But you never kept under consideration that kind of storm when you gave me that advice, did you, Maldir, my good mentor? And I still feel like I am drowning even while I am sitting on this bed, doing nothing else but watch and wait. Wait in the hopes that I will wake up at any moment and I will find myself in my room, in my bed, and I will never have to think twice about... these tricks of the mind that are unveiled before me. That when I speak of them to Faramir, he will merely consider them a jest and reassure me with his kind words and smile that I should, too.
That I will see Bergil alive and breathing.
No, hold still, sorrowful heart. There will be a time and a place to mourn, and that is not it, no matter how much it aches and shatters you.
Now I have to apply reason to this; comprehend everything before me.
Yet from where to begin?
From the beginning, comes the logical answer.
That I do, though it frightens me. My fingers fidget slightly; my ears pick up any sound; I look through the corner of my eye at the group of men just a little away from me, somehow aware that they are talking about me.
Everything seems and feels real, and that brings me but to two options: I have either gone utterly mad or - Valar, I do not wish to admit it! - it is real.
Neither of the options is promising, yet I fear I know which one stands as true.
It is real. If it were not, there would be no lingering pain on my shoulder, nor would my eyes still hurt after seeing before me that blinding light from the box one of the men was holding.
If it is real, however, how was I brought here?
The answer is, once again, fairly obvious.
I remember my very core straying out of thought and time; then a glimpse of great gates - the Gates of Mandos; and here I am, taken to a place where no one, not even the Elves, know of. Just like it is the fate of every Man's soul, by Eru's bidding.
But, were that to be true, I should be dead. I still draw breath instead.
Was this how it was meant to be?
If not, then the Valar were not granting me any favours at all. It is my punishment for defying their will.
There they are, casting glances at me again. I do not hold it against them; they must consider me as strange as I consider them. And I realise that they wish to know about me as much as I wish to know about them.
That, however, I cannot allow. Not before I learn about them first. I need to know to whom I can trust, since my strengths alone cannot help me this time, it is obvious. And the only option I have for gaining the information I need is by observing them without them realising it.
The three almost identically dressed men are the easiest to study. Their movements are abrupt and powerful, yet precise and full of purpose; their posture is proud; their look is sharp; and they always stare in the eye the one they address. I know that behaviour only too well. I have been seeing it all my life.
They are soldiers. And one of them, the dark-haired, young-looking one is superior to the other two. He has the confidence of a leader of men, just like Boromir had.
But the other two...
The fair-haired one is like a child, which is odd. For what business would a child have with soldiers, conversing with them in what appears to be an equal manner?
Perhaps he is no child? That was the mistake I did when I first met Pippin.
No, this is not the case. Though he acts in many ways like an adult, his eagerness and curiosity could easily match Bergil's. The way he looked at me and touched me proves that.
As for the other one... He is the strangest of all. At first I thought that he was a warrior, just like me, but now that I heard that child's voice coming out of him, I do not know what to make of it.
"I'll do it."
"You've made the right decision, Alphonse."
It seems that I will have some time to observe him better. It looks as if he will stay here with the fair-haired soldier who has been guarding me.
That is what happens indeed. I do not know how much time passes as I still feel their eyes locked on me, yet I do not feel threatened. The fair-haired soldier is kind, that much I know so far. He treated me like a human being, unlike those others that grabbed me and dragged me hither and thither, yelling at me as though I was some animal. It is true that it is because of him that my shoulder hurts as though someone pushed a hot iron bar on it, but I can see it in his eyes that he feels sorry about it.
I can understand him. As I recall the moment of our meeting, chaotic though it was, I understand more and more the steps he took when he faced me. It was like observing myself when facing someone I am not certain he is a friend or a foe. He did his duty, and commendably at that. I cannot hold him responsible for my being here, though it is clear he believes that I do.
Though I understand him better because of our common profession, he still manages to catch me off guard. He goes by the door and speaks to someone outside. At the next moment, he holds a tray and places it on my lap.
Though everything is different from the world I knew, food is still the same - sweet-smelling and mouth-watering. Yet I cannot afford to move. They must believe that I am incapable of comprehension, or they will become cautious.
He is sighing. He is clearly disappointed.
"I thought it would help." He stands up and I listen, though I am not familiar with the Tongue he is speaking. "Talk about a mental breakdown or what? And it's all Connors' men's fault! They scared the hell out of him with their shouting and bullying! Bastards."
The armoured one doesn't answer, though his body posture tells me that he is contemplating something. I almost betray myself when I watch him in surprise sitting by my side and picking a bowl of soup and a spoon.
I do not move, for I do not know what he is saying. He brings the soup-filled spoon up to the crack that is his mouth and makes sounds as though he is tasting it; then brings it close to my mouth again.
"It's delicious! Come on, open wide."
I finally understand, for now the tone is truly unmistakable. I sounded that way whenever I was feeding Bergil on his toddler days. It takes all my will power to suppress the smile that is forcing itself to be formed on my lips.
"Don't be shy. I know you want it."
I try to fight it but I cannot. The voice is soothing as it reminds me of my boy. I open my mouth and eat.
