Water [Remix] by Zdenka

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Story Notes:

A remix of sophinisba's story Thirst, written for FemmeRemix 2016. This fic is based on the third section of that story.

Many thanks to Linda Hoyland for beta-reading.


Nennil returned to Minas Tirith on the day after the battle. The fields of the Pelennor were churned into mud by the hooves of horses and the feet of men, and long trenches had been gouged in the earth all around. The sight of the shattered Gate was like a physical blow. The enemy had been here, inside the City. Lord Denethor and Captain Boromir had always kept them out. For the first time, she truly believed that Boromir was dead. They would never have broken the Gate while he was alive.

She looked up at the Citadel, hoping for reassurance. The Tower of Ecthelion stood firm, but at the top of it, instead of the white banner of the Stewards, there was the white ship on blue of Dol Amroth. It seemed that nothing could be trusted to stay the same. For a moment, she felt dizzy.

A voice called her name quietly. She turned around to see Darthas. He must have seen the cart from the walls, and he had come down to meet her at the Gate. She hurried to him and almost devoured him with her eyes. He looked tired, and the uniform they had given him was smudged with ash, but he was here, alive and whole. She stood there, suddenly tongue-tied. She wanted to greet him properly, but not here, in front of the guards and everyone.

Darthas took her elbow and led her in past the ruins of the Gate. She saw that they had set up a wooden barrier in the archway, and soldiers guarded it. “My wife,” Darthas said quietly, and they let her through.

The smell of smoke still hung over the City. In places, buildings were damaged or shattered to rubble; the First Circle was marked with fire. She could not help looking from side to side as they went. It was foolish, what caught her eye: the broken sign of an alehouse, the corner of a half-burned building where the charred beams stuck out, a pot of wilted flowers on someone’s doorstep.

“Were you in the fighting?” she asked, for the sake of something to say.

He nodded. “There was fighting in the City too, when the enemy broke in.”

“In the City,” she echoed, shuddering.

“It was worse before that, when we had nothing to do but wait. There were rocks coming over the walls, large enough to kill a man, and smaller ones that broke to pieces when they landed and exploded in fire--some devilry of Mordor. I saw it, when one came down near me . . .” She must have made some sound. “No, no, I won’t speak of it.”

Nennil gripped his arm tightly, and they kept walking. She was used to going up and down the City easily, with long strides; she was no lately-come visitor who had to stop for breath at each Circle. But now the way up to the Fifth Circle seemed very long, and their steps dragged wearily.

Their own house and shop were still whole. After all the destruction, it seemed almost incongruous. She was nearly at the house door when she realized something was wrong. It was too silent in the courtyard, without the sound of running water.

The courtyard by their house had a small fountain, with water pouring from six spigots into a shallow pool; it was one of the reasons they had chosen the house when they married. The bottom was lined with small tiles that made a picture of golden fish in blue water, with a border of green leaves around the edges. When the water rippled, it looked like the fish were swimming. Nennil had always loved that. Some of the tiles were chipped or missing, but the water was good, cold and sweet. But now the fountain was silent; a little dried mud clung to the bottom of the empty basin. She pushed at the spigots, as if that would do anything.

Darthas spoke her name questioningly. Without looking at him, she said, “There’s no water.”

“The pipes broke somewhere, during the siege,” he said apologetically. “We’ll have to get water from the well on Rath Maenen until they’re fixed.”

Up in the Citadel, she heard the clear tones of the bell ringing the hour. She looked at him and made herself smile. “If that’s the worst of it--”

They went inside, and she held him, finally, and after some time she found what food there was and made dinner. The worst was over now, she told herself.

But it was not the worst. There was another mustering of men, and this time they were to march away East, into the Black Land. She had her husband with her for only two days. People spoke of the King Returned, and the Steward; but what did she care for that? There had been war all her life, and for all she knew there would be war forever, taking and taking.

