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The Eagle on the Ramparts  by Canafinwe

Chapter I: The Wanderer

Many were the miles that lay between great Rauros Falls and the ancient City of Kings. The land undulated with stony hills and shallow dales, sprinkled liberally throughout with woodland. It was not an onerous road but neither was it a leisurely one, and it had been many years since Thorongil had gone so far afoot. Still he found that he had settled into the rhythm of travel well in these last weeks. He was keeping a good pace even without cause to hurry, and both his legs and his boots were holding up. He had been worried about the boots. They had been made to fit him and to his specifications; he had taken care to break them in well in the month before he took his leave. But the cordwainders of Edoras were accustomed to crafting footwear that would stand up to manual labour or long days ahorse, not a trek of six score leagues through unpredictable wilderness. Still, these boots were serving him well and he deemed them worth their steep price.

There had been no cause to husband his coin in any case. The incomes Thorongil had held by gift of Thengel King had been largely put to use in the equipage and maintenance of his own éored and the supplementary support of the others beneath his command. For himself, Thorongil had only ever reserved enough to meet his daily needs and to see to the orderly management of the small stone house that he had also occupied by the pleasure of the King. In settling his affairs in Rohan, Thorongil had remanded custody of the dwelling back to Thengel. The farmholdings and their tithes had been deeded at his request to his most trusted lieutenant, now Captain of what had been known as the Eagle’s Éored and Undermarshal in Thorongil’s place.

It had all been settled very neatly, but the final result was that Thorongil had left Edoras with scarcely more than he had brought to it almost nine years before. He had the new boots, a little coin, a few simple garments too worn or personal to gift to friends and subordinates, and a book of songs and stories of the Riddermark that he had compiled over the years. He had had also his packful of travel fare, but that was long eaten now. Most important of all, he carried a letter of introduction from the King of Rohan in Thengel’s own hand. This, Thorongil hoped, would be his surety that despite his reduced circumstances he would not be starting with nothing in his new life.

It was not that he had been driven destitute from Rohan, even with the reversion of his royal warrants. On the contrary, Thengel had tried to lavish rewards for his services upon Thorongil. The King had offered treasure and other moveable assets. When his erstwhile servant had courteously declined these, he had made the princely offer of Thorongil’s pick of a breeding pair of horses – any two he wished, save only the royally reserved Mearas themselves.

Thorongil’s reasons for turning down the gifts of wealth were threefold. First, he had not come to Rohan with the intention of enriching his person, but to learn all he need know of the Rohirrim, their hearts and ways, and of mounted warfare. Second, he had no wish to come to his destination as a prosperous lord from Gondor’s closest ally. He was not interested in learning how the people of Anarion’s city greeted and treated a newcome luminary, but in how they – and perhaps most importantly, the Steward – were disposed to a foreigner of no name and few prospects. Last of all, Thorongil still possessed a young man’s doubts about his own worth. He wished to be taken on his merits alone, which allowed the use of the recommendation but not the trappings of privilege. Ecthelion son of Turgon, twenty-fifth reigning Steward of Gondor, had made it known far and wide that he welcomed all men of worth, regardless of their birth, into his service. Thorongil intended to put that to the test.

As for the horses, he was bound for a city of stone where he would have neither pasturage nor the means to procure livery services. Thorongil had no wish to curb the liberty of the fair steeds of Rohan merely to wait upon a day when he might have the means to provide for them.

He had not made for Minas Tirith by the most direct path. His years in close community among the good folk of Rohan had been rich and rewarding, but they had left him yearning for a taste of solitude. Thorongil had felt the need for quiet contemplation and reflection upon his duties and his destiny, whatever the last might be. Therefore upon departing Thengel’s court in honour and friendship, he had set out upon a pilgrimage to the ancient seat of Amon Hen.

The choice to visit this place of reverence and history had seemed natural and almost foreordained. Having drawn so near it – within but a hundred miles – he could scarcely have failed to make the journey. It was a relic of the days of the great kings, and a wonder of the world as it had been. There long ago had Gondor kept a watch, and there still stood the Seat of Seeing.

Upon it Thorongil had sat, long descendant of kings and heir to Elendil himself. At first he had felt absurd, with the grime of travel upon his face and his body clad in his old clothes. These he had worn on his southward journey to Rohan years ago, and they were now ill-fitting upon a body grown both taller and stronger with his labours. But as he sat and breathed the cold air of winter’s dying days, Thorongil had felt himself changing. His aspect grew more stern and ennobled, and his posture straighter and more regal than even a skilled swordsman’s finesse ordinarily allowed. His heart had beat quick and strong with the essence of Westernesse within his blood and he had known, with a certainty that he belonged here on this high seat of kings, looking out upon a world given at least in part into his stewardship.

First to the West had he looked, from whence he had most lately come. There the coarse woods and rocky soil had stretched for a moment clear to the horizon. Then his sight had lengthened: not a seeing of the eyes so much as of the mind. And Thorongil had looked upon the broad plains of Rohan, yet brown and dormant but soon to be clad in the brilliant green of springtime. He could see the horsemen riding, the plumes of their helms rippling in the wind in echo of their mounts’ silken tails. He could see the cotholds and the rural manors where dwelt people both simple and wise at once, good of heart and strong in their resolve to live out that goodness each day. He could see the three rings about the city of Edoras, and the glint of the golden roof of the Meduseld. And he saw a land still beleaguered upon her borders, but more secure now than she had been in many a year. And he saw and he knew that this security was due in some small part to his own contributions, and he was glad.

Then he had looked to the North, where lay the Hithaeglir and the long road home. He had feared to gaze that way, lest the longing for the lands of his youth and the haven of his childhood should overpower his resolve. But his farsightedness spared him this. It did not stretch so far. He could see the Misty Mountains, tall and majestic, and he could see the dark things – orc and beast and watcher – that were crawling back into them with each passing year. A time would come when such dangerous vermin would have to be dealt with, but now was not the time. Thorongil saw a dale like a great basin at the feet of three lofty peaks, and though there was nothing there to be seen but the empty land his heart had filled with a cold dread, and a lump as if of sorrow had risen unbidden in his throat. He looked no further northwards.

Steeling himself, he had turned to the East. He was yet many leagues to the North of the northmost marches of Mordor, and yet it seemed as if he saw them: grey barren mountains swept with ash and the bones of those long slaughtered. His pulse beat quick as he beheld the Dark Tower: Barad-dûr slowly rising again from the black plain of Gorgoroth, blacker still than the land and the clouds of belching poisons that hung low upon that place. Its foundations, the restoration of which had begun in the very year Thorongil had come into his own by the gift of Master Elrond of Imladris, were now complete. Its middling walls were high, and growing higher with the days as the slaves of Mordor toiled. From them already rose turrets and battlements and the half-grown spires of terrible towers to come. All about that place there was a portent of dread and despair, and before it glowed the fires of Orodruin. That sight had held Thorongil transfixed, lost in horror and dismay and a growing righteous rage that swelled within him until his strength, so bolstered, allowed him to tear his eyes away. Then all he saw were nameless forests on Anduin’s far bank, stretching off many miles in emptiness.

Last of all, Thorongil had turned to the South: towards his most immediate future and his long intent. He beheld the curl of Anduin: at his feet crashing over Rauros and sweeping away down, down through the ruins of the great city of Osgiliath; down past the river-havens of Pelargir and the high sandy walls of Dol Amroth to the Bay of Belfalas upon the Sea itself. And beyond he saw other things: sly gatherings to ocean ports, and the busy hives of new construction where of old there had been dilapidation and poverty. He saw deep barks upon troughs of dry-dock, crusted with scaffolding and crawling with shipwrights. Thorongil saw danger: not immediate, but inexorable.

And he had seen the broad lands of Gondor away to the southwest, fair and fertile but troubled with wild men and brigands and the servants of Sauron. He saw the dells and orchards of Lossarnach, yet dormant in earnest of spring’s fertility. He saw the busy valleys of Lamedon, and the far hill-country of Pinnath Gelin. All this he saw, and he saw that it was fair and wholesome and vibrant with life and with pride. He saw that it needed to be safeguarded, protected from the incursions upon its borders and the threat of worse to come – from South and East both. And Thorongil knew that he had chosen his course aright.

To Minas Tirith he had not looked, for he wished to behold that great city first with his own keen sight and not the hazy and changeable eyes of the mind. He had risen from the seat then, but long had he lingered in the cobbled ring; long into the night while he sat in deep thought with his back to the tumbled stone battlement. When at last his eyes could no longer hold themselves open, nor his mind keep its alertness, he had descended the steep slope with its crumbling stairs and found a place that was fit for the mundanities of supper and slumber.

All that had come to pass twenty-two days before, and since that time Thorongil had been making his way steadily south along Anduin. His progress was hampered somewhat by the need to hunt, for his rations were utterly depleted and winter was not a time of plentiful foraging. He managed to keep hunger at bay with his catches: snared rabbits, wild pheasant felled with a stone from a sling, and fish from shallows of the Great River. When he had come to the marshy delta of Onodló, Thorongil had been faced with a choice: brave the uncertain and changeable lands, or take the long westward road around, back into Eastfold from whence he had come. He had settled upon the more expedient route.

It had turned out to be a treacherous and most unpleasant road, but here the woodscraft learned from the sons of Elrond and his own Dúnedain had served Thorongil well. He could navigate a marsh, however broad, and he had good boots upon his feet. Of course it had proved impossible to keep dry in such a place, and he had taken a couple of very mucky duckings. The nights had been most miserable of all, huddled upright on sodden ground or, if he was very fortunate, stretched out upon some obliging stone washed here long ago in the changing of the world. Still he had emerged after six such nights alive, four-limbed and still soundly shod.

He had been very hungry upon his return to dry land, for there was little fit for eating in such a place and what game there was proved difficult to overtake when one was splashing and squelching through a flooded bog. Thorongil had managed with a few hours’ labour to secure a plump rook to break his fast, and had braved the icy bite of Anduin’s shallows to bathe his body and soak the worst of the mud from his clothes. They had dried by degrees over the next two days, but they looked much the worse for his floundering. They were stained and ground deep with dirt that he had no hope of removing without fuller’s earth or soap. He had also torn wide the left knee of his hose in a particularly nasty fall across a sunken boulder. Long removed from wandering, Thorongil had not thought to bring needle and thread, so he went on with the skinned section of his leg bared to the elements.

He was walking now through Anórien, passing through fertile farmland instead of empty forest. It made a pleasant change, but Thorongil did not tarry. He could taste his goal upon the wind now, and he pressed on at a great pace. His long legs had strengthened considerably in his three weeks’ steady walking, and he took great, swift strides as he followed rutted byways or the ditches of harder roads on his southward march.

He met a few folk as he went, but it was yet early in the year to be abroad in the fields. Those Thorongil did see were wary of strangers, but endeavoured to be kind. Anórien was border-country, and only its northwesterly edge drew up upon the dominion of a friend. More than once word had come to Edoras of orcs crossing over Anduin to worry these lands, and the Easterlings came still more frequently. But Thorongil had about himself the look of Númenor, and he was not waylaid. Neither was he offered any hospitality beyond the use of a well or leave to camp for a night in the shelter of a meadow hedge, but he sought none. He was content to maintain his rustic arrangements until he came to his destination.

He knew it was near. The land was ever more densely peopled, and that morning he had passed through the outskirts of a busy little town. He was eager now, his heart quick within him and the ambitions that he so often laid aside for the sake of more immediate efforts now foremost in his mind. If one day he achieved all that was foretold, these lands and the tower that overlooked him would be under his hand and entrusted to his care. He was walking not into a strange place, but towards his own city: the city of his birthright, the citadel of his forefathers, and the seat of the empty throne he longed one day to fill that through his service might follow a greater grace.

These thoughts were still fresh in his mind when the market-road he was following crested a hill, and Minas Tirith rose before his eyes. Its concentric white walls seemed to spiral up the slope of stony Mindoluin, bright in the sunshine with the grey of the streets between each to separate them. The ancient strength of that city, thrust up above the fruitful farmlands of the Pelennor Fields, awoke in Thorongil’s breast an awe that he had scarcely imagined even in the dreams of his youth. A feat of Númenorean architecture such as the masons of these latter days could not hope to echo, the City of Kings seemed rooted to the mountain instead of built upon it. It looked as though it always had stood and would always stand just as it was at this moment: lofty and proud and glorious.

And crowing it all was the White Tower, erected to its present splendour by he from whom the Steward took his name. It shot upward to the sky, a spire as straight and true as any known upon the earth. White as pearl it was, and it shone in the noonday Sun with such silvery brilliance that it reminded Thorongil of nothing so much as the spear Aeglos out of legend. It was not surprising. His mind was filled with thoughts of Elendil and his mightiest ally, of his sons who had overseen the building of this towering city and its mate, of all he had read and all he had been told of these greatest of his forebearers ever to walk these easterly lands. His heart was filled with reverence and a sobering sense of his own smallness before such a legacy.

Yet his legs were filled with strength and eagerness, and they carried him swiftly down the hillside and along the road towards the first great gate. He had many miles yet to walk through the fertile fields and fallows of the Pelennor, but in that moment it seemed that nothing stood betwixt him and his destination but the length of his stride.



In the council chamber of the White Tower stood Ecthelion son of Turgon, second of that name and twenty-fourth in direct descent from Mardil Voronwë himself. His back was to the great table littered with the detritus of that morning’s meeting of the Steward’s Council. It had been a less productive session than Ecthelion had hoped, and it was a childish but very real comfort to turn his gaze from its ruins. Far better to look out upon the Court of the Fountain, even though winter’s last fruitlessness still lay upon it and left the carefully tended greensward an indifferent brown. The water flowed, dancing high and beading like diamante on the bare and drooping limbs of the White Tree. It was a heartening sight for Ecthelion’s eyes: a tangible reminder that though the line of Kings had faded, Gondor yet endured and would continue to endure so long as her Steward remained faithful and strong.

Yet at times strength was a burden, and never more so than when the Council was in disagreement. Presiding over a room filled with argumentative noblemen was no easy task, and today Ecthelion had not even had the aid of his son. For Denethor had sided against his father in the debate, and had had no interest in reigning in the quarrel while it delayed any further action in the matter of the wall.

There had been no opposition five years before, when Ecthelion had first proposed the idea. The fortification of the causeway that lead eastward to the ruins of Osgiliath and the perilous road to Morgul Vale had been universally approved and funds swiftly allotted from the realm's Treasury to finance its making. Now the construction was complete: the gate with its flanking turrets and strong, high walls that sloped down to either side for a distance of a mile or more in either direction. The time had come to implement the second phase of the defences: the building of a great ring wall to enclose the fields of the Pelennor and secure the farms and orchards that supplied Minas Tirith with the greater part of her foodstuffs. Yet now the Council balked, and there was dissension even between the Steward and his Heir.

Denethor argued that such a defence was nothing more than a token: a placating gesture that did more to ease the minds of common folk than to safeguard them from the Enemy’s advances. To his voice were added others: Belthil, Lord of Lammedon argued against the impracticality of such a massive undertaking; the Exchequer was concerned about the strain upon the finances of the realm. Still others spoke to the want of stone, the pressure on the undermanned quarries to produce, and the difficulty of finding qualified stonemasons to erect a barrier that could endure a true assault. Most damning of all were the words of Adrahil of Dol Amroth, who sat in his father’s place on the Council.

‘Will it not serve only to show the Enemy our fear?’ he had asked in his quiet but knowing way. ‘Were I the Master of Barad-dûr, I would look upon such labours and say to my servants; “Lo! I have broken them at last. See how they scurry like ants shoring up their little hill before the mighty tide!”.’

It was then that Ecthelion had known the debate was lost, despite those who argued on his side. The great wall would not be built this year; that much was certain. And in that lost year, as with every year, the Shadow would deepen and the fires of Orodruin grow fiercer. The Dark Tower would climb higher by slow but ineluctable degrees. Gondor’s defences could not match its pace. That was the dread he had borne through the years of his Stewardship, and now it rested more heavily on his heart than ever before.

A soft cough alerted him to a second presence in the chamber, but Ecthelion did not turn. He watched the water dripping patiently from the Tree, and he thought to himself: Gondor will endure. She must endure. I must make her endure.

‘Yes?’ he asked tonelessly, not knowing whether it was lord or servant who stood behind him. It might even be his wife or one of his daughters, if Denethor had told them of his opposition and the Council’s hard debates.

The voice that spoke was the one Ecthelion had least expected to hear.

‘My father,’ said Denethor in the same measured manner.

Now Ecthelion did turn, looking to his third child and the great pride of his heart. Denethor was taller than his sire – the tallest man in the city, and likely in all the land. He had the dark hair and steely eyes so common among his race, but in his noble features and his bearing, in his height and his insight and his power to stir the hearts of men to loyalty unmatched he was more than an ordinary lordling of Gondor. In him the blood of Númenor seemed to run pure, or nearly so. Ecthelion knew that in his heir he had met his better, and he was glad. Gondor deserved great men, and such a one was Denethor.

Yet he was also stern and often impatient. He had little tolerance for the failings of others, and little time to lavish upon the gentler aspects of human interaction. At five and thirty he was already a hardened Captain-General, but more than that he was a hard man. Forgiveness came slowly to Denethor’s heart, and forgetfulness came never. In battle his disposition served him well, but in the training of green recruits it was no asset. Nor did it make the mending of quarrels between father and son any easy matter.

‘I respect your concerns about the fastness of the proposed wall,’ Ecthelion said carefully. He knew he must seem neither anxious nor patronizing, for the second Denethor would resent and the first he would scorn. ‘It is true that such a fortification will be vulnerable during the years of its making. Yet the stonemasons of Gondor know much of strong walls and mighty defences. Consider the Ring of Isengard, impenetrable to the most fearsome assault. I aspire only to give our folk such protection.’

‘I have argued my case already, and I shall not do so again merely for the advantage of a private audience,’ Denethor said coolly. There was high pride in the tilt of his head, but no disdain in his voice.

In times past, Ecthelion had borne much from his son; more than most fathers would have tolerated from the vagaries of adolescence. During the early years of Denethor’s majority, Ecthelion wondered whether he had erred in allowing his son the freedom to speak his mind so long as in his actions he was obedient. Yet now he had a clear-headed and strong-willed advisor and tactician to lean upon, and that was worth the wounds of harsh words and the sting of disrespect he had endured then.

Now he nodded. ‘An admirable position, Captain-General,’ he said. He knew that it pleased Denethor to be addressed by his rank, and he deserved it. He had earned the position through far more than right of birth alone, and in thirteen short years of holding it he had already spilled more foes’ blood than Ecthelion had in all his own tenure.

‘Why did you return, if not for that end?’ he asked pleasantly, daring now to smile as his son’s eyes softened a little. Ecthelion gestured to the clutter on the table. ‘Have you come to help me put this mess to rights?’

Denethor sighed with the endurance of one repeating an old grievance out of love alone. ‘There are servants to do that,’ he said, drawing near and brushing clean a swath of the board. Parings of quill nibs, scraps of torn paper, and a dusting of blotter sand fled before his hand as only a fortnight past the Easterlings had fled before his standard. ‘Must you take it upon yourself to put everything to rights, even the tables?’

Ecthelion chuckled and clapped his heir’s arm. ‘Must you always rise to my baiting? I spoke in jest, and well you know it. Lend me your aid with the map, at least. One of my trusted councillors advised me to take greater care with such things, for it may be a pageboy can be bought.’

Denethor’s mouth curled in a wry half-smile. It had been he, of course, who had made the argument. He had a caution of spies and traitors that Ecthelion himself could not quite understand. Certainly there were watchers aplenty, both near and abroad. But never in the years of his rule had Gondor been betrayed by one of her own.

Denethor would have added to our knowledge to qualify such a claim.

Together the lifted the great map of the city and the lands about her feet. Like housemaids shaking out a sheet they tilted it, making the parchment shiver and ripple to clean it of any sand. It was not often that any of the maps were marked, for they were costly to reproduce and their accuracy was of paramount value. Yet today Ecthelion had sketched in ink his proposed path for what he hoped one day would be the Rammas Echor of the Pelennor fields. It had seemed at the time a gesture of optimism. Now he wondered whether it had been one of desperation instead.

Denethor held his corners of the map taut so that Ecthelion could roll it. Then the Steward held the tube snug while Denethor took up the scarlet ribbon that had bound it. He knotted it deftly, and accepted the map while his father moved to the tall cabinet that housed all the charts of strategy employed in Gondor’s defence. Captains and companies of soldiers had their own copies of one or two at a time, as befitted their need and their responsibilities, but here were held the masters. The contents of this cupboard would be worth a princely price to the Enemy. Thus it was kept locked fast and secured in this room in the White Tower, where the sable Guards of the Citadel kept a constant watch. Talk of pageboys or chambermaids absconding with a map was unreasoned wariness on Denethor’s part.

Still it was with great care that Ecthelion turned the key in its heavy lock, testing the doors to be sure they held firm. Denethor looked on with tacit sanction of this caution, his hand at his hip. He fingered the silver tracery of the Great Horn where it hung from its silken baldric. He did so often at such moments, when he saw his sire in some act of which he heartily approved. It was a thing only a father might notice, and Ethelion believed he read the gesture for what it was. At these times Denethor was looking at his father’s deed and thinking that this he too would do when he was himself the Steward.

When the great ring of keys was returned to its place on Ecthelion’s belt, Denethor spoke. ‘I came to ask your counsel, my father,’ he said, looking off into the middle space above Ethelion’s head. It was an easy thing for one of his height. ‘Will you walk with me in the Court, and hear my concern?’

‘You need never ask that,’ said Ecthelion, both surprised and pleased by the request. ‘My counsel is ever at your disposal, as I hope yours is to me.’

‘It is,’ said Denethor, holding open the door to the council chamber so that his father might pass through before him. Such protocols came naturally to him, but there were times when they seemed more the product of reflex than of true humility. ‘Yet in this matter I have counselled in vain, and now I must ask what my Lord Steward in his wisdom intended in such an exigency.’

They took a torchlit corridor to the small door that opened near the back of the Court of the Fountain. The great entrance to the Tower stood almost a quadrant away, and the guards before it were out of earshot of speakers who kept their voices low. There was only one open arch into the courtyard, and so no need to guard this lesser door.

Denethor’s boots clicked upon the white paving stones, and Ecthelion’s soft shoes whispered with the hems of his robes. His son was dressed for action, as he most often did in daily matters, but Ecthelion had long ago done away with jerkins that brushed the knees and snug hose that allowed for swift movement. He was a man at the end of his middle years of life, though in that older than lesser men were. His days of springing into battle or sparring in the barracks-yards were past him.

‘What is this exigency that proves beyond the scope of your judgment?’ asked Ecthelion. He regretted his wording almost at once, for he saw how his son might misconstrue it.

Yet Denethor gave no sign of offence. With perfect credulity he said; ‘I wondered only how Your Lordship intended such situations to be dealt with when he made public his unprecedented policy of welcome. I do not know what you wish me to do, for I do not wish to overstep the constraints of my rank.’

Now Ecthelion understood. There was a problem with one of the foreign soldiers that he had welcomed into his service. This policy had been one of the first he had implemented upon his ascension, and even as a youth of four and twenty Denethor had disputed its prudence. Emissaries of Gondor had let it be known far and wide than any man of worth who wished to pledge his fidelity to the Steward would be welcomed into his service. In the last few years, as the Shadow grew and the need to bolster Gondor’s defences increased, the promotion of this proclamation had become more aggressive.

As a result, the influx of men from far and wide had become greater. There were procedures in place for the vetting and acceptance of such men, for their housing in their first days in Minas Tirith (for many were indigent and some had crossed through the Enemy’s lines with nothing to their name), and of the placing of recruits with appropriate companies. Ecthelion was compelled to wonder what might have arisen that his advisors had not foreseen.

‘Is there a newcomer who has given you cause to doubt the sincerity of his suit?’ he asked. There were measures in place for this also, but it was always a delicate situation.

‘It is no newcomer, but one who has dwelt in the city now seven years,’ said Denethor. ‘Jamon the Easterling, soldier of the Ninth Company of the City Guard, has asked leave of his Captain to wed.’

‘That is scarcely a matter for your concern,’ Ecthelion said mildly. It was customary for a soldier of lowest rank to ask his commanding officer’s permission before taking a wife, but it was not required under any law or regulation. It was merely a courtesy, because of the changes marriage required of a man’s situation. While it was true that such a matter had never yet arisen among the outland soldiers, it was hardly baffling. ‘Let Beleg decide for himself whether the union has his blessing.’

‘It has,’ said Denethor. Now his voice was very hard. ‘It has not my blessing.’

This surprised a little laugh from the Steward’s lips. ‘And is the blessing of the Captain-General needed for a wedding?’ he asked. ‘As you have but lately reminded me, there are those beneath you to see to that.’

‘Ordinarily, yes,’ Denethor said. The words came out tightly, as if through teeth biting down upon some unseemly sentiment. ‘Yet as the man is not one of our own—’

‘He has served loyally for seven years, has he not?’ Ecthelion asked. Sooner or later all soldiers of fortune were brought before him, but he could not remember this Jamon. It was all but certain, then, that there had never been any lapse of discipline upon the Easterling’s part. ‘Does that not make him one of our own?’

‘One of our soldiers, yes,’ Denethor conceded. ‘But he is not one of our folk; of our blood. The girl he wishes to marry is a merchant’s daughter of an old family. A daughter of Gondor, of Westernesse. It is thoroughly unsuitable.’

It was on the tip of Ecthelion’s tongue to ask what other sort of girl Denethor thought a Guard of the City might wed, unless it be one of the few children of Rohan who dwelt in Minas Tirith. His decree had brought few women to Gondor, for itinerant swordsmen were a solitary breed and those who came from Mordor’s tributaries were often driven to defect by the loss of their wives and children at the hands of the Enemy’s servants. Yet he did not speak his mind, not wishing to belittle his son by picking at his reasoning.

‘Have the girl’s parents made any complaint about the man’s conduct?’ asked Ecthelion instead. Harassment of the citizenry was strictly forbidden for all soldiers of Gondor. She might be a kingdom at war, but the Steward refused to see her reduced to a military state.

‘To my knowledge, no,’ Denethor said. ‘Captain Beleg has met with the father to ensure they have his consent to the match. Of the mother’s feelings I know nothing. Yet it cannot be allowed, my Lord. If we permit such rabble to wed our daughters—’

‘Rabble?’ Now Ecthelion was flummoxed. ‘You said he was a Guard in my service. I have never heard any complaint against him, and it is required that accusations against any of my soldiers of fortune be brought to me. Do you know something I do not?’

‘I know he is an Easterling, swarthy of skin and deceitful by nature,’ Denethor spat. ‘I will not stand idly by while one of our women shackles herself to such a creature of Sauron.’

Ecthelion stiffened, and not only at the rancour in his son’s voice. The name of the Enemy was seldom spoken in the city, so wound was it with dread and destruction, yet Denethor insisted upon using it. This act of defiance against the Shadow was admirable, but the ease with which the name came to the man’s lips filled his father with disquiet. Denethor spoke of the Dark Lord of Mordor with the same cool disdain with which he would have named some mere Captain of the foe. Ecthelion did not know if it was a mark of courage or of arrogance.

‘If she is of age and her parents do not object, there is nothing to prevent the match,’ said Ecthelion, trying to focus on the matter at hand instead of his concerns for the state of his son’s mind. ‘Would you forbid it even in the face of Beleg’s consent? Is that an act worthy of a great leader?’

‘It is a needful act, and I will do it if none other will,’ said Denethor boldly. Then he frowned and went on with more subdued puzzlement. ‘I had thought you would take my part in this, Father. Surely you never intended these mercenaries to wed the daughters of Gondor and to pollute the blood of our forefathers?’

Ecthelion looked at his son, saddened by his want of understanding. Denethor had never liked this policy, it was true, but it was a hard thing to learn that he did not see its value. ‘I intended them to make their home among us,’ he said. ‘Wedding is a part of that. A man may face danger for silver coin, but he will only face death for love of his family.’

Denethor looked at him, grey eyes tempestuous and noble features drawn down into a grim scowl of disapproval. For a long moment he did not speak. Then he tore his gaze away.

‘Very well,’ he said, with the unfeeling cold of a Captain accepting a misliked order out of duty alone. ‘I shall tell Beleg that there is no impediment to the union in your eyes. Yet if evil comes of it, I will demand that this precedent be stricken down.’

‘If evil comes of love, we shall have more to fear than half-caste children,’ said Ecthelion softly.


Dusk was drawing nigh when Thorongil reached the Great Gate. It was still open wide, allowing the outward flow of folk who had come to the city to transact their business. There were farmers driving wains or pulling handcarts that had been filled with sacks of flour, dried peas or like unperishibles, which would command a higher price now than they had in the autumn. Cottage weavers and potters and other small craftsmen were returning to their homes with unsold wares. As Thorongil passed into the shadow of the wall, two noblemen on horseback clattered through and forced him to dance backward into the ditch to keep from being trampled. He followed them with his eyes as they cut out across the fallow fields.

In Rohan he would never have been thus disregarded, renown as he was for his service to the King. It was a stark reminder of his willful toppling of his fortunes. That he had set his mind to it did not free him from doubt, and it was such petty indignities that were likely to rankle most keenly.

He scrambled back up onto the roadway, his boots slipping on slick dead grasses, and he came up to the Gate. There were four guards before it: two on each side. On the ramparts above were half a dozen more, not all alert to their watch. The ones on the ground were, however, and one of them stepped into Thorongil’s path.

‘Do you dwell in the city?’ he challenged. ‘I do not know your face.’

‘As if we could remember every face,’ one of the men above muttered to his partner. Doubtless he thought his comment too low to be heard, but Thorongil’s ears were as sharp as his eyes.

He could have taken the implication in those words and bluffed his way through, but that honour would never allow. He did not wish his service in Gondor to begin with a falsehood, however inconsequential. The wisest of his kindred had taught him with no uncertainty that such lies exacted their price in the end.

‘I do not,’ he said courteously, meeting the guard’s eyes but keeping his own meek and veiled.

‘It’s late to be coming in for business,’ said the guard. ‘And if you’re here to buy you’ll find most of the shops closed and the markets sparse. You haven’t time to get as much as a cold loaf before we shut the gates with you inside them. Best go home and come back in the morning.’

Thorongil considered his answer for a moment, as clearly the soldiers expected. ‘I thank you for your forthright advice. Yet I have no business to guide me hither, nor have I come to buy – not even a cold loaf,’ he added with a thin twitch of a smile. ‘I have no home to which I may return, and I seek entry into the White City that I might alter that circumstance.’

Thus qualified, it was no lie. He could not return to his home at present, not with his labours yet unfinished and his education incomplete. Still to make such an admission aloud left a hollow in Thorongil’s breast, as if he had by speaking somehow sealed his long discerption from those he loved.

‘We have no need of vagrants here,’ said the guard, stern but not cruel. ‘Have you some skill to offer the folk of Minas Tirith?’

‘I have many skills,’ Thorongil said, raising his head a little. ‘I hope to offer them not only to the folk of Minas Tirith, but to the Lord Steward of Gondor himself. It is said that he welcomes into his service those who are willing to aid in the defence of his lands, if they be worthy.’

The guard raised his eyebrows. Until that moment he had taken Thorongil for one of his countrymen: a citizen of Gondor coming in from some other fief to seek his fortune in the great city. It was a natural assumption, for his looks and colouration were as commonplace here as they had been exotic in Rohan. Now he was known for what he was: a stranger to this land seeking a position in the service of the Steward. From speaking with Thengel of his old friend, Thorongil knew that not all in Gondor liked Ecthelion’s practice of welcome. He wondered now if this soldier might be among that number.

‘They must be proved to be worthy,’ the guard warned. ‘It is not a matter of strolling up to the Gate and demanding a place.’

‘I understand,’ said Thorongil equably, though the condescension in the man’s voice was hard to take. Again he reminded himself that he had chosen this route into the city. He might have come mounted upon a fine stallion with a mare in tow, clad like a lord with the gifts of the King of Rohan in his saddlebags. Instead he had decided that this way was best. He must uphold that decision and prey upon no man for its repercussions.

The guard looked him over again, eyes lingering long upon the torn knee of his hose and the mudstains ground into his garments. Then he beckoned to one of his compatriots. ‘Show him to the provost,’ he said. ‘See he does not wander.’

The other man, younger than the first and with very blue eyes, nodded as he murmured; ‘Yes, sir.’ Then to Thorongil he said, curtly; ‘This way. Follow me.’

Thorongil followed, passing through the deep shadow of the Gate onto a broad street lighted by the lamps of nearby buildings in the gathering gloom. There was a squall of iron and a grinding of heavy hinges as the Great Gate was drawn to behind him. The resounding clang of the huge locking bar made his pulse quicken with more than the startling noise. He felt a hot surge of mingled eagerness, apprehension, and potent resolve. He was now within the walls of Minas Tirith. What came next he could not say.

Chapter II: Detained 

Thorongil was led up the main road and along a side street to a low stone building. It backed onto the city’s second wall but stood nowhere near the Second Gate. The lamp above its heavy oaken door was quenched, which to his eyes was not a promising sign. But his escort marched up the three steps and hauled open the door, shooing him inside with an impatient flick of the hand. Reading the signs, Thorongil did not hesitate. He put his lead foot on the second step and overlept the third with scarcely a stretch.

A moment later he found himself within a smoky and ill-lit vestibule. It was warmed by a lone charcoal brazier that was not really adequate to dispel the night’s chill. It sat close by a much-abused table in the rear corner of the room. This had the gouged and battered look of a surface onto which arms were frequently and carelessly flung. There was a low-burned candle in a wooden dish, and in the pool of its light sat another guard. He was clad like the men at the Gate in a simple livery of worst-black.

At present he was hunched low over the table, tucking into an unremarkable meal. In his eagerness to reach his destination, Thorongil had not paused to hunt in three days. He had eaten the last of his latest catch the afternoon before, and yet despite his hunger he could scarcely smell the food. It was long cold, doubtless brought from a garrison kitchen at some distance from the provost-house.

‘What’s this?’ asked the seated man through a mouthful of bread. He looked up as he spoke, but did not straighten. His posture and his broad features gave him the look of a disgruntled bull.

‘Another of Ecthelion’s Follies, come looking for a post,’ the younger guard said irreverently. Thorongil surmised that this particular turn of phrase was common among the soldiers of the First Level, to whom all such strangers surely applied. ‘This one claims he’s got many skills.’

The other guard let out a bark of laughter. ‘Has he, now? Well, is following an order one of your skills, longlegs?’

‘Verily,’ said Thorongil, refusing to bristle at the disdainful words and tone. He did not prostrate himself so far as address the soldier as sir. From the youth’s easy mode of address they were of equal rank – a rank that Thorongil would likely be sharing soon enough.

‘Then lay down your arms,’ said the guard, indicating the tabletop. ‘All of them. Before you think of some clever trick to hold any of them back, I can promise you we’ll find them in the end. Then it will be the worse for you. Cooperate, and if your story’s believable you’ll have them back soon enough.’

Thorongil said nothing to this, but unbuckled his belt of sturdy Riddermark leather that he might slide his sheath from it. He bore a long knife, not quite a short sword but near enough for a man with his reach. He laid it down neatly so as not to hasten the table’s demise. Then he slid his pack from his shoulder and fished within for the little paring blade he used for precise tasks: filleting fish, paring his nails, and the like. So as to give the doorwarden no quarter for complaint, he produced also his small bundle of wire snares. There were martial uses to which such things could be put, if not honourable ones.

The two guards looked at one another with shared disbelief. ‘All of them,’ the man at the table repeated.

‘I have no others,’ said Thorongil. ‘I thank you for your words of warning, but that is all the weaponry I possess.’

‘Are you a bowman, then, who lost the tools of his trade?’ asked the young guard, baffled.

‘I can use a bow at need, and with adequate precision,’ said Thorongil; ‘but foremost I am a man of the sword.’

‘Yet you don’t have one?’ said the other man. ‘I’ve never met a sell-sword without a sword to sell.’

‘It is my skill with a blade that I offer, not the blade itself,’ said Thorongil. ‘Surely there are swords enough in the armouries of Minas Tirith that one can be furnished for a soldier at need.’

‘Already making demands, are you?’ chuckled the older guard. ‘I think you’ll find that won’t get you far. Most of your sort swagger in talking a fine game, and then it comes out that they used to be tanners or turnip farmers.’

‘I have been neither,’ said Thorongil equably. ‘And I demand nothing save that my case is considered. I believe I can be of use.’

‘Right you are, then.’ The man got to his feet with a grunt and went to a side door. Without knocking he thrust it open and leaned over the threshold into a somewhat brighter room.

‘Lieutenant? We have stranger out here. Heard His Lordship’s invitation and reckoned it was meant just for him.’

From within came an irate voice. ‘What, at this hour? Why did they let him through the Gate? He would have kept ‘til the morning.’

Thorongil’s youthful escort was shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other, eyes lolling longingly for the exit. It was no easy thing to stand and listen to unfair criticism, prohibited by rank and post from voicing any defence.

Taking pity on the boy, Thorongil shouldered the onus upon himself. ‘You have handed me off, and seen to it I did not wander,’ he said quietly, as if merely curious. ‘Will they not be wanting you back at the Gate?’

The guard looked enormously relieved, but he managed to sound almost casual when he spoke. ‘I suppose I ought to go, now you make mention,’ he said. ‘You’re the provost’s problem now, anyhow.’

‘I am,’ said Thorongil obligingly. He watched, not without some amusement, as the boy made a hasty retreat.

The sound of the door swinging closed brought the other guard’s head whipping around. When he saw who had departed, the incipient anger left his face. ‘Go on in: the Lieutenant will see you now,’ he said, motioning for the door in a mockery of courtly manners.

‘I thank you,’ Thorongil said as he passed. His own comportment need not suffer for want of reciprocity. The guard snorted softly, but stepped back so that his arm stretched to keep hold of the door handle. Once Thorongil was over the threshold, the guard yanked it closed.

This room was not so different from the other: sparsely furnished, poorly heated, and showing the hard wear of many years. In place of a table there was a desk, and against the wall across from it a hard, narrow bench. Behind it sat a stern-looking man with indifferently brown hair and a thick but closely trimmed beard. There was a memory of Númenor about his eyes, but it was plain that he was of mixed heritage. He too displayed the worst-black livery, well worn and beginning to fade to walnut at elbows and shoulders. A lieutenant he might be, but he was one who sat the evening watch in a provost-house in the lowest level of the City.

As Thorongil was taking his measure subtly, moving not even his eyes, the Lieutenant was looking him over in his own turn. His assessment was not so circumspect: it was obvious what he made of the ill-fitting and mud-stained garments, the torn hose with the scabbed knee showing through the rent, and the tousled hair that Thorongil had not thought to put right before approaching the Gate. The careful gauging of the soldier’s thoughts distracted somewhat from the sting of being thus regarded.

‘I am Bregold, Lieutenant of the Twelfth Company of the Guard,’ the soldier said. ‘It is my responsibility to question those who come to claim the places offered by His Lordship the Steward, Ecthelion son of Turgon. It is for me to deem whether you are fit to be considered for his service. Do you understand?’

‘I do,’ said Thorongil neatly. It might have been merely a closing note to the introduction. It might have been an attempt to gauge his lucidity. But he thought it most likely that the question was a means of determining whether he understood the Common Tongue. ‘It is my honour to be thus considered. I thank you for your attention to the matter, particularly given the lateness of the hour.’

A flash of irritation rippled across Bregold’s face, but he did not speak to it. He reached into one of the niches beneath the desktop and brought out a sheet of cheap but sturdy parchment. It was discoloured in places, and had not been thinly scraped. The lieutenant laid it out and pared his quill, then dipped it.

‘Your name?’ he asked.

‘I am called Thorongil.’

Bregold’s eyes narrowed. ‘That’s Elvish,’ he said. ‘Are you one of our men? If you have come to us from anywhere in Gondor you do not need to suffer this questioning or any of the rest.’

‘I have come to you out of Rohan,’ said Thorongil. ‘Until this month I had never laid foot upon the soil of Gondor.’

‘Hmph.’ The soldier gave him another quick appraising look, then fixed his eyes back upon the page. ‘What is your parentage?’

‘I cannot say.’ This question had been asked of him in the Riddermark, though seldom more than once. Less store was placed in lineage upon those windswept plains.

‘What do you mean by that?’ the lieutenant asked. ‘Have you something to hide?’

Of course, he did, but that was an answer even more unacceptable than the bald truth. Thorongil shrugged one shoulder. ‘My mother was a northern woman,’ he said. ‘I never knew my sire.’

‘A bastard, then?’ said Bregold bluntly. Thorongil gave no answer, but maintained his steady, guarded gaze. The lieutenant snorted softly and dipped his pen afresh. ‘Son of no man,’ he muttered as he wrote. Then he looked up again. ‘You do not have the look of Rohan about you, and I ought to know. Near half the men we get come from Rohan, seeking their fortunes. They make good outriders but poor patrolmen.’

To this there was little to say. Thorongil was visited by a memory of his men, his bold and loyal éored that had followed him so fearlessly into battle. Ever had they been the first to charge, before the rest beneath his command. To hear such men spoken of with curt dismissal was an ugly thing to bear, but he held his tongue. He had chosen this, he reminded himself. It would not do to deport himself like an Undermarshal of the Mark; that would be deemed naught but insolence and harm his prospects, perhaps irreparably.

‘Where were you born?’ asked Bregold, making another cursory notation upon the parchment.

‘Many leagues to the North, beyond Edoras and the realm of Thengel King,’ said Thorongil. ‘I came southward nine years ago, and have served Rohan since.’

‘In the North? That’s vague enough to be useless,’ said the lieutenant. ‘In what land?’

‘I cannot say,’ said Thorongil. ‘Those lands have many names, both young and ancient. I do not know them all.’

This sounded far too much like the evasion that it was. The guard’s eyes narrowed. ‘What’s the town nearest your birthplace?’ he pressed.

‘I have no memory of my birth, and cannot testify to its whereabouts,’ Thorongil said carefully, treading the line between equivocation and falsehood and trying to balance so that if he stumbled he would fall upon the former side. ‘I was raised in the shadow of the mountains, where there are no towns.’

‘You’re a woodsman, then? Or a farmer?’ asked Bregold.

‘I once sustained my life with the fruits of the forest,’ said Thorongil. ‘Now I am a soldier.’

‘You claim you served in Rohan. Have you any proof?’ the lieutenant said.

‘I have,’ Thorongil told him. ‘May I take it from my pack?’

The man gestured impatiently that he should do so, and Thorongil dipped his hand in amongst his few spare garments. He found what he wanted at the very bottom, laid carefully where it would not be creased or mutilated in transit. He brought out the little packet, enveloped in leather and bound about with oilcloth and twine. He considered unwrapping it before yielding the letter, but he decided that was not fitting. He had not held the bare paper in his hands since he had taken it from Thengel to be placed in its cocoon. Now he placed it before the guard.

A flick of the penknife cut the string, and hands flung aside the wrappings roughly, with greater care for speed than gentleness. He drew out the letter, its unmarked front still a creamy white.

‘Letter from your sergeant?’ he asked. ‘Your Captain, perhaps? It’s good quality paper.’

Thorongil said nothing. The man turned the packet over so that the seal could be seen. The red wax was imprinted with the signet of Thengel himself, and above it was written in the letters of Gondor; To my old Comrade and dearest Friend, Ecthelion son of Turgon, Lord Steward of Gondor.

Bregold shot Thorongil a very sharp look. ‘What is this?’ he demanded.

‘It is a letter of character from the King of Rohan,’ said Thorongil, unable to keep a note of pride from seeping into his words. ‘He deemed that I had served him well, and he wished me to bear his salutations to the Steward.’

The lieutenant looked uncertain, but he was not about to break the seal upon a missive addressed to his liege-lord. He laid the letter on the far corner of the desk, as if he feared it might burst into flame if handled too roughly.

‘We shall see about that,’ he said brusquely, trying to regain his composure. He looked down at the page before him and found his place again. ‘So you came from Rohan and you were raised near mountains,’ he grumbled. ‘I suppose that’s all I’m going to get from you on the matter?’

Thorongil inclined his head: not quite a nod, but an unmistakable affirmative.

The lieutenant scowled. ‘You’re as cagy as a Southron,’ he muttered, but he went on without further inquisition into that most dangerous of matters. ‘Have you any languages?’

‘I speak the language of Rohan,’ said Thorongil. ‘The Elven tongue I can also ply, as it is spoken in Gondor.’ He said no more of his others: of Quenya, of Andúnaic, of the less common Elven dialects and his smattering of the Dwarven language. The two he named were the most pertinent, and would be quite enough for the permanent record.

‘Can you, indeed?’ said Bregold. Switching seamlessly to Sindarin, he said; ‘I know much of that tongue myself, for it is much used in the City. How did you come to learn it in the shadow of these wild northern mountains far from any town?’

His diction was fine but his accent coarse. In the same mode of speech, Thorongil answered far more smoothly. ‘My mother spoke it also,’ he said. Again that was true enough, though she had used it little until their retreat to Imladris.

‘What kind of woman was she?’ asked the other man, lapsing into Westron and narrowing shrewd eyes. He thought he had laid a clever trap.

‘She was an honest woman and a loving one,’ Thorongil answered, eluding the pitfall.

‘I meant what sort: what race?’ Bregold said crossly.

‘Forgive me, Lieutenant,’ said Thorongil mildly. ‘Is that a question you ask all supplicants?’

This earned him a look of blackest anger, but it was tempered with chagrin at being caught out. He flipped his quill so that its vanes hissed against the desktop and a fine spray of ink misted the edge of the parchment. Irritated by this, Bregold snapped out his next question.

‘Can you read or write at all, or are you ignorant of such things?’

‘I can read and write in the Common Tongue and in both of the languages I have named to you,’ said Thorongil, still trying to keep his detached demeanour. He was weary of this interrogation, and his questioner’s antagonism did nothing to improve his mood. ‘I can cipher also, and I can interpret musical tablature.’

‘Well aren’t you a fine one?’ the man sneered. ‘I suppose you’ve got a whole list of gentlemanly skills to share with me.’

‘I would sooner prove my skills than speak of them,’ Thorongil said. ‘Yet you may write that I am deft with a blade and that I can wield a spear well enough to be praised among the Rohirrim.’

Lieutenant Bregold frowned, but wrote it nonetheless. Last of all he asked; ‘Have you travelled or dwelt in the lands of the Enemy, or walked upon ground held under the sway of Mordor?’

‘I have not,’ said Thorongil, very clearly. The guard made a quick notation and then signed his name at the bottom of the page. He turned the sheet and offered the pen to the newcomer.

‘Just below mine,’ he said. ‘Mind you don’t smudge it.’

Thorongil had been taught his letters by some of the most exacting masters in the world, and he had not smudged a document since inadvertently falling asleep over an exercise page at the age of ten. Still he kept his peace. He dipped the quill neatly and penned his taken name with the elegant husbandry of a scribe. Bregold had, intentionally or not, left him at a disadvantage in this: the nib of the quill was spreading and needed to be trimmed afresh. But compensation for a poor tool had also been a part of Thorongil’s education, and when he lifted the pen his signature was immaculate beneath the other, lopsided one.

He straightened his spine and stepped back from the desk again. Bregold turned the sheet back and dusted it with sand from a small horn shaker. He blew it off in a wrathful little puff, and then got to his feet. In the corner stood his sword, belt dangling from the loops of the sheath. He girded it on and then collected both the record of the questioning and the sealed letter.

‘Wait here,’ he said, brandishing the latter. ‘I need to ask of my Captain what is to be done with this. Do not touch the desk.’

Then he was gone. Thorongil had just eased out of his soldierly pose and was eyeing the narrow bench with avarice when a sound made him stiffen. It was the grinding of a heavy key in an iron lock.

He did not run to the door: he had more dignity than that. Yet when he heard the mumbled words on the other side die down to silence, he crossed the floor on whispering feet. He took hold of the ring that served as a handle, and drew slowly upon it, not wanting the guard without to see the door buck. It was locked fast.

He supposed he ought not to be confounded by that. He was, after all, an alien in these lands. The Steward’s proclamation may have been one of welcome, but caution was also warranted. Of course each man must be vetted, so that the Enemies spies could not merely stride into the City on the strength of a claim that they were men of worth. It was logical, and it was prudent. If it was also somewhat humiliating, that was his burden to bear.

Thorongil went to the bench and pulled it a handspan from the wall. Then he sat, leaning back over the gap to rest his shoulder blades on the cool stone. His legs he stretched before him, allowing himself a low sigh of pleasure at the relief of taking his weight off of them after a long day’s journey. He folded his hands over the base of his breastbone and let himself relax against the wall. His head tilted back and he closed his eyes against the candlelight and the brazier’s orange glow.

Now that he paused to consider it, the lieutenant’s obvious misgivings were perfectly rational. Thorongil would have stirred doubts long before his elusive answers. From the moment he had admitted that he was not of Gondor, he would have, or should have, been suspect. A man of his looks – tall, dark, pale of skin with piercing eyes and lofty cheeks and a long, straight nose – who was not a man of Gondor would not be taken for distant kin from the North. The most natural assumption to draw was that he was in truth a Black Númenorean out of Umbar, or even Mordor. He had the look of Westernesse: that Thorongil knew perfectly well. There were only two enclaves from which such blood had come to Middle-earth: the foul and the Faithful.

He would not let it trouble him, he reasoned. There was no cause for anxiety. His tale was true, if incomplete, and the last nine years of his life were minutely accounted for. The letter would stand him in good stead, and if they were mistrustful enough to send messengers to Rohan, there would be nothing but proof. Now he need only wait for the lieutenant’s return, and he would almost certainly be put through the next stage of the intake process.

That gave him pause. Now Thorongil remembered the warning he had been given: that concealed weapons would certainly be found, much to the deceiver’s detriment. He had no arms to hide, but there was something else; something that would not escape the sort of scrutiny that could be relied upon unfailingly to turn up a blade or a dart.

He had let his pack slide down onto the bench at his side. Now he sat up and dragged it into his lap. In Rohan he had had little cause to hide it, though never had he flaunted it. Here, such things might yet be remembered. Not by a lowly lieutenant in the First Level of the City, it was true, but likely by some. Such an article would be worthy of remark if it were found, for with his bedraggled raiment and his want of material wealth it would seem strange that he owned such a thing.

He found it tucked into the leather wrapping of his little book of songs, just where he had placed it when he had packed his belongings in Edoras weeks ago. Drawing it out into the light, Thorongil looked upon the one heirloom of his house that he had dared to bring south.

The ring was of silver, untarnished and with a sheen that Elven smiths had perfected beneath the light of the Two Trees before the kindling of the Sun. The serpents and their crown of flowers stood out in intricate detail so fine and delicate that they seemed almost to deceive the eye. And the green stones in their perfect settings glinted as if with a fire of their own. It was the Ring of Barahir, that had secured for Beren the aid and amity of Finrod Felagund, that had survived the sack of Doriath and the razing of the Havens of Sirion. It had been passed from eldest child to eldest child in line unbroken through all the long years that the heirs of Tar-Minyatur dwelt in Númenor. On Elendil’s own hand it had crossed the raging seas, and down the prime line of his blood it had travelled to be laid at last upon a young man’s hand by one who had a claim to it as equal as that of Elros himself.

Yes, it was best to keep it from becoming an object of curiosity among the guards of the lower levels of Minas Tirith. Thorongil considered. Searching his pack would of course be the first measure of caution. Truthfully he was surprised that they had not done so already. Yet to hide it on his person would avail him nothing if his suspicion proved out. He did not dare to secret it somewhere about the room, for he could not be sure he would ever again have access to this place. He could try to conceal it in the spine of his book, but he had bound it himself and he knew the leather cover was taut and well-filled. Briefly he considered knotting the ring into the hair at the nape of his neck, but of course that was folly. Even if they did not wish to search his every possession they were sure to check him for fleas before allowing him anywhere near a barracks.

Thorongil’s pulse was quickening, and he was beginning to feel very much like a trapped animal. He closed his eyes and tried to calm himself. This was no crisis, no matter of life or death. If he was caught, the worst would be a barrage of awkward questions, and afterward could find a safe place to hide the ring so that inquisitive parties could not get a confirming sighting. Yet if he could just clear his mind a solution might present itself. It might. It had happened before. It might…

Scarcely had he drained all conscious thought from his head than his eyes snapped open. He looked at the ring, and suppressed a grin. It was a ring, after all: what else was it meant for but to adorn a hand? In this City of wealth and pretention, such a sight would be commonplace. Though it made a stark dichotomy with his clothes, his searchers would like as not find the silver star more interesting – and certainly in greater proximity. He knew no better way to safeguard his treasure. It was worth a try.

Thorongil slipped the Ring of Barahir onto the next-to-last finger of his right hand. Then, taken by another flight of inspiration, he turned it so that the richly ornamented top was in towards his palm and the far less remarkable lower half of the band showed on the back of his hand. He curled his fingers casually inward and considered the effect. Yes, it truly might work.

Satisfied and with nothing more to fear, he sat down again to wait for Bregold’s return.



In the deep middle night, Denethor was wakeful. Lying abed beneath the damasked tester with its rich velvet drapings was out of the question, so he flung back the bedclothes and slipped his feet into the soft leather shoes he most often wore in the evenings. Not troubling with a candle, he moved by moonlight. The windows were shut fast and there had been a riotous fire burning in the hearth when he lay down to sleep, but now the embers had burned low and the room was cold. He could feel the chill of the smooth flagstones through the supple soles of his shoes, and icy fingers plucked at his back through the fine linen of his night garment.

There was a dark robe thrown over his customary chair by the fire. It was lined in vair, and it cut the deepest cold. Denethor shrugged into it now, drawing together the broad revers and clutching the front closed with one long and slender hand. The fur tickled his jaw, and he moved his head further into it so that an irritant became a comfort. In doing so he turned towards the windows. They seemed to glow with the diffracted moonlight spreading through a thick crusting of frost that coated the bottom of each pain, leaving a U of bare glass through which the night was still dark. It evoked the look of the vair, which was a strange thought to strike one in the depths of the night.

Denethor could not say what had awakened him. That meant it had most likely been one of the dreams. They still came to him at times, most often after a day of turmoil. Through the years they had become garbled, fragmented, and he was far better equipped to cope with them. Still, when he could remember them on waking they would haunt him, and when he could not they always left behind this feeling of profound unease. It was as if the waking world itself was a dream, and the lapping fire, the wailing winds, the dark and sundering waters were the reality.

He turned his mind forcefully from such thoughts. His mother often said, in her fond but frustratingly naïve way, that he had been given a melancholic disposition. This both annoyed and amused Denethor, for he knew it was not the appraisal most would make. His men, for instance, would quite likely describe him as choleric. And his father…

That was the tempest that had tainted his day and laid open his mind to the dreams. The council meeting had been a mockery of the process of government; all of them squabbling like fishmongers, talking at once and climbing over one another’s words as though the loudest voice would hold the greatest sway. Only Adrahil of Dol Amroth had come out of the fray with his dignity unruffled. All through the three excruciatingly long hours he had spoken but once, and then the languid modulation of his tone had silenced them all – at least for a minute. When he had finished, they had to a man fallen back into the quarrel.

They had all been wrong to give into their furies and frustrations in what should have been a measured debate, but that was small comfort. It was Denethor’s responsibility, as Heir and as Captain General, to hold the Council on course when his father could not. And the sorry fact of the matter was that at times Ecthelion could not. He was a patient man, and he well understood the hearts of men, but his desire to think well of all those about him had its disadvantages. Such had been the case today. Unsure in his own mind, he had wanted to hear each of them in turn; yet he had been unable to make any of them await that turn. Ordinarily that would have been Denethor’s cue to seize the wobbling rudder and compel the others to behave themselves. But he too had been caught up in the heat of the dispute. He had railed with the rest, and he had enjoyed it.

He moved to the window, tiring now of the collar’s silky caress so that he pushed it irately back from his cheek. Outside, the courtyards and gardens of the Citadel lay dormant. It had been an unremarkable winter, but it was viciously cold tonight: else the room would not be so chilled, nor the windows so thickly frosted, nor the glass radiating dull waves of cold that could be felt even at eight inches’ distance.

Down in the enclosure before the Steward’s House, a lone Guard was pacing. He had his shoulders slumped against the cold, and his hands in their sable gauntlets were buried in the pits of his arms for warmth. It was a most undignified posture, and Denethor made a note to discover who had been on watch this night and see the proper man was reprimanded. He could not see the Guard’s partner, which most likely meant that he was still at his proper post by the great front doors. That might make disciplining the offender difficult. If both refused to say which of them had been wandering, he would either have to punish both or neither. The first would make him look vindictive, and the second would make him look weak.

There was a third choice, and it was the one his father would make in his place. He could simply pretend that he had not witnessed this flagrant disregard for proper practices and let the matter slide. Simply. Only it was not simple to leave a matter unresolved, a problem unaddressed. If a lapse in discipline were allowed to continue, neglected either out of laziness or misguided sympathy, it would only continue to grow and to spread. Next the men on the stone allure above the Gate would take the excuse of a frosty night to duck into the guardhouse, abandoning their posts and leaving the Citadel vulnerable for the sake of a few minutes of warming their hands at a fire. It could not be permitted.

Yet still Denethor was troubled by the sure knowledge that his sire would not approve of such a reprimand. He would argue that the man had not abandoned his post, but was within the same line of eyesight he would have had from the door. He would say that it did no harm to let a Guard warm himself as best he could on a bitter night. He would smile in his forgiving way and point out that spring would be here soon, and the whole issue would dissolve with the passing of harsh weather. Even when he could not countenance his father’s way of governing, it still stung Denethor to know he had the Steward’s disapproval.

That had certainly been the case with the matter of the Easterling’s marriage. Denethor had earnestly expected some support for his position: a stern nod of agreement and leave to do what must be done, not a gentle chiding for his inhospitality and an equally docile recitation of the lesson that loyalty could only be earned, never bought.

As Denethor saw it, the Easterling had more than enough reason to be loyal without plucking up a daughter of the realm for his own. He had been welcomed into the City, as no other Lord of the West would have welcomed him. He had been given gainful employment and a position of some respect. He had been fed, clothed, and sheltered by the grace of the Steward. He had been granted the chance of a life he never would have dared to imagine in Sauron’s dominions in the East. He ought to be prostrate with gratitude, not demanding more.

The policy by which Ecthelion had thrust open the City gates to the rabble and paupers of the world had galled Denethor from the first. He had predicted that no great good would come of it, and the years had proved him right. His father had hoped they might attract great warriors, skilled tacticians, leaders: men of might and accomplishment who would bolster Gondor in her fight against Mordor. Instead, most of the newcomers were nothing more than common soldiers or worse. Few had risen through the ranks, though the rewards for extraordinary service were generous. Of those few, most had come from Rohan.

All that the declaration of welcome had brought to Gondor was a swell of men fit for little more than patrolling the back streets of the City and flinging their bodies upon the scimitars of the Enemy. It was a waste of time and resources that might have been put to better use elsewhere. Like the dream of an impenetrable wall, it was nothing but pap to soothe the fears of the masses. Look, they could say: look how our Steward stops at nothing to guard us! Look how he turns the Enemy’s own men against him! We need not fear!

Denethor felt that a rational measure of fear was a good thing. It kept one alert and ever-watchful. As for the business of turning Sauron’s men against him, that was absurd. An Easterling was an Easterling, just as a mad dog was a mad dog. Both might seem benign for a time, but sooner or later each would bite. When this man Jamon bit, Denethor did not want to see an innocent girl of Minas Tirith caught between his jaws.

He had had no choice but to tell Beleg of his father’s position, and the fool of a Captain had actually been pleased. Ah, well. There was more than one way to discourage a marriage. Denethor’s first duty was to his people; to protect them and to see to their best interests. It was not in the best interests of the merchant’s daughter to wed this swarthy stranger. He had only to help her see it.

Sleeplessness and dark dreams forgotten, Denethor rounded the bed and strode out into his study. Deftly he lit the candles upon his worktable, and he sat. Taking a piece of paper from a drawer, he began to compose his orders.



First the candle burned out. That was when Thorongil began to wonder whether the lieutenant intended to return at all. He sat quietly for a while longer, mulling through his own thoughts with a patience learned in the long, dull hours of fixed watches upon roads or simple little villages. He was a patient man. He could wait.

But the glow from the brazier grew dimmer also. He rose from the bench and stirred it, trying to bring some life to the embers. It was little use. They were dying. Soon the only light would come in from the small windows set high in the wall. These were unglazed and unshuttered, and they let in the draft of an increasingly frigid night. A hard frost was setting in, and the water in puddles and catchment-pails would be frozen by morning. Thorongil hung near the brazier while the last of the charcoal seared away to ash, relishing the warmth while he could. Then he wrapped his cloak snugly about his shoulders and went back to the bench.

This time he lay down upon it, and the feeling of stretching his backbone was nearly as delicious as resting his legs had been. For a time he was content, neither quite dozing nor entirely wakeful with one foot up on the bench and the other hanging off its end. But it was too narrow to make a comfortable bed, and eventually its rough edges began digging into his ribs. Furthermore, he had not eaten in almost thirty hours and he was ravenous. His stomach growled and grumbled, unused to such deprivation after nine years of regular meals. Thorongil reminded himself that he had known hunger ere this, and it had not killed him yet. Still, the discomfort remained.

He had water in his pack, and he brought out his bottle to drink. That helped a little, and certainly eased the tightness in his throat. This was absurd. It was one thing to lock a man in for an hour or two while you went for orders concerning an unusual situation. It was quite another to neglect to come back.

His unease was mounting, but he did not realize how apprehensive he had grown until he found himself knocking upon the door that led to the vestibule. It was not a frantic knock, only a light rapping. But he had not intended to do it.

When no answer came from without, Thorongil was forced to face the truth. He was trapped here until morning, shut up in a small stone room with a heavy door. The lieutenant’s desk and the long-cold brazier did not make it any less of a cell. He was being detained – possibly until the letter could be examined, more likely because they truly did believe him to be a spy.

But no, that was not reasonable. If they believed him to be a Black Númenorean sent on a mission of espionage and villainy, they would not have left him here in an empty guardhouse. He would surely have been brought to a proper cell somewhere, locked away fast behind iron bars with a watch upon the door. It was far more likely that they simply did not care for his discomfort or his unease. He had been insolent enough to turn up at the end of the working day, and Bregold had simply done what he had said the men at the Gate should have: left the stranger to keep ‘til the morning.

Thorongil paced the length of the room, as much to work off his agitation as to warm himself. He wondered how many other men had bided here, knowing neither their fate nor the cause of this detainment. He wondered what a man out of Dunland or Near Harad would make of such a predicament: a man, perhaps, who did not speak the Common Tongue and could not even have the frugal comfort of knowing he had given clear answers to the provost’s questions. There had been talk in Thengel’s court of men who had escaped even the slaveholdings of the Black Land to claim asylum under Lord Ecthelion’s edict. What would such an unfortunate think of this treatment?

He had the advantage of understanding what was going on, of knowing with a commander’s certainty that it was most likely lethargy, not malice, that had left him here. He had a letter addressed to the Lord of the City from his most trusted ally and the friend of his youth, now in the hands of the Guards and doubtless beginning its winding journey up to the White Tower high above. He had a good cloak and warm clothing on his back (torn hose and chilled knee notwithstanding). And he had no one’s welfare but his own to consider. He was fortunate.

Again Thorongil sat, this time eschewing the uncompromising bench for the chair behind the desk. As instructed, he did not touch the table or any of its contents. But he did turn the seat so that he could stretch out his legs. He flipped his hood up to shelter his head from the cold, and drew his cloak tight about his lean body. Crossing his arms to hold it thus, he tucked his chin and tried to sleep a little.


Chapter III: Petty Indignities

The house of Esgalad son of Esgalion was situated on a quiet but populous street in the fairest quarter of the Sixth Level of the city. Upon his marriage, the son of the Lord Warden of Pelargir had been offered his pick of homes within the bounds of the Citadel, but he had declined. He preferred the well-appointed home that bore in ancient stonework above its door the name of his family. Even unto the time of the Kings, they had held that house, and now it was occupied all the year round.

Esgalad himself had not crossed the threshold in three months. He was abroad from Minas Tirith, in command of his father’s soldiers as they bolstered the strength of the beleaguered Army of Ithilien. It was his wife for whom the house was maintained in beauty and luxury, for despite the present delicacy of her constitution she preferred to remain in her own home rather than to bide beneath the roof of her father. Telpiriel wife of Esgalad was a woman who knew her own mind, and who bent it for no man.

Ecthelion loved his second daughter dearly, though oft times there had been strife between them. In her youth, Telpiriel had seen her sire as more of an impediment than a partner to her happiness. It had only been upon his unexpected support of her desired marriage that she had come back into the easy amity they had known in her girlhood. The twelve years since had been glad ones for Ecthelion, at least with respect to her.

It had become a habit of the Steward’s to take breakfast in the house of Esgalad once a week, and as his duties allowed Denethor would join his sire. They were both present today, though it was unlikely the Heir would be able to linger long. Labours of state left little time for leisure.

Telpiriel hosted them now in her antechamber rather than the handsome dining hall below. The healers had forbidden her to go too far abroad from her bed, and to spend more than four hours of the day outside of it. Although they made much of assuring their patient and her sire that the precaution was merely the usual practice with a lady of her age, Ecthelion knew better. His own wife had been brought to childbed at the very close of her fertile years, far older than their daughter, and no such measures had been required for her. The healers feared for Telpiriel, and most of all for the child she bore. She had lost four children throughout the years of her marriage: three to miscarriage, one to stillbirth. If this little one lived, he would be her firstborn.

She was merry today, presiding over the little table heavy-laden with delectable dishes. Her husband had a great fondness for fine foods, and the cook he employed was among the best in the City.

‘You look well, my sister,’ said Denethor, pouring the wine for each of them in turn. ‘Almost I would believe this to be high summer, not a bitterly cold winter’s morning.’

‘Is it cold?’ Telpiriel asked, eyes twinkling. ‘That explains why my maids have taken such care with the fire through the night.’

‘Aye, cold and grey,’ said Ecthelion. He knew her confinement was wearing upon his daughter’s patience, and he saw what Denethor intended. If she appreciated the weather’s foulness, she would pine less for the open sky. ‘I should not have roamed so far myself without such pleasant company to tempt me forth.’

‘I caught one of the Guards from his post last night, pacing the courtyard before the house,’ said Denethor. He reached for one of the light white cakes he so favoured. ‘He looked quite the fool, hunched over with his high helm drooping. Discipline has grown lax of late.’

‘Lend the man a little pity, my son,’ Ecthelion chided gently. Too often his Heir despised rather than pitied others in their weaknesses. ‘Even the Fountain is frozen: it was a merciless night. You do not intend to single this Guard out for punishment, do you?’

Denethor shook his head, but in his eyes Ecthelion could see that he had at the very least given it earnest consideration. ‘I shall leave the matter to his Captain,’ he said. ‘He is of the Third Company, and they are of the three the least compliant. It will do them good to have a reminder of their duty.’

Ecthelion considered as he ate of his meat. It was very tender beef, well braised with cloves and nutmeg. This too was a command of the healers: Telpiriel was to take liberally of fresh-killed flesh. ‘I think that wise,’ he said. ‘Raenor will see to it that there is no second infraction without singling the man out to be shamed before his fellows.’

‘Perhaps a little shame would do him good,’ Denethor muttered, but he shrugged one strong shoulder. ‘Yet I am decided. In Raenor’s hands be it.’

‘I have had a letter from Celebril,’ Telpiriel said brightly, changing the subject either for diplomacy or out of boredom. ‘All is well in Lamedon. Angbor is learning to ride, and has taken several very fine tumbles. He merely picks himself up again and scolds the poor pony before remounting.’

Ecthelion grinned at this image of his only grandson, whom he had last seen two summers ago. He hoped this year to make time to travel the southerly fiefs, as much to see his daughter as to oversee his holdings. ‘And the girls?’

‘Well,’ Telpiriel assured him. ‘Growing more willful with each passing day, it seems. I have been accused of exerting a subversive influence.’

At this all three smiled, and Denethor chuckled. ‘Nay, sister: it is I who am the model of bullheadedness for the family.’

Ecthelion was surprised by his son’s good humour. Seldom would he admit to his willfulness, even in jest. It seemed the cold night had frozen his temper and eased the memory of yesterday’s quarrels. Ecthelion was about to take his part in the comfortable familial banter when there came a soft rapping on the anteroom door.

‘Come,’ called Telpiriel gaily. One of her maidens looked in, keeping the door for the most part closed. The mistress of the house wore her long night robe with the pearl embroidery: suitable for a family breakfast, but not for receiving strangers. ‘What is it?’

‘Forgive me, my Lady, my Lords. There is a runner here from the House of the Guard. He says there is a man come from provost in the First Circle in search of the Steward.’ The maiden spoke smoothly and without bashfulness. She was a daughter of the lesser nobility, and although being in the presence of her Lord was cause for greatest courtesy she was not confounded by it. ‘It is concerning a new applicant to His Lordship’s service.’

Ecthelion gave no outward sign, but within he sighed. For him to be consulted, there had to be some grave problem with the claimant’s situation. After so many years, even those few who came from Mordor were dealt with readily by the men under his command. Welcome though he did all men brave enough to travel from afar on the hope of a better life, Ecthelion could have wished for a more opportune time to be called away. Telpiriel was joyful and Denethor was smiling. What father would not wish to linger in the happiness of his children?

But Denethor rose. ‘I will go,’ he said. ‘It can be no matter grave enough to require your immediate attention. Stay and talk with Telpiriel.’

Their eyes met, and for once Ecthelion had no difficulty discerning his son’s intention. He too was glad to see his sister merry, and desired to keep her that way as long as possible. Addressing the complications of the policy he so hated was not burden enough to make Denethor disrupt that.

‘Very well, Captain-General,’ said Ecthelion fondly. ‘Go now and discharge the duties of your office.’

‘I shall, sire,’ said Denethor, and he bowed a neat salute. Then he strode from the room, mindful not to open the door too far.