"What do you know!" I hear the fair-haired soldier say, a small chuckle escaping his lips. "You're a natural at this, Alphonse!"
Something tells me that the armoured person feels like blushing.
"Well, uh... It's just that... Ed can be so focused on work sometimes that he often skips a meal or two. I have to remind him that he needs to eat from time to time."
The soldier nods. "I understand." He looks at me again. "I suppose that's what the guy needs, isn't it? To be treated like a kid until he snaps out of it."
"Yeah, I suppose so," the armour says.
I could swear that that last phrase was spoken with hesitation and discomfort.
An uncomfortable silence follows and all I can do is open my mouth mechanically as the soup is offered.
"Do you think they'll find the real murderer, Lieutenant Havoc?"
The soldier sighs. Whatever it was the armour asked him, it has made him thoughtful.
"They'll have to. No one wants an innocent man to be put in prison. Besides," suddenly a small smirk is tugging his lips, "The Colonel really wants to make Connors look like the idiot that he is." Another pause. "Don't worry. Edward's gonna be fine."
"I hope so." The armour places the now empty bowl down and, after ridding the tray off my lap, he gently prods me to lie down, as though I was a child. I want to object, but I have to admit that my body demands a rest. I close my eyes and let him cover me with the blanket. I never realise when sleep claims me.
When I wake up, the Armour is still in the room, but not the fair-haired soldier. There is another one in his place, the same one that came back in the morning with his superior; the same one that tried to speak to me. He is holding something in his hands and he is showing it to the Armour.
It seems like a book, yet it is large and with very few pages.
"Do you think it will work, sir?"
"That's what I've been reading to Elysia and she's catching everything in it." He is grinning, though I do not understand why. "Besides, he has to start understanding our language from somewhere."
"Well," the Armour seems thoughtful for some reason. "All right."
The soldier approaches me and, seeing that I am awake, helps me sit up. He sits by my side, but I ignore him, staring at nothing. He gently prods me to face him.
"Hello," he says, opening his mouth in an exaggerating manner.
I try not to laugh. It is true he wants to help me understand him, but I cannot help feeling I am in a rather ridiculous position.
"I'm Lieutenant Colonel Hughes," the soldier carries on, oblivious to my thoughts. He points at himself. "Hughes."
All feelings of mirth die out, as I realise what he is doing.
He is teaching me.
My heart almost misses a beat, and I prick my ears to listen to him again as he repeats the word.
Hughes. It's a simple word, pronounceable. Yet I cannot help but wonder whether it stands for 'man' or 'soldier'. Or is it perhaps his name?
He takes my hand and rests it against his chest. He repeats the word, and though I am tempted to speak it, I only say it within my mind. I wish to understand more first.
"Alphonse, please come here. I want you to see what I'm doing, so you'll be able to do this on your own."
The Armour approaches hesitantly; then the soldier points at him.
"He's Alphonse," he says, and repeats the last word several times, taking my other hand placing it on the Armour's chest.
This word is a bit more challenging, but I memorise it. Nevertheless, I find it flustering not to be certain what it means precisely. I must learn more, so I let my hand slip by 'accident' on the book he is holding.
I am not certain if he sees through me or not, but the soldier is smiling. He picks up the book and prods me to look at it.
"Book." Again he performs the same ritual, saying the word and letting me feel the hard cover of the book. And I, once again, repeat the word in my mind, gladdened to know exactly what it means this time.
The soldier seems pleased, though I do not believe I give him the impression that I understand. He quickly opens the book and shows me a picture with scribbles underneath it.
"A," he says and points at the scribble, and I memorise it; then the soldier points at the picture.
I look at the illustration of a... Yes, I know this animal. I saw it when I escorted Faramir to the southern lands for peace negotiations. 'Ape' I silently repeat. And as the soldier keeps showing me the other pages, I cannot help thinking that I should have had that book when I was teaching Bergil how to read.
I hardly understand how quickly time passes. My head feels as though about to burst by all the words it is filled with, but I would not have it otherwise. Now all I want is to keep repeating them, lest I forget them.
The two are talking again. I prick my ears in the hopes of hearing a familiar word, but I am not that fortunate; they speak too quickly for my inexperienced mind. Yet their voices have another kind of effect on me. Lulled by the sounds their lips let out, I drift to the land of dreams before I can help it.
The next time I wake up, I see the room is lit as though it is day, yet I know it is night. There are no soldiers guarding me. It is only the Armour - should I use the word Alphonse? I am not certain - and a small bundle of clothes by the chair.
But, as I take a better look, I notice that, underneath those clothes, there is a small boy, sound asleep. It is the same one that was here this morning, yet it is not that that fills me with wonder. It is the manner in which the Armour places the child's characteristic red overcoat over him. It almost resembles love and care.
My heart starts aching again as this scene makes me recall memories I do not want to at this time. I hug myself as I feel my face contorting in anguish; I dig my nails on my sides in an attempt to stop that bleeding feeling within that wants to flow out; my head starts feeling hot as I prevent myself from letting go, for I know that if I start I will never stop.
It is to no avail. The only thing I can do now is turn to my side, bury myself on the soft pillow and allow the tears to flow, no sound escaping my lips.
It hurts too much, but only I need to know.