Circles of the City – Linda Hoyland
Aragorn and Faramir seek to help a mysterious woman
All familiar characters belong to Tolkien. Only the OCs are mine.
Aragorn was just leaving his apartments when he nearly bumped into Faramir, who was also making his way outside.
“I was just going to see if any blossoms were sprouting on the White Tree yet,” said the Steward. “I felt like some fresh air.”
“I am on my way to the Houses of Healing,” said Aragorn. “The warden is at a loss with a difficult case and sent a message asking if I could assist. It seems they have a very agitated patient with a young child and hoped if I were free this afternoon I might be able to use my Elvish abilities to help calm her. She refuses draughts of either valerian or poppy.”
“I will come with you,” said Faramir. “Some exercise would do me good. I can wait in the gardens while you tend your patient.”
“I will be glad of your company,” said Aragorn. “Truth to tell, I welcome some distraction. Arwen is attending a meeting all afternoon, and though I have work to do, I feel I need to stretch my legs.”
“I finished the documents I was working on sooner than I expected,” said Faramir. “It helps a great deal now that we have simplified the levies on imported wool.”
The two men fell into step together. They paused in front of the White Tree.
“Look!” cried Faramir, “the first buds are opening. The tree will soon be covered in blossoms.”
“Let us hope that is a good omen,” said Aragorn, reaching out his hand to gently caress the tree trunk.
It was always quiet in the seventh circle and the two men’s footsteps echoed on the stones beneath their feet. At a discreet distance behind, their guards followed.
They walked swiftly and soon reached the sixth circle. On their way to the Houses of Healing, they passed many an imposing mansion. All the great lords of Gondor had their homes or town houses on this city level. Here, too, dwelt the Ambassadors from many foreign realms, all vying to have the most imposing residence. No location in Gondor was considered a more prestigious place to live.
The Houses of Healing were set apart in spacious gardens to give the sick peace and quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the City. “I will take a walk in the gardens,” said Faramir as soon as they reached the Houses.
“I will try not to be too long,” said Aragorn.
“Do not hurry on my account,” said the Steward. “These gardens bring back happy memories of the days I was courting Éowyn.”
Aragorn smiled at the younger man and entered the houses to be met by the warden and Mistress Uzza, a woman who had initially trained as a wise woman in her native Harad and had come to Gondor seeing vengeance after the Ring War. Instead, she had been persuaded by Aragorn to study the western arts of healing.
“It is good of you to come, sire, but I fear you are too late!” exclaimed the warden. “She is gone!”
“The poor woman has died?” asked Aragorn.
The warden shook his head. “As far as I know she still breathes, but she has disappeared with her child,” he said. He glared at Uzza. “No one could understand a word she was saying so I put her in Uzza’s sole charge, in the hope that she could communicate with her. I would usually entrust such patients to Dame Ivorwen, but she is not here today.”
“The woman could not be from Harad, though,” said Uzza. “I felt certain she was, but she did not respond when I spoke to her. She just became more terrified when I tried to reassure her and speak to her in the manner of my people. She had a bad cut on her arm, which she would not let me examine, nor would she accept any pain relief. I had to leave the room for a moment and when I returned the woman had disappeared, together with her little girl.”
The warden glared at his colleague. “You should not have left her alone.”
“You told me to tend her, not guard her!” Uzza retorted her accent becoming more pronounced. “She was guest, not prisoner!”
“Ever since you left a perfectly decent husband your attention has been on your son, not on your work,” the warden scolded.
“I told him, I am darwisa not slave! I should have followed the way of our people, but I needed heir!” snapped Uzza. She was a tall imposing woman and stood glaring at him, dark eyes flashing and arms akimbo. “I not with son, son cannot honour ancestors if always tied to mother’s skirts! I needed to ask advice what I should do for patient who seemed so scared of me!”
Aragorn held up his hand for silence. Both the Warden and Uzza were excellent healers, but they rarely saw eye to eye. “Peace, both of you,” he said sternly. “Your bickering will not help find this unfortunate woman and her little one. Now think carefully, can you tell me anything at all about her?”
“Her skin was a similar hue to Mistress Uzza’s as was her hair,” said the warden. “She is of small statue, though.”
