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‘Borlas,’ she gasps, looking up into my face, her fingers tightening briefly, all too briefly, on the blanket that enfolds our second son. ‘We’ll call him...’
All our entreaties cannot stop the gasped-out words, a little of her life leaking away with each, as the midwife strives in vain to staunch the flow of lifeblood.
‘Dearest, save your strength... please... my love...’
‘I thought...’ a new voice breaks in, and I look up, horror increasing, for there is my son, not yet five years of age, clinging to old Ioreth’s hand, staring speechless though Mistress Caliwen has pulled the blanket to hide her labours, and those of my beloved. And Ioreth, for the first time I can remember, is stricken dumb with dismay, but the silence is broken by my dearest love.
‘Yes,’ she whispers. ‘Bergil, love, come... near. Here is... your brother.’
The smaller brother he always wanted, eagerly anticipated, joy warring with uncomprehending fear on his young face.
‘Mama?’ he whispers.
‘Come,’ she whispers, holding out an eager hand. ‘Come and kiss me good-night, and then go to your bed, love.’ She is using precious strength from what little remains to her.
Pulling free from Ioreth, Bergil runs forward to fill his mother’s need. She pulls him closer, strokes his face, looks down to the babe on her breast, her eyes bright. ‘Greet your brother.’ It seems to me that she is better, stronger, perhaps the crisis has passed.
Caliwen is under the blanket, still at her work, the blanket moving slightly, but Bergil has eyes only for his mother, his new brother. He lays a strangely grown-up kiss on the tiny forehead, and has another kiss for his mother, and then he lays his head down on her breast, beside the babe, and sighs.
‘Come, lovie,’ old Ioreth says, and she’s there, pulling at him. ‘Your mother needs to rest, now, and it’s past your bedtime.’
Bergil looks to me in protest, and I assume the proper expression for a Guardsman of the Citadel, when duty is the topic of discussion. ‘Go on, son.’
‘Don’t...’ my love whispers, her eyes pleading. ‘Don’t send him away...’
But Caliwen emerges from under the blanket, locking eyes with Ioreth. ‘Take him,’ she hisses. ‘Now.’
Something frightens the little lad, and he grabs at his mother, only to be pulled away by Ioreth’s irresistible force, the old woman talking away volubly as if to cover his cries of distress.
‘Don’t! Don’t send me away!’
His mother looks after him, her hand reaching for him for a moment after the door is pulled to.
‘Come, missus, you must save your strength.’
A ghost of a smile touches her lips as I reach to take her in my arms. ‘Rest, my love.’
‘What strength?’ she whispers, in answer to the midwife, and then in answer to me, she snuggles into my embrace and sighs, the babe still safely tucked in the crook of her left arm. She pulls her free hand back to lie on Borlas’ blanket, works her fingers around his tiny hand, smiles in joy.
‘My joy,’ she whispers, and her hand grasps, and relaxes. Borlas.
How can I explain that his mother is gone?
He is so young, not yet five years of age, and yet somehow he knows. No words are needed.
He lunges suddenly, throwing his arms about my waist, holding tight and weeping, and I lift him in my arms, holding just as tight. We weep together.
He is afraid, the first few nights, to sleep. The Captain has given me several days to set my affairs in order. A wet nurse is found, and I send Borlas to her house, to her family. Bergil will go to relatives, for I cannot keep him with me.
But the first few nights, I stay with him, in our little home, the home that was ours in a happier time, the home that is no more, its heart gone.
I hold him close while he weeps, and my own tears flow freely. Half of my life, my self has been wrested from me, and the boys are all I have to remember her by.
He allows me to hold him, indeed, he grasps me with all his strength, and yet I have the feeling he is holding something back.
At last, it is time for me to return to the Third Company. We pack up his possessions together; most of the rest of our belongings have already been packed and moved to storage, or sold. The small home will know a new family, and may they have joy of it, and less sorrow than we have had.
And he speaks at last, his reproach. ‘You sent me away.’
I swallow bitterness. ‘I did,’ I say, as steadily as I may.
‘You sent me away, and she died.’
A sword thrust to the heart would strike less sharply. I cannot draw breath; I can only stare at him, shaking my head in negation.
‘You sent me away,’ he says, drawing himself up to his full height, and speaking so sternly that the Lord Denethor would be hard put to rival him for severity.
I find I must answer him. ‘I did.’
He nods, his eyes serious, his lips pulled tight in a firm line, looking years older. It is as if my father, his grandfather, stands before me, issuing orders that he expects to be carried out to the smallest detail.
‘You sent me away,’ he says once more. ‘Promise me that you’ll never do so again.’ For he knows that with a man of his word, a promise made is a promise kept.
The memory returns as Bergil faces me, standing as tall as his ten years will allow, defiance in every line. ‘Don’t send me away!’ he says.
‘Borlas...’ I begin.
‘Borlas may go off with the wains, with the women and babes, but not I!’
‘Bergil,’ I say.
‘Who is to say that they will be any safer in the hills, in any event?’ he says.
‘Then you must go, to guard your brother,’ I say, but he shakes his head, and brings to bear the weapon that I cannot counter.
I stop. A promise made is a promise kept. If I keep my word, I doom him to the City, soon to be attacked by the forces of the Dark Lord. They are on the march even now; our scouts have reported it. They will be here soon.
Hopefully our reinforcements will be here sooner. Will the Rohirrim come?
Will I keep my word, and doom my son? Or will I assume the mantle of oathbreaker, one who cannot be trusted, who cannot trust even himself, in order to consign my son to whatever safety might be found outside the City walls? If any?
A promise made...
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