Once one had mastered the art of snatching snippets of shallow slumber in the saddle, it was possible to sleep almost anywhere. Thorongil awoke with a start to the bang of the outer door. A number of voices, muffled by oak and stone, were heard without. He raised his head, kneading the knots from his neck as he climbed out of the chair. He slid it back to its original position and crossed the room, settling down upon the bench and affecting an indolent posture. When the door was opened, he wanted it to look as though he had been waiting patiently for hours.

It took longer than he expected for anyone to come for him. The noises of the morning’s business went on without, but despite his discomfort Thorongil restrained himself from hammering on the door. It would not do to seem anxious.

He was stiff, from the less than optimal sleeping position and the cold. Dawn was breaking beyond the empty windows, but the room was deeply chilled. Thorongil’s lower jaw quivered, teeth not quite chattering. His rapid exertions had awakened the pangs of hunger afresh, and he had other discomforts in need of relief. He drank the last of his water, rinsing away the sour taste of the night from his mouth. And he waited.

At last he heard the key scraping into the lock. He made a last rapid survey of the room, and whisked off his hood with one hand. Then he fixed impassive eyes on the entrance.

To his surprise, it was opened by the Lieutenant who had locked it the night before. Bregold’s eyes were red-rimmed with inadequate rest, and his raiment had been hastily donned. Called from his bed in the small hours, Thorongil thought: doubtless to finish what he started and in spite of the fact that he had sat the previous watch. Their eyes met, and Bregold looked away. He did not cross the threshold: he was holding the door for the two men behind him.

The first was tall and grey of hair, smooth-cheeked and saturnine. He wore livery cut to the same pattern as the other guards, but of wool dyed a noticeably better black. Upon his arm was sewn a badge of purest white: the heraldry of the Steward of Gondor. This was surely Bregold’s Captain.

Behind him came a younger man, reedy and nervous-looking. He wore a long, simple robe with wide sleeves, and he carried a small leather case clutched to his chest. He had the look of an academician, and not a very prosperous one.

‘This is the man?’ the Captain asked unnecessarily.

‘This is he,’ Bregold confirmed. He came into the room now, standing back a careful pace. Behind him Thorongil could see that several men now occupied the room without, gathered in a group and talking very purposefully. No doubt they were divvying up the day’s duties.

The Captain looked Thorongil over with a cold eye. ‘Do you not stand when your betters enter a room?’ he asked.

‘Forgive me.’ Thorongil rose hastily, cursing his forgetfulness. He was accustomed to being the one for whom others stood: in Edoras he had been outranked only by the Marshals, the King and his family, and a few of the upper nobility. ‘I am not at my best. It was a long night.’

‘If you can’t bear that, you will not be much of a soldier,’ Bregold muttered.

The Captain raised his hand for silence, and the lieutenant coloured deeply. The scholarly young man scurried near to the desk and pressed his hip against it, as if he found the solidity of the furnishing a comfort. Still the grey-haired man was studying Thorongil.

‘You claim that you have come from Rohan,’ he said, his tone not quite disdainful but near enough. ‘You are not of their blood. Your colouring aside, the men of the Mark are never so tall.’

Thorongil had affected his customary posture, as he had not the night before. Now he was standing at his full height, shoulders squared and head upraised. It was the proper stance of a soldier, but it did invite the eye.

The Captain looked around until he caught Bregold’s eye. ‘Fetch a scuttle and light the brazier,’ he said. ‘It’s colder in here than in the street. As for you—’ He turned back on Thorongil. ‘—we shall find out soon enough if you are lying about your history. In the meantime we will get on with the rest of your initial intake. Where is your baggage?’

‘Here, Captain,’ Thorongil said. He bent to retrieve his pack, remembering just in time to keep his right hand at his side. ‘This and my pouch are all I have.’

‘Take that off as well, then,’ said the older man. He took the stout canvas satchel and rounded the desk, then upended it unceremoniously so that the newcomer’s scant possessions tumbled out across the writing surface. He mashed the pack between his hands, feeling for any sign of something hidden in seams or lining.

Thorongil unbuckled his belt as he had the night before, but this time he did not trouble to slide off the article he wanted. He coiled the thick leather strap and laid it, pouch and all, on the desk. He watched as the captain pawed through his belongings, giving each shirt the same attention he had given the pack. He unrolled the pairs of knee-high woolen socks that the men of Rohan wore, and he looked with puzzlement at a shabby hood with a low collar in place of a cloak. Such a garment was common in the Riddermark, but evidently not in Gondor. He unwrapped the book roughly and held it aloft, wagging it imperiously.

‘What is this?’ he asked.

‘A collection of tales and songs,’ answered Thorongil. ‘I wished to bring with me something of the lore of Rohan.’

‘Lore?’ snorted Bregold. ‘Never have I heard the horsemen known for their knowledge.’

‘Nonetheless they have it,’ Thorongil said mildly. ‘It is seldom writ down, which is yet another reason I wished to make such a record.’

‘You made it?’ The Captain was now turning through the pages with their graceful letters and not quite as elegant illuminations. The creation of that volume had occupied many idle hours over the course of several winters. What had begun as a diversion had become a work that Thorongil would be proud to present as a gift to his foster-father when at last he returned to the North. ‘It is fine work for a Rider. Quite the scholar, I see.'

‘I thank you for your praise,’ said Thorongil, though he could see the puzzlement in the man’s eyes deepening towards suspicion. It was a strange skill for a mercenary to possess.

The man turned the book over and ran one thumb up the spine, rasping across the neat waxed stitches with pressure enough that any irregularity would be readily felt. Thorongil’s right hand closed into a fist over the twining silver serpents. As well that he had not tried to hide the Ring of Barahir there.

The Captain tossed the book idly onto the heap of clothing, now yanked out of its neat rolls and crumpled carelessly. He put aside a wooden cup carved with a scene of wild horses, and a bowl with the same motif. He lingered a moment over Thorongil’s comb, which was skillfully made and intricately decorated. ‘What is this?’ he asked, picking up the next item of interest.

‘It is a spoon.’ It took a great effort not to impart those words with a derisive incredulity. For a wild, almost giddy moment Thorongil wanted to laugh. What did the man think that it was?

‘It is silver,’ said the Captain. He gestured at the other, more rustic objects. ‘Are you a thief of trinkets and baubles, then?’

Thorongil jerked his chin proudly. ‘I am no thief,’ he said, his voice now cold. Bregold came in just as he spoke, and looked from him to the Captain in alarm. ‘The spoon was a gift from a faithful comrade, in thanks for a service I did for him. It is mine.’

The Captain gave him a long, disbelieving look, but did not question his honesty. He laid the spoon in the bowl and sifted through the last few things on the desktop: a whetstone, the stub of a candle, a pair of braided points coiled together. Then he opened the pouch and pulled out its contents: flint and tinder, firesteel, toothpick, and the leathern purse that held a modest assortment of small coin. He surveyed the disarrayed miscellany once more, and then braced his hands on the sides of the desk and stared their owner straight in the eyes. Carefully Thorongil guarded his gaze, not wishing to offer any challenge, however implicit.

‘Strip,’ the Captain commanded blandly.

Thorongil had suspected this was coming, and he was not surprised. In the Captain’s position, however, he would have approached the matter differently. The brusqueness of the order notwithstanding, Bregold was only now lighting the fire to warm a bitterly cold room. The door stood wide, and the men without were clearly interested in the goings-on within: they kept stealing glances when the Captain’s eyes were drawn well away from the entrance.

He might have protested on either of these grounds, but Thorongil had no interest in prolonging this business. The sooner he was searched, the sooner he could be back in his clothes and hopefully moving on to whatever the next stage of this process might be. He brought his hands to his throat and undid the pin of the star that clasped his cloak. Eyes still fixed on the Captain’s, he took one long step forward to place the ornament upon the desktop.

As he had hoped, all three men turned their attention upon it. The Captain picked it up and turned it in his hand. Thorongil made good use of the distraction, flinging his cloak down upon the bench and deftly unlacing the front of his cote. It was the action of disrobing most likely to draw attention to his hands, and that he was anxious to avoid. If the simple cast spoon had awakened the Captain’s suspicions, an ornate and bejewelled ring would be damning.

‘How did you come by this, then?’ asked the man, feeling the brightly burnished surface.

‘I bore it with me when I came to Rohan,’ said Thorongil, still whipping the long lace from its holes with flying thumbs. ‘It was given to me when I came into my manhood, and I have worn it since. It suits my name.’

Bregold chuckled, setting down the poker and holding his palms out to the meagre warmth of the newly-lit charcoal. ‘So it does!’ he said. ‘Thoron – gil, Captain: star-eagle.’

‘Thank you, yes, Lieutenant. I too know the Elvish tongue,’ the older man said dryly. He tilted his head and looked again at Thorongil. He was now sliding his arms from the sleeves of his cote, mindful of the narrowness of the garment’s shoulders. ‘As there is no Eagle Star in the heavens, I surmise you accord your name some other significance.’

‘The star you see before you,’ said Thorongil. ‘In Rohan I was likened to the bird for my keen eyes and my swift reflexes.’

The Captain’s eyes flashed, and almost before the movement could be seen he threw the brooch at its owner. Thorongil had both arms behind him, tugging the cuffs over his hands, but he whipped his right around and caught the star with the clink of silver on silver. Inwardly he cringed at the sound, but he maintained his level gaze. He had not even moved his head to track the trajectory of the ornament.

The Captain curled his lip appreciatively. ‘That claim is no lie, at least,’ he said.

‘I do not lie,’ Thorongil professed tightly. His tone earned him a twitch of a scowl, and he knew that he had to withdraw a little. Now in shirtsleeves, he sat upon the bench and put aside his Star of the Dúnedain. ‘Have you a bootjack, sir?’ he asked with appropriately deferential courtesy.

‘No.’ The answer was cold and just a little smug.

The Captain watched with a set face as Thorongil fought with his smooth-fitting boots, cold-stiffened as they were, but there was unmistakable gratification in his eyes. A coil of crawling embarrassment slithered through Thorongil’s innards, and he tried to ignore it. That was the purpose of this treatment, of course: to show him his place and to be sure he understood that unproved foreign recruits were not entitled to their self-respect. So he fixed his attention on the boots and tried to ignore the many eyes turned upon him: those without had given up all pretext of working, and both Bregold and the scholarly man were watching as well. Of them all, only that last seemed uncomfortable with the goings-on.

He might have stayed seated to unknot the points that held his hose, but Thorongil was by this time bristling with a thin steel thread of obstinacy. He rose and set about the task with an economical swiftness that gave at least the illusion of confidence. Rolling down the hose and stepping out of them was the worst part of the proceedings yet: the stone floor was like ice beneath his bare feet, and his toes curled in, recoiling from it. Only his body linen remained. He removed his shirt, sweat-stained from long use and grubby from the road. Then with all the dignity of his blood and his upbringing, he stepped out of his braies and stood naked in the chill of the room.

And there he continued to stand while Bregold, under his Captain’s watchful eye, searched each garment minutely. Thorongil fixed his eyes upon the stone wall before him and kept his right hand curled casually into a loose fist. No one had remarked upon the ring, and he intended to keep it that way. The rest of his attention was occupied in trying not to shiver, for the heat of the brazier had not dispersed so far into the room yet. He kept his head held high and restrained the urge to turn to see how the rifling of his clothing was proceeding.

At last Bregold straightened up into the periphery of Thorongil’s sight. ‘Nothing but old cloth and grime, Captain,’ he said. Someone in the other room sniggered.

‘Very well,’ said the older man. ‘Get on with it.’

Thinking the instruction was for him, Thorongil began to turn. Just in time to save himself from a reprimand, he saw the startled alertness on the face of the man in the scholar’s robes. He approached the unclothed stranger and took hold of one wrist.

‘I am Midhon, the provost healer,’ he said, almost nervously. He was feeling for a pulse. ‘I must ensure that you are sound of body and free from any disease that might render you a danger to the folk of the city.’

There followed a thorough and inelegant physical examination. Thorongil’s chest was sounded, his limbs assessed for their straightness. His feet received careful scrutiny, though thankfully there was little interest in his hands. The healer looked into his mouth, checking his teeth with a blunt tool that tasted strongly of iron or blood. For this Thorongil had to bend forward, and when it came time to check his ears he had to sit. The bench was rough against his bare skin, but his feet were now accustomed to the cold of the floor.

Midhon then took a fine comb from his packet of tools and made a very thorough search of Thorongil’s hair: first on his head and then that of his body. Some of the observers had lost interest in the spectacle, but others lingered avariciously. Doubtless they were curious about the stranger, but it was also cathartic for men of lowly estate to watch one still less privileged than they. Bregold was certainly satisfied by the indignities to which the irritating newcomer was being put.

At last the healer stepped back, and Thorongil was given the offhand order to clothe himself again. He did so mindfully, arranging his garments and fastening them properly. He was determined not to seem anxious to be dressed. Before lacing his cote, he put on his cloak and fastened it once more with the star. Its fullness obscured his hands. No one had noticed the ring.

Last of all he pulled on his boots, knowing better than to ask for a shoehorn. No sooner had he finished than the Captain gestured at the clutter on the desktop. ‘Clean away your rubbish,’ he said scornfully, as if it had been Thorongil who had made the mess. Then he glared at the men in the next room. ‘Disperse to your duties!’

Not wishing to draw any interested eyes, Thorongil did not trouble to restore his simple garments to their compact rolls. He merely shoved everything into his pack as quickly as he could, and once more used the cover of his cloak as he girded himself. No one had said anything about returning his knife, but he did not ask. He was far more interested in whether or no they would offer him anything with which to break his fast. From ravenous he was drawing on to famished. But no one said a word of food.

The Captain sat down behind the desk, waving off the healer. Bregold stirred the charcoal, now glowing hotly and at last beginning to warm the air.

‘Sit,’ said the Captain. ‘We can do no more until I have word of what is to be done with you. Where were you born?’

Thorongil sat, managing to keep from sighing aloud in frustration. The interrogation had not ended, it seemed, and the questions had not changed. He worked through them tiredly, giving all the same answers he had given the night before. Always he kept his tone level and respectful, though by now his frustration was a knot of gall in his breast.



Denethor met with the man from the First Level in the office he kept at the House of the Guard. This building, just above the Sixth Gate, was the centre of administration for the city’s forces, and much of the Captain-General’s daily labours were carried out within it. He found his secretary already in the office and hard at work. Valacar was a spindly man in his middle years, and he had been in Denethor’s service for most of the younger man’s life. He had begun his work as a tutor in mathematics, and had advanced to his present post as his master’s duties began to warrant it. Of all his servants, Denethor trusted no one more than Valacar. Even his groom of the body was not privy to the confidences he shared with his secretary.

‘Greetings, my Lord,’ Valacar said as he entered, inclining his head respectfully but not hopping down off the tall stool that stood before the clerk’s table at which he always sat. There was a tacit understanding between them that such signs of subservience were not required when there were no witnesses. ‘I trust your Lady sister is well?’

‘As well as can be expected,’ said Denethor. ‘I pity her maidens in attendance: it will be a long three months. I want you to make arrangements for me to meet with the Master of the Guard. I want to establish a regimen of remote maneuvers for the City Companies.’

‘Is there cause for such maneuvers?’ Valacar looked up from his work again, brows knitted.

‘Nothing proximal,’ said Denethor. He looked to the window. It faced eastward, but it was not high enough aloft to afford a view of anything but the upper storeys of nearby buildings and the sharp delineation between the Sixth Wall and the sky. ‘The men have been static too long, kept to routine duties. Their skills will stagnate. A week or two sleeping rough and working through battle drills will do them good. I shall send the companies two at a time. The Second and the Ninth shall go first.’

‘The Second and the Ninth,’ said Valacar, as if committing it to memory. Then conversationally he added; ‘The Easterling is in the Ninth Company. The one who is to be betrothed.’

‘Is he, indeed?’ asked Denethor, allowing himself a curl of a half-smile on the side of his face turned away from his secretary. He sat down at his broad desk. His carefully devised plan of action was designed to arouse no one’s suspicions.

There was a knock at the door. At Denethor’s word, a lanky pageboy peered around it. ‘Captain-General?’ he said. ‘Are you ready to see the man sent by the Provost-Captain.’

‘Send him in,’ said Denethor. He squared himself with the desk and affected a posture of sternest command. Soldiers of the lower levels were in awe of their high commander, and it was an image that was useful to maintain.

The Guard came in. He was a young man with broad features and a shock of unattractively indifferent brown hair. He bowed a low salute, the brownish-black cloak falling forward as he did.

‘What is it?’ Denethor demanded, not interested in pleasantries.

‘M-my Lord!’ the man squeaked. His eyes were wide and wondering. Yes: he was in awe of his Captain-General.

‘Speak,’ said Denethor, less curtly this time. ‘Why have you been sent?’

‘I… I was sent to seek the Steward, my Lord,’ the soldier said. ‘But the Guards at the Seventh Gate said, they said that he was not within.’

 ‘So I am well aware. I have the authority to act on the Steward’s behalf in all matters pertaining to the defence of the City,’ Denethor said coolly. ‘Whatever you were sent to ask of him, you may ask it now.’

‘Yes, sire. I will, sire. There is a man, sire. One of the men that His Lordship… one of the ones who come to… I mean to say…’

‘One of the sell-swords enticed by the Steward’s promise of rank and reward,’ Denethor enunciated coolly. ‘Is it one of the present brood, or a newcomer?’

‘He is newly come: last evening,’ said the man. He was speaking very briskly now, but Denethor did not slow him. He had no wish to send the soldier back into his stammering. ‘I was on duty when he was brought to see the Lieutenant. He is tall and dark, with pale skin. He says he comes from Rohan, and he seeks a place. He claims that he was known to King Thengel, and he gave Lieutenant Bregold this.’

He held out a letter, sharply folded and remarkably clean. Its seal was unbroken. Denethor took it with a little snap of the paper and looked at the words written above the circle of wax.

‘The Lieutenant feared to open it, addressed as it is to His Lordship the Steward,’ the Guard said. ‘He thought it best to bring it to the Citadel, even if it is a fake.’

‘He was right to do so,’ said Denethor, trying to school his irritation at the man’s ignorance. ‘It is a grave crime to violate the private papers of the Steward. No one should open a letter addressed to him, save in his very presence and by his command.’

The Guard flushed crimson. ‘Yes, sire. Of course, sire.’

Denethor flicked three fingers, gesturing for silence. The scratching of Valacar’s quill had ceased. He too was intrigued.

Denethor studied the little parcel in his hand. The paper was costly and very white. It had been carried with due attention: there were no smudges or waterstains, and the corners were still sharp. The seal was in red wax: the galloping horse of Rohan beneath a rayed sun. He knew that seal well. Often enough in his boyhood he had seen it upon missives out of Lossarnach, adorning letters from his father’s beloved friend. There was no mistaking it. Every detail was as it should be, even to the horse’s want of a left ear. An overenthusiastic journeyman had tried to file off a burr left in the casting, and obliterated the ear instead.

And if the seal was true, the provenance of the letter might also be.

‘He comes from Rohan,’ said Denethor decisively. The letter was too well-kept to have been stolen or diverted. If it had not been given to the man in question by Thengel himself, it had certainly not travelled through many hands on its journey. ‘What does this man say of it?’

‘That it is a letter of character, and that he wishes to serve the Steward as he served the King of Rohan,’ said the Guard. ‘He says he has skills to offer, and that he is a swordsman. He is reluctant to speak of his parentage, but in all other respects he seems a worthy candidate. The lieutenant would have inducted him at once, if not for the letter. It seemed… unusual.’

‘Unusual it may be, but this is genuine,’ Denethor said. Even he would not presume to break the seal of his father’s letters, but the contents could be examined in their own good time. The Guard needed an answer to take back to the provost, and Denethor wanted him gone before the Master of the Guard came for his orders. It would be best if the men of the Ninth Company had no warning of their deployment until the morning of their march.

‘What is the lowliest vacancy we have?’ Denethor asked, turning to his secretary.

From the shelf above his table, Valacar brought the Roll of the Guard. It contained a current manifest of every man in service to the City. He opened the volume near the lower companies, and turned through a few pages. ‘There is a vacancy in the Tenth Company, my Lord. Under Captain Minardil.’

Denethor nodded. ‘That will do.’ He looked to the bull-faced guard. ‘Tell the provost the man is to be assigned to the Tenth Company. He may have a fortnight’s trial. In the meantime I will give his letter of character to the Steward, that he may judge for himself the worthiness of his newest soldier.’

‘Yes, sire!’ said the Guard. ‘The Captain thought perhaps you would, I mean the Steward would, want to see the man and speak to him.’

‘There is no need for that,’ said Denethor dismissively. ‘See to it that he is processed in the usual way: one cannot expect special treatment on the strength of a seal alone. Tell the provost to provide him with the pass-words to the first two Gates, but no more. He is to be properly accoutered for his position.’

‘Yes, sire,’ the man said. Then he took a deep breath and said; ‘He says he has no sword.’

This brought a crease of puzzlement to Denethor’s proud brow. It was unusual even for the most destitute of applicants to arrive weaponless. The lands from which most came were debatable, and even those out of Rohan walked uncertain roads in these dark days. But it was not worth any close consideration when there were more important matters to fill the day.

‘Then have Captain Minardil provide him with one,’ he ordered. ‘It need not be grand, but a Guard must have a sword. Now leave me. I will see that the letter reaches its rightful owner.’

The man made his obeisances, muttering his thanks and his clumsy flatteries. When the door was closed at last, Denethor leaned back in his heavy chair with a sigh.

‘Why must men of simple means always be simple-minded as well?’ he asked wearily. ‘What have we come to, when a soldier of Gondor cannot even present a coherent report without tripping all over his tongue?’

‘He was afraid of you,’ said Valacar placidly. He had a way of saying things that no one else would dare without ever seeming to criticize. ‘A tall man, dark and pale, out of Rohan. He sounds an interesting fellow.’

Denethor made a sound midway between a chuckle and a scoff, and he tossed the letter up towards the lefthand corner of his desk. ‘Another of my father’s sell-swords,’ he said dismissively. ‘More fodder for the Enemy’s vanguards, nothing more.’

Yet he wondered. A letter of reference from a neighbouring monarch was no small thing. He would have to make time to assess this man before his trial period was over. Even unseen, this stranger was plainly unusual. Never before had one of his father's supplicants aroused his interest save in irritation. It was a curious thing to find himself fascinated by one of the beggars, even at a remove. Time could be made to test him.

Chapter IV: The Measure of a Man

Minardil, Captain of the Tenth Company, was a young man. He was younger than Thorongil, in fact, though only enough that he looked somewhat older. Thorongil wondered whether he would have been assigned to this Company if anyone had troubled to ask his age instead of judging it by his countenance. It was not customary in most forces for a difficult recruit to be placed under a commander who was his junior. Given their continued rough treatment, the men of the provost clearly thought he had the potential to be very difficult indeed.

Bregold told him the passwords for the first two Gates of the city, and it was clear from his relish in doing so that this was less freedom than supplicants were generally afforded. Only later did Thorongil learn that there were amenities in the Third Circle that were unobtainable in the first two. Whether the restriction was an act of justifiable caution or deliberate spite he could not have said.

It was the Lieutenant who was sent to show Thorongil to the garrison of his assigned Company, and he did so with all speed. There could be no ambiguity about his motives in that, at least. This was not Bregold's watch to sit, and of course he was anxious to get to his bed. He strode through the streets so swiftly that it was almost impossible for Thorongil to take note of their turnings. There would be difficulty later, when he had to find his way about unaided, but he did not protest. He too was eager for this business to be done. He could not reasonably hope for sleep himself, but surely once he was installed in the garrison there would be a chance of something to eat. His hunger was gnawing at him, distracting his mind and fraying his patience.

The garrison of the Tenth Company stood between that of the Ninth and that of the Eleventh, down a narrow street branching off the main thoroughfare. It was long and narrow, with rows upon rows of shuttered windows on the upper floor. Inside the doors there was a spacious entryway clearly meant for hasty arming: there were badly scuffed benches and low stools along both walls, and in a corner someone had leaned several shields. Beyond that room was a hall with tables and benches adequate to seat a hundred men. It was warmed by a lofty fireplace on one long wall, and Thorongil longed to hurry over to the hearth.

Bregold stopped just inside the door instead. 'Stay here. Don't move. Do not make trouble,' he said curtly. He had brought with him Thorongil's knives and the parchment on which he had recorded the answers to their first interview. Taking all these with him, he crossed the room and disappeared through a side door.

There were a few men in the room, gathered in small clutches at two of the tables. Most looked up curiously at the stranger in his strange clothes, and Thorongil tried to offer them a small smile of greeting. There was not much in him that felt like smiling, however, and he feared the effort was rather pathetic to look upon. Most of the men went back to their talk and their (here Thorongil swallowed painfully against a mouthful of spittle) noon meal. From this distance and beyond hands curled about wooden trenchers Thorongil could not see what the men were eating, but he could smell it. They had hot food, if the provost did not.

Obeying orders with blind precision had never appealed to Thorongil. It was not the mark of a leader but of a minion. He had been told not to move, but he refused to interpret that literally. Obviously Bregold's chief concern was that he should not leave the hall. So he hurried across to the fire and stood gratefully in its glow. Slowly the bite in his bones began to dissipate. There had been little hope of warming up properly after the chilling search, and he was grateful indeed for the thick logs and their leaping yellow flames.

He took the opportunity to slip the Ring of Barahir from his finger and into the little sack of tinder in his belt-pouch. He doubted he would be searched again so soon, and the ring would be safer off his hand. He still felt rather smug about displaying it so flagrantly before unseeing men. It took some of the sting out of his treatment, unworthy though the sentiment might be, to know that his misusers were not particularly bright.

Presently the side door opened again, and a young man came striding through with Bregold in his wake. He wore a captain's livery of middling black, the white badge upon his arm. He had in his hand the sheet of parchment, but of the blades there was now no sign. As he came he said; 'Thank you, Lieutenant. You are free to go now.'

Bregold made his salute and was gone so quickly that he might have been mounted on wheels. The Captain approached the new man, stopping at the other corner of the hearthstone. Once again appraising eyes raked over dilapidated garments, but this time rather than lingering on the rents or the stains they paused at the nearly-new boots. With a thoughtful sliding of the jaw, the man took a step forward.

'I am Minardil, Captain of the Tenth Company and apparently your commander,' he said, holding out his arm.

The part of him that remembered the customs of Bree-land almost sent Thorongil to shake his hand, but he remembered just in time a piece of minutiae that Gandalf had once shared. Instead of reaching for palm or wrist, he gripped Minardil's forearm. The Captain reciprocated, and they broke off the contact.

'I am Thorongil, sir,' he said. 'It is my privilege to be assigned to your company.'

'We'll see about that,' said Minardil with a deprecating grin. 'Soldiering is no easy life, even in the City.'

'I am familiar with the soldier's life,' Thorongil said equably. 'I served nine years in the éoreds of Thengel King.'

'So Bregold said.' Minardil quirked the corner of his mouth. 'Rather, he said that was your claim. I do not think he believes you.'

'Does it not seem a little less than credible?' asked Thorongil, trying his luck with an ironical lilt. 'I have not the look of the Rohirrim.'

'You have not,' allowed Minardil. 'Yet this Queen and the last are of our kindred. There are folk of Gondor dwelling in her city. It is not for me to question your origins: the Steward has given his word that all men shall be welcomed, regardless of birth, if they are found worthy. The Captain-General has deemed it fit for me to make that assessment of you, and therefore I shall. Yet if there is anything you wish to tell me that is not included in this… illuminating document, I will gladly hear it.'

His dry tone brought a grin of amusement to Thorongil's lips. He thought he might truly be able to like this Captain, and he was at least making an attempt at fair-mindedness. After the niggardly reception he had been given below, this felt almost like a pledge of lasting friendship. Certainly it did much to wash away the copper taste of humiliation that was the morning's legacy.

Thus Thorongil decided he ought to share something more, even if it was not of any particular significance. Good faith should be met with good faith, and there seemed to be too few among the City Guard who lived out that principle in their daily toils.

'Three languages are noted there,' he said, indicating the parchment. 'It is inaccurate.'

Minardil looked down at the page, searching for the relevant passage. He clicked his tongue ruefully. 'Exaggerate a bit, did we? Thought perhaps it would give you some advantage?'

'No. I do not boast falsely under any circumstances. I have no need,' said Thorongil. It was much easier to keep his tone modulated in the face of easygoing conspiracy and a knowing wink than before accusation and disdain. 'What is missing from that report is that those three are not my only languages. I speak also the High Elven tongue, fluently.'

At this the Captain glanced up in some surprise, a spark of disbelief flaring for a moment before being doused entirely by force of will. 'I see,' he said, and he smiled. 'That's more than I can lay claim to. But why not admit to it? The High Elven language is much esteemed in Gondor, and plied often by the learned.'

'Have I the look of a learned man?' asked Thorongil. He let his lip curl in doleful mockery. 'I did not think I would be believed.'

'Ah.' Minardil nodded his head sagely, once more looking to read the sheet of parchment. 'You say very little of yourself, but I suppose a man is entitled to his secrets. How good are you with a blade?'

'As good as I can be and no better,' said Thorongil. He wanted to test the waters a little further, and he was rewarded for this evasion with a short laugh.

'You have a saucy tongue in your head, I see. Best keep it to your off-watches and well out of the earshot of the Captain-General.' Minardil took one last quick look at Thorongil's raiment. 'I suppose the first order of business is to find you some proper clothes. You cannot go around claiming membership in my Company and looking like the rag-picker's boy.'

Thorongil fought to disguise his dismay. Finding livery to fit him would be an onerous project: it certainly had been when he first came to Rohan. So ended all hope of a timely meal. He had not come to the City expecting to be fed, but he had thought it not unreasonable that he would be given freedom enough to seek for his own provender among the bakeshops and meat-merchants. Instead he had been allowed neither liberty nor sustenance.

Something of his thoughts must have shown in his face however, for Minardil's expression softened from good humour to genuine sympathy.

'Forgive me,' he said kindly. 'The Steward's expatriates are seldom assigned to positions in the City, and I'd forgotten. The men from abroad are always hungry. Follow me: the kitchen will be serving right now, and I have not taken my nuncheon either. We may break our bread together.'

'Thank you,' said Thorongil, almost breathless with sincerity. It was drawing on to two days now since last he had tasted food, and whatever the afternoon brought would be far more bearable on a full stomach.

He followed the Captain – his Captain – to a narrow corridor off the main hall. Here a hatch opened on a bustling kitchen. Through it a young servant gave them laden plates and a modest platter of bread and cheese. A measure of beer was drawn for each of them, too, and Minardil balanced his awkwardly as he led the way to the nearest vacant table. Thorongil set down his own dishes quickly so that he could relieve the other man of his burden before the tankard might spill. This earned him simple but sincere words of thanks. Minardil sat without further ceremony, allowing Thorongil to do the same.

No feast at the high tables of the Meduseld had ever tasted finer to Thorongil than that simple dinner. There was roast salt pork and mashed turnips, some sort of stewed grain that he did not recognize, peas well-cooked in a savoury liquor, and a wrinkled but sweet-tasting apple. The cheese was pleasantly sharp but not overpowering, and there was a pat of pale winter butter. And of course there was the bread. It was made of dark flour and rye, but both had been well-sifted and the loaf carefully baked so as to be dense but not hard. It filled his belly wonderfully, and it was plain that this meal would sustain him in comfort until the next one. Even the lowest soldiers of Ecthelion, it seemed, were well (if not always warmly) fed.

When at last he had eaten, he went with Minardil to a warehouse some distance away within the Second Circle. Here a quartermaster looked Thorongil over dubiously when he removed his cloak.

'I don't know what we've got to fit you,' he said. 'You're tall as the Lord Heir himself, and we've never turned out coarse worsted and cheap black for him. What did your mother wean you on? Bean poles and hollyhocks?'

'Do your best, Iston' said Minardil, patiently but with a note of warning in his voice. 'We can always have something made to fit later. For the moment he just needs something whole to his back.' When the man disappeared into the room lined with laden shelves, the Captain turned to Thorongil. 'It's a blessing that you won't need boots,' he remarked. 'Those are very fine workmanship.'

'I value a good pair of boots,' said Thorongil. 'I made sure to leave Edoras well-shod.'

Minardil studied his face. 'I can understand the temptation to pretend to greater standing than one possesses, particularly when seeking a great lord's asylum,' he said. 'Yet if this tale of yours is false, it will be far worse to allow it to go further. If you have some other truth to tell me, do so now and I will protect you with all my power.'

Thorongil felt anger rise hot and horrible in his throat. He swallowed it firmly and set his jaw. Was this not what he had wanted? To be taken for less than he was, and treated as they would treat any wandering soldier? Was he not now seeing precisely how the dispossessed and the alien were welcomed in Anarion's City?

'I do not lie, Captain. Nor do I pretend to anything more than I have earned. My service to Thengel King was long and loyal, and his testament to that service is genuine. So it will prove, if any take the trouble to confirm it.' He fixed Minardil with unguarded eyes, that the other man might see in them his honesty. 'Your pledge is generous, but it is unwarranted. I have spoken naught but the truth.'

For a moment longer the Captain held his gaze. Then he looked away, abashed. 'Forgive me,' he said. 'The Steward's policy has brought many strange folk to the City. Not all have proved trustworthy, and these are uncertain times. No doubt the provost Guards did not make you welcome.'

'Not particularly,' Thorongil said tartly, before he could school his tone. He pinched the bridge of his nose and allowed himself a tired sigh. 'I suppose to them men such as I are naught but a nuisance, drawing them from their regular duties and heaping more work upon them.'

'That is not an unfair summation,' said Minardil. 'Yet also the men of those Companies are wary and filled with suspicion. They must be, for theirs is the first line of defence against the agents of the Enemy, but it does not make them earnest emissaries of the Steward's intent. It was never His Lordship's wish that foreign recruitment should prove a burden on his men, nor that those who came to answer his invitation should be met with distrust. Yet such has been its effect.'

'Is the Steward aware of this?' asked Thorongil. Long was the road that wound down from the Citadel to the Great Gate, and even in the far smaller and lest constrained city of Edoras news from the low places moved upward only against a fearsome current. It was easy for one whose subjects were counted by the score to disdain a leader for ignorance of the actions of those under his command. It was possible that Ecthelion did not know.

'I know that the Captain-General is,' Minardil admitted, looking sidelong as if loth to speak against his Lord. 'It is he who preaches the policy of caution. There was a spy found among the men of the Fifth Level at Midwinter: a craven slave of the Enemy who had been working among us for nearly two years. Now all are wary.'

Now Thorongil understood, and he was glad he had not raged against his ignominious treatment. This was a city beset by war, the chief seat of a land fenced in on three sides by foes both great and lesser. In Rohan there had been only the one front, save when a band of disordered brigands came out of the empty lands to the northwest. Here, the wolf was on the threshold and his teeth were bared to strike.

'And the spy? He was one of what the men below call Ecthelion's Follies?' he asked.

Minardil cringed. 'I do not like that term, nor do I permit my men to use it. Free folk must be free to question the wisdom of their lords, but they should not make a mockery of them. Do not speak it again, Thorongil; not even in disdain.'

'I understand,' Thorongil said. 'I give you my word I will not, nor will I suffer others to do so in my presence.'

'That is too much to ask of a new man,' Minardil said. 'I do not wish to make your transition any more difficult than it must be.'

Just then Iston returned, arms laden with half a dozen woollen tunics. 'We might as well try these,' he huffed. 'I don't know that any of them will fit any better than that thing you've got on, but we can try.'

Unlike the guardroom where he had last disrobed, this chamber was well warmed by a good fire and two corner braziers. Thorongil removed his cote, and made an attempt at one of the brownish-black ones that he had been brought. It was too short in the body: not surprising but still irritating. As he reached for another Thorongil was very glad indeed that he had eaten. The foul mood brewed by an empty belly would have made this a gruelling ordeal of self-control.

The fourth garment was not too bad a fit: it reached his knees if not his wrists, and although it was rather too full in the body it did not look overly disheveled. The Captain professed it acceptable, and Iston went next in search of hose and canions. At Minardil's invitation Thorongil sat, and while they waited he was given a brief summary of the duties of the City Guard. He listened intently, committing to memory the system of timekeeping employed in Minas Tirith, the rules regarding soldiers' off hours, the expectations while on guard or patrol. It was all very standard and much what he had expected, save that penalties for even minor infraction seemed more severe than was common among the Rohirrim or the Dúnedain of the North.

'We shall have you on light duties for the first week,' said Minardil at length. 'One watch per day instead of two, that you might take some time to acclimatize yourself to the city. I will assign you a fellow to teach you the work, but if you have any questions they may also be brought to me. It is my belief that a Captain should serve his men as well as his Lord, and not be served by them.'

'So I too have always held,' Thorongil said. He had made up his mind: he liked this man, and it would be easy to respect his commands. Perhaps the fortunes he had so wantonly sabotaged were taking a promising turn.


In the end Thorongil did go forth clad as a Guard of the City, albeit one whose cuffs did not meet his gloves nor his hose reach high enough upon his legs for comfort in the cold. Yet he felt far less conspicuous when he left the storehouse in Minardil's company, his northern clothing in a coarse sack in one hand. He wore his own boots and belt and, to his surprise, his silver star. It seemed that men of the Guard were not issued with ornaments of any kind, not even a simple pin to clasp their cloaks: each had to provide his own or shift as best he could without.

A tailor had been brought to take his measure for a properly fitted set of livery, working quickly with a sliver of chalk and a length of string knotted at regular intervals. He seemed somewhat surprised at Thorongil's familiarity with the process: the sell-sword moved arms or legs or neck precisely as required a moment before the instruction was given. The work was swiftly done, and the garments themselves would be ready within the fortnight.

Minardil took him now to the armoury that supplied the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Companies. In a room behind the amourer's desk, Thorongil was instructed to choose a sword. There were dozens to consider, hung four deep upon pairs of long pegs that supported the hilts. The blades were naked: sheaths were a separate requisition. All were very ordinary weapons, simply adorned if at all. Many were very shoddily made, but others showed signs of great skill and workmanship. Thorongil walked along the wall, considering each in turn.

'If you came from the service of Thengel in Rohan, why have you no sword?' Minardil asked. He was leaning on the doorpost with his arms across, watching with idle interest. 'It seems to me the one thing a man would wish to bring with him.'

'I intended to do so,' said Thorongil. 'But I found a more fitting disposition for it.'

'How so?' asked the Captain.

Thorongil took from its peg a long sword with a hilt wrapped in leathers. He turned from the wall to test it in its hand. 'In Rohan, each Captain is responsible for the outfitting and maintenance of his éored – his Company of Riders. More prosperous men possess their own steeds and weaponry, but those who do not must be furnished with the necessities of war by their commander.' He frowned. The blade was true, but the balance was off. He returned the sword to its place.

'A similar practice exists among the knights of Anfalas,' said Minardil.

Thorongil made a sound of mild interest. He was again examining the weaponry with a sharp eye for faults. He knew better than to think this was a simple matter of equipping a recruit. This was a test: his choice of blade would tell much of his experience and his common sense.

'Because of this, éoreds are variously supplied according to the wealth of their Captain and the means of the Riders themselves. There was among my… there was an éored established by a small landholder, wealthy in horses but poor in coin.' Thorongil took another blade and tested it. This one was well-balanced, but the hilts too cramped for his hand. It too was returned to the pegs. 'Yet he was courageous and loyal, as were the men under his command. They were poorly armed and humbly clad, and yet they rode as fiercely as any other force beneath their Undermarshal. When I took my leave, I bestowed my sword upon a certain young Rider of that éored who had been making do with a hatchet in place of a blade.'

'Surmising that here we would provide you with one, if you were without,' Minardil mused. 'Yet why did the Marshal, or Undermarshal, not see the men provided for?'

'Both did, in so far as they were able,' said Thorongil. It was no lie to omit that he himself had been the Undermarshal overseeing that éored. 'Yet resources are finite, and the danger unending. It was not possible to see every man armed as best he might be, but one at least I left better off than before.'

'You are a curious soldier of fortune,' said Minardil. 'Few men I know would part with their sword for anything.'

'It was never truly my sword,' Thorongil murmured, his thoughts wandering unbidden to another blade, a useless blade, lying upon a bed of velvet in a valley far away. Yet his eyes were still travelling the assortment before him, and they snagged upon an item of interest.

It hung at the back of the pair of pegs one to the left of the corner. Its hilts were tarnished and the blade flecked with rust. The wrappings on the grip were worn and cracking. Yet there was something remarkable about the sword.

Carefully he lifted it from its place, and when his fist closed upon the hilts he knew what had caught his attention. The slender length of the blade, the distinct curve of the guards, and the simple embossed star that ornamented the pommel: all these spoke of an age greater than most of the other swords. And the steel, blemished though it was, was an alloy of Westernesse. This was a sword as old at least as the line of Ruling Stewards, and it fit into his hand as if it had been wrought to fit him. The blade was perfectly balanced, not only for the weapon in itself but for a tall and long-armed wielder. The rust was superficial, and the bindings could be easily replaced.

Thorongil made a tight, controlled sweep with the sword. It sang through the air, unlovely though it was, and he could feel how it would be to bear it on the field of battle. He turned to the Captain, and he knew his eyes were flashing with boldness and a yen for the cold thrill of battle. In Minardil's expression he read as much, and he tried to reign in his eager joy. Somewhat abashed he lowered the blade, laying it across his left palm.

'This one,' he said. 'I choose this sword.'

All speech stricken from him, Minardil nodded.


Establishing the parameters for field maneuvers proved a more complex task than Denethor had anticipated. He had done it before, of course: many times. But always he had either executed them with an army already encamped, or in brief excursions of the Guards onto the Pelennor. It was another matter entirely to dislodge two housed companies, to provide for their needs some five leagues from the City, and to devise a cogent plan for a fortnight's training. Had his only concern been to thwart the Easterling's romantic pursuits, Denethor would have abandoned the idea almost at its outset as too costly and unnecessary.

But as he worked with the Master of the Guard, it became ever more plain that some such measure was needed for the good of the realm. The men of Minas Tirith were growing complacent, comfortable in their set routine of watch and leisure, post and home. The lone Guard on that biting night was not exceptional. Often men throughout the City would stray from their posts, or engage in talk with the common people when they were supposed to be alert upon the walls. Most Captains still abhorred lateness and disciplined those who came tardy to their duties, but many other minor offences went unremarked. It had been too long since the last threat to the townlands about Minas Tirith, and the alertness of the Guards of the City and the Citadel both had lapsed.

There was much support for his plans among the senior Captains, for Denethor consulted them as well as the Master of the Guard. He had not yet disclosed his intention to send the Second and Ninth Companies first, but that was all he had reason to keep to himself. The rest would benefit from diverse opinions and the weight of many men's experience. When implemented, Denethor did not doubt the undertaking would prove both valuable and illuminating for all concerned.

Yet with these matters to attend to, it was nearly a week before he gave any further thought to the new sell-sword who claimed to have the favour of the King of Rohan. It was a chance slip of a chart while tidying his desk on the morning of the sixth day since he had breakfasted with his father and Telpiriel that brought the man to mind again. For there, concealed until that moment beneath the lists and diagrams and pages of intricate notes and stratagems, sat the white paper packet with its undeniably authentic seal.

Denethor picked it up and turned it in his hands, torn between irritation at the distraction and a gnawing guilt – as if he were once more a small boy trying to conceal the effects of some act of lazy postponement. He liked neither sensation, but the latter least of all. He was the Heir of the Steward of Gondor, next in line to rule. He was the Captain-General of her armies and her great strength in battle. Yet he felt like a child because he had forgotten to pass on a letter to his father.

'See this is brought to the Steward,' he said curtly, flinging the missive down on Valacar's desk with no regard for the glistening ink on the ledger the secretary had been amending. 'If any seek me, they may be told I am abroad in the lower City. If they have matters too urgent to await my return, do as you see fit on my behalf.'

This was a trust he would have laid on no man but Valacar, and that was not unappreciated. His secretary gave some quiet word of assent, but Denethor was already striding from the room, swinging his fur-lined cloak about his shoulders as he went.

The day was crisp and cold – not so cold as it had been some days before, but still very brisk. Such folk as were about in this early hour of the afternoon went forth well bundled and moved as quickly as they could, scurrying from one warm doorway to another. On the walls and in the Gates, the Guards tried to keep thawed as best they could, but Denethor noticed as he passed through the Citadel that not one man of the Third Company was so much as a half-stride from his designated post. Raenor had done well in correcting the deficiency among his men.

Down into the city he walked, taking long confident strides despite the sheen of ice upon the cobbles. The cold air filled his lungs and invigorated his mind, leaving his senses sharper and his resolve set. He might be hard-pressed to explain his delay in remitting the letter to the Steward, but when Ecthelion asked about the man who had borne it Denethor would be ready. He would be able to provide a report on the stranger, and his own opinion on his fitness or unfitness to serve Gondor.

The garrison of the Tenth Company was quiet at this hour. Those who were not on watch were either sleeping or with their families. But the Company's page was dozing on a bench in the gathering hall, and he awoke with a start to Denethor's sharp address.

'Yes, sir! How can I help you, sir!' the boy said crisply, scrambling to his feet and tugging his tunic straight. He was about sixteen, with the rangy half-starved look of a healthy boy who has shot upward more rapidly than he could grow outward. His eyes widened when he recognized Denethor. The Captain-General was known throughout the City: not one member of the Guard did not know him on sight – save perhaps the strange arm for hire he sought.

The page saluted deeply. 'My Lord!' he said, more breathless than before. 'How may I serve you?'

'Where is the new man?' asked Denethor, not in the least interested in dissembling. 'The one who claims he has come out of Rohan.'

The boy's face brightened. 'Thorongil! The Eagle of the Star, the men are calling him. He's off watch at the moment, sire. Shall I fetch him?'

Fetch him, thought Denethor, and give him time to prepare himself to meet his master? No. Far better to come upon the man unawares and judge how he deported himself backfooted.

'Show me to his booth, then,' Denethor commanded. 'I will come to him.'

'Oh, no, sire, he's not abed!' said the boy. 'He never sleeps the afternoon watch. He's down in the court with some of the others, working. There's not many can keep pace with him, but—'

Denethor was already striding away, up the hall instead of back towards the street. The far door opened on a narrow courtyard floored in bare dirt instead of stone. Each Company had such a place, where the men might spar and hone their skills. All were supposed to make use of it six out of every seven days, but this practice too had become erratic. So it was with some surprise that Denethor stepped out into a yard crowded with bodies.

Much of the Tenth Company seemed to be in attendance; perhaps not all the men who were not on watch, but certainly most of them. They were pressed against the walls in an eager ring, watching with hushed avidity as two figures moved in the open centre. Denethor paused for a moment, taking in the scene. He was taller than most, and the Guards of the City wore low leathern helms instead of the lofty black ones of the Citadel. He could easily see over most men's shoulders and some men's heads: well enough, anyhow, to see that the two men in the midst of the throng were sparring not with swords but with quarterstaves.

The shorter of the two swung, and deftly the tall Guard parried. The thump of wood on wood was loud amid the low noises of the crowd. Denethor craned his neck to a better angle as the tall one guarded against another blow. His opponent seemed to be flustered: he kept striking too quickly, and each time he was easily evaded. Then the tall man ducked, avoiding a swing that should have been blocked from the centre. From his squat he swung his staff around, striking the side of the other man's knee. The joint buckled and the soldier fell: the blow had not been a hard one, but it had struck perfectly on the reflex point.

A cheer went up, and Denethor took advantage of the disorder to elbow his way to the rim of the ring. The tall man was reaching to offer his opponent a hand, and the Guard on his back took it. As he rose, it was clear that he was laughing. He clapped his conqueror on the arm.

'I never would have thought it!' he gasped, grinning foolishly as if it had been a pleasure to be beaten. 'I was sure I was… the best in the first four Circles of the City!'

'Most likely you are, and I had only a new man's luck,' said the winner. The earnest praise in his tone surprised Denethor. 'I have not been put through such quick paces in a long while.'

'Let's have it again!' someone shouted from the far corner of the yard. The shorter Guard chuckled breathlessly, and the tall one – whose chest rose and fell only a little more rapidly than the norm – raised an outward palm and shook his head.

'Have mercy, now,' he said calmly, with the note of a master reining in the enthusiasm of his apprentices. 'I have a watch to sit this evening, and so do many of you.'

There was a general groan at this, but it was good-natured. The men looked around as if in search of their next diversion. It was then that they spied their Captain-General in their midst.

Those nearest him bowed at once. Murmurs of 'Sire!' and 'My Lord!' rippled from mouth to mouth. Denethor looked around at them with the cool respect a master of men owed his loyal servants.

'Disperse now: the man speaks aright!' he declaimed, his strong voice filling the walled space. Jerking his chin to the tall Guard, he asked; 'Are you the supplicant lately come, so it has been claimed, from Rohan.'

'I am,' said the soldier. He met Denethor's eyes levelly, not only because he seemed able to withstand the fire within but because they were precisely the same height. 'I see you are a lord of renown among the men, sire, but I do not know you.'

He was well-spoken, far too well-spoken to be a farmer's son or a fisherman. He spoke the Common Tongue in the mode of Gondor, with no trace of the accent of the Rohirrim or any other foreign land. Yet there was something to the cadence of his voice that was unusual, unlike any voice Denethor had heard before. The man was flushed with his exertions and the cold, but already his breath had evened out and he looked no more fatigued than a man who had bolted up a short flight of stairs. His opponent, on the other hand, was still trying to catch his wind as he settled his staff amid the pikes and lances on their sheltered rack.

'You should have made it your business to know me,' said Denethor; 'for I am your Captain-General and the master of all the armies of Gondor. Denethor son of Ecthelion am I, second of that name, and I am the Heir to the Steward himself.'

Denethor was not certain what he expected, but given the man's proud features and confident demeanour, it was not what followed. For the stranger planted the butt of his quarterstaff in the frozen earth and dropped to one knee, gloved hand sliding down the length of smooth wood. He bowed his head.

'Then I am yours to command, my Lord. I have come only to aid Gondor in her valiant cause, and I am ready to serve both that aim and your gracious self as best I may.'

'Fair words,' said Denethor. Around him the crowd was dispersing, hastening back indoors away from the chill of the air and the piercing eyes of their Lord. 'Will you ply such language when you say to me that you come to us out of Rohan?'

'I do, sire,' said the man. 'Though it has not suited all to believe me, I do not speak false.'

'I do not doubt that you have come from Rohan,' said Denethor. 'The seal upon the letter you bore is genuine. It is the mark of Thengel son of Fengel, and I know it well.'

The man kept his head respectfully lowered, but he seemed to stiffen at these words as if in eagerness. 'If my Lord has read the letter,' he said, still very calm and perfectly courteous; 'then he will know of the proofs therein contained. I can substantiate my claim to the name of Thorongil, and to the deeds done under that name.'

Denethor moved closer, choosing movement over the confession that the letter was yet unopened. There were only four hangers-back now, clustered near the door and watching spellbound as their Lord in his silks and furs drew near to the genuflecting guard who held his quarterstaff before him like a spear out of legend. These onlookers were beneath Denethor's notice, save as a soldier always notices all that surrounds him. He stopped just short of the stranger's planted boot and tilted his head.

'That name,' he echoed silkily, still trying to get a firm reading of the man. It was difficult with his eyes downcast and only the crown of his helm bared to Denethor's piercing gaze. 'Not my name, but that name.'

'I have taken it to myself, sire. I have earned it and I have paid for it,' said the man. 'It is mine.'

'Yet it is not your right name. This is true, is it not?' asked Denethor. He was noticing other things now. The wool tunic was old, strained flat at the seams, but it had been newly shorn of snags and pills. It was long enough in the body, but too short in the arms: it did not meet the cuff of the gauntlet that held the staff aloft. The cloak atop it was standard issue, falling to this man's knees instead of mid-calf but perfectly serviceable. Yet it was clasped not with a simple iron hook or a brooch of beaten bronze as most were, but with a silver star that glistered in the sunlight.

'I have borne it these nine years, my Lord,' said Thorongil. 'It has served me well.'

'I see.' Denethor began to make a slow circle around the man. Their breath came in frosty billows, and he wondered idly whether the chill of the earth had yet seeped through the shaft of the Guard's high boot where it rested beneath his lowered shin. He wondered whether the man would ask leave to rise before it was granted. He decided it would be useful to know. 'And if I were to ask for the name you were given at birth?'

'Then I would say that I was not raised under that name, sire, and that I have walked more years under the name of Thorongil than under it.'

A hiss of irritation grew in Denethor's throat, but he quelled it almost before it could sound at all. 'Do you realize that such evasions only serve to imperil your position here?' he asked chillingly.

'Your gracious father the Lord Steward of this realm let it be known that men of worth should come to him,' said Thorongil, his tone still placid. 'It is proclaimed that he cares naught for their birth, nor the land in which it occurred. I dared to surmise the same was true of the name given at it.'

'We are not speaking of my father's caring, but of my own,' said Denethor. 'I would know your right name.'

Still the head was bowed in fitting subjugation and still the voice was humble, but the words themselves were but a hair's-breadth from treason. 'My Lord, your caring cannot sway me,' the man who called himself Thorongil said. 'I am unable to tell you of my birth name, as I am unable to tell you the particulars of the time and place it was given. I must hope for your lenience in this matter, for in it I have no choice.'

Denethor had just rounded him again, and he swooped low, bowing his back so that he could take hold of the man's chin with the cup of his hand. He tilted the face upward, firm but not over-rough, so that he could at last look the man in the eye. What he saw was not in the least what he had expected. There was no sign of surprise in them, despite the swiftness of the motion. There was no hint of fear, as an alien should feel before the Lord of the land. There was no artifice either, and no defiance. The eyes were tranquil as rock-pools beneath the autumn sun, pale grey and rimmed in patience.

Denethor let his hand drop and he stepped back, jerking his head. 'You may rise,' he said curtly, realizing too late that he had been the first to yield.

Thorongil did so with the same agile grace that he had exhibited in combat. He drew the quarterstaff to him as he must hold the halberd on the walls.

'Thank you, my Lord,' he said gravely, as if taking a cup of spiced wine instead of leave to lift himself out of the dirt. Courtly manners in an ill-fitting cocoon. Denethor's unease was shot through with fascination. What was this man, and why did he behave so strangely? Dignity even before one's betters was one thing, but this graciousness (for there was no other word) was another matter. It left Denethor with the uneasy feeling that it was he who was the supplicant under scrutiny, not this man of no name and mean estate who had come as a place-seeker and a mercenary.

'You fought well, Thorongil of the Guard,' he said in a tone of appraising approval that would have had any man in the Company fawning with gratitude for the commendation. 'Some day I should like to see you wield something more deadly.'

'A quarterstaff is deadly enough, if used aright,' said Thorongil, almost meekly. He inclined his head. 'But I hope Your Lordship shall indeed have the occasion to observe my swordwork. Perhaps when my Company is taken out for their field maneuvers? There is much talk of the excursion.'

'Perhaps,' said Denethor noncommittally. In truth he was unsure he could wait until the Tenth Company took its turn in the open country. Already he was burning with questions about this man: they would haunt his very dreams.

'You are standing the next watch?' he asked. It was an infuriating relief to pose a question to which he knew the answer.

'Yes, my Lord. Patrolling in the Butchers' Quarter,' Thorongil said neatly. 'I have not yet held that post.'

Denethor grunted his acknowledgment of the logic of that: in six days a man could not serve even half the posts in the Second Circle. 'You had best see to your feeding, then, and whatever else you must do before you will be fit to serve. The off hours pass swiftly, especially in play.'

He nodded pointedly at the quarterstaff, and Thorongil's lip curled in wry amusement. 'There is value in play that cannot be had from study,' he said. 'And it gladdens the men. Your pardon, Lord: I must indeed depart as you suggest. I am your servant.'

He bowed then and went to lay away the staff. With a final salute at the doorway, he disappeared into the garrison. Denethor watched him go, his own eyes stormy as molten steel new-cooled in a cruet. Within him wild hosts of thought and feeling warred. His father's policy had been meant to draw men of worth, and there was something of worth in this tall stranger with the pale, chiseled features. Yet there could be no denying that he was hiding much: if a man could not admit to his own name, what else lay concealed behind it?

And he had said the men, speaking not like a common soldier but like a Captain himself. Thorongil the fatherless would have to be watched.

Chapter V: Summoned

It was a welcome relief when the last petitioner retreated and Ecthelion was able to depart from the throne room. The high vaulted chamber was difficult to heat properly, and at this time of the year it was not a pleasant place to linger. With the White Rod of his office in the crook of one arm, the Steward slipped through the side door that led to the Council chamber. Beyond it was his study, where he could labour over the problems of the realm in relative peace. Certainly it was warmer in there.

The cold snap was nearing a week in length, and folk were starting to murmur of ill omens and the machinations of the Enemy. Such was always the case when the weather fell foul for too long, and the harsher the weather, the shorter the time before the grim whispers began spreading. It had not been so in Ecthelion’s youth. Then foul weather had been only foul weather, to be endured with mild irritation until it turned. But since the fires of Mount Doom had once more flared and the Shadow had begun to spread, fear was never far beneath the surface. It only took a little burden (like a few days’ deep, dry cold) to crack the façade and let the anxiety bubble over.

It was difficult not to be swept away in such superstitions. As the Steward, Ecthelion had to lead by example. He could not afford to fear the ephemeral, not even in secret. He had to believe that a cold snap was only a cold snap, and that it would pass in its own good time.

The Council chamber was empty, for they were not meeting today. In the days of Turgon, the Steward had met with his Councillors but once a week. Ecthelion had not been long ensconced before he had increased that to twice. As times grew ever darker and the border situation ever more tenuous, more mind than ever had to be given to the ruling of the kingdom. Only a fool supposed he could do such a thing alone, and the Council served as the Steward’s first line of aid in his duties, save only his son.

It was with mild surprise that Ecthelion saw the door to his office standing ajar. Such an incongruity would have made Denethor instantly wary, but Ecthelion thought first of the most reasonable explanation. The servant who had come to light the fire, knowing it would be wanted when the public audience concluded, had simply neglected to close it properly. The White Tower had been rebuilt finer and more weathertight than the original, but it was impossible to keep all draughts from a structure of its size – particularly given its lofty exposure to the mountain winds. A door not properly latched would tend to creep with the currents.

He did not approach with apprehension, therefore, and yet his heart leapt within him when his entrance brought a glad cry from the cosy seat in the chimney-corner. Astonished, he did not quite process what was happening until the slender arms were twined about his neck.

‘Ada!’ cried the young girl, kissing his cool cheek as he wrapped a sluggard of an arm about her back. ‘I thought perhaps they would keep you late today. I came readied for a wait.’

She drew back to look at him, hands sliding to his shoulders. Ecthelion’s smile was broad and his spirit suddenly merry, cold and worry and weariness forgotten. He looked at his daughter, and he was glad.

Anaiwen, she was: the child of his age and the jewel of his heart. She had been born to the Steward and his Lady when both had thought the days of babes and giggles and jolly little feet far behind them. Ecthelion had taken care to cherish every moment of his youngest daughter’s rearing, as he had been too distracted by duty and the labours of a Captain General to do with the others. It had meant laying some of the responsibilities of his office on Denethor, but his son flourished on authority and had always deported himself well.

Now Anaiwen was seventeen, nearly grown but yet several years from full womanhood. She was witty and vivacious and every bit as intelligent as her brother, but with none of his guarded severity. She twisted in Ecthelion’s arms to point to the workbasket she had been in the midst of unpacking.

‘I promised Naneth that I would work on the new linens for the Hallows,’ she said. ‘She wanted to keep me indoors on account of the cold, but I managed to convince her that it would be perfectly cosy in here. I was right, as you can see.’

Ecthelion took her left hand from his shoulder and kissed the back of the fingers that curled so perfectly about his own. ‘You ventured out in this weather, just to visit me?’

‘Do I need a better reason?’ asked Anaiwen blithely, slipping from his grasp and moving to drag the tall carven chair back from his worktable so that the Steward might sit. ‘Or should it be a more ennobling reason? My philosophy master is a great advocate of finding ennobling pursuits in one’s daily life.’

‘I should think honouring your father an ennobling pursuit, my dear one,’ laughed Ecthelion. He laid aside the Rod and spread his heavy garments smoothly as he sat.

His daughter flitted back to the seat by the hearth, tucking up her feet beneath the broad skirts of her polished worsted kirtle. She was well-clad for the weather, wearing over it a half-long gown with tippets and lining of fur. On her feet were her fleece-lined leather shoes. Her mantle was folded over the writing chest in the corner, and she had spread her hood and gloves near the fire to warm. Now she picked up her piece of fine sewing and smoothed it over one knee as she found her place.

‘I’m afraid it is not the only reason I have come, Ada,’ she said with a regretful little smile of apology, as if to say she did not wish to disillusion him. ‘Valacar came by the House in search of you, and he left that.’

She pointed with her finger, thumb and needle at the middle of the desk, where a packet sat. It was of costly paper, creamy white but stained with smudges of ink just recognizable as blurred tengwar. Someone had tried to blot away the marks when they were still wet, but the efforts had been only marginally successful. Ecthelion found himself trying to read the figures, backwards though they were, and he forced himself to look away before he brought on a headache.

‘You could have sent Valacar here,’ he pointed out. ‘There was no need to venture forth yourself, not on a day like this.’

‘That is precisely what Naneth said, and Rínil warned me that it’s ill luck to go out in weather like this,’ she said. Her nurse, now her chief maid, was a doleful woman and particularly susceptible to seeing portents. Anaiwen frowned with the stubborn assurance of a young girl who is firmly set in her opinions. ‘That is when I decided it must be done. You have told me talk of foul weather coming from the East is nonsense, and Denethor is always saying that we must defy the very idea of the Shadow, lest in our fear it shall conquer all.’

Such frank words from young lips should have saddened Ecthelion, but the blunt courage in his daughter’s voice filled him with pride and a true sense of hope for the future. ‘Still, Valacar might have brought this,’ he said fondly, picking up the letter and weighing it in his hand.

‘Yes,’ allowed Anaiwen; ‘but the Comptroller had to have words with him about Denethor’s household accounts, and I thought you would want it as soon as possible. Turn it over, Ada: just see who sent it!’

Brows furrowing a little at the eagerness in his child’s voice, Ecthelion obeyed. His eyes went first to the writing, its blocky stoutness standing out in a bold but unrefined way that had been the despair of many a scribe. Heart quickening within him, he glanced at the seal. There in the wax galloped the horse of Rohan.

Anaiwen was watching him with shining eyes, leaning forward over her sewing like a child rapt in the high drama of a play. ‘It is from Thengel, isn’t it, father? From your friend the King?’

Ecthelion looked up, smiling as he nodded. Anaiwen did not remember the days when Thengel son of Fengel dwelt in Gondor, much less the time he had spent in the very home of the Steward, but she had heard stories all her life. She had met him, too, on several occasions – most recently the marriage of his second daughter. Something about the dispossessed young man taking shelter in a foreign land before riding home to reclaim his crown captured her girlish imagination.

‘Did it arrive this morning?’ he asked, wondering why the runner from the Riddermark would not have brought it into the Citadel himself. The tokens of the King of Rohan would have been sufficient for him to pass through every Gate of the City without challenge, if not without an escort.

‘Valacar said that Denethor asked him to bring it to you,’ said Anaiwen. ‘I did not think to ask when it came. Should I have done so?’

‘No, no, loyal heart,’ said Ecthelion softly, reaching for the slender silver letter opener so that he could lift the seal without breaking it. He stole another glance and his lovely little lady with her long, dark plaits bound back with crimson ribbons. Then he opened the letter.

The first thing he noticed was that the date was old: almost six weeks old, in fact. Even afoot a journey from Edoras to Minas Tirith would not have taken half that time. Puzzled, he moved to the salutation. The amicable line of address above the seal led him to expect an informal and affable missive. This was not the case. He read:

Ecthelion, Dear as Brother,


I write to commend to you the bearer of this letter. This man has served me well for nigh on nine years, and rendered much noble labour to the good of Rohan and the defence of her borders. He is a man of courage, of integrity, and of great skill. With the sword, his talents are unmatched in all my realm. With the spear he is as deft as most of my Captains. With bow, with axe, with knife and mace he is any man’s equal and many men’s better. In no skill of the field does he want for proficiency. Even upon horseback he is a marvel to behold, for all that he was not born to the green fields of the Riddermark nor raised to ride our horses – finest in all the world.


Furthermore he has been found, by me and by others, to be a capable strategist and a great leader of men. He has served me well, both in the field of war and in more personal matters. I have found him ever to be steadfast, trustworthy and wise. It is with heartfelt confidence that I present him to you, for I do not doubt he will serve you as nobly and as diligently as he has served me these last nine years. I am sorry to be bereft of his loyal presence, but it gladdens my heart to know that at least I send him to the aid of a great friend – and a friend whose need for such a man is far graver than my own.


That you may be assured the man before you is indeed the mighty Thorongil, we two have agreed upon proofs. If asked, he shall be able to give to you the name of the mare he brought down the mountain, when first he became known to me. She is Dicea of the Mearas, a fair and fearsome steed even then. Furthermore, lest clever hands and prying eyes intercept this missive, you may read upon his body the evidence of his loyal service. He bears a scar, like in shape to a compass rose but with much elongation of the east-west arm, above the crest of his right hip. Its centre is three finger-spans towards his back. The scar is now old, and long gone white. It is a mark of his first victory in my service, of which no doubt he can tell you better than I.


Should any further assurances be needed, or the particulars of his record be wanted, you have only to ask and I shall provide them. I have been asked in this missive to speak only to his qualities, not his deeds, and I have done as best I can to meet that condition. You will soon learn that Thorongil keeps close his own counse on matters of a personal sort, though that which he gives on martial matters is generous and unrivalled in its quality.


Use well the gift I send you now, and treat him according to his worth – if even in your mighty realm you have honours enough to offer him. You may find him a challenging man to elevate in worldly things, but command and responsibility I have found him ever ready to undertake.


Good fortune go with you, my friend. In Thorongil you have its surest agent.


In lasting fidelity,

Thengel King, Lord of the Riddermark,
Your brother.


By the time his eyes reached the bottom of the page, Ecthelion’s brows were furrowed with puzzlement. He looked to the first lines again and assured himself that he had read them aright. I write to commend to you the bearer of this letter. Clearly Thengel had expected this man Thorongil, whoever he might be, to present the missive himself. Instead it had come through at least three other pairs of hands: from Denethor’s to his secretary’s and so to Anaiwen’s. How Denethor had come by it was another mystery entirely.

‘What did Valacar say of this?’ Ecthelion asked, looking up at his daughter.

Anaiwen had been politely intent upon her sewing, but the swiftness with which she raised her eyes told him that she had been acutely intent upon his actions.  ‘Very little, Ada,’ she said. ‘He was clear that Denethor had ordered him to bring it, but he said no more and we did not question him. I presumed the messenger came first to the Captain General, as they often do, and that he thought this the best way to see the letter to your hands.’

‘Indeed,’ murmured Ecthelion. ‘Did the secretary mention why his master did not bring it himself?’

‘No, but Naneth asked where Denethor was, and Valacar said he had gone down into the city on some matter of business,’ said Anaiwen. Her lips pursed uneasily. ‘Is it ill news, my Lord father?’

‘No…’ Ecthelion frowned at the letter again, as if his disapproval might prompt it to confess its secrets. ‘It is a letter of character for a man who has been a Rider of Rohan. It is meant to assure me of the bearer’s qualities and his fitness for my service.’

Anaiwen laughed. ‘Pray tell: what are my qualities, since I am the bearer?’

A smile was surprised onto the Steward’s face, and his heart was warmed. She was a witty child, and never one to miss a sharp jest. ‘It seems you are proficient with all manner of arms,’ he said. ‘And you have fetched a mare down from a mountain for the King of Rohan?’

‘Oh, I fetch mares down from mountains incessantly, Ada,’ said Anaiwen with an air of insouciant sincerity. ‘It is difficult to catch me doing anything else. Though you see it not, I am fetching one even as we speak.’

‘You are a maid of many gifts,’ said Ecthelion. ‘Yet can you tell me of your first victory in Thengel’s service?’

‘I believe I pronounced his name without lisping,’ Anaiwen said gravely. ‘I was not yet three.’

‘You could not remember that!’ chuckled Ecthelion. ‘You only know it is so because Telpiriel loves to share that tale. She had been working with you for weeks, trying to teach you the proper sound, and you refused to perform it for her. She was in despair that you would disgrace us all, only to have you curtsey quite prettily and greet him perfectly.’

‘I have some of the familial stubbornness,’ Anaiwen laughed, tossing her head. ‘It is easy to forget, as I am so very obedient.’

‘Yes… Yet it seems this man Thorongil is not,’ Ecthelion mused, frowning again at the letter. ‘It is clear from the words that he was meant to bring this letter to me himself, and yet here I sit with a missive and no man. Did Valacar say what business brought your brother down into the City, or when he might be expected to return?’

‘No, Ada.’ Anaiwen’s tone was no longer so sunny. She was watching him in puzzled concern, clearly taken by his unease. ‘Shall I run to ask him?’

‘No need of that, dear one,’ said Ecthelion. He turned his face towards the door. ‘Guard!’ he called in a deep and resonant voice of command.

There was a clack of boots on stone, and one of the Guards of the Citadel appeared in the doorway. His arms were crossed over the device of the White Tree upon his tabard, and he bowed low.

‘My Lord,’ he murmured.

‘Send word to the Seventh Gate,’ Ecthelion declared. ‘When my son returns to the Citadel, he is to be brought to me at once. Assure him that no business is more pressing than this.’

‘Yes, sire,’ said the Guard. ‘Shall I have him found, sire?’

Ecthelion paused to consider this. If Denethor had not told Valacar where he was going – or if he had, and Valacar had felt the need to keep quiet about it – then it was unlikely that he wished to be sought. The many duties of the Steward’s Heir were not always suitable for all to know. Trusted though the Guards of the Citadel were, it might be best not to have a contingent of them stumble in upon Denethor’s business unannounced.

‘No; it is not urgent enough to warrant that,’ Ecthelion said. ‘But see that he is brought to me at once upon his return.’

‘Yes, sire,’ said the Guard. Ecthelion inclined his head and waved him off, and the man retreated.

‘What has Denethor done?’ Anaiwen asked when the door of the Council chamber scraped closed.

