"Impudence," he sighs sympathetically.

"Aye. Impudence."

Two girls pass quickly by on the walkway between them, fine skirts rustling, both wrapped up in their shared whispers. Iorlas looks calm and relaxed, as well he should: a City captain in a time of hard-earned peace. But something about the set of his jaw, the way he now tilts his chin to study the inky skies…yes, it most certainly had been him.

She hesitates, draws in a breath. "Oh…sir?"

"Yes?" "I remember you now."

"Oh?" He lifts his brow in surprise. She gestures towards her face with one hand. "You were clean-shaven then, though…"

"Aye," he grins, reaches up to touch his beard, as if to remind himself. "Or I tried to be, most of the time."

The cut on his left hand was narrow and clean: a sharp blade, a quick thrust. She was tired already in those days, tired even before Mordor had come, and her young voice had been flat against the morning stillness.

"I was terribly…" she smiles, twists her mouth, looks down. "I was quite presumptuous with you, as I recall." An explosion of laughter erupts from a small crowd near the entryway behind them.

"I suppose I thought I was romantic; I don't know what I was thinking. And you a member of the Guard…"

 He looks surprised once more, but this time he chuckles kindly, shakes his head. "'Twould not have mattered, good lady, if I had been the King, himself! The Houses always seemed a law unto themselves—there, we were all at the mercy of the healers, regardless of rank."

"Is that so?" she laughs. "Had I known, I would have exercised my power far more often!"

He chuckles again at that, and for a moment she sees the young, bloody-palmed man who sat across from her nearly twenty years ago, face calm through the pain, clothes smelling of the damp morning chill. And perhaps, she thinks, perhaps he can see the girl she once was: one more figure in a drab blue dress moving through the wards; old enough and frightened enough to be quiet and grim, young enough to make so bold as to plant a kiss on the hand of a Guardsman she had met only moments before. Impudence.

A comfortable lull. More people pass by, drifting in and out of the hall.

"Funny," she murmurs, "the things we remember. 'Tis almost as if there were no rhyme or reason to what we recall and what we forget." She looks up at the stars once more. "When the War was—well, right after it all, I suppose, everything felt so clear…" But then she pauses: no, that is not true. There were the desolate crumbled sections of the City, there was the murk of the black, muddled dreams that came to her in the nights. The captain is silent, waiting patiently for her to finish. But then, no, it is true, she thinks: there was the sharp sweetness of the spring evenings, the glow of firelight against white stones, the gentle certainty in the way her young husband reached for her in the dark… There were those things, too. "…it was all different, somehow," she finishes simply, for lack of anything more accurate to say.

"Newer," he says.

"Aye, newer," she repeats. "Newer." That sounds about right. And by now the things that were once new have verged day by day, year by year, into something more common—now there is not so much need to shield their eyes against the brilliant light of the sun or the aching clearness of the stars. And yet even now, there are things she has never told the man she married. She is lucky; there are no telltale marks on her skin, no outward map of her own histories. She pictures him trying to keep pace in the dance with their lovely, laughing, clever daughter. She has been lucky in many things.

Applause and cheering from the hall; the song has finished. She glances towards the lighted entryway, wondering if she might catch a glimpse of her daughter's crimson dress; she wonders if her elder son is still standing in the corner, trying to persuade his younger brother to cross the floor and ask one of the pretty girls for a dance. She adjusts her shawl on her shoulders once more; the night chill has grown a little too brisk for her liking.

"I should go back, now," she says, nodding to Iorlas. "I'm glad that you are faring better, sir."

"My thanks, lady."

Last night he had spoken of feeling old in comparison to the lads and the girls who had never known war. And yet there is apparently enough youth left in the captain for him to lean forward, take her hand and press it briefly to his lips, returning the kiss she gave him twenty years before.

"Good Harvest to you."

"And to you, Captain." She raises her eyebrows, but she is smiling. "Be well." Once they were too young to be flustered, and now, it seems, they are too old. Lucky, indeed.

* * *

And perhaps: perhaps before the song had had more than a handful of words, long before it passed through houses and fields as darkness loomed over all, perhaps the melody had been born in the throat of some young girl, daydreaming as she went about her business. And maybe she was innocent, and maybe she was not. And maybe her heart had been broken, and maybe it had not. I suppose that none of that matters; she has been dead for a very long time. What matters is this: somewhere, a young girl in the fading light, humming softly to herself.

* * *

Inside the hall, the woman finds that her daughter has now inflicted the dancing lessons upon her younger brothers: her husband is free once more. And now you should dance with me, he says; this insistent, scarred dreamer of a soldier whom she married many years and three children ago. You should at least dance with me if you yet complain that I never sing to you. And how can she refuse, after all? My dear one is lying alone in the bower: if the words of the old song are horrid, they are only horrid because they are not true. Not now, at least, and not here. She turns to him, laughing, and he takes her in his arms as a new strain of the music begins.

* * *

Lay down and lay down again and again

The night is now fallen o'er river and fen

Rise up and rise up from my lonely tower

My dear one is lying alone in the bower


Night is now fallen, so lay down and lay down

The stars that are dying will dance on the way down

Rise up and rise up from ocean and shore

I'll never again see the one I adore.