1. Chapter 1 by SurgicalSteel
It had, thus far, been a remarkably calm Mettarë in the Houses of Healing, and Serindë had ensconced herself in the apprentices’ library with a history pilfered from the Archives and a cup of tea. She’d volunteered to work the holiday – had put it about that she needed the day to catch up on paperwork.
It had been with positive glee that she’d gone out to Ithilien twice in the last year, both times only for a few weeks, but she’d justified it to herself, the Chief Surgeon, and the Warden on the grounds that the chief of combat surgery should really get out into the field on occasion and make certain that the various troops were well supplied and well-served by the healers assigned to them. She’d just gotten back a few weeks ago, had sent detailed notes up to the Warden, the Chief Surgeon, and the Steward on how she thought things might be improved. The Chief Surgeon seemed interested in her idea to get light carts drawn by fast horses out into the field, staffing those with healers interested in field work – it made sense as a way to get casualties back to field hospitals more quickly.
The idea had been squelched by the Heir on the grounds that it represented an unnecessary expenditure of funds. Odious man, she thought, snorting. Wonder if it would be unnecessary if it was his backside on the front lines?
She’d seen him on his way down to the barracks this morning, she supposed he was doing the politically appropriate thing by going down to wish holiday greetings to the Guardsmen on duty – she’d been on her way from home to the Houses, and had waved to him cheerfully, calling out, “Joyous Mettarë, Lord Denethor!”
Even odious backstabbing arse-kissing pond slime deserved holiday greetings, after all.
He’d snarled a holiday greeting back to her, and she’d had to wait until he was out of earshot to burst into giggles. For a man to look so affronted by a simple holiday greeting…
There would be festivities up at the Citadel later, lighting of new fire with flint and steel by the Steward to celebrate light returning…
Three years ago, she’d been in Belfalas, and she and her father and brother and aunt and young cousins had gone wading in the waters by the Ethir Anduin – so many of her family did that, going down to where the sweet water met the salt to thank the Lord of the Waters for the previous years’ fortunes (however bad they’d been, they might certainly have been worse) and in hopes that he and the Lady Uinen might restrain Ossë’s wrath for the coming year…
Two years ago she’d only barely returned from helping Thorongil avenge her father’s death and realized that home wasn’t home any more – and Sardos and Galdor certainly didn’t need her hanging about and spoiling their fun. They deserved a night to be unrestrained in their enjoyment of one another. So she’d volunteered to work as duty-surgeon for the holiday. And done the same last year, and this year as well.
If I’ve no one to spend the holiday with, I might as well spend it productively rather than moping about over what I don’t have, she thought.
It might get busier later in the evening – it sometimes did, it all depended on which Guardsmen had the duty and which were off and how drunk they got and how willing they were to share the affections of various prostitutes. When did I become a cynic? I’m only twenty-six; I’m too young to be a cynic…
“More tea?” a woman’s voice called from the doorway.
She looked up from her book. “Joyous Mettarë, Ioreth. Join me in a cup?”
“Joyous Mettarë, Serindë. Working the holiday again?”
Serindë shrugged, moving her feet off of the table in front of her to allow Ioreth to put the tray down – teapot and a variety of both sweet and savory pastries on that tray. Those did look appetizing.
“There are worse ways to spend the holidays,” Serindë said with a shrug.
“There are better ways, too,” Ioreth said.
“Then why are you here?” Serindë asked with a grin.
“Same reason as you, I’ll warrant,” Ioreth said. “No wish to intrude on anyone else’s holiday and no someone special of my own.”
They sat sipping tea, nibbling on various treats. “These are truly superb,” Serindë said.
“Filched from the Citadel,” Ioreth answered. “The head cook’s a childhood friend of the Warden’s, gave us thirty minutes to be in and out.”
Serindë had to laugh at the image of the Warden and the assistant healer sneaking into the Citadel’s kitchens and stealing food – and with the complicity of the head cook, no less. “That’ll annoy the Heir, if he hears,” she observed.
“We’ll simply have to make certain that he doesn’t hear, then,” Ioreth said piously.
“Or perhaps we should make certain that he does?” Serindë asked archly, and both women laughed. “What will he do, after all, ask for his pastries back?” And they both laughed again.