Ecthelion turned his sharp gaze upon her, wondering just how all this looked to her inexperienced eyes. He tried to smile tenderly, and as ever found it an easy thing. ‘Nothing worthy of censure, of that I am certain,’ he said. ‘Yet he has sent me a letter without its rightful bearer, and I must learn why.’

‘Perhaps he does not trust him,’ said Anaiwen, an arch little note to her tone. Yet when Ecthelion fixed stern eyes upon her she was sewing again, angelic innocence upon her sweet face.




At the change of the watch, Thorongil relieved the soldier from the Eleventh Company of his post. This was a patrol, rather than a set watch: much favoured in the winter when to stand stationary for hours was a bitterly cold business. In the lower City, at least, the Guards were not expected to remain fixed to the spot and all but motionless, but still it was a far more pleasant business to be walking up and down streets among the citizenry. In his few short days in Minas Tirith, Thorongil had seen much of her daily life. Guards, it seemed, were almost invisible. He heard and witnessed much to which any other observer would not have been privy.

The Butchers’ Quarter was aptly named, and after only a few minutes Thorongil could tell that this patrol would be far less pleasant in summer. The smells of blood and offal were muted by the cold, and there were no insects to swarm to them tonight. The ice between the cobbles had a distinct pinkish cast, and the noises of livestock awaiting their turn upon the block warred with the voices raised in hawking or haggling. Most of the custom seemed to be of the poor-to-middling variety, though he saw some in fine garments made over: servants of wealthier houses. Thorongil guessed that the wealthier still had their meat delivered to their kitchen doors, and that most of it came from this very section. It was difficult to imagine so noisome a trade being permitted in the upper Circles.

As he walked, alert to any signs of trouble, he reflected upon his brief time in Minas Tirith. He was settling comfortably into the life of the Tenth Company. His assignment had brought them up to their full compliment of ninety-six men, with Captain Minardil and his three lieutenants rounding it out to one hundred. About two-thirds were housed in the garrison, including the Captain himself. The rest had dwellings in one of the three lowest levels of the City. The barracks was subdivided into small booths, each of which held four bunks. Unlike in the lowest ranks of the Riders of Rohan, the men of Gondor each had their own bed, narrow though they were. It was a luxury Thorongil had not expected, but one for which he was very grateful.

The day was comprised of four watches, and a man ordinarily stood two. These were usually not consecutive, though sometimes a double watch could not be avoided. Thorongil was still on the light duty he had been promised for his first week, but in another two days he would assume the same roster as the other men. He was glad of that, for now that he was beginning to settle in he found that he had rather too much free time. He was used to the arduous schedule of an Undermarshal, rising with the dawn to inspect and assemble his éored before moving on to receiving reports from the captains beneath his command, and then to work through the day’s maneuvers or skirmishes or other like business until the setting of the Sun. Nor had his labours often ended then, for he had the administrative matters of his Quarter Muster to see to. After this, a single six-hour watch did not seem to fill much of the day.

He had made good use of the time, getting to know the men of the Tenth Company. Most took their cue from their Captain, and were welcoming if understandably curious. A few were rather aloof at first, though these seemed to be warming. There were three who seemed openly hostile, snubbing him at meals and speaking ill of him to others, but that was to be expected in a City with such cause to be wary of newcomers. Thorongil was grateful to have been placed under a tolerant Captain: his lot would have been far worse in Bregold’s Company, for instance.

He had found the sparring yard to be an excellent place to forge new friendships. These were by nature active men, but winter’s weather had been keeping them sedentary more often than they realized. With the incentive of gauging a new recruit to bring them out, most found fresh vigour and enjoyment in the various close drills. Thorongil had met nineteen men in single combat with the unwieldy practice blades, and had used other weapons against about half a dozen more. He had yet to be bested, but rather than frustrating the other Guards this seemed to encourage them. Everyone wanted his turn against the new man, each hoping to be the one to finally make him yield. Thorongil’s way of encouraging a man in defeat was serving him well: he was building camaraderie rather than hard feelings.

He made it a point to spend two hours of each day abroad in the City. He had only the two lowest levels at his disposal, but there was much to see and much to learn. He heard the Elvish tongue lest often than he had expected or hoped, but when he did it was well-spoken. The folk of these two levels were of the lower ranks of society, yet there seemed little abject poverty. This was due in part, Thorongil suspected, to the surfeit of dwelling space. Although the streets were busy and the City functioning well, many homes and trade buildings stood vacant. Some looked to have been empty for decades or even centuries. Asking discretely, he learned that the population of Minas Tirith had been dwindling steadily over the years, though no one could quite specify the rate. As the Shadow grew, the City began to seem far too near to its edge for comfort.

The remainder of his free time Thorongil spent on restoring his sword. It was slow work, scraping away at the rust with a lump of soft copper. He had judged rightly that the damage was only surface-deep, and he meant to keep it that way: careful cleaning was needed. The copper he had borrowed from one of his booth-mates, and he had spent a couple of his pennies on a bottle of oil and a soft piece of lambskin for buffing the steel. A whetstone he already possessed. Fresh wrappings for the hilts would have to wait until he drew his first month’s wage, but as he was at present still restoring that part of the sword as well, this was no hardship.

It was an excellent blade, however weathered. The Númenorean steel was of the very finest. Clearly it had been wrought by a master swordsmith, and Thorongil was compelled to wonder how it had found its way through the generations to a disused corner of a lowly armoury. He had tried it once or twice on the quintain in the yard, and he had fallen into the feel of the sword as swiftly as he had any piece of Noldorin craftsmanship in his younger days. He had thought the sword he bore in Rohan to be a fine weapon, but this one put it to shame.

He had it at his side now, its still speckled blade concealed in the battered but serviceable sheath. It was as much a part of a Guard’s livery as the indifferently dyed tunic or heavy but too often inadequate cloak. Without the need to hold a pike or a halberd, Thorongil could keep his arms in the shelter of the latter. He was glad of that, for the ring of bare flesh between cuff and gauntlet was quick to burn with the cold. He had not expected such a chill in these climes, and from the talk around him he knew it was unusual. Had his Company been less favourably inclined towards him, they might have blamed the stranger for bringing the cold with him.

As it drew onto sunset, the streets grew quiet. Most folk were bound for home to fix up their purchases for the day-meal. The butchers and cutters were winding down their day’s labours. Thorongil was perplexed when, abruptly and seemingly out of nowhere, the shops were once more beset with patrons. It took him only a few minutes of observing these shabbily dressed figures with their clumsy homemade willow baskets to realize what was going on.

The poor of the city were coming to buy or to beg the scraps and gristle and off-cuts, apparently amassed throughout the day and sold very cheaply by weight at its ending. Marrow bones, of course, were priced for the comfortably-off, but the smaller bones with their shreds of flesh seemed the least costly stuff of all: only the very ragged, their cast-off garments bundled around too-thin frames, bought those. Watching them, Thorongil felt a weary and half-sick pity. It seemed there was desperate poverty in the White City after all; it was merely hidden from sight behind cold stone walls.

There was naught that he could do for these sorry folk. He had not even his few little coins on his person, for carrying extra gear on watch was not encouraged. All he could do was keep a keen lookout for any rogues and pickpockets trying to prey upon the destitute. And, he realized after several of these people stepped down into the muck and blood of the gutters in order to give him a wide berth, he could refrain from harassing them. They seemed to expect something – whether a sharp word or a cuff or worse he could not say. Thorongil noted grimly that he would have to speak to Minardil about it. The problem might not be with the Guards of the Second Level, for there was no like quarter in the First, but in either case it had to be addressed.

A sympathetic voice interrupted his grim thoughts. ‘When first I came, I did not expect this also.’

Thorongil looked around, momentarily puzzled, until he caught sight of another man in the livery of the Guard. He stood on the next street corner, just out of the pool of light cast by a shop’s front lantern. Darkness fell swiftly in the lower levels of Minas Tirith, for the mountains overshadowed them.

There was an unusual tone and accent to the voice, and Thorongil began to walk towards him. ‘I had hoped that in such a city there would be few to buy up the scraps of the more fortunate,’ he said as he came.

‘And I had hoped that the noble Men of the West would do more to provide for their poor,’ said the other soldier. He stepped into the light, revealing a face with skin of a warm brown tone. His dark eyes and thick black brows further branded him an Easterling. Another of Ecthelion’s Follies, no doubt.

‘We should,’ said Thorongil softly. He worked his hand out of the shelter of his cloak to offer it. The other Guard clasped it companionably. ‘I am Thorongil, newly come to Minas Tirith as you have plainly surmised. I am serving with the Tenth Company.’

‘Jamon, of the Ninth,’ said the other man. He was tall for his race, but Thorongil overtopped him by almost three hands. ‘Yes, I could see that you are new. After a time, we no longer look so dismayed at the spectacle. Further, I do not know you, and it is strange for a man of Gondor to be sent back down from the upper levels.’

‘I am not a man of Gondor,’ said Thorongil. ‘I have come from a far country to serve the Steward, as he has bade men do. Am I remiss in thinking the same is true of you?’

‘No, I am myself a stranger,’ said Jamon, a wry half-smile upon his face. ‘Yet I look it and you do not. You are fortunate in that, Thorongil of the Tenth Company. Soon they will forget you are not one of them.’

This brought a grim frown to Thorongil’s lips. ‘Then you are not made welcome?’ he asked.

Jamon shrugged. ‘Those who know me are friendly. I have comrades in my Company, and some among the people.’ Then he smiled broadly, revealing straight and well-kept teeth. ‘I am to be married, so I suppose I cannot complain of my welcome.’

‘You have my wishes for a joyous and fruitful life together,’ said Thorongil. ‘How long have you been in the City?’

‘Seven years,’ said Jamon. He looked around. ‘Come: if we are to talk on patrol, at least we ought to be walking it.’

They started up the cross-street, Thorongil shortening his steps to match the other man’s. ‘What do you make of Minas Tirith?’ he asked. ‘I have never travelled to the far countries over Anduin. Have you such cities in the land of your birth?’

‘Such a city as this, no,’ said Jamon. ‘Our cities grow outward, not up, and they are not so orderly. It has the look of a draftsman’s daydream, does it not? The streets so true, their meetings so square. Only the Gates look to have been scattered as if by a child, and that was of careful design.’

‘It was indeed built to a plan,’ said Thorongil; ‘and its streets laid out all at once. The houses sprouted with time, but the City itself is much as it was when first Anarion son of Elendil cast wide the Great Gate to greet his brother.’

‘You are learned in the history of Gondor?’ asked Jamon. ‘Yet you say you are not one of its people.’

‘I have made it my study,’ Thorongil said. ‘For many years it has been my wish to come here. Yet in six days I have learned more of the ways of Minas Tirith than could have been gleaned from a lifetime’s study of old tomes and written accounts.’

Jamon looked momentarily wistful. Then he gave a small shake of his head, scanning an alleyway as they passed it. ‘This place was different than I believed it to be, also,’ he said. ‘I came on the strength of a rumour, looking to find a place of beauty and freedom far from the Shadow. I found beauty, yes, and freedom of a kind… but the Shadow is near, and each year it comes more near, and in the end this is just another City, imperfect and filled with its own troubles.’

‘Imperfect.’ The word lingered on Thorongil’s tongue, at once an accusation and a sacred charge. Imperfection itself was not a failing, if ever one strived towards a better state. He had not yet seen if Minas Tirith lay on such a course, but if it was in his power to ensure it, he would.

This brought to his mind another question, one that had been troubling him for over a week now. ‘How were you welcomed when first you came to Gondor?’ he asked.

Jamon laughed. ‘I was asked many questions by men both small and mighty. They wished to know every particular of my enslavement in the armies of the Eye. They kept me for a time, until they were sure of me. Even then there were men in my Company set to watch me for many months.’ He squinted to see Thorongil’s expression on the gloom, and he grinned. ‘But I have proved faithful, and I have my Captain’s trust. I will never rise above my present post, but it is high enough.’

‘Does that not anger you?’ asked Thorongil. ‘The Steward has promised rank and reward to those who serve him well, and yet you say you can climb no higher.’

‘That is not the Steward’s doing,’ said Jamon. ‘I am only a common soldier, and that is all I will ever be. I refuse to go with the armies that cross the river, for to be captured by the Enemy would be for me a fate far worse than death. I have not the gentle ways that would make me suited to the upper levels. So here I am and here I shall remain.’

‘I see.’ Thorongil wondered how much of this was true, but it was plain at least that Jamon believed it. The shadow of terror that had come over his whole being when he spoke of capture left Thorongil unwilling to probe too deeply. He sought to find a new direction for their talk.

‘This patrol will be unpleasant in more clement weather,’ he said. ‘What are the worst watches, and which are the best?’

‘The worst?’ asked Jamon. ‘For any man, or for me? I do not like the watch upon the lower Gate, though many find it pleasant. There is… bad blood between myself and some of the men in the lesser Companies. Not all like to be ranked lower than an Easterling. The watch upon the walls is worst when the wind is high, places like this least likable when the weather is hot. But each post has its merits and each its trials. It is the very nature of the broken world.’

Thorongil had to stop himself before echoing these words also. The way in which Jamon spoke them made it plain that this was an old saying, doubtless brought from his homeland. It was transfixing to realize that in such a distant place people might speak of the same sorrow in words so similar.

‘Where I was born,’ Thorongil said softly; ‘we call it the fate of Arda Marred.’

Jamon shook his head. ‘I do not know the Elvish tongue,’ he said. ‘I knew little of this one when first I came. In my homeland I was a man of letters, a scribe of the state before they pressed me into service. Here I am lucky to be able to read a posted edict or to write the day’s date.’

‘Do you wish to learn?’ Thorongil asked. He was no stranger to offering informal tutelage: many of his men had been eager to learn more of Westron and its writing.

‘Who has time for study?’ chuckled Jamon. ‘Twelve hours of the day spent at watch, another six – or nearly – for sleep, and six to woo my lady and placate her father. If you had asked me two years ago, it might have been different.’

Thorongil thought that perhaps literacy would help the man’s prospects for promotion, if his skin proved not too great a barrier among the Captains of Gondor, but he did not say it. He had no wish to raise false hopes, and he did not yet have a measure of those who held power in this City. His meeting with the Steward’s Heir this afternoon had been a strange one: part lecture, part interrogation, and part a strange and sinuous dance. What had been plain was that the Captain-General was an immensely intelligent man. He had picked up on ambiguities of speech that Thorongil had scarcely known he was using, and he had made of them a prybar to lever at the secrets beneath. When next they met, Thorongil would have to be more careful. And assuredly they would meet again: Denethor would see to that.

‘Your lady must be a delight to your heart,’ Thorongil said, because it was the courteous subject to undertake. He tried to avoid such talk when he could, for it woke within him a hollowness that nothing could assuage. Yet the joy Jamon took in his betrothal was obvious, and it would give him pleasure to relate it to a new pair of ears.

‘She is!’ the other Guard sighed, grinning like a green boy although he must have been drawing on to forty. ‘She is as patient as the day is long – which is to say, a little less in the wintertime when the world is cold – and she is very clever. She can read and write, which in my land is a rarity in woman. She brings me joy in the smallest particular. She—’

‘Ho, there!’ a deep voice called, ringing up the empty street and echoing off the tall houses. Both men turned to see a third Guard striding up towards them. He nodded his chin at Thorongil. ‘Are you the new man? From the Tenth Company?’

‘I am,’ said Thorongil, mildly enough despite a burst of apprehension. What cause would any have to seek him while on duty? Irrational though it was, he found himself sifting through his deeds of recent days to find where he had erred.

‘You’re to go to the Gate,’ the Guard announced. He was not one of the Tenth Company, but neither did he greet Jamon. It was possible that he was intent upon his mission, but he was just as likely a man from the Eleventh. ‘The Guard there will take you up. Seems you’re wanted.’

There was a note of mockery to that last word, and it only intensified Thorongil’s unease. ‘Where am I wanted, and why?’ he asked.

‘I don’t ask the whys!’ blustered the Guard incredulously. ‘When orders come down for a man to report to the Citadel, he reports: no questions. I’m to take the rest of your watch. Get on, now. Move!’

With no further discussion, Thorongil went. He took off at a brisk walk, his strides stretching back to their comfortable length. Behind him he could hear Jamon and the other Guard dividing up the patrol area, but he had no thought to spare for that. Summoned to the Citadel? Perhaps the Steward’s son had drawn some conclusions about the stranger after all. Thorongil could not help but wonder whether he was about to be put to a serious interrogation, like the one Jamon described. A more promising voice suggested that perhaps his letter had found its way to the Steward’s hand at last, but he quelled that hope. If he had heard nothing of it yet, it was unlikely that he would ever do so.

Fixing his mind upon gathering his composure and resolve for whatever was to come, Thorongil turned onto the broad way that led up to the Third Gate.

Chapter VI: The Steward and the Stranger

Denethor was pacing between the feet of the statues of Isildur and Anarion where they faced one another across the broad aisle of the throne room. From his stone seat Ecthelion watched his son prowl, a brooding blankness cast as if in marble across his noble features. The pivot at each end of the course sent the skirts of his short robe swinging about his knees, showing the generous cut of the cloth and its fur-lined weight. When discharging his daily duties, Denethor always wore a pair of high boots with a pegged heel. These added a little more than an inch to his already daunting height, and they made a crisp clap-clap noise as he walked. His brows were furrowed slightly and his eyes stormy with rapid thought.

‘You ought to sit and compose yourself, my son,’ said Ecthelion, a little too conscious of the echo his words had in the great empty room. But for the two guards at the far end, flanking the door with motionless precision in their stance and posture, they were alone. Despite her sweet plea to be allowed to linger, Ecthelion had sent Anaiwen home to her mother and a fine hot supper. It seemed likely that he and Denethor would be postponing their day-meal yet awhile. ‘You will not compel him to come any more swiftly by working your own legs.’

Denethor froze mid-pass, his back stiffening from its pose of predacious command into the rigid straightness of a soldier chastised while on parade. He turned only his head towards his father, doubtless unaware of how his slender neck and cold eyes gave the motion a dauntingly serpentine look.

‘I do not see why you insist upon seeing the man tonight,’ he said. His voice was hard but perfectly respectful: that of a Captain expressing his disenchantment with his lord’s command without actually questioning it. ‘I have assured you he has been seen to, and assigned to a Company of the Guard. If we wait another week, his Captain can give us all we wish to know of his deportment and skills.’

‘I am pleased that you took it upon yourself to see him well disposed,’ said Ecthelion, trying not to sound too patient. He knew that at times Denethor took this for condescension; at other times for weakness. The Steward’s Heir did not understand the iron strength required to keep hold of one’s frustrations and irritations, for he seldom kept either beneath more than a thin veneer of cold civility. In this he was not so different from Ecthelion’s own father, and perhaps that was why the trait in Denethor seemed at times so daunting.

‘It is well that he has been assigned a post,’ he went on; ‘and I am pleased that you saw fit to keep him in the city instead of dispatching him abroad. Yet he bore to Minas Tirith a letter from the hand of the King of Rohan, and I fain would speak to him of it.’

Denethor had read the missive, between Ecthelion’s order that the man Thorongil was to be summoned and the beginning of the purposeful pacing. His face had betrayed nothing as he read, and his lone comment upon laying the paper down had been; ‘A mighty fighter, Thengel claims. Certainly he was adept enough with a stick.’

Anaiwen had giggled at this, both because the idea was comical (children, not warriors, fought with sticks) and because Denethor’s dry tone made it all the more amusing. A quick question from Ecthelion had established that his son had witnessed the end of a quarterstaff battle in the Tenth Company’s yard that day, and that the new man had been triumphant. With prompting, Denethor had gone on to say that he had asked a few questions of the recruit and found him to be well-spoken but uninformative.

Ecthelion was unsure what to make of such a remark, but he did not wish to interrogate his son too closely. Neither had he asked for the cause of the letter’s slow journey from the provost in the First Circle to his own hand. Perhaps the new man would offer some insight. It was better to raise the question then, rather than to put up Denethor’s hackles. It was clear from the way he had looked at the letter when he came before his father that he associated with it some manner of guilt, and with that guilt lay anger. Ecthelion had no wish to rouse his son to wrath, and he tried to convince himself that the reasons for this were manifold. It was not merely that he feared to let his heart be bruised by unkind and unfailingly piercing words.

‘Is there more that you can tell me of this man?’ he asked now, before Denethor could launch back into his tight, reeling laps of the room. ‘Never have I known your judgment to be flawed, least of all in the gauging of a man’s worth.’

‘He is proud,’ said Denethor; ‘yet he is obedient. He is truthful, but he is evasive. In that evasion, I fear, he is hiding much. It seems plain that he is well-liked by his fellows, though he has been among them but six days. The Provost Captain has a rather less flattering opinion of him. He found the stranger disrespectful, arrogant, boastful of his scholarly skills but indistinct about his martial ones. Had I not witnessed him in action myself, I would have said Thengel sent us a clerk, and no warrior at all.’

‘Thengel’s praise is most effusive,’ said Ecthelion. ‘He claims this man is the finest swordsman in all of his realm.’

‘The finest sword in Rohan,’ Denethor scoffed, not quite spitting the words. At the Steward’s affronted stare, he sighed and wagged a dismissive hand. ‘My father knows that they are scarcely a people of landed comment. It is one thing to strike off an orc’s head from the saddle; quite another to stand face to face with a sabred Esterling or one of Sauron’s dread lieutenants with their long, black blades.’

Ecthelion could say nothing to this last comparison, for it was true. Yet to say that the men of Rohan knew naught of swordplay was unfair. ‘Thengel himself fought for Gondor with his boots firmly planted upon her soil,’ he said. ‘He knows a man’s worth with a blade.’

Denethor looked about to argue, but reconsidered. His ankle flexed, and Ecthelion feared the volleying between the feet of the two stony brethren would resume. Instead, Denethor strode towards his sire and stopped before him, putting one foot up on the lowest step and leaning forward, forearm on thigh.

‘That is another cause for curiosity, Father,’ he said, his voice lowered to a low mutter so that the guards could not hear him. ‘The praise Thengel heaps upon this stranger is great. Yet he came to us in ill-fitting, travel-worn raiment without even a sword to his name. Has it not occurred to you that our friend the King of Rohan may have wished to inflate his adulation of the man in order to expel him from his own service without strife?’

For a moment Ecthelion could only stare at his son, a frown of bemused disappointment upon his face. Then he sighed and looked away from those piercing eyes, shading his own with his hand.

‘Denethor, must you find excuses to think the worst?’ he asked. ‘Thengel would not lie to me. Nor would he, knowing as he does of our grave need for good men, send to my court an unskilled liability. Clearly this man Thorongil is worthy of my service. The words of my friend’s own hand proclaim it.’

‘I did not mean to impugn the honour of the King,’ said Denethor. ‘Yet it seems impossible that the man of his writing and the one who refused to rise for the Provost Captain are one in the same. Perhaps the letter was seized from its rightful bearer, alive or dead, and is borne now by an imposter.’

‘That is possible,’ Ecthelion allowed. ‘Thengel himself knew it to be possible. That is why we have been given proofs to look for.’

He turned in his seat to stir the glowing embers in the brazier that lent a little heat to his small sphere of the room, at least.

‘Proofs, aye,’ muttered Denethor. ‘For no spy has ever wounded himself in aid of his craft.’

‘Wounded himself long years before the wound would be wanted?’ asked Ecthelion. ‘Thengel writes that it is an old scar. If this man bears a fresh one instead, you may imprison him yourself.’

Denethor seemed somewhat mollified by these words. Fervently Ecthelion hoped that this showed only that his pledge had put his son at ease about their ability to root out espionage, rather than an over-eagerness to clap a stranger in irons. At least he did draw back from his vulturine pose, and mount the broad bottom step to hold his hands out to the warmth of the basket of fire.

‘You should not spend these long days in the Tower, Father,’ he said, quiet but not over-gentle. ‘You will take a malady on your chest, with the weather so harsh as it has been. Your health is Gondor’s health. It must be cared for.’

Ecthelion turned to look up at his son, his tall, proud son, and he smiled fondly. Denethor was at times harsh in his words and uncompromising in his judgments, but he was also a man who loved – and who worried where he loved, though he did not often let himself display it.


There was no opportunity to look about the streets, to study the evolving intricacy of the architecture or the signs of ever more prosperous inhabitants. There was no time to gather a sense of the streets and byways that branched off of the broad chief way winding from Gate to Gate. Thorongil was led at a great pace through level after level, his sable-clad escort pausing only to deliver each password in its turn in a clipped murmur that even Ranger-sharp ears could not decipher.

The man was one of the Guards of the Citadel, the most prestigious of postings in the City. He wore black mail instead of brittle leather and his garments were of deepest sable, as rich and deep a black as any attainable by the arts of Men. Upon his head sat a lofty winged helm made after the fashion of the war-helms of Westernesse. Yet most striking of all was his tabard, shadowed but not concealed by his thick winter cloak, for upon it was broidered the device of the Heirs of Elendil. The White Tree stood bright upon the midnight field, the Seven Stars overtopped by the crown of Gondor. Silver threads picked out detail upon fine stitches of whitest silk, and the image laid upon so stately a figure had an elegance that winter’s discomforts could not dim.

Thorongil had seen the device before, of course: illuminated in books, stamped or sealed upon royal edicts, inlaid in artefacts, or rendered in the rippling echoes of a tapestry scene to flutter above woven lords in their eternal gallop. He knew it as he knew the curves and strokes of his own signature, and for the same end. Yet to see it worn upon a living body, as it would have been worn throughout the land in other times, was a hallowed thing indeed. It filled him with the same wonder he had felt upon the Pelennor, looking up for the first time at the spires and pinnacles of the White City. It was the wonder of tales laid out in life instead of sketched in wistful imaginings. It was the awe of discovering a tangible fragment of a vast and storied past made living by its few vital remnants.

The sight had dispersed his fears, or at least muffled them. Now he was striding through the evening-quiet streets of the City of his forefathers, his heart strong within him and his limbs sure. The shaded lamp borne by the Guard lighted his way, and his steps were sure and swift. Each Gate they passed through brought him closer to the Citadel of Kings, where once Isildur and his brother had sat in state. Each time they were drawn into the eyeless dark of a vaulted tunnel, they passed again beneath the great buttress of living rock that thrust out from the Court of the Fountain, where stood yet the lifeless bole and branches of the White Tree of Númenor.

So brightly did that image stand forth in his mind that when he passed through the Seventh Gate and under an ancient archway Thorongil did not realize at once when it rose before his eyes. Yet there it stood: the strong bole and naked branches in their mournful splendour. Above the frozen surface of the fountain the dead boughs drooped. Even in death the roots clung deep enough into the soil beneath what would be in warmer months a well-tended greensward that the tree stood firm. No lichen dared assail its trunk, nor any rot take hold within its heart. It stood as if frozen in the moment of its death, waiting for something.

‘Come along: you’re not here to gawp at the marvels of the Citadel,’ the black-clad Guard said, annoyance tempered by a curt understanding. Long familiarity had inured him to the wonder of this spectacle: Thorongil now saw the men standing motionless at guardposts about the Court. Yet he remembered, if only vaguely, how he had felt when he first looked upon this tree out of legend. For the sake of this tree and its forebearers Isildur had climbed into the gardens of Ar-Pharazôn by night, imperiling his life and bringing upon himself grievous wounds. That fruit, stolen from the maw of destruction, had survived the Sundering Seas to be borne to this place. This tree was its second descendant, and perhaps the last.

Yet Thorongil could not tarry to study it, nor to contemplate the unspoken hope that had lain behind the tale of the White Tree when first he had heard it from beloved lips. His guide was hurrying onward now, and he had to follow. The high doors at the foot of the White Tower were flanked by four of the Guards of the Citadel. The innermost pair drew open the doors, while the others stood motionless. None spoke a word.

Inside the echoing space beyond, lamps and clean-burning torches were lit at intervals sufficient to guide movement but not to wholly dispel the shadowy spell of the place. A servant, mustering to the sound of footsteps, stopped when he saw the two men, each in his own livery of greater or lesser honour. The look of schooled sycophancy was replaced with one of haughty satisfaction: there was little work here for him. The man who had brought Thorongil through the city handed off his lantern with a low word, and the servant nodded with the air of one bestowing a favour. The look Thorongil received from him was still more condescending. The Guards in their sable were afforded at least the respect of those entrusted with a sacred charge. Clearly men serving in the lower City were worth little consideration.

Down a stony passage they walked then, its mouth flanked by two more Guards with the high silver helms. It led at last to a high door wrought of bright metal. Upon it knocked Thorongil’s escort, and smoothly and silently the doors swung inward. A swift glance at his guide’s expression told Thorongil he was to go on alone. Drawing a deep breath to rein back exhilaration and trepidation alike, he took a long, smooth stride across the threshold and into the long, vaulted hall.

The tall black pillars that upheld the roof created two narrower aisles to either side of the chamber’s main body. In the outer walls there were windows, set deep and high in the stone. Naught but starlight passed through them at this hour, and the room was lit instead by long wax candles. Eight were held in an iron ring atop an ornately wrought shaft set at the foot of each pillar. The circles of light they cast did not quite overlap, neither side-to-side nor with the one across: the curves of darkness gave the floor of polished stone a look of a tessellation of tiles, each longer than a man. The light rose high along the raiment and arms of the graven likenesses of ancient kings that stood between the pillars, but their faces were cast in shadow.

All this Thorongil took in during the swift moment in which his eye was drawn up the sweep of the hall to its far end. There, beneath a marble canopy carven in the shape of the crowned helm of Gondor, stood a great throne. Behind it the wall was sculpted with the likeness of the White Tree itself, flowering and set with many gems. From the throne cascaded the many steps of its dais, each somewhat more broad than the one before. The last of these was broadest of all, and deep. Upon it were two men: one seated in a black stone chair, and the other standing proud and puissant at the first’s right hand.

Ecthelion son of Turgon was a man whose middle years were past him, though not yet dimmed in memory. His hair was long and lustrous in the candlelight – only the two on either side of his seat were near enough to overlap their glows, and the Steward was placed precisely where the light was brightest. More silver now than black, it leant to him an air of authority long-held and rightfully earned. He wore no adornment upon his head, but the White Rod of his Stewardship rested across his lap. Long hands were folded over it, neither wholly protective nor entirely restraining. His face was bestowed with all the qualities that Thorongil would soon come to associate with the high nobility of Gondor: clear brow, proud bones, a long and well-centred nose. Yet though he sat with grace and majesty, his eyes were warm and quietly wise.

At his side, the Lord Denethor looked much as he had that afternoon. Indeed, he wore the same garments and had the same bright sword at his side. Still more ennobled than his father’s were the features of his face, and in the nose there was a distinctive curve that Thorongil knew all too well – for his own was very like it. His eyes were darker than Ecthelion’s, and seemed to pierce more deeply. Certainly in them there was no warmth, at least not for the one who stood before him now.

The doors swung closed, and Thorongil took another step forward. He was about to stride up the hall towards the Steward and his son when Denethor raised a white hand, palm outward in stern command. Thorongil stopped, crossed his arms over his breast, and bowed deeply.

Denethor’s voice rang resonantly through the chamber, echoing even to the stony vault above. ‘Do you let a stranger come armed before your Lord?’ he demanded. ‘Take his weapons.’

Only then did Thorongil become aware of the two Guards behind him. It was they who had drawn upon the doors, and they stood now on either side of the archway from which those hung. As he straightened, thumbing his cloak back over each shoulder to facilitate the search, they converged upon him. One took the other’s halberd so that both hands were free to search, but Thorongil was already unbuckling his sword-belt. He yielded the half-restored weapon without reluctance or remark, and suffered himself to be swiftly but thoroughly pawed by seeking hands. His knives had been returned to him on his first night in Minardil’s Company, but he did not carry either on watch. There was nothing to find.

When the Guard was assured of this, he held out his empty hand for his iron-headed staff. He turned towards the throne and nodded neatly to his masters. Denethor’s lips drew taut, but he gave the smallest of dismissive gestures. The two men withdrew to their posts, the one carrying Thorongil’s sword and belt with him.

‘Come forward,’ said the Steward, beckoning in an air more of invitation than command. ‘I pray you, pardon the precautions. These are dark times, and my son is ever vigilant.’

‘It is not for me to pardon my liege-lord, sire,’ said Thorongil. Though his tone was humble and mild, he knew his words carried with as much weight as Denethor’s had. He heard himself calling faint echoes far above as he started up the great length of the chamber with smooth, steady strides. Three arm’s lengths from the foot of the dais he halted and bowed again, still more deeply and with one foot slightly forward, a flourish of an Elven upbringing. As he rose from this obeisance he was already dropping to one knee. ‘You have sent for me, my Steward, and I have come.’

Ecthelion’s head began to tilt to the left, ever so slightly, and a small smile touched his lips. ‘You are the man Thorongil, lately out of Rohan?’

‘I am, my Lord,’ he answered. ‘I have been graced with a position among they who guard your fair city, and it is my humble joy to serve you.’

The smile grew by two clear degrees. ‘That is very prettily put,’ said Ecthelion. ‘Hold your head high, Thorongil, and let me look at you.’

He obeyed, rising smoothly to his feet. He kept his eyes veiled as the Steward searched his face before moving down over his ill-fitting uniform and his excellent boots. Coming up again, Ecthelion’s gaze caught upon the silver star and lingered there, thoughtful.

Meanwhile at his side, Denethor was performing an appraisal of his own. With his attention fixed upon the Steward, Thorongil was able to watch the Heir with his mid periphery. Those eyes, the stern deep grey of unyielding granite, held no pleasant interest. Instead there was a fearsome inquisitive gleam. There was no welcome in those eyes, but only a thinly restrained challenge. And although his search was the swifter, Denethor saw far more than his father could. He did not appear to think very highly of what he saw, either.

Ecthelion, apparently satisfied, let his gaze fall momentarily to his lap. From behind the Rod, he picked up a familiar packet of paper – no longer either compact or snowy white. It had been opened, pressed flat, much handled, and re-folded with neat but imperfect care; and it had been marked with ink that someone had made a good – but also imperfect – attempt to scrape away with a very sharp little blade.

‘Tell me of this,’ said Ecthelion.

‘Sire, it is a letter,’ said Thorongil crisply; ‘given into my hand by Thengel King, Lord of all the Riddermark, that I might bear it hither. It contains within it the King’s assessment of my service to him.’

‘Have you read it?’ the Steward asked.

‘My Lord, I have not,’ Thorongil answered, ever truthful. ‘I was most graciously consulted as to its contents, but I do not know their precise dispersal.’

‘You did not think to break the seal, and see for yourself what your former master thought of you?’ asked Denethor, a note of doubt in his voice and in his eyes.

‘Never, sire,’ Thorongil said. He turned his head to meet the Captain-General’s eyes. In the sparring yard it had been difficult to tell, standing at first at a distance and then kneeling before the man, but Denethor was very tall. In his heeled boots he would have been almost eye-to-eye with Thorongil. Barefooted there would be less than two inches’ difference in their heights, and standing one step elevated Denethor seemed to tower above him. It was an unsettling sensation. Even among the Firstborn there were few who could be said to tower above Thorongil.

‘I would no more presume to open a letter addressed to another than I would be to bear another man’s name,’ he finished.

‘And yet the name you bear is not your own: you have admitted as much already,’ Denethor challenged.

‘Forgive me, Lord, but you are mistaken.’ Even as the words left his lips, Thorongil knew he should never have spoken them. He would have done less to anger the Steward’s son if he had simply let the slight pass unremarked.

Behind him there was a soft rattle of mail as one of the sentries stiffened involuntarily. Ecthelion’s eyes widened, and he raised a conciliatory hand. ‘Perhaps you are unaware of our ways, young man—’

But Denethor’s clipped words cut him off. ‘I am seldom mistaken, vagabond, and I have no need of your correction.’

‘Again I must implore your forgiveness, sire, but in this some correction is wanted,’ said Thorongil. He kept his voice mild, humble and courteous, but he could not yield now. If he gave upon this point, all his time in Gondor would be coloured with the taint of a false name and a feeble protest. ‘I have spoken plainly: the name Thorongil is indeed my own, though born with it I was not. Many names may a man carry in his lifetime, not all bestowed over his cradle. I am Thorongil, and Thorongil only I.’

Ecthelion looked up at his son in fondness. ‘You are called Aglarion yourself, my son, though neither your mother nor I bestowed it upon you. Would you say that name is not your own?’

Hastily Thorongil cast his eyes upon the White Rod in the Steward’s lap, for these words were no help to his cause. Denethor’s pride exuded from his every word, his every act, even the way in which he turned the jewelled rings upon his fingers or cast his cloak back to bare only his sword-arm. For his father to place him upon a footing even near that of a newcome soldier would be an affront to that pride, even if in doing so the Steward’s intention was to lift up the stranger rather than diminish the lord. Yet it was not Thorongil’s place to speak, neither against a Steward’s instructing of his Captain-General, nor against a father’s correction of his son. This time, wisely, he held his tongue.

‘What do you know of relations between Gondor and Rohan?’ Ecthelion asked after a moment of strained silence. Thorongil raised his eyes again to find the Steward looking pensively upon him.

‘I know what is commonly known in Rohan,’ he answered; ‘as well as what Thengel King told me himself, and what more I have learned in my brief days in Minas Tirith. The two realms are ancient allies in a present state of great amity, owing in large part by the welcome shown by Gondor, by your father and by yourself to he who now reigns in Rohan when his fortunes were fallen. Ever is Gondor ready to rise to Rohan’s aid, and always doth Rohan await but a word to ride for Gondor.’

Ecthelion smiled broadly at this: a smile of joy and of pride that made it plain the Steward treasured this accord every bit as much as did his friend the King. It was a smile that roused in Thorongil a reflexive fondness for this great-hearted lord before him. With it came again the doubt that he had felt when speaking to Minardil. He did not believe that the Lord of Gondor knew how his noble intent had fallen into spite and suspicion below.

‘Then you know already what I would have you understand,’ Ecthelion said. ‘And so knowing, you will surely see that when Thengel of the Riddermark speaks, I am compelled by love and loyalty to listen.’ He rocked the letter in his hand. ‘In this, he speaks of you. His words are fair and earnest, and never before have I known a great lord speak so highly of one of his soldiers.’

Thorongil bowed his head, feeling a warm flush of pride within his breast. He had served faithfully and with all his strength and skill. It was gratifying indeed to know that his labours had pleased the one to whom they had been rendered. ‘I am honoured by his regard, my Lord,’ he murmured.

‘So I see,’ Ecthelion murmured, regarding him thoughtfully for a moment. Then he spoke again as if it was his intention to be heard. ‘Tell me, Thorongil: if I welcome you into my service, will you proffer me such love and earnest reverence as I see you bestow upon my friend?’

Knowing still so little of the Steward’s heart, Thorongil could not make so grave a pledge. Yet he raised his eyes to meet Ecthelion’s kindly ones, and he saw in them a frail and honest hope. He offered a small smile, ever meek but always truthful.

‘Sire, it would be my joy to be given the chance to nurture such fidelity,’ he said quietly.

Denethor cleared his throat, drawing Ecthelion’s rapt gaze from Thorongil. The Steward’s son was regarding the new man coldly enough to chill Thorongil’s teeth.

‘The King of Rohan offers proofs: tokens you must give to show that you are who you claim to be,’ he said. ‘He states that you will be able to name to us a certain horse.’

Sooner or later they had to come to the proofs, of course, and Thorongil nodded. He fixed his head so that he was directing the answer to Ecthelion, as was fit, but he did not do Denethor the discourtesy of looking away from him. ‘Verily, I can, Captain-General,’ he said. ‘It is the horse, a certain mare, whom I led down the stony mountain ways upon the day I was first brought to the most noble attention of Thengel King. Dicea, she is called, and then she was a two-year filly both fair and fleet of foot.’

‘And?’ challenged Denethor. Ecthelion shot his son a puzzled look, but Thorongil understood.

‘And she was one of the Mearas, my Lord,’ he said. ‘I handled her only by her grace and consent: they can be compelled to nothing.’

Denethor made a soft sound somewhere between assent and discontentment. ‘Now show us the mark,’ he said.

His father frowned at him. ‘My son! Not here,’ he said, his voice hushed so that it did not carry to the far end of the room. ‘It can wait until some more opportune time, without onlookers and in some warmer chamber.’

These words very nearly spurred Thorongil to uncharitable and injudicious speech, but he caught his tongue just in time. A decade past he would have lacked that degree of self-control, and he could not help but feel some satisfaction in knowing he could wield it now. He was no longer the undisciplined youth who had come to Edoras in the wake of Gandalf the Grey.

‘I am glad to show you the mark, my Lord,’ he said; ‘and to show it at once if you would see it. I have naught to hide, and this chamber is warmer than many I have known.’

Ecthelion shook his head decisively. ‘It is unnecessary,’ he declared. ‘I have all the proofs I require, and all the answers but one. Thengel writes as though he expected you to present this letter with your own hand, and yet I received it by a circuitous journey of which I know but the last few turns. How did this come to be given by my son to his secretary, and thus to my daughter who bore it to me?’

Thorongil had to make an effort not to frown in puzzlement as he tried to track this path in his mind. From Denethor to a clerk to the Steward’s daughter? He shook his head.

‘Sire, I know not,’ he said. ‘I presented the letter to the Provost Lieutenant, who I presume gave it to his captain. I believe someone was sent to bear it hither to the Citadel, but I know not who.’

‘It was a runner from the First Level,’ supplied Denethor. ‘He bore it to me, and I gave it to Valacar. The rest you know.’

Ecthelion looked from one younger man to the other, pensive. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘All this took six days? And what of the date on the letter itself? How did you come to take so long about seeking the White City?’

‘I came by an indirect route, my Lord,’ said Thorongil. ‘I am a traveller at heart, and I wished to see something of the fair lands that lie between East-fold and your Great Gate.’

‘And were you pleased by what you saw?’ asked Ecthelion kindly; a question of polite interest.

Thorongil smiled. ‘Sire, I was,’ he said. ‘Pleased and yet stirred to face my next great challenge.’

‘And what is that?’ Ecthelion queried. Now he seemed amused as well as engaged.

Thorongil’s smile hardened into stern resolve. ‘To defend Gondor, and to buoy her ramparts against the incursions of the Shadow. To serve you, my Lord, in word and in deed. And to defy to the last the will of the Enemy in all things, be they great or small.’

Ecthelion sat back in his stone chair, hand curled about the pommel of the armrest. ‘Noble words, Thorongil,’ he said warmly. ‘If such is your intention, it shall be my own great challenge to furnish you with the opportunities for all. Yet I think we have said enough for one night. Other questions may wait for other days.  Soon I would have you sit with me and tell me the news out of Rohan. It has been some years since last I rode thither, and I would be glad of any tidings.’

‘Gladly, sire,’ said Thorongil, no artifice in the warmth of his voice. ‘You have but to send word, and I will come.’

‘Good,’ Ecthelion said. ‘Now, have you supped?’

‘I took some food before my watch began,’ said Thorongil. ‘Had I not been summoned I would have patrolled through the day-meal, but there is always something for the latecomers at the change of hour. Thank you for your kind concern, my Lord, but I shall be amply fed.’

‘Nonsense!’ Ecthelion wafted a dismissive hand before snapping his fingers. From the shadows beyond the left-side pillars came a page, perhaps fourteen and very slender. He looked quick upon his feet, too, and the blood of Westernesse showed in his colouring. Likely he was the son of some noble family, entrusted to the Steward’s service and the tutelage of his household.

‘Show Thorongil to my kitchens and see that he is given of the best,’ Ecthelion said to the boy. ‘Those who come from afar must be Gondor’s guests ere they may become her sons, and they should be treated with due consideration.’

This last was directed to the new Guard, not the page, and Thorongil inclined his head. ‘Thank you, my Lord Steward. You are generous indeed,’ he said.

‘Find the man who brought him hither, and have him see about taking him back when he has eaten,’ Denethor instructed, fixing the page with an eye stern enough to make the lad squirm. ‘He may be a guest, but he does not yet have the passwords for the upper levels of the City, and he must be attended.’ Then he turned his penetrating gaze upon Thorongil and added; ‘So experienced a soldier will surely understand.’

‘I do, my Lord, and I thank you,’ said Thorongil with impeccable politeness. He understood very well; he might have the Steward’s approval, but the Heir did not trust him. He bowed again, and looked to Ecthelion. ‘If I am dismissed, sire, permit me to thank you for the boon of your audience. I stall strive to ensure your faith in me is never misplaced.’

‘Good,’ said Ecthelion warmly. ‘And you are dismissed, my boy. I shall send for you again ere long.’

One final time Thorongil bowed, and then he let the young page led him from the room – away from the welcoming smile upon the Steward’s lips, away from Lord Denethor’s searching gaze, and away from the tall carven figures that had looked down with patrician detachment upon the proceedings. The three nearest the throne Thorongil knew, for their likenesses were preserved also in Imladris, and in more diverse forms than chiselled stone alone. Anarion stood to one side, Isildur to the other. And watching over the Steward entrusted with his southerly kingdom, was Elendil himself.


When the door closed and the echo of its closing died to silence, Denethor crossed his arms and turned to his father.

‘You like him,’ he said. He knew that his voice was as hard and slick as the ice in the Fountain without, but he could not soften it.

The Steward smiled. It was the same smile he always wore after watching some promising young man on the tourney field or hearing of his grandson’s latest mischiefs: proud and indulgent at once. ‘I do. He is an upright man.’

‘He is low-born,’ said Denethor

‘He is eloquent,’ added Ecthelion.

‘He is evasive,’ Denethor countered.

‘He is courteous.’

‘He is obsequious.’

Ecthelion fixed his son with a withering gaze that could no longer quite shrivel Denethor’s outspoken frankness. ‘He is exceedingly patient with you, and all your misgivings,’ said the Steward.

‘There is cause for misgivings, Father,’ said Denethor, almost hissing as he lowered his voice below the register of the guards at the far end of the hall. ‘A man who conceals even his own name conceals much: far more than is reasonable. Nor has he yet proved himself to be the man who was sent to you!’

His sire shook his head almost sadly. ‘What would you have had me do, Denethor? Commanded the man to strip off his raiment in the midst of the hall, so that you could examine his hide like a horse in the market? When a suitably discreet time arises, you may satisfy yourself. For my part, I need no further proofs. There was truth in his eyes, and in all of his words. He is who he claims to be.’

‘And who is that? Someone who served Thengel in some indistinct capacity,’ said Denethor. His frustration with his father’s credulity was beginning to mount dangerously towards an apogee. His father was a good man, a noble man, and that was good. Unfortunately he also longed to believe everyone else to be equally upright, especially those with whose charms he was taken. And Thorongil did undeniably have his charms, in amongst the evasions and the equivocations and the artful half-truths.

‘He served Thengel well, in whatever capacity,’ said the Steward. ‘And I shall ask him for more detail of his service at some other time. Tonight I wished only to meet a man who should have been brought before me a week ago. Why was he not?’

‘It is the provost’s responsibility to gauge a man’s worthiness to enter your service,’ said Denethor. ‘It is mine to see such a man assigned. All that was done. Would the letter have made any difference to those decisions?’

‘I believe it would,’ said Ecthelion bluntly. Denethor fought to hide his surprise and his indignation. It was not the answer he had expected, nor did he wish to be chastised or to have his judgments questioned. ‘To begin, I would never relegate a man so highly praised by Thengel to the Tenth Company of the Guard.’

‘It was the most suitable vacancy available,’ said Denethor, hanging his honesty upon his own idea of what was suitable for the itinerant prevaricator.

‘There is a vacancy in the Second Company,’ countered the Steward.

Denethor’s skin went suddenly cold. His father did not mean the Second Company of the Guards of the City.

‘I would not assign any newcomer to the Citadel,’ Denethor said tightly. ‘Men must be tried first before being elevated to the heights. Your own policy decrees it.’

‘I suppose it does,’ said Ecthelion with some reluctance. ‘Yet should we truly waste such a man on market-day patrols and guarding deliveries of flour?’

‘A hungry city is an imperiled city,’ said Denethor. ‘Someone must guard the flour.’

‘Thengel writes of his prowess in the field,’ Ecthelion went on. ‘Perhaps he should be assigned to an active battalion. The Army of Ithilien is in desperate need of good men. If Thorongil consents to go, we could send him with the next convoy of provisions.’

‘With your leave, Lord Steward, I say no,’ Denethor declared, shaking his head and fixing his father with his most coldly appraising Captain-General’s eye. ‘Not yet, not when he is still untried. Let him remain at present with the Tenth Company. Minardil can keep a keen watch on his skills, and measure his loyalties. In a few weeks I will send his Company out on maneuvers, and we can see how well this Thorongil truly performs in the open. Then we can decide if he should be given to Cairon in Ithilien.’

The sincerity in his voice was no fabrication. As much as it would have pleased Denethor to send the meek-mouthed braggart safely to his death, a dead man revealed few secrets. He was determined to learn what Thorongil was keeping from them all: from the King of Rohan, to whom he professed such loyalty; from the Steward, whom he swore he longed only to serve; and from the Captain-General, who had never before failed to compel a man to disclose to him anything that he asked.

‘Very well,’ Ecthelion said after a moment’s thought. ‘I confess I would sooner not send him from the City just yet. He is an interesting young man, and I would very much like the opportunity to get to know him better.’

‘As would I,’ Denethor said smoothly. In his heart it echoed, with far less courtliness. As would I.

Chapter VII: Tread With Care

It was a welcome relief to retreat to the relative security of his little booth in the garrison. Thorongil allowed himself the catharsis of pressing his back to the door, his fingers still closed upon its handle. He closed his eyes and took several deep lungfuls of the cold, still air. The barracks rooms were warmed only by whatever heat rose through the floor from the main hall below, and of course by the steady furnace of sleeping bodies. Two of Thorongil’s fellows were on the same watch rotation at present, and when three were in the room together it grew swiftly sweltering. Not so tonight.

Only Forgil was abed at present. He was one of the oldest in the Company, grey-haired and philosophical. He was a veritable vault of information on the intricate politics of the Guard, as well as the last half-century of its doings. He had taken to Thorongil at once: a fresh and ready pair of ears among men long familiar with his favourite anecdotes. At present he was sound asleep, a slowly heaving mound beneath layers of scratchy wool. Mindful not to disturb him, Thorongil moved silently to his own bed in the far corner of the room.

He had a little more than four hours until the changing of the Guard, and Thorongil was assigned to the dawn watch. Disrobing fully would squander time better spent in sleep, so he removed only cloak, belts and boots. He brushed the dust from his shins and slung himself in under the bedclothes. Not until he was stretched comfortably on his back did Thorongil realize what a long, wearisome day it had truly been. It was with quiet gratitude that he closed smarting eyes and let his body melt in against the modest straw mattress.

He was startled out of the first warm flood of slumber by a low rapping on the door. For a moment Thorongil was tempted to close his ears and sleep on regardless, but he could not. Too long had a nocturnal knock signified some urgent matter requiring the Undermarshal’s immediate attention. Reluctant but resolved, he flung back the covers and padded to the door. His feet in their sturdy hose whispered against the floorboards. He lifted the latch.

Captain Minardil stood in the corridor, holding a single candle in a bowl to light his way. He looked over Thorongil’s garments and smiled.

‘Ah, good! I hoped to catch you before you were too near to bed. Have you a few minutes to speak with me?’ he asked.

‘Assuredly, Captain,’ Thorongil said promptly. It was the only acceptable answer, and he put all thought of sleep firmly from his mind. ‘Will I have need of my boots?’

‘No, no,’ said Minardil, quietly amused. ‘Let us remove to my room: it will be more comfortable than skulking in the corridor.’

Thorongil murmured his obedience and followed. The last door in the row, furthest from the stairs and so quietest, opened on a simply but comfortably furnished antechamber. There was a table large enough to accommodate four chairs, a sideboard and armouring chest, and, by a small fireplace, a carved armchair and a bench with a curved back and fustion cushions. Minardil took a taper from a jar on the mantelpiece, lit it from his candle and then bent to touch it to the kindling in the fireplace. When the orange flames were licking hungrily at the wood, he took the chair and indicated that Thorongil should sit also.

‘When you failed to come in from your watch, I learned you had been summoned to the Citadel,’ he said.

‘Forgive me, Captain. I did not think to send word to you,’ Thorongil said, hurried in his dismay. It had not occurred to him, and it should have. A summons from the Steward overrode a soldier’s duty to remain at his post, particularly when another was sent to take it. Still, it did not do appear to have deserted it.

‘ ‘Tis of little moment,’ Minardil said affably; ‘save that had I known, I should have made it my business to accompany you and to take your part. I do not suffer my men to face their Captain-General without an advocate. It was he who summoned you, was it not?’

‘Aye, and with him the Lord Steward,’ said Thorongil. He volunteered no more, unsure of what his captain knew already. The cold suspicion and piercing questions with which Denethor had met him had left him tense and wary. He knew how suspect his persistent reticence must seem, but such scrutiny as this was beyond his experience. In Rohan there had been little difficulty over his dearth of provenance; curiosity, yes, but seldom had it gone beyond good-natured questions. Plainly it would not be the same here, at least not where the Steward’s Heir was concerned. Thorongil would have to find some means of mollifying him, and Denethor did not strike him as a man easily mollified.

‘I see!’ Minardil looked almost relieved. ‘Lord Ecthelion always meets with the men who claim a place under his decree of welcome, if not often so close upon their coming. He would be interested in speaking to you, no doubt: coming from Rohan, you may have news of his friend the King.’

‘I believe that was indeed the cause of his interest in me,’ Thorongil said mildly. ‘He desired to see what had been sent to him.’

Ecthelion’s kindly welcome had been a marked and welcome change from his son’s mistrust, but it had had its uncomfortable consequences. Thorongil feared that the Steward’s gentle attempts to correcte Denethor’s behaviour or to lead him to a less combative position had only entrenched the Captain-General further. The remark about treating newcomers as guests might have been spoken to Thorongil, but he believed it was meant for Denethor – a rebuke, perhaps, for his harsh welcoming command and his unswerving and very vocal doubts.

And although Ecthelion’s consideration had provided a strangely symmetrical counterpoint to Thorongil’s treatment by the provost men, he could have gladly forgone such care tonight. True, he had been spared another uncomfortable disrobing, but it had delayed the offering of an irrefutable proof that might have done something to ease Denethor’s mind. As for the generous offer of a meal, it had sufficed only to heighten Thorongil’s sense of trespass. He had eaten what he was offered hurriedly, standing in a corner of a kitchen busy turning out a fine meal for the Steward’s extensive household, and had slipped away as quickly as he could. He had only lingered at all because a wish from one’s liege-lord was as good as a command. Thorongil did not want to offend Ecthelion, nor did he desire to bring trouble on the pageboy, who might easily have been scolded for failing to put the stranger at ease. Rich though the fare had been, hearty lentil soup and the dense, nourishing bread of the guardhouse would have sat more easily in Thorongil’s stomach.

‘Sent to him?’ asked Minardil, puzzled. ‘Did you not come to Minas Tirith of your own will?’

‘I did,’ said Thorongil; ‘but only by the grace of my former lord. Thengel of the Riddermark gave me leave to go, or I could not have come with honour. His words were kind, and they have stood me in good stead tonight.’

Minardil’s lips parted as if with another question, pursed, and then twitched into a bemused half-smile. ‘Words from the King of Rohan?’ he said.

Thorongil’s heart quickened as he realized his carelessness. There was no harm in his Captain knowing of the letter he had borne, but that he had unintentionally spoken of it worried him. Likely it was only the want of sleep that was making him incautious, but that was neither an excuse nor a safeguard from the consequences of a loose tongue.

‘Only a letter, confirming my service and bearing testimony to my skills,’ he said. ‘It is what any loyal servant is due from his master.’

‘Yes,’ chuckled Minardil, shaking his head. ‘But most servants have a master or two in ascending precedence between themselves and the King.’

‘As had I,’ Thorongil assured him. It was the truth: there had been the First Marshal of the Mark, after all. ‘Thengel King is as generous in spirit as his dear friend the Steward. He treated most bountifully with me.’

There was a thoughtful silence, during which Minardil studied his face, and Thorongil stretched his legs towards the fire that it might warm the soles of his feet. He waited, trying to keep up his guard while at the same time presenting an ingenuous face to a man he liked and longed to trust.

‘The Captain-General came to the garrison today. To see you,’ Minardil said at last. ‘It seems I have a man in my Company who draws many eyes from the high places. Lord Denethor is not often fond of his father’s foreign foot-soldiers. Some of the men are saying you are no exception to this policy.’

The question in the words was oblique, but in the eyes it could not have been more frank. Minardil wanted – needed – to know if Thorongil was in the Captain-General’s disfavour. Given his earlier pledge of solidarity, it seemed unlikely that the Captain of the Tenth Company would cast aside his newest man in such a case, but it would doubtless complicate matters for Minardil as much as for Thorongil.

‘Lord Denethor is wary of me,’ Thorongil answered, considering carefully. ‘There are questions I cannot answer, and my inability to speak awakens his suspicions. He is concerned for the integrity of the City and the safekeeping of the realm. Am I wrong in believing it was he who rousted out the spy?’

A rueful twist of the lips made Minardil look abruptly ten years younger: an errant youth still a year or two short of manhood, making sport of a master he both admired and feared. ‘Who else but he?’ he asked. ‘Others had their suspicions, and brought them to him. Yet it was Denethor who obtained the proofs, and Denethor who seized the oathbreaker. It was Denethor who decried him to the people who believed they had known him.’

 ‘An unhappy duty,’ Thorongil said softly. He could not help but wonder if he might have found a less unyielding Heir six months before, when the infiltration of the City was yet no more than suspicion, or six months hence, when the memory had faded a little. Was it through the filter of this grim betrayal that Denethor was studying each of Thorongil’s careful equivocations? Small wonder he did not trust.

‘Yes,’ agreed Minardil. He shook his head heavily. ‘I am glad to be but a simple Captain. The weighty matters of war are spared me. What do you seek here, Thorongil? Have you come to Minas Tirith to stand watch upon her walls, or do you aim for higher service?’

He saw much, in his straightforward way. Thorongil felt a small smile tug at his tired lips. ‘I feel I may prove of use in some broader capacity,’ he said. ‘I understand the border is under grave contention.’

A low hiss of dismay crossed Minardil’s teeth. ‘Ithilien. Yes. That loss was grievous to bear. When I was young, Ithilien was a beautiful land of rich tilth and gardens, and many folk yet dwelt there. These last years, since the Mountain awoke, it has become nothing but a battlefield: the belt between our own forces and those of the Enemy. Our army holds it yet, and they are the one defence of ruined Osgiliath and the bridge. Yet every year the assaults grow greater, and the strain of maintaining the guard is felt by us all.’

Thorongil nodded thoughtfully. This was, after all, why he had wished to come to Gondor – one of the prime reasons, at least. The war was on her very doorstep. Here he could learn much that had been beyond the scope of the situation in Rohan. The upkeep of an established front of battle was a very different thing from driving back raids of wild men or long-ranging bands of orcs.

‘Are we held in reserve?’ he asked. ‘If things go ill in Ithilien, will the Steward dispatch the Guard to reinforce the line?’

At this Minardil shifted uneasily. ‘It has been said that may be so,’ he hedged. ‘Yet others hold that if Cairon’s army looks like to fall we shall be kept here, against the wave that will crash upon the City itself. Or that we shall be put out onto the Pelennor to break it there. For myself, I would sooner march forth than wait for the Enemy to come upon his own terms… but the truth is that whatever the plan, I pray it will not be needed.’

‘So must we all,’ said Thorongil. Minas Tirith had been laid out in dark times, the stones of its bastions laid beneath a Shadow longer even than the one that crept now towards Anduin. It had been built to repel a great force, and to withstand a long and bitter siege. Yet the empty houses he passed on his patrols haunted him now. Were there men enough to hold the City, if it came to that? He did not know: he had seen so little of her defences in his few short days of service.

He realized presently that a long silence had lapsed, both he and his Captain lost in bleak thoughts. When Thorongil stirred, as much to root himself in the present as to find a more comfortable pose on the bench, Minardil looked up like one woken from a dream.

‘We should to bed,’ he said, rising to his feet. In keeping with protocol, Thorongil swiftly did the same. ‘I hear you had another victory in the yard today?’

Thorongil shrugged. ‘A lucky blow,’ he demurred. He had enjoyed the bout with the quarterstaves, but it had not been very taxing.

‘I would try you with a sword myself,’ said Minardil. ‘At the beginning of the dusk watch, perhaps? If you will promise to spare your Captain nothing.’

‘I promise,’ said Thorongil, making bold and offering his hand. Minardil clasped his arm. ‘At the beginning of the dusk watch.’

They parted then, and Thorongil returned gladly to his booth. He wasted no time in burrowing back into the tousled bunk, and set out to snatch what brief slumber he could before the bell rang out the dawn and summoned him to his duty.


In the deep darkness before sunrise, Ecthelion lay wakeful with the warmth of his wife at his back. Anoriel and he had always bedded together on cold winter nights. Even during the hard years, the sour years when it seemed they would never again trade tender talk of love or lie together as a husband lies with his wife, they had slept beside each other on nights such as this. As was the custom for all couples who could afford the luxury of privacy, each kept a bedchamber of their own. The anterooms stood opposite the corridor from one another, so that in good times it was a simple matter to slip across that long, narrow gulf into the alluring novelty of half-familiar territory. In bad times, the passageway became a barricade, keeping two scrapping hounds safely separate. It became also a shield, guarding them each from the hurts inevitable in any confrontation. Yet always, always one or the other would breach that barrier when the nights were long and frigid.

Both took comfort in the simple human warmth of the other, and each slept more peacefully in a common cocoon against the room’s chill than either would have done with a blazing hearth and a cold bed. It was that, in the end, which had permitted their reconciliation and rekindled the bonds of their marriage. There had come a night when nearness of body had at last permitted openness of words. They had begun slowly, tentatively prying at a fence too long allowed to stand. Yet over the course of weeks in the frozen dark of the year’s dying, they had each bared their hurts and soothed them, and the fence had fallen rail by rail. At last had come the night when a bed shared in ease had become a bed shared in passion. Ere the next year had withered, there was Anaiwen.

These days there was less passion, but no deep discord. At times they were tender with each other. At times they quarrelled. These were the normal vicissitudes of any marriage, and there was a homey consolation in them. On this night there had been kisses and soft words, an a few gentle touches to see them off to sleep. Ecthelion should have rested deeply, warm and welcome in his wife’s bed. Yet he was wakeful.

He was thinking of the new man; the stranger out of Rohan. That evening’s encounter had eclipsed the day’s earlier happenings and shadowed its ending. Behind his eyelids in the orange glow of the embers of the fire, he could see the tall young man, proud in his simple livery with his fair carved-ivory face and his quick, keen eyes. He had about him a look of authority not at all in keeping with his modest estate, and yet he was as courteous and humble as any lord might wish his servant to be. He had given his answers readily, even the ones that Denethor found so troublingly evasive, and he had met Ecthelion’s gaze as he spoke.

Few of the men from afar did that, at least at first meeting. This one had stood in a way that proved plainly that he feared nothing – neither the strange City, nor his summons to its pinnacle, nor the Lord whose decree he had answered, nor the ungracious scrutiny of his new Captain-General. Ecthelion was drawn to such courage, such confidence. He felt, too, that it was a confidence not only in one’s self but in Gondor: as if here, most of all, there was no cause for fear. It was a showing of good faith such as the Steward had seldom seen.

Thorongil, the Eagle of the Star: Thengel had said nothing of the significance of the name, but the star at least was presented for all to see. It drew the eye amid all the cheap-dyed not-quite-black of a Guardsman’s raiment: bright and pale even in the candlelight. Ecthelion would have liked a closer look at the workmanship, for it did not seem to him to be the cursory effort of a hurried jeweller or the patient but imperfect work of a journeyman silversmith. In the crispness of its many points, in the smoothness of its facets and the richness of its sheen, it looked like the work of an accomplished master. Certainly it was not the product of a Rohirric craftsman’s bench.

There was something about a six-rayed star that plucked at Ecthelion’s memory, too. He could not place the thought: it was like a vague recollection out of childhood, faded beyond memory into a gauzy dreamlike thing retaining more of the feeling than of the fact. Perhaps it was something out of an old song. Perhaps he had seen such a thing rendered somewhere amid the innumerable carvings of vast age and forgotten significance that adorned the city. Ecthelion could not say. He could not pinpoint the fact, but the feeling… the feeling was one of respect and quiet marvel, and it pleased him.

A soft hand, just beginning to take on the delicate papery quality of age, reached around to spread across his breastbone. Through the fine cloth of his nightclothes Ecthelion could feel his wife’s warmth, and he closed his own had over hers.

‘What is it, husband?’ she whispered, shifting her body nearer to his. The cool loveliness of her girlhood had mellowed to a frosted dignity with age, and her slender figure softened into gentle contours that he loved far more than the statuesque stoniness of twenty years past. Ecthelion found himself leaning back a little into her familiar allure.

‘My mind is restive, and it keeps me from sleep,’ he said. He no longer hid his thoughts from her: not his glad ones, not his calculating ones, and never, never his tormented ones. It was his silence about the last that had first driven the piles of that high, hard fence long years ago. ‘It is the matter of the man from Rohan.’

‘The one who kept you from your day-meal,’ Anoriel murmured. Her thumb moved, stroking him without disrupting the reassuring pressure of her palm. ‘Was he able to resolve the mystery of the meandering missive?’

Ecthelion sighed. ‘It seems the Provost Lieutenant dallied over its delivery. I will ask Denethor to see he is properly chastised. Some allowance can be made for the demands of daily duty, but to keep back a letter addressed to his liege-lord for the better part of a week is inexcusable.’

‘What of the stranger himself?’ she asked, more than mere courteous interest in her voice. Ecthelion smiled. Anoriel, too, was curious about Thorongil. ‘Is he as mighty a man as Thengel’s letter purports?’

‘I spoke with him in the shadow of the throne, my dear: I did not put him through the paces of a warrior,’ Ecthelion chuckled. Anoriel’s ability to replace troubled thoughts with mirth had always appealed to him, never more than now, when she no longer consciously withheld it from him. ‘I can speak to his courtliness, but not his swordplay. I do not doubt that he has much to offer. The Captain of the Tenth Company will be instructed to keep a close watch upon him, and to give a report of his talents in due time.’

‘You might ask Denethor to do it,’ Anoriel said, her tone a little too light. She was giving to her words a significance beyond mere suggestion. ‘Put him through the paces of a warrior, I mean. It might give him a vested interest in this newcomer. If you feel he is worth the outlay, of course: just another common soldier will have less to gain from the Captain-General’s favour.’

Now Ecthelion did turn, awkward beneath the unwieldy weight of the blankets and furs. His wife’s face was deep in shadow, but he could see her sharp eyes glinting. There was more than a little of those eyes in their son’s, though even in the grim years hers had never been so stony.

‘Denethor should take an interest in any man who can bolster Gondor’s might and aid in her defence,’ he said. ‘His persistent dismissal of the worth of those who come from afar is harmful.’

On Anaiwen, Anoriel doted as a mother treasuring an unexpected child born at the very change of life, but it was in Denethor that she had wound up all her pride and her hopes. He was her great gift to Gondor, and she his greatest proponent in a City filled with loyal Captains and obedient men. Now she sighed.

‘You are of different minds in the matter,’ she said; ‘and neither is wholly right, nor wholly wrong. To your credit are the many successes: men who have proved faithful, some even unto death. There is Tellon of West-fold, whose value in Ithilien cannot be measured. Yet on Denethor’s side of the argument sits the traitor.’

Ever the diplomatic daughter of a circumspect lord, Anoriel never referred to the man who had infiltrated as far as the Fifth Circle of the City as a spy. To do so would have been to imply that he had come, malice in his heart from the beginning, and entered the City by her husband’s grace. It would have implied that the measures he had laid to vet such claiments had failed. It was better to speak of treachery, which suggested a twisting of a heart that had once been loyal. Ecthelion was only too glad to accept her absolution in this matter, for he knew he had not their son’s.

‘He has a right to his suspicions, and to his opinion of my policies,’ he said. ‘I would not have it otherwise, for a strong advisor must know his own mind, and Denethor is my greatest Councillor. Yet wariness does not excuse incivility, and he was most uncivil with Thorongil tonight.’

He did not offer examples, and Anoriel did not ask for them. She did not need to: they both knew well Denethor’s particular sly rudeness disguised as frankness. It had become entrenched at an early age, when Ecthelion was too often absent and Anoriel too grateful to have been granted her son’s life to curb it. It was too late now to do anything but gently chide and set a better exemplar for him.

‘You like the new man,’ Anoriel said musically. It was no question. ‘After an hour’s conference, you like him already.’

‘I do,’ said Ecthelion. ‘I should have done so even without Thengel’s testament, I think. There is an air about him of… I do not know. Of worthiness? Nay, more than that. Of greatness, perhaps. I see in him what I had hoped my proclamations of welcome might secure for Gondor. I am eager to try him further, though Denethor counsels forbearance.’

‘How long has he been in the City?’ she queried.

‘A week,’ said Ecthelion.

Softly Anoriel laughed. ‘Then Denethor is right. It is unjust to thrust too many expectations upon a man still trying to learn the turns and passageways of his garrison. Give the newcomer time to find his lodestar. Then you may test him however you see fit. Yet remember what I have said: give that task to your son, and not some lowly Captain. Allow him to judge this man so prized by the King of Rohan. He will place greater store in his own approval than in another man’s assessment, and it will help him to look more favourably upon the recruit, foreign though he be.’

‘And what if Denethor does not approve of him even then?’ challenged Ecthelion. Anoriel made no answer, and for that he was grateful. He did not wish to think of that.


On the day the Second and Ninth Companies of the Guard marched forth on manoeuvres, Denethor awoke from a tangle of restless dreams. They were not the old night terrors, and that was something, but they plagued him and they robbed him of sleep he could ill afford to spare. He took his breakfast in grim silence, unswayed by Anaiwen’s glad chatter and their mother’s attempts at gracious conversation. She was making conversation with Denethor as if he were some visiting potentate, rather than her only son. In this he read her chastisement of his dark mood, but he had neither the will nor the energy to challenge her. So he doggedly chewed his meat and drank his wine, and his cakes he took with him as he took his leave of the Steward’s House in favour of the stables in the Sixth Level.

