III.

How little a thing can change so much, so swiftly! News in the streets runs as swiftly as rumour,
and truer, as it happens: the provinces have answered the Arrows sent forth, and the people of
Gondor are rallying to the defense of her capital. This noon we were in terror, and now that
darkness has fallen, hope has returned to us. Soldiers from the lowlands, fierce warriors from the
highlands, and knights from out of old stories on shining horses. I would not believe it if I did not
see it with mine own eyes, not even with the joyful shouting and ringing of every bell in the
Circle, but it is true -- !
















IV.

I awake this morning with a curiously drained and deadened feeling, no doubt in great
part owing to the expenditure of the vital humours at the welcoming of our relief forces
from the provinces last night. It would not be wrong to say that we were euphoric, and
even ecstatic, at the news, and indulged in some of the celebratory noisemaking taking
place in the streets. I offer no excuse for my incomprehensible behavior, save to say that a
certain contagiousness of emotion is well-known and documented. (Heruloth the
Twentieth Warden ascribed it to the fiery and ilmenic nature of the buoyant spirits
causing indetectable exhalations to rise and be inhaled by others in the vicinity, but
whether this be true or no I cannot personally prove. To the mere circumstance, however,
I can well attest.)

Possibly some of my present dispirit is the consequence of remembering, at a remove, and
in the chill of the pre-dawn, the words of that obnoxious errand-boy -- who kept insisting,
as though he were an officer of the Guard himself and not merely the son of a common
soldier, that the incoming troops were insufficient to withstand the enemy forces
marshalled against us and that without aid from the Horse-folk we were still doomed to
be overrun in short order. He knew this, because he had heard so from his father, he said;
and in the darkness of morning I too knew that he was right; but in the festivities of the
muster it was not a popular sentiment to express.

The refectory holds numbers of Healers and apprentices all in various stages of
unconsciousness, from the nightwatch eating dinner before retiring, slumped over with
exhaustion but too filled with restive force to sleep yet, to those of us who were only just
endeavoring to remember our names and stations, all hunched over the tisane or other
beverage of preference and thankful that the chairs and table were solidly built so that we
do not have to trouble over matters of balance.

Only the Band of Five from Bloodletters' are animated and alert -- but then, we all have long
known that they were insane. There are more containers at their end than there are persons,
and I supress a shudder. Overcoming one's natural repugnance to leeches is an essential
requirement for every apprentice Healer, but there is such a thing as going too far in the
opposite direction. They are madder than my mother was with her roses, trying to breed back
some lost species mentioned in the chronicles of Westernesse as having come from the
shores of Valinor, and the subject of their madness infinitely less attractive.

(After being regaled for half an hour some three years ago by Althorin (and not knowing
how to close the conversation, since I could not lie and simply say I had to be somewhere
else) on the elegant and rythmical motions of the Common Dark in its swimming, and how
the movement of undulation in water corresponded to the undulation of banners in the air,
and how this indicated that water, in fact, was simply a more dense form of air -- I was
mistaken for an interested party, if not a votary, and all of the Five are likely to collar
me and subject me to an exposition of their latest 'discovery' at any time.)

I wonder if anyone has warned the new assistants of their penchant for bringing their
colleagues about with them, and think of one particular girl whose insufferable habits
included (among many others) the practice of taking uninvited gulps from whosever's
beaker happened to be at hand and unhanded. (Alas, she was forwarned of Mendelvor's
concoction, which he is now mixing away with proper carefulness as though it were a
prescription. I suppose for him it is, at that.) This pleasant picture distracts me from the
bleakness of the hour and the world, and so I miss part of an ongoing conversation until a
roll of laughter from my end of the table roused my attention.

"What was that?" I ask. Luinil, who with her spouse has just come back from a Duty
visiting the newcome troops to assist in all those travails of life which do not cease for the
coming of a war, congestion of the lungs, strawdust ailment, headache, bruising, and the
like, repeats her tale:

It seems that one of the Lossarnach yeomen had a boil which had become encysted, an
insect bite which had not been properly tended and now was troubling him; but when
she told him to take off his tunic so that she could determine if it needed merely lancing
and a poultice, or more serious chirurgery, he recoiled in horror.

" 'I'm a good lad, aye, I'll not haven a forrin wooman touchen me bare --' !" was her
attempt at imitating the peculiarites of his speech.

Still more bizarrely, his leader -- the village headman, apparently -- had stood by him, so
that eventually Hathaldir had had to take his life-partner's place. They had drawn the line
at her leaving, despite the evident discomfort of the village men at her presence while
Hathaldir worked on the shirtless soldier, because it was a four-hand job and naturally the
grimy newcomers could not be allowed to rummage in their kit for the necessary tools
and supplies. After the farmboy-trooper was patched up, his leader had drawn Hathaldir
aside while Luinil made dispense of willow-extract to the needful -- this, apparently, was
unobjectionable. A conversation followed which at third remove was incomprehensible,
yet likely no more so than at the original event.

" 'But she'm yer woifeh, mhan!' " the fellow said, and poor Hath scratched his head and
said, 'Er, yes, I know--' " We all burst out laughing at that, while Hathaldir again shakes
his head in bemusement as he stuffs down another roll of flatbread-and-paste. (What
paste? Better not to ask; we didn't. There had been neither butter nor fresh meat for a
fortnight. I suspected lard and ground ham, as it mostly tasted of salt. I had touched it
once, and would not again, preferring to sop my bread in my wine, unappetizing as that
was, to the taste of nameless slime.)

"Knows what?" asks a familiar voice from behind me, bringing as much cheer as another
lighted candle to the dim refectory.