“Where’s your young partner in mischief?” Ioreth asked.
“Yalië? Spending the day with her grandmother,” Serindë said.
Ioreth grimaced and shook her head in disapproval – but Serindë remained silent on the reasons. Yalië’s grandmother had once shared the same profession as Yalië’s mother – but these days ran one of the cleaner brothels catering to the Guard. Yalië’s mother had died only a few years ago after being beaten badly by one of the Guardsmen who’d suspected… well. Guardsmen didn’t beat prostitutes up for sharing their affections, generally, and this one actually had been banished from the City for murder, so there was justice of a sort.
Yalië’s grandmother wasn’t likely to see another Mettarë – the one time that Serindë had seen her recently, she’d developed that peculiar wide-legged gait which proclaimed to anyone who knew a bit about the healing arts that she had chronic syphilis, and a fairly advanced case, attacking the brain and spinal cord. Whether anyone approved of Yalië’s family or not, the kind thing to do was allow the poor girl a bit of time with them at the holidays.
“Spending time with that Guardsman of her, more likely,” Ioreth snorted.
Serindë grimaced at that. It was entirely possible. Yalië had been keeping company with one of the Guardsmen – but then, it wasn’t at all uncommon for the young women healers to be a bit more generous with their affections than some of the other young women of the City. Usually discreetly, sometimes less so – but they did have easy access to means of preventing conception or casting away an unwanted child.
“No young Guardsman for you?” Ioreth asked.
Serindë shrugged. “I’ve no interest in wasting my time on a pairing that has no purpose other than momentary satisfaction of urges,” she snapped. “Bad enough that my father…”
“Oh, your father was such a kind, gentle man,” Ioreth said with a sigh.
Well. Serindë wasn’t going to pursue that. “He was a kind, gentle man, and he also had the morals of an alley cat when it came to attractive young women – and young men. I loved him dearly, but I’m not harboring any illusions about him,” Serindë said. “Leaving aside the fact that the only guaranteed way to prevent infections or pregnancy is to avoid certain activities…”
“’Avoid certain activities?’ Can you not even say the words?”
“Well.” Serindë realized she was blushing.
Perhaps it was foolish to even make someone else try to understand – well, Galdor seemed to.
“Well,” Ioreth returned.
“I just want to find the right man, that’s all,” Serindë said.
Ioreth cackled again. “And chasing about with Rangers in Ithilien’s the way to do that, is it?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the Rangers,” Serindë protested. “They’re good, honorable, decent men…”
Ioreth laughed again. “Like a Ranger of your very own, would you?”
Realizing that she was losing this exchange, Serindë kept her mouth shut. But honestly, what was it that everyone had against the Rangers? True, some of them were rakehells, as were some of the Guardsmen – and some of the nobility, if the truth be known. Serindë had seen more than one of the noblemen for ‘social diseases,’ so it wasn’t as if that was some unique trait… but they were out in Ithilien, what amounted to the front line of a war that no one seemed to want to acknowledge, putting their lives on the line every day to keep the rest of Gondor safe. And most of them were good, honorable, decent men – if she ever found one…
She hadn’t realized she was sighing until she heard Ioreth laughing at her again, and snatched up her book, stalking back to the office designated for the duty-surgeons. She knew perfectly well that it was a foolish, romantic notion, but – she’d rather hoped that someday, perhaps, she might find some young Ranger – or someone like them… One that also enjoys books and histories and poetry. And doesn’t look at me and immediately see the scrawny plain bad-tempered surgeon and treat me like I’m just one of the other men. Although goodness knows I fought hard enough for them to treat me like one of the men, I’ve no one but myself to blame…
She knew it was a foolish, romantic notion.
She supposed Yalië would laugh at her just as hard as Ioreth had been laughing at her if she suspected that Serindë harbored such romantic notions.
She knew it was unlikely to ever happen – and yet, hoping to find that one someone was sweeter to her than any casual romance could be.
And she sighed again as an apprentice poked his head around the door, clearly frightened to approach her, yet announcing that there were two Guardsmen in need of suturing and did she think his skills were advanced enough to suture one of them?
Reprieve over. Back to work.
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