His horse was waiting for him, tall and proud in full war tack. Saddle and bridle were of white leather, and the white caparison and headstall were splendid in the morning light. The groom looked on proudly as the Captain-General, clad in bright mail with his long sword Dagarod at his side. Its sheath too was of white, studded with plaques of silver. Denethor swung into the saddle with ease, as though the weight of the shirt of steel were no more than that of a velvet surcote.

Against the chill of the day he wore a sky-blue cloak lined with lettice fur and edged in ermine, but he threw it back from his shoulders as he rode down through the City with his herald before him. The white standard of the House of Mardil fluttered from its staff, leading the way as the Heir of the Steward went to join his men.

They had assembled in the broad market-square in the Second Circle: two full Companies of the Guard with their pages and servants and retainers in tow. In keeping with the loftier aim of the enterprise, they would be going forth as if to war in a far field. There would be no resupplying of their encampment during the two weeks of the manoeuvres. The men were to carry with them all the necessities of combat, of camp and of commissary. Nor were there to be any wagons, though Denethor had permitted two packhorses per Company. Wains were a dragging weight upon any march, and they were seldom deployed unless time was in abundance or a campaign dragged on far longer than expected. Today’s was to be a swift forced march to the appointed site some nine leagues from the city.

So Denethor reached the mustering point to find the men dispersing provisions among their already considerable baggage. Their Lieutenants walked among them, offering suggestions or criticisms as the situation warranted. The two Captains, Anrith of the Second and Beleg of the Ninth, were standing close by their horses for warmth, conferring in low tones. There was a sturdy map case strapped across the back of Anrith’s horse, and Beleg’s bore a saddlebag heavy with instruments of calculation and measure. This sight pleased Denethor. His command had been heeded: this was to be treated with all the gravity of a true campaign, that the men might be put to every trial but blood against the day even that would be upon them.

Almost he had forgotten the seed that had sown this venture. Now Denethor found him among the crowd: the Easterling, clad like all the others in the garb of the Guard. The swarthy skin and the black, almond-shaped eyes beneath the helm tooled with the Tree of Gondor were an affront: an abomination. Yet Denethor could have tolerated it, such was the need for strong bodies that could stand fast and wield a blade. What soured his stomach was the obvious camaraderie of the men around Jamon. They were talking with him as if he were one of their own, laughing and ribbing and working smoothly together. There were those in the Ninth Company who disliked and distrusted the Easterling as was fit, but naturally he would not keep company with them.

Denethor drew in his stallion by the packhorses, now being laden with the heavy canvas forms that would with poles hewn on site be spread into the two command pavilions. The men thus occupied paused in their labours at his approach, saluting low.

‘Fetch four casks of flour from the storehouses and load the horses with those instead,’ he commanded. ‘If the other provisions should prove inadequate, you will be glad of the extra.’

‘But sire, the tents…’ one of the Lieutenants of the Second Company protested, falling silent when Denethor turned his eyes upon him. Even free from anger, merely commanding, his eyes were bright and difficult to bear.

‘The men can haul the tents. Unless you think that you could march all day with eight stone strapped to your back?’ Denethor let that challenge hang in the air just long enough to bring a flush of embarrassment under the ruddy glow of cold cheeks. Then he snapped his fingers in their fleece-lined gloves, the cold leather heightening the sound.

‘You, you, and you,’ he said, picking out three men of the Second Company. ‘One will take the roof, the other two the walls.’ Next he pointed to Jamon and to the man standing nearest him. ‘You two will bear the walls of your Captain’s pavilion. And you, the roof.’ This last was one of the younger men of the Ninth Company, broad shouldered and well suited to the task as the fine-boned Easterling was not.

Denethor circled the assembled throng slowly, watching with a commander’s keen eyes for anything in need of correction. There was remarkably little. Lax the Guard may have grown over the winter months, but they remembered their discipline at need. Blankets and oilcloths were neatly rolled, packs filled with careful husbandry, weaponry and leathern armour in good order. One of the garrisoned healers was to accompany the troops, lest any should fall ill or an accident unlooked-for cause injury. He had a horse, as did each of the officers. Save for the heralds, the men would all go on foot.

Folk were beginning to gather around the perimeter of the square now, some merely curious but most family and loved ones of the men setting out. Two weeks was a long time for a young wife to be separated from the father of her babe, if she had grown used to his presence each day. It was long even for aged parents, who had their son home to sup once or twice a week as his watch rotation allowed. It would be an eternity to a maiden severed from her betrothed.

At last Denethor saw her, wrapped warmly in a mantle of scarlet with her dark hair hidden beneath a fur-edged hood. She was the daughter of a merchant of dyestuffs, and had wanted for nothing in all her days. From Beleg Denethor knew the girl was seven and twenty: two years of age and full-ripe for marriage. If only she had chosen more wisely, she never would have come to the notice of her Lord. Even now, he could not recall her name.

Her brown paramour had not yet seen her. He was occupied with the others selected for the special duty, dividing the tight rolls of coarse, densely woven cloth. The order to bear extra flour was justifiable, and it’s result welcome. A wall of one such pavilion weighed a little less than forty pounds, and each man would carry two in addition to his other gear. The merchant’s daughter would not see Jamon march proudly from the City like a champion gone to war, but watch him trudge stooped beneath his burden at the back of the column. It would be a thought-provoking spectacle for her, and a fair one. A soldier’s life, after all, was a hard one.

Nor did Denethor permit long for farewells, though it meant depriving the other men for the sake of curtailing the unsuitable affections of one. He watched them, the Easterling with his heavy load and the pretty child of Gondor in her bright winter clothing, as they murmured together. But when the reached to touch, he raised his great white horn to his lips and blew a blast upon it that rang unto the very heights of Mindoluin itself.

‘On, men of Gondor!’ he roared, as if leading a charge into battle instead of an ordered march down through the two lowest circles of the City. ‘On, soldiers of Minas Tirith! Onward together!’

His voice upraised ever stirred pride and loyalty in the hearts of men, and such was the case even now, when it pulled them from their fond goodbyes. Even the people did not seem to resent the haste. Perhaps they knew what was plain to their Captain-General: that they could make no complaint at this small parting. There were old folk and women, babes and young children who had been without their men all winter, serving as they did across the river. Nor did these people have to bear the bitter weight of knowing these soldiers might never return. They would all be back, to a man, when the fortnight was over – more vigilant and better equipped in their duties than before.

Denethor led the column, his standard-bearer before him and those of each Company behind. Then rode the Captains and their First Lieutenants. The other officers brought up the rear, lest any men should straggle. No doubt they who bore the tent-sides would straggle first, and that gave Denethor a cold satisfaction that went beyond the service of his plan. Pleased and proud he rode, righteous in the knowledge that this expedition was indeed in Gondor’s best interests, petty though its origins had been.

The Guards at the Second Gate opened it well in advance of the march: there was no need to slow upon the approach. After three months inactive in the City, mind and strength bent on administrative tasks rather than the cold clarity of battle, Denethor was elated to ride forth – even only into closely orchestrated field manoeuvres. The chill of the winter air was invigorating on his face, and he sat tall and princely in the saddle. As he passed beneath the shadow of the Gate he could hear the eager noises in the circle below: the common people gathered to the panoply there as they were behind. A smile touched his lips. His people were in awe of him, and their faith scrubbed from his mind the last tang of the dreams.

It was then, his stallion stepping high, that Denethor saw the Guard who held the Gate upon his left. Inscrutable grey eyes watched him, as insolent in their observing as the head that held them was respectful in its bearing. A body long enough, tall enough, that it seemed to diminish the warhorse as they passed. Gauntleted hands obedient, circlets of bare wrist cold-chapped and somehow defiant. His father’s much vaunted new man: Thorongil.

The column moved on, and Denethor moved out of view of the Gate. He heard the distant clang when its one half was closed to allow control of the day’s traffic. The stranger was left far behind, and the Great Gate loomed near with the broad liberty of the Pelennor beyond it. Yet those eyes seemed to follow Denethor for many miles afterward.


Chapter VIII: Undefeated

Word travelled swiftly in Edoras, often more swiftly than man could move. In Imladris it scarcely seemed to travel at all, but was dispersed throughout the valley almost instantly, like salt dissolving in a cruet of water. Thorongil had expected a slower dissemination of knowledge here, where the streets were less densely populated and each level was contained so neatly by its two gates. When he came down from his booth at the close of the day watch, he saw this was not so. There was a throng of men waiting around the door that led out to the sparring yard, and it took only a cursory glance to see that they were not all members of the Tenth Company.

They could not have all belonged to the Eleventh Company, either, for in the absence of the Ninth the other two in the Second Circle had half again as many watches to cover. Thorongil's own roster of double watches began tomorrow, and for the first time he could have very easily slept on into the dusk watch – if not for his promise to meet his Captain's challenge. Nonetheless he had risen and outfitted himself for combat. Now he crossed the hall and drew up on the edge of the assembled crowd. There were indeed men from other Companies among them. He saw the sleeve badges of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth, but also of companies from the higher levels: the Eighth, the Fifth, the Fourth. He slipped between them, unobtrusive despite his height, and reached the wide-open door that led out to the yard.

Now he saw why the men were gathered just inside. They had not been waiting for his arrival in order to delay their exposure to the nippy air: the sparring yard was tightly packed with men already. Most of these did indeed belong to the two Second Circle Companies still in Minas Tirith, and the off-watch lieutenants of the Tenth and Eleventh were holding back the crowd from a generous oval of bare ground in which Thorongil and Minardil were clearly meant to meet. Still surveying the men, Thorongil could not see any Company of the Guards of the City that was not represented, save the Second and the Ninth. He was beginning to wonder just what had been said of him, and whether these folk had come in the hope of seeing him vanquished or triumphant.

Yet it was not until he saw the men standing on the bench that ran the length of the far wall of the yard that he understood just how far interest had travelled. There were a baker's dozen of them, the blazon of their office bright against the costly midnight sable of their raiment: Guards of the Citadel, descended from the heights to observe this simple assessment of a new man by his Captain.

Uneasy now, Thorongil nudged through into the open space, where Minardil was tucking his sleeves carefully into the cuffs of his gauntlets. As he stepped forward, he heard an eager shout, and Landor, the page of the Tenth Company, called out; 'Here he is! Thorongil the Undefeated, come to face Minardil, Champion of the Guard!'

An excited rumble moved through the crowd, and those within pressed nearer to the open doorway, jostling to see. Now Thorongil understood, and he stepped to face his superior with a wry curl of his lip.

'Champion of the Guard?' he murmured as they clasped hands in greeting.

Minardil offered him wide, innocent eyes. 'Did I not make mention?' he asked. Then he grinned. 'I was chosen to represent the Guards of the City against the Citadel's Sable Challenger last year. Fear not,' he added, winking. 'I was soundly thrashed.'

Thorongil raised an eyebrow. Defeated or not, to be chosen as the representative of all fifteen Companies from the first six circles was no small honour. 'Now they have come to see you thrash me?' he asked.

His Captain grinned. 'It's the lure of seeing the best of the old pitted against the unconquered new,' he said. 'Do not take it to mean they are out for your blood. Some would be very pleased to see me put in my place by one of my own green men. Win or lose, we shall each have our lauders and our detractors.'

Thorongil knew that well enough: he had been in such contests before, but never before such a diverse selection of onlookers. In Rohan such things had been matters within the éored, or thrown together extemporaneously in a bored encampment. That this trial was so well attended that it almost seemed to have been announced from the watchtowers made him uneasy. He wanted to believe that it was Minardil's reputation alone that had drawn such interest, but he could not. As Captain, Minardil surely sparred with all of his men frequently, to gauge and hone their skills and to keep up his own. A first trial of a new recruit should not have warranted this assembly.

Perhaps, he thought as he tucked his cloak back over each shoulder, he was not integrating into the ranks of the Guard as smoothly as he had hoped.

Two of the more senior members of the Tenth Company came forward, each bearing three blades flat across his forearms. Minardil turned to look at them, and then gestured to Thorongil.

'As I issued the challenge, yours is the choice,' he said. 'Select your man, and we will each pick our weapon.'

Thorongil looked from one laden soldier to the other, studying their burdens cursorily. He chose the one on the right, which necessitated their concerted shuffling to change places. Then he reached to test the long, slender blade that had taken his eye. It was not one of the overweighted practice weapons meant to train the arms and the mind to expect a far more unwieldy thing than a man would bear in battle, that his own might seem feather-light in contrast. This was a real sword, truly weighted and precisely balanced. Its edges were dull and the tip had been blunted, but in every other respect it was a genuine weapon. This was no test of skills, to be a source of learning as well as exhibition: it was a true challenge to stand forth and prove himself.

Minardil was still testing each of his three blades, but Thorongil had made up his mind. He spoke quiet thanks to the bearer, and stepped back towards the ring of men gathered about. As he did so, he caught sight of a familiar face along the east wall of the yard. It was Bregold, the Provost Lieutenant who had given him such an effusive welcome eight days before. From the displeased and disdainful look upon his face, at least one member of the crowd truly was eager to see the stranger put in his place.

It was the Captain of the Eleventh Company of the Guard who was officiating, doubtless by virtue of his status as the most senior non-combatant of the Second Level. It was he who directed Minardil and Thorongil to their positions and gave a cursory reciting of the rules. For the participants this was simple: true combat, save that there was to be no striking above the neck. The watchers, however, were admonished to refrain from interfering with the bout in any way, from spitting and profane language, from intruding upon the central ring, and from numerous other colourfully but vaguely named transgressions that Thorongil could not quite decipher. At last the man stepped back, and barked out the command to begin.

Like prowling war-hounds the two men circled slowly, each keeping his opponent squarely before him. They were gauging one another's stance and movement, learning the set of one another's limbs. Minardil was tall even among the many tall men gathered, but Thorongil overtopped him by half a head. Minardil was the better equipped of the two, in mail and well-fitted garb of superior blacks, while Thorongil's silver star caught a glint of sunlight as his sidestep took him out of the shadow of the garrison roof. Doubtless they made a captivating spectacle as they measured each other, but Thorongil was more interested in his Captain's sharp eyes and limber shoulders than in the aesthetics of the moment.

After a quarter-minute of silent observation, the question became which man would strike first. Whoever did would take the opportunity to act, rather than be forced to react – but it was generally held that the one who dealt the first blow surrendered a certain advantage. In single combat, strategy and foresight were just as important as instinct and reflex. Most were taught, and indeed believed, that these first blow was always an act of nerves; a breaking of the latent tension of scrutinizing and being scrutinized.

Thorongil, however, had been taught by unconventional swordsmen. He knew that it was possible to make the first blow a calculated one, if one's thoughts moved more swiftly than the other man's nerves. Minardil was not a nervous sort. He was still moving with the sinuous deliberation of a hunter, and not once had he twitched even his lips in aborted aggression. He was waiting, believing that his new man would bend to the tension and the pressure of the strange crowd, and strike in haste.

He struck swiftly, yes, but not in haste. Thorongil's first swipe of the sword was long and smooth, whipping through the air and curling back as if to slash at Minardil's right hip. The Captain danced back easily, but that had been the intention. Rather than trying to land a blow, Thorongil had been watching for the way in which the Captain's armed side moved to evade. He saw what he wanted even before Minardil moved his own sword to riposte.

These early exchanges were almost noiseless, boots shuffling sharply against the frozen earth and blades singing through the winter air like the sighs of a lovelorn giantess. The gathered Guards were quiet, though soft noises of approval and dissent followed each swipe and counter. All were on edge now, waiting breathlessly for the first meeting of steel.

When it came, it was Thorongil on the defensive. He had just danced back out of range of an arc that would have disembowelled a man in battle. In the brief breath before he assessed his response, Minardil swooped in again. This time, the sword was coming for the shelf of his shoulder, where a blow even from a blunt blade would leave a gruesome bruise if not a cracked collarbone. Lightning-quick, the sword that had been rising for a breast-high pass at Minardil's left whipped like the arm of a trebuchet, Thorongil's wrist almost motionless. He changed the vector of his resistance at precisely the proper moment, his off-hand flying up to lend strength, and the edge of Minardil's sword met the flat of the Guardsman's blade with a resounding clang.

A reflexive cheer, more for the deftness of the move than any affinity towards the wielder, went up from the men. Fists clenched and arms jerked in satisfaction, and dozens of hungry eyes watched as the combatants drew back into the slow prowling that had begun the bout.

It went on in that way for several more passes. They would strike at one another and evade, then unexpectedly meet with the cold clatter of steel, then step warily away to begin again. Sometimes the aggressor on the landed blow was Thorongil, but more often Minardil. To those observing, the Captain seemed the more confident fighter and the more skilled: able to force his opponent to rebuff his blow with the blade instead of eluding it entirely. After their fifth fearsome contact, Thorongil saw from the almost imperceptible widening of his eyes that Minardil now knew differently.

Parrying was hard work, but striking was harder. It required, save in extraordinary circumstances like the first, a broader motion than fending off the blow. Further, the recoil of the descending blade placed an enormous strain upon hand and wrist, elbow and shoulder and backbone to keep the sword from flying back from the sudden obstacle – far, far more strain than was needed to resist the impact. Each time Minardil brought down his sword against Thorongil's, he tired himself still more. By the ninth time the blades met, the strength in his arm was noticeably lessened.

None of Thorongil's earlier bouts had been such a contest of attrition. Those he had strung out as well as he could without the appearance of condescension, as interested in measuring their skills as protecting their pride. He had a Captain's eye for such things: seeking weaknesses with a mind to school rather than exploit them. Out of long habit he was doing the same with Minardil, but there were far fewer flaws to be found and they were taking longer to draw out. He was an accomplished swordsman, strong and swift and skilled. He was a worthy opponent, no doubt, but in the end he was not so much a challenge as a welcome exertion.

When the speed of the passes began to quicken and the thirsty energy of the watching men mounted into restless shifting and frequent cries to goad or encourage, Thorongil laid by his pretext of reluctance. He had promised to spare his Captain nothing of his skill, and he meant to abide by that promise, however injudicious. He dealt a thrust that narrowly missed Minardil's flank, and swooped sideways to elude a blow. The momentum of that evasion was channelled into another sweep of his sword, and this time the blunted tip caught momentarily upon the edge of the Captain's cloak.

When they circled now, each was hunched low with knees bent to spring and backs rounded with brooding energy. The exclamations of the crowd had the muffled quality of voices above heard by a swimmer, or rumblings deep within the earth that reach the ears of one who walks above. They had no discernable quality to them: it was impossible to say whether any one man called for Minardil, or for Thorongil. Perhaps they were all jeering that the two should be done with this, that everyone might go and oil their boots. It did not matter.

Minardil flung up his arms to rebuff the descending blade, and Thorongil felt in his own shoulders what the Captain felt whenever he landed a blow. His breath was coming quickly now and perspiration was trickling into his eyes, burning in the chill of the afternoon. It was time to end this.

Yet even with his mind made up, Thorongil was obliged to dally on. Minardil knew his business, and it was not as simple as deciding the contest was over and ending it. They exchanged a few near swipes and the new Guard retreated back to his hovering position. Thorongil was pleased when Minardil did the same, rather than advancing across the gap he had made between them. The Captain was expecting several steps of wary sidelong shuffling, as they had done each time until this. Instead Thorongil thrust, diving in with a perfect echo of his opening move. Save that this time when Minardil shifted his lead foot back, Thorongil's left leg shot forward and his toe snagged his Captain's heel.

It was not an easy manoeuvre, and it brought with it a dull pain. Thorongil had to duck low to evade his opponent's sword, and his right knee struck the hard earth with an impact that jarred into his hip. But the imbalance in Minardil's back-step had been tipped, and even as Thorongil's shin met the ground the Captain was falling. He landed bruisingly, flat on his back, and the crown of his helm made a dull thud of impact. His sword was still in his hand, but his grip faltered in shock and Thorongil swept forward, snatching it away with his off-hand. He moved smoothly to his feet, ignoring the sullen throbbing of a stubbed great toe, and he looked down at his opponent.

'Do you yield, my Captain?' he asked, courteous and imperious at once.

'I yield!' gasped Minardil, not quite winded but near enough.

Thorongil nodded neatly, crouched to lay down both blades, and then offered his conquered opponent his hands. Minardil took them and launched to his feet, eyes still dazed but laughing. He was grinning broadly.

'I confess I was expecting you to be the one flat on his back,' he panted. Then he looked around at the dumbstruck men ringed about, and he raised his voice in a booming roar. 'I yield!'

At this clear prompting, a cacophony of voices erupted. Some were cheering, others voicing their confusion or discontent. A few were groaning or jeering good-naturedly. Only one voice, sour and insistent, cried that there had been foul play. The Captain of the Eleventh Company silenced this dissenter, whoever it was, with his own deep-throated proclamation that the match had been clean and the victory just.

Thorongil did not listen to the adulation any more than he had listened to the heckling: it mattered not for whom the words were meant, for they were only empty noise. He was about to bend to retrieve the swords when Minardil caught his arm and gripped it companionably. Thorongil reciprocated the gesture, and found himself looking into clever, earnest eyes.

'Do not think you have harmed your prospects with me,' Minardil said, his voice low enough that no other could hear amid the din. He was not smiling now: his words were too gravely meant for smiles. 'I know my own worth, and I know when it is exceeded by others. I respect a man who can best me, even when I do not like him. You, I respect and I like. I am pleased, Thorongil of Rohan, to count you among my men while I may.'

'I am proud to count you my Captain,' said Thorongil with equal solemnity and no servility. 'You fought well indeed. Were it not for the weakness in your back-step, it might not have gone as it did.'

Minardil's eyes widened at this, and Thorongil realized abruptly that he had known of no such weakness; not even after falling to it. Then his face settled back into lines of calm command. 'We must discuss that,' he said, as the sword-bearers drew near and the circle began to collapse as men broke into rapidly-talking groups. 'At another time.'

'At another time,' Thorongil agreed, scarcely finding the time to get the words out before the first congratulatory hand crashed down upon his shoulder. He was rocked vigorously by his assailant, who all the while was laughing and voicing his opinion on the match. Resuming his smile, Thorongil turned to accept the adulations of his peers.

There were resentful glares aimed at him also, but these were few. In the crackling excitement and the re-enacting narratives already being taken up in some clutches of men, Thorongil read clearly a more significant truth. By dawn, this tale would spread throughout the city. He was not certain whether that was good or ill for him, but he was in that moment very grateful that the suspicious Heir of the Steward had ridden out that morning.


The Companies were set up like opposing armies, glaring at one another across a dip in the land. In truth, of course, they were two groups of men with like lives and skills who were not often afforded the opportunity to fraternize together. During the drills and mock battles they put on a show of viciousness. Immediately afterward, their rivalry dissolved into sociable ease that soon turned to merriment as the Sun slipped down. From the perspective of a commander trying to lead a serious exercise in field combat, it was frustrating. To the eyes of a Lord who might one day have to lead these men in earnest, side-by-side as they marched to their doom, it was heartening.

Denethor intended to return to the City on the fourth day, once he was assured that all was as he had ordained it and that the two Captains would be adequately equipped to maintain discipline in his absence. He did not expect them to have any difficulty. Carefully planned and meticulously executed, this excursion was sure to run smoothly.

He had laid out the camps with deliberate intent, placing each more advantageously to one critical resource than to the other. The Second Company was nearer the deep rock stream that would furnish the men with water. The Ninth Company was nearer the stand of fir and aspen that would provide both camps with fuel. This served two purposes. The first was that scenarios could then be drawn around the recovery of one supply or the other. The second was to ensure that each Company had to have men assigned to fetching the thing their camp lacked at some distance, and with some inconvenience.

This built inter-reliance and an appreciation for the hardships of a field campaign, but Denethor's interest in the arrangement was more personal. If wood and water had to be fetched, men must be set to fetch it. His terse suggestion that this be a fixed assignment, rather than a rotating one, had been accepted unquestioningly by the Captains. Then it had only been a matter of choosing which men were to be saddled with this additional and admittedly rather heavy duty. Jamon the Easterling, of course, was among them.

Carrying water in this weather was a far more miserable task than carrying wood. If any of the men noted this, it was readily apparent that the lower-ranked company should be assigned the worse chore. Nor did anyone question the selection of the men: Denethor knew his subordinates too well for that. Two of those he condemned to fetch wood were in disfavour with the Captain of the Second Company; the other a troublemaker rather too fond of strong spirits. From the Ninth Company, he chose the Easterling, a man out of Blackroot Vale who was as strong as an ox, and the man with the most reprimands for slothfulness upon his record. If Captain Beleg saw anything incongruous about that first selection, he said nothing.

Denethor took a dark satisfaction in rising while the camp was still stirring drowsily in the predawn gloom, and watching the waterbearers toil back and forth from the stream to the hastily joined troughs that served the men of the Ninth Company as cisterns. They had wooden shoulder-yokes to help to bear the weight of the six-gallon pails, but even so it was difficult to keep from sloshing the water. Boots and cannions were swiftly soaked with spillage, and their arms wet to the elbows from whatever contortions were necessary in the stream-bed itself. Of the three Jamon was the smallest, and though he was strong (for did not the Enemy breed his thralls for strength?) he necessarily tired. By the fourth or fifth trip he would come back bowed low under the weight of the yoke, chapped hands clutching the pail-handles with white knuckles. By the sixth his feet would be slipping uncertainly on the frosty ground, and it was only through luck and determination that he did not fall.

He spoke no word of complaint, either public or private. He had not complained of the weight of the ten, either, or of having been relegated to the group set the backbreaking task of digging privy pits in the frozen earth. Nor did he shirk his other duties, taking his turn on patrol and fulfilling his role in each exercise. Yet it was clear to Denethor that he was growing weary. As early as the third night, he was heavy-headed over his day-meal, his limbs stiff when he rose to seek out his blanket. By the end of two weeks, he would be fortunate to be able to stagger back up the slope to the Second Gate, much less come prancing gaily home to his beloved.

It was with stern commands and strict instructions that Denethor left his Captains on the fourth day of the expedition. He had met with them separately the night before, as well, that he might order each to watch the other and to maintain a report on his behaviour. Between evaluating his better and keeping order among his men, Denethor doubted that Beleg would find time to worry overlong about the labours of one lowly soldier. A few disdainful words within earshot of the malcontents of the Ninth Company had laid the final trusses of the plan.

Riding back down into and across the Pelennor that morning, Denethor was quiet in his mind for the first time since the bitterly cold night when he had walked sleepless in the wake of unremembered nightmares. He had all but forgotten the tedium of his winter duties, and he felt again the vigour of command in his blood. He was leaving behind two hundred men who would come back to him much the better for their absence, and he was returning to a City in need of a firm hand to guide it into readiness for spring. There were diversions to look forward to as the weather grew mild, and there would be sound sleep awaiting him after a day in the saddle. He felt his youth and his strength and the keenness of his mind, and he was glad.

Not once in four days had he been troubled by any thought of the newest of Ecthelion's Follies.


It was on the morning that his son was expected to return to the City that word of the match between the new man from Rohan and the Champion of the Guard reached the ears of the Steward. In Denethor's absence, Ecthelion had taken upon himself the weekly meeting with the Master of the Guard. It was from him he had the tale. It was impossible to be certain how much it had metamorphosed in its journey through six levels of Minas Tirith, but in Ecthelion's experience the passing on of a tale from tongue to tongue was a more reliable form of record-keeping than many among the lore-masters of Gondor would allow.

He owed this opinion, as he owed much else in his life, to his dear friend Thengel, now King of Rohan. It was Thengel of whom Ecthelion was thinking when he passed into the Court of the Fountain on his way back to the Tower. The day was crisp and very bright, and in the frozen sunshine a crowd of little sparrows were hopping and jostling cheerily on the stones, competing for attention. Anaiwen sat upon the stone rim of the Fountain, a hunk of old bread in her lap. She was crumbling it with one gloved hand and sprinkling the little morsels for the birds. As Ecthelion drew near, two sparrows darted for the same crumb and butted beaks. Both drew back, wings half-spread, and circled one another with hops and little flaps. They were chirping indignantly, as if quarrelling, and the other birds retreated from the fracas. Anaiwen's laugh, delicate and lovely as hoarfrost, tinkled upon the air.

'You need not fight: there's plenty for all,' she chided, letting more fragments rain down. Then she caught sight of her father and beckoned cheerily. 'Only walk around so you don't startle them.'

Ecthelion did not hesitate, though he should have. There was work enough awaiting him: more than was usual, with Denethor absent. But as ever his youngest child's charm swayed him. He came to her, cutting a broad swath around the little flock, and sat next to her. Even through his layers and furs he could feel the chill of the stone beneath him, and he spread arm and cloak around Anaiwen's shoulders.

'Are you cold, dear one?' he asked as she cuddled near him.

'Only a little,' she said. The fresh air is so pleasant after a week indoors.' She brushed the crumbs from her hand and drew the edge of his cloak across the opening of her own, stroking the fur against her cheek as she looked up at him. 'You seem troubled, Ada. Is it a worry I might ease?'

'It is not a worry at all,' he said; 'but more of a conundrum. Do you recall the letter you brought to me?'

'From Thengel of Rohan. To be sure: how could I not?' Her brows lifted. 'Has this to do with the new man besting his Captain with a blade?'

Ecthelion drew back his head in surprise. 'You know of that?'

'Oh, assuredly. The Guards have been talking of it for days. It seems to have made for a compelling match.' Her voice fell to a dramatic whisper and there was a mischievous glint in her eye as she added; 'Some are saying the Sable Challenger will have to have a care for his record of unbroken triumphs.'

'Surely not,' Ecthelion demurred. 'Yet it does make me wonder. Clearly Thengel wrote truly of the man's abilities, but there is some incongruity. It is no small feat to outdo a Captain of Gondor, and Minardil's skill with a sword is considerably above the average. I have naught but fond regard for our northern brethren, but this is more than I would have expected of a common Rider.'

'He is not one of the Rohirrim: that too they are saying,' Anaiwen remarked. 'He has a look of Gondor about him: is he of Queen Morwen's people?'

'He told the provost that he was raised far in the North, in the shadow of the mountains,' said Ecthelion. 'I did not ask him of it, but now I rather wish I had.'

Anaiwen gave him a look of patient indulgence, as if explaining something to a slow but rather sweet child. 'You are the Steward, Ada. Call him back if you have unanswered questions.'

Ecthelion hugged her more snugly for a moment. 'It is a mite more complicated than that, my dear one,' he chuckled. 'Folk will wonder why I am singling the man out if I send for him again so soon. It will breed unease in the ranks, and it will make trouble for the man. He may well have difficulty enough over this business.'

'The Guards seem to speak well of him,' countered Anaiwen. 'They are saying that he was honourable in combat and gracious in victory.'

Ecthelion looked wonderingly at her. He had had no notion that his daughter listened so closely to the talk of the Guards. Their silent presence was such a constant in the Citadel that most who dwelt within were inclined to disregard them when they did speak. Certainly neither of the Steward's other daughters had been aware of the gossip and opinions of the Guards of the Citadel, and still less the men of meaner rank who kept the peace in the lower levels.

'What else are they saying?' he asked, genuinely curious.

Anaiwen considered. 'About the new man, very little. Until a few days ago, I do not think anyone knew his name. Why did he leave Rohan?'

'I did not ask him that, either,' Ecthelion admitted. It seemed that in his eagerness to greet one bearing words from his dear friend, and his desire to counterbalance Denethor's suspicion, he had neglected many worthwhile questions. 'Thengel implies it is because he may be put to better use upon our beleaguered borders. Would that the letter had come to me before Denethor made his assignment. I might have found him some more suitable post.'

'I suppose that to reassign him so soon would also breed unease among the ranks?' Anaiwen queried, her voice lilting in a way that made her father wonder if she guessed more than she ought about his concerns for Thorongil's easy integration into the Guard.

'It might,' said Ecthelion. 'More importantly, I have ever made it a policy to move men upon their merits alone. Rumour of a successful swordfight is hardly sound ground for an advantageous transfer.'

Anaiwen made a little sound of dissent, and hopped down from the lip of the fountain. She lifted Ecthelion's cloak from her shoulder, and turned to wrap it snugly around him. She patted his arm and smiled fondly at him.

'Perhaps it would be impolitic to move him,' she said confidentially. 'Yet you should send for him, and ask your questions. If any take exception, they can be told it is only natural that you would want tidings of your friend's city and the doings in his court. A man so lately in his service should be a ready source of news.'

She leaned in and pecked him lightly on the cheek. The last crust of the bread she ground to powder in her hand, and tossed it out across the stones. The birds, who had retreated to the branches of the lone, dead tree, came flocking down to claim their fodder as Anaiwen flitted away on fleet booted feet. Ecthelion watched her go, considering. Then he called for the Guard.

Chapter IX: Well-Meant Counsel

Impatience was Ecthelion’s secret vice. Over the years he had learned to school it, to hold it fast, to hide it; but still it visited him at times such as this. He had neither the vigour nor the fiery spirit that drove his son so often to pacing, so he sat askew behind his desk and drummed upon its surface with his first three fingers. The sound and the repetitive sensation soothed his nerves and gave him a clear sense that time was passing, however slowly. That he did not know what the outcome of his request would be only heightened his pique.

He had given orders that the man was not to be taken from his watch this time, and so it was quite possible that the Guard would return alone. Ecthelion was beginning to regret this attempt at restraint. As Anaiwen had so adroitly said, he was the Steward and he could do as he wished in these matters. If it suited him to take a man off of his watch, that was surely his right… but such flexing of his power had never come naturally to Ecthelion. This was better, even if it was also tiresome to wait unknowing.

A rap upon the open door drew his eye. The Guard he had sent forth stood respectfully on the far side of the threshold. Ecthelion nodded his acknowledgment, and the man bowed. ‘My Lord, Thorongil of the Tenth Company,’ he announced. Then he stepped back to admit the other man.

The first thing that Ecthelion noticed was that Thorongil had been furnished with new livery. It was long enough at cuff and hem to accommodate his tall frame, and the inexpensive dyes had not yet begun their inevitable fading to brown. Over it the old cloak, which was far more universal in size, looked incongruously shabby. This only served to emphasize the quality and workmanship of the star that clasped it.

‘My Lord Steward,’ Thorongil murmured, saluting low. It had struck Ecthelion upon their first meeting how elegantly the man executed the movements. It took time to grow familiar with the habitual gestures of a new land, and few of the foreign recruits mastered this one in less than three months.

‘Close the door and come in, young man,’ Ecthelion said. He straightened himself in his chair and sat up properly. Thorongil obeyed, and moved to stand before the desk, posture impeccable and eyes respectfully lowered. The Steward motioned to the chair beside the Guardsman’s knee. ‘Please sit. This is not a disciplinary matter: you need not be so rigid.’

‘Yes, sire,’ Thorongil said, and he sat. He did not relax in the least, however. Either he had not brought his sword to the Citadel, or it had once again been confiscated by the Guards. Ecthelion made note that he would have to speak to them about this practice. The newcomer, and others like him, were men in the service of Gondor and should be treated with at least a modicum of trust.

‘This is your off-watch?’ asked Ecthelion pleasantly, trying to encourage the man to enter into conversation.’

‘It is, sire,’ Thorongil answered respectfully.

‘I pray you will forgive me for borrowing you from your leisure,’ Ecthelion said, trying again. ‘Are you adapting well to life in Minas Tirith.’

‘I hope that I am, sire,’ said Thorongil. Still his eyes were hooded in humble deference.

Ecthelion sighed. ‘Look at me, my boy.’ Thorongil obeyed, the faintest flicker of apprehension in his eyes. The Steward offered a gentle smile. ‘Why do you imagine I have called you here?’

‘My Lord, I presumed you have more questions for me,’ said the man. His lips moved as if to add something more, and then fell still. He did not cast his eyes away again, however, but maintained a steady gaze now free from any sign of trepidation.

‘I confess that I have,’ said Ecthelion; ‘but you need have no concern. I shall try to be less insistent than my son.’

‘The Captain-General was discharging his duty, my Lord. I understand full well,’ said Thorongil. ‘Whatever you would know of me, I will answer as best I may.’

‘I thank you for that undertaking,’ Ecthelion said. ‘Know also that I abide by the words of my proclamation. A man’s birth and home bear no weight upon his ability to serve in Gondor’s defence. All are welcome: there is no need for subterfuge.’

‘I understand, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘What would you ask?’

Thengel’s letter lay upon the desk, for Ecthelion had fetched it from the drawer after summoning the man. He picked it up.

‘The King of Rohan speaks very highly of you, and now I hear that you have bested one of my Captains in single combat,’ he said. ‘How did a lowly Rider obtain such skill?’

‘I was trained in the use of a blade from an early age, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘Although my time in the éoreds of the Mark helped me to hone my skill, and to develop others, I did not come to Edoras with an untried hand.’

‘Even so,’ said Ecthelion. ‘I have seen Minardil of Lossarnach in combat, and to outdo him your skill must be remarkable. Have you served in other lands, under other lords?’

‘I have served no lord save Thengel King, and now your noble self, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘Save in defence of my home and my lands, I have fought only beneath the banner of Rohan.’

‘You are a landowner, then?’ Ecthelion asked. ‘Who tends your holdings, now you dwell so far abroad?’

‘I left them in the care of my mother’s sire, Lord. There is nothing that need be done in care of them that would be beyond his scope.’

‘I see.’ He did not clarify it, for Ecthelion did not wish to shame the earnest Guard, but plainly Thorongil was not a man of means. A holding small enough to be within the energies of a lone old man to tend surely produced little more than the bare sustenance of life. ‘The land; it was your father’s before yours?’

‘Yes, sire,’ said Thorongil quietly.

He was still meeting the Steward’s eyes, and there was only truth in his own. Ecthelion felt his like for the young man grow still more. ‘The provost’s report is vague on that matter. You are noted as the son of no man.’

‘I cannot give my father’s name,’ said Thorongil. ‘The provost was inclined to interpret that thusly.’

‘And how should I interpret it?’ asked Ecthelion. ‘You had a father, presumably, and knew him, if he left you his property.’

‘I did not know him, my Lord,’ Thorongil said softly. ‘He perished when I was little more than a babe in arms.’

Ecthelion felt a wrench of pity for this well-spoken and well-formed young man. His own father had been at times a difficult taskmaster to satisfy, harsh in his criticisms and sparing with his praise, but a life lived without his presence would have been empty indeed.

‘Why do you not carry his name?’ He phrased the question as circumspectly as he could. From the wording on the record he could see what the provost had made of that omission, but Ecthelion was not about to make such an ungenerous accusation aloud.

‘It would aid me nothing,’ Thorongil said. ‘I have done good work under the name I bear, and it suits both my temperament and my station in life. No other would serve me better.’

Perhaps he did not know of the Gondorian way in such matters. ‘I am not sure of that,’ Ecthelion ventured. ‘Much value is placed upon a man’s lineage here. Be it ever so humble, a man is better off with one than without.’

‘Not I, sire.’ Something flashed in Thorongil’s eyes. Ecthelion thought it to be pride, but that was not precisely right. It was something greater – something, as Anaiwen might have said, more ennobling. It made him uneasy, and he knew that his son would have been wholly unable to let such a remark pass.

Determined to be more welcoming than that, Ecthelion drew Thengel’s letter nearer to himself and consulted it again.

‘Much praise is given you here,’ he said; ‘and yet the King makes no mention of your cause for departure. Is that too a matter you wish to keep close?’

‘No, my Lord. I served Thengel King faithfully, and learned much from that service and from his folk,’ said Thorongil. ‘But Rohan is a land at peace, troubled but occasionally by ruffians and raiders. Gondor stands firm against the very borders of Mordor. If I am to advance the fight against Sauron, it is here I must do it.’

Ecthelion’s eyes widened, not at this grand and noble purpose, but at the artless way in which the Enemy’s name came from the young man’s lips. There were few who spoke that name at all, and fewer still who did so effortlessly and with no sign of fear. Either he was indeed naïve, as might well be expected of a cotholder’s orphan who had fought for none but the Riddermark, or he was as unfailing in his courage as Denethor.

‘It is ever my aim,’ he said, mastering his surprise. ‘In that fight I seek men such as you, and I am glad that you have come. But tell me, Thorongil: in what capacity did you serve Thengel? That also he has left unsaid.’

Thorongil looked at him for a long moment, weighing something in his mind. ‘Sire, I came to him as a lowly soldier. In time I was made a sergeant in the household of the Lord Mayor of Edoras. I took my turn as a Lieutenant in the King’s own éored. In time, I rose to muster and lead one of my own.’

This Ecthelion had not expected, and his lips parted in astonishment. ‘Your own éored,’ he echoed. ‘Then you were a Captain of the Mark.’

‘I was.’ The words were clear enough, but Ecthelion would have expected more finality to them. He did not pause to wonder at this, however, for his dismay at the revelation was greater than his desire to puzzle.

‘You should not have been assigned as you were,’ he said. ‘I am sorry for it. Had the provost brought your letter to me in a timely fashion, I could have spoken to my son about finding a post more suited to your talents.’

‘I am content wherever I am needed, my Lord,’ said Thorongil. ‘As for the provost…’

His words trailed off in a glaze of hesitation, and then his mouth snapped abruptly shut. Ecthelion frowned.

‘As for the provost?’ he prompted.

Thorongil looked at him, something in his eyes that was akin to helplessness. Then he bowed his head and shook it slowly. ‘The Provost Lieutenant was unsure of what to make of it, I think,’ he muttered. ‘It seemed to be outside his experience.’

Ecthelion surprised himself with a laugh. ‘I daresay it was!’ he said, as Thorongil looked up to the sound of his mirth. A restrained little smile twitched at the corners of his stately mouth. Ecthelion leaned in over the desk and added conspiratorially; ‘I need hardly say that those seeking my service seldom come with such a remarkable testament to their character.’

‘No, my Lord. I imagine they would not,’ said Thorongil. ‘I would ask a question, if I may.’

‘Of course,’ said Ecthelion. ‘If ever you find I am unreceptive to a question, you have my leave to call me up short.’

‘I would not presume to do that under so brief an acquaintance, sire,’ Thorongil said handsomely. ‘Yet if I may have my query, it is this: have many men come to Minas Tirith to claim the amnesty and patronage you offer?’

Ecthelion could not help a pleased smile. He was proud of his initiative, and the fruits it had borne. ‘Many more than I hoped when first I made that pledge,’ he said. ‘In the years since it was sent forth, I have been proud to welcome eight score men and six to bolster the ranks of Gondor. You make it seven.’ He did not count the spy. The traitor.

‘Are most from Rohan?’ he asked. ‘Not ones such as I, but true-born men of the Mark?’

‘Many,’ agreed Ecthelion. He considered, then allowed; ‘Most. But there have been men from Dunland and Enedwaith; strong woodsmen from Anduin’s northerly vales; three brothers from far Minhiriath where few men now dwell.’

‘And from the tributaries of Mordor?’ Thorongil asked quietly.

There was no judgment in his eyes, nor any in his voice. Yet Ecthelion hesitated. This aspect of his policy, most of all, had drawn criticism throughout the ranks of his armies and the homes of his people. Denethor, who had never liked it even in the days when it brought only the flaxen-haired sons of Éorl, deplored this aspect of the law.

‘Some,’ he said at last, warily and watching for any sign of scorn in the Guardsman’s eyes. He saw none, and found himself continuing. ‘A few brave men, brave and desperate and too often bereft: out of Rhûn, out of Harad. Out of the unhappy land of Nûrnen itself. Yes.’

Thorongil nodded, and Ecthelion could see that he had known this already, at least in part. ‘I have met one such man in the Second Circle,’ he said. ‘What of the others?’

‘A few serve in the City,’ Ecthelion admitted; ‘but it is not easy for them to take to the stony heights and our ageless rituals. I have found gladder work for most in Pelargir or west beyond Pinnath Gelin. None will consent to serve in Ithilien, though it is there that their intelligence of the Enemy’s ways would prove most valuable.’

‘Small wonder is that,’ said Thorongil. ‘I have witnessed the penalties the servants of Sauron exact for indolence and failure. I can only imagine the torments to which a defector would be put.’

He said this in such a grim and knowing tone that a chill ran up Ecthelion’s spine. ‘I would set no man to a duty he is unwilling to take, whatever the reason,’ he said. ‘It gives me no pleasure to send any of my soldiers to face death and capture on the far side of the river, but to send them against their will would be a hateful thing.’

Thorongil was silent. Perhaps he understood, if Captain he had been, that there were times when a leader of men was not free to abide by so lofty an ideal. There were times when men did need to be sent unwilling to their deaths. It was a mercy that Gondor was not yet at such a pass. Presently Ecthelion spoke again, turning deliberately from such dark talk.

‘Tell me more of your deeds in Rohan,’ he invited. ‘The proof Thengel gave me to ask of you was the name of a rescued mare. There must be a tale there! If she was one of the Mearas, it is plain what a service you did to the King. He holds his horses almost as dear as his children.’

‘So I have seen, sire,’ said Thorongil with a smile. ‘Yet I fear that tale does not serve to cast me in a favourable light before one who would have me as his obedient servant. Shall I tell you instead of Edoras as I left it short weeks ago? There is much to be said of the city and her folk.’

Ecthelion settled back in his chair and motioned that he should begin. With the lyrical cadence of an accomplished storyteller, Thorongil began to speak.


Coming into the city in the late afternoon, Denethor did not go directly to the Citadel to seek his father and resume his duties. Instead he left his horse in the keeping of the grooms and walked through the clean and well-paved streets of the Sixth Level until he came to the house of Esgalad. He was greeted courteously by the servants and relieved of his heavy outer garments. He needed no escort to lead him to his sister’s chamber on the uppermost floor, nor anyone to usher him in when she answered to his knock. He fixed his face in glad contours before opening the door.

‘What hail, my sister?’ he said bracingly as he swept over the threshold. ‘Your errant champion has returned from afar, and he longs to look upon your fair face.’

Telpiriel was reclining in bed, propped up upon a cloud of colourful cushions. Her pearl-embroidered robe was artfully arranged, and her hair freshly brushed and twisted into a long, fat plait that coiled from her shoulder like a black rope. She held out both hands to him in greeting and he strode across the room to take them, drawing to a halt at the right side of the bed.

‘Welcome to the White City, dear champion,’ she said warmly. Then she slipped one had from his and patted the coverlet next to her. ‘Sit, and let us talk awhile. It grows quite dreary with only my ladies and the footmen for company.’

‘You could command companions from the four corners of the realm, and they would come to you,’ Denethor declared airily, as he arranged his garments and sat. In his present mood, he was suited perfectly to the role of the cheerful brother. He leaned in towards Telpiriel and added confidentially; ‘And if any declined to come, I would fetch them to you myself!’

A little laugh passed her lips, amused and yet also a little bitter. ‘I shall not hold you to that promise,’ she said. ‘But tell me of the manoeuvres! How are the soft men of Minas Tirith adapting to life in the field?’

‘Well enough,’ Denethor said honestly. ‘There were some who found the frozen nights a shock, but they will grow used to it. By the end of the fortnight, they shall be all the more grateful for closed booths and warm beds. I am pleased to say that in the first melee both Companies deported themselves well. I was surprised that the Ninth Company won, but I should not have been. Beleg is a competent Captain and good in a tight place.’

‘And the Ninth Company are scrappers beside the Second,’ said Telpiriel. ‘Men of lesser rank most often are. They have had to fight harder for what they have in life, and they fight harder still to keep it. No doubt the men were eager to prove themselves before their Captain-General.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Denethor. He would not debate with her the merits of lesser men, not when he had come to brighten her confinement. ‘It will be interesting to learn how matters proceed in my absence. I trust it will not degenerate into a ten-day revel in the foothills, but I suspect less serious work shall be accomplished than it would be under my eye.’

‘Less serious does not perforce mean less valuable,’ Telpiriel countered with a sly little smile. ‘I recall a certain little lordling who could not learn his tengwar by rote, to the despair of his tutor. Yet when they were presented to him in an amusing little rhyme, he mastered them in an afternoon.’

In any other company, Denethor would have been discomfited to have this tale remembered. Between Telpiriel and himself, it was a shared memory to cherish. ‘You never did explain to me how rómen rhymed with boring,’ he said.

Telpiriel pursed her lips and bristled in mock indignation. ‘I had only begun my education in poetry and song,’ she said primly. ‘It was a novice’s very earnest attempt.’

‘And it worked,’ Denethor allowed. ‘Though perhaps you might refine that particular piece before this little one has need of it.’

His hand reached out and brushed the rich nap of her bed gown where it swelled over her belly. Her pose made her new girth more prominent than usual, but in their banter Denethor had almost forgotten it. Now he withdrew his hand as if it had been scorched and cast his eyes away.

Telpiriel reached for his wrist and guided his hand back. ‘It’s all right,’ she said quietly, spreading his palm and placing against the firm roundness beneath the rich fabric. ‘You will not hurt me.’

This was not the source of his discomfiture. Matters of childbed were not for men, but Denethor knew enough to understand that a touch would not harm a quickening woman. It was the reminder of the pregnancy itself that had called him up short – that, and the casual way that the child had slipped into his mind and his speech. It had been at about this stage that Telpiriel’s stillbirth had occurred. At the time he had believed the loss might break her.

Worse yet had been the awful, dead-eyed resignation that had followed the last miscarriage four years before. His proud and perceptive sister had been reduced to a fatalistic shadow, thin, wan and wholly without spirit. She had not even wept. She had come back to him, to them all, that time, but Denethor was afraid. If such a loss came again, with her hopes so fragile and Esgalad abroad, he did not know if her mind would hold.

He forced a strained little smile. Her hands were over his, too firm in their hold for him to slip casually away. ‘Very nice,’ he said awkwardly. ‘You must be so proud.’

Telpiriel’s brows knit together in perplexity and the ungainly words, and then she laughed and released him. ‘Go on, then: sit back and keep your lordly remoteness!’ she sang. ‘Heavens, what a torment it must be for you to visit me so often! Poor Denethor: is my situation such an embarrassment for you?’

‘No! I mean… that is…’ He straightened up, drawing further from her and smoothing the front of his jerkin where his coat fell open. Both garments were meant for winter travel, and in the close room with its lively fire he was beginning to feel uncomfortably warm. ‘I am not embarrassed,’ he managed finally, meeting her eyes so that she could see that it was so. He hoped that the deeper truth was hidden from her sight, but he could not be sure. ‘It is simply uncomfortable to sit thus with my hand upon… upon…’

‘Upon your nephew?’ Telpiriel challenged, eyes sparkling. ‘You will be expected to touch him once in a while when he is born, you know.’

‘That is some matter different, and you know it,’ he said, shooting her a dirty look quite unbefitting of his dignity. When she waggled her eyebrows, he let out a rush of air that was not quite a laugh. ‘Surely you cannot expect an unwed man to be conversant in such things. It would be most unsuitable.’

‘Come to that, it is most unsuitable that you are still an unwed man, my brother,’ said Telpiriel, cocking her head to one side. ‘You are drawing on in years—’

‘I am not yet six and thirty!’

‘—You are drawing on in years, and you have no prospects of wife or heir,’ Telpiriel went on blithely. ‘I am surprised that one who places such pride in his lineage and position is not taking steps to secure the succession.’

‘When the time is right, I shall be married,’ Denethor hedged. This was an uncomfortable topic. Eight years before there had been an aggressive campaign among his father’s Councillors to see him wed. All the eligible maidens of the nobility had been paraded before him, to no avail. He knew that his father had harboured a secret hope that he might take to one of the two eldest daughters of Thengel of Rohan, but that too had come to nothing. Comely though they were, they would have made an unsuitable match for a son of Westernesse. Still more significantly, strange though it seemed to admit it, he had felt no affection for them or for the many daughters of Gondor from whom he might have had his pick. Denethor was not a sentimental man, but heartfelt closeness in marriage was the old way, and he did not wish to bend to modern expediency.

‘There, now: I was only teasing,’ Telpiriel soothed, very much the elder sister as she reached to pat his leg. ‘You have a long life before you, and if our father is any indication the men of the line of Mardil can produce well-appointed children well into their later years.’

‘Has Anaiwen been down to visit while I was gone?’ Denethor asked, glad of the change of subject. ‘I suggested to her that she might do so with a little more regularity.’

‘As a matter of fact, she has,’ said Telpiriel with a slanted smile. ‘She was here just yesterday, filled with gossip and merriment. Her sewing is coming along beautifully, too. The cloths she is preparing for the Hallows are exquisite.’

Denethor had little interest in his youngest sister’s exploits with a needle, but sharing the gossip would entertain Telpiriel and keep the conversation from turning to any more awkward things. He could not think what they might possibly discuss that would be more awkward than what was past, but he feared there was something.

‘Tell me the news, then, since you surely know more than a soldier lately returned home,’ he invited, getting to his feet forcefully to compensate for the deep softness of the mattress. He strode to the sideboard. ‘Wine?’

‘Please,’ said Telpiriel. ‘Well, now, let me see… the Lord Chamberlain’s wife is in a tiff with her sister. They’ve been quarrelling all week, and two days ago they stopped speaking to one another at all. It’s uncomfortable, you know, for with spring just around the corner they will need to be working together on the – oh, thank you!’

She took the silver cup he offered and sipped of it as he drew up one of the richly cushioned chairs. Denethor stretched his legs out comfortably and drank deeply of his own wine. It was a fine vintage out of Anfalas, sweet and strong.

‘Where was I?’ Telpiriel asked. ‘Ah, well. Anaiwen was most excited about some duel that was fought in the lower City. It seems a new man – quite a new man, from the sound of it – defeated Captain Minardil in single combat. Wasn’t he the Champion of the Guard last year?’

Denethor’s jaw was tightening, and his grip on his goblet grew painful. ‘He was,’ he said tightly. ‘I expect him to claim the title this year as well. He is one of the best swordsmen we have, for all that he is inexperienced in matters of command. Defeated, you said?’

Telpiriel nodded absently. She was watching the dark vortex in her cup as she swirled it. A contented smile was upon her lips. Today, at least, she was not beating upon the bars of her healer-sanctioned cage. ‘It seems it made for a remarkable bout. I think our bright-eyed little swallow rather wishes she had been there to see it.’

‘Been there?’ Denethor snorted. ‘At a Guardsmen’s brawl in the Second Circle? I can think of no more unsuitable place for a young girl to be!’

He took a deep swig of his wine, conscious of Telpiriel’s uncomfortably piercing look and trying not to squirm beneath it. Few indeed possessed the power to make the Heir of all Gondor squirm, but such was an older sister’s power.

‘How did you know it took place in the Second Circle?’ she asked. ‘Have you been patronizing me all this time, letting me impart news that is old to you?’

‘No,’ Denethor said, the word coming out almost at a growl. He cleared his throat and shook his head. ‘No, I know of the newcomer in Minardil’s Company. A nameless vagabond who came out of Rohan with a letter that has won our father’s favour.’

‘A letter from Thengel King,’ Telpiriel agreed. She always remembered to use the Rohirric form of address; something Denethor had never mastered. ‘Yes, Anaiwen told me about that. The provost kept it back for a week before bearing it to you?’

Denethor could not answer this, but before he could light upon some other subject Telpiriel saw the subtle sliding of his eyes.

‘Oh, Denethor, you didn’t!’ she breathed. ‘You held back a letter that the King of Rohan sent for Father?’

‘Well?’ he challenged. ‘What of it? I am the Captain-General, and the disposition of new men falls to me. The letter would not have changed that. I deemed it unfitting that the Steward should be bothered with such a—’

‘Careful,’ Telpiriel warned, wagging a finger. ‘Remember to whom you are speaking, Aglarion. Your splendour does not dazzle these eyes.’ Then she grinned so that her teeth shone white against lips subtly stained with wine. ‘You forgot.’

He glared at her, shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and then took a long quaff from his cup. ‘I was occupied with other matters,’ he muttered.

‘Poor Denethor!’ laughed Telpiriel again, shaking her head. ‘Better to be thought presumptuous than careless. What a burden perfection must be, even upon such strong shoulders.’

‘If you will do nothing but mock me, I shall take my leave,’ he bridled, draining his cup and getting to his feet. ‘I have much business to which I must attend. Four days’ absence is no small thing for one with a great land to command.’

‘You do not command it yet,’ Telpiriel warned mildly. Then she turned up her cheek for a kiss. ‘If you must go, begone. I shall expect you for breakfast on the appointed day. Take care not to break your back in the contortions needed to grasp at flawlessness.’

Though his mood was now sour, Denethor bent and kissed her. As his lips grazed her cheek, no longer the velvet-soft of a maiden’s but the strong smoothness of a woman full-grown into her power and influence, a chill crossed his heart. He could not help it. Whenever he bade her farewell now, he knew in his soul it might be the last time. It was no secret from keen eyes that the healers feared as much for the mother as for the babe, and the most merciful of childbed deaths were swift.

‘I shall come tomorrow evening, and we can have a game of chess,’ he murmured absently. Telpiriel said something light-hearted in answer, but he knew she had read the thoughts of his heart. Denethor fled the room before either of them had to face it.


Thorongil had just come to the end of an account of the autumn festivities in Edoras and the charming spectacle Thengel’s small daughter had made in her first girlish gown. The Steward was smiling beneficently, his eyes clouded with fond thoughts of his friend. Presently he nodded.

‘Thank you, young man,’ he said. ‘I confess I have missed Thengel and his family. I would have liked to have journeyed to visit upon the occasion of the girl’s birth, but circumstances did not permit it.’

‘The burdens of state cannot be lightly set aside,’ Thorongil agreed softly. How often had he had to lay by his own mirth for the sake of his duty? ‘Have I said all you wished to hear, sire?’

Ecthelion looked at him, eyes momentarily wounded. Then he saw that this was an invitation to further questions, not a plea for dismissal and his smile returned. ‘You know much of the doings of the court of Rohan,’ he said. ‘You must have been an advantageously placed Captain indeed.’

‘I had the favour of the King,’ said Thorongil. As long as he was not asked outright if he had left Thengel’s service a Captain, he could keep from flying his standard too high. ‘He is a gracious lord, and generous with his Riders.’

‘His father was not,’ said the Steward with a rueful curl of his lip. ‘Do you know of the despotism of Fengel?’

Thorongil did, and in far harsher terms than he was likely to hear from the lord of a neighbouring country, but he merely cast down his eyes. ‘Such things are not fit for you to discuss with one of my rank, my Lord. The private lives of the great ones should not be a matter of entertainment for common soldiers.’

‘True,’ allowed Ecthelion. ‘Yet most hold that the onus is upon the great ones to conduct themselves in a manner that does not invite entertainment, rather than upon the soldier to be circumspect. He was not your lord, and yet you afford him respect even in death.’

‘He was the King of Rohan, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘It is not for me to speak ill of him.’

Ecthelion regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, and a fondness touched his lips. ‘You are a man of integrity, Thorongil of… what shall we call you, my boy? You cannot be “Thorongil” only, and if you will not speak your father’s name—’

‘Cannot, sire,’ Thorongil corrected, realizing too late that he had not merely contradicted but interrupted his liege-lord.

‘But why?’ sighed Ecthelion, shaking his head in bewilderment. ‘What shame is there in admitting his name? Surely it cannot be that your mother kept it from you!’

Here was an opportunity to speak the truth, but Thorongil hesitated. Would it do more harm than good, raising still more impossible questions? Yet he had been courteously used this day, and he owed his new lord some small gesture of trust, even if it might not be recognized.

‘She did, sire,’ he said quietly. ‘I was brought up under a name I was not born to, far from the place where I was delivered into the world. Not from my mother’s lips did I learn my sire’s name.’

Ecthelion stared at him, stricken. In that more than in any of his other kindly words could Thorongil see the gentle heart within the Steward’s breast. This pained him: this picture of a child bereft even of the concept of a father. And it was not a picture that did justice to those whom Thorongil loved and honoured.

‘I was brought up in the house of a kinsman,’ he said. ‘A… aye, an uncle. I did not want for affection or for models of noble manhood, but I never knew my father.’

‘And can you not take your uncle’s name?’ asked Ecthelion. ‘I do not know if you understand, coming as you do from the freeness of Rohan, what an impediment a lack of name and lineage will be to you. There is little time to answer the deficit. Soon all will know that you are fatherless, and that will pursue you however much you may excel in my service.’

Ecthelion was trying to help him, to give him the chance while a chance there still was to take unto himself the protection of respectability – even legitimacy. Yet in all conscience Thorongil could not do it. The name that was rightfully his he had laid aside to safeguard his life, but he could not bring himself to belittle that lofty lineage by replacing it with a subterfuge. A lie. To the name of son of Elrond he had some claim, for it had been given him freely and with love, but it would serve him no better than his blood patrimony. Beyond that he had no other claim save that of his mother’s kin, and that would be grievously mistaken even by credulous minds.

‘That must be as it will, sire,’ he said, trying to keep his turmoil from filtering into his words. ‘I must bear my lot as I may and hope that it will not diminish me in your eyes, nor impede my capacity to serve Gondor.’

Ecthelion looked upon him sadly, but nodded. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Let it be as you wish, and I shall quell hateful rumours should any reach my ears. I think you could count upon your Captain to do the same, if he is not embittered by your victory over him.’

Thorongil smiled now. Minardil had, in fact, been as affable as ever these last few days. He was looking at his newest man in a different light now, and Thorongil could not help but feel that Minardil now held them as nearer to equals than to Captain and Guardsman. They were set to work together during the dawn watch two days hence, for Minardil was anxious to be shown the fault in his feet and this was the first opportunity their duties allowed them the same period of leisure.

‘I do not think he is, sire,’ he said honestly. ‘It was but an informal bout in any case: more an opportunity for my Captain to assess my skill than any show of martial might.’

‘Yet that is what it became,’ said Ecthelion with a wry little grin. ‘Well, that is all well enough. Better that you should be appreciated for your talents than that you should remain unnoticed on a market corner, watching for cutpurses.’

‘Sire, I am quite content to—’

Thorongil’s polite demurral was cut off when the door to the study was suddenly thrust open, and a man whose stride had scarcely been broken to turn the handle sailed in. It was Denethor, tall and puissant in garments stained by the trail but unmistakable in their costliness.

‘Father, what is this I have heard of the new man—aah!’ Denethor’s eyes had gone first to the Steward and he had not immediately recognized the face of the namelessly common Guard seated before him. Now he did, and he drew up to his full and not unimpressive height. What had been a look of stern inquisition turned now to one of dark disapproval. ‘You,’ he hissed, his lip curling almost into a snarl. ‘What business have you in the Citadel?’

‘I summoned him, my son,’ Ecthelion said placating, looking up at his heir with paternal pride. ‘So you have returned to us. How are your eager combatants faring?’

‘Well enough,’ said Denethor. He looked Thorongil over coldly, almost disdainfully. It took a noted effort to remain still beneath such scrutiny, but Thorongil had borne more penetrating eyes than his. ‘I have heard of your victory, stranger. It takes a man of some skill to best Minardil son of Mardhir.’

Perhaps it was only the lingering taste of his conversation with the Steward, but it seemed to Thorongil that Denethor placed a subtle emphasis upon Minardil’s parentage. Meekly he said; ‘My Captain’s expertise is great, my Lord. It took great fortune, and not skill alone, to outstrip him in combat.’

Ecthelion smiled warmly at him, and gestured to Denethor. ‘Will you not sit, my son? I have been getting to know our newest man. He has much to say of Rohan and of the happenings in Edoras.’

‘He does not stand when his lord enters a room,’ observed Denethor coldly.

That was unfair. Having been bidden to sit by the Steward, etiquette did not require Thorongil to rise until instructed by his Lord, or until Ecthelion himself stood again. Yet he would have done so out of courtesy had he not been so startled by the Captain-General’s sudden entrance and immediate hostility.

‘Forgive me, sire,’ he said, rising now to his feet but bowing his head as he bent in salute. ‘I am accustomed to a court some measure less formal.’

‘It’s quite all right, young man: sit and be at ease!’ said Ecthelion, motioning to the vacated chair. ‘Denethor, sit. You need not hover there like an uneasy herald.’

There was a gentle teasing lilt in his voice, meant to put the younger Lord at ease. Its effect was exactly the opposite. Denethor’s jaw clenched and twitched ominously, and his back grew still more rigid. Inwardly Thorongil cringed. It was not the first time he had seen this: Ecthelion’s attempt to placate his son being met with mounting tension. It was plain the Steward did not know his words had such an effect, and equally plain that Denethor would never tell him.

‘I think not,’ the Captain-General said, his lips moving in spastic jerks as he formed the words. He cast a sidelong eye at Thorongil. ‘I will wait until your… guest has departed, my Lord Father, and then I shall make my report.’

‘Now, no need for that,’ Ecthelion said warmly, again indicating the other seat. ‘I have quite enjoyed the chance to know Thorongil a little better. He was telling me how he was brought up by a kinsman, far from the place where he was born.’

‘And where was that?’ asked Denethor coldly.

‘Sire?’ Thorongil’s stomach churned uncomfortably. He had wished to ease the Heir’s suspicions, not stir them up afresh. He had hoped he might find some way to placate him. Plainly this was not to be the day.

‘Where were you born?’ he enunciated almost painfully. His rearmost teeth were set fast. ‘What manor? What town? What pitiful hamlet of tumbledown cots? What gutter?’

‘Denethor!’ Ecthelion exclaimed, but neither of the younger men heard him. Their eyes were locked upon one another, measuring each other from behind armoured bastions of the mind.

Thorongil knew he could not evade again. The serpentine suspicion in Denethor’s glare was purest poison. If he did not give some tangible answer, he would make nothing but trouble for himself.

‘It was a village, sire,’ he said calmly, his voice deferential even as his eyes held fast. ‘A small village, not prosperous, perhaps, but sufficiently endowed to sustain healthfully the lives of its inhabitants. I have no memory of my brief years dwelling therein, but know only what my mother told me of them.’

‘And what did your mother call this… village?’ asked Denethor with a taciturn twitch of the lips.

‘She called it home, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘In the Elvish tongue, bardh. In the language of the men of Rohan, eardlufu. In the High Elven speech, Mélamar.’

That was indeed what the settlement was called, where the Heirs of Isildur had dwelt and their families had been reared through many generations fraught with care and strife. Mélamar, the home of the heart to which one must return: what more fitting name for the chiefest haven of a scattered and wandering people?

‘You know many different tongues, Thorongil,’ said Ecthelion in gentle approval.

‘Or many different ways to say nothing at all,’ muttered Denethor, eyes narrowed. He could see the truth in Thorongil’s eyes, a truth that ran deeper than mere honest equivocation, but he could not understand it.

‘I hope to make Gondor my home, my Lord,’ Thorongil said to him. In this, too, there was nothing but truth. ‘Have I need of any other?’

Denethor’s eyebrows shot up and his lips parted in astonished reaction, but he reined in the impulse to speak in haste. He closed his mouth and made another slow study of Thorongil’s face and form. This time his eyes lingered for a moment upon the silver Star of the Dúnedain at his throat. There was a calculating look in the Captain-General’s eyes, but the black wrath was dimmed a little.

‘We shall see, Guardsman,’ he said with all the aloofness of a mighty commander answering the question of a lowly recruit. ‘We shall see.’

‘Thank you, my Lord,’ said Thorongil humbly. ‘Have I your leave to depart, sire? My watch draws nigh, and it is a lengthy walk back to the low places of the City.’

He had addressed this question to Denethor, knowing that Ecthelion would take no offence and hoping that a show of submission might ease the Heir out of his posture of attack. Likewise, the tacit reminder that he knew that he belonged in the low places rather than the heights was meant to mollify Denethor’s affronted pride. He had returned home to find a vagabond ensconced in the very heart of the court, conversing like a friend with the Lord of the land. It had shaken his sense of his own position, as a lead hound might be shaken by the coming of a new hunter in the pack. Thorongil had no wish to challenge him, and it would do no harm to let Denethor see that.

‘Very well,’ said Denethor loftily. ‘Where is your guard tonight, soldier?’

‘Upon the wall, my Lord,’ Thorongil answered truthfully. ‘The easterly rampart.’

‘Be sure to keep to your post,’ the Captain-General admonished with something like satisfaction. ‘We have had difficulty with guards pacing to keep warm on harsh nights. The winds will be cruel this night. See you stand fast.’

‘Yes, sire,’ Thorongil deferred, rising and bowing deeply into his salute. ‘My Lord Steward, I thank you for your kind consideration. It is a soldier’s pleasure to bring tidings of friendly lands for once, rather than hostile. You are remembered lovingly in Rohan.’

This, too, was more for Denethor’s benefit than Ecthelion’s: a reminder that he was but a soldier, and valued more for his news than for himself. It was also a reassurance that their talk had been of a far-off city and a foreign court, rather than matters more relevant to the present. When Denethor stepped back from the doorway, allowing Thorongil a clear avenue of retreat, he knew that he had succeeded at least in part.

‘Go with my blessing, my boy,’ said Ecthelion warmly. ‘I hope we shall have the opportunity to talk again ere long. And remember: it is better to sway a little than to freeze.’

‘Thank you, sire,’ said Thorongil, bowing again. With a final brief obeisance to Denethor, he slipped from the room and crossed the gloomy Council chamber as swiftly as he could. Even so, the door was swung fast behind him to cut off the firelight before he reached the corridor. In the grey shadows of dusk, he found the door that opened on the torchlit way winding to the Tower’s main doors, where hopefully the Guards still kept his sword. As he walked, Thorongil realized there was a flutter in his breast and a tremor in his hand. He did not fear the Steward’s Heir, precisely, but speaking with Denethor was rather like sparring with sharpened blades. The stakes were high, even between allies, and it left the same exhilarated exhaustion in the blood.


Chapter X: Come In, Go Forth

This much Denethor would say for the evasive new man: he knew his rightful place.

The stranger calling himself Thorongil was courtly in his words and impudent in his silences, but in his actions he was all that could be asked of a low-ranked Guardsman. At his father's behest, Denethor had set out to make a thorough assessment of Thengel's cast-off Rider, and he had been making inquiries of his trusted men in the lower Companies. The man was quiet, obedient and diligent in his duty. He was never caught wandering from a set post – not even on that night he had stood upon the eastern rampart in what Denethor had correctly predicted to be a cruel wind. When on patrol, he did not duck into shops or undercrofts as many of the men did, to take a hot drink or a piece of buttered bread offered by some well-meaning citizen.