“They shouldn’t take you,” she said, holding him tightly with her hands gripping his back. “You’re not a soldier, not really.” Darthas sighed and leaned against her, burying his face in her hair. He did not argue; what was the use? They both knew he would have to go.

~~~

It was the third day after the army left. Nennil could see the courtyard from her shop window, so she noticed when a child wandered into the courtyard and sat down on the edge of the fountain. She went to the doorway to speak to him in case he was lost. But of course there were no children in the City now, except a few boys to carry messages. And this was not a child, she saw now. He was small, but he had a young man’s face. His ears were strange, slightly pointed, and hair grew on his bare feet. One of the Halflings then--the ones from the prophecy that had made Captain Boromir ride off to the North and not come back. Now her husband had gone off, and perhaps he would not come back.

“No good coming here for your water,” she told the Halfling. “The pipes were wrecked during the siege. Won't be fixed till the men come back from the battle.” Perhaps now the Halfling would leave.

But instead he said, “It's all right. I brought water with me.” And he touched his pack. She could not stop staring at him, seeking some answer. The Halflings had started all this. She felt a sense of quiet anger bubbling to the surface. Perhaps the Halfling sensed it; he looked away, not meeting her eyes, and shifted his position. Nennil could see how his right arm hung awkwardly at his side. He had been in the battle too; she remembered hearing of it. She suddenly wanted to explain, to make him understand.

“My husband's gone with them,” she told him, “and no one will say when they might come back. It's not hard for me to run the shop by myself, not with so little to sell, and with so few coming to the courtyard now there's no water. And I . . . I understand it's war and in war the men go off, and that it's for Gondor and all of that. I just wish they'd tell us how long. How long till he'll be back and how long till they fix the pipes and get deliveries in the market again.”

The Halfling answered something, but she wasn’t truly listening.

“You fought on the Pelennor,” she said. "I heard them tell. And that's why you move the way you do, with your arm hanging at your side. My husband fought here in the city while they sent us womenfolk away. And then they let a few of us come back, and I was only with him for two days before they called him away again.” Only two days! Could he understand that?

 “Yes,” said the Halfling. “That is how long I had to spend with my kinsman as well. He fought here in the city, and now he has gone off with the other soldiers. But he is not a soldier. He is only a hobbit and not yet come of age, and I should not have let him go.”

“Was it up to you though?” she persisted. “No one asked me if I wanted to let him go.”

“No one asked me either, lady.”

The Halfling looked tired and a bit sad. Not like someone from a tale or a prophecy, and not at all like someone who had fought a terrible wraith on the Pelennor Fields. Perhaps he couldn’t do anything about it, any more than she could.

She did not say anything else, and after a while he took his pack and left.

~~~

A little over a week later, and the City was jolted by a sudden clamor of bells. Not alarm bells, but a wild outpouring of joy. Nennil ran into the street; everyone was laughing and talking at once. Eagles, they said, and victory; the King had won a great victory--no, it was the Halfling--but the Enemy was defeated forever and there would be peace, a real peace.

She did not trust the sudden welling up of hope in her heart. “I’ll believe it,” she said, “when the water starts running again.” But she walked slowly through the Fifth Circle nevertheless, to hear how people sang in all the ways of the City.

Surely she would have news soon, she thought. If the battle was won, then Darthas would be coming home. But the weeks passed by and there was no word. It was already well into April, when there came a knock on the door. She opened it to see Cennandir, one of their neighbors. He had gone with Darthas to war.

A cold chill ran through her; she stood frozen, fearing the worst. Darthas would come back to her if he could. If Cennandir was here alone . . .

“I can’t stay,” he said. He pulled out a crumpled and folded piece of paper from his belt pouch and pushed it at her. “I have a letter--”

“A letter?” She made no move to take it.

“From Darthas. He can’t come himself--the army is still stationed out at Cormallen, and they won’t let us come back yet, not until everything is settled with the King and the Steward and the Council and all. I’m here as a messenger from the Captains; I’ve gone up to the Citadel, and now I have to go back out again. Here--”

He thrust the letter at her again. She took it, holding it between her fingers like fragile glass. Cennandir was hurrying off, down towards the First Circle, before she could even close the door.

Suddenly the walls of the house and shop felt too confining and she could not breathe. She fled to the courtyard, where she sat on the edge of the dry fountain, holding the unopened letter and tracing meaningless patterns on it with her thumb.

When she opened it, the letter held only a few lines. Darthas was alive, he was safe; they had gone to Mordor and fought the enemy and come back. He would come home when he could. She took great gulping breaths of air, but she did not weep.

~~~

Nennil was sweeping the fountain courtyard on May Eve; word had gone out that the King would enter the City tomorrow, and everything was to be made fair for his coming. There was a rattling of pipes and some deep hollow sounds, and then the fountain was spouting water as if it had never been gone. It was brown at first, but soon it ran fresh and cold and clear. She touched the water--tasted it--and suddenly burst into a storm of wild weeping and could not stop. She cried herself out at last, and splashed water over her face before anyone could see.

Nennil sat a moment on the edge of the fountain, watching the play of the water over the mosaic of golden fish. She could show Darthas now, when he came home. She took water from the fountain and went through the courtyard to wash away the dust.




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