"Ah, Huor," Luinil says with a little evident discomfort. "We were just saying that your
countrymen are, ah, a trifle rustic."

"Oh, you mean, 'Ah waun'ta greeeen stoof,' " Hu replies, switching to an exaggeration of
a Lossarnoch accent far worse than his own had ever been, rolling his letters with
melodramatic relish. "It's all right; I trust I am sufficiently advanced that I can tolerate
accurate observations on my own folk when I'm not making them. You can say it --
they're hicks."

"Well, yes," Hathaldir concedes ruefully. "Though in my case it was 'ta reid stoof.' "

"Ah. And which 'red stuff' would that be? Angvil or seregon?"

"As it happened, neither. His village Healer uses red wine in the ear-drop mix and told
him that the red was for its fiery nature, and hence our Talthian White simply didn't meet
his exacting requirements. I tried to explain that the 'color' has nothing to do with actual
'color,' and that the red in his eardrops is simply a dye, and that I didn't have time to put
pretty tints to satisfy his rustic sensibilities which were quite without basis in fact."

"Leaving aside the whole question of what colors actually were assigned in the
Numenorean system," murmurs Mendelvor, but we all resolutely ignore him, not being
equal to that argument before the first hour.

"So did you end up putting in firebloom, or madder?" Hu asks sympathetically.

"I borrowed some cheap red grappa from the garrison's stock." Hathaldir shakes his head
again. "Tinted it up right in front of him, and he was happy."

Mendelvor asks with interest, "How did you know that was the right prescription, if all the
patient could give it for name was 'red stuff' ?"

"Oh, he told me it was for ear infections, and that it roiked, ah, reeked like wine gone
sour. At that, I had him smell it. and he admitted it had the same exhalation. But that
didn't matter -- it was not red."

"I can't imagine our Huor in the same thought as those people," his wife remarks, passing
the the basket of flatbread down our way. "They're like something out of one of those
vulgar comedies you see in the Third Circle. Most of them seemed not to have proper
weapons even -- just long sticks!"

Down the far end of the table the mad folk are muttering more agitatedly; I risk a glance
and see Apprentice Rivilin jabbing her finger over one of the beakers, and hastily look
away.

Innocently Hathaldir asks, "Vulgar comedies? When do you see those, my dear? And
why don't you take me?" as though these were normal days, of normal cheer; while
Mendelvor says, "Sticks? Not spears?"

"Well, they were pointy, but they were still wood. Some of them had lots of points, and
some had little bits sticking off the sides; I can't imagine why," Luinil answers, swatting
good-naturedly at her partner's wandering free hand as she makes the mistake of looking
inside her roll. "-- Not in public, darling."

"Oh, that's the High Meads Particular Beechwood Split-Tine Turner," Hu calls down from
our end. "Particularly nasty in a fight, and fatal if it's been used for forking manure first."

"Farm implements?" I am amazed.

"Well, they're sharp, heavy, and portable -- essentially the only difference between a hay-
fork and a spear is what you're sticking it into at the moment."

"Urgh. You weren't that ignorant, were you?"

"I flatter myself that I was never that provincial and backwatered, but I'm probably lying,"
replies Hu, between mouthfuls. "I'm not sure that one can ever look back on oneself
accurately -- the perspective seems to have an inevitable angle inbuilt."

He then proceeds to regale us, and to overtop even the prior stories, with an account of
having gone down last night to see if any of his kin were in Duke Forlong's company
(several) and being asked to look at a company leader's scalding injury, which was
of quite recent date. It turned out that he had burnt his hand under the tap. Hu had asked
him why he had not turned on the cold as well, and the man had evidently not only been
unaware that such a thing as heated running water existed, but had not recognized the
characters that initialed 'hot' and 'cold' on either lever.

Nor, however, had it occured to him to wonder why there should be two handles, and
only one pipe: apparently any absurd extravagance was possible in the city, and there his
mind stopped short. Hu points out that we should be glad that he hadn't thought the
levers were pump handles and broken the hot pipe right off; for my part I try to
imagine someone unable to read, and lacking even the desire for literacy, and find
myself utterly baffled. I cannot name a single individual I knew, who has not possessed
their letters since childhood.

At that I begin to wonder about some of the Biddies, since not all come from Minas Tirith,
and resolve to ask them; but I do not see how anyone could function on a day to day basis
without reading, most particularly in such a place as this. The bell rings for the first hour, and
we all start in our places.

"Already? Are they wrong at the Citadel?" Such a thing is unheard of. We all look, as
one, at the tall windows of the dining hall, and see with a collective chill that the
rectangles of sky, though still dark, hold not the darkness of night, but of a terrible fire,
such as only rarely has the City seen, when broad daylight even is smudged over and
obscured with poisonous smokes and exhalations.

"I told you something was wrong!" Althorin shouts -- positively shouts -- from the
midst of the Band of Five. "I said the leeches were despondent, not hibernating early!
They know there's something out-of-joint!"

Somehow it seems strangely fitting, that the end of the world should be heralded by
something as low and vile as a bloodsucking worm . . .



NOTES:

ilmen -- the upper atmosphere

angvil -- "ferrous oxide, known as rust"; seregon -- "stoneblood," a species of red-flowered plant.

Regarding eardrops: a common prescription for 'swimmer's ear' is made of half vinegar, half alcohol, which dries out the ear canal and raises the acidity to a level intolerable for most bacteria. Antibiotics may be added to this base for severe or fungal infections. (A doctor told me this, rather than make out a prescription, for which I was profoundly grateful. A bottle of alcohol and a bottle of vinegar last a long time, and cost about US $2.00, and work as well as if you'd bought the same from a chemist's.)