According to Denethor's man in the Tenth Company, Thorongil spent one of each day's off-watches in sleep, and the other in pursuits no one could fault. He worked in the sparring yard, occupied as much with aiding his fellows as in his own exercise. He laboured over the sword he had been furnished by the armoury, carefully restoring a neglected blade to useable condition. He performed his daily tasks around the garrison, and he sat talking with the other men of life in Minas Tirith and the expectations laid upon her men. He had not made any move to fraternize with the young ladies of the first two levels; he had not sought out the company of any women of dubious virtue; and his few dealings with tradesmen and merchants were brief, more courtesy than business because he had little coin to spend. Denethor was glad that he had not dispatched any of his dedicated watchers to keep an eye on the man, for surely they would have perished of boredom.

Watching him now, as he moved among the off-loading men and helped to hoist heavy packs from weary backs or to gather up the bedrolls, Denethor was struck by how truly unremarkable Thorongil actually was. In their three conversations, if conversations they might rightly be called, he had exuded an ill-concealed air of power and status not at all in keeping with his lot in life. In combination with his evasions and his outright refusal to answer certain questions, this had made him seem dangerous.

Denethor would not have characterized him as threatening, precisely, and not only because it was unseemly for the Heir of the Steward to feel threatened by one of his lowliest men. Yet Thorongil's carriage and the quiet confidence he did not so much wear as encompass had made Denethor uneasy from the first. So too had his father's worrying inclination to trust the stranger immediately and implicitly on the strength of a single letter that cited no specifics about his service to Rohan, and a certain undeniably personable air that the man exuded even in his most stiff-necked silences. The Steward had trusted too quickly ere this, and it had cost the White City grievously.

Yet Thorongil was a capable soldier, or at least a passable Guardsman. Now he was navigating the crowded cobbles with unassuming grace, a bucket of water in one hand and a dipper in the other. The men of the Ninth Company, weary from the day's long and brisk march, were only too glad to pause in the sorting of their gear to drink. They were a sorry-looking lot after two weeks in the wild: mud-stained, trail-worn and tired. Not many of their compatriots in the other Companies had come from their leisure to aid in the unpacking – though of course many were on watch, covering the deficit. Yet here was Thorongil and a handful of men he had apparently recruited to the task, helping as they could.

News of the Company's return had spread, and now friends and kinsfolk of the Guardsmen were beginning to arrive. There was no need to hold them back as there had been when the Lieutenants had been trying to sort out well-organized columns for departure, and they meandered up at will. From his comfortable lookout in the shadow of a doorway just up the street from the garrison, Denethor watched as fathers sought out their sons with glad greetings and questions. Mothers wetted handkerchiefs to blot at dusty faces. Small children careened into their fathers' arms with little care for stiff legs and aching shoulders.

And there, in her scarlet cloak, came the Easterling's intended. She seemed to take a long while to search the sea of worst-black and leather, as if her swarthy-faced suitor did not stand out like a stain on new parchment. It was he who spied her, and he climbed up from his knees with a glad cry. He was tired and grubby, like the rest, but he seemed no more so than his fellows. If he was any the worse for two weeks of heavy labour and unsheltered nights, Denethor could not see it. His lips thinned into a line of displeasure.

Yet the girl did not embrace him: there was that much to be said. She moved as if she wished to, looked over his dirty garments, and laughed as she spoke. She held out her hands and he clasped them, their arms swinging together like those of two small children playing at courtship. The Easterling was grinning like a fool, oblivious to how ridiculous the pair of them looked. She was taller than he, and clean. In her clear skin and bright eyes she was the picture of wholesome loveliness. And he, coarse and brown and grimy, looked like a child's clumsy sketch of a man rendered in smudged charcoal.

Denethor looked away, displeased. He could not fathom what the girl saw in the man Jamon. Her family dwelt in the Fourth Level, far above the Butchers' Quarter and the fishmongers and the narrow stone shacks that housed the public privies so necessary on market-days when the peasantry thronged in these streets. She could not possibly imagine that this foreign recruit would be able to maintain her as her father did. Surely she did not harbour a fantasy of helping him to rise through the ranks to some better post, did she?

The packhorses were relieved of their burdens, and two men led them away up the street. The handcart piled high with the blankets to be passed to the next outgoing Company was nearly at capacity. In pairs and small clutches the men were retreating indoors to wash, that they might sit down to their first civilized meal in two weeks. Captain Beleg gave an order, and the stranger Thorongil nodded and hastened to obey. Yes, he knew his rightful place, and that soothed Denethor's instinctive dislike of him. Perhaps secrecy and prevarication did not disbar a man from making a good soldier.

By now most of the men had dispersed, either to the barracks or to their homes. Married men often lived apart from their Companies, in inherited houses or small suites of rooms. Denethor wondered what sort of lodgings the merchant's daughter expected the Easterling to provide her. Poor foolish child, she had no real sense of the harm she was doing to her position in the world, or the perils she was undertaking. She was shoulder to shoulder with the man now, flushing prettily at something he had said.

Denethor stepped from the shadow where he had been observing the scene unnoticed for nearly three-quarters of an hour. 'You! No more idling. Fetch a broom and put this street to rights: it's not fit for mules to walk, much less men.'

Jamon stiffened, recognizing that the command was for him. He looked around in bewilderment and spied his Captain-General. Quickly but not without effort his shoulders squared and his posture straightened into the precursor of a stiff salute. 'My lord, I shall,' he said carefully. He glanced back at his lover, wanting to speak but knowing it would be a defiance of protocol. Then he hurried off and vanished inside the barracks door.

Denethor crossed the cobbled way, his high boots untroubled by the mud and detritus of many feet, and he approached the girl. 'You are the dye-merchant's daughter?' he asked, though of course he knew the answer.

She curtseyed to him, trying to keep the hem of her mantle up out of the muck. 'Yes, my Lord,' she said meekly.

Denethor nodded tersely. 'You are enamoured of the Easterling. His Captain tells me you are to be married.'

'Yes, my Lord. We are, my Lord,' she said, a little breathless. She looked up at him with worshipful eyes. 'Captain Beleg told us, sire, that it was you who spoke to the Lord Steward on our behalf, that he might give his very own blessing on the match. I… I had hoped I might one day be able to thank you, my Lord.'

Denethor pressed his lips tightly together. This he had not expected. Of course the Easterling must have known of the interest the Captain-General had taken in the match, and the girl had doubtless learned that her father had been questioned about his feelings on the matter. Yet to be taken as a benefactor, when in truth he seemed the only one in Minas Tirith with sense enough to oppose the match, was beyond his comprehension.

'What is your name, child?' he asked. She was not ten years his junior, but her wide eyes and her innocent awe made her seem far younger.

'Inweth, my Lord,' she said, still more throatily. She dipped another curtsey. It was the earnest but unpolished gesture of her class: not clumsy, as a poor woman's salute would be, but somehow too bouncing to be truly dignified. It made her look more than ever like a girl too young to know her own mind or to appreciate her best interest.

'Inweth,' repeated Denethor. 'What do you make of all this, Inweth? Of your suitor's triumphant return to the City?'

She looked puzzled, uncertain of what he was asking. 'I am glad to have him home, sire,' she said hesitantly. 'We are but lately betrothed, and his duties give us little time together as it is.'

'A soldier's duty often takes him away from those he cares for,' said Denethor. He was unable to use the word love. Was an Easterling even capable of such lofty sentiments? 'A time may come when your Guardsman is abroad more often than he is in the City.'

Her eyes widened slightly at this. Plainly the possibility had never occurred to her. It was hard proof of how little thought she had put to the implications of this union. Denethor was seized at once by two desires: to sigh sorrowfully at the girl's unworldliness, and to take hold of her and shake some sense into her airy head.

'Is the Guard to be dispatched onto the Pelennor, sire?' she asked before he could act upon either impulse. 'There were whispers that it is why they have been sent out on manoeuvres—'

'The Guard is to be dispatched nowhere, save two Companies at a time into the field to refresh their skills away from walls of stone,' Denethor said swiftly, his tone dousing out the flicker of this rumour. He had thought these exercises would reassure the people, not breed new fears. 'And were there any such intention, you would certainly not be the first to know, child.'

'No…' she whispered, casting her eyes down in abashment. She would have made a fine attendant to a noblewoman, with her clean good looks and her modest manners, Denethor thought. She might have married up into the ranks of the lower gentry. It was a shame that she intended to squander herself on a faithless alien.

It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her this, or at least to hint at it, when Jamon came out of the garrison with a stiff willow-twig broom. He caught sight of his betrothed in conversation with his Lord, and his eyes grew wide. Then he seemed to flush – with his complexion Denethor could not quite tell – and set about his work with a brisk efficiency that should have been beyond him after a fortnight's heavy labour. Suddenly Denethor was visited by the dark thought that perhaps Beleg had not maintained his orders with regards to the waterbearing.

Souring of the whole affair, he looked back to the girl. 'You deserve a life of gladness and comfort, Inweth the dye-merchant's daughter,' Denethor said. 'Go now. Perhaps we shall speak again.'

With another anxious curtsey and awkwardly mumbled words of thanks, the girl retreated from him. She did not depart, however, but went to stand out of the way in the lee of the garrison wall. Wrapping her cloak around her against the sunset's chill, she settled to watch the Easterling, waiting for him to finish.

Two men who Denethor thought belonged to the Tenth Company hauled away the handcart. Thorongil was making a final pass of the street, gathering up the last few scattered scraps of rope. He stooped to pick up a forgotten gauntlet, and Denethor used the opportunity to move swiftly in. When Thorongil moved to straighten again, he found the Heir of the Steward looming over him.

Instead of startling or cringing or scurrying backward, Thorongil rose steadily with his eyes fixed on Denethor's. only when they stood face to face, their matched height plain, did he take a neat half-step backward so that he might bow.

'Evening's greetings, my Lord,' he said calmly. 'It is good of you to come to see your men returned safely.'

'Should you not be preparing your own pack instead of offloading those of strangers, Rider of Rohan?' asked Denethor. 'Dawn comes early, and are you not on the night watch?'

'You know that I am, sire, or I would not be free now,' said Thorongil, his voice measuredly mild. He had straightened, but was keeping his eyes averted in an unmistakable gesture of submission. 'But my own pack is ready, and I felt that my comrades deserved a gracious welcome. They speak of a hard but worthwhile campaign: your Lordship has done well for his men.'

It was absurd for a commander to seek the approval of a lowly soldier, and yet these quiet words of praise stirred something in Denethor's heart. He quashed it. This man's opinions mattered naught to him, be they favourable or condemning.

'You wished to know what awaits you on the morrow,' he countered, his voice cool and knowing.

'I have performed field manoeuvres ere this, sire,' said Thorongil. 'I have nothing to fear from them.'

'No,' said Denethor, and he found to his surprise that the words did not anger him. Everything about the new man, from his tone and his stance to the way his long fingers were folded about the rubbish he had been gathering, spoke of respect and obedience. There was something about that which awoke in Denethor the instincts of a leader instead of a warrior. Thorongil was making it plain that there was no fight to be had here, and with his mind still largely occupied with the problem of the maiden and the Easterling Denethor was not spoiling for one.

'No,' he repeated. 'There is nothing to fear from this but the bare winter nights. Surely you can endure those?'

A tiny smile touched Thorongil's lips. Denethor tensed, looking for mockery, but what he heard instead was something like fondness. 'I believe I can, sire,' the Guardsman said. 'In the North the winters are long and deep.'

'In the North,' Denethor repeated. He raised an eyebrow and added sardonically; 'In the place your mother called home.'

Thorongil's eyes flicked up to meet his. 'My Lord, I beg you not to take my reticence for disobedience. Every man has something he must keep for his own. I possess naught but my story, and I must guard or share it as I see fit.'

A thin, wry laugh rose to Denethor's lips. The man fancied himself a hero out of the old tales: a widow's son, no doubt, destined for glory and greatness. Small wonder the women on the heights were gossiping of him. 'Guard it, then, but guard also your insolence. I do not like secrets, and you will be watched all the more diligently because of them. That is the price for keeping your… possession.'

Thorongil ducked his head again. It was the same act of subservience the girl had made, but in this man it was far more graceful – more artful. He did not move like a commoner, nor even like the noblest of the Rohirrim. He moved like a lord of ancient family, bred to grace and dignity. It did not fit the tale he had told Denethor's father of a poor cotholder's life, and it did not fit with his claim of long service under Thengel. It fit with nothing at all, thought Denethor, save for that simply but exquisitely wrought star even now clasping his cloak.

'I understand the need for care, my Lord,' Thorongil was saying. 'I am amenable to your scrutiny of my deeds and open to your judgment. I have come to serve Gondor, and at one remove you are Gondor. Command me as you will.'

Just as there had been pure truth in his eyes and his voice on the day Denethor had returned to find him ensconced in the Steward's study, there was earnest readiness in them now. For a moment Denethor truly believed what the man professed: that he was but a servant, and willing to follow his Lord's commands. For a moment he believed that he might command this man to scale the fiery heights of Amon Amarth itself, and he would be obeyed. But reason told him otherwise. Reason said that the man was a place-seeker like any other, offering adulation to his Captain-General in hope of winning some small measure of his favour. Sincere flattery was flattery still, and it would avail the stranger nothing.

'Tonight I have no command save this,' said Denethor. He did not hear the change in his voice, nor see the faint flare of relief in the other man's nostrils as it grew detached and disinterested, condescending instead of penetrating. 'Finish your self-appointed toils here, and find your rest. There are but three hours left before your watch, and you shall have no time for slumber after. We muster at dawn.'

'Yes, sire. I thank you for your wise counsel,' said Thorongil. Again there was no hint of acerbity or amusement in his voice, and Denethor felt his wariness retreat a little further. He did not trust this man; that was true. Yet perhaps he could be allowed to prove his intentions. There was the testament of the King of Rohan to consider, after all.

'At dawn, Nameless One,' he said imperiously. Then he turned and strode off, leaving Thorongil to go back to scavenging hemp. It was, after all, his rightful place.


Thorongil stood fast until the Steward's son disappeared at the street corner, turning upward towards the higher gate. Then he let the martial tension ebb from his shoulders and turned back to his survey of the street. He and Jamon of the Ninth Company were the only men still abroad, and from through the open door of the garrison sounds of fellowship were wafting with the scent of roasted pig. The lamp above cast a broad wedge of the dusk in warm golden tones, but all else was cold cobalt fading rapidly to grey.

'Give me that,' Thorongil said, closing the distance between himself and the other man. He wadded the scraps of rope in one hand and reached to exchange the glove for the broom. 'I trust you will be able to find its owner?'

Jamon turned back the cuff of the gauntlet and checked the chalked mark. 'Gadhrir,' he said with a rueful little snort. 'He would lose his left leg if not for his hip.' He looked at the broom. 'The Captain-General bade me—'

'The Captain-General has gone to his supper, and now you may go to yours,' said Thorongil. 'I did not march five leagues this day: a few minutes' work will harm me not at all. Besides,' he added with a pointed little tilt of his head; 'perhaps you might wish to see your lady safely to her father's house before you dine?'

Jamon looked over his shoulder, following Thorongil's gesture. It seemed he had not noticed the maiden's lingering. She caught his eye, and her cold-pinkened cheeks grew pinker. Her suitor grinned and raised his hand in greeting, then turned back to Thorongil.

'You have my thanks,' he said. 'I shall be sure I am there to greet you in my turn.'

He clapped Thorongil's arm and hastened off towards his beloved. Thorongil watched him go, wondering if Jamon even felt the tremor of exhaustion in his hand. It was remarkable how much a man would say in answer to a quick question or two from the one helping him off with his burden at the end of a long day. He had gleaned enough to know that not all the men had been uniformly used upon this foray, and that Jamon was among those overburdened in the imbalance.

Thorongil had not overheard Lord Denethor's words to the young woman, but his eyes had been plain to read. The Captain-General was not pleased by the impending nuptials. It had been equally clear that Jamon's sweetheart, at least, had no idea. Her eyes had been great with gratitude, and her every movement aflutter with worshipful eagerness to please. The very thought of it made Thorongil sick at heart.

He knew he ought to be concerned about the ways in which Denethor's displeasure might thwart the loving couple, but the sorry, selfish truth was that it had been painful to witness such a show of excitement and affection. The lady's eagerness and thankfulness at the prospect of her wedding had been so plain to see. He could not imagine… he dared not imagine.

Closing his mind to such fruitless dreams, he set briskly to work with the broom.


It was the same scene that had heralded the departure of the Ninth and Second Companies, though Minardil knew it not. He had been on watch himself that morning, the unenviable watch upon the corner of the Upward Road and the broad Second Way. It was a busy corner, and during the dawn watch it quickly became congested with wains and riders and handcarts and folk afoot. It was not infrequently the site of scuffles and fisticuffs, though usually the knife fights only happened near dusk when everyone was tired and too many were well in their cups. Minardil did not subscribe to the notion that Captains had earned for themselves the privilege to eschew the more distasteful postings, and he took them in his turn. As it was he stood fewer watches than the men, for time had to be allotted for the business of administering the Company.

That was Minardil's great talent, and the reason he had never pursued a posting beyond the city walls. The youngest son of a modest landowner of old but not noble lineage, he had left Lossarnach to seek a post of respectability and his own living in the service of the Steward. In the six years since, he had done well for himself. He had, in fact, risen as far as the Fifth Circle as a Guardsman before taking first a transfer to the Third Level in exchange for a Lieutenant's rank and then this further step down the mountain to take a step up in the hierarchy of the Guard. He hoped to work his way upward again, but at present he was content. The men of the Tenth Company were loyal, and most were obedient. Their skill ranged greatly, but that was all to the good: there was work for Minardil here.

And now there was Thorongil. Minardil was not quite certain what to make of him, but what he could comprehend of the puzzle he liked. He had been ambivalent towards the idea of inducting one of the foreign hopefuls into his well-run Company, for they often brought with them complications and strife. Few were conversant with the ways of Gondor, and some scarcely spoke a word of either Westron and Sindarin. That last, at least, was less of a problem now: there were men aplenty in the City who were fluent in the tongue of Rohan, and for those from the East there was the man in the Ninth Company. There were no Dunlendings in service in Minas Tirith, for they did not take well to the rigidly regimented daily life. When one came, which was rare enough, they were dispatched swiftly to the eastern front or down to Pelargir. As for the few who had escaped not from the Enemy's armies but from his labour camps and mines, they bore their own problems as they bore the marks of their chains.

So Minardil had expected, at the very least, a period of uncomfortable transition as the new man acclimatized himself and the other men learned to carve out a place for him. Neither had been necessary. With one hot meal, a brief orientation, and the provision of an ill-fitting suit of garments, Thorongil had fallen into step with the Tenth Company as if he had been transferred from the First Circle instead of ushered in off the road by the provost. Not three weeks had he been among them, and already it was difficult to remember how the Company had been without him.

He was personable and likable: quiet with those who wanted to listen, patient with those who wanted to learn, and good-natured even when his hands were bent to a soldier's more unpleasant duties. There had been no complaints of his behaviour on watch, no irate remarks from those who shared his booth, and no ripples of tension even among the most entrenched men of the Tenth. At first, when he had heard Thorongil was knocking down man after man in the yard, Minardil had feared he might breed resentment and discontent. The effect had been quite the opposite, and in his own bout Minardil had seen why.

Thorongil had a way of drawing out a man's best in a match, drawing him up from his first testing efforts into his usual scope and then to the very pinnacle of his skill. Every blow of their contest had brought Minardil one rung higher on the ladder of his own achievements, until he found himself precariously perched at the very top. There he had seen not the drop below, into the defeat, but the gap between his present apex and the next step above – a gap he had not clearly perceived until that moment, and one that looked in that moment almost achievable. Then, and only then, had Thorongil swept his foot out from under him and claimed a well-earned victory. Minardil had been left with the title of next-best, the sure knowledge that he had done his utmost, and an exhilarating certainty that to do better was within his grasp. If that was what each man felt at the close of his encounter with the newest Guardsman, small wonder they all climbed to their feet laughing and amicable.

Nor did Thorongil stop there. He had spared almost half a watch one morning to work with Minardil in the court, showing him his flaw and helping him to correct it. Minardil was the only one with the authority and the capacity to lock the door that led out to the yard, and he was glad he had done so that day. There were few of his men he would have liked to see him hopping and dancing to and fro like a drunken man in a pit of coals, or trying to dodge a snaking rope that Thorongil whipped along the ground while giving calm, level instructions to his frenetic pupil. Yet somehow before Thorongil's gaze these seemed not indignities but challenges to be overcome with pride and mounting confidence. Later Minardil had learned he had done the same for each of the men he had beaten, though not all so thoroughly or so privately.

'Several of the men have the same impediment,' Thorongil had explained simply when Minardil asked him of this. 'They benefit more from correcting it together, where they can watch one another and learn from each other's mistakes and triumphs, than they would alone. And the simpler the error, the swifter it is to correct.'

Minardil's own weakness had been a very subtle one: the sort of weakness that only showed in an advanced swordsman whose other flaws had been smoothed away. It was also very deeply ingrained, having gone unnoticed for so many years. He had been working at it on his own, and now felt that he stepped firmly more often than not. He would have to have Thorongil put him through his paces again to be certain. Never save in his disastrous bout with the Sable Challenger last spring had he been pitted against a blade so much more skillful than his own.

Yes, he liked Thorongil; or what he saw of Thorongil. Even now, fresh off the night watch and pale-lipped with want of sleep, he was hard at work with the men tasked in lashing the heavy rolls of linen canvas to the backs of the packhorses. There were three sets to carry out: a small square command-tent for each of the Captains, and Lord Denethor's own war pavilion. At the same time the word had come down from the Master of the Guard that the roster for these exercises had been changed, it had been announced that – far from riding out for three days to see them settled – the Captain-General would be administering the whole of the expedition himself.

Minardil wondered at this decision, but he knew better than to question it. One might question the Master of the Guard, if one did so respectfully and behind closed doors, but no city Captain in his right mind would question the Heir of the Steward. It was said that Lord Cairon dared, at times, but Cairon was Gondor's first bastion against the incursions of Mordor. He was far more valuable than any leader of the Guard, even the three charged with the fastness of the Citadel. It was said that Adrahil of Dol Amroth chose well his moments to criticise Denethor, and by ancient custom his father was as near an equal as the Steward possessed.

So when it had been announced that the Fourteenth Company was to remain and the Tenth Company to be sent out in its place, Minardil had merely nodded and reflected that at least the fortnight's roster he had painstakingly drawn out could be given to Beleg to adapt for his own men. He did not ask why the Second Circle was to be left bereft of one Company for four weeks straight, when the initial rotation would have made that unnecessary. He did not ask why, rather than the Sixth Company, they were now paired with the Second Company of the Guards of the Citadel – men whose skills in all ways surpassed the vast majority of Minardil's men. It looked entirely too much like the Tenth Company was being set up to fail, and that thought could not even be permitted to enter a loyal Captain's mind.

Instead he busied himself in walking among the crouching figures, offering help or advice where he could. His own men had gravitated towards the lower half of the square. Just as instinctively, the sable-clad Guards of the Citadel were gathered at the top. The horses were the barrier, the pack animals shuffling uneasily and the six mounted Lieutenants taking one another's measure with hasty, competitive glances. What little Minardil had heard of the last group's experience, the two City companies had enjoyed one another's companionship and had been well-matched in the proscribed scenarios. Clearly this was not to be so for them.

'My Captain?' a low voice ventured as the tall body swathed in a much-worn cloak stepped up to Minardil's side. It was Thorongil, of course, and he was speaking almost surreptitiously out of the side of his mouth so that neither the men nearby nor any of the observers ringed around the soldiers would notice. 'Has an allowance been made for supplementary provisions?'

'What do you mean?' asked Minardil, turning in a little but trying to maintain the same circumspect mode of speech.

'On the last expedition, the packhorses were burdened with kegs of flour, and the men carried the tents,' said Thorongil. 'Why is this not the case this time?'

Minardil frowned, about to ask just how thoroughly his new man had debriefed the other Company when he went to unbuckle straps and collect blankets. Then he remembered that Thorongil had been on the Gate at dawn on the morning the Second and Ninth marched out. It had been his first watch upon the Gate, in fact, and Minardil had thought at the time what a spectacle the exodus would make for the new man.

'I do not know,' he said. 'Each man has been issued with his fortnight's ration. Surely that is sufficient?'

'It is, if naught goes amiss,' said Thorongil, now moving his eyes as if surveying the crowd. He had all the seeming of a leader trying not to alarm his troops – though it was Minardil who was the leader and the troops under his command. 'Yet it is prudent to plan for trouble, particularly when ranging so far from a port of supply. Do you know the land we will be using? Is there a civic granary nearby? A wealthy manor? A sizeable town?'

'Shepherds' cots and charcoal forest, so far as I know,' said Minardil. He was trying to follow the other man's line of thinking, but this was beyond his experience. The supplying of an army in the field was a very different thing from balancing account books and taking inventory of the buttery. 'Why?'

'Nowhere to readily resupply,' Thorongil said. 'Not without hardship to the local folk. I know something of foraging, but unless I miss my guess that is an uncommon skill in this city.'

'I doubt very much that you miss anything, Thorongil,' muttered Minardil, looking around at his men. Most of them had been born in Minas Tirith or on the surrounding lands. The others were either the overflow of fertile farmlands, like himself, or rivermen and fisherfolk from away to the South. The Guards of the Citadel were of a more privileged cast, still less likely to know how to snare a hare or to tell a succulent mushroom from a poisonous toadstool. 'But surely if there were any chance of delay or misfortune the Captain-General would have made allowance for it.'

'He did, with the first expedition.' Thorongil's statement was dry and factual, but his brows were knit in puzzlement. 'Why would he not do so now?'

'Perhaps it was too great a burden on the men to carry the pavilions,' Minardil reasoned. 'That is no small weight to toil under for fifteen long miles. Besides, a cask of flour alone is hardly the makings of a beneficial diet.'

'Perhaps not,' Thorongil agreed, still looking everywhere but at his Captain. 'Yet it is a greater comfort to the stomach than charcoal.'

Minardil vacillated for a long moment. He knew little of Thorongil's time in Rohan, or of the knowledge he might have gathered there. He did know that with sword, mace, knife and quarterstaff the man was more skilled than almost any man in the City. He could see that he knew much of the hearts of men and the art of command, humble soldier though he was. Was it not then quite plausible that the feeding of an encampment was also well within his experience? Yet to question the Captain-General was no small thing; no small thing at all. He sat there upon his white-clad horse, aloof and proud in the dawning, and he watched his men with stern satisfaction. No doubt he had his reasons for eschewing the extra provender.

'If you believe it necessary,' said Minardil slowly; 'I will go…'

'No,' Thorongil said with a note of finality that was almost, but not quite, an order. Minardil looked at him in some surprise. Always he acted with propriety and deference. He seemed to realize he had overstepped, also, for he shook his head and said more quietly; 'No, Captain. With your leave, I will fetch a quarter sack from our garrison and bear it myself. It will not feed two hundred long, but it will provide us some small buffer. If we come to such a pass, no doubt the Lord Denethor will have some strategy to provide further.'

'Very well,' said Minardil, not quite easy in his mind but determined to settle the matter. He had a common soldier, one he trusted and respected even after a short acquaintance but still only a common soldier, questioning the decision of the Heir of Gondor. He could not validate the criticism, nor could he ignore it. This quiet compromise seemed best. 'Fetch one for me as well, and be quick. I shall endeavour to slow the muster so that you are not left lagging.'

Thorongil nodded wordlessly, and melted into the crowd of men now beginning to climb to their feet to arrange their cloaks and tighten one another's pack-straps. Almost before Minardil could look for him again, he was emerging at the corner of the square and slipping between two old women watching the muster with great fascination. Conscious of having stood too long unmoving, Minardil resumed his round of the Company. Unreasoning though it was, he thought he could feel Lord Denethor's keen and knowing eyes upon his neck.

Chapter XI: In the Field

It was dusk before the two Companies reached their destination. It was easy enough to espy even in the gathering gloom, for the last expedition had left its mark. The dead grass was trampled and torn, the earth churned up in mud that had frozen into hard ridges. In the small dell between the two campsites, there was very little untroubled earth to be seen. This was no hardship, for with these scars there were also small necessities of life already in place. Pits had been laid out for fires, surrounded by flat river-stones suitable for heating food. Logs had been dragged near these to be used as seats, either upon their sides or cut into stool lengths. Most notably, the privy pits had already been dug. They smelled most unlovely, but no one was sorry to be spared the labour of carving into the frozen earth.

Sheltered in the belt of woodland were a few items of furniture and heavier supplies, apparently sent out by wagon in advance of the first group: trestle tables, two narrow bedframes, yokes and buckets, and two chests packed with blunt blades. The rough-cut tent poles were also there, and the work of erecting the two Company shelters began at once and proceeded swiftly.

Thorongil was in the group tasked with preparing the Captain-General’s encampment. Denethor had commanded it to be staked out in the lee of a hill that overlooked both low ridges, so as not to favour one side over the other. The men assigned to the task lit makeshift torches and went into the trees with hatchets to find saplings of a suitable height for poles. Green wood was not the most durable of materials, but it ought to stand up to a fortnight’s rigours. Before they had what they needed it was full dark. By the light of a setting sickle moon they drove stakes and strung guywires. At last the pavilion stood tall, pale against the shadow of the land with its black ornamentation of artful arches echoing the lofty windows of the White Tower.

After that they had only to arrange the furnishings to Lord Denethor’s satisfaction. He took one of the bedframes and a table; two men with some experience in joining were knocking together crude replacements for Captain Minardil out of raw logs. Some provision had been made by the nearby farms, and there were two tall hayricks from which three narrow ticks were stuffed. The bedframe had been strung with rope running in both directions, and it was quickly made up with thick blankets and furs. Denethor’s servant unloaded candles, a covered lantern, a set of pewter dishes, and other small comforts. There was a ledger and a writing box as well, and a small tripod brazier for warmth. The charcoal, Thorongil presumed, had been sourced at the same time as the hay. There was also, inexplicably, a five-pound bag of powdered chalk, which was placed prominently upon the table.

By the time they were finished everything to their Captain-General’s satisfaction, the soldiers’ encampments were well established. Fires glowed, red pinions in the night, and dark shapes huddled beneath cloaks and hoods in clusters about them. The other men hastened to find a place among their fellows, eager for warmth, camaraderie and their day-meal. Thorongil lingered, however, studying the sky.

Behind him the mountains were a thick mass obscured by clouds, but away to the northeast the stars were scattered in a shimmering field, one slender swath more densely sown than all the rest. Menelmacar stood high and proud above the land, the jewels of his belt bright and eye-catching. And there, due North, the lodestar stood fast like a beacon. Night after night for nine years it had served Thorongil as a cool and quiet consolation; a reassurance that when the time came, it would guide him home.

Home was but a fleeting thought tonight, however. The thrill of a new venture in a new land was still fresh in his heart, and the melancholy that had troubled him in the autumn was all but forgotten. What need had he to pine for familiar places and beloved faces now, beset as he was upon all sides with new customs to learn and hearts to study? So Thorongil stood savouring the splendour of the night with only the faintest taste of loneliness. When he began to grow chilled, he walked on to join the rest of the Tenth Company.

The first fire was tightly surrounded, and he passed by without pause. There were those in the Company who kept an aloof distance from the new man. Though they were not especially unwelcoming, and certainly not spiteful, Thorongil had no wish to impose. It proved a sound decision, for even before he reached the next circle, one of the men within it raised an arm and beckoned warmly.

‘Thorongil, here!’ It was Forgil, the aged Guard from Thorongil’s booth. ‘Join us. I have your baggage, and we took the liberty of putting your meat on to fry. Budge over, lads: make room for the finest sword in the Tenth!’

Smiling his thanks for both the invitation and the praise, Thorongil stepped over the log and drew his cloak up so it would not pull taut when he sat. Forgil leaned in to butt him with a bony shoulder.

‘Thought you’d be up there ‘til dawn,’ he ribbed. ‘His Lordship’s bedchamber all laid out as he likes, is it? Feather bed and silken pillows?’

There was a general chuckle at this, but it had a hushed and subversive quality to it. Thorongil did not laugh, but neither did he eye them reprovingly or speak against their mirth. Denethor was surely not housed in the state he was accustomed to, but his pavilion was more richly appointed than the barracks booths his men occupied at home. In comparison to their field arrangements, he lay in utter luxury. All but the officers would bed down beneath the open sky, and all but the Captains and the Heir would sleep on the frozen ground.

It was not the hardship that Thorongil found distasteful. Hardship was unavoidable upon a campaign, and important to the verisimilitude of a training expedition. It was the disparity that displeased him. In Rohan there had been similar provisions for those of rank, though often mounted men could carry at least a sheet of canvas that, with two forked branches and a crosspole, would make a shelter sufficient for a body or two. Yet always had Thorongil slept in the open when there was no such provision for his subordinates, reserving his own tent for command business and the housing of the ill and wounded. In the North, of course, the Chieftain was immune to none of the hardships borne by his men. He took his privations in turn, and was grateful they were no greater.

Yet although he might have done otherwise, he knew he ought not hasten to judge the Steward’s Heir for his choice. There were reasons other than comfort that might lead a Lord to hold himself apart from his men. Thorongil had not been long enough in Gondor to know the unspoken ways in which a leader’s actions in this land affected those who followed. Perhaps seeing their Captain-General made no more than other men would do greater harm to the confidence of the soldiers than did this small mocking envy. He did not know.

One of the younger men was crouched by the fire, tending a thin skillet in which sizzled a strip of pickled pork for each of them. Some of the others were munching on hunks of waybread. Tonight it would be fresh and pleasant, dense and comfortingly to chew upon. By the end of two weeks, whatever was left would be hard and stale, and they would have to soak it to soften it enough that it could be gnawed. Thorongil was pleased to note that no man had taken out too large a share of the goods he carried. He had wondered whether that temptation would visit the city-born in time, accustomed all their lives to the endless availability – in proximity if not always in price – of a little more food.

‘Have sleeping arrangements been decided upon?’ Thorongil asked.

‘It’s generally agreed that we’ll take it in pairs, back-to-back to keep warm,’ said Forgil. ‘If it’s possible to keep warm. I’ve got an ache in my leg: we might get snow tonight.’

Thorongil nodded. The same thought had occurred to him. There was a stillness upon the air, as if in expectation of something. He did not open his mouth to tell them to hope for snow rather than rain. Instead he put his hands near the fire and savoured the heat.

‘Each pair should put one blanket beneath them, and share the other above,’ he said. ‘The ground steals a body’s warmth more swiftly than the air. Pass on the word to the rest of the Company when it is time to lie down.’

The thought of lying down made him suddenly aware of the ache in his back and the heaviness of his limbs. It had been a long, long day: but for a couple of hours snatched after helping the Ninth Company unload, he had not slept since the dusk watch two days before. Yet Thorongil knew he had to eat, if he was to expect himself to be nimble and alert on the morrow. Nuncheon for the soldiers had been naught but a hunk of bread or a wrinkled apple eaten on the march. So he settled quietly amid the others’ good-natured talk and waited.

The meat was taken from the fire and laid aside until it grew cool enough for each man to snatch up his slice. There was much laughter over burned fingers and scorched mouths, for all were ravenous and few were patient. Spirits were high despite the long day of uncommon exertion, and when the men rose to seek out a companion and a flat piece of earth they did so with good cheer.

Herion, the Second Lieutenant, was picking his way between the bedrolls and calling for volunteers to stand watch. There was little danger looked-for in this place, but they were not many miles from Anduin, and in any case there was always the chance of some wild beast wandering near. Despite the need, there were few willing to answer it tonight. All were weary. Herion began to threaten to choose men himself if the required number did not stand forth, and the first grumblings of the expedition were heard.

Dispirited but resigned, Thorongil left his pack and blanket near Forgil’s camp-space. He made his way to the torchlit space before the Company’s pavilion. He swallowed many times as he went, trying to clear the sting of exhaustion from the back of his throat. He had not known how anxious he was for sleep until the prospect of forgoing it yet again rose before him.

Captain Minardil was out in front of the tent, a wooden trencher balanced upon his lap. He was finishing his own simple supper, and as the taller man approached he looked up without raising his head. Forcing down his mouthful, he frowned.

‘What is it?’ he asked. Concern furrowed his brow. ‘Is there trouble?’

‘No, sir,’ said Thorongil. ‘The men seem quite content. Any novel situation may at first be more pleasure than discomfort. Two nights hence we will need to be watchful for dissatisfaction.’

‘I shall be sure to remember,’ Minardil said, rather dryly. ‘But why have you sought me out, if naught is amiss? Does the Captain-General…’

He cast an uneasy eye along the ridge to where Denethor’s pavilion, lighted from within, glowed pale in the darkness.

‘No, Captain,’ Thorongil said. ‘To my knowledge, all is well. I have come to volunteer for the watch.’

‘That makes four,’ said Herion, trudging up and shaking his head. ‘It looks as if we’ll have to call up the rest.’

‘Three,’ said Minardil. ‘Thorongil will sit no watch this night.’

‘Sir?’ Thorongil said, as Herion protested; ‘But if he’s willing—’

‘No.’ Minardil shook his head once with great finality. To Thorongil he spoke. ‘You stood the night watch and mustered forth at dawn. By my reckoning you slept less than two hours after returning from the Ninth Company garrison. You have done your share, Thorongil. Take your rest.’

Thorongil was about to reply when the shuffling of many boots sounded behind him. He looked, to see half a dozen men standing in a loose group with their faces set.

‘We’ve come to stand watch,’ one of them said. It was Mallor, whom Thorongil had outdone with the quarterstaff on the day Lord Denethor had come to the garrison. ‘If he can find the strength to do it, we can.’

The other men nodded, and Thorongil turned back to the Captain with a small, deprecating smile. Minardil gave a low snort of laughter and wafted a hand. ‘You sought ten, Herion, and you have them,’ he said. ‘I shall stand watch in Thorongil’s place. He has had a longer day than most of us, and less sleep than any.’

Unsure if this would shake the resolve of the other men, Thorongil prepared himself to speak in readiness again, but Mallor grinned and nodded. ‘That’s true, Captain,’ he said amiably. ‘Showing the rest of us up, that’s what he’s doing. Folk will start expecting all of the Tenth to run on tireless, and we can’t have that.’

‘No,’ Minardil agreed with a sardonic grin. ‘We can’t have that.’

He got to his feet, setting the empty trencher upon the upturned piece of log, and beckoned for the men to follow him around to the other side of the tent, where the few pikes they had brought were laid out in the frozen grass. Thorongil waited until the last moved off, and then turned to make his way back to where Forgil was keeping his kit. Herion stepped forward and caught him firmly by the arm, standing close.

‘The Captain-General’s given orders that three men are to be set the task of waterbearing for the duration of the exercises,’ he said in a low voice that brooked no argument. ‘You’re one of them. Muster promptly at first call and get to it: cisterns for the men, the trough for the horses. Since you’re such an inspiration to the others, you can keep your two cohorts to their business as well.’

‘Yes, Lieutenant,’ Thorongil said obediently. He had not precisely expected this command, but neither was it astonishing. The same imbalance of labour had been imposed upon the Ninth Company, with Jamon of Rhûn among those chosen. It seemed more prudent to rotate the duty and prevent any one man’s exhaustion, but it was not worth questioning.

Herion nodded shortly. ‘Go on then: rest while you can. Though how any of us are supposed to get much sleep in this cold is beyond me.’

‘I am sure we will manage it, sir,’ said Thorongil. He saluted and moved quietly away.

All about the camp men were settling down in pairs, as near the embers of the fires as they could get. Forgil and the others had spread the word: most were spreading one blanket and lying down together beneath the other. Thorongil’s eyes were blurring a little with exhaustion, and he was profoundly grateful to his Captain for the reprieve from the watch.

As he drew nearer to the place where he had eaten, Thorongil noticed one man standing motionless amid the disordered activities of a Company unused to making their own arrangements for slumber. He had his arms crossed tightly over his chest, pulling close his cloak, and he was looking around with trepidation. A few more steps brought Thorongil near enough to make out the man’s features by the glow of the nearest fire-pit. To his surprise, he recognized him. It was the provost healer who had examined him on his first morning in the city.

‘Midhon, is it not?’ Thorongil asked, drawing near.

The young man’s eyes darted anxiously to the Guardsman’s face as he nodded frenetically. ‘Yes, it is. I mean to say… ‘ His eyes widened in recognition, and he took an unsteady step backward. ‘I…’

‘You found me fit to serve in the Guard,’ Thorongil said, translating the man’s thoughts into the most positive interpretation he could devise.

Midhon’s lips moved soundlessly for a moment, and then he closed his mouth with a painful swallow.

‘You have come to tend us should anyone grow a little overenthusiastic in the melees, have you not?’ Thorongil asked. He was trying to smile conversationally, but he feared that between his weariness and the poor light, the resulting expression was less than becoming.

‘I understand the last group had no worse hurt than a skinned knee,’ the healer mumbled awkwardly. ‘I hope to see still less.’

Thorongil did not speak to this, for he could make no guarantees. As he had been in the provost office, he was struck by the uncertain way the young man carried himself. He looked like one who had never been secure in his place in the world. As one who had suffered such doubts for a brief and painful time despite being surrounded by love, reassurance, and safety, Thorongil felt an aching empathy.

‘We are sleeping back-to-back for warmth,’ he said. ‘Have you someone on whom you may lean?’

Midhon did not answer, but the hasty aversion of his eyes spoke clearly. He did not know these men, and was not likely treated with much respect by the Guardsmen he worked beside. It was too easy for men of action to disdain those whose hands plied gentler arts – until, of course, such hands were needed to stem their own blood. To be left alone in an encampment full of soldiers was surely a daunting experience for the young healer.

‘Nor have I,’ said Thorongil. ‘Shall we bide together, then? It may be that tomorrow night I will be on watch, but at least for now we can lend one another some comfort in the winter chill.’

Midhon once again seemed to struggle for words. Nearby, a bevy of Guardsmen were jostling over a choice piece of ground, deep laughter and playful curses flying among them. The healer shied away from the noise and his shoulder bumped against Thorongil’s arm. The nervous eyes flew to his face and, seeing no irritation thereon, eased a little.

‘I would be grateful. Thank you,’ he said. ‘I am no stranger to cold nights, but…’

He looked around the darkness that seethed with settling bodies in half-shadows, and he shook his head helplessly. ‘I would be grateful.’

Thorongil acknowledged this with a nod and went to scout out a place. He settled upon a dip in the earth that, though not perfectly level, was sheltered from the worst of the wind. It was the undulation of the turf that had deterred less experienced men. Thorongil knew a leeward position lent more to a traveller’s comfort than a few lumps would detract. He spread his blanket and laid his pack nearby. He stretched out gratefully, turning on his side and resting his heavy head upon his hand.

Midhon was kneeling as he fumbled with something, and Thorongil realized he was trying to remove his shoe. The poor young fool should never have embarked on a winter journey without a sound pair of boots, but it was likely that he did not possess a pair – and that he would have been unable to afford such a purchase upon short notice.

‘Leave them on,’ Thorongil advised. ‘You will need all the cover you have, if you are to lie warm through the deeps of the night.’

The healer made a small noise of assent and hurried to settle his belongings. He shook out his blanket, hesitated, and then spread it over Thorongil and the woolen pad beneath him. Then Midhon crept under and lay down upon his side with a judicious gap between his spine and that of the other man.

‘Nearer,’ said Thorongil. ‘We ought to be right up against one another, or the chill will creep in between.’

Midhon obeyed, but with unease. His slight frame settled against Thorongil’s long one, at first rigid with nerves but soon relaxing out of sheer weariness. Thorongil thought him well on the way to slumber, and was drifting in that enticing direction himself when Midhon’s chest hitched suddenly and he spoke.

‘I did not agree to it,’ he said, his voice quiet but very fretful. ‘I did not… I mean, for the health of the men such an examination is necessary, but it was not needful to shame you thus.’

‘No, it was not,’ said Thorongil. ‘I took no hurt from it, though another might well have done. Next time, perhaps, you will find voice to dissent; when the recruit is one more vulnerable than I.’

He felt a bobbing of the backbone as Midhon swallowed painfully again, then the rocking of a fervent nod. ‘I shall try,’ he said. ‘Why are you not angry?’

‘I save my anger for those who have earned it,’ said Thorongil. ‘Timidity and silence are not cause enough. We would all be well-served to remember that we fight upon the same side, and for the same principles. Now sleep. The nights are yet bitter, but they grow ever shorter. Winter is dying, and soon morning will come.’

The healer made another soft sound of agreement, and then fell silent. Soon his breath had deepened and levelled off towards repose. Thorongil’s awareness lingered a little longer as around him men whispered and chuckled and elbowed one another in the darkness. Yet soon enough he too left the waking world behind.


Relieved midway through the night by a second shift that had proved easier to recruit than the first, Minardil had slept a little more than three hours when he awoke shivering in the first grey of dawn. The rough-hewn bedframe that had been erected for him lifted his body from the ground, and even with that reprieve and his blankets he was mercilessly cold. He drew his legs up as far as the narrow tick allowed and hugged the bedding nearer. In the gloom he could just make out the shapes of Herion and Dúlin lying back-to-back like the men without. The lieutenants, at least, were spared the wind as their Captain was spared the hard earth, but no one slept in comfort. Even Lord Denethor, Minardil suspected, would wake chilled and stiff today.

He would grow no warmer lying as he was, and yet it took him some minutes to gather his courage for the ordeal of abandoning the meagre but tangible protection of the bed. When at last he had, he flung off the blankets and sat up in one quick motion, keeping his feet tucked up under the ropes and well off the ground as he reached for his boots. As he wrestled them on, he reflected that he would not make that mistake again. Uncouth it might be to put shod feet in bed, but in this matter manners would bend to expediency. His grim resolve was lightened a little with mirth, reflecting how dismayed his mother would have been by such unrepentant impropriety. She had tried her utmost to rear her boys in gentlemanly ways, after all, and that legacy lingered after her.

He had not removed any of his other garments, with the exception of his sword-belt, and Minardil left that where it was. He had looped around the log that served as the right upper leg of the bed, that the blade still hung upon it might come readily to hand if it were needed. Minardil looked for no trouble on this excursion, but neither was he an incautious man. In the fastness of Minas Tirith it was easy to forget the daily dangers of the word, both great and small. Without even a single wall to protect him, Minardil was reminded of the vastness of the land and the great speed with which peril might travel.

He hugged his cloak tightly ‘round him and let his hood fall low over his face as he slipped under the heavy canvas door-flap and out into the air. At once he felt the wind plucking at him, not high but still inclement upon so cold a morning. A few of the men were abroad already, huddled over the first hungry flames of the cook-fires. Far more were still asleep, their blankets bulging like plump chrysalises upon the land. There was frost along the top edge of the one nearest Minardil, where the breath of the two men huddled beneath it had frozen. Some still lay with their backs conjoined, as they had doubtless all settled the night before. More had turned inward, brow-to-brow and nestled near one another like small boys upon a stormy night.

Knowing that they would all mislike such thoughts from their Captain, Minardil walked on as if unseeing. The sentries were walking their sections of the perimeter, forming a shifting eddy of watchfulness around their fellows. Minardil had consciously ordered patrols rather than a set watch, knowing that even men accustomed to standing motionless upon the high walls would suffer from the cold in this exposed place. And such men did not have a warm bed in a sheltered booth to greet them at watch’s end, but a coarse blanket upon bare ground. Minardil wondered why the manoeuvres could not have been delayed another month, until the weather was more clement. He supposed the Captain-General had his reasons.

Across the dell, the camp of the Guards of the Citadel was in a similar state of half-drowsing fluidity. Squinting into the wind, Minardil could see their first fires and the hunched shapes of men sable black against the dusky sky. He wondered if their Captain was awake, and if he knew any better than Minardil what lay in wait for his men today.

He continued on his walk, feeling the blood warm his limbs as they moved. He took care to skirt around those yet sleeping, and realized that most of these were in fact fighting off both wakefulness and cold with little success. Instead of moving in silence, therefore, Minardil began to offer quiet words of encouragement as he went. He kept his tone low so that his small praises would not be taken as a call to reveille. First light was yet some way off, and cold though it was these men had earned their sleep.

A motion drew his eyes down the slope of the rise, and it was with some surprise that Minardil saw a pair of men toiling up towards the camp beneath the burden of yokes and buckets. Their breath came in snowy puffs that seemed almost to glow in the blue gloom, and they placed their booted feet with care to keep from sliding down the frosty incline. Minardil moved to intercept them as they passed the sentries, and recognized them as Saelir, a notorious dodger of unpleasant chores around the garrison, and Thorongil.

‘What is this?’ he asked.

‘Lieutenant’s orders,’ Saelir puffed. Thorongil, more circumspect and less breathless, bowed his head in brief deference.

‘Water for the men and the horses, Captain,’ he said. ‘The stream is beyond the Second Company’s encampment. They must pass us to gather wood. Doubtless at some point in the proceedings we will each be set to wrest our needs from the other by force or guile.’

Saelir had stopped with his fellow, but as Thorongil talked on he apparently decided that this was time he need not squander in carrying his burden. He walked on to the hastily-coopered cisterns near the centre of the camp. Minardil was looking at the new man intently.

‘I see,’ he said. ‘Are you then scouting on our behalf?’

‘It would be a lost opportunity if I did not, sir,’ said Thorongil. ‘My first concern, however, is to secure our supply for this day.’

‘Has a roster been drawn up for this labour?’ asked Minardil. He had naively expected water to be as readily obtainable as wood, which each man had gathered with scarcely a thought from the stand of timber that curled near the outer foot of their low hill. Having to haul it for a hundred men and half a dozen horses would be no small chore.

‘I understand that it is a fixed duty, Captain,’ said Thorongil, his voice without inflection. ‘We three are to carry it out each morning and evening until camp is broken.’

‘Three?’ asked Minardil, looking over his shoulder at the other man, who was emptying his pails with indiscriminate haste.

‘Mallor has also been allotted the task, but as he had the first watch I thought it better to let him sleep until muster,’ Thorongil answered. ‘I hope I have not overstepped my authority in this, but Lieutenant Herion intimated that I was to see to my fellows’ execution of their business.’

‘Did he, now?’ Minardil was torn now between irritation that Herion had not seen fit to consult him regarding these arrangements, and approval of his Lieutenant’s sound judgment. He knew by now enough of the new man’s ways to be certain he could be trusted with such a delicate matter as overseeing his equals in rank.

‘Yes, sir,’ said Thorongil. The faintest note of strain was in his voice, and Minardil recalled too late the heavy pails that he held. Yoke and all, the apparatus when full-laden weighed better than eight stone.

‘Go on; do not linger on my account,’ Minardil said hastily. ‘When you have finished, come to break your fast before my tent, and we shall talk of your observations in the enemy camp.’

‘In our opponents’ camp, my Captain,’ Thorongil corrected. ‘The men of the Citadel are not our foe, and we should not speak of them as such even in jest. This is a game, if on a great scale, and they are our opponents; that is all.’

This brought an unexpected grin to Minardil’s face. Thorongil was correct, of course, and it was something he had not even paused to think on. The Second Company of the Citadel was indeed their opponent, and a vastly superior opponent at that. Yet when the games were ended they would return together to Minas Tirith, and resume their duties in service of the same Lord against a common threat. They should not be sullied with the label of enemy, not even in play.

‘Opponents, then,’ he agreed. Thorongil nodded patiently and started off for the cisterns. Minardil watched him go, resolved that word should be spread to that effect. A competitive spirit in such an undertaking was natural, and his men were severely outmatched. It would be hard enough to stave off resentment without encouraging combative language. As Thorongil crouched to ease the buckets to the ground, Minardil frowned pensively at his dark shape. What soldier contemplated the impact mere choice of language would have upon his fellows?


His breakfast eaten and his pavilion put to rights, Denethor emerged at last into the crystalline sunlight upon a world of frost and brisk breezes. Ducking to keep from catching the wings of his helm upon the edge of the tent roof, he straightened as he cleared it and stood proud to survey his good work. The two camps were orderly and peaceable at that lazy hour, cook-fires smoking from the centre of ring after ring of cloaked men. The horses were picketed behind each tent, as his own and his servant’s were on this low hill. Both Captains had wisely set sentries the night before, but none were now circling. Denethor paused to consider the rightness of this. Vigilance was always necessary, but perhaps he could excuse this lapse. The men were new to the open land, and they had made an uncomplaining march and, so he was assured by his informers in each Company, passed an amiable night. He could suggest the improvement without demanding explanations for the oversight.

The free air of the field filled his lungs, and Denethor felt the invigoration of action course with his blood. It did not matter that these were training manoeuvres or that he himself would have no active part in the proceedings. He was away from the city in command of two hundred loyal men. Winter’s dullard dreariness seemed banished from his heart and his mind. It was glorious.

He had not felt this thrill upon the earlier expedition, but that was surely because he had known his intention to return forthwith to Minas Tirith. The prospect of a fortnight unfettered, far from petty matters of administration and the constant harping of his father’s Councillors, left Denethor almost buoyant with good spirits. There was fine sport to be had here, as well.

The Second Company of the Guards of the Citadel was one of Gondor’s finest, whether behind white walls or out in empty country. The knights in her ranks were trained in the arts of battle as carefully as any soldier in Anfalas or Ithilien. Their expertise and their expectation ranged far beyond simple sentry duty and gate-minding. They were warriors as much as doorwardens, and they had earned their reputation for greatness.

As for the Tenth Company of the City… well, they were adequate for their ordinary duties. They could keep the peace on market day, with help from the other two Companies in the Second Level. They seldom erred grievously in their manning of the Second Gate. Yet they were hardly extraordinary. It could be seen even in their Captain. Minardil was a capable enough administrator and he had a reputation for skill with a blade, and yet? Yet he had been defeated in single combat by his greenest man, and all his prowess with a pen would avail him nothing in this forum. It would be interesting to watch his inept efforts to outthink his counterpart on the northerly ridge. Most interesting indeed.

Denethor drew in another bracing breath and smiled. He was glad, so glad to be abroad and poised to achieve something. He expected the Tenth Company to be thoroughly trounced, yes, but it would make of them better soldiers if only they had the capacity to let it. As for the men from the Citadel, they were like as not as weary of winter’s stagnation as he.

It was time to begin. Denethor raised his white horn, its silver tracings a brilliant echo of the frost in the dead grasses, and he blew a long, strong blast upon it.

The effect was immediate. In both camps men sprang up from their fires, letting fall the blankets that had been wrapped around shivering shoulders and abandoning the remains of their waking meal. From near each pavilion the Captains came running. Denethor was surprised and grudgingly impressed when Minardil, rather than straining to see through the crowd of his men, ran a few paces downhill from the encampment’s edge so that he could see his Lord. Denethor blew a second resonant note, then lowered the horn to hang once more from its baldric. He drew in a deep breath and let forth a call in the resounding battlefield bellow mastered by all great commanders.

‘Men of Gondor!’ he shouted, feeling the sound rise up from its very core to echo from the hills. ‘Assemble! Now, we begin!’

Chapter XII: The High Ground

As Thorongil had predicted, by the third evening the Tenth Company was awash with despondency and discontent. They sat huddled near their fires, muddied and melancholy and all but silent as they waited for their day-meal and their bones to warm. It was not merely the discomfort of the camp that had ground down their spirits, but the inelegant defeats of the last two days.

The first series of exercises had proved straightforward enough. Lord Denethor had set the men to sparring one-on-one, that they might accustom themselves to the slippery and variable terrain so different from the well-laid cobbles on which they trod in daily life. There had been no assigning of partners, and little mixing between the two Companies. That morning had proved more enjoyable than onerous, even with the many tumbles and the increasingly mucky earth beneath them.

In the afternoon, however, the head-to-head competition between the men from the Second Circle and those from the Citadel had begun. They had gone through several melees, in which the two companies faced one another head on in the bottom of the dell and, upon the Captain-General’s signal, fallen to fighting with the blunted blades. Men were eliminated by an honour system, expected to bow out if they received a blow that would have been fatal or crippling if dealt by a primed weapon. They divided themselves on the hillside: the wounded and the slain. Those removed early on had the dubious pleasure of watching their comrades whittled away singly and in pairs. The ranks of the Tenth Company shrank rapidly and the Second Company seemed to loose men only by chance, or by sending them against either the Captain or the new man. They, at least, deported themselves brilliantly, but it was not enough. When the contest was called in favour of the Second, and the men at last allowed to seek their rest, only a fraction of the men from the lower city remained upright on the field.

The slaughter had been repeated on the following morning, and this time Lord Denethor had not called a halt until there were ninety-eight upon the hill and two back-to-back in the centre of a circle of Guards of the Citadel. No man in the Tenth had been surprised by the identity of those last competitors. What did surprise Minardil was that the Captain-General had ended the affair when he did, instead of waiting until the ring of swords at last cut down the last two. He supposed he ought to be grateful that his men had been spared that final humiliation, but he was not inclined to be fair-minded tonight.

As if the indignities on the field had not been enough, his men had spent the afternoon toiling to erect makeshift breastworks before their camp. Why these were required his orders had not explained, but there was little doubt in the Captain’s mind that his men were about to take another hard beating at the hands of the superior force. They knew it, too. It was clear in every pair of glowering eyes, in the stoop of weary shoulders and the lackadaisical way they bent their hands to tasks that had been novel two nights before. It was natural that they should awake to the hardships and discomforts of the field, but they were also being forced to face their own inadequacies in a hard and almost cruel manner. No one had instructed them on how to face a superior foe, and no one had instructed Minardil on how to teach them to do better. The futility of even trying sat bitter as gall in the back of the young Captain’s throat.

Yet he tried to keep a dispassionate face as he strode along the ridge from his tent, searching for his lieutenants among the crowd. They had not made any attempt to set themselves apart tonight, doubtless eager to pretend, however briefly, that they had neither authority nor responsibility in this sorry business. Minardil supposed they were among their friends, and he wished he could say the same. It was not his rank that held him apart, but the fact that he had not risen to it by gradual advancement in one Company. His swift ascension first through the city and then through the military hierarchy had left him with few close friends in Minas Tirith. Those he had were not among his own men.

Soemthing strange was happening, Minardil noticed as he walked. The further he moved from his tent, the less wretched the hunched figures seemed. They were all weary and frustrated, it was true, but the sense of fatalism was not so strong here. Puzzled, he slowed that he might listen to the murmured conversation at a fire nearby.

‘…true that we are outmatched, but these two encounters do not reflect battle as it could ever be encountered in open lands,’ a low, rational voice was saying. The other men were leaning in towards the embers and the wind-whipped flames, every hooded head turned to the speaker. Two long hands, bare despite the chill, drew in towards one another, palm-to-palm but untouching, the fingers straight and close as boards. ‘Never will two opposing forces march within two armspans of each other, line up in perfect array, and commence to fighting at a lone man’s word. Never is a victory as simple as the prowess and training of once force over the other.’

He did not say army or foe, Minardil realized, and that was when he looked for the star that clasped the close-drawn cloak. He was wholly unsurprised to spy it, but he had to admit some astonishment that he had not recognized the speaker immediately. Hunched low with his elbows on his knees, legs crossed and hood pulled forward to hide his long nose and his striking eyes, Thorongil was indistinguishable in form from the other men. As for his voice, it held nothing of the careful formality he used in everyday discourse. He was speaking with the persuasive cadence of an orator and the tone of close confidence employed by the most gifted of storytellers. He was coaxing his audience towards a desired conclusion, all the while sounding like the voice of clear and unadulterated reason.

Spellbound and still some yards away, Minardil crouched down to listen. Not one in the circle seemed to have noticed him yet; not even Thorongil himself. He was still speaking.

‘In battle, and in any contest that attempts an earnest imitation of battle, there are other factors to consider: the terrain, the line and disposition of attack, the equipage of each force, their readiness,’ he said. ‘All other things being equal it is natural for the Guards of the Citadel to best us, but it is at best an artificial measure of how either Company would fare in truth.’

‘Sure, sure,’ snorted one of the men. ‘In truth they’d cut us down in half the time, ‘cause they’d have the better blades.’

There were a couple of grumbles of discontentment, but Thorongil shook his hooded head. ‘The quality of the weapon is not the deciding factor. The mightiest blade will break at its appointed hour, and to its wielder’s doom. What I am trying to say is that it is well within our power to outdo the Second Company in some, perhaps many, of the trials to come. Each side has its disadvantages in this game. Ours is our inexperience. Theirs is their confidence.’

‘Confidence, a disadvantage!’ another groused. ‘The grass is greener in Rohan, then, or the men more simpleminded.’

‘If it is simpleminded to have faith in one’s abilities and in one’s comrades, then let me be simpleminded,’ said Thorongil. ‘Tomorrow, when we must hold the hill—’

‘What makes you think we’ll be holding the hill?’ asked a third. This voice Minardil knew instantly. It was Herion, his Second Lieutenant. ‘Even the Captain hasn’t received tomorrow’s instructions.’

Thorongil canted his head to look at him, eyes shadowed but quirked mouth showing beneath the edge of his hood. ‘Why else would we have been set to building fortifications, sir?’ he asked. ‘Surely we are meant to defend them.’

‘Eventually, yes. But tomorrow?’ Herion scoffed sourly. ‘Tomorrow we’ll be put to digging the other enemy’s emplacements for them!’

‘Here, Lieutenant!’ called Mallor, who was sitting near Thorongil. ‘We’ve agreed not to call them enemies, no matter what they might be calling us. It’s only a game, even if it is a miserable game we’re meant to lose.’

‘Fine,’ agreed Herion reluctantly. ‘The Most Honoured Second Company of the Guard of the Citadel, Servants to the Lord Steward Himself: Our Great and Far More than Worthy Opponents. We’ll be shovelling mud for them in the morning: I promise you that.’

‘I think not,’ said Thorongil, something almost sly in his voice.

‘And what would you know about it?’ Herion challenged. ‘I s’pose in Rohan the poor men don’t wait on the mighty, hmm? The King combs his own horse?’

‘He does,’ said Thorongil; ‘but not for want of hands to do it for him. It is a part of the bond between mount and Rider: each cares for the other in his turn. The reason that I say we will not be digging the Second Company’s fortifications is because they have been grumbling about the order to do so on the morrow.’

This brought a general silence, astonished and implicitly impressed. Finally Mallor spoke. ‘How d’you know that?’

Thorongil shrugged his shoulders. ‘The most expedient road to the stream passes through the heart of their camp. As they must cut through ours for their wood, I have not been grudged the shortest pass. But this much is true, in Rohan and in Gondor and all the world over: those performing the menial tasks of daily necessity are scarcely to be seen by those who need not.’

The others chortled at this, nudging one another with their elbows. One leaned to clap Thorongil on the shoulder, and was met with a dry smile. Herion nudged his hood further back on his head and narrowed his eyes to peer at the newest man.

‘Do you know their plan of attack, then?’ he asked.

‘I am a waterbearer, not a spy,’ said Thorongil. ‘I hear only what the simple soldiers say about their fires, not what the Captain and your own counterpart may discuss in their command tent. If the Second Company has obtained their instructions for the morning’s engagement, I do not know it. Yet I can make a good guess as to how they will come, and I believe we can repel them. Take heart: dawn brings hope anew even in such trivial business as this. Today we conceded. Tomorrow we may triumph.’

He drew in his limbs and seemed ready to stand, when another of the young men spat disparately into the fire. The embers hissed.

‘Conceded,’ he growled. ‘We were licked, and badly. They would have got you in the end, too, if Lord Denethor hadn’t called for a halt. Didn’t fancy that, either: him on his high seat, sitting in judgment.’

‘Any game must have an arbiter, to see the rules are observed and to judge any unconventional play,’ said Thorongil mildly. ‘Perhaps tomorrow we shall give him some challenging exchanges to weigh.’

There were some doubtful looks exchanged at this, but more of the men chuckled softly. All sat less dejectedly now, as Thorongil got to his feet and stepped back over the log with almost noiseless agility. They were already talking eagerly amongst themselves as the new Guardsman retreated from their group and started off towards the next. Quietly Minardil rose and stepped to intercept him.

‘What is this?’ he asked in a low voice. ‘Do you labour to undo the day’s lessons?’

‘Only those that have been wrongly learned, my Captain,’ Thorongil said. He did not look in the least surprised at his commander’s appearance, and Minardil was compelled to wonder whether he had indeed passed unnoticed after all. ‘There are those among the men who take the defeats of the last two days to mean they are unfit to meet the soldiers of the Citadel in combat.’

‘Are we not?’ asked Minardil. Too late, he realized that this sentiment should never have been given voice. He did not think any but Thorongil had heard them, but now he was aware how the two of them were drawing eyes from the nearby fires. He beckoned to the soldier. ‘Come with me.’

Thorongil inclined his head and followed wordlessly, weaving in Minardil’s wake between the small gatherings of men. Knowing it would give rise to talk but deeming that a small price for privacy, Minardil went to the tent and flung aside the flap with one hand. Thorongil bowed low to enter, more out of need than chivalry: the entryway was low even for a man of common height, and he far exceeded that even among those of old blood. Minardil swept after him, letting the door slap closed, and he found the bench that he had in place of a table. A moment’s work had a candle lit, and the close space of the pavilion was made at once smaller and more comfortable by its glow.

‘Sit,’ Minardil invited, indicating one of the log-stools as he took his own. As Captain he should have had a few items of real furniture, but most of that had been appropriated for the Captain-General’s use. If Thorongil had any thoughts upon his commander’s rustic lodgings, he gave no sign. Perhaps, coming out of Rohan, he did not care for such things as a man of Gondor would. Selfishly Minardil hoped this was so. He did not want this man, peculiar and somehow extraordinary as he undeniably was, to think less of him for this.

‘So the men are saying we are mismatched?’ he asked heavily. ‘Do they believe it was intentional?’

‘Do you?’ Thorongil queried, tonelessly but with an arced eyebrow that spoke of some surprise.

Minardil sighed. ‘It could not possibly be unintentional,’ he quibbled. ‘That is to say, the Captain-General could not genuinely expect a Company from the City to be pitted fairly against one from the Citadel. They are knights of Gondor, and we…’ He gestured vaguely, encompassing the sparse furnishings, the utilitarian garments with their inferior dyes, the leather jerkin Thorongil wore, his own bare-iron mail. ‘We are not,’ Minardil finished.

‘Yet someone must be paired with them, if we are to be trained two by two,’ Thorongil said. ‘There are three Companies in the Citadel and fifteen in the City, are there not?’

‘Yes.’ The word ground out over Minardil’s teeth. He had not stopped to reflect upon it, but now he could see that he shared an equal measure of his men’s discouragement. ‘Yet at least those in the upper City are… are…’

He could not find the words. The First and Second Companies of the Guard of the City, serving in the Sixth Level, received much the same training as those in the Second Circle. They were no more equipped to face the men from the Citadel than Minardil’s men. But at least they were… what? More genteel, of higher birth generally. Better paid and better clad, certainly. But not, now he paused to think of it, greatly superior in any martial skill. The Champion of the Guard had come from one of the three lowest levels of Minas Tirith in each of the last four years, and that was telling. No, there was not a Company in the City any more qualified than the Tenth to face the Guards of the Citadel. Still, that did not make it right.

‘Perhaps we are favoured with a greater opportunity than those Companies who face a lesser challenge,’ said Thorongil. ‘Our rivals are well-trained and experienced in field warfare. It is they, is it not, who would ride forth in the Steward’s Guard if he went to war?’

Minardil nodded at this. Such an exigency had not arisen in living memory, but that was the intent of the law.

‘Then who better to try our mettle?’ asked Thorongil. He had pushed back his hood, baring his head out of respect for his commander’s humble dwelling-place, and his eyes shone with eagerness. ‘If they are Gondor’s best, should we not look upon this as a chance to be tried in the fiercest fire we may find upon the home hearth? Today’s defeat was painful for the men, but it will drive us to seek our victories with greater resolve, and make them all the sweeter when they are won.’

Minardil laughed, restraining himself so that those without would not hear. He shook his head, a grin of disbelief wide upon his face. ‘Thorongil, you are a dreamer out of a land of merry children! We cannot defeat the Second Company: we will be fortunate to last a week in pace with them. Had the Heir not raised his hand when he did, you and I should have been whacked by half a dozen blunt blades today.’

‘Indeed?’ Thorongil challenged with a small, knowing smile. ‘We cut down eleven between the moment we were cut off from the others and the raising of that hand. They had only forty left to send against us.’

Minardil gaped at him, unbelieving. If a jest, this trespassed far beyond the absurd. If meant in earnest, the man was either delusional or drunk upon his own conceit. Never before had Minardil felt so cornered as he had that forenoon, with hostile swords all about him and his men nowhere in sight. There had been a bracing comfort to the lithe and ready form at his back, but it had been as inadequate to quell his fear as had been the knowledge that it was only a game.

‘I see!’ he gasped at last, startling himself out of his astonishment. ‘Lord Denethor raised his hand not to show us some mercy in our humiliation, but to prevent you and I from cutting down three dozen knights of the realm with our dulled blades.’

Thorongil shrugged one shoulder wryly. ‘It is possible,’ he lilted. ‘In any case, it is better for our Company’s resolve to look at it that way than from the other. If the men do not believe they might succeed, they never shall.’

‘Thorongil, I do not believe we might succeed,’ said Minardil. He gestured to a small piece of parchment folded on the bench beside them. ‘Herion is mistaken. I do have my orders, and you are right: tomorrow morning we are to hold the ridge. The men of the Citadel will be storming our camp. How can we hope to hold them back?’

‘We shall have the high ground,’ said Thorongil, a slow smile spreading across his pale face. ‘And there are other tactics we can employ; things, I think, that they will not expect. Have you a wax tablet?’

Puzzled, Minardil fetched it. At Beleg’s advice he had brought writing gear and measuring tools to complement the map of the area with which he had been provided. The Ninth Company had done well by planning their campaigns on paper as if in genuine warfare. Such efforts had seemed futile against the Tenth’s fearsome opponent, but plainly Thorongil felt otherwise. His eyes flashed still more brightly as he sketched out the ridge with the smooth bone stylus, blocking in the tent and their clumsily erected embrasures. Then he began to speak.