“Her clothes, which were loose robes such as my folk favour, were torn and blood stained,” said Uzza. “She was far too thin.”
“Do you think she was mentally disturbed?” asked Aragorn.
“I do not know,” said the warden. “Maybe.”
Uzza shook her head. “I think not. She screamed because she felt great fear.”
“Did you find any injuries as well as the cut on her arm?”
The warden looked questioningly at his colleague.
“Her wrists were red and sore,” said Uzza. “I was not able to examine her further, nor the child, though she looked healthy enough.”
“How old was the little girl?” asked Aragorn.
“I would surmise around two years old,” said the warden.
Feeling he had learned all he could, Aragorn bade farewell to the healers and went in search of Faramir. He found his Steward sitting on a bench in the gardens, admiring the apple blossom.
Faramir got to his feet. “I did not expect you back so soon,” he said.
Aragorn explained to Faramir what had happened
“Alas, poor frightened woman! Are you going to ask the Citadel Guards to look out for her?”
“That would be the usual thing to do, but the woman has done nothing wrong. Guards would only panic her more. I thought, maybe we could find her. She cannot have gone far, especially with a small child.”
“A good idea,” said Faramir. “We can put our old tracking skills to good use.”
“I fear the good warden’s cleaners will have already removed any clues,” said Aragorn. “Someone will surely have seen the woman, though. She was dishevelled and dirty, and thus would look very out of place here in the sixth circle. The lords and ambassadors even vie to have the best dressed serving maids.”
“We should ride down to the lower circles then and question the guards at each gate,” said Faramir.
“We should call first at Ambassador Tahir’s residence,” said Aragorn. “If the woman does indeed hail from Harad, maybe she sought help there.”
The Ambassador’s imposing mansion was only a short walk from the Houses of Healing. When the King knocked on the door, a smartly dressed manservant appeared and bowed low. Aragorn explained his errand.
The manservant shook his head. “She has not come here, esteemed lord King, or we would try to help her. Neither does she dwell here. When the Ambassador’s servants are unwell, his personal physicians attend them, such is our custom. The honoured Ambassador, long may he live, would never permit his servants to go around injured and untended.”
Aragorn thanked him and walked back to where Faramir was standing.
“If the woman indeed came from Harad, surely she would have conversed with Mistress Uzza?” said Faramir.
“Maybe she was too afraid and does not desire anyone to know her origins,” said Aragorn. “There is still much darkness in those lands. On the other hand, she might come from some other land where the stars are strange. We must try to find her before she comes to any harm.”
The two men made their way towards the main stables where the horses belonging to the King and the Steward’s households were housed, as well as those of the nobility and diplomats. The horses used by soldiers and officials were stabled there too. After the war, the stables had been refurbished and expanded, using the latest designs for horse comfort as developed by the Rohirrim.
Roheryn neighed joyfully as Aragorn approached his stall and nuzzled hopefully expecting a carrot. Aragorn apologised to the faithful horse for his oversight in not bringing one while the stable hand brought Roheryn’s tack. Aragorn liked to saddle his own mount and Faramir did likewise.
The two men rode towards the gate, all the while keeping a sharp look out for the woman and her child, but there was no sign of them. They questioned the guard at the gate, but he said that so many folk went back and forth to the Houses of Healing that he could not recall any woman and child in particular since most of them looked distressed or were injured when in need of a healer.
“This woman left the Houses still in distress and bleeding from a wound on her arm,” Aragorn pressed.
The guard shook his head. “Sorry, sire, but a large group of women went through the gate together a little while ago when the cleaners from the Houses finished their work. I do keep my eyes skinned, I do, sire, but it is for men bearing weapons.”
Aragorn and Faramir rode on through the gate down into the fifth circle. There were more houses here, fine stone mansions occupied by the city’s prosperous merchants and craftsmen. A smart looking tavern, “The Silver Star”, catered for the folk who dwelled nearby. King and Steward searched the main street and looked down the alleyways between the houses, but the woman was nowhere in sight.
Eventually, Aragorn reined in Roheryn alongside an elegantly dressed woman who was walking along the street with a plainly dressed companion, who appeared to be her maid. “Have you seen a dark skinned, dishevelled young woman, who appears to be injured, together with a little girl, mistress?” he asked.
Obviously unaware to whom she was speaking to, the woman glared. “Indeed not! This is a respectable area. We don’t have foreign beggars here. They know they won’t get anything. I don’t know what Minas Tirith is coming to with all these foreigners everywhere!”
“The folk from other lands have brought a good deal of wealth and prosperity to the City,” said Faramir, halting his horse alongside Aragorn’s.
“My husband will take their coin if it’s good,” said the woman. “He’s a goldsmith and a good one at that.”
“It is the King’s wish that hospitality and courtesy be shown to all,” said Aragorn. He urged Roheryn forward and trotted away leaving the woman glaring after him.
They rode on towards the gate and again questioned the guard. This time he did recall seeing a dark skinned woman and a child, but he had waved them through the gate without paying much heed to them.
Aragorn thanked the man and the two rode down to the fourth circle. This was a much livelier, busier place than the three upper circles with many houses and inns. The market was held here and many merchants had permanent booths. Tradesmen and soldiers dwelt here in the spacious houses. Since the war, many had planted small gardens or cultivated pots of colourful blooms.
Aragorn and Faramir tethered their horses to a post in the market square and questioned the shopkeepers as to the whereabouts of the woman and her child. No one had seen her until they came to a baker’s booth.
“There was a woman who could not speak our language, who was here earlier,” he said. “She was gesturing towards the loaves, but appeared to have no money to buy one. I felt sorry for the child and gave her a stale loaf that I had planned to throw away.”
“Did you see where she went?” asked the King.
“Down in the direction of the next circle,” said the baker.
Aragorn thanked him and the King and Steward remounted their horses and made their way towards the next gate.
The guard at the gate recalled seeing the woman and the child hurrying down towards the next circle. He remembered her as she was bloodstained and the child was crying pitifully. Aragorn and Faramir hurried through the gate hoping they could at last catch up with her.
This was easier said than done, as the lower circles of the city were far more crowded and sprawling than the upper levels. The houses were smaller and connected by an intricate series of alleyways that twisted and turned. People bustled to and fro. The merchants traded their wares to the stallholders here and folk haggled in every tongue known in Middle-earth under a roofed enclosure open to the elements at the sides . There were more stables in this circle too, to house the working horses that pulled carriages, and even an enclosure for camels, which was used by the merchants from Harad who travelled in camel caravans across the desert with their wares.
Aragorn and Faramir swiftly rode through the streets, followed by their long- suffering guards, past the orphanage and the soldiers’ refuge and the many taverns, which were almost empty at this hour of the day. They asked passers- by if they had seen the woman and her child, but everyone seemed too engrossed in their own affairs to pay much heed to anyone else.
“We are going round in circles here,” Faramir said at last, reining in his horse. “Let us speak to the guard at the gate.”
“We are looking for a dark skinned woman with a small child who appears distressed,” said Aragorn.
“There have been folk passing back and forth all day, my lords,” said the man.
“She has an injured arm,” said Faramir.
The guard scratched his head. “Now you mention that, I did see an injured woman less than an hour ago. I told her she should be going up to the healers in the sixth level, not down to the second, but I doubt she understood a word I was saying. She seemed in a great hurry, but then most folk are nowadays, not like when I was young when-”
Aragorn quickly thanked him, before he could begin what promised to be lengthy reminiscences. King and Steward passed through the gate into the second circle. This was one of the most densely populated parts of the city, inhabited mostly by the poorer folk. Many had moved here from the first circle during the war when their homes had been destroyed in the siege and remained here, sometimes with two families sharing one of the small stone houses. Folk had been loth to return to the first circle, as they no longer felt secure there, despite the strong new walls and gate that had been erected after the war.
Between the houses were many taverns, as well as a variety of small shops.
Aragorn looked around him and for a moment enjoyed seeing that his people bustling through the streets looked contented and well fed, while the streets and houses were clean and well paved. He forced his thoughts back to his current quest.
King and Steward dismounted, taking Aragorn’s healing supplies. They asked in several taverns if anyone had seen the woman and child. The only reply was a shaking of heads and murmured apologies.
“I doubt she would stay in this circle,” said Faramir. “Unless she collapsed from her injuries, she would most likely make her way to the first circle. A woman from Harad would stand out amongst all the folk here.”