Denethor had lingered only long enough to watch the Ninth Company assemble for their assault upon the enemy camp, before setting off for home. He had missed the charge, and had not learned the outcome of the challenge until ten days later when the men returned to Minas Tirith. It was with eager anticipation that he observed the preparations this morning. The Second Company made a splendid sight in the winter sunshine, their raiment and their mail black as ebony. The white of their heraldry and the high silver helms seemed almost afire with brightness. Even the blunted blades seemed to shine, and the twenty armed with pikes lent the force a splendour of ancient days. Nelior, their Captain, was astride his horse in readiness to lead the charge, and he guided the beast in a neat circle about his men as he called out last-minute commands.

Behind their humps of mud and sticks, the men of the Tenth Company crouched in the chill wetness of churned and melting snow. A layer had fallen in the night, half an inch of fluffy and ephemeral-looking stuff that had coated every blanket and crept under every collar. Denethor had to allow that there was not a man who had bedded down in the open last night who was anything but damp and miserably cold today. The difference between the two groups was that the men of the Tenth Company of the City looked it. The men of the Second Company of the Citadel did not. They were imposing even in their discomfort, and the business of sweeping down into the dell and up to challenge the makeshift fortifications would warm their bones and put vigour into their hearts.

As for the Tenth Company… well, they looked less than impressive where they were, squatting so as to be hidden almost from view by their low-built fortifications. It was difficult to look at them without either a sneer of contempt or a groan of despair. These were men, after all, whose lone purpose in life – apart from breaking up tavern fistfights and keeping fishwives from squabbling too violently – was to guard and hold a wall. They did not look able to do either this morning.

They were not even spread out evenly along their ridge of dirt. A quarter of the men were bunched at its nearest end, and another quarter distributed about evenly down the main length of the parapet. The other half, fully fifty men unless Denethor’s eyes were failing him, were huddled together at the very far end so that the wall scarcely shielded them all. It was important for an army to reinforce its flank, but if that was what Minardil thought he was doing, he had made a ludicrous overcompensation. The men should have been more evenly and tightly distributed along the wall, with a second line in place to step up as the first was felled. They surely would be felled, after all. It was inevitable.

Denethor clapped his hands once, and his servant came hurrying from the far side of the pavilion. He had been seeing to the horses, and he still had the currycomb in his hand as he swept a low bow.

‘My lord?’ he gasped, breathless with haste.

‘Fetch me some wine,’ said Denethor, settling more easily in the field chair. The seat was hinged and the twenty crossed legs fixed upon a pivot. It folded flat for ease of transport, and when laid out the props formed an X. On the upper branches, he could rest his arms. The lower formed a sturdy base. With a band of cloth across the back and a fur draped over the bare wood, it made a very comfortable seat. From his high place on the small round hill, Denethor overlooked the field of battle like a potentate. It was as if the entire spectacle about to unfold had been contrived for the amusement of an audience of one.

A Lieutenant from each Company was posted near the foot of the Captain-General’s hill, lest orders should have to be sent swiftly to one or the other of the Captains. Denethor did not anticipate such a need, nor did he believe that anything might arise that was beyond the power of his voice and his horn to halt in a single breath. Still it was best for form to be observed in such matters, and this was the convention employed both to train (however large or small the force) and to direct men in battle.

The only difference between today’s arrangement and the latter was that Denethor sat perpendicular to the action rather than behind the vanguard. That and the wine, of course. The servant – not one of Denethor’s household men, but a soldier assigned to the duty by the Master of the Guard – brought cup and flagon and a small camp-table, so that Denethor might refresh his measure at will. The man made an obsequious inquiry as to his Lord’s other needs, and he was dismissed with an absentminded flick of one tooled gauntlet. The Second Company was falling into ranks now, and Denethor’s attentions were upon the field.

Nelior gave the call to march, and his men moved forward in four long columns. They advanced slowly at first, cautiously. This was wise: if the entrenched force had projectile weapons a swift-moving force might be cut down by half before its commander was even aware of the threat. Nelior and his men did not know that the Tenth Company had neither bows nor arrows. Those had not been issued yet, for that was to be a separate trial. The men of the Citadel were stagnating after a long winter, and the men of the City were wholly untried. One challenge at a time.

Behind the low wall of mud, the Tenth Company was remarkably calm. There was little fidgeting, and no anxious shuffling. Anticipation thrummed along the line, from one absurdly bloated end through the lean centre guard to the engorged terminus where half the Company crowded on their haunches useless as crows. After yesterday’s thorough defeat, Denethor would have expected more apprehension. Perhaps he had been too swift to judge the mettle of these lowly men. Perhaps their courage made them worthy of the White City after all.

At the foot of the Tenth Company’s hill, Nelior urged his men on to a charge, blades at the ready. It was not an advantageous approach, nor one that any commander in his right mind would have chosen save at greatest need, but that was the purpose of the exercise. There were instances where it was unavoidable: high ground and fortified positions must at times be assailed. After the lazy triumphs of the last two days, the Second Company was ready for a challenge. An inferior foe on more favourable terrain made an interesting one.

A bellowed command arose from behind the mound of earth, but Denethor could discern neither the words nor the speaker. The nearest group of men on the hill abruptly routed, scrambling away from the fortifications like hound pups recoiling from a hill of stinging ants. Ere Denethor could make sense of the spectacle, the men were scattering down the hill with swords at the ready. They were forming a loose but purposeful line at an obtuse angle to the earthy ridge.

Startled but swift, the rightmost men of the Second Company turned and spread out to engage them. As blades met and men dodged their opponents, Denethor was surprised to note that – almost to a man – the Guardsmen in poor black and leather were manoeuvring themselves to stand uphill. Not of the entire force, as they might have done meeting the onslaught head on, but each man above his one rival. The Tenth Company now had the invaders’ attention divided.

There was a flurry of motion from the far side of the line as the first of the Guards of the Citadel mounted the hump of packed earth to meet the sparse centre section of the defenders. Denethor’s view of the field was somewhat limited, and the flying swords obscured it further. Nonetheless he knew a moment before it happened what Minardil intended to do.

The far half of the Tenth Company sped forth as the first quarter had done, a line of men cascading down the hillside. Like a sweeping arm or a closing gate they charged perpendicular to the slope, swiftly closing their angle and descending upon the Second Company from the left. Surrounded now upon three sides, Nelior’s men scarcely knew where to turn. The knights fought skilfully, but the advantage of surprise was held by the common men. It was only heightened, no doubt, by the fact that they had been underestimated by their opponents as well as by their Lord.

Denethor watched in astonishment as men scrambled back out of the action to sort themselves into camps of dead and wounded. The sable cloaks outnumbered those of worst-black, and one lofty helm after another was doffed in frustration or astonishment. The men still in the fray were struggling fiercely, low and lofty alike, but those now removed were shaking their heads or laughing in disbelief. The jubilation among the men of the Tenth Company was obvious, and it grew with each new Guard of the Citadel forced to retreat from battle.

Denethor could spy Minardil now. It was he who had led the second charge, seizing the offensive instead of merely minding his wall of dirt. He had held the crucial position at the very tip of the arm of men, the lynchpin of the operation. Now he was moving through the increasingly disordered combat with his dulled blade flashing. He was a fine swordsman, and watching him it was impossible to imagine how a mere sell-sword out of Rohan could have bested him.

The lone horseman in the conflict was proving an impediment to the efforts of the Tenth Company. Nelior was making good use of his lofty seat, dispatching men quickly with a swat to the back with the flat of his blade. It might smart a little but it would not even bruise, and no man thus struck could deny he could easily have been slain had the rider employed a quarter turn and a whetstone. Surely Minardil saw the threat, but the other Captain and his horse were in the thick of the action and the Champion of the Guard was trying to hold the line. He was doing well, too, but there was only so much one competent combatant could do when in command of eight dozen commoners.

Then from the skirmish still warring feebly on at the embrasure a lithe figure leapt, over the wall of earth and down its outer side as if wholly untroubled by the branches and bracken laid out to discourage a frontal assault. He landed firmly despite the slick of mud and dead grass beneath the men’s feet, and with no regard for the fighting around him plunged into the heart of the melee.

What he did Denethor could not see. His sword was at the ready but not presently raised, and he made no move to swipe out with his cloak. But as the man from the Tenth strode purposefully up to the left of Nelior’s horse, the animal spooked. It shied to the right, jerking its head and the reigns away from the man. The Captain of the Second Company, winged helm catching the sunlight, tried to get his beast under control one-handed. His efforts only seemed to increase the steed’s anxiety, doubtless already high because of the commotion all about. The horse was skittering on unhappy hooves, tossing its proud head and snorting. Then Denethor noticed that the man who had come from behind the dike of earth was gone.

Not gone, he saw a moment later. The soldier was now, inexplicably, on the other side of the horse. As Nelior used the last three fingers of his sword-hand in an attempt to steady his hold on the reigns, a gauntleted fist closed on the hilts of his weapon and plucked it from his hand. The Captain, astonished, looked around as if expecting to see some acrobat suspended from a line above, having snatched away the sword by its tip. Then he looked down at the soldier in shock and anger.

Even at this distance it was obvious from the cant of the man’s head that he had said something good-natured – impudent, perhaps, but good-natured. He raised Nelior’s blade in his off-hand, threading it deftly under the Captain’s still-labouring arms so that he could tap him across the front of his tabard with the edge. Then Nelior, torn between shock and the need to quiet his steed before it threw him or began to trample the men, had to fumble to catch the sword before it fell from his lap: the other man had let loose his hold.

He used his left hand instead to take a firm hold on the headstall of the unhappy warhorse. Immediately the beast quieted, whether in response to the touch or some word from the Guardsman. The soldier from the Tenth Company raised his blade in a deliberately nonthreatening but unmistakable gesture, as if to say to Nelior that his horse, too, would have been slain in this moment had the stakes of the game been mortal. Now it was the man who snorted, not the horse, and he shook his head as he gathered the lines. Then he was shouting to the men to make way as he navigated through the ongoing struggle, guiding his mount out into the open and down towards the large and perturbed-looking group of Second Company casualties.

With the mounted threat dispatched and the number of their enemy ever dwindling, the Tenth Company did not have to strive much longer for victory. Soon enough Minardil and the Lieutenant who had headed the shorter arm of advancement met, and they had the Second Company surrounded. It was over before Denethor could make up his mind to spare the men of the Citadel from the embarrassment of being felled to a man. As the last sable warrior bowed out – this one flinging himself to earth in the dramatic death-throes of a boy at play – Minardil raised high his sword.

FOR GONDOR!’ he bellowed joyously. ‘THE TENTH COMPANY FOR GONDOR!’


His men cheered, and even some of the defeated joined in. Still others were laughing, and others still looked stunned, not quite believing their loss even now. At the foot of the Captain-General’s hill the two runners strode to congratulate one another, one on the victory and the other on the skilled fight and gracious defeat. Still somewhat taken aback himself, Denethor interrupted their meeting with a snap of the fingers.

‘You, Lieutenant,’ he said, pointing to the one in poor black and leather. ‘Fetch me your Captain, at once.’

The man bowed and took off at a run, along the foot of the ridge to where Minardil was surrounded by the revelling throng of his triumphant Company. Denethor allowed himself a nonplussed shake of the head. Had he not beheld the spectacle with his own eyes, he would not have believed it. Clearly he had underestimated the young Captain. His skills extended beyond nimble feet and a fell sword-arm. It was extraordinary.


Chapter XIII: Confrontations

Minardil knelt before his Captain-General, his colour high and his chest still heaving deeply with the exertions of his victory. His eyes were bright and lively, but he kept them lowered respectfully until Denethor spoke.

‘You may stand, Captain,’ he said, noting the man’s clean etiquette and rewarding it accordingly. After a pause to allow the Captain to obey, he went on in a contemplative tone. ‘That was a remarkable victory.’

‘Thank you, sire,’ the younger man said. Denethor knew he the elder of the two because Minardil’s date of birth was noted in his service record, but it was not readily apparent on his face. The son of the Steward was of the ancient blood of the Númenórean aristocracy, and imbued with a long life even in comparison to the full-blood commoners of Gondor. It was a gift, and in many situations an advantage also.

‘I confess I did not expect it,’ said Denethor. ‘Your Company performed poorly in the earlier exercises.’

‘The earlier exercises were no reflection of genuine battle, my Lord,’ said Minardil levelly. ‘Today we had a truer imitation, as well as the terrain in our favour.’

‘Even so…’ Denethor murmured. He shifted in his seat and then clapped his hands once. The servant appeared, bowing. ‘Fetch a cup,’ commanded the Captain-General. To Minardil he said; ‘It was an interesting tactic you employed. It is not one that I would have chosen myself.’

‘What tactic would you have chosen, sire?’ asked Minardil earnestly. He was not defying his commander, but begging to learn from him.

Denethor smiled. ‘A fair question. Yet I cannot tell you what I would do, lest you should employ my judgement over your own in the upcoming trials. Plainly yours will serve you well, if today is any indication. Such a flanking manoeuvre is generally held to be an offensive technique, not defensive.’

‘Yes, sire,’ said Minardil. He was beginning to shift uncomfortably and clearly trying to resist it. ‘It was—’

‘Of course, that was it’s great virtue, Denethor went on, only loosely aware that he had cut off the man’s sentence. ‘The Second Company was taken unawares, and you pressed the advantage of surprise quickly and with vigour. I was pleased in especial by the discipline of your men. They did not break formation, as I would expect such a force to do.’

That was the great marvel: that the men of the Tenth had managed to hold fast their lines in the heat of combat. Such untried soldiers often forgot the importance of placement and formation when they were overcome by the challenges of swordplay. Unless confident and accomplished with a blade, great focus was called for merely to evade death (or disqualification). Other matters were swiftly thrust aside.

‘Thank you, sire. They are good men,’ the young Captain said. He seemed about to add something more, but he did not.

The servant came back, bearing a wooden mug. Denethor took it and poured a measure of wine. He offered it to the other man.

‘Drink of the cup of victory, Minardil son of Mardhir,’ he commanded. ‘You have done well this day, and you should take pride in that. I am not often surprised by my men, but you have managed it. I eagerly await your next offering.’

Minardil seemed to hesitate for an instant, as if again he wished to speak but did not quite dare. Then he raised the vessel to his lips. The exercise had left him dry: he drank deeply and without refinement. Taking up his own goblet, Denethor took a smooth, cool mouthful of the fragrant fluid. He swirled the contents of the cup thoughtfully.

‘Why did you choose such a manoeuvre?’ he asked at length. ‘An offensive move from a position of defence, a plan better suited to a mounted force, when your men were afoot.’

Minardil’s lips parted and he looked for a moment utterly at a loss for words. Then he closed his mouth and gave a small flick of his head, like a sleepwalker suddenly wakened. ‘It seemed most fitting, my Lord,’ he said softly.

Denethor chuckled and shook his head. ‘So it was,’ he said. ‘So it was. I must commend your imagination as well, I see, and not only your command.’

‘Not my imagination, sire,’ said Minardil. ‘Only my judgement.’

‘Your judgement, then,’ Denethor allowed, raising his cup in salute. He drank again and Minardil, taking his lead, drained the mug. Denethor indicated that he should set it upon the small table, which the man did. ‘In reward for their triumph, your men may have the remainder of the day to use as they see fit. I hope they will put it to some wise use, rather than squander it, but that is for you and for them to decide. Go now: you are dismissed.’

‘Yes, Captain-General,’ said Minardil. He saluted neatly and turned with crisp precision. He even managed a level gait as he descended the hill, though he took off at a boyish and rather less than dignified trot when he reached the flat bottom of the dell.

Denethor watched him go, more pleased than he would have expected. He was not a man who relished being proved wrong, but if he had to be this was the way to do it. His men had surprised him pleasantly, and the Second Company’s loss – though disappointing – was understandable given the unequal ground and the other side’s ingenuity. Far more importantly, Minardil himself seemed just as surprised by the victory as his master. There had been no supercilious arrogance in his demeanour, nor any hint of conceit. He did not swagger, nor did he gloat. His had been the countenance of a servant earnestly pleased in his service, and that gave to Denethor the warm and reassuring feeling of a benevolent Lord justly praising where praise had been earned.

Pouring himself more wine, Denethor settled contentedly in his seat and observed the two camps from afar.


After the first few hard steps up out of the streambed, the onerous weight of yoke and buckets settled evenly across the shoulders. Thorongil found it almost reassuring, though he could feel the stretching of the sinews in his neck and knew that after not so many more days of this toil he would be sore indeed. His hands, slender but strong and very capable, steadied the taut rope handles of the pails. He had filled them to a depth somewhat less than their capacity. It meant that for every eight trips he created for himself an extra one, but it kept the inevitable sloshing of the liquid within the confines of the bucket. He had no wish for wet boots or soaked hose in this weather.

This was the first time it had been necessary to go for water in the middle of the afternoon. Fresh from their victory and invigorated by it, many of the men had decided to seize the chance to wash. For most it was the first time they had done so since leaving the White City, and it was a sign of good spirits and a pride in themselves that it gladdened Thorongil to see. The night before they had been a dispirited and lacklustre lot. Now they were glad, and eager for tomorrow’s challenges. If that meant he must haul more water, Thorongil would willingly bear the price.

He plodded steadily up the ridge into the camp of the Second Company. They enjoyed no greater luxury than their humbler opponents: shallow fire-pits and logs to sit upon, bare earth to lie on and simple foods. It was yet too early to tell if they would bear the hardships of the field with greater or lesser grace than the men of the Tenth. Certainly they were not very accepting of the labour. He heard the grumbling and the waspish protests over the thud of short spades in the hard, frozen earth. They were erecting their own breastworks in anticipation of the morning, when it would be they who held the high ground against an advancing force.

There was little of use to hear as he moved between the cold hearths and the piles of gear. Almost all of the men were at the far side of the flat top of the ridge. Only twenty could dig at a time, but the others were laying branches or standing around to watch as they awaited their turn with a shovel. Two Lieutenants were supervising the proceedings. Of the third – and of Captain Nelior – there was no sign.

‘Still, I can’t quite believe it,’ one of the men was saying. He stood with one foot up on the growing mound of earth, gesticulating to his comrades. ‘Even with the ground in their favour, they’re such a poor match with the swords.’

‘They’re better than I expected, or the one who took me was anyhow,’ another remarked. ‘Seems the Champion has been giving special attention to some of his swordsmen.’

‘They came out of nowhere, didn’t they?’ a third said, chuckling. ‘I’ve never seen the like.’

‘I’m thankful for that,’ said the first sourly. ‘If it had been the Enemy instead of a gaggle of our own with blunted swords, we would have been slaughtered to a man.’

‘Here comes one of them now,’ said the second man, spying Thorongil and jutting his chin to point. ‘Here, Guardsman! A word.’

He came. He did not believe that these men had any authority to command him – certainly not the authority of an officer – but it was courteous to obey. Thorongil wished to make good use of these passes through the rival camp, for he was quite certain that espionage was meant to be an aspect of the exercises. It was the most logical reason to restrict the gathering of wood and water to the same few men each day.

‘Good day to you,’ he said with a stilted tuck of the head that he hoped would be taken as an approximation of the customary salute. It was all that he could manage with the yoke across his shoulders and his hands working to steady the pails. ‘I must laud your skills. The morning’s exercise was most invigorating.’

One snorted and another chuckled. The guard who had bid him come said; ‘Invigorating! Well, it certainly was that! Has your Captain been holding back on us? After the start we had, not a man in the Company expected to be bested!’

Thorongil was trying to gauge the mood of the group, but it was senseless. The man who had spoken wore a shrewd, calculating expression; evidently trying the same thing himself. The one with his boot up on the mound of earth seemed discontent, even resentful. The shortest, perhaps accustomed to personal if not Company-wide adversity, was clearly amused. There was no way for Thorongil to tailor his response to all of them at once.

‘We had the high ground,’ he demurred mildly. ‘That is a considerable advantage, as doubtless you will find tomorrow.’

Now all three of them laughed, the first two rather sourly.

‘If you think that was the deciding factor, my crowd-minding friend, you’re either a blind man or a simpleton,’ chuckled the short one, swagger and humour in his voice. ‘We ought to have come clambering over the dike to all on you like a mason’s mallet!’

Thorongil offered up a chagrined smile, but did not hazard any reply.

‘Where did your Captain dig up such a manoeuvre, anyhow?’ challenged the disgruntled one. ‘That was no standard stratagem.’

‘I understand that he took council within the Company, sir,’ said Thorongil carefully. He was eager for this conversation to be at an end. Much though he wished to divine the mindset of the Second Company, this was his fourth trip up from the stream. His burden was beginning to drag on his shoulders and backbone. Pointlessly he wished that they had stopped him while he was walking in the other direction.

‘So it was one of the Lieutenants who came up with it?’ the man pressed.

‘I am but a Guardsman of no rank, and new to the City at that,’ said Thorongil. ‘I am not privy to Captain Minardil’s conferences with the Lieutenants.’

‘No, you wouldn’t be,’ the first man allowed. Then his perspicacious brows lifted as he grinned genuinely. ‘New to the City! From Dol Amroth? You have the look of that kindred about you. Or Ringló Vale, perhaps?’

Thorongil had to restrain a noise of frustration. The sinews of his neck were burning, and if he answered straightforwardly he could not hope to escape more questions. Yet neither could he devise an honest evasion.

His hurried calculations were cut short by a sharp voice. ‘You were instructed to keep no man from his duties! Simply because he is not of your Company does not exempt him. Be off and fetch more wood if you cannot stand idle without distracting others!’

The three sable Guards scattered with hasty salutes and muttered apologies. Thorongil found himself alone at the edge of the earthen parapet, faced with the Captain of the Second Company of the Citadel.

‘Captain,’ he said humbly, repeating his hobbled attempt at a bow. In the first moment he had been grateful for the interruption. Now he felt a crawling trepidation as the Captain’s look of general irritation darkened in recognition.

‘Well, now: the horse-master,’ he said silkily, striding up to look over the lowlier soldier. He was taller than he had appeared when mounted, and the winged helm made him taller still. Bareheaded as he was, Thorongil was overtopped by three finger-breadths. He had the higher sightline, but still the sense of another looming over him brought some unease. He tried to stand a little straighter, although he was already as upright as the weight upon his shoulders allowed.

Captain Nelior drew nearer, his eyes travelling over the yoke and down the buckets and the reddened hands that gripped them. ‘So you are a troublemaker, are you?’ he asked. ‘I might have guessed. That was a cheeky bit of business you pulled this morning, young man.’

His eyes were hard and his voice unreadable. Thorongil chose to take a chance and presume that it was a mask of formality and perhaps distaste rather than a sign of open animosity. It was natural for a man to be cross with one who had bested him so unexpectedly.

‘I meant no disrespect by my actions, sir,’ Thorongil said, earnestly but with no anxiousness. ‘You were the greatest obstacle to my Company’s objective. How many of our men did you dispatch unaided?’

‘Thirteen,’ said Nelior. His lip curled into a shadow of a proud smirk. Then his eyes narrowed. ‘Tell me how you came up so quickly upon my right. You had no time to dash behind, and you did not circle in front. How did you manage it?’

Thorongil restrained a grin, restricting himself to a small smile. ‘By doing what I was so often admonished for daring when I was a boy, Captain,’ he said. ‘I ducked beneath.’

It was not as simple a thing as it might sound. It was one thing to slip under the belly of a calm horse, and quite another when the animal was startled and skittish. The Captain paused a moment, taken aback. Then he jerked his head in a way that said this should have been self-evident.

‘You could have been killed, or kicked in the head,’ he pointed out dryly.

‘So my mother often warned me, sir,’ said Thorongil.

This surprised a sharp guffaw from Nelior. He was about fifty, with brown eyes that spoke of mixed heritage and might mean he was a little younger, and he did not look as if he laughed very often. Certainly he bit back this one as quickly as he could, restoring his face to its stern lines.

‘Insolent,’ he said, but with more irony than scorn. ‘Was it your tongue that earned you this duty?’

Thorongil wished he had not said that. He had almost forgotten the weight, and now it was crushing him again. He should have been back in his own Company’s encampment by now, offloaded and permitted at last to take his rest and some noontide morsel. He closed his mind to the discomforts of the body and focused his intent upon the question instead.

‘I think rather it is my newness to the Tenth Company, sir,’ he said. He could not quite bring himself to say inexperience, for although he was not practiced in the ways of Gondor, he was hardly a green blade. ‘My Second Lieutenant thought it suitable to assign me the task.’

‘The Lieutenants didn’t make the assignments, my boy,’ said Nelior, his words ruefully amused and yet almost with a warning in them. Thorongil was compelled to wonder whether he was trying to sow discontent against Minardil, but he quelled that thought. Such tactics were surely beneath the dignity of a veteran knight and officer.

‘May I have your leave to depart, Captain?’ he asked quietly. Deciding that it would do not harm to show a glimpse of weakness, he added; ‘The buckets are heavy, and I have another rise yet to climb.’

‘Yes, yes: go on,’ the Captain said with a dismissive wave of his hand. It was followed almost at once with a slow, sardonic smile. ‘But tell the great strategist of the Tenth Company that he should expect some surprises tomorrow. It is my men who will have the high ground then.’

The words had the flavour not so much of a threat as of a competitor’s boastful ribbing. Thorongil nodded vigorously.

‘I shall, Captain,’ he said. Then he added, just to be certain of the other man’s perspective on the matter; ‘These are to be fine games, I think.’

‘They will be now,’ said Nelior with an appreciative little jerk of the head. ‘I was beginning to fear it would prove a dull fortnight. But beware, young man. The next time you spook my horse, I may just let him trample you.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Thorongil, holding back his smile just enough that he seemed to be unable to do so. Among the men of the Tenth he could be the voice for moderation and mutual respect, but here someone else had to set the tone. Perhaps with a little gentle prompting, this man might take on that task. ‘Forgive me, Captain, but do your men understand that this is only a game? A way to make our training more engaging?’

‘Of course they do,’ said the Captain, gruff almost to the point of indignation. ‘They understand that neither side is in this to kill. They bear their rivals no ill will – save in the heat of the moment when they are thwarted from victory.’

He was answering not as a commander speaking to a lowly soldier, but as a man speaking to his equal. Thorongil glanced hastily around, moving only his eyes, but no one seemed to be interested in their discourse. That was good, but he had to mend his behaviour. He had brought trouble on himself already by behaving too much like a senior officer: it was that which had stirred Lord Denethor’s suspicions.

‘I wondered, sir,’ he said, almost vacuously; ‘because our Captain, Captain Minardil that is…’

‘Yes, I know the name of your Captain, young man,’ said Nelior, not quite paternally but certainly with the air of a not-quite-patient uncle. ‘What of him?’

‘He has been making a point to call you and your men our opponents or rivals, not our foe,’ Thorongil said. ‘I thought it much more suitable myself, as we are coming up against each other in play, after all.’

‘In play? I fear you may not be taking these exercises seriously,’ said the Captain. ‘We are not here for our enjoyment, Guardsman, but to ready ourselves to defend Gondor.’

‘Yes, I believe that is the point of choosing our words with care,’ said Thorongil. ‘At the end of the fortnight, we will go back to safeguarding the same city against the same Enemy in the East. If each Company grows too entrenched against the other – if we think of one another as enemies – how can we go back to standing united?’

Nelior gave a low, pensive grunt. ‘Back to your camp, soldier,’ he said. ‘Mind you don’t slip on your way down the hill. The grass is churned up already. This time tomorrow it will be a mire.’

‘Yes, Captain. I thank you, Captain,’ said Thorongil. Wise enough to know he could press no farther today, he gave another jerky bow of the head and turned. This was a ponderous motion, slow and deliberate. His hands steadied the buckets so that they did not sway, but the fluid within was reluctant to move with them. The water swirled, and would have overflowed the sides if he had filled too deeply or pivoted too quickly. Heeding Nelior’s advice and his own good sense, he made an unhurried and gawky descent. From the corner of his eye he caught someone pointing him out to a comrade and there was laughter, but it seemed more humorous than cruel. He could bear to be the butt of a joke or two, if it humanized him – and by extension his Company.

The crossing of the long and narrow dell was uneventful, though even at this distance Thorongil half imagined he could feel Denethor’s eyes upon him. The Steward’s Heir had been sitting outside of his tent for most of the day. Now the wind had picked up and he had retreated just inside its mouth, but the door-flap was tied back so that he could continue his observation of the camps. Thorongil wondered what he found so compelling, and he could think of no ready answer.

It was when he began to mount the Tenth Company’s hill that Thorongil truly felt the fatigue in his shoulders and back. Each step required a firm and dreary effort, and by the time he reached the crest of the rise his breath was coming from high in his chest – no quicker, at least, but certainly more strained. Wearily he wended his way to the cisterns and upended his cargo within. More water had been drawn in his absence, and the vat was but half-full. That would mean several more trips come evening, but Thorongil did not wish to think that far ahead.

He was tired and he was hungry. He laid his yoke with the other two, lately abandoned by bearers who had not been waylaid by their competitors. Then Thorongil moved stiffly to the log beside which his pack and blanket lay slouched. He folded the latter into a pad to drape across the log, and sat down with the former between his heels. For the moment he was too glad to be able to rest his legs and curl his spine to think of food. He bowed low over his lap and kneaded the base of his neck with his knuckles.

Thorongil had just begun to ease out of his weary slouch when a pair of good-quality boots appeared before his own. He looked up, knowing already who he would see.

‘Do not rise on my account,’ said Minardil. He bent and grabbed a stool-length from the same fire circle, planting it before Thorongil so that he too might sit. ‘You have done a good day’s work, and the dusk watch is still two hours off.’

Thorongil considered shrugging, but the strong tented muscles that kept his head above his shoulders instead of dangling between them were threatening to cramp. He let out a rattling huff that was meant to be a laugh. ‘Every man in the Company has. They seem the better for it.’

‘Much the better,’ agreed Minardil. ‘As for our Captain-General…’

‘He is displeased?’ Thorongil asked. Plainly the favourite had not triumphed this day, and he feared to think how Denethor would voice his displeasure at that.

‘No!’ Minardil himself looked pleasantly surprised. ‘He applauded my imagination and the obedience of the men, and he granted us the afternoon to use as we wish.’

Your imagination?’ Thorongil asked, needing to hear the words for himself. His whispered request made hastily on the new-won field had left his Captain little time to plan his responses.

Minardil smiled and shook his head. ‘I did not tell him of your contribution, though I am sure he will discover who unhorsed my counterpart. Why could I not praise you to the Heir? If he thinks little of you, such prowess at the tactician’s art might serve to impress him.’

His genuine puzzlement was endearing, and most reassuring. Thorongil scrubbed his mouth and chin with one cold palm. He could not wear his gloves to haul water unless he wished to have them soak and shrink. The result was unpleasant but not unexpected.

‘His Lordship is uncomfortable with me and with my tale,’ he said. ‘I do not think he trusts me, coming as I do from a land where it is plain I was not born. I think it would be best for a time if I might elude his notice as much as possible, and certainly in matters of command. I am but the most junior of your soldiers, Captain: it behoves me to behave thus.’

‘The most junior in terms of days served,’ said Minardil; ‘but junior neither in age nor in skills. Perhaps it was a departure from usual practice for you to advise me, but the results prove the merits of the arrangement.’ He looked over his shoulder, gesturing at the camp.

Men were talking contentedly, laughing, striking up games of knucklebones or dice. A few brave souls had gone beyond scrubbing faces and hands, and had their tunics off so that they could lave the pits of their arms. Every man among them sat straighter and held his head higher than he had the previous day. Amid the clamour of voices, Thorongil could hear a few speculating about tomorrow’s attack upon the opposite ridge and how it might best be executed.

‘Sir, I am glad to see them eager,’ said Thorongil. ‘This is my company, and if I can help her to triumph even in play I shall be proud. But if I am to serve quietly, unobtrusively, then it must not be generally known that I suggested the tactic. I will be unable to discharge my duties, to do the work that I am here to do, if Lord Denethor learns of my part in our defence and trusts me still less because of it.’

‘I do not understand,’ Minardil said frankly, his brow furrowed. ‘What cause has he to suspect you, and of what?’

‘There are questions, standard questions, that I cannot answer,’ said Thorongil. ‘There are those I may answer only in part, and others still where my truthful responses seem less plausible than any lie. I come from the North, upon my honour I swear it. Yet to look at me, from whence would you say I had come, if not from Gondor?’

‘There were men of Westernesse in the North of old,’ hedged Minardil. ‘It is not possible that all of their blood could have died out with the falling of their kingdom. You could be a man of the North.’

‘Aye, for I am,’ Thorongil said. He dared not touch the subject of the residual blood of Númenor, and in any case it would do nothing to serve his point. ‘But if you found that too implausible – nay, impossible – to believe, what is left?’

‘Dol Amroth. Lamedon. My own home in Lossarnach—’

‘Yet I have sworn I am not a child of Gondor,’ pressed Thorongil. It was to Minardil’s credit that his mind was too trusting even to see the suspicion, but Thorongil still half-hoped to bring it out of his Captain’s mouth instead of his own. 'I am not a son of the Mark. I am no Dunlending.'

‘I do not know,’ sighed Minardil at last. ‘I have never heard tell of men so tall and both so dark and so pale as you are, save among those who came out of the West. It seems you must have some measure of Númenórean blood within your veins.’

‘If you are sure of that, and if you did not accept my tale, would you not be compelled to wonder whether I had come from another stronghold built long ago when ships first sailed between Elenna and these easterly shores?’ asked Thorongil.

Minardil shook his head. ‘My lessons in history stretched no further back than the Great Plague,’ he said. ‘If you speak of the days when Elendil and his sons set sail, those I know of only in children’s rhymes and a few fireside songs. What stronghold? The great cities of the North have been long laid ruin: that much I do know.’

Thorongil pursed his lips, wondering whether he would do more damage now if he spoke or if he remained silent. Yet the truth was that he trusted his Captain and he owed him frankness whenever it could be given, in trade for circumspection where it could not.

‘Umbar, Captain,’ he said. ‘The ancient havens of the Black Númenóreans, who peopled that southerly shore long before the Lords of Andunië grew estranged from their kin upon the throne. Is it so farfetched that one such as I might have come from the South and not the North? Or indeed, from the East? There are men not so different to look upon from you or I, high in the service of Sauron and in the ranks of his armies. What better spy to send?’

‘A spy with a better tale, I should say,’ Minardil remarked, far less troubled than Thorongil had feared. ‘Why supply you with this story of empty lands and mountain shadows, if all you needed to smooth your path was the name of a village and of a father?’

Thorongil looked at him in some surprise. Plainly more was contained in his dossier than he had expected. Perhaps the Steward corrected and redacted the record after speaking with a newcomer? Perhaps he had only done so in this case, his interest drawn by the letter of character. Yet Minardil had asked his question in earnest and he was waiting for an answer.

‘In sooth? I cannot think why,’ Thorongil said. ‘I cannot imagine a spy commissioned with such a flimsy tale of origin, for that very reason: that the want of a story is more damning in the eyes of the suspicious than the most unlikely of yarns. Still, my reluctance to speak has troubled the Captain-General. Mayhap he is overly wary because of the discovery of treachery last year?’

‘Mayhap,’ said Minardil reluctantly. ‘Yet that man was no Númenórean, black or otherwise. I do not think that Lord Denethor would conflate you with him.’

‘Still,’ said Thorongil. ‘Until I can show my worth to Gondor, I would be wise to keep beneath his notice.’

Minardil regarded him for a long moment. ‘Answer me this, Thorongil,’ he said at last. ‘How are you to show your worth if you will not let your achievements be seen?’


The Citadel was quiet at the hour of the changing of the watch, when the Steward of Gondor moved silently down through the Seventh Gate between saluting Guards. He was alone, with neither companion nor escort nor servant. Over one arm he carried a basket, its contents well-wrapped against the chill of the night. Anoriel had wanted to accompany him, bearing the parcel of succulent eatables herself, but Ecthelion had persuaded her to stay in out of the weather. There were storm-clouds off to the northeast, blotting out the stars over Anduin. The wind would bear them to Minas Tirith eventually, most likely before dawn. Perhaps they would bring snow, perhaps rain or even sleet. It was not likely to prove a clement night.

The lamp above the door of Esgalad’s house was dark, but in upper windows candlelight glowed behind rich draperies. Ecthelion mounted the marble steps and rapped loudly on the door. From within he heard the sleepy scrambling of a servant hurriedly dragging on a coat, likely to hide a state of bedtime dishabille. Ecthelion was proved right when the door opened to reveal one of the footmen, his outer garment fastened neatly with bare legs sticking out beneath. Sparing the man the embarrassment of being teased or scolded by his Steward, Ecthelion pretended he did not see this deficiency of dress. He came in, let himself be relieved of fur-lined cloak, hat and gloves, and then thanked the man and informed him that he could go to his rest: his mistress’s father would see himself out when it was time.

All the lights had been in the northern and westerly windows, for it was the corner of the house where these two walls met that Telpiriel’s chambers were located. It was the best place in the house, with a splendid view down the Avenue of Maidens to the Sixth Wall. Beyond that, the city stretched out like a painting, all slate roofs and walled gardens, and the Pelennor rolled broad and fertile beneath. The rooms also caught the afternoon sun well, and they were out of Mindoluin’s shadow for the greater part of the day. This made them warmer as well as brighter: ideal accommodations for a great lady.

The chiefest of his daughter’s attendants was at the anteroom door when Ecthelion reached the top of the stairs. She was wearing a night robe fastened to the throat with looped silk ribbons and her hair was loose, but she showed her breeding in her posture and every move as she came forward. She simultaneously drew the door closed behind her and began to sink into a deep and elegant curtsey while approaching Ecthelion before he could gain any more ground.

‘My Lord Steward,’ she said, in the low and breathy voice that mothers of a particular pedigree trained their daughters so diligently to use. ‘I fear you have caught the household unawares: you were not expected.’

‘No, child, I was not expected,’ Ecthelion agreed pleasantly. ‘I have come early from my labours to visit my daughter, and to bring her some dainties chosen especially by her mother.’ He nodded to the basket. ‘Let me pass, Thiadel. She will not mind if I catch her with her hair in disarray or her nightclothes rumpled.’

He moved to circumvent the lady, but she stepped deftly and yet innocently to block his path.

‘Sire, let me take her the sweetmeats and come again tomorrow,’ she said with an enticing little smile. Her uncle was the Keeper of the Keys, and she had been Telpiriel’s comrade and playmate almost since each could walk. Yet unwed despite her prospects and her fair, if un-extraordinary appearance, Thiadel was a companion rather than a servant. Since the beginning of this prolonged confinement, she had taken on all the more active duties of running the household.

‘Tomorrow? Is she asleep already?’ Ecthelion was surprised: that had not occurred to him. Telpiriel had always been a flower of the evening, preferring to lie in late and keep watch with the owls, and since being relegated to her bed she complained that she slept less than ever and was seldom even considering slumber before the height of the night watch that had just begun.

Thiadel’s lips parted determinedly, then faltered. She had been about to lie and had lost her resolve to do it. ‘She is indisposed, my Lord,’ she said instead.

‘Then I shall give her mother’s greetings, kiss her to ward off bad dreams, and be gone like the mists,’ Ecthelion promised. He started again for the anteroom door.

Again she wove in to stop him. ‘Please, sire,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow.’

Only then did a hand of ice close upon Ecthelion’s heart. Another clawed at his throat. What was amiss with his daughter? Had the crisis they had all been fearing so silently come by night? Surely if the healers had been summoned someone would have come for him, but would they have found him? He had left the Tower by the side door, but the Guards in the Court of the Fountain had seen him. Surely every effort would have been made to fetch him…

‘Is she…’ The words came out in a strangled croak. His pulse was pounding with more ferocity than it had shown since the old days of frenzied battle and desperate stakes. Yet what stakes could be more desperate than this? The lives of his daughter and his grandchild hung precariously by a rope too fine to hold them. Perhaps it was beginning to fray.

Thiadel read the fear in his eyes, and she shook her head violently. ‘No, sire! Oh, no, she is in no peril! She is… she is merely disinclined to receive visitors at so late an hour.’

It was then that a cry came from beyond the door, muffled enough that it could not have come from the anteroom but must have originated in the grand bedroom beyond. Ecthelion stiffened, but the cry was not one of pain and it was followed by a snarled oath and the sound of something striking the floor with a dull thud. He fixed sharp eyes on the middle-aged maiden before him, and the fire of his ancestry flared within them.

‘She is distressed, my Lord,’ Thiadel blurted out, her artful dignity forgotten. Realizing how the words sounded, she corrected herself. ‘She is angry, my Lord.’

Ecthelion nodded. That much was abundantly clear. He reached with his free hand to guide the lady aside by her elbow. It was soft and plump beneath the sleeve of crimson lambswool, not at all in keeping with her slender body and lean jaw. Thiadel let herself be led: she knew the game was lost.

‘I have seen her angry ere this,’ said Ecthelion. Such was his relief in knowing that his daughter was neither sickening nor melancholic but merely enraged that he smiled playfully. ‘There is nothing she can say to me at this late date that will mar her fortunes.’

Defeated and perhaps rather relieved, Thiadel gathered the skirts of her robe and moved to open the anteroom door. The room beyond, a hive of feminine activity during the day, was cast in deep shadow with only one candle to light the passage between tapestry looms and embroidery apparatuses and drawing tables and the tall boxwood harp. The woman hurried forward to part the inner doors, and Ecthelion swept past her into the far brighter space of his daughter’s bedchamber. Once it had been her sanctum of quiet contentment. In these last weeks it had become her prison, and it seemed that tonight she was flinging herself against the bars.

The bed was in disarray, silk coverlet and soft blankets bunched and knotted and sliding down off all three sides. There were pillows on the floor and one on the reclining couch, but none at all on the mattress. Two maidens in attendance, at least fifteen years younger than Thiadel and their mistress, were fluttering distractedly around the bed like a pair of evicted sparrows. Both were trying to no avail to calm their mistress. A chambermaid in a kirtle of inexpensive but comely golden-yellow was scurrying about the room gathering up linens, towels, articles of jewellery and half a dozen books that had been flung haphazardly about the room. Ecthelion guessed that it was one of these last that had been dropped moments before, accounting for the thump he had heard.

In the middle of the broad bed was the lady of the house herself. Telperiel was on her hands and knees, but the later were planted to either side so that she sat low upon crossed heels. Her growing belly, not yet large enough to prove any impediment to motion, protruded from the gaping front of her sumptuous robe with the pearl adornments. The pleats of the linen nightdress beneath were stretched from their usual symmetry by the unaccustomed bulk. Telpiriel’s hands were clenching fat fistfuls of the uppermost feather tick, and her elbows were locked against the weight of her shoulders thrust upon them. Her head was stretched  forward like that of a huntress-cat, and her dark hair was tumbling in every direction about her head.

All this gave her an exotic, untrammelled look, but it also made her appear much more like her three-year-old self than she had in many years. As her head whipped away from the young woman she had been upbraiding, seeking out the intruder on the threshold, Ecthelion found himself smiling fondly. He was taken by a memory of scooping her up onto his shoulders and surprising her right out of a tantrum over some monstrous injustice perpetrated on her by her nurse or her sister or perhaps even the newly crawling babe destined to become High Warden of the Tower.

‘Evening’s felicitations, my dear one,’ he said, taking three steady steps towards the bed.

Telpiriel did not bare her teeth and snarl at him, but she looked like she wished to. ‘What do you want?’ she demanded. ‘Come to gawk at the monstrosity like all the rest of them? Come to toss breadcrumbs to the bear in the cage? Mayhap she’ll dance! Get out of here: go on! All of you!’ she roared, wafting one wild arm at the women.

One of the attendants hopped back a pace, and the little maid cringed and clutched her bundle of debris tighter. The other maiden did not move, and Thiadel closed the doors firmly to shut in both the people and the din.

Ecthelion came nearer, stopping to deposit the basket upon the casement seat. Let the apple tart and sugared plums cool. There were more important matters at hand.

‘What is this?’ he asked patiently. ‘Has someone displeased you?’

‘They all displease me!’ Telpiriel cried, bouncing back upon her heels and flinging up both hands in utter frustration. ‘Fussing and coddling and poking and prodding!’

‘I was only trying to brush her hair, sire,’ the more timid of the two young ladies-in-waiting protested. Realizing her temerity, her eyes grew enormous and her mouth shrivelled to a tiny purse-knot.

‘I am a daughter of the House of Mardil!’ roared Telpiriel, turning on her and shifting her knees ungainfully as if she meant to lunge off the bed and shake the girl. ‘I am able to brush my own hair!’

‘You will ruin your voice if you keep abusing it so, my daughter,’ Ecthelion said calmly. He took another step towards the bed. He was not afraid of her: quick though she was, and tall, she could not truly hurt him. She lacked the heart to hurt anyone, save with her angry words. The two girls and the chambermaid did not look nearly as certain. ‘Why do you not take a few deep breaths and a mouthful of wine, and tell me what is amiss.’

‘Amiss? Amiss? What is amiss?’ Telpiriel’s voice rose almost to a shriek. Then all at once she burst into hot, choleric tears, driving the fingers of one hand into the hair at her temple, and using the other to pound at the largest mound of tangled bedclothes. ‘I am shut up in here like a prisoner, fretted over and cossetted as if I’m made of blown glass – round enough to be made of blown glass, too! – and that silly wench—’ Here she gesticulated vaguely at the frightened maiden before thumping at the blankets again. ‘And then they try to hush me, as if I’ll wake the household! As if I mustn’t wake the household, never mind that they are my folk and I’ll wake them when I please and they’re all fortunate I don’t dismiss them and turn them out to fend for themselves and—'

Ecthelion was at the bedside now, and he caught her hammering hand to clasp in both of his. First she tried to keep her white-knuckled fist. Then she uncurled her fingers to close about his, gripping as fiercely as a man bracing for a field amputation. Telpiriel was sobbing now, feral with fury and frustration. She was still babbling about a hundred tiny slights and annoyances, each of which seemed to have the weight of a catastrophe in her mind. When she found a firmer hold about his thumb, Ecthelion moved his other hand to hold her far shoulder. He sat down upon the disarrayed bed, scarcely aware how his hips canted awkwardly and rather uncomfortably.

‘There, now: tell me everything,’ he coaxed, much as he had once quieted her in the wake of terrible nightmare. Telpiriel went on, spewing out her venom of discontent and disproportionate distress. Beyond her the three young women were inching away as Thiadel beckoned them towards the small side door that opened on the servants’ passage.

They were gone by the time the litany of grievances petered out into heavy panting. Telpiriel’s head was hanging low, her hair obscuring her face. She heaved a shuddering breath, and her grip upon Ecthelion’s hand grew painful.

‘I want to go outdoors,’ she whispered hoarsely, no longer angry but heartbreakingly desperate. ‘I want to walk in the winter sunshine and feel the wind on my face. I want to stand up on the ramparts and look out towards the river. I want… I want… I want Es—Es—Es—’

Ecthelion knew what she was trying to say, and it broke his heart to know he could not grant it. He was her father. He was the Steward of the realm, the most powerful man in Gondor – perhaps among Men. He ought to be able to give his child anything she pleased. But this he could not. Even if the risks of recalling a high-ranking commander in the midst of winter’s stalemate were not so enormous, Esgalad’s expertise could not be spared. The turn of the seasons had slowed the fighting, but the position of Cairon’s army was precarious at best. The dispatches that had arrived the day before held little good news, and all that there was to be thankful for was that the casualty list included with them had not run onto a second page.

‘My brave girl,’ Ecthelion whispered. He held her shoulder tighter, not quite daring to slide right next to her so that he could take her in his arms like the child she would always be in his heart. ‘My brave and beautiful girl.’

Telpiriel tried to swallow a choking noise far too much like a sob, and all of a sudden it was she who was scooting towards him. She curled into his one-armed embrace, pressing her cheek to his shoulder and still clutching his other hand tight. The defiant dignity of her womanhood was laid aside like a labourer’s leather apron at the end of a backbreaking day, and she let him hold her. Ecthelion murmured soft and senseless reassurances to her, petting the crown of her tangled head with his cheek as he whispered.

The tension of blind rage had ebbed from her body, but the desperation in her hold remained far longer. Ecthelion could not say how long they sat thus, while Thiadel moved silently to put the room to rights. Eventually Telpiriel was coaxed to the couch, still clinging to her father. Without summoning a servant, the patient lady in attendance smoothed the mattress and tucked the bedclothes and plumped the pillows.

By the time she was finished her mistress was quite calm again, but with a slump to her shoulders and a hollow, deadened look in her eyes. She had released her grip upon her father, and now crossed arms hugged her growing belly as if she feared it would slip away. Ecthelion still held her, knowing naught else to do. He wished Anoriel had come after all, as she had wished. Thiadel went to the dressing table and fetched the brush she had so lately retrieved from the corner. She approached resolutely and thrust it into Telpiriel’s line of sight.

‘You are a daughter of the House of Mardil,’ she said, quietly but firmly. ‘You can brush your own hair.’

Ecthelion half expected an apoplectic retort or a fresh flood of tears. Instead Telpiriel reached with a shaking hand to take the brush. Inching only far enough from her father to give her arms room to move, she set to work with the tool. Ecthelion remained where he was, within easy reach if she needed him. It was all that he could do for her, much though he wished that were otherwise. In all the days of his reign, he had never felt so helpless.


The Second Company succeeded in holding their hill and their hurriedly erected embrasure, but by the narrowest of margins. Had it not been for the night’s freezing rain, which left the slope one broad chute of muddy ice, the Tenth Company might well have prevailed. Certainly every man threw himself wholeheartedly into the scenario, and their cooperation even under strain was heart-warming to see. But the terrain was against them, and the Second Company indignant at their prior defeat. Minardil and his two remaining Guardsmen surrendered rather than let the mock carnage proceed any further. There were less than a dozen men of the Second Company left to accept the truce, however, and that was no small achievement. Thorongil himself had yet to be felled in any exercise.

It was another glad night in the camp of the Tenth, with singing and storytelling around almost every fire. Some of the young men eschewed these amusements that they might get up another game of dice, though such pursuits were forbidden the soldiers outside the daylight hours. If Minardil noticed, he said nothing. He was entirely too proud of his troops despite the defeat. It was obvious, to him and to them, that taking a high place was as much luck as skill. They would try again tomorrow.

They truly would try again tomorrow, for they were set to take the same ridge again. Thorongil was not so naïve as to expect Lord Denethor to repeat the same unembellished scenario a third time, but whatever he intended had not been divulged to the advancing side. Minardil had received orders identical to the last set: take the hill and seize or slay the men of the Second Company. Thorongil did not need the gossip of the Ninth Company to know that something unexpected was in store for them, or that the Second Company’s orders were not identical. The dynamics of the manoeuvres demanded it.

He did not know quite what to look for, for it was quite possible that Denethor had changed the scenarios to thwart precisely the sort of advance reconnaissance that Thorongil had performed. Yet if he had not, and the Tenth would be facing slings and softwood marbles in the morning, he thought he knew how best to prepare.

So it was that late into the night, while the camp was quiet and Midhon slumbered at his back, Thorongil lay on his side propped up on one elbow, sketching with a twig in the ashes surrounding the glowing remains of the campfire. Now and then he raised his head as if to scent the wind or to take stock of his surroundings. Then he bowed his increasingly sore neck again and resumed his notations.

Chapter XIV: Needful Work

On the seventh full day in the field, the men were given leave to rest. By that time the wins and losses of each Company tallied thus: the Guards of the Citadel had been triumphant four times, and the men of the Second Circle five. Once they had fought to a draw, with a small group from the Tenth Company pinned down in the trees by an equally small force from the Second. They had maintained a grim balance until sundown, when Lord Denethor had pronounced a stalemate and sent the men brusquely to their supper. Lieutenant Dúlin of the Tenth had been the most senior man in the small knot of defenders. Unlike his Captain, he had not needed to be asked to keep private the contributions of a certain lowly soldier to the maintaining of a position they ought to have lost very swiftly. He was more than happy to accept his Captain-General’s praise and to hold his tongue.

Thorongil was quite content with that arrangement. He had had a hand in each of the Tenth Company’s triumphs, and had mitigated the swiftness and completeness of all but their first two head-on defeats. He had Minardil’s ear and his increasing respect. What concerned him was the younger man’s mounting discomfort with keeping his influence a private matter within the Company. Much though he would have liked a course less risky, Thorongil could not sit back and allow his side to flounder. It was a game, yes, but it was a game with a serious aim and if the Tenth Company did not perform well enough they would be too dejected to learn. If they did not learn, the entire expedition was a waste.

As it was, the men were eager. Outside of the slated exercises they spent their time sparring and holding miniature battles in groups of ten or twelve. They were all growing accomplished at navigating the slopes in the heat of battle, and both Thorongil and Minardil were accosted with countless requests to evaluate form and technique. The Champion of the Guard was only too happy to instruct, and Thorongil tried his best not to. A little good-natured advice was more appropriate from a peer, and beyond the scope of the Tenth Company that was all he wished to seem.

The only person in camp who did not begin each day with vigour and end it in satisfied exhaustion was the young healer, Midhon. There was little for him to do. He bandaged a few contusions and examined numerous bruises, but there was not so much as a wrenched ankle for him to tend. He sat on the ridge, watching the combat, but it was obvious he knew little of the arts plied therein. He confessed one evening to Thorongil that each mock campaign looked identical to him.

Of the hardships of the camp, Midhon was uncomplaining. This made him stand out, for even the most jovial and energized of men were beginning to tire of pickled pork and increasingly tough bannock. The nights were cold, but not unbearable. Worse were the wet, transient snowfalls that left them to waken to drenched blankets and soggy clothing. Many of the men had chapped hands and faces, and some complained of feet never quite allowed to get warm. Thorongil insisted each such grumbling be met by an examination of toes and soles by Midhon, but in every case the feet were found to be dry and free from signs of rot. They were merely cold.

With a day of rest promised, the occupants of most of the fire-circles bestirred themselves long enough to refresh their bodies after the night and to refuel their hearths. Then they got back in under blankets that were mercifully no more than passing damp this morning. Soldiers never had the luxury of sleeping to their hearts’ content, and the first order of business when given any significant time to themselves was to enjoy a leisured nap.

Thorongil had other interests. He rose at the customary predawn hour to haul the water. He was the only one who did so: his two fellow labourers did not at first realize that he was abroad and looked to take their leisurely time about mustering to the chore. After Thorongil’s fourth trip Mallor caught on, and hurried to work with many an unnecessary apology. When the cisterns were full, Thorongil took a simple breakfast of waybread soaked to palatability in a mug of hot water. Then he was off on his own private excursion.

At least, privacy had been the intent. He was striding away from camp at a swift but comfortable pace, long legs falling into the rhythm they had so readily rediscovered after his departure from Edoras. All at once someone came trotting up beside him, puffing out clouds of breath in the chill morning air. It was Midhon.

‘May I come with you?’ he asked, panting a little as he fell into step. He must have come flying down the hill at a great pace, for his pale cheeks were flushed and his breath was high and tight in his breast. ‘I just… there’s not much… with the men in camp all day…’

He did not need to say more. Thorongil had seen how Midhon was so often the butt of some joke or arch remark. These were not cruel, but neither did they permit the healer to feel much solidarity with the men around him. Such needling was expected and impossible to prevent; Thorongil’s choice of Midhon as a bedmate had done much to allay any more active heckling. Yet it was tiresome and Thorongil could well see why the young man would not relish a whole day of it.

‘You are welcome,’ he said; ‘though I do not think it will be a journey worthy of song. I wished only to visit the little village and perhaps meet some of the herdsmen. I have seen little of Gondor beyond the white walls of Minas Tirith.’

‘I have seen little enough myself,’ Midhon confessed. At least, the shifting of his eyes made it look like a confession. ‘I was born in the White City.’

Thorongil sensed that the healer wished to say more, but he did not seem able. He let them walk on in silence for a few breaths to be certain, then said; ‘It is my understanding that there are charcoal-burners at work in this vicinity as well as shepherds. Do you know anything of the craft?’

‘I’m new enough to my own craft,’ Midhon deprecated. Then he flushed, recognizing that he had just professed something he would have rather left unsaid.

‘The arts physic are no small study,’ said Thorongil. ‘It is enough to be capable and willing to go on learning. You need not be able to boast of comprehensive knowledge. How long have you been practicing?’

‘A little over a year,’ Midhon admitted. His flushed deepened. ‘But I studied far longer. I began my work in the Houses of Healing when I was but fifteen.’

‘I did not realize the healers of the White City took apprentices so young,’ said Thorongil. His own education in matters of the body had begun at the age of eleven, but that was decidedly atypical. His had been a very special case, his aptitude presumed and his interest enormous.

For a moment Midhon was silent. It was clear that he wished to speak. There was in his tone and his countenance an unmistakable desperate hope that he might be able to make something of himself known to this patient ear. Yet in the end his courage failed him.

‘How do you win the men’s affection?’ he asked instead. ‘It is plain that they respect you for your skills, both with a blade and in matters of stratagem. Yet it is more than that: they like you. You have been in the Tenth Company… how long now?’

‘Four weeks,’ said Thorongil.

Midhon nodded as if to say his own estimate had been confirmed. ‘Already they are friendly with you. How do you manage it? The provost’s men…’

He stopped, but Thorongil knew what he was about to say. The provost’s men had made no attempt to befriend the healer who served beside them. He was unsurprised, but saddened. It was much as he had feared.

‘Some men, some groups of men, are more welcoming than others,’ he said reflectively. ‘Yet what is most important is to make the overtures of friendship of your own accord, rather than waiting to be invited. Had you waited today to be asked to join me, you would have waited in vain: it did not occur to me that anyone might be interested in a long trek for the sole purpose of beholding the commonplace lives of simple folk. Yet you dared to follow, and to ask to walk along. Has it served you well?’

‘I think so,’ said Midhon. ‘That is, yes: this is what I wanted and now I have it. But… but it was you who made the first overture. You welcomed me on the first night, when no one else seemed to see me. Had you not, I never should have dared this.’

Thorongil nodded. He understood. He had struggled with similar doubts during his early weeks in Rohan, when his want of the language had left him crippled and unsure of himself. In that time a few good-natured jokes had bloated in his mind into unending mockery, and the smiling men around him had seemed hostile instead of kindly. It was easy, beginning from the position of an outsider, to see only the disadvantageous and the hurtful.

‘Yet I am pleased that you did,’ he said. ‘My tour of idle interest may bore you, but I am glad of your company and of the chance to learn more of you. In sooth, Midhon, I could see from the very first that you were not closely bound to the men of the provost.’

‘You could?’ asked Midhon.

‘It was clear that you disapproved of their conduct, and equally clear that you felt unable to say so,’ Thorongil explained. ‘A man among friends does not fear to criticise their errors.’

Midhon laughed, a surprised and shivering sound that was at once very old and very boyish. ‘I have seen that plainly enough. You are ever criticising the errors of your fellows.’

‘More importantly, I am aiding them in improving upon them,’ said Thorongil. ‘Thus they are glad for it. Perhaps the Provost Captain would have been glad to have his error pointed out and corrections suggested.’

Midhon snorted, and Thorongil smiled ruefully. No, that was not a very plausible scenario: far less plausible than that the first melees between Second and Tenth had been accurate facsimiles of battle. The Provost Captain had struck him as a man who took even the advice of senior commanders grudgingly and with ill-concealed resentment.

‘Not everyone can be won over by advice, however well-meant and respectfully rendered,’ he said. ‘Sometimes you must duck your head and trod along as amicably as you may, whatever your true feelings. Yet that is no foundation for friendship. Seek out those who value what you have to say, and who take your honesty at its true worth.’

‘I see,’ said Midhon. Yet plainly he was not satisfied with the answer. That was all right. Advice was not always followed; it was enough that it was not scorned. Together they walked on.


Ecthelion hesitated, quill in hand, as he looked over the letter once more. It had been long in the drafting, and he had abandoned the previous version in the depths of the middle night. Returning to it after a short but deep and blessedly peaceful sleep at Anoriel’s side, he had found much of it serviceable and some passages in need of thorough redaction. Now at last he had a clean copy that he believed struck the right tone. It had to be a letter of easy inquiry, not pressing need. Most of all, there could be no hint of urgency or catastrophe, for that would surely colour the response. All this he believed he had achieved, and yet he hesitated.

Ordinarily he would not have considered forging such a missive without consulting Denethor. In most cases, in fact, it was to Denethor that he would have delegated the task of preparing it. He was the Captain-General, after all, and Lord Cairon was his direct subordinate. The proper chain of command ran from Steward to Heir to Captain, and so down to the more junior commanders throughout the land. Ecthelion was overstepping his son in this, and although it was his right as liege-lord and ruler to do so, he was not wholly comfortable with the matter.

In this, at least, he took some comfort: he, and not Denethor, was the one best suited to writing the probative letter. Denethor would have imbued the whole matter with a sense of greatest import, or else dismissed it altogether. Which, Ecthelion could not say. It was difficult to tell which way Denethor would shift in a tangible debate, much less a hypothetical one. And Denethor would not return to the City for seven days, by which time the letters could already be in the hands of their recipients in Ithilien.

The first letter, the one to Esgalad himself, had been far easier to write. Anoriel had produced her own, filled with motherly talk of the preparations being made for the baby and Telpiriel’s fond remembrance of her husband in every conversation. Ecthelion’s own had been somewhat more restrained. He passed on the healer’s assurances that the expectant mother was benefiting from her prolonged rest. That report had been a great relief: they had all feared, Telpiriel most of all, that the exertions of her outburst of some days past might have imperilled the babe. Of that incident Ecthelion wrote nothing, nor did he frame his daughter’s yearning for her husband as anything more than the gentle desire that she had felt in less difficult days. She wanted him, aye, but not at the expense of Gondor’s welfare.

Ecthelion prayed that he had not crossed the line from modulation to outright deceit. For all Telpiriel’s bitter tears, she had not begged for Esgalad to be summoned home. She knew that he was needed, and that the needs of the army must supersede her own if the border was to be held. She was a true daughter of Gondor, that was certain: valiantly enduring what she must for the sake of her home and her people. Ecthelion could not have been more proud of her had she been leading the vanguard against the Enemy herself.

This second letter, the more difficult of the two to write, was addressed to Cairon. It contained the usual praises and reassurances, and the pledge that the fresh troops he needed so desperately would be provided as quickly as they could be mustered. Ecthelion asked after the army’s supply requirements, for there had been no mention of that in the dispatches. And he asked, as idly as he could, whether perhaps Esgalad son of Esgalion might be spared a short while for a visit to the City. It was no urgent matter, as Cairon would surely understand: merely that if such an extraction posed neither a danger to the Lord in question nor a hardship to the army, it might be a welcome furlough for a man who had been serving tirelessly since autumn’s fading.

Ecthelion believed that he had struck the proper chord, including the most salient question in amongst those that seemed on the face far more important. He did not think he had let anything of his own fears or of Telpiriel’s heart-breaking desperation spill over onto the page – not in this final copy, anyhow. Even the penmanship was indolent, easy, perhaps even bored with the workaday dullness of such routine and necessary but uninspiring business. Only the lines of praise stood out bold and eager on the page. Cairon and his staff, and all the scores of men beneath them, needed every affirmation of pride and support that those at home could offer.

Decided at last, Ecthelion dipped the pen and brushed its nib lightly on the rim of the inkwell. With a steady hand and each accustomed flourish, he signed his name. A dusting of sand set the dark figures, and he lifted the letter to read it through once more.


It was Anaiwen, of course. She was leaning on the doorjamb, almost wrapped around it as she peered into the antechamber. She blossomed with morning’s freshness, her clear skin scrubbed and her long hair brushed smoothly into its plaits. She had a silk cap upon her head, and she wore her half-length overgown with guards of the same brocade. She looked at once as young as snowdrop buds and far older than her slender years. Her face was solemn and her eyes were stormy.

‘Come in, my dear one,’ Ecthelion said, beckoning to her. Anaiwen came hurrying across the floor on almost soundless feet, lithe as an Elf-maiden of old. She slipped her hand into his and he gripped it snugly.

‘Naneth has gone to see Telpiriel,’ she said softly. ‘She says if she is no better today the healers will have to prepare a tincture to revive her.’

There were no tinctures for this ailment, Ecthelion knew. From her wild rage, Telpiriel had sunken into the very melancholy he had feared. She lay long hours of the day in silence, and her ladies could coax her neither to speak nor to eat. Anoriel had better luck with the latter and Ecthelion with the former, but neither was at liberty to pass all the day with her. The Steward’s duties were many, and he had taken on such of Denethor’s tasks as could not be allotted to Councillors or servants. Had it not been for Valacar, the Heir’s faithful secretary, this burden would surely have been doubled.

Anoriel herself was occupied not only with the running of her own household, which might easily have been neglected for a time in Telpiriel’s favour. The Steward’s wife was also responsible for the welfare of the indigent and unfortunates of the city. It was she who oversaw the process of emergency food allotments from the state granaries, and the relief of those without the means to clothe their children or bring them care in illness. Such supports were imperfect already, with the old ways of managing such things forgotten and so much of the City’s resources diverted to the defence of the border. Without the Lady’s tireless oversight, what aid there was would soon collapse. It was winter. Without these few inadequate supports, the poor would begin to die.

Nor was this the full extent of Anoriel’s labours. She saw to the fiscal operations and supplying of the Houses of Healing, allotted monies to the men who organized the sanitation and furnishing of public buildings, and gave three hours each week to the Great Archive. As the mistress of the Steward’s household, she was also responsibility for the wellbeing and moral education of the young sons and daughters of Gondor’s elite who had been placed at court to be educated.  Though she spared her middle daughter every moment that she could, it was nowhere near what Telpiriel needed in this tormented time.

‘We must continue to trust that all will be well with your sister,’ said Ecthelion gently, looking at his youngest and reading the worry in her sombre eyes. ‘Try not to fret overmuch. In a few months it will all be behind us, and you shall have a little nephew or niece to dote upon.’

Anaiwen nodded, but the gesture had an unsettlingly deliberate quality to it. She was too intelligent to have failed to grasp the fears for the child, whose every sibling had perished unborn. Not until that moment had Ecthelion been certain that she knew of the peril to her sister also. All that they had so carefully left unsaid was reflected now in Anaiwen’s stance and her fixed expression.

‘She longs for Esgalad,’ she said presently. ‘Her maidens have told me. She is lonely and she is trapped in her bed with nothing to distract her. She must be afraid also, Ada. Has anyone considered that?’

Ecthelion sighed. Yes, he had considered that. Of course Telpiriel was afraid: for her husband, dwelling in debatable camps across Anduin; for her baby, so precariously rooted within her; and last of all for herself. Fear was natural, but it was the enforced inactivity that permitted the fears to spawn and multiply. She had little else to do but brood upon pains and losses that might come.

She was not even able to enjoy the fine sewing of dainty and exquisitely broidered baby clothes, as most expectant mothers did, for with each stitch she could not help but think that her child might never live to wear the garment. There was a chest filled with gauzy smocks, soft little shirts, gowns of every cloth, bearing blankets couched in gold, breechclouts by the dozen, and caps so tiny that they scarcely seemed real: the fruits of earlier pregnancies. Her mother was at work on raiment of the finest wools and cambrics and fair southern silks. Her ladies hemmed endless squares of diapered flannel. No doubt Anaiwen would try her hand at a frock or two when her sewing for the Hallows was complete. But Telpiriel had not touched her sewing box since her condition had been confirmed.

‘I cannot ease her fears, my loyal heart,’ Ecthelion said sadly. ‘Would that I could, or that I might at least allay yours. You are too young to bear such worries.’

‘I am too young to take on any of Naneth’s toils, either,’ said Anaiwen matter-of-factly. ‘I offered, and I was told on no certain terms that I would not be permitted to oversee next week’s allotment of grain.’

A fond little smile touched Ecthelion’s lips at the faint indignation in her voice. ‘That cannot have been a surprise to you, can it?’

‘It was not,’ Anaiwen admitted with a long-suffering sigh. ‘Naneth is determined that I shall bask in the irresponsibility of girlhood a little longer before turning my soft little hands to any such genteel labour. Telpiriel cannot be about her business, and it seems I cannot either. That is why I would like to propose that we do it together.’

‘Oversee the allotment of grain?’ Ecthelion asked, mystified. There was no rational way in which this could be considered a solution to any problem. Telpiriel was in no condition to spend three long days in the almery, smiling benevolently and keeping the record while the men doled out measures of meal to the destitute. Nor was it any fit place for a child Anaiwen’s age.

His daughter was grinning now, shaking her head in loving exasperation. ‘No, Ada! That’s clearly unsuitable,’ she said. ‘I meant that if we two cannot be about any business, at least we should be idle together.’

Ecthelion understood now, and he smiled gently. ‘I do not doubt she would be glad of more frequent visits,’ he said.

‘Visits, fie!’ said Anaiwen, gesturing dismissively with one pretty hand. ‘I mean that I should stay with her. I could read to her, and keep her occupied. She wouldn’t mind my coddling as she does her maidens’, for such things have always been a game betwixt the two of us. I could stay with her at night, also: I’ll be a much better bedmate than dear, bony Thiadel. I can make Telpiriel teach me the dulcimer.’

Ecthelion considered. As a babe, Anaiwen had been the pet of both her elder sisters: a darling little doll to be dressed and cossetted and endlessly entertained. As she grew older, she had been the one responsible for the endless entertainment, never failing to make some piercingly candid remark that brought laughter and applause. Telpiriel adored her, and was always bright and cheerful in her presence. Perhaps it would help her to have Anaiwen as a constant presence in her home. It would certainly allow Anaiwen to feel less helpless in the painful situation. He had to wonder, though, whether the outcome would be as Anaiwen expected, or whether he would soon have two unhappy daughters instead of one.

In the end, he did not have the heart to say this. The hopeful face before him was so earnest in its desire to do something to help.

‘Consult with your mother, my dear one,’ said Ecthelion at last. ‘If she feels it is suitable, you have my leave to go.’

Anaiwen laughed joyfully and kissed his cheek.


The visit to the village proved illuminating. Thorongil found the folk who dwelt there pleasant and welcoming, idly curious about the soldiers and happy enough to talk. He spared himself any lengthy explanations of his interest in their way of life: these were unnecessary. They seemed to think it perfectly natural that a man from the City would know little of their ways, and equally natural that he should be interested.