“If she does hail from Harad,” said Aragorn. “We will speak to the guard at the gate.”
The guard was not very helpful, as he could not recall whether he had seen the woman and her child or not, as so many folk had passed through the gate that day.
“We will search the first circle for her,” said Aragorn. “If she is not there, she has left the City and all we can do is ask the soldiers to keep an eye out for her.”
“I do not like to think of an injured woman out in the wilds with a child,” said Faramir.
“Neither do I, but we must hope that we can find her in the first circle.”
“You should not go to the first circle without more guards, sire, “ one of Aragorn’s bodyguards protested. “Begging your pardon, sire, but there are all manner of undesirable folk living there!”
“I was dealing with all manner of folk while you were still drinking your mother’s milk, lad,” said Aragorn. He directed his horse towards the gate, closely followed by Faramir. The reluctant guards followed.
The first level was a crowded colourful place. Languages from all corners of Middle-earth were heard in its labyrinth of alleyways.
The first circle had been badly damaged during the Ring War and many houses had been destroyed. Aragorn had done his best to rebuild, but funds had been limited just after the war, and the first priority and been to replace the great gate and the city walls. Any dangerous buildings had been demolished and most of the original inhabitants who had survived, never returned. Instead, the very poor had seized their chance and constructed homes from the abundance of rubble.
Other parts of the first circle were occupied by immigrants from the South and East, who, once they had learned that the King of the West was no monster, had come to seek their fortunes. Some came from Khand and Rhűn, but the majority were from Harad. They had their own taverns, and small shops that sold many strange items, some of which even Aragorn had no idea of their purpose.
Aragorn decided to search the Haradrim quarter for any sign of the injured woman and her child. The streets here were too narrow and crowded to comfortably accommodate horses unless they rode at a snail’s pace, so he and Faramir dismounted, leaving their horses with one of the guards. The other followed them reluctantly as they entered a tavern called “The Coiled Serpent”, which marked it out as a haunt of the Haradrim.
“I well recall this tavern as I came here looking for a darwisa when you were poisoned,” said Faramir. “It looks very different in daylight.”
“You did not need to come all this way,” said Aragorn. “Mistress Uzza at the Houses of Healing is a darwisa and an expert in poisons!”
“Mistress Uzza a darwisa? I suppose no one thought to consult her. I thought she came to the West to study our healing methods.”
“Uzza has an interesting story. I will tell you it when there is more time.”
It was too early in the day for many to be drinking in “the Coiled Serpent”, but several old men sat around a table, watching two younger men who were playing chess and wagering on the outcome.
“Have you seen an injured woman and her child, good sirs?” asked Aragorn in the tongue of Harad.
“No decent woman enters a tavern,” said one.
“Ask the juggler,” said another. “He sees everything.”
“Where might we find him?” asked Aragorn.
The old man clicked his tongue impatiently. “You tarks know nothing!”
The Guard’s hand went to his sword. Aragorn stopped him with a gesture.
“True enough,” said Aragorn mildly, yet with an air of command in his voice. “That is why I am asking one who does know.”
“The juggler plies his trade outside the shop that sells sweetmeats,” said the old man. “It is down the next alleyway.”
Aragorn thanked him and hurried outside.
“You should return to the Citadel, sire,” said the guard. “These foreign savages cannot be trusted.”
“I am in no danger unless they see me as a threat,” said Aragorn. “Why should they harm men of Gondor when we have a treaty with their king?”
“But they insult you by calling you a tark,” said the guard indignantly.
“I imagine they use the term almost without thinking much as you use the term savage,” said Aragorn. “I would have Gondor welcome all who come with peaceful intentions to help rebuild and repopulate our land.”
The guard fell silent.
A crowd was gathering, as it was almost sunset when by the King’s degree, any unsold perishable food, such as bread had to be distributed to the poor, most of whom lived in the first circle. Aragorn and Faramir pushed their way through the throng and made their way down a narrow alleyway. At the bottom was a small shop with a courtyard outside. A man, wearing only trousers and a leather jerkin, was skilfully juggling with an assortment of coloured balls. At present, only a couple of bored looking dark skinned children were watching him, but it seemed he was popular as a cup at his feet was filled with coins.
Aragorn cleared his throat loudly then called to the man, “A word if you please.”
The juggler ignored him until he had caught all his balls. He then turned to the King scowling. “You tarks have no appreciation of skill, always telling me to move on. How’s a man to make a living?”
“I have no objection to your juggling,” said Aragorn, throwing a coin in the cup. “I congratulate you on your skill. You would be welcome to entertain the guests at a royal feast. I simply wanted to ask if you had seen an injured woman and her child this day.”
“Royal feast indeed! That would be the day!” the juggler snorted. “An injured woman would go to the darwisa, Hayat, who lives yonder.” He nodded towards a tiny shop at the other end of the alley then resumed his juggling.
Aragorn and Faramir didn’t stop to reply. They hurried towards the shop. A sign outside in the language of Harad offered love potions, potions to increase desire and potions to ensure sons. None of the wares promised gave Aragorn any confidence in the woman’s ability to heal the injured.
Gesturing the bodyguard to wait outside, he pushed open the hanging that served as a doorway and entered the darkness within. The place reeked of herbs and spices, not all of which Aragorn was familiar with. A wizened old crone with nut-brown skin, dressed in a faded scarlet robe emerged out of the shadows to greet them. “How may I help you, Men of the West?” she asked. “I have powerful potions to help you satisfy your women.”
“No thank you, mistress,” Faramir said hurriedly.
“We are seeking an injured woman and her child,” said Aragorn. “We mean her no harm, we desire to help her.”
Hayat jerked her head towards a room at the back. “In there,” she said. “Take her, I have no room for patients to stay here, especially those with no coin. They are disturbing my paying customers”
Aragorn and Faramir hastened to the back room. On a dirty pallet in a corner lay a young woman, either unconscious or asleep. Her robe was splattered with blood and a grubby bandage was wrapped around her arm. Beside her crouched a little girl of about two who whimpered and sucked her thumb.
Aragorn dropped on his knees beside her. “Mistress, I am a healer. I am here to help you,” he said gently in the tongue of Harad.
The woman’s eyes opened. They were wild with terror. She made to get up, but fell back on the pallet exhausted.
“There is nothing to fear,” Aragorn said, taking her hand.
“Do not take my child!” the woman screamed. “I’ll kill you if you try to take her, tark!”
“No one wants to take your child,” Aragorn said firmly. “What is your name, mistress?” he glanced towards Faramir. The Steward went back into the shop and asked the old woman for some hot water.
“Lunah,” the woman replied. She was shaking with fear.
Aragorn remained kneeling beside her in silence until the old woman, followed by Faramir came in with a bowl of steaming water.
“That will be a coin,” said the crone. “I’m a darwisa not a maid to fetch and carry.”
“Take your money,” said Faramir giving her the coin she demanded from his purse. He followed her back out into the shop, leaving Aragorn alone with his patient. The King took two athelas leaves from his healer’s supplies and cast them into the water. The stench of stale herbs was replaced by a living freshness. “Breathe deeply,” Aragorn instructed his patient.
“Did Qutaybah send you?” asked Lunah after a few moments. She gazed at him anxiously.
Aragorn shook his head. “I know no Qutaybah. The healers from the Houses sent me.”
“The woman there was of my people and of Qutaybah’s tribe. She tried to drug me.”
“I am certain Mistress Uzza does not know him either,” said Aragorn. “She desired only to tend your injuries. Who is he?”
Some of the fear left Lunah’s eyes. Whether it was Aragorn’s words or the athelas, he could not say. “My master,” she said. “I am his slave. He brought me as his comfort woman with his caravan.”
“There are no slaves or comfort women in Gondor,” said Aragorn. “Qutaybah has no power over you here. Was it he who hurt you?”
Lunah nodded. “He said that now Murjanah was almost weaned he would sell her. I begged him not to and then I became angry and lashed out. He drew his dagger and we struggled. He cut my arm. I managed to stab his leg and flee. I had no coin and a passer-by told me to go to your Houses of Healing, but I was afraid when the woman introduced herself. She is of of Qutaybah’s tribe.”
“She only wanted to help you,” said Aragorn. “Now will you permit me to tend your arm, then I will take you back to the Houses of Healing.”