He was pleased by the reverent way in which the shepherds and labourers spoke of the Steward. Ecthelion was well regarded here, fifteen miles from the gates of Minas Tirith. The general portrait of him in the eyes of these humble subjects was that of a lordly and beneficent figure: not quite a king, but something more than a father. It was a perception that spoke well of the stability and security that Ecthelion provided for his people. Certainly Thorongil, as a member of the City Guard, was welcomed with willing courtesy, and with him Midhon. They were offered a mug of ale at one cottage, where they sat for an hour or more listening to the master of the house as he explained his part in the wool trade. If Midhon wondered at Thorongil’s keen interest, he said nothing.

Afterward, a young man about of an age with the healer took them down to the woods of which the stand near the soldiers’ camp was but a tendril. Here, beneath the trees, the complex task of charcoal-making was carried out by lean, weathered men and their wiry sons. This fascinated Thorongil. He was not wholly ignorant of the process, but never had he seen it plied upon any significant scale.

In Rohan there was a lively trade in firewood: the cutting, the curing, the buying or trading. In the North, where there were few communities of any great size and an abundance of forests, it was gathered most often by individual households according to their own need. In both traditions, charcoal was reserved for forges and tempering fires requiring a great and steady heat – and that, in the North at least, only when true coal was inaccessible for reasons of cost or isolation. Here, the stands of woodland had to supply not only the farmholdings and watchposts, but the thousands of hearths and braziers and manufactory fires in Minas Tirith. It would have been a prodigal waste of effort hauling wood in and bulky ashes away. Some more efficient fuel was required, and charcoal answered that need.

The great mounds smouldered, filling the air with a dark smoky smell. The smoke itself was sparse, venting in each case from a small gap in the well-packed earthen crust. These kilns, reconstructed afresh for each batch, were set right in the forest, in clearings made by felling their contents. By some good fortune, the charcoal-burners were in the midst of constructing a new mound and Thorongil was able to see the way in which the thick logs were stacked and interlaced. This method trapped the fearsome heat of the fire that would leave the wood black and desiccated, compacted and ready to burn. It was a wondrous thing, that half-burned wood should burn more hotly than the unburned.

When the men had finished constructing the broad and intricate pile it would be taller than a man. They would cover it with earth then, and ignite the pillar of kindling and tinder built in the centre of the pile. Like the others, it would smoulder carefully for days, its fearsome heat trapped by the earth.

‘Got to mind it day and night,’ said one charcoal-burner, gratified by the interest of what he referred to as such gentlemen. ‘If it gets too hot, it’ll flame up and burn all the wood clean away. If it snuffs out…’ He shrugged as if to say that the consequence there was self-explanatory.

The men were welcoming, and invited the two city-dwellers to join them in their simple meal. This they gladly did, for their camp breakfast was far behind them now. As they ate, the charcoal-burners expressed their surprise and pleasure that there was any interest in their work.

‘Dirty and dangerous: most folk keep well away,’ said a middle-aged man with a broad swath of scar tissue down the left side of his face. It was the mark of a serious burn that had not been tended as it should have been, and Thorongil’s healer’s eyes were pained to look upon it. Doubtless Midhon felt the same. Had either of them been present at the time, there was much that could have been done to reduce the deformity and to ease what must have been an anguished healing process.

A boy, scarcely more than twenty, snorted his agreement. ‘No use for our kind,’ he said; ‘but they’re happy enough to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Begging your pardon, my Lord,’ he amended, nodding to Thorongil. ‘It’s plain you’re not of that sort, and we’re glad to have you come to see what we’re about.’

Thorongil smiled and shook his head. ‘I am no man’s lord here or anywhere else in Gondor. I am but a man doing what he can to earn his honest bread, even as you are. I am grateful for your toils, and if other folk paused to think of it they would be also.’

Midhon was largely silent throughout, and only when they were at last on the campward road and a good three-quarters of a mile from the last of the mounds did he ask his question. Clearly it had been pricking at him for hours.

‘What is the cause of your fascination?’ he asked, gesturing backwards. His voice was not scornful, but only baffled. ‘Such lowly employment, and such rough folk: why did you think that worth a journey on your day of rest?’

‘It is needful work,’ said Thorongil placidly, striding steadily on. ‘I believe it important to understand the making of those things so integral to daily life. If we do not understand how such necessities come to be, we are not only ungrateful to those who provide them but we are foolish. Besides,’ he added with a small smile; ‘I came to Gondor hoping to learn more of her people and their ways. Those men are her people, as much as the noble knights who guard the Citadel or the fine ladies of the Sixth Circle. I must understand them.’

For a while they walked on in silence, Midhon considering this. Twice he stirred as if to speak, but lost his nerve. The third time, he managed to form the words.

‘I said I began my work in the Houses of Healing at fifteen,’ he said quietly; ‘but I did not say what manner of work it was.’

The embarrassment in his voice told Thorongil all that he needed to know, but he listened nonetheless. It was plain that the young healer needed to unburden himself, and Thorongil was glad to let him do it.

‘I was a servant,’ Midhon said. ‘Nay, that is too lofty a term. I was a drudge. I scrubbed the floors, mopped up the sickness, saw to the patients’ bed pots and the disposition of soiled linens and bandages. Any task too menial or too unpleasant for the healers’ attendants fell to me. I slept beneath a table in the scullery, lest I should be needed in the night. I often was.’

He was flushed now not only with brisk walking on a cold day, but with shame. Nonetheless he pressed on.

‘From the time I was small I wanted to be a healer,’ he murmured. ‘But they don’t choose their apprentices from my sort in the Houses of Healing, and I had not the means to buy a private placement elsewhere in the City. I thought that if I worked long enough, diligently enough, I would be noticed and allowed to study. No one noticed me.’

‘That should not have been,’ Thorongil said soberly. He had suspected that Midhon had risen from lowly means to his present scholarly shabbiness, rather than fallen in his fortunes. It seemed he was correct. ‘That too is needful work, as important to a convalescent as the ministrations of the most skilled of healers.’

Midhon did not quite flinch, but his face tightened miserably. ‘In the end I went to one of the healers who was not disdainful of me, unseen though I still was to him. I asked if I might strike some bargain so that I might study among the apprentices. He spoke to the Master of the House on my behalf.’ Painfully he swallowed. ‘Had he not taken my part, I would be there yet: scouring out the filth and hauling ashes. Had he not… had he not taken an interest.’

Thorongil stopped moving and turned in towards the younger man, his expression gentle and knowing. ‘As we took in the charcoal-burners,’ he said.

Midhon nodded almost urgently. ‘What I mean to say is that you are right. We should all take better notice of those who do what must be done that others may live in comfort. I should have seen it myself, and never questioned you.’

‘It is never wrong to question, I promise you that,’ said Thorongil. ‘Yet you should not be ashamed of your humble start. You took the path that was open to you, and though it cannot have been the easiest or the quickest you reached your destination. Did you not?’

‘Yes. That is, almost. In a way.’ Midhon started walking again, as if too uneasy to remain still. Thorongil fell into step beside him, letting him set the pace. ‘I do not wish always to be the provost healer, checking the men for parasites and tending to brawlers. Yet I do not see how I can rise any farther, however hard I work.’

‘Opportunities always present themselves, though most often in unexpected ways,’ Thorongil said. It was in the forefront of his mind to tell of the curious chance that had raised him up to his first post of responsibility in Rohan, but he did not. What he had not even told his Captain was not fit to be disseminated now. ‘You have seen that in your own life, have you not?’

‘Yes,’ sighed Midhon. ‘Yet at times it is hard to find the patience to wait.’

Thorongil’s lips twitched and he restrained a shrewd laugh. ‘That I know full well!’ he said.

‘Even if I do escape my present post, I can only rise so far. I will never be a respected healer; never be welcomed to ply my art in the Houses of Healing, for all that I was educated there.’ Midhon snorted ruefully. ‘Can you imagine one such as I tending to the great captains of war when they are wounded? Or attending the Steward’s daughter in her confinement? It is absurd.’

Again Thorongil stopped, this time startled. ‘The Steward’s daughter?’ he said. ‘Wherefore is she confined? I had not thought the Lord Ecthelion a man to permit such a thing.’

Once, long ago upon a night of wonder unrivalled, he had spoken in jest of noble lords keeping their daughters locked up like jewels in their hoards, but he had never supposed such things might truly be done. The prospect was horrifying. Even the mad should not be imprisoned when there were means to care for them, and if any had the means it was the Steward of Gondor.

Midhon had been momentarily puzzled, but now his eyes widened in realization. ‘No, not confined,’ he said hurriedly. ‘In her confinement. Ensconced in her home until such a time as she can be delivered of her child. All gentlewomen observe the practice in the last weeks before the glad event is expected. The Lady Telpiriel has been put early to her rest, for there is some fear for the babe.’

It was a euphemism, Thorongil realized. He felt a flush of mortification at his ignorance. He had heard tell of the practice of isolating expectant mothers, but the use of this term was unfamiliar to him. In truth, the practice itself was unfamiliar. It was not the custom among the Dúnedain of the North: women went abroad throughout their pregnancies, and often saw to the work of maintaining house and holding until the very moment of the birth-pains. In Rohan, even Queen Morwen had not concealed herself. She had walked proudly, big-bellied with another child to grace the King’s family. It was nonsensical to keep women apart when most they had need of friendship and diversion.

‘Forgive me,’ Thorongil said. ‘I did not understand. Such things were not done in my home.’

Midhon nodded sympathetically. ‘It is a luxury the poor cannot indulge in,’ he said. ‘A peasant woman must keep to her labours; a woodsman’s wife to the tending of her cot. The Lady Telpiriel is fortunate to be under no such restraints, for it is said she will lose the child else. She has not been blessed by good fortune in childbed.’

Thorongil wished to ask for more detail, driven by a healer’s curiosity and desire to help. He held his tongue. It would not be suitable. Midhon did not know of his skill in the arts physic, and undue interest in such matters from an unwed man would surely seem strange. Yet he could not but wonder about the particulars of the case, and about the fear such a situation must surely be rousing in the Steward and all his family.

Perhaps that was a part of the Lord Denethor’s unpleasantness, he reflected as they rose out of a dip of the land to see the encampment spread before them. If he was preoccupied with concern for his sister – and it seemed scarcely possible that any man in his position would not be – small wonder he had no patience for reticent tongues and stubborn footsoldiers.

These thoughts were foremost in his mind as Thorongil came back among the men of the Tenth Company. Evening was nigh, and the fires were glowing with cooking embers. He returned the greetings offered him as he went to take up the yoke and buckets, that he might be about his own needful work.


Note: I’m a little behind on the review and PM replies, but I promise answers are coming! With the hectic time of year, I’ve only just managed to polish up the chapter, so I thought I would post first and correspond later. Thank you all for your amazing feedback and support!

Chapter XV: War Games

The men of the Tenth Company were gathered on the hillside, awaiting their orders. Some were sitting in the dead, frostbitten grass, where another dusting of snow had been stamped away by many restless boots. Others stood, hoods over leathern helms and cloaked backs to the wind blowing from Anduin. All were silent, watching with interest as their officers conferred quietly around the morning’s dispensation of weapons. There were twenty bows, a like number of quivers, and arrows enough to supply them.

Neither the Lieutenants nor Minardil himself seemed to know what to do with them. They kept murmuring amongst themselves, and now and then the Captain would cast an uneasy glance at the weaponry. It was difficult to watch, and Thorongil was well into devising some pretext to walk down among them that he might offer his quiet suggestion. There did not seem to be many options that were even close to inconspicuous. On the far side of the dell, the Second Company of the Citadel were gathered about their own allotment, and men from each company were erecting four simple targets of wood and straw at each end of the valley. Lord Denethor, directing these latter operations with cool, curt commands, had been moving back and forth between the groups. All in all, there were entirely too many pairs of querying eyes about.

He was spared a difficult decision when Minardil stepped back from the perplexed little knot and beckoned. ‘Gelmir, Amlach, Thorongil: come!’ he commanded.

Thorongil took care not to step forward too swiftly, but neither did he hesitate. The other two Guards did not either, and from the brief glance they shared Thorongil could see that they, too, had been wishing to step in. When they reached the officers, the Lieutenants had already stepped back to make room for them in the circle. The Captain regarded his three men soberly. He nodded at the other two.

‘You are both from the Vale of Morthond, are you not?’ he asked. When they murmured their affirmation of this, Minardil asked; ‘Are you knowledgeable in the art of archery?’

Both grinned, Amlach more importantly than Gelmir. It was he who spoke, also. ‘Yes, Captain, we know a thing or two.’

‘I’m not the surest shot,’ Gelmir said, more modestly. ‘But I do know something of the basics.’

‘Good,’ Minardil said. He thrust a leathern bag forward, and Gelmir took it instinctively. He parted the ties and brought out a coil of bowstrings. ‘See about making them ready, please. I think it best we do not waste time trying to teach each man to do it.’ He turned his gaze on Thorongil. ‘We are to work with the bows all through the day,’ he said. ‘I know such things are not standard knowledge among the Rohirrim, but I wondered whether you might have some experience nevertheless. We are… in some debate as to how best to order the drills.’

Thorongil nodded gravely. ‘I have some experience in such matters,’ he said. ‘I can assist the skilled men of Morthond in teaching the others fundamental technique.’

Minardil drew a deep breath, trying not to look too relieved. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Tell us what you need, and it shall be provided.’ He glanced around at the Lieutenants, searching for dissent, but he found none. Herion’s eyes were narrowed pensively, but no one showed true discontent.

The two men out of Ringló Vale were already at work, bending the bows skillfully to take the taut strings. Thorongil looked down the field to the targets, and then up towards those of the Second Company. The two groups would be back-to-back, so as to minimize the potential for any accidents. That was certainly the priority. Bored though Midhon might be, this was not the sort of occupation anyone wished to give him.

‘I shall need a rope,’ Thorongil said. ‘Thirty ells at least. Four kerchiefs of a size to use as blindfolds—’

Blindfolds?’ both Minardil and Lieutenant Dúlin chorused in consternation.

Thorongil smiled. ‘Fear not: I shall be certain that no harm comes to any man in the course of these drills.’

The two swordsmen did not look quite so certain.



Few of the Guards, either of the City or of the Citadel, had much experience as bowmen. Some had been brought up to use them, more likely for hunting than in combat, but even these were out of practice. Denethor had heeded the suggestion of the two Captains who had led the previous expedition, and laid aside this time for the men to familiarize themselves with the tools. He also made himself available, ready to step in with his knowledge when it was needed. His skill was not extraordinary, but it was considerably above the average and undoubtedly greater than that of Nelior or Minardil. He strode among the men, only one out of five at any time with a bow, and offered his advice with cool encouragement.

He was not the only one doing so, he realized after a time. One of the Lieutenants of the Second Company had some aptitude, and it was he to whom the running of the drills had been delegated. Those who knew the bare basics were advising those who did not. And over in the ranks of the Tenth Company, a great deal of peer-tutelage seemed to be going on.

It took Denethor two passes to be sure of it, but it was soon undeniable that the bulk of this advice was coming from just one man. There were a couple – like as not from Ringló Vale, where all were trained at the yew bow from boyhood – who were showing others how to hold the things, but most of the serious teaching seemed to be coming from the new man; the Rider of Rohan; Thorongil the Nameless One.

In the thrill of overseeing the manoeuvres, Denethor had half forgotten his reason for lingering the full fortnight this time. He had been asked – nay, charged with the task of evaluating the newcomer’s abilities and deficiencies. Thorongil had been deporting himself very well indeed throughout the exercises to date. His skill with a sword was undeniable, and Denethor was beginning to understand how it was possible that this man had defeated the Champion of the Guard. He had unseated Nelior also, and when the Captain had made this known to him Denethor had at first been quite astonished. Upon reflection that feat was neither so surprising nor so impressive as it at first had seen. Plainly the man had put to work the horse-lore he had learned in Rohan and used Nelior’s own mount to subvert him in the field.

But archery was not held to be the great gift of the Horse-Lords and here Thorongil was, dabbling in that as well. He was working with the four men lined up before the butts, moving from one to another to help them adjust their feet, their shoulders, or the grip of their fingers. Not one of the four seemed able to shoot before he gave them leave, and when they did so their first act upon seeing the arrow strike was to turn to Thorongil for approval or criticism.

One of the young men was doing so right now. His arrow had missed the butt entirely, and lodged in the earth some yards beyond. His brows furrowed and he looked reflexively towards the tall Guardsman. Thorongil smiled, not condescending but encouraging.

‘Much better,’ he said, and the youth flushed with pleasure. ‘Your feet are firm and your shoulders true. Next time, do not lock your knees.’

Then he moved on to the next man. Denethor himself strode off, back towards the Second Company, before he was obliged to take notice of the stranger.

When next he looked back to the Tenth, a strange rearrangement had been made. The rope that had been lying across the ground as a visible line beyond which none could step while any were prepared to shoot had been moved. Before it had been about twenty-five paces from the targets. Now it was only ten. At that distance, even a moderately talented goat would have no difficulty hitting its mark. Irritated at this oversimplification, Denethor came striding across the empty ground and through the assembled ranks of the Tenth Company. Those he nudged aside parted for him with quiet words of obeisance and apology, but all the others were too transfixed even to notice him.

The four men now in front of the butts, Captain Minardil first among them, were blindfolded.

Thorongil stood at his Captain’s left shoulder, half a pace behind and near enough that he could whisper if he chose to. When he tried to do so, however, Minardil shook his head sightlessly. ‘Let the men hear,’ he said. ‘They shall all be trying it in turns; it will do them good to hear it more than once.’

Thorongil’s lips tightened momentarily, almost in disapproval or unease, but he obeyed. ‘You need have no concern for where the arrow goes,’ he said, his voice still meant for one but loud enough for all to hear. ‘You could not miss the shot without a wilful effort, and perhaps not even then. Forget your eyes and the need to aim. Concentrate instead upon the bow in your hand, your fingers on the string, the tip of the shaft against them. Feet firm but ready for swift movement at need. Here…’

Then he did something that no common soldier should have the temerity to do. Thorongil took bodily hold of his Captain, hand beneath one arm and the other on the opposing shoulder. He pivoted Minardil’s upper body by a matter of only a few degrees, but when he let go it was plain to Denethor’s eye that the Captain was in a far better position to shoot true.

‘Now release,’ Thorongil said.

Minardil let the arrow fly, and it sank into the straw with a blunt thunk. It was well off centre, but that did not seem to concern the unsanctioned teacher. He took another arrow from the quiver hanging loosely from his shoulder and placed it in Minardil’s hand.

‘Well done, Captain,’ he said. ‘Do it again.’

He moved on to the next man, who required more than a few corrections before he was given leave to shoot. All the others were watching raptly, those with bows adjusting their own arrowless hold according to Thorongil’s instructions. Now and then the tall man cast a small, appraising glance at the mass of the Company, but if he saw his Captain-General among them he gave no sign. When Thorongil finished with the last man and called for a new row to form, Denethor turned and slipped away. He did not do so, however, before Minardil had plucked off his blindfold.

The Captain’s eyes caught the Heir’s, Denethor’s hard and unreadable and Minardil’s made vulnerable by the sudden light. The young Captain blinked several times, rapidly, and then he was taken by sudden wariness – respectful, but uneasy. Minardil of Lossarnach was a clever man, Denethor reflected as he strode back towards the Second Company again. It was always wise to be wary of the mighty.



After a brief halt for the noon meal, the lessons in archery resumed. It had become plain very quickly that Thorongil was the most qualified man to run them. Even the two from Morthond lacked the experience necessary to teach. Their own technique was strong, but they had difficulty explaining why. They knew the form, but not the theory. Nor did Thorongil think that either would feel able to instruct their superiors, and Minardil and the Lieutenants needed tutelage as well.

Every man in the Company had taken his turn at shooting blind, and now they were working on accuracy of aim. There was less coaching to be done in this, for it took time and experience to coordinate eyes and hands, bow and air. The wind was low today, and the ridges provided some shelter. That was a boon to the inexpert and the unpracticed alike. More of the men had some understanding of the art than it had seemed at first, though for most it had been many years since they had last exercised the skill. Nonetheless they needed only a little patient instruction to refresh what skill they had, that they might build upon it.

To allow each man more time to work, Thorongil had ordered the erecting of additional targets. They had no more of the proper straw butts, but thick softwood branches driven into the earth gave each of the twenty bows something to aim at. It was not ideal, and it wore harder on the arrows – but as there were at least three misses to a hit on these narrower goals, that was not especially problematic.

What made the situation difficult, at least for Thorongil, was the rotating scrutiny of the Captain-General. Denethor was moving between the two Companies, trooping up and down behind the lines of archers. He said little, but his air of assessment was eloquent enough. All the men were aware that they were being judged. After the first few disruptions, Denethor did command them to disregard the usual protocol of salutes and murmured respects. Yet still he made them nervous. It was no small thing for a simple soldier to perform under the eye of the highest officer in the realm, especially when one was not proficient in the art in question.

For Thorongil’s part, his performance was not at issue. Yet he was uneasy with the feel of Denethor’s keen eyes upon him as he offered quiet advice or answered a hurried question. He could not shake the sense that the Heir of the Steward was far more interested in the instructor than in the instructions. Thorongil was helping Mallor adjust his stance for the third time in one turn when he was proved correct.

A solid presence drew up behind him, even as he stood behind Mallor. Thorongil finished his recommendation, bodily adjusting the other Guardsman’s off elbow. Then he stepped sideways and back in a single smooth motion before turning to face his Captain-General. Their eyes met, all but level, but neither said a word until the arrow was let fly. From the corner of his eye Thorongil saw the narrow margin by which it missed its mark.

‘Well done,’ he said quietly. Mallor turned, grinning proudly and, seeing Lord Denethor standing so near, took an unsteady step backward. His heel struck the thick rope that was the dead line, and he stiffened. Thorongil smiled reassuringly even as his own pulse quickened in anticipation of the dance to come. ‘Is my Lord enjoying the shooting?’ he asked Denethor. ‘His loyal men are learning much, I think.’

‘Yes,’ Denethor said, rolling the word about his mouth as if tasting a fine wine. One eyebrow cocked ever so slightly higher than the other as he studied Thorongil’s face. ‘It seems they are indeed. My loyal men are learning much, and they seem to be learning most of it from you.’

‘Not I alone, sire,’ said Thorongil, tilting his head but not quite looking up the line, where Amlach of Morthond was reassuring another man of the suppleness of the bow and the force it could bear. ‘We each give of our talents as we may, for the betterment of the Company.’

‘For the betterment of the Company and the glory of Gondor,’ Denethor said sardonically. Now his lip was curling after his brow. ‘Yet it seems that some of you are giving rather more extravagantly than others. You have much advice to offer, Thorongil of the Mark. Yet I have not observed you offering any example to the men.’

Thorongil made an effort to swallow smoothly, though his mouth was dry. He did not think that anyone had noticed the omission until Denethor had spoken, but now anyone within earshot was certainly wracking his memory to recall whether the new man had loosed an arrow after all.

‘I am a soldier, sire; not an archery tutor,’ Thorongil said courteously. ‘I did not think it necessary to offer an example.’

‘A show of your skill, then,’ said Denethor. ‘That your Captain might judge your fitness in this pursuit, as he judges your fellows. Surely you do not mean to suggest that you are above such proofs?’

‘No, my Lord,’ Thorongil breathed, dropping his gaze but not his head. He wished Denethor to understand that his words held no challenge, but he could not quite bring himself to scrape for the anonymity he had once again unwittingly mislaid. ‘I am happy to take my turn, when it may come.’

‘There are but twenty bows for a hundred men, sire.’ It was Minardil who spoke, stepping up to Thorongil’s side with his shoulders squared and his head inclined respectfully. ‘We must each take it in turn.’

‘I am aware of that, Captain,’ said Denethor. ‘Too many bows in inexperienced hands would swiftly turn an orderly exercise into chaos. Yet I have witnessed the changing of hands now four times since the line was drawn back. Is this man to be the only one excluded from the endeavour?’

He had been watching far more astutely than Thorongil had guessed, then. Denethor had been back to the Second Company twice during this particular series of shooting, and yet he had kept careful count of the changes. Thorongil could not help but feel some chagrin at his own surprise.

‘I hope that none of my men shall be excluded from any endeavour that may benefit them,’ said Minardil graciously. ‘I thank Your Lordship for drawing my attention to the matter.’

‘And you will rectify it?’ asked Denethor.

‘Sire?’ Minardil looked up, bewildered. Thorongil understood all too well, and he was not delighted. Offering advice was one thing. Actually shooting was another.

‘You will have the man shoot at once, of course,’ the Captain-General declared, as though this should be quite self-evident. ‘You, soldier: give your fellow that bow.’

He beckoned to Mallor as he spoke, long fingers imperious. The master of the quarterstaff obeyed at once, casting an uneasy look at Thorongil as he passed off the weapon.

‘And the arrows, soldier. The arrows,’ Denethor said, his tone a condescending apery of patience.

Mallor surrendered the quiver, which still held two long darts. Then he retreated swiftly into the anonymity of the crowd of idle men now watching their Captain and their Lord and the new man out of Rohan. Most of the shooters had expended their stock of arrows, and were awaiting the sign that the field was safe, that they might retrieve them. All these were watching also.

With what grace he could muster before so many eyes and with Denethor’s own slate grey stare fixed on him, Thorongil slung the quiver across his back. His fingers rippled against the glass-smooth shaft of the bow. He kept his gaze level with that of the Steward’s son.

‘What would my Lord see me shoot?’ he asked, when it was plain that Denethor had no intention of saying more.

‘Your predecessor’s target will do nicely. Show us, sir Rider, the precision of form and the care of aim you have been preaching so diligently to others.’

There was a hint of a smile on Denethor’s lips now; not quite a sneer, but certainly no gesture of benevolence. It was plain what he thought. Before him was a braggart: one who had much to say to others of their faults, while being too cowardly to lay bare his own. He was eager to see the man taken down a peg or two in the eyes of those who were beginning to admire him for his tutelage; to show him up as a fraud before his peers.

The difficulty was that Thorongil was not a fraud, nor could he counterfeit to be one. He had been given his first bow at the age of six, and it had been no toy. At eight he had mastered field lengths of fifteen, twenty and thirty paces. He had ridden to his first hunt with bow and arrow at the age of twelve – and shooting from atop an Elven pony was no small feat. He had been educated in the nuances of archery by some of the greatest bowmen in this age of the world; exacting teachers who did not so much demand excellence as simply expect it. He might miss the target, yes – but not for a moment did he believe he convince the sharp-eyed lord of men beside him that he had done so unintentionally.

Worse, Mallor had been shooting at one of the stout branches. It was a far narrower goal than the straw butts, and it was equidistant between two of those. Thorongil could not pretend to misunderstand and to aim for the larger target.

‘Show us, son of no man,’ said Denethor, louder now. ‘Prove what you have preached.’

All eyes were upon him now, but it was Minardil’s that Thorongil felt most keenly. His Captain, who had trusted his advice in campaign after campaign, was struggling to trust him now. Minardil was trying to believe that Thorongil could outshoot those he had been making bold enough to teach, but Lord Denethor’s surety of failure made the good Captain uncertain. No, Thorongil realized. There was no question of even attempting to appear mediocre.

‘Yes, my Lord,’ he said; it was not quite a sigh. He stepped up so that his lead toe fell just short of the rope. He raised the bow and nocked an arrow. Thorongil lifted his chin, stretching his neck ever so slightly and fixing his shoulders into the precise scalene configuration that despite his want of recent practice came naturally as his runner’s form. He drew back the bowstring and let fly. The speed of the arrow’s passage whistled in the cold air, cut off abruptly with a decisive thunk as the iron head sunk deep in the wood of the target.

There were appreciative grunts and a couple of stifled noises of delight from the men of the Tenth, but no one dared to cry aloud or to cheer. The tension that had presaged the shot subdued them still.

Slowly Thorongil lowered the bow and turned away from the range. Denethor’s eyes, hard as flint and as appraising as a horse-merchant’s, were locked upon him.

‘Very pretty,’ he said. Then he wafted a broad arm and raised his voice into a bellow of command. ‘All of you: up on the ridge! Out of the field! At once!’

The men scrambled to obey, snatching up cast-off helms or cloaks or quivers as they went. A moment later the churned ground was vacant but for Denethor, Thorongil, and Minardil. The young Captain stood fast, though Thorongil thought perhaps he would as lief have gone with the rest of his men.

Denethor marched up to the rope, matched his heel to it, and counted off ten more paces. With the toe of his boot he scraped a line in the dead grass. ‘Now from here,’ he said. ‘Place the arrow one handspan beneath the other.’

Thorongil’s mouth was dry. It was an easy shot by the standard of many he had tried. Long though Denethor’s strides were, thirty paces was still little challenge. The truth was that Thorongil could easily outstrip the range of this bow of middling length without sacrificing any of his accuracy.

He made the shot. And the next, at thirty-five paces with an arrow retrieved by one of the other men. At forty, he had to raise the plane of his aim to compensate for the falling-off of the arrow. At fifty he shook his head.

‘I would require a longer bow to shoot so far, my Lord,’ he said honestly, expecting ridicule and glad of it. Four perfect strikes made him look like something more than a simple swordsman, however gifted. A little scorn would assuage that perception somewhat.

But Denethor’s jaw twitched, and he said coldly; ‘I would have you prove that, had I a longer bow to hand,’ he said. His expression was unreadable. ‘What of a moving target, stranger? A bird? A hart? An orc?’

‘The same,’ Thorongil said quietly. He could not perjure himself, and in any case a lie would be far too blatant after the performance he had just made.

Denethor’s nostril’s flared with a puffing exhalation. Then he waved a dismissive hand. ‘Very well,’ he said. He turned from Thorongil and addressed Minardil. ‘Resume the exercises, Captain. I expect the men to be at their best tomorrow.’

Only when he had strode off in the direction of his pavilion did Thorongil see that the bulk of the Second Company was also watching, having borne witness to his feat.




On the following day, the Tenth Company was issued a simple directive. They were to hold the copse of trees, that their opponents might prove unable to gather wood. To aid in this endeavour, they were furnished with a peculiar set of tools. All forty bows were given them, and with these an allotment of arrows the like of which Thorongil had never seen. They were straight and true, impeccably fletched with stiff goose shafts. Yet in place of an arrowhead each had a small pouch of loose-woven linen packed hard with powdered chalk. This, it seemed, was the purpose of the five-pound bag among the Captain-General’s belongings.

Thorongil studied one of these strange arrows, lifting it in his hand to feel the balance. They had been prepared with skill. The weight of the bag was almost exactly that of an iron head, and it was so tightly stuffed that it did not shift or drag upon the arrow. Within the sack, the tip of the arrow had itself been turned in a rounded point. The thing was perfectly functional, save that it would do no damage to a man struck by it. It might smart a little, if shot at close range by a strong arm, but it was no more lethal than the blunt swords or Mallor’s quarterstaffs.

‘Why chalk?’ asked Minardil, studying the arrow in his own hand with puzzlement. ‘A wad of wool would serve as well, and with less effort.’

Thorongil had no ready answer, but as he tilted the shaft once more in his hand it came to him. He closed his fist upon the slender rod of wood and turned the arrow swiftly, pivoting it around so that the chalk-filled tip struck his forearm. His sleeve, worst-black though it was, was new-dyed and dark. The impact drove chalk through the canvas to mark it with an unmistakable white circle. He held out his arm to his Captain and the three Lieutenants.

‘Thus we may all see who has been struck, and who has not,’ he said. With an appreciative curl of his lip, he added; ‘Lord Denethor is a man possessed of a creative mind.’

‘In matters of war, he undoubtedly is,’ said Minardil, shaking his head in wonderment. Then he grinned boyishly. ‘This ought to prove fun.’

So it did, though it seemed somewhat decadent to take such easy delight in such a thing. As ever, the Captain consulted with Thorongil as to the strategy of defence. It would have been Thorongil’s preference to have the forty archers aloft in trees around the perimeter, but this was not feasible. It took long practice and many hard falls or close calls to learn how to cling to a stout branch, well-balanced with only the use of one’s legs, while firing a precise and reliable arrow. Instead they placed the bowmen strategically just inside the eaves of the wood, choosing the highest places they could find: a hillock, a tangle of tall roots thick as ridgepoles, a lately-felled stump.

Of the men on foot, half were dispersed around the northmost marches of the wood with their rehearsal-swords at the ready. Then twenty were assigned to be the first line of resistance and the remaining men secreted in a thicket, reserved to pursue the survivors of the Second Company if the others failed to repel them all. The officers were dispersed through the four groups, with Minardil taking the unenvied position among the archers. Thorongil was under Herion’s command in the ranks of last resort.

The skirmish itself was brief. The men of the Tenth had been well-positioned, and the men of the Citadel were unexperienced in woodland warfare. Their vanguard did well among the first defenders, but many were felled by the archers. Most of the rest were taken by the next line, though the mock casualties upon the other side were just as great. In the end the Second was left with their Captain and a baker’s dozen of elite swordsmen. Half of them fell to hurriedly gathering brush and branches while the rest faced off against Herion and his little contingent.

At that point Thorongil feared that it might come down to a standoff between Nelior and himself, as man after man was touched by the blunt blades of the Second Company. Just when he knew he had to step in or forfeit the exercise, Minardil came charging through the trees at the head of a column of archers who had survived the onslaught. The final encounter was heated but brief. The Tenth Company had wrangled another victory against their superiors.




That evening there was laughter and revelry in the camp. Men sang and storytellers stood up in the firelight to animate their tales with dramatic poses and sweeping gestures. Someone had smuggled three quart flagons of dark wine out of Minas Tirith and had managed to reserve them until now. These were given over to Minardil to share out. It amounted to little more than a taste for each man, but it was the spirit of shared triumph of which they drank. In any case, it would have been foolish for any to drink to excess with the Captain-General’s vigilant eyes so near.

Thorongil moved quietly amid the happy throng, accepting praise and congratulations with effortful grace. His contributions to the campaign were no secret among his fellows, at least. He supposed word would travel swiftly enough, both to the Second Company and throughout Minas Tirith upon their return. He hoped that by the time any whisper of it reached the ears of Lord Denethor, it would be so embellished and inflated as to be dismissed wholesale as ridiculous.

Tonight, anyhow, he had other business. His own camp was bright and merry, but across the dark dip of the dell the other was not. In the glow of their fires, men moved with the slow stiffness of the tired and despondent. The glow of a lone candle illuminated one corner of the command tent, speaking of a brooding Captain sitting silently within. It was a troubling sight, for it showed Thorongil his error in judgment. So eager had he been to boost the morale and improve the skills of his own Company that he had not paused to think of the detrimental effect such an uprising would have on the other.

Now he saw, with the embarrassment of one who has overlooked something beneath his very nose, that of course it must be so. The men of the Second Company of the Guards of the Citadel had come into this expedition expecting easy victory and a dalliance with rustic leisure away from their daily labours. Instead they had found a feisty and creative opponent – not so skilled with blade and pike, perhaps, but filled nonetheless with tactical surprises and possessed of a small clutch of excellent swordsmen. That they were learning more than they might otherwise have done was no consolation while they did not see that benefit to their toils.

‘Here, now!’ called Forgil as Thorongil left the last ring of firelight and stepped into the cold darkness beyond. ‘Where are you off to? We’ve hardly got started yet.’

‘I know,’ Thorongil called back. ‘I shall return shortly: fear not!’

It was a restful thing, to vanish into the night as he strode easily downhill. Once he was well out of sight of the encampment, Thorongil reached to knead the base of his neck. Tonight’s waterbearing had proved painful. Though his body was strengthening to meet the punishing challenge, it was not doing so without pain. He wondered how the small Easterling had managed to haul such a load day after day for a fortnight. Most of all he wondered why Jamon had been chosen for such a detail. Of the Tenth Company’s water-carriers, Saelir was lazy, Mallor was broad-shouldered, and Thorongil was new. Jamon was neither of the latter, and Thorongil could not believe of him the former. It did not make sense. Captain Nelior had intimated the assignments were a punishment or consequence for something, but in Jamon’s case Thorongil could not imagine what that might be.

The walk across the narrow valley was a short one, and soon Thorongil was climbing up the opposite slope. He stepped into the first ring of firelight and strode on through it.

‘What do you want?’ someone groaned.

‘Come to gloat?’ asked another.

‘Get out of here and leave us be,’ muttered a third.

And so Thorongil found himself at the centre of a field of resentful eyes. He made a slow circle, smiling. Then he lifted his voice up into the booming cadence that had commanded a thousand men.

‘Noble Guards of the Second Company!’ he announced, his smile broad and earnest. ‘I have come to invite you to join in our merriment.’

A mutter of discontent rippled through the crowd. One or two bit back that they were not about to celebrate their own defeat.

‘We do not celebrate,’ Thorongil said, still declaiming proudly. ‘We rejoice. For we are Gondor’s guardians, and we are strong, and we are free. What are we simple men of the Tenth but your little brothers, learning from your hands how to better ourselves for the protection of this noble land? Will you not come, and sing with us, and savour our shared liberty and the good work every man in this bare place has done?’ He dropped his voice now to a companionable tone, and picked out one young Guard who sat with his winged helm in his lap. ‘Will you not come?’ Thorongil invited. He extended his hand.

For a moment he feared the man would not take it, but after a moment he swallowed, gave a curt little nod, and closed his fingers about Thorongil’s. With a smooth jerk, Thorongil helped the Guard leap to his feet. Then he clapped him on the shoulder and nodded bracingly.

‘All are welcome,’ he said, again in a voice meant to be heard at a distance. Then he turned upon one heel and strode off and away from the camp again. As he did so, he caught a ripple of movement in the corner of his eye: other men, rising to follow.



It was well into the middle night when the fellowship began to disperse. Thorongil was stirring up the embers of the fire near which he and Midhon had been sleeping these many nights, preparing to bank them to burn until morning. He looked up at the approach of a pair of unadorned but well-made boots. His Captain stood above him.

‘Sir.’ Thorongil sprang to his feet before Minardil could bid him stay. Such spry exertions required more energy than he felt he possessed, weary as he was after yet another long day. His had been the dawn watch that morning, and he was more than ready to lie down.

Minardil glanced around and then beckoned. ‘Walk with me, Thorongil. I promise it will not take long.’

He led and Thorongil followed obediently, out of the camp and off onto the empty stretch of ridge that fell off towards the foot of the Captain-General’s hill. Minardil turned and leaned in towards the taller man, his pensive expression only just reflected in distant firelight.

‘That was an extraordinary gesture: to draw the other company in,’ he said. ‘All but a few came: did you mark that?’

Thorongil nodded. He had indeed marked it, and he had been pleased with the result. Men who until now had been rigidly partisan in the games – sometimes to the point of forgetting that they were games at all – had spent the long evening becoming acquainted with one another as individuals. There had not been one among those who had crossed the divide who had left unsmiling. Even two of the Second Company’s Lieutenants had joined the gathering.

Minardil was studying him, or trying to. The light was in Thorongil’s favour, not his Captain’s. ‘What drove you to try it?’ he asked.

‘I feared the men were becoming on the one hand too proud, and on the other too resentful,’ said Thorongil. The answer came of its own accord, for his mind was occupied elsewhere. There was a peculiar scent upon the wind, blowing up out of the river valley. He inhaled deeply and held his breath, trying to discern what it was.

‘The men.’ Minardil repeated the two words flatly. ‘Do you realize that when you speak thus you sound like a Captain yourself?’

Thorongil’s eyes focused sharply, his head whipping leftward a few degrees so that he was looking squarely at the other man. ‘Forgive me, sir,’ he said. ‘I do not mean to usurp your authority.’

‘I know you do not,’ Minardil said softly. ‘Nor do you usurp it; not precisely. But you speak and move with an authority yourself, far greater than I would expect of any common soldier. Such an instinct for leadership does not spring forth full-grown. It must be nurtured and made strong through years of study.’

Thorongil was silent. There was no indignation or anger in the Captain’s voice, and his words were those of puzzlement rather than suspicion. Yet plainly he had been thinking these thoughts for some time, and could be silent no longer.

‘You are no mere mercenary, Thorongil,’ said Minardil. ‘You are no low-born sell-sword who lent his arm to Rohan and now offers it to Gondor. Your understanding of tactics upon the field, in different situations and on varied terrains, far exceeds that which I possess. It exceeds Nelior’s skill, and even Lord Denethor is impressed – though by your insistence he credits me wrongly with our triumphs. What were you in Rohan?’

Thorongil’s mouth was dry, but he knew that he owed his Captain an answer. He could not tell him the whole truth, not even of his time in the Riddermark, for he had not told all to Ecthelion. That tale was due his liege-lord first, when the time came for it to be told. Still Thorongil swallowed painfully and spoke.

‘I have been a sergeant,’ he said. ‘I have been Lieutenant in the éored of Thengel King himself. When I achieved a captaincy of my own, I commanded six score men in what it pleased the Riders to call the Eagle’s Éored.’

Minardil was agape. He blinked very slowly, once. Then his mouth worked for a moment in silence. Finally he gave a little shake of his head. ‘Does the Steward know of this?’ he asked.

‘I have told him,’ said Thorongil truthfully.

Minardil’s brows now furrowed. ‘And yet he leaves you to patrol the street-corners and haul water for the Tenth Company?’ he said incredulously. ‘It is not for one such as I to question the wisdom of Ecthelion himself, but…’

Thorongil shook his head. ‘It is right and it is fitting,’ he said. ‘How can I command men I do not understand? How can I lead if I do not know the structure of the system in which I lead? How can I come to a new place, a stranger with only his nine years’ foreign labour to commend him, and expect the men to follow? I must earn their trust, my Captain. Then perhaps I can earn my place.’

‘You have earned more than that,’ Minardil said with a thin little laugh. He drew a hand across his brow and took a shaky breath. ‘I do not know what to make of you, Thorongil. I suspect you have not told me all, but I thank you for your honest words. Had I the power to lift you up from your present rank, I would do so tonight. Were it not for my full compliment of Lieutenants, I would have the power, at least in some small part. But know that I shall not look upon you as a common soldier any longer. Those days are finished.’

He did not think that such days had ever been, but Thorongil did not dispute Minardil’s words. They were gallantly meant, and in his position he had nothing but humblest appreciation for his Captain’s fair-mindedness. It would have been far easier to rant and rail, to accuse him of sedition and deception, and to tear from him any threads of influence he had gathered.

‘Thank you, Captain,’ he said softly. ‘I am grateful for your discretion, and I yearn for no rank now. I too am learning, and not teaching only. I have learned much under your command.’

Minardil grinned. ‘Not of command, nor of warfare,’ he said. Then he nodded towards the encampment. ‘You should go to your bed. You look weary.’

Thorongil was about to demur when the wind rose again and the scent assailed his nostrils more strongly than before. ‘Captain, do you smell that?’ he asked.

Minardil inhaled. ‘Smoke,’ he said. ‘We are downwind from the camp.’

‘No. No, it is not campfire smoke, nor does it come from near at hand.’ Thorongil inhaled again, holding his wind as long as he could. He let it out hastily and shook his head. ‘It is distant and it is dusky; darker, almost sour. Do you not smell it?’

‘Most likely it is the charcoal mounds,’ said Minardil. ‘The stink is one reason folk keep their distance.’

But Thorongil had smelled the crisp blackness of charcoal-baking, and this was not it. This was a syrupy scent, strangely spiced and unique. He knew it. He ought to know it. If only he could remember…

‘Pitch,’ he said abruptly, turning to look not to the camp but past it, towards the river. ‘Pine pitch, boiling. Yet are there pines near? I have seen none.’

‘Nay. They are to be found on the shoulders of the mountains, but not here,’ said Minardil.

‘And on the other side of the river?’ Thorongil asked sharply.

‘The other side of the river? But that is miles away. How could you smell—’

Are there pines on the far side of the river?’ demanded Thorongil, not sharply but with a voice that was hard with urgency.

‘I… no… I don’t know,’ said Minardil, shaking his head helplessly. ‘I do not know; how could I? It is possible. What does it matter?’

The bewilderment in his voice brought Thorongil back to himself. What did it matter, after all? If someone was boiling pitch on Anduin’s far bank, what of it? If he had misidentified the smell, perhaps it was indeed the whiff of charcoal away southward in the woods. He was overtired. His mind and his nose might both be deceiving him.

‘Most like it does not, Captain,’ Thorongil sighed. ‘Most like it is but my wild imaginings. Let us to bed. Dawn comes early, and we shall have wet work before us.’

Minardil chuckled and started back towards the camp. Thorongil fell in step. ‘Wet work, aye,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow we shall all be waterbearers, not you alone!’

Though he thought no more of it in his waking moments, the distant reek of distilling pitch invaded Thorongil’s dreams with memories of birch boats on Lake Nenuial far away.


Chapter XVI: In the Mists

The following morning, all were reluctant to wake. This was less because of the evening's merriment than it was the new day's weather. Though it was not so cold as some earlier dawns, the air was heavy with a penetrating damp. It wet packs and blankets alike, and soaked the hair of any man fool enough to bed down with neither hood nor cap to cover it. Shivering, Thorongil and his fellow waterbearers went about their labours with set teeth and dogged resolve. The stream bank was slick and treacherous this morning, and Mallor narrowly escaped a miserable ducking.

They rejoined the rest of the Company with their labours complete to discover that the soldiers were trying in vain to ignite the raw wood in the damp. Thorongil went to the fire-pit near which he had been sleeping these last many nights. Forgil was hard at work with flint and steel. As Thorongil squatted near him he cursed and flung the firesteel wrathfully away.

'It's useless, that's what it is!' he growled. 'Not a chance of laying a fire in this damp, not with brushwood. We're in charcoal country: why couldn't His Vaunted Lordship have furnished us with some charcoal, that's what I'd like to know! You'll notice he hasn't seen fit to show his face to the cold this morning.'

There were a few discontented murmurs of agreement at this. Thorongil looked around with unease, that he might gauge the mood of the men. Frustration was understandable, as was offhand resentment, but if it ran deeper it could swiftly ferment into sedition. It was the place of any true soldier to quash such sentiments before they could fester.

'Let me have a turn,' he said, stretching one long arm to pluck up the steel and holding out the other hand to Forgil. The old Guardsman yielded up the flint with a scoff.

'Good luck to you, lad,' he snorted. 'Every one of us has had his turn, and every other man in the Company at his own fire besides. Don't know as you'll have any better chance.'

'Your skills run more to water than fire, don't they?' one of the other men said sourly. It was not quite a sneer, but the disdain in his voice was unmistakable. Again Thorongil found his mind drawn to Captain Nelior's grim and somehow pointed assertion that the Lieutenants had not made the labour assignments.

Instead of replying with equal sourness or demanding an explanation of the man's tone, Thorongil smiled. 'Perhaps,' he said. 'Yet if every man in the Company has had his turn, then surely I ought to take mine as well. I relish a cold breakfast no more than the next man.'

'That's another thing!' grunted the malcontent. He was one of the few who had kept their distance from the new Guard, and his name eluded Thorongil. 'These travel scraps are getting fouler by the day. Why are we bothering with them at all? Surely it's the duty of the local folk to feed and furnish the army. Why, at Pelargir—'

'Pelargir's a city, and a busy port besides,' said Mallor, cutting the other man off short. 'You can't expect a village of shepherds to support two hundred men. They've scarcely got enough to feed their own this time of the year. So I've heard, I mean,' he added almost hastily.

'It's only a fortnight,' the other man countered. 'They could tighten their belts a little!'

'It is only a fortnight for us,' said Thorongil mildly. 'Yet there are fourteen other Companies who must take their turn after, and the Ninth and the Second before us. Two hundred must surely come near to the number of folk native to the area, and eighteen weeks is a long while for a population to be doubled. It is not the place of soldiers to oppress the innocent or to put them to hardship, and to do so in one's own country is unthinkable to me.'

He might have said should be unthinkable to all, but he did not. Thorongil had no wish to start a quarrel. That he could not allow the remarks to pass was quite bad enough. Yet to his surprise, the complainer huffed and said, somewhat chagrined; 'Eighteen weeks. Hadn't thought of it that way.'

Thorongil looked at him with approving eyes. It took integrity for a man to admit to a change in his views before those who had just heard them so vehemently stated. 'I, for one, am glad of the short rations. It most closely approximates what we would doubtless need to endure in wartime. Our fellows in Ithilien are surely surviving on similar fare.'

He was working with the flint and steel now, raking up little showers of sparks. The small heap of dead leaves and shavings was indeed reluctant to catch. As words of agreement passed among the men, Thorongil slipped finger and thumb into the pouch at his belt and brought forth a little piece of charred linen rag. He made an indentation in the midst of the tinder with his thumb, and nestled the rag carefully therein. He was back at work with the fire tools so quickly that no one noticed or remarked upon the pause.

'—envy the poor sots,' Forgil was saying. 'They might live hungry and in constant danger of death, but they're doing a great good for Gondor; no mistaking that. They'll be remembered long after we're dead and gone.'

Sadly Thorongil reflected that this was no sure thing. Those who fought in lonely lands and fell in quiet valour were seldom remembered as they ought to be. Even among his own people, where every life was priceless and every loss a grievous blow to a small and beleaguered force, there were few who remembered the dead of even two generations past. Too often it was only the Lords and Captains who were remembered, while the others lay nameless in their green graves.

Lost in these unhappy thoughts, he did not notice that he had caught a light until Forgil let out a glad whoop of surprise.

'You've done it, my boy!' he chortled, pointing. 'I'll be hanged, but you've got a flame!'

He did have a flame, but it was small and fragile. Thorongil bent to nourish it with a slow, steady breath of air. The little tongue of fire, already consuming the last threads of rag, latched hungrily upon a shred of dry, brittle bark. A leaf caught next – someone must have hoarded a few in pouch or pack, for it too was dry – and then the whole heap of tinder was burning. It was still little more than a spoonful of fire, but it was greedy despite the damp air. Thorongil fed it with twigs until it grew to a size where it licked up the tented kindling and began to let off dark smoke as the wet wood sizzled and caught alight.

Already the men had their hands out to the blaze, and when Thorongil rose out of his crouch to find a piece of log to sit upon, there was a general sound of impressed approval.

'Did they teach you some special trick in Rohan?' asked Mallor. Not waiting for an answer, he said; 'I would have sworn that we were in for a frozen day. Pass me the skillet, Forgil, and we can get a start on breakfast!'

While the others busied themselves with measuring out simple, stale foods for the morning meal, Thorongil chose a stout brand from the heap of fuel. He broke it off at a knothole and held it in the flames until the thicker end was blazing. He rose up carefully with his shoddy torch in hand, and moved to start passing on the fire. As he did, a memory of the previous evening's troubling scent returned. He worked as quickly as he could.


Minardil frowned, studying the strange man before him. He could no longer think of Thorongil as anything but strange, however much he liked him. A Captain in Rohan – a Captain of more men than the Tenth Company boasted, at that – and Thorongil had not thought to inform his own commander. If he had told the Steward, and he had given Minardil no reason to suspect that he would lie outright, why then had he not asked for some posting more worthy of one of his experience and talents? His arguments against holding a captaincy so soon were sound, but why could he not serve as a Lieutenant? Why had he not been assigned to the Guards of the Citadel, and sworn fealty to his new lord as he presumably had to Thengel of Rohan? And why was he standing here now in the grey, mist-choked day, with such a ridiculous request upon his lips?

'Certainly not,' said Minardil firmly, trying to keep his consternation from his voice. He did like the man, and he had no desire to make it seem that he was angry instead of baffled. 'I shall need you to advise me, and the Company cannot afford to lose one of its best swordsmen right before an uphill assault.'

'I have offered my opinion on the course to take,' Thorongil said patiently, as ever the portrait of earnest respect. 'The mists will lend much to the campaign, for it will make it still easier to outflank the Second Company. As for swordsmen, we now have many whose skill and confidence are sufficient to bear them up. Yet if someone is to explore the aberration on the air, I am the most qualified to do it.'

'Why you?' asked Minardil. They were alone in the tent, but he knew that one or another of the Lieutenants was almost certainly within earshot. The stout canvas walls muffled the sounds of men tucking hungrily into breakfast. These ran with condensation without, but within remained dry unless they chanced to be touched. Then the water wicked through at once. This was yet another fascinating thing that Minardil had learned during this excursion, though its useful applications were negligible.

'What qualifies you for such work?' he pressed, when Thorongil did not answer immediately. 'Are the Riders of Rohan skilled in woodscraft as well as horse-lore?'

For a startling moment, he saw that Thorongil had been caught back-footed. His mouth moved in a noiseless, flapping way, and his eyes were suddenly wide and lost. In that instant he looked far younger than his years – which Minardil had not asked, but which he could plainly see fell short of thirty. Then Thorongil shook his head in an almost shivering jerk, and blinked to clear the alarm from his eyes.

'Not particularly,' he said. 'No more than any other soldiers, I deem. Yet it was I who noted the scent, and surely it is fitting that I should be the one to investigate it. If I am right and it was the smell of boiling pitch, it may mean trouble for us and for those dwelling near.'

'What sort of trouble do you expect?' Minardil asked. He was trying to be patient, but the morning was drawing on. They were meant to mount their assault at the top of the forenoon; too long a delay and Nelior's men would be over-ready to receive them.

'I do not know,' Thorongil admitted. 'Pine pitch can be used to paint the bottom of a bark-boat to keep it watertight. Perhaps some agent of the Enemy is attempting to cross the river; spies, mayhap, or even a small raiding party. It may be that I am wrong. It may be that there is some copse of pine unknown to you and I, where a shepherd is proofing canvas or baskets, or making torches. If that is the case I can put our minds at rest and return to join the manoeuvres.'

'My mind is not restive,' said Minardil with more certainty than he now felt. It had been easy to dismiss Thorongil's concern last night, when sleep had been the foremost yearning for both of them. It was not so easy now. He clung to it yet, though he had confessed he could smell nothing of pine tar or any other unusual thing this morning. And there was the irrefutable truth that Thorongil had not yet been mistaken in anything, from his choice of sword to his predictions of the moods of the Company to his military counsel. Still this fear was certainly unwarranted. Minardil's rational mind insisted upon that.

'Mine is,' Thorongil said softly. There was humility to his words and his stance now that was wholly unlike the purposeful insistence he had shown the night before. Even in the face of such intense insistence Minardil had been able to dissuade him. To that, this was nothing.

Yet the helplessness in Thorongil's gaze as he stared resolutely at the ground troubled Minardil. The man was wholly in his Captain's power in this matter, and he knew it. In Rohan he might have lead six score Riders into battle, but here – whatever his talents and the natural justice of the matter – he was but a lowly soldier; almost the lowliest in the City, if truth be told. For some inexplicable reason he had suffered this fall in his fortunes, and now he was trapped by it.

'I ask you, Captain,' he said. 'Permit me to do this, that I might have peace of mind and the Companies the surety they deserve.'

A part of Minardil truly wanted to acquiesce, if for no other reason than that Thorongil had earned his trust and his confidence and surely the right to one small boon. Yet the part of him that was the Captain of an ill-trained Company that had risen to triumph by this man's guidance dissented. That part wished only to win this challenge as it had the last, and knew that it could not be done without the Tenth's greatest asset.

'This evening,' he said with firm finality, trying not to see how Thorongil's shoulders slumped and his jaw tightened. 'If you still wish to investigate after the day's exercises, I will excuse you from waterbearing so that you may do so.'

Thorongil's eyes blazed suddenly afresh, and he raised them to look at his Captain. A sharp question was on his lips; somehow Minardil knew it was no protest. Yet he did not utter it. His face smoothed into impassive lines of resignation to duty. 'Yes, sir,' he said neatly. 'Thank you for considering my request.'

Although there was no hint of admonition in his gaze, his stance or his words, Minardil could not help but feel as if he had done a harsh and hurtful thing. It was a feeling that followed him for a few hours more, before being supplanted by shame and dismay.


In the interest of observing the day's undertaking despite the heavy fog and the grey gloom of the day, Denethor positioned himself squarely in the centre of the Second Company's encampment. The Guards of the Citadel showed him the utmost deference and respect, but they were not so in awe of him as their humbler counterparts. After all, they saw or even spoke to him every day in the execution of their duties in Minas Tirith. Some among them had known him as a youth, or even as a very small boy – but Denethor preferred to believe their want of nervous reverence had nothing to do with that. If Tirlon of the Second Company recalled a lad of six who had come to him tearfully, having lost his way in the narrow streets of the Seventh Circle, then he was wise to keep that reminiscence to himself.

Today the men in their sable livery were courteous but brisk, moving to and fro as they prepared for the expected assault. By Denethor's estimate, the Tenth Company was late. He had not shared with Nelior or his Lieutenants the hour at which Minardil had been ordered to attack, but he believed that it was now upon them. Without the Sun it was hard to be certain, but that did not mean he could not begin to bristle a little with impatience. The camp was positively crackling with it, and with the attendant apprehension of men who know a blow is to fall, but cannot say how or when.

The Second Company was divided in three. The first two groups guarded the flanks of the hill down to the water. The third segment was positioned at the rear of the camp, lest the Tenth prove bold enough to make a frontal assault. They might do it, too, if for no other reason than because it seemed so improbable. Nelior was learning not to underestimate his opponent, a stance that Denethor had abandoned after the Second's initial defeat. Where Minardil had acquired his tactical acumen was unclear, but it far exceeded what was expected for a man of his position and experience.

After the first accolade, Denethor had not lavished further praise upon the young Captain, feeling that his approval was implicit. Yet his initial grudging respect for a lively effort was growing into frank admiration of genuine ability. Clearly Minardil's talent had been much underestimated. Denethor had come to evaluate the merits of Thengel's man, and had found one of his own to be more worthy of notice. Prowess with sword and bow was well enough, and these the man Thorongil admittedly possessed. But a sophisticated grasp of strategy was far more valuable, and an instinct for command could not be taught. In these, Minardil was wealthy.

That was why Denethor had chosen to observe the day's scenario from so near at hand. He would have done so even without the muffling mists. It was impressive enough to watch the Tenth Company repel an attack, but even the lowliest of the City Captains had some measure of defensive theory to their credit. To see Minardil's unconventional attacks was undeniably extraordinary.

From out of the fog came a cry of alarm, followed by the clatter of arms and a shouted warning. It was difficult to be certain in the mists, but Denethor believed that the sound originated eastward at the far head of the hill. There the stream lay nearer to the rise than on the other side, though it flowed nearest at about the midpoint of the hill. The Captain-General's brows began to furrow into a frown of disappointment. The easterly way was the route an inexperienced commander would choose, seeing only the quicker path and not the fact that Nelior would espy the same temptation.

Quickly the noises mounted: men scuffling on the slick slope, the grunts of effort as heavy rehearsal blades were hefted or struck, the twanging of bowstrings letting fly the blunted arrows. Denethor was privately very proud of that notion. It had been both practical and amusing for the men, and both Companies seemed to have come out of yesterday's enterprise in fine spirits: they had gathered together in the Tenth's camp, and there had been singing and laughter long into the night.

The sounds of battle, absent only the screams of the slain, were drawing nearer. Now there was no doubt that the encounter was easterly. Denethor got up out of the chair he had appropriated from the Second's command tent and paced off in that direction. He did not wish to draw too near. It was well that the fog concealed him, for he would have proved a distraction to the men. Far better like this: to listen unseen.

There was a pounding of booted feet and some brusque orders. Those guarding the centre block were dividing, that one-half might fly to the aid of the easterly line.

'How many?' Denethor heard one Lieutenant cry. The answer, coming from a greater distance, was not quite intelligible. From the sound it had to be at least half of the Tenth Company's hundred, but it could not be all. Denethor was learning to have too much trust in Minardil's intelligence to believe he would spend all his men on one line of assault. But where would he send the others?

His answer to that question came more swiftly than he had expected. With the scuffling awkwardness of men who are unaccustomed to moving silently, a contingent of the Tenth came sweeping into the camp. There were twenty of them, led by the Second Lieutenant, and Denethor was aware of them long before they saw him. When the leader stiffened, eyes wide, and prepared to offer his salute and respect, Denethor gestured wrathfully that he should be silent. Was the fool going to jeopardize his mission for petty protocol?

He had to wave the men on, and even then he was not certain that they understood they were meant to continue as if he were not there. Perhaps it would have been prudent to inform both companies of his intent to observe at close hand.

The twenty men would have been up against half again their number, but the heavy blow to the Second Company's left had split the centre guard. Now the din of mock-combat was near at hand, and Denethor could hear the oaths and calls of the men. He returned to the chair, smiling. He was very pleased with how the training was progressing: proud of the humble men for rising to the situation, proud of the knights of the Citadel for taking the unexpected challenge with grace, and proud of himself for devising the whole affair.

A fresh clamour signified a fresh charge, this time from the Second Company's right. Their other flank, set to guard the longer way to the streambed, was coming to the aid of the remnant of the centre line. Minardil's twenty men stood little chance against the new onslaught. Denethor did not doubt that they would fight stalwartly to the last, but to what end? The greater force was nearer the stream, and they had struck first instead of leaving the headlong attackers to draw the Second's strength towards the camp.

Understanding now, Denethor gave a low and rueful chuckle. Without the aid of the sun or clear air by which to see one another's signals, the larger force had attacked too soon. Obviously the contingent of twenty was to have struck first. For all his cleverness, Minardil had failed to take the weather into account.

Denethor was still pondering this error when the sounds of battle changed from energetic to frenzied.


When the far flank of the Second Company broke formation, Lieutenant Herion and his little band of raiders were ready. The original plan had been to loop far around and take shelter in a stand of ragged hedges beyond the tip of the long, narrow hill. The mists had rendered this unnecessary. Both Herion and Minardil had been reluctant to trust the weather so far, but Thorongil had swayed them. His years of living roofless beneath the sky had been few but almost uninterrupted. He knew the difference between a morning mist and a deep, impenetrable fog destined to linger all the day. This was the latter, and it leant the Tenth Company an advantage in their mission.

All had gone precisely to plan, from what Thorongil could tell as he moved all but soundlessly at the rear of a considerably less silent column. The distant noise of battle had signalled Minardil's strike upon the east side of the hill, and with the men on the west side now dispersing it was evident that Dúlin's twenty had engaged the centre. Now, with the mist to shield them, fourteen men passed across the guarded perimeter and out of sight with greater swiftness than Thorongil could have hoped.

They would be less nimble upon the return trip, but not as hobbled as they might have been. The natural assumption was that they were meant to carry back the water using the yokes and pails employed every day. Instead, each of the fourteen had half a dozen leathern bottles slung across his back. Empty they were scarcely to be felt. Full they would prove some impediment, but far less than having to guard three men lumbering under a heavy load.

'Thorongil!' hissed Herion, keeping his voice low enough that it would not carry far in the fog. 'Get up here!'

He had been ordered to stand as rearguard, but Thorongil was not in the habit of contradicting for contradiction's sake. He strode swiftly to the Lieutenant's side. 'Sir?'

'Where's this shallow place?'

Thorongil led the way. The stream was on average about four feet deep, but there was a sandbar that brought it down to less than two. Nimble feet could cross it without flooding their boots. All but one of the men managed it: Forgil was not so quick on his feet as he had been in his youth, and he let out a sharp curse as his right calf was soaked with icy water. The Guard beside him cuffed his arm for quiet and then took hold of it to help him across.

Once on the far bank, the little band followed their guide – who had taken full advantage of his labours to scout the terrain – to a place where the bank was low and level. With two men to stand watch, the rest knelt to fill their bottles. Thorongil was dipping his third, precisely tipped so that the air could escape with ease, when they all heard the cry.

It was no whoop of battle-eagerness, no indignant exclamation as someone took a hard or undignified smack from a blunt blade. It was a high, horrified scream of anguish. That sound, that particular timbre of a man's voice, was one Thorongil associated at once with the lopping off of a limb: when the physical pain had yet to strike, but the torment of knowing that what was done could never be undone had begun. Thorongil stiffened, straightening his back like a hound scenting the wind. His innards seemed to shrivel and his mouth went dry.

A moment later he was on his feet, drinking vessels forgotten. The others were trading bewildered looks and murmured questions. Even Herion did not seem sure of what was happening. Thorongil was. He had scented pitch on the night air, and he had known. The most compelling reason to boil pine tar in the wilderness was to caulk a boat.

The sounds of desperate battle now filtered through the grey slurry of the air. With the first clang of steel, another grim and awful realization visited Thorongil. Almost to a man, the two Companies were unarmed. Thorongil had left his drill sword and belted on his true one instead, still uneasy, but most had only the practice weapons. There was a chance that the men of the Second could retrieve their arms from the encampment, though it would mean drawing the enemy in. But the Tenth…

'To arms!' cried Herion, drawing his blunt blade and taking three bold steps before freezing in his tracks. He had come to the same conclusion, and he looked helplessly about.

'Back the way we came, swift as you are able,' said Thorongil in a low but purposeful voice. 'Catch up as many blades as you can find, and cut across the dell. The mists will shield you until almost the last.'

'I?' said Herion, black disapproval on his brow. 'And what of you, so favoured of our Captain?'

'I am armed,' Thorongil said, drawing the Númenórean blade he had so painstakingly restored to glittering deadliness. Even the mists could not dim its sheen. 'Whatever the danger, every sword will be needed.'

With this there could be no argument. Already the sounds of battle were nearing. Herion beckoned to the men, uttering a clipped command. They ran off, back towards the shallow ford. Thorongil stood a moment, considering. The stream was not more than eight feet across, and time was short. He drew back and thrust his off foot against the slope of the bank. Taking off at a run, he sprang at the water's edge and leapt to the opposite shore. His boot landed deep in the sandy soil, and he thought for a moment that his ankle would twist. It did not. Most like it knew, as every other fibre of his body knew, that there was no quarter for failure here. With long, smooth strides, Thorongil ran up the hill and eastward.


Had the young healer not raised the alarm, Minardil reflected, both Companies might have been slaughtered to a man. Both sides had been engaged in a spirited melee, sprawled along the slope. The Tenth Company had been making use of the techniques Thorongil had shared during their unstructured practice time, focusing each on one opponent and trying to capture a single small piece of high ground. It had been working, too, with few eliminated Guards on either side and the dull blades whipping through the air. Yet short of the two weeks, the men were already strengthening: they wielded the heavy swords as artfully as they did their own. From his command position, mounted at the rear of the column, Minardil watched his men with pride.

Then one of the men gave a sharp curse just out of sight in the mist. Another laughed, and yet another made some snide remark about disarrayed garments. Minardil heard his own name, repeated urgently.

'Captain Minardil! Where is he? Where?'

'Here!' called Minardil, at the same time one of the men of the Second Company announced laughingly; 'There: I've got you in the ribs. You're dead.'

The target of the ribaldry came running, ducking and weaving between men still hotly engaged. He had the rangy agility of an accomplished street thief, Minardil thought, before recognizing the young healer.

'Here, now, what's all this?' he asked, reining in his horse so that the man could approach safely. Minardil was well back from the fighting, for he was not armed for this game. Troubled by Thorongil's obvious concern about the scent of pitch, he had his own sword buckled at his side instead of a dull one: he could not join in the mock combat. 'Has someone been injured?'

'Sir! Captain! There are men!' panted Midhon, pointing back over his shoulder as if the mists did not obscure everything beyond a six foot radius. 'Men on horseback, ransacking the camp!'

Minardil frowned. 'Bandits?' he asked. It was a brave brigand who would try to loot the encampment of a Company of Gondor, but perhaps the weather had made them bold.

'No! No!' The healer was breathing very shallowly, high in his chest. His eyes were glazed with panic and he was very pale. Minardil feared he would faint, and was relieved instead of annoyed when Midhon seized hold of his stirrup-strap and gripped it. 'On horseback, the Lidless Eye. There are orcs, Captain: great black orcs!'

There was no time to puzzle through the particulars of this. There was no time for anything at all but action. Minardil opened his mouth, ready to order the men into formation. Then he remembered the swords.

'Arm yourselves!' he bellowed. He did not stop to consider that perhaps Midhon had mistaken the shapes in the mist. Such an assumption would have been too great a risk. If the healer was wrong, or exaggerating in his fear, then Minardil would look a fool before Nelior and the Captain-General both. Yet if he was right and Minardil did not act, they could all be slain: not a man save himself had a real sword at hand.

He unsheathed his own and brandished it. 'Your swords!' he bellowed. 'Second Company, fetch your swords!'

'What's this?' a hard voice demanded. It was Nelior, also mounted, riding through a gap in the crowd of men now beginning to slow in their play-fighting. Some looked puzzled, some disdainful. Others were clearly dismayed.

'There has been a sighting of the Enemy's forces,' said Minardil as levelly as he could. Midhon's grip upon the stirrup tightened, as if to have an officer take him at his word was a dizzying thing. 'They are in my Company's camp even now, and we must prevent them from ravaging further.'

Even as he said the words, Minardil's throat was closing in disbelief. Never in his life had he faced the forces of Sauron. Wild men and Dunlendings, yes; but even so his lot in life was to guard street corners and stand watch upon an inner wall of a stalwart fortress. If Midhon spoke true, Minardil was about to be blooded.

'The Enemy cannot cross the river,' scoffed Nelior. 'Not with all Lord Cairon's army between! Osgiliath is guarded: the bridge is closed.'

Minardil's limbs were suddenly cold. He remembered now what Thorongil had said about pine pitch and boats. 'It is the Enemy,' he said, deathly certain.

Something of that surety was seen by Nelior, who though he cast a dark and skeptical look at Minardil raised his voice and a commanding hand. 'Men of the Second Company! Fetch your swords!'

Then before either Captain could give further orders, chaos descended upon the obscured field.


Denethor heard the hollered commands of the two Captains as vague echoes far off in a world of mist. Puzzled he rose. He carried his blade, of course. Beyond the fastness of Minas Tirith, Dagarod was ever at his side. Yet he did not draw it at once. He was still standing by the chair, frowning into the fog as if his very will might disperse it, when the first men came running. They were knights of the Citadel, casting off their practice gear as they came. They rummaged for their own blades among camping gear and timber.

'What is this?' Denethor demanded. They had neither ears nor eyes for him.

More men were coming now, frenzied in their search for their swords. Denethor stepped forward and seized a young Guard by the shoulders, shaking him twice. 'What is the meaning of this? Speak!'