She nodded again. Very gently, Aragorn unwrapped the dirty bandage from around her forearm to reveal an ugly, jagged wound. He bathed it with the athelas mixture and wrapped a clean bandage around it. “We will take you and your daughter to the Houses of Healing now,” he said. “The women there will tend to you both.”
“They will not let Qutaybah take my daughter?” Lunah fretted.
“No, mistress, you will be under the King’s protection and none shall harm you.”
Aragorn called to Faramir and found that the Steward had already brought the horses to the small shop. He persuaded Lunah to let Faramir take her little girl, while he carried the woman and placed her in front of him in the saddle. She weighed as little as a child. The bodyguards took up their positions and the small party made their way back through the circles of the City until they reached the Houses of Healing.
Uzza and another woman healer took Lunah and her child to be bathed and provided with clean raiment.
The warden came out to speak to Aragorn. “She is not the only mysterious foreigner we have seen today,” he observed. “Soon after you left, sire, a man with a bad cut to his leg came here. Uzza translated while one of the male healers tended him. He claimed his woman had attacked him.”
“Is he still here?” asked Aragorn.
The warden nodded.
“When he recovers, I want him arrested and taken before the magistrate. I have evidence that he brought slaves and abused women here in Gondor, contrary to every value we hold dear. I intend to make sure he is deported and banned from ever crossing the borders of my kingdom again.”
Aragorn had much to relate to Arwen that evening when the royal pair dined together.
“Poor woman,” said Arwen. “She cannot return to Harad. She must be helped to find a new life in Gondor.”
“I agree,” said Aragorn. “The problem is, she speaks not a word of our tongue.”
“Maybe Ambassador Tahir and Lady Adiva could find her employment?” suggested Faramir, who was dining with Aragorn and Arwen that evening.
“Something must be arranged,” said the King. “It will be a while before she is strong enough to work, though. We must supply food and lodgings for her until she is fully recovered. I plan to go and see how she fares after the Council Meeting tomorrow. I fear I might be late again for the noonday meal, vanimelda.”
“It is for a good reason,” said Arwen.
The next day, Aragorn left the meeting as soon as he was able and left Faramir to conclude the proceedings. He made his way to the Houses of Healing and asked to speak to Mistress Uzza. He did not have to wait long before she strode briskly into the room. “How is Mistress Lunah?” he asked.
“She fares as well as she might for a woman who has suffered much,” Uzza replied, her face grim. “When I examined her, as well as the cut to her arm, I found many bruises on her body which indicated she had often been beaten and abused.”
Aragorn sighed. “The poor woman. She should remain in Gondor when she is healed where she is safe from her former master and others like him.”
“There are men in Gondor as evil,” Uzza said grimly. “At least you punish them when you find them, though, my lord. I have been thinking about Mistress Lunah and her child. There is room at my home for both of them and the Houses are always in need of more cleaning maids. The little girl could stay with my son and his nursemaid. He would like a playmate.”
“That sounds an excellent solution if Mistress Lunah agrees,” said Aragorn.
“She does,” said Uzza.
Aragorn laughed. “Maybe I should put you in charge of managing the Kingdom, mistress! I will pay for Mistress Lunah’s lodgings until she is able to work and for some clothes for her and the child. Now I should like to see her if she is well enough for visitors.”
Uzza led Aragorn along a spotless corridor to the women’s rooms and knocked on the third in a row of doors. Inside was a cheerful small room simply furnished with a bed and a comfortable chair.
Lunah was sitting up in bed. She was now dressed in a fine linen nightgown with a shawl around her shoulders. On a rug beside the bed, the little girl sat playing with a rag doll. Lunah started when Uzza and Aragorn came in but smiled when she recognised them.
“Good Day, mistress, how do you fare?” Aragorn asked in the tongue of Harad.
“Very well, lord. I am happy. The healing women are kind to me and they gave my little one a doll. They tell me you looked all through the circles of this great city for me. But why, lord?” she looked puzzled.
“While we are within the circles of this world, we should help one another, “Aragorn answered. “It was my pleasure, mistress.”
A/n. Written for the Teitho “Circles” challenge where it was unplaced. You can read Uzza’s story in “The Revenger’s Tragedy” also on this site. "The Coiled Serpent" is mentioned in "Dies Irae".