For a moment the man's mouth worked senselessly. Then he shuddered, finding both his courage and his voice. 'The Enemy, my Lord,' he said breathlessly. 'In the other camp: Men, orcs!'

'What?' The single syllable was breathy with wrathful disbelief, or what wanted very much to be disbelief. But just then the first shriek of agony rang on the air. Denethor's blood seemed to freeze momentarily in his veins. Then it resurged with swelling swiftness, hot as molten gold.

It mattered not how the foe had reached them, nor what the answers might be to a hundred questions more. It mattered not that if they had crossed the river then Cairon had somehow failed in his charge. All that mattered was that Denethor's men were imperilled and the safety of innocent countryfolk was at stake. He released his hold upon the man and drew his sword.

'Men of Gondor, to arms!' he roared. Then, with less grandeur but more practicality, he began to issue swift commands. 'Take up a sword: never mind whose. Form two columns around the crest of the hill, one behind the other. We must hold the high ground! Let those with skill at the bow take arrows. Men of the Tenth Company, find what you may! Pikes, knives. If need be your dull blades can be used as cudgels. To arms!'

The men of Minas Tirith mustered with admirable swiftness, ordering themselves with a neatness they had not possessed ten days before. The noises from the head of the hill were growing still more terrible, and it was impossible to guess the numbers of the Enemy or how many of the Guards had been trapped in the engagement without true weapons to wield. Sprinting to the head of the first column as he shouted to the second to hold fast, it was Denethor son of Ecthelion who led the charge.

Note: As the long silence indicates, I am juggling a lot of balls at the moment. One must fall, and after much careful discernment I’ve decided that it must be the review replies. I will hopefully catch up later, but in the meantime please forgive the radio silence. I’ll still respond to any questions left in reviews and to PMs. Thank you everyone!  

This chapter contains scenes of violence and detailed battlefield triage. Fair warning.

Chapter XVII: Field of Glory

Ecthelion awoke to the unsettling feeling of a cold bed. He lay in the darkness of the drawn draperies for a moment or two, puzzled, and then let his hand slide across to where Anoriel should have lain. The indentation of her shoulder was still deep in the feather tick and the sheet still held the memory of her warmth, but a draft had crept under the bedclothes where she had folded them back as she rose. The curtain on her side was also agape, and through it he could see the grey sliver of the morning.

He sat up and shifted to her side of the bed, drawing the heavy velvet aside. She stood at the casement, looking out upon a gloomy city. Lost deep in thought, Anoriel gave no sign of hearing his approach. Gently Ecthelion laid his hand upon her shoulder. She startled at his touch and then leaned in towards the warmth of his body. She was shivering.

‘How long have you been abroad?’ he asked.

She tilted her head to look up at him, and he saw now her pallor and the deep lines of care cut deeply at either side of her mouth. She looked far older than her years in that moment, like a woman in the years of her dotage.

‘What is it, my dear? What is amiss?’ Ecthelion breathed, dismayed.

‘I awoke from dark dreams,’ said Anoriel, turning her eyes back to the window. The Steward’s bedchamber looked northward, and the mists that clung to the sheltered places in the streets below deepened to a seamless grey wall upon the Pelennor. The fog would be thick over Anduin that day, likely without respite.

‘Dark dreams.’ His own sleep had been untroubled, but Ecthelion felt a shudder of dread. His wife was of ancient blood, and there was in her a measure of the foresight of Westernesse. ‘Not of Telpiriel?’

Anoriel looked at him in some alarm. Then seeing he spoke not from his own knowledge she shook her head. ‘No, not Telpiriel. She seemed much improved last evening. Our little lady is a leavening presence in a house grown too grim.’ A fond smile touched her lips, but vanished as her eyes travelled once more to the window. ‘Husband, is there aught to fear in these exercises our son is leading?’

‘Nay, surely there can be nothing to fear,’ Ecthelion said. ‘It is but a training excursion, and though not all the men are knowledgeable they are surely obedient.’

‘All the same…’ Anoriel shuddered and drew nearer to him. She had not stopped to put on a robe over her long bedgown, and her feet were bare. Ecthelion savoured the trusting contact. ‘I dreamt of fire and blades, and everywhere smoke…’

‘Fog?’ he suggested, nodding to the window.

Anoriel made a vague humming sound, like a sleeper being talked out of a dream. ‘Fog? Yes, I suppose it might be fog.’ Then voice and expression grew harder. ‘Yet you assure me there is no need for fear.’

‘I do,’ Ecthelion promised. ‘Even were some mischance to find him in these quiet lands, Denethor is the equal of any travail. I would worry more for the Tenth Company were he not with them. In this our son is wise: the Guards of the lower City are ill-prepared for any conflict that might bring them down from the battlements.’

Anoriel took little comfort from his words. ‘Do you believe such a thing is coming?’

‘It may,’ Ecthelion said. He forced the words out before he could yield to the temptation to soften the truth. His desire to spare her in years past had wrought harm upon their marriage-bond. ‘That is the reason I wish to build the wall about the Pelennor. If any such attack came, it could serve as a first defence for our most vulnerable people.’

‘Then there is still no movement in the Council?’ she asked.

Ecthelion shook his head and turned her gently from the window. ‘With Adrahil and Denethor both opposed, I have little hope of swaying the rest. Some look upon the cost and see only economic impediments.’

‘Surely Denethor’s care is not for the cost,’ Anoriel said placidly, letting herself be led to the writing table. There her heavy velvet robe lay waiting, and Ecthelion held it or her as she slipped her arms into the silken warmth.

‘Nay, but he believes the effort unnecessary: a waste and a gesture to appease a nervous populace,’ He sighed. ‘We disagree on that point, alas! Denethor believes that in order to be vigilant all must possess a measure of fear. My own belief is that if our folk dwell ever in terror, then the Enemy has already achieved his first and greatest victory.’

‘Glad words to warm a cold morning,’ Anoriel said with the almost blistering sarcasm she seldom unveiled. At Ecthelion’s startled look, she relented a little. ‘Would that there were someone to mediate between father and son, or else a Councillor with views contrary enough to make Denethor see how closely you are in accord.’

Ecthelion laughed softly, with a rueful effort. ‘Take care with your wishes, my dear. The Council needs no further dissention.’

Anoriel smiled faintly and turned to kiss him lightly upon the cheek. ‘There is no more sleep in me,’ she said. ‘I shall leave you to your morning. I will be taking  nuncheon with our daughters, if you have word to send.’

‘Only my love,’ said Ecthelion fondly, wishing he had the leisure to go with her. A quick mouthful in his study was all he was likely to have time for this day.

He went with her to the door and held it for her. Only when Anoriel had slipped into her own room did he retreat to the window again. Indifferent daylight was spreading over a city still kissed with mist. Ecthelion frowned, thinking of his wife’s ill dream. Fear and fire and fog… it chilled his heart.


Minardil’s breath came in thick, shallow pants that burned in his chest and scarcely seemed to reach his lungs, but he had no chance to care for that. Those among his men who were able had retreated into the Second Company’s camp in search of true weapons. The others, and with them about two dozen Guards of the Citadel under Nelior, were trying to hold off the enemy onslaught with blunt blades and belt knives. The latter were not strictly an item of livery, but Minardil had allowed his men to carry them during the exercises. He had reasoned that such tools might be needed at any time in wild country, but never had he imagined such a use as this.

The foe had come from a south-southeasterly direction as expected: Midhon’s hasty warning had achieved that much. Minardil had no clear sense of their numbers, even now when he had cut down seven himself. There were orcs and Men both, the Men mounted and clad in strange scaled mail. When they called to each other their words were peculiar and somehow almost lyrical despite the battle-lust. As for the orcs, their hideous gibberish clawed at the ears and turned the stomach.

One of the Second Company’s Lieutenants had a real blade on his person, and he was heading one branch of their defensive line. There had been just time enough to arrange the men on the high ground in a configuration similar to that the Tenth had employed in their first victorious manoeuvre. It lacked the earthen defences and the central division of men, and even jointly the force was far smaller. Minardil thought it their best chance, and in the heat of the moment Nelior had not voiced any protest.

Now the two Captains, the only soldiers of Gondor in the saddle, were attempting to serve as deadly distractions in the hope that the rest of their Companies would return swiftly with arms. From opposite tangents they had swept down the hill, swords brandished high. Only Minardil’s had a keen edge, but such was the fury of Nelior’s sword-arm that the oncoming force did not seem to notice. Blunt though it was, the overweighted sword was a formidable weapon. Nelior swung the flat against the outthrust jaw of one orc, smashing bone and fang alike. That orc fell to his knees, gabbling senselessly as his lips foamed with bright blood. Another Nelior struck so mightily upon the crown that, helm and horny skull notwithstanding, the creature crumpled bonelessly to earth.

Minardil’s own efforts were just as forceful but far more bloody. He did not think he would ever forget the first gout of black ichor springing from a severed throat. At least that death had been swift: thrall of Barad-dûr the thing was, but the orc had also been a living creature and Minardil would not have wished it lengthy suffering. Even a mad dog had some claim to mercy.

This was a very different matter from driving off wild men from the meadows of Lossarnach. These Men and their gnarled companions were so plated in armour as to be scarcely recognizable, the coats of the Men fitted with high gorgets to shield jaw and cloak. Plumes red as death flowed from their spiked helms, and their feet below the stirrupless saddles were clad in hobnailed boots with narrow toes. Scarcely mortal they seemed, yet when Minardil lopped off the arm of one dour warrior he gave a cry of torment to chill the blood.

The distraction of the two Captains rapidly lost its potency. By that time, however, the men of the two Companies had adjusted their thinking from that of a competitive but amicable contest to that of a deadly struggle. They had mustered their wits and now brandished their dull blades fiercely. They could still parry blows with ease, and indeed with greater efficiency, for the heavier swords were harder for the orcs’ scimitars to shift. The horses made easy targets, too, if a man could get in under the sword of the rider: a hard whack to the side of the head or the back of the leg left the animals dazed or debilitated.

Still, there was little that the men of Gondor could do to dispatch their attackers. With every true strike of his own sword, Minardil found himself waiting with increasing desperation for the return of the men who had gone to seek arms. He was trying to get a count of the enemy, but it was impossible in the thick and ever-shifting fog. Even the noise of the battle seemed to wax and wane, and he was in the midst of it. He prayed that the others would find them. He prayed that Thorongil would be with them – Thorongil, who had known something was afoot and had tried to warn his Captain.

There was no time for self-castigation now, not while the lives of his men relied upon his sword. Minardil shouted encouragement and the few simple orders he could think of: “Stand fast! Keep near! Hold the high ground!”

Then he heard a sound as welcome as any he could have imagined in that moment. Ringing clear and fair, transcending the strange muffling of the mists, came the sound of the great white horn of the House of Húrin. The men all heard, and each responded as he could. Those free to do so stiffened and lifted their heads towards the sound. Those embroiled in the heat of immediate need fought now with greater resolve, knowing that the aid so desperately needed was nigh. Minardil’s own heart beat stronger at the musical thunder of that horn: Denethor son of Ecthelion was coming.

Not he alone, either, though he was the first to emerge from the nebulous grey that had so aided the foe. In his wake came men of both Companies, sable and worst-black standing shoulder to shoulder with weapons at the ready. Some of the men of the Tenth bore swords, Minardil saw with astonished gratitude, just as some of the Second had knives or bows at the ready. The last group stopped some paces behind the charge, taking aim at the riders. Minardil had a moment to spare the hope that they recognized the two Captains despite the mist, before one of the enemy’s horses came pounding towards him, its rider brandishing his sword to whisk off a head.

On they fought, some men falling but more felling. From time to time in the chaos Minardil caught sight of his Captain-General. He was without mail or helm to cover him, and his dark hair flowed and rippled loose in his wake. So swiftly he moved that the fog could not escape him: it swirled in eddies and tendrils about him as his long sword found its mark again and again and the bright blade grew black with blood.

Yet they were losing ground. Slowly but inexorably the orcs and their accursed companions were driving them up the hill. There were more than Minardil had first feared, and more still seemed to swell up out of the fog as the others fell. The combatants were tripping over bodies now, both the dead and the wounded. There were curses in four tongues as these ghastly hurdles were navigated well or poorly, and cries from the conscious fallen when a stray boot struck home. Minardil heard voices that he knew among both groups, and he could not bear to remember to which of his men each belonged.

He was thankful that there was nothing behind them to defend: no walled city filled with fair and loyal folk, no manor house with granaries stocked high, no village of the poor and trusting. There was only the camp, empty of its denizens and containing little of value but their travel fare and a few good pieces of furniture. Yet it seemed that they would soon be fighting among the cold fire pits and bedrolls, and they were in danger of becoming outnumbered.

Then the awful cry came from the throat of the Steward’s Heir. “Fall back!” Denethor cried. “Back and southwest!”

Someone, breathless from the fray but not bereft of his insolence, called back in irritation; “Which way’s southwest in this soup?”

In ordinary circumstances this would have earned the soldier a reprimand and a vicious glare of disapproval from the Captain-General – perhaps even a sharp backhanded blow if proximity allowed it. Now Denethor merely raised his off arm, still parrying with his sword, and waved it straight to his side. “My left!” he roared. “Uphill and to my left, as you may! Fall back!”

Minardil wanted to cry out his protest. Retreat? Yield disputed ground and draw up towards where the earth grew level and their one precious advantage would be meaningless? Yet Guardsman though he was he was a faithful soldier, and he would no more question an order in the midst of a battle than he would smite down one of his own men. He took up the cry himself, though with his sword in one hand and the reins in the other he could not gesture.

He did not need to. After the first few men began their backfooted ascent, drawing on the slavering orcs and what riders remained astride, the rest knew where to follow. Denethor had led the charge, but he did not lead the withdrawal: he stood as rearguard, holding a broad swath of the foe at bay. Minardil and Nelior, whose Lieutenant had brought him his own well-tended sword, rode madly through the fray. The horses had been brought as a privilege of rank and a show of power and used in the exercises for the same, but they were true warhorses of Gondor, reared in Lossarnach from stock liberally salted with the seed of Rohan. They were obedient and they were all but fearless, save when one of the vile orcs chanced to speak in the hated tongue of Mordor. Then they would balk a moment or recoil from the speaker, and it took a strong hand to hold them fast.

“Would that your horsemaster were here!” shouted Nelior in a moment when both steeds were circling around to make another pass of the enemy’s northerly flank. “Has he fled in the moment of need?”

Minardil could not answer, for the swell of battle rose again, but he would have wished to speak in defence of his Guardsman. Thorongil had been sent with the small group actually charged with capturing the water. In the muted air he might not even be able to hear that battle had been joined. It was not reasonable to hope that he might come.

The fighting was growing hotter, and there was a sharp staccato cry as a man in cheap black wool crumpled almost beneath the hooves of Nelior’s horse. The Captain had to veer violently left to keep from trampling him. Minardil turned away as swiftly as he could, for he could not bear to know which of his own men had been cut down – not now, when he had to hold his mettle for the foe. The red pool spreading beneath the ruinous form was terrible enough.

He tried to gather his wits and take stock of the battle. That was a Captain’s duty, was it not? But the sight was no glad thing. It seemed they were now outnumbered, but whether because more orcs had come or because of their own losses Minardil could not say. The men of Gondor were still yielding ground, withdrawing steadily as Lord Denethor had commanded. Minardil had no more time to contemplate his position, however, for it was just then that he was unhorsed.

It happened so rapidly that he had time only for one thought: that he must keep hold of his sword. Minardil saw first the dark, swiping sabre and the terrible spray of bright scarlet as his horse’s throat was slashed wide. The poor beast could not even call out in its final agony, so deep was the wound. Its legs began to fold and Minardil only just had time to kick his feet out of the stirrups before the horse began to pitch to the left. He did not remember what more to do, for his days of riding his father’s land were long behind him, but his body had its own notions.

As the horse fell, Minardil rolled his body in the other direction, his ankle sliding up towards his hip as his knee bent of its own accord. The right foot struck the ground at about the same moment as the horse’s left shoulder, and Minardil pitched his weight over it and into the trampling chaos churning up mud and frost-bitten grass.

The jarring impact left Minardil winded and momentarily severed from his surroundings. First to return was his sense of his own body in relation to the hard ground. The elbow of his sword-arm was pinned beneath him, but somehow he managed to keep from landing on the blade. His grip upon the hilts was so desperately tight that he could not feel his fingertips within the supple leather glove. He shifted onto his back with an unlovely jerk of hips and shoulders, just in time to raise his blade to swipe away a descending scimitar.

The orc, who had hoped to impale him, let out a bellow of rage. Minardil tried to disentangle his feet from the loose lines of the reins and his own heavy cloak, but all he succeeded in doing was skidding on his back like an overturned turtle. One knee struck the warm, lifeless bulk of his horse and he felt a pang of regret for the loss of a faithful beast. A moment later all finer feeling had fled as he found himself struggling for his life.

All about him the broad feet of the enemy were pounding. The orc above him was not the only one eager for a piece of the heretofore deadly rider: they were swarming upon him. Minardil struck out with his sword, finding a soft spot below the ragged edge of one mail shirt. His hand and arm were suddenly stained with blood and he had to scramble swiftly out of the way before the creature fell across his legs. He did not dare to turn his back that he might get to his knees, and when he was compelled to roll sharply to the right to evade a studded mace Minardil was glad he had resisted the impulse. A hard foot caught him in the shoulder blade, one orc at least striking out as was most natural.

Twisting and trying to fend off all of them at once, the Captain knew he could not endure long. They had him surrounded and he was too beleaguered even to call for aid. The sounds of battle pounded in his ears and he tasted the sickening dread of death. Above him the clamour and chaos was growing. He heard the harsh, guttural oaths of the Black Tongue and a cry of indignant terror. Then the one that had kicked him fell to earth in a thunder of armour and horny flesh.

There was another pair of feet now, weaving in amongst the others with great speed and remarkable calm. A flash of bright metal crossed paths with a dark orcish sabre, and another of the hideous things fell. Minardil turned his attention to guarding his head, trying to make some sense of the chaos. There was a man of Gondor close above him, feet in close-fitted boots dancing with deadly grace. He ducked low to evade a blow from one of the riders, and the sodden hem of his cloak smacked squelchingly against Minardil’s hip. The blur of faded poor-black whipped around then and the man leapt nimbly over the body he guarded against the ravening swarm.

Minardil dared at last to roll onto his side, away from his defender with his sword still at the ready. He got his knee under him and rose at last, swaying a little. There was an Easterling, unhorsed and raging for revenge, descending upon him. He struck out with all his might, and the man’s sabre went flying. Minardil hesitated. He could not cut down an unarmed man: he was certain that he could not.

‘Captain!’ a familiar voice called, rousing him from his reverie in time to see the Easterling draw a long and wicked knife and swipe it for his throat. Minardil ducked the blow, felt his balance wavering again, and then found himself buoyed up by something strong and firm across his shoulder blades. In a bewildered moment he realized that it was another body: his protector was now standing behind him, back-to-back as two men ought to stand when surrounded by the foe.

He needed no further words to identify him: his height and his skill were enough. Yet as Minardil found his feet again Thorongil spoke, breathing quick but not strained. ‘We shall hold them, you and I! Aid is coming. Stand fast, Captain!’

As best he could, Minardil obeyed.


He had been goading the men on into retreat, and at last the moment came. Denethor took one last swift glance to orient himself, paused to smite down the craven goblin thing that had come charging to slay him, and raised his voice to the heavens. ‘Forward, rearguard! Forward as one! Flank us: draw up behind and take the foe! Forward!

Out of the mists they came: men of the Citadel in their high helms and dark mail, and men of the Second Level, staunchly determined. There was to be seen in their hands the same mismatched assortment of weapons that the first wave carried, but even at first glance Denethor could see a greater proportion of swords. Only later would he learn how a Lieutenant of the Tenth Company had come from the other, ravaged encampment with twelve men, arms laden with swords like so many kindling branches.

The men were fresh and ready to fight, and they were well armed. They swarmed around the rear of the other group as one, driving the enemy into a more compact space. A spattering of arrows rained down upon the fray, before Nelior screamed at the archers further up the hill to hold. That was good. Denethor had not thought to remind the bowmen (inexperienced as they were) to fire at close range or not at all, lest they should strike their comrades instead of the foe. He hoped that most would have the good sense to hang back. It took an accomplished archer to strike an enemy bearing down upon him at speed, and few of those present had such skill.

Denethor himself was never more in his native element than on the field of battle. His quick eyes and quicker mind surveyed the struggle, in as much as it could be seen. Every muscle in his body was taut, intent upon the swipe of his sword and the navigation of the slippery hillside beneath him. The most deadly risk was the horsemen, but the orcs were far more numerous. Once he had found a piece of suitable ground, Denethor stood fast and let them come to him. Come they did, the arrogant wretches. Even when he stood in a ring of foul-smelling carcasses, still they came.

He did not know their number. In the mists it was impossible to say. It was sufficient to strain two hundred strong, and all further tallies could wait until the foe was vanquished. Denethor cared only for the felling of the next orc, and the next. All about him his men were putting forward all their best, Citadel and City alike. He saw a man in worst-black and leathers cut down an Uruk twice his breadth. Nelior, now properly armed, was deadly upon his horse. With the fever of combat Denethor burned also with pride in the might and courage of his men.

He did not see Minardil fall, but all at once the Captain of the Tenth Company was gone and his mount lay dead in the blood-soaked mud. Whether the rider had managed to free himself in time, or been crushed beneath the horse’s bulk could not at once be seen. But then came the orcs, eager for blood, and Denethor knew that Minardil yet lived – for a little while, at least.

He tried to win through to defend his fallen Captain, but his efforts were in vain. Marked now as the deadliest fighter on the field, Denethor was besieged. He fought on, turning now one way and now another. But he was facing in the right direction when a tall body sprang suddenly from the mists.

It was the sword that first caught his eye: long and slender, seeming despite the gloom and the edges black with blood to glint with a glory of old. A sword of Númenórean steel if Denethor knew aught of such things, and it was wielded with skill such as was seldom seen in Gondor.

The man – in the frenzy it was difficult to make sense of his face – ran at once for the slain horse and the orcs clamouring to reach the fallen Captain. He scarcely seemed to pause in his stride as he severed one orc’s throat and cut the arm from another. He ducked beneath an Easterling’s mace and its horse, startled, recoiled from the determined runner. Denethor’s attention was snatched then by the need to preserve his own limbs, and a few harried moments passed before he had leisure to look back.

There was no doubt now that Minardil lived, and Denethor felt a clenching relief. Gondor could ill afford to lose such a man. He could see the Captain’s shoulder and bowed head as he fought to rise. Above him, sheltering his commander beneath his long legs, the tall man fought on. Then suddenly Minardil was on his feet, swaying and bloodied but able. He derobed an unhorsed Easterling, and then with the other man’s cry slew the hated thing. Denethor felt a savage burst of vindication. Let all the might of Mordor fall upon them, but these cringing thralls would never be the equal of one of Gondor’s champions.

Nor were they the equal of two hundred doughty men, he saw as he was suddenly afforded respite enough to draw breath. The enemy was now at little more than a tenth its original strength, if he guessed aright. There was a cry in the tongue of Rhûn and then a bellowed order in the vile language of Mordor. It was repeated twice before the orcs began to obey, and by then Denethor had recognized the call to retreat.

Swiftly he sprang into action. There were horses roaming loose upon the field, skittish but unharmed. He hastened towards one, catching hold of the bridle before the stallion could lurch away. Denethor reached to pat his muzzle, but the horse shied from the blood on his glove. He turned his face from the animal and raised his voice to shout for Minardil.

He came, ashen save for the flush of exertion blooming upon his cheeks. His sword was slick and his back and left flank smeared with mud, and tendrils of sweat-soaked hair had slipped from beneath his low helm. Most of the blood upon him seemed to belong to the orcs; it smelled foul enough, anyhow. ‘Sire?’ he panted, chest heaving.

Denethor seized the lines and thrust them into his hands. ‘Go!’ he said hurriedly. ‘Lead the pursuit. They must not be allowed to prey upon the villages.’

Minardil’s eyes widened and he glanced about. Already most of the foe had vanished into the fog. ‘Lead… how, my lord?’

‘However you see fit,’ Denethor said. ‘You have shown extraordinary skill as a tactician these last days: use some of it now!’

The last of the colour drained from Minardil’s face. He looked wildly around again. ‘Sire… sire, I cannot…’

‘At once, Captain! I have given you my orders: obey!’ Denethor snapped. It was natural to be dazed in the midst of the battle, and the man had taken a bad fall as well, but this was not the time for diffidence.

‘I cannot, my Lord!’ cried Minardil, his features contorted in an agony of doubt and reluctance. ‘It… it was not I, my Lord, who led the Tenth to victory!’

Denethor seized his shoulders. ‘What?’ he snapped. Every moment wasted was one more in which the enemy might draw nearer to the shepherds’ villages and the all-important charcoal works that supplied Minas Tirith with fuel. ‘What do you mean? Then who did?’

Minardil hesitated, looking like a man being compelled under torment to betray an oath. ‘Thorongil, sire,’ he gasped at last. ‘My new man, the Captain out of Rohan.’

For a moment Denethor could not speak. He could scarcely think. Thorongil? The insolently courteous young swordsman who had come bearing Thengel’s favour? But there was no time, no time at all.

‘Gather our men. See the wounded are cared for. Be sure…’ Denethor halted, shook his head once, disgusted, and snapped; ‘Use what judgment you have been given. Go!’

He snatched the reins so swiftly that one trailing edge slapped Minardil’s cheek. The man jerked back, startled, then stepped clear as Denethor swung into the saddle and compelled the horse to turn in a broad wheel.

‘Men of the Citadel!’ he roared. ‘Come! We must make pursuit! Follow! Follow!’

Out of the mist came Nelior at a canter, and such of the men in sable yet unscathed came running. Satisfied that they were following and thinking now of the assets imperilled, Denethor rode.


Thorongil had to stay the urge to race after the pursuing party. He had to, for he had not been bidden to follow. It was not his place to join the call, as it had not been his place to defy Minardil’s verdict that morning. Besides, there was work enough here. All about him lay the wounded of West and East alike, and still here and there the men were embroiled in combat. This latter was under control, like the last licking flames of a wildfire that has met its end. He turned, therefore, to the nearest survivor.

He was a man of the Second Company. Twisted painfully upon his side, he was struggling to keep pressure on an ugly gash that had rent open his mail and bit deep into his arm. Dropping to his knees, Thorongil laid his sword in the muck and reached to remove the high, winged helm weighing down upon the wounded man’s neck.

‘Fear not,’ he said, the trumpet of battle gone from his voice. ‘I shall tend you. I am Thorongil of the Guard, man of the Tenth Company.’

The man tried to pull away. In doing so his fingers slipped. Where they wiped away the blood there showed briefly the depth of thou wound: the yellow of the fatty flesh and the grey muscle sheath beneath. Thorongil’s lips tightened, but he gave no other sign of his dismay. He would have to act quickly if there was to be any hope of saving the arm.

‘Leave me be!’ the man snarled, savage in his anguish. ‘The healer! Where is the healer?’

Thorongil did not know. A swift glance of the sphere of the world visible gave no sign of Midhon, but the trail of battle stretched far back and down the hill. He might be anywhere at all. ‘Tending to another,’ Thorongil said, hoping for the sake of the other casualties that he did not speak false. ‘I must bind the wound, or you may bleed to death.’

‘I want a healer,’ the man protested, now sounding more like a sulking child than a wounded animal.

Thorongil leaned near so that the man could read the truth in his eyes. ‘I am a healer,’ he whispered. ‘The hurt to your arm is grave. Death is not your only peril.’

The man made a sound behind clenched teeth and thrust his head away from the gored appendage. In doing so he rolled upon his back, and Thorongil was able to examine the wound.

The first impediment was the mail shirt. There was no hope of removing it, but the jagged edges of the broken rings were digging dangerously into the riven flesh. A sword could only inflict such damage if wielded with terrible force, and Thorongil wondered with dread if the arm were broken also. He did not test it, for the bleeding was the first concern. It was the bleeding that would kill his patient.

He took his hunting knife from his belt, grateful that Minardil had allowed his men to carry them despite their unsuitability with the uniform. It was wrought of Noldorin steel, though in an unremarkable design that had quite distressed the smiths of Imladris. It had affronted their dignity to turn out so common-looking a thing, but Gandalf had been most insistent. Through the years, Thorongil had found cause to be very glad of this wisdom. He slid it up the half-sleeve of black rings and jerked upward in a motion that drew upon all the strength in his tired sword-arm. With a squawk of yielding metal and a few bright sparks, the shirt was split up to the original rent. This allowed him to fold back the flaps and lift the worst of it out of the way without the picky and time-consuming labour of gathering individual shards from the rings.

The wounded man moaned as fingers probed the wound. Thorongil had no bandages, so he used the other side of his knife – which would need careful attention by a swordsmith to undo the damage he had just wrought – to cut a strip from the man’s sable hauberk. The White Tree was smeared with scarlet gore, and the stars and crown could scarcely be seen.

Once, twice, thrice he wound the length about the man’s arm, yanking the bandage tightly each time. No large vessels had been cut: with pressure to close the others, there was every hope of this man surviving to see more careful treatment later. Thorongil knotted the dressing and placed the man’s good hand upon it. ‘Hold fast here, and do not move,’ he said. ‘Someone will come to bring you water.’

The warrior, a hair’s breadth from a swoon of pain, made a vague noise of assent. Thorongil was already on his feet, wiping his sword upon his cloak as he strode onward. He saw two of his fellows standing in the midst of the carnage, looking vague and disoriented. They were in danger of giving in to the shock, and he had no need of more patients. Firm orders and a tangible task were usually enough to stave off the malady in soldiers, at least for a little while. Thorongil called to them.

‘Fetch water,’ he said when they turned to their names. ‘Offer it to each of the wounded. If any of the enemy survive, do not deny them. Remember that we are not thralls of Sauron: show mercy.’

He did not stay to see himself obeyed. He did not need to. He moved swiftly to the next body, to find an Easterling with the great, staring eyes of the dead. Thorongil knelt swiftly to draw a corner of the man’s head-wrapping across his face. Further care could not be spared the dead now, but this would at least be a sign to others that this man had no need of their care. On he went to the next man.

The orcs lay still. Those that had not been slain outright had either risen up to strike again as best they could or dispatched their own pitiable lives sooner than risk capture. Scarcely glancing at them, Thorongil dropped beside another, this one in the poor-black of the Tenth Company.

It was Lieutenant Dúrion, unconscious but breathing. A swift pass of the hands under his limbs and body revealed no flowing blood, but the side of his helm bore a telling dent. There was nothing that Thorongil could do for a blunt head wound, not quickly. He stood and called to another wanderer, commanding him to sit with the Lieutenant and to speak to him, to keep him from slumber if he woke, and to remain at his side until Thorongil’s return. On he went, seeking the next in need.

So he moved down the trail of the battle, from body to body like a child hopping step-stones in a pond. Some he could help, some he could not. Others, like those suffering broken bones or ankles wrenched upon the slippery ground, would have to wait until the life-threatening wounds were staunched. As he moved, Thorongil found himself almost instinctively raking up the count of Gondor’s dead. He was at thirty-one when he caught sight of Midhon.

The healer was bandaging the side of one of the men who had followed Herion to fetch swords. The leather jerkin that served as his armour had been little impediment to an orc’s scimitar. The situation seemed well in hand, and Thorongil bent to the next body.

It was an Easterling, swarthy skin sickeningly ashen. A trickle of blood came from the corner of his mouth, but there was no deadly pink foam to accompany it. His breastplate hung askew from one shoulder, its straps severed. The deep dent in the scales beneath told Thorongil that he had been struck with the flat of one of the hefty practice blades that had been all the men had been carrying at the moment of need. He leaned low to listen to the man’s breath, finding it laboured and shallow, but steady.

‘Fetch rope!’ he called to no one in particular. He threw the man’s sword far out of reach and began to search for other weapons. ‘I need three men and rope! Saddle-girth, lead lines, whatever comes to hand! Quickly.’

He was unbuckling the man’s belt when he stirred. ‘Be still,’ Thorongil said, not knowing if he would be understood. ‘You are wounded, and must be still. You are a prisoner of Gondor, and you shall not be harmed. Do you know the Common Speech?’

The Easterling moaned and shifted his head. Thorongil drew the man’s hands before him and cinched the belt about the wrists, watching his face for any grimace of mounting pain. There was none. If he had taken other hurt, it was not to his arms. Thus assured that he would not be seized about the throat as he worked, Thorongil began to search for further wounds.

The men he had called for came swiftly, two of his own Company and one from the Second who had somehow missed his Captain-General’s summons. That was all to the good for Thorongil, who had then a ready man to put in charge. Yet he let them hang back as he continued his search. He found what he had feared beneath the corner of the breastplate where it had slipped to hide the crest of the man’s hip: he had been stabbed cleanly with the tip of a keen sword. It was the wound that had surely unhorsed him, with the blunt blow following after. It needed staunching, and swiftly, but the muddied and bloodied garments the man wore beneath his mail were too befouled to use.

Thorongil shoved up his own left sleeve high upon his arm, momentarily glad for the want of real mail that had made him feel so naked when he had first joined the battle. He cut away the sleeve of the shirt beneath, sweat-dampened but otherwise clean. One of the men standing above gave a cry of protest, but Thorongil was already packing the wound with his first two fingers. The Easterling’s next moan had a guttural, wrenching quality, and then all the rigidity ebbed from his body as he fell unconscious.

Thorongil tore strips from the hem of the man’s strange garment to bind around his body. He was slipping them beneath when the man from the Citadel crouched down and reached over to seize his shoulders.

‘Are you mad?’ he hissed. ‘There are good men of Gondor now dying, and you see to this foreign rabble? This thrall of Mordor?’

Thorongil flung him off and resumed his work before the man could recover from the shock of such treatment from one of inferior rank. ‘I too am a foreigner; perhaps you did not know,’ he said coldly. ‘And thrall of Mordor he may be, but he is a man and he yet lives. If that is not enough to satisfy you, consider this: if we save him, he may talk. We do not know how they crossed the river, or eluded the watchers in Ithilien.’

A calculating look passed through the man’s eyes, but he came swiftly enough to the inevitable conclusion. ‘How can I help?’ he asked, his voice giving no indication of which argument had swayed him.

‘Bind his feet. He must be watched. Waterbearers will come: bathe his face and if he awakens, let him drink. Do not allow him to move. The three of you can hold him down if you must, but he cannot be permitted to rupture anything within,’ Thorongil said. He pulled to the knot and was on his feet almost before the others knew he was moving. The man in sable opened his mouth to speak, but Thorongil was gone at a run.

Midhon had moved on to another body, this one in faded brownish cloth. The healer was working over the man’s thigh in a panic, his hands covered in bright blood. There was a spray of blood upon his face that Thorongil had not noted before, and in another moment he saw why. As Midhon’s hand shifted, a gout of blood leapt from the wound. Thorongil was at his side as swiftly as his long legs could carry him, skidding to his knees on the opposite side of the body.

There was a deep, ragged gash in the man’s thigh, and Midhon had both hands in the wound, trying to stem the river of life flowing out of the body. Thorongil did not allow himself the luxury of looking into the face of the wounded man. He assessed the wound instead.

‘He lay quiet,’ said Midhon, his words made rapid with horror. ‘He lay quiet, but he breathed! I found blood and I turned him, and—’

He gestured instinctively, but another spurt of blood arced out. Thorongil thrust his hand deep into the wound and found the pulsing vessel. He pinched it tightly closed, and the fountain was quieted.

‘His weight kept the wound closed,’ he explained rapidly. ‘When you moved him—’

‘I had to move him! I had to!’ Midhon cried. The calm capability had left him, and he was losing himself to the panic. ‘There was blood, oozing blood. I did not know, I could not know—’

‘No,’ said Thorongil firmly, startling the wide, anxious eyes to his face. He fixed his own steady ones upon them. ‘No, you could not know. You did what I have been doing all down the field. Now listen. Midhon, can you listen?’

The young healer nodded spastically, swallowing his terror and his gorge in one hard motion. He was trembling, but he did not look away.

‘Put your hand over mine. Feel down until you can touch the vessel I am holding. It is his great artery, feeding his leg. It must be held closed until I can find the means to tie it off. It will throb with his heart, but you must not let go.’

Midhon shuddered, but placed his hand as he was told. He had already cut away the hose and the tails of the guardsman’s shirt, Thorongil noticed with some satisfaction. He glanced at the ghastly pallor of the unconscious man. They would have hard work in saving him, if it proved possible to do it at all.

Midhon’s fingers had found the vessel, and he clamped down. Thorongil withdrew his hand and snatched the cut piece of linen. The gore on his fingers made his task easier, as he pulled loose several threads of the weft and twisted them into a piece of slender twine. Then he slid it beneath Midhon’s hand and nudged it into place above his fingertips. It was not a good sign that they could fit three working hands into the wound, but there was no time to dwell on that. Thorongil knotted the string tightly, then nodded to Midhon.

‘Withdraw,’ he said softly.

Midhon did so, pulling back a steady hand. As soon as it was free from the body it began to shake. Mortified, Midhon tried to hide it in his lap.

‘No,’ Thorongil said, firm and kind. ‘Do not be ashamed. You held it still when it was needed. You have done well. Now help me: we must bind the wound as tightly as we can. Have you the means to stitch a wound? If I can rejoin the vessel, perhaps we can spare him his leg.’

Midhon gaped at him. ‘Such things are not possible,’ he breathed. ‘Even in the Houses of Healing they cannot—’

‘Such things are possible,’ Thorongil promised. ‘Have you the means?’

‘In the camp,’ said the healer. ‘In the other camp. My tools… I came so swiftly to bear the warning that I did not think…’

‘Fetch them now, then,’ instructed Thorongil. ‘Go swiftly, but be wary. There may yet be foes lingering in the mists.’

Midhon went, and Thorongil planted both hands firmly upon the wound, compressing it as best he could. He tossed his head to shake the hair from his eyes. As he lowered his gaze again he saw Lieutenant Herion some distance away, battle-grimed and weary, but upright. He was staring in mingled wonder and dismay at what he had witnessed.


Chapter XVIII: In the Wake

At last Thorongil sat back upon his heels with a soft sigh. He felt a weariness wholly disproportionate to the hour. His neck and shoulders ached, and his knees felt bruised with long kneeling. He stretched his cramping fingers, studying hands gloved in gore. He had a bucket of water by his side, scarcely less crimson. He rinsed anyhow.

It had not been an ideal undertaking, but he had had soap and boiling water and stout silk thread. Midhon had found a little wine with which to rinse the wound, behind which Thorongil suspected Lord Denethor’s servant lay. The young healer had even furnished a proper curved needle, so unlike the sewing implements with which the Eagle had often made do in Rohan. All that was to the good. All that might make the difference between life and death for Mallor.

Yet Thorongil did not like the terrible stillness of his charge. It had endured even when he had been obliged to enlarge the wound for clearer access to the artery. There had been no cry, no moan, not so much as a cringe of pain when he had used the wine. It was impossible to guess how much blood the guardsman had lost, nor whether he could have retained enough to sustain him.

Mallor lay upon Captain Nelior’s camp-bed, ashen and still. His breathing was almost unseen, but breathe he did. Save for the wicked bisection of his thigh he was unscathed. That was a mercy, for Thorongil doubted that his body could have endured any further assault.

Now that the artery was closed and the wound was bandaged there was nothing more that a healer could do. At last Thorongil looked at his patient and saw with piercing pain his comrade-in-arms. Mallor, who had fancied himself the best with a quarterstaff in five levels of Minas Tirith. Mallor, who had borne his share of the water so patiently these last many days. Mallor, who had taken Thorongil’s part in excusing the nearby villages of the burden of supporting the Companies. To see him thus laid low, with neither his limb nor his life yet sure, was a blow to the heart. Thorongil had not dwelt long enough in Gondor to make many friends, but he had begun to consider Mallor among them. He bowed his head over suddenly quaking hands. What a fine way to end a friendship, by failing to save a man’s life.

He shook himself. He had not yet failed. He had done his best, and the rest was beyond his power to determine. There were others in need of his aid, and Thorongil climbed up onto weary feet and moved stiffly for the door-flap. He flung it aside and nodded to Midhon, who was bowed over another casualty.

‘They may be brought in now,’ he said, surprised by the hoarseness of his voice. ‘As many as will fit, the most grievously wounded first.’

Midhon was well prepared: he had half a dozen men waiting to help. The wounded were lying on blankets, the corners of which were knotted so they might be used as makeshift biers. Satisfied that his supervision was not needed, Thorongil ducked back into the tent and went to the other bed, rescued from the ravaged camp of the Tenth Company. There lay his other difficult patient: the Easterling.

The man had bled through the pack of linen and the hastily-bound bandage. The wound needed stitching, and Thorongil hurriedly gathered his tools. At his instruction the Easterling was bound hand and foot to the four crude rails of Minardil’s bed. Most likely he was too weak from loss of blood to effect an escape or to harm one of his captors, but it did not do to take chances. At the very least, the ropes would hold him still while Thorongil worked. Fingers once more nimble and sure, he unwound the dressing and plucked out the bloody wad of cloth before setting to work in the poor but adequate light.




Denethor sat upon his charger, one arm across his saddle-horn and the other holding the reins low and loose. A deepening scowl bent his noble features into a countenance to strike terror into any who would oppose him. Around him, the rest of the pursuers wandered through the trampled chaos of what had clearly been the enemy’s landing site. The ground was churned and befouled by orcish feet, and in the shallows of Anduin sat the vessel they had ridden across the river. It was a pontoon raft, the floats made skilfully and doubtless carried in as if over a portage and the deck hastily lashed together: many logs split once and laid crosswise. The thing must have lain very low in the water when laden, for the deck had been painted with pitch to keep back the flood.

How the Easterlings had contrived to get their horses onto so rickety a thing was a mystery. Denethor reflected grimly that fear could compel much folly from even the most sensible of beasts.

‘How fresh are the tracks running North?’ he asked, pointing at a rope of jumbled footprints wending off at a tangent to the broad line that they had followed from the camps.

The men nearest looked reflexively. One squatted, reached as if to touch a ridge of mud and shook his head. ‘Sire, I do not know,’ he said.

‘Useless,’ spat Denethor, not of a mind to be lenient. It was true that these were city men and that most had never dwelt anywhere but on Minas Tirith’s stony heights, but it was no less frustrating to find skills wanting when most they were needed. ‘Can none among you read a trail?’

The men of the Citadel looked around, each hoping to see confidence in a comrade’s eye. Denethor did not leave them to thrash too long upon the hook. He flung his reins to the nearest man, who at least managed to catch them deftly, and swung out of the saddle. He strode to the breaking-off, cloak billowing behind him, and he noted with some satisfaction that the men drew back respectfully to allow him clear passage.

He crouched to examine the marks, noting their shallowness and the rime gathered upon the surface. Old marks, likely made before dawn. Denethor exhaled through his nostrils, rising smoothly. ‘Lieutenant, take six men and follow these to their ending. If they bend back towards our encampment, so much the better. If they do not, you are to return to the hills that we might muster a stronger pursued. Captain Nelior!’

‘My Lord?’ Nelior had dismounted with his Captain-General, as was most suitable. Now he stepped forward and saluted crisply, hands upon his breast.

‘Take the remainder of the men and inspect the villages. Leave guards in pairs: the most prosperous house is to be instructed to see to their board this day. Be sure the people know that there is danger, but that we are at hand should trouble arise.’

Denethor looked around once more. The fog was thicker still by the river, and he could not see further than four yards in any direction. Most of those they had pursued had been cut down, but it was impossible to be certain that all had. Nor was it a sure thing that the whole force had come against the Guards’ camp. From the disturbance of the bank it was plain that the raft had made at least half a dozen crossings.

‘And four of you stay to burn that monstrosity,’ Denethor commanded, pointing to the low-lying vessel. It horrified him that such a thing could be erected swiftly and in secret sufficient to escape the notice of the vigilant watchers in Ithilien. Cairon would have much to answer for in this.

‘And you, sire?’ Nelior asked as Denethor put his foot in the stirrup. ‘Where will you go?’

‘Back to the battlefield, Captain.’ Denethor swung deftly into the saddle and gathered the lines. ‘I have left an incompetent in charge of my army. Do well your duty. Reassure the people, but keep them watchful.’

Then he wheeled his horse and started off at a gallop in the direction they had come.




The men on burial detail worked in diligent silence, digging two long trenches: one for the orcs and another for the Easterlings. Others were wrapping their fallen comrades in makeshift shrouds made from camp blankets sewn coarsely closed. Minardil was certain that Gondor’s dead could be carried back to the City if two wains could be secured from the surrounding countryside. Another two would be required for the wounded, so he guessed: some would be ambulatory, but not all. He had sent a trio of men to the villages to make those arrangements, authorizing them to offer gold in recompense for the use of wagons and dray animals and to promise the safe return of both.

Minardil walked now up the rows of the dead, his heart heavy within him. Gondor’s loss stood at forty-one, a sickening loss that might yet grow. Midhon the healer was doing his best among the wounded, and those with any small experience in nursing had been set to aid him. The healer was in Nelior’s tent, where those with the most grievous hurts lay. Others moved among the wounded who had no shelter. Minardil had given orders for the ruins of his own tent to be brought here and erected. The walls had been slashed, so reported the men he had sent to take inventory of the damage, but three panels were unharmed and the roof had not been torn. It would be better shelter than the bare hillside, at least, especially if the fog turned to snow.

Yet another group of men had been set the task of building fires, both near the wounded and some distance apart. There would be many men, both young and old, fighting off the shock of the morning’s grim battle, and all would have need of warmth. Still other details had been charged with the hauling of water, the gathering and sorting of weapons, and the rescue of all that could be salvaged from the Tenth Company’s camp. Mindardil approached the extemporaneous quartermastery that was growing on the hillside.

‘What have we to work with?’ he asked, motioning that the men should not rise to his approach. He knelt down with them and began to help with the sorting of the packs: personal effects to one side, foodstuffs to another, tools to a third. The men could reclaim their possessions later, but they could not be expected to devise their own meals this day.

‘Most of the blankets are whole, though many are filthy,’ said one of the men. He wore the white and sable of the Citadel, badly marred with gore. He had taken the time to wash his hands before rooting around for rations, which Minardil silently lauded. ‘Most of the packs nearest the pavilion were badly ravaged. The further along the hill, the lesser the damage.’

‘We took the liberty of rounding up Second Company’s baggage as well,’ said another. ‘We have about a hundred and twenty measures of dried beans, about five days’ rations of meat for the same number. Seems the waybread was the first to get eaten: only about two days left of that.’

‘And we found a couple of sacks of Lord Denethor’s chalk,’ added a third man, smacking a large bundle that let out a puff of white powder.

Minardil found a smile, the first he had made all day. ‘That is not chalk,’ he said. ‘That’s flour.’

The men looked at one another, and then one laughed and the others grinned. There was a slightly manic quality to the laughter, but genuine relief in it as well.

Minardil’s calculations were complete. ‘Gather the big cookpots and start on some soup for the men. You can make some fresh bannock also; surely that will make a welcome change.’

The men exchanged an uncertain look. ‘Soup, Captain?’ said one. ‘How do we do that? Might as well get soup from a stone as from this fare.’

Minardil opened his mouth to speak, and found that he did not know. They had no stewing meat, no spices, no vegetable but the beans. He looked around him. ‘Forgil!’ he called. The old soldier was toiling up the hill with a load of brushwood to feed the fires. He nodded and approached. ‘Your campfire had soup three nights past, did you not? How was it done?’

‘Thorongil did it,’ said Forgil. ‘He did nothing special. It was more that he had the confidence to try it.'

‘Can you reproduce it?’ Minardil asked.

The old man offered half a heavy shrug. ‘I reckon I could. Might not be half as good.’

‘That is of no matter, provided it is hot and nourishing,’ said Minardil. ‘The men may not feel hunger now, but it will come. Stay here and aid these men.’

‘Yes, sir!’ Forgil said crisply. He looked down at his burden and grinned. ‘Suppose we’ll have need of this, fellows, won’t we?’

Satisfied, Minardil left them to their task. He strode back across the hill, pausing briefly to watch the men struggling gamely to dig in the frosty ground. Then he turned for Nelior’s tent, now a makeshift house of healing.

Already the place smelled strongly of blood and sweat. Men lay upon blankets in a neat hatched pattern that allowed for the round walls and the thick central pole. Midhon was squatting over one of them, checking the dressing on a thigh wound. The man beneath his hand was Helchon, one of Minardil’s own. He was conscious, but struggling to look away from the healer as he worked.

Midhon did not work long, however. He glanced up, saw Minardil, and rose to his feet as swiftly as circumspection allowed. ‘Captain!’ he exclaimed softly, mindful of the wounded about him. ‘You… you will want my report.’

‘Only if your ministrations can be spared long enough to give it,’ said Minardil. He looked around. Four other men were moving among the wounded, three with water and clean rags to lave fevered heads or to sponge away blood. The fourth, his back bowed and turned to Minardil, seemed to be working on an open wound.

‘We have sixty-eight wounded in all, sir,’ Midhon said, stepping around his patients to draw near the Captain. ‘Of these, perhaps twenty are minor hurts: shallow slices or scalp wounds, bruised ribs, three broken arms, a twisted ankle.’ A strange, wry look took him and he gave an unsteady little laugh. ‘I got my twisted ankle.’

Minardil did not pause to question this remark. Sixty-eight wounded and forty-one dead. Their strength was reduced by half. It would be a sorry homecoming for the Second Company and the Tenth when they returned to Minas Tirith. ‘One score with but minor hurts. And the rest?’ he asked.

Midhon’s pallor seemed to deepen. ‘Everything from deep flank wounds to… to a man whose great artery was severed in the leg.’ His glance shifted to the better of the two bed, where lay a ghostly figure beneath a close-tucked blanket. ‘He lives, though I know not how Thorongil contrived it.’


Midhon nodded to the man with his back turned, the one who was labouring over the wounded man with the intensity of a healer hard at work. ‘He has proved invaluable, sir. How a warrior should know of such things I cannot say, but he stitched the artery with a skill I could not hope to equal.’

Minardil knew little of the inner workings of a body, but the hushed awe in the healer’s words was testament enough to the nature of the deed. ‘Then you are fortunate to have so able an assistant. Who among the wounded is most grievously hurt?’

‘There is Mallor, who would not live now but for Thorongil’s skilful fingers,’ said Midhon, indicating Nelior’s bed and the grey-hued wraith upon it. ‘I do not know if we will be able to spare his leg even so, though we will try. Rúlar of the Second Company lost his left arm between elbow and wrist. One of his fellows had the presence of mind to make a tourniquet with his belt, or he too would be dead of lost blood. I do not know what can be done for Lieutenant Durion.’

‘And what is the nature of his hurt?’ asked Minardil, casting about for his First Lieutenant and spying him at last on the ground at the foot of his own crude bed. Wan and lifeless he lay, his head surrounded by a tightly rolled blanket bent into an inverted horseshoe. One of the waterbearers hovered near at hand, doubtless to take some swift action if Durion chanced to stir.

‘His skull, sir,’ murmured Midhon gravely. ‘He took a blow sufficient to batter his helm. Had it been steel instead of leather, perhaps…’

Minardil dropped to his knee beside the Lieutenant. He touched one neatly folded hand and found it cold – not the chill of death, praise be, but the chill of a man left long unmoving in winter’s air. Carefully Minardil took hold of the blanket tucked about the man’s waist and drew it up to his shoulders instead, covering the leather armour and the bloodstained tabard and the poor, frigid hands.

‘Rest well, friend,’ he whispered. ‘Your men await your awakening.’

Then he got to his feet and moved carefully for the door-flap. He had much to oversee, and the wounded were surely in good hands.



A time came at last when Thorongil had done everything he reasonably could for the wounded, and there was nothing more to offer than routine care. This even untrained men were capable of offering, and Thorongil was able at last to lavish a little attention upon his own human needs.

He stretched back and neck and aching arms as he stepped out into the grim afternoon, and looked about with smarting eyes. The camp was in better order than he would have expected, with the remains of Captain Minardil’s tent erected over those whose wounds were not grave and the campsites tidy and peaceful. A few fires had been lit, though not all, and about these weary men huddled with their wooden travel cups in hand. Upon the air was the toothsome aroma of salt pork and white beans. Someone had made a batch of hearty soup, and each man seemed to have a measure to warm him.

Thorongil had long ago conquered the ravening beast that was a young man’s stomach, but he had broken his fast in the dark before dawn and not generously. His mouth watered and his innards grumbled at the scent, so welcome after the metallic stench of blood and pain.

‘Here, lad: sit awhile!’ It was Forgil, of course, spying the aimless wanderer and beckoning. ‘You’ve the look of one doing hard duty. Do they have you on the burial detail?’

Thorongil shook his head and drew near. He did not try to crouch, for his legs had done more than their share of that among the wounded. He folded his long legs beneath him and sat. ‘I have been labouring under Midhon’s command. There are many wounded to care for, and I know something of splints and bandages.’

Forgil grunted offhand approval. He gave the contents of the cooking-pot a lively stir and ladled out a generous portion into one of the cups. ‘There’s fresh waybread, too. Toasted, not baked, but it’s a treat to have something not gone stale.’

Thorongil curled his hands about the mug, hoping to glean the heat that would slowly bleed through, and he raised the vessel near his lips. The scent was still more welcome at close quarters, and Thorongil took a cautious sip. The pork lent a fine flavour even without the herbs that should enrich the broth. He let the warmth of it  trickle through him, and he closed his eyes in relish.

He opend them to find Forgil grinning and holding out a coil of unleavened bread. There was a hole through the centre where it had been wrapped around a green stick for toasting. Thorongil reached to take it, but withdrew his hand at the sound of his name.

‘Thorongil? Thorongil of the Guard?’ It was Lord Denethor’s servant, striding with great purpose among the men.

‘I am here.’ Thorongil rose, handing his soup off to Forgil. He stepped around the older man as the messenger looked him over appraisingly.

‘You are Thorongil, son of no man?’ he asked.

Thorongil inclined his head. ‘So I have been called.’

‘You are wanted before your Captain-General. Lay by your arms and come at once.’

Thorongil hesitated. Fresh from battle, it ran counter to instinct to unbuckle his belt and abandon his blade. Yet what else could he do? He moved to offer the sheath to Forgil, but the other soldier – no Guardsman he, but a veteran of the endless conflict in Ithilien – intercepted it. He gave Thorongil a hard look, daring him to dissent.

Denethor’s servant stopped short of seizing Thorongil’s arm, but from the brisk and commanding way he moved it was plain that the new Guard was little better than a prisoner. The other man led the way, coming up upon Minardil where he stood conferring with two men of the Citadel.

‘Captain, your presence is required before Lord Denethor at once,’ he said, scarcely less brusque.

‘I?’ Minardil said. Then he saw Thorongil and the curiosity died into a grim understanding. ‘At once,’ he said crisply.

The man did not deprive the Captain of his weapon, but that was almost the only courtesy afforded him. He strode on ahead, leaving Minardil to fall into step with his most junior subordinate. Eyes were drawn to their passage or cautiously averted, and Thorongil felt apprehension brewing where a moment ago there had been only hunger.

Down the head of the hill they walked, and up the smaller rise upon which Lord Denethor’s encampment sat untouched. His servant flung aside the flap and disappeared within.

‘My Lord, Captain Minardil of the Tenth Company and the man Thorongil,’ he announced.

‘Leave us,’ said Denethor. ‘Tend to the horses.’

The soldier emerged, holding the heavy triangle of canvas for Minardil and then stepping back so that Thorongil had to thrust out his arm to catch it. With this last petty slight and an ill-concealed smirk, the man was gone. Thorongil stepped into the luxuriant warmth of the Captain-General’s pavilion.

The Steward’s Heir sat behind his heavy table, leaning back in the many-legged chair. He did not straighten as the two men drew near, but he nodded his acknowledgment when they bowed their salutes. He was freshly washed and clad in clean garments, his long hair brushed free of the knots and tangles of battle. Before him Thorongil could not help but feel befouled and unkempt, with his garments soaked in sweat and blood and the beds of his nails dark with gore. He squared his shoulders a little more, reminding himself that he had come honestly by his grime and need not be ashamed. Needful work.  

‘Well, Captain?’ Denethor said, imparting strange mockery into the title. ‘What have you to say for yourself?’

Minardil inclined his head. ‘Sire, I have failed you in the field. I could not allow you to entrust to me a task of which I was incapable, and I was re miss in allowing you to think me more proficient than I—’

‘Not you,’ Denethor said with a dismissive wave of the hand. ‘I want to hear from the Captain out of Rohan. What have you to say for yourself, dissembler?’

For a ghastly moment Thorongil was stricken with astonishment so disarming that he could not even guard his eyes. His lips parted soundlessly and his right hand splayed wide at his side. Then he closed it into a firm fist, collecting himself as he did so. He pressed his lips together and inhaled slowly through the nostrils. Then at last he  had the composure necessary to form coherent words.

‘My lord,’ he began; ‘it is true that under Thengel King I served as a leader of men. Yet coming to Gondor as a stranger I thought—’

Denethor, it seemed, was not of a mind to listen. ‘You thought it best to conceal the truth, not only from your Captain-General, but from the Lord Steward himself.’

This Thorongil could not let pass. Though he knew it was unwise, he raised his voice in contradiction. ‘Lord Ecthelion is aware that I led and outfitted my own éored.’

The Heir looked at him sharply, eyes seeming to pierce the leather jerkin and to burn into Thorongil’s very heart. ‘You will speak when questioned, Guardsman, and not before,’ he snapped.

Thorongil inclined his head, the back of his neck burning with embarrassment. He knew better than to offer a superior any unsolicited opinion. He would be given an opportunity to defend himself in time, or so it ought to be. ‘Forgive me, sire,’ he said.

Denethor grunted disapprovingly. ‘Perhaps your stature in Rohan has given you an overblown sense of your own importance. You are no captain here. You are a common soldier and worse, a deceiver. What would possess you to hide your former rank, stiff-necked as you are?’

‘I wished to be taken upon my own merits, my Lord,’ said Thorongil, knowing even as he spoke that the man before him would not understand such a motive. ‘I thought it best to learn the ways of Gondor and her people before I presumed to aspire to any office.’

‘You thought it best to mislead the provost, to make grave omissions before the Steward, and to deceive me,’ Denethor snapped. ‘Furthermore, you put your own Captain in a compromised position, coercing him to deceit on your behalf.’

Minardil moved as if to speak, but Thorongil rallied his wits quickly enough to beat him to it. ‘Captain Minardil knew nothing of this!’ he said, rather more sharply than was wise. ‘Not until recent days when I felt compelled to confess to him. He kept secret my words, for it was most fitting that I make a like confession to you when the time came.’

‘I see.’ Denethor’s face seemed carven of granite, and his eyes were chips of slate. ‘And when did you anticipate such a time might come?’

‘Sire…’ Thorongil began, then fell silent. There was no excuse to be made. He had chosen this path out of pride as much as a desire to learn, and his plan had failed. He saw in Denethor’s mistrustful glare just how wholly and terribly it had failed.

‘Yes?’ the Captain-General pressed, seeing his discomfort and prodding it. ‘What have you to say? You have a ready answer for every question, great equivocator that you are. Have you no clever riposte to make this time?’

‘No, sire,’ Thorongil said, eyes fixed upon the table-leg.

‘What is that, Nameless One?’ Denethor lilted. ‘I do not think your voice carried as far as it ought to.’

Thorongil drew a deep breath. He had erred, and this was payment for his error. He beat down his pride and bowed his stiff neck. ‘No, sire,’ he said, very clearly. ‘I have no more to say.’

‘Hmmph.’ Denethor shifted in his chair, leaning now on the other arm. ‘Step back behind your Captain where you belong, sell-sword, and be silent.’ When Thorongil obeyed, Denethor fixed his eyes upon Minardil.

‘Captain of the Tenth Company, Champion of the Guard, honest son of Lossarnach,’ he said. ‘You relied upon the advice of the lowest of your soldiers in manoeuvres, and took credit for his stratagems. Then in the moment of battle when such skills were wanted, you were unable to perform. What is to be done with such a Captain?’

‘Sire, you bade us make the best showing that we could in the field,’ Minardil said calmly. ‘A Captain makes use of the resources he has to hand, and that includes the expertise of his men. As for your praise, which I value above that of any other man, that I accepted on behalf of my Company, Thorongil included.’

‘Do not feign innocence with me,’ said Denethor; ‘least of all to protect this prevaricator. He bade you keep his secret, did he not?’

‘He implored me not to elevate him above his fellows, my Lord,’ said Minardil. ‘I held it to be an act of humility, not deception.’

Thorongil had to fight to keep from flinching. It was a torturous thing to listen to Minardil, brave and kind-hearted and fiercely loyal to his men, making excuses for him: far easier to endure Lord Denethor’s questioning and those probing eyes. Thorongil’s shame deepened. What he had done had not been well done, and now Minardil too would pay for his folly.

‘And what of your own failure in battle?’ Denethor demanded. ‘Do you not see how your pretence of great command might have brought disaster upon the pursuing party?’

‘Your pardon, sire, but I saw it at once,’ Minardil said softly. ‘That was why I could not allow you to lay the charge upon me.’

Thorongil’s dismay deepened as he listened to this, piecing together what had come to pass. Denethor had given some command to Minardil – likely to lead the pursuit of the retreating enemy – and Minardil had refused on the grounds that Thorongil, not he, was the source of the Tenth Company’s prowess on the field. Now Thorongil understood how the knowledge of his rank had  come to Denethor, too: it was natural that it should arise in such an exchange.  

Again Denethor grunted his disdain for this excuse. ‘I left you instead to reorder the camp. Have you failed in that also?’ He did not wait for an answer, but proceeded to give instruction as if to a halfwit or a very small child. ‘The foe must be buried, lest they befoul the land.’

‘My Lord, it is done,’ Minardil said meekly. ‘A goodly distance from the river there are now two mounds: orcs and Easterlings interred separately.’

Denethor raised an eyebrow. ‘You might have saved the men the effort of a second pit,’ he said. ‘Yet our own dead must be laid out in such honour as we can contrive.’

‘I have ordered them shrouded in their blankets, sire,’ said Minardil. ‘Men have been sent to the villages to procure carts, that we might bear them back to their families for proper funerary rites.’

The eyebrow twitched higher. When he spoke again, Denethor’s tone was marginally less condescending. ‘The wounded must not be neglected in favour of the dead.’

‘They shall not be, my Lord,’ vowed Minardil. ‘Those who are not fit to walk will fill two carts, the dead another two. It is my belief that the villages can spare the wains and the animals in this season, at least for a few days. I took the liberty of instructing my messengers to offer just recompense.’

‘And the wounded?’ asked Denethor, no longer giving curt commands. ‘Have they been amply seen to?’

‘Sire, Midhon the healer has done his utmost to provide for them. He enlisted help from both Companies: men who know a little of his art or battlefield care,’ Minardil said.

Thorongil did not know whether to be grateful for the obvious omission or not. Such secrecy had just been proved to be dangerous, and yet he could not help but be glad that his more peculiar talents were still unknown to Denethor. Then again, he was not certain how much of it was known to Minardil.

The Captain-General seemed lost for a moment in silent contemplation. Then his eyes narrowed in sly satisfaction, like a hunter who has laid a particularly clever trap. ‘What of the needs of the other men, those who have not been wounded? For many it will have been their first bloodletting. What have you done for them?’

‘Your Lordship will have seen the fires,’ Minardil said neatly. ‘I have given orders that all are to rest as they complete their assigned duties. Water has been brought for all, and I have a small contingent of men preparing a hot meal for the camp.’

Denethor’s lips twitched, and Thorongil could not quite tell if this was a sign of approval or annoyance. ‘I see,’ the Heir said coolly. ‘Well, Captain. It seems you have some useful talent after all, beyond your skill with a blade. If you speak true, there is naught that I would alter save to ensure the wounded were sheltered according to their need.’

‘It is done, my Lord,’ said Minardil. ‘Those with the gravest hurts are housed in Captain Nelior’s pavilion. Others shelter in the remains of my own. Only those with the least wounds are without cover.’ He hesitated, drawing in a deep breath and plainly gathering his courage. ‘If Your Lordship would offer his own lodgings, we might see them all out of the wind and the weather.’

Denethor scrutinized him with dour contemplation. Then he nodded his head curtly. ‘See that it is done,’ he said. ‘Is there aught else that has required your care and may now require mine?’

‘One thing more, sire,’ Minardil said. Denethor had to hide his surprise and did so admirably: Thorongil doubted that his Captain saw it. ‘There is a prisoner: a wounded Easterling. Midhon cares for him now, among our own wounded. If he survives he may be questioned.’

A light of triumph ignited in Denethor’s eyes. ‘A prisoner,’ he said, grimly satisfied. ‘That is well. We do not know how they eluded our men in Ithilien. Instruct the healer that the Easterling is not to be allowed to die, on pain of my displeasure. You may go, Captain. Your behaviour in battle is not to be excused, but you have done much to redeem yourself in my eyes this day. Continue as you have begun.’

Minardil bowed low and turned, beckoning that Thorongil should follow.

‘Not you, sell-sword,’ said Denethor coldly. ‘I have not finished with you.’

Minardil turned again, chin thrust high as he settled to wait. Denethor frowned. ‘You have been dismissed, Captain,’ he said, a warning in his voice.

‘Forgive me, sire, but my place is with my man,’ Minardil said. ‘While he stands before you I must remain.’

Denethor’s expression darkened and he fixed Minardil with a glare that would have made many men quail. Minardil swallowed forcefully, but he held his ground.

‘Very well,’ Denethor growled, teeth set. ‘Stay, then, if you will.’ His hand left the chair and returned bearing the Númenorean sword. He laid it upon the tabletop and pushed it towards the far edge. ‘Tell me, son of no man, what you make of this.’

‘It is the sword that was given to me when I entered the Steward’s service, my Lord,’ said Thorongil serenely. He had expected some far worse accusation. In the matter of his sword, he had no cause for concern.

‘Is it, indeed? And how did a simple soldier of fortune come to be endowed with such a weapon?’

‘I was given my choice of a selection of blades, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘I believe they were in the keeping of the armourer of the Guard. This one was the sword of my choosing.’

‘You lie,’ spat Denethor. ‘Such swords of ancient make are not given into the keeping of the armourers of the lower City! How did you come by this sword?’

Thorongil had to restrain himself from biting back against this accusation. Not once in these last weeks had he uttered a falsehood, many though his omissions and evasions had been. Anger rose red within him.

‘My Lord, if I may explain…’ Minardil offered.

‘You may not,’ said Denethor sharply. ‘I wish to hear what the silver-tongued Thorongil has to say for himself.’

‘I have no more to say than I have said already, sire,’ Thorongil said with careful calm. His blood might be boiling, but his face must remain impassive. ‘It was among an assortment of lesser swords, rust-bitten and ill-tended but by far the superior weapon. As I was given leave to choose among them, I selected it.’

Denethor took hold of the hilts with one hand and the sheath with the other. He drew them apart, baring a blade as bright as silver. He had ministered to the wounded to the detriment of his own weary body, but Thorongil had not neglected to wipe his sword.

‘Rust-bitten and ill-tended?’ Denethor challenged.

‘I laboured to restore it to some semblance of its former state, sire,’ said Thorongil.

Denethor frowned deeply. ‘By rights I should confiscate this until I can confirm its provenance,’ he said. Minardil moved as if to protest, and the Captain-General raised a staying hand. ‘However, we are fresh from the field of battle and it is not certain that the enemy is wholly fled or vanquished. I have need of each man’s good sword arm, and your skill cannot be disputed: it matches the skill of your slippery tongue.’

He sheathed the weapon and held it out by the hilt, forcing Thorongil to take hold of the sheath instead.

‘You will remit it to me as soon as we are once more within the walls of Minas Tirith,’ Denethor commanded. ‘If you do not – if I am even required to remind you – then I will hold it as an act of contemptuous insurrection, and deal with you accordingly. Am I understood?’

‘Yes, sire. Perfectly,’ Thorongil said. He kept his voice level and courteous, though he longed to utter sharp words. His head was pounding with frustration and exhaustion, and Denethor’s treatment wore hard upon his patience.

‘Good. Now go,’ the Captain-General said. ‘You are not excused from water-bearing, even if the camps have been amalgamated. It seems I was right to assign you that duty in the first place.’

Thorongil’s jaw slackened a little. Lord Denethor himself had assigned that task? Such an order was far beneath the consideration of so lofty a commander. It would have been a petty matter to bring before a Captain. Why would the Heir of Gondor trouble himself with such minutiae?

‘Did you hear me? Be gone!’ Denethor ordered, wafting his hand for the door-flap.

Thorongil blinked twice, clearing his mind, and then hastened to hold back the canvas that his Captain might pass through. Then, not without some relief, he followed.

Chapter XIX: Sober Homecoming

Thorongil was still battling his seething temper when, at the bottom of the gully between the two hills, Minardil stopped . Thorongil did not draw abreast of his Captain, nor did Minardil turn. Instead, staring up towards the cluttered camp filled with survivors, he spoke.

‘Small wonder you would keep your secrets,’ he said. ‘What have you done to so antagonize the Steward’s Heir?’

‘I have done wrong to hide such truths,’ said Thorongil. ‘In my need for care and my vanity, I kept silent when I should have spoken. Lord Denethor is not a man who appreciates being caught unknowing.’

Now Minardil faced him. ‘I confess,’ he said slowly; ‘that I share some of that frustration. Oh, I understand your reasons for silence,’ he said before Thorongil could speak. ‘Yet time and again you are revealed to be so much more than you seem. Thorongil can command an army in adverse conditions. Thorongil can scent trouble on the wind. Thorongil can heal. Thorongil can cook. What next?’

Suddenly his anger was ebbing. The litany of his diverse talents sounded almost comical upon Minardil’s lips. ‘I can shoe a horse,’ Thorongil said quietly.

Minardil laughed. He shook his head. ‘Will I ever know all that is to be known of you?’

Thorongil felt a pang of yearning. So long, it seemed, he had lived under other names, shrouded in secrets that must be kept for his own sake and that of his people. Would there ever come a day when the shades and dissemblings might be cast aside, that he might walk in the light of day and know the sound of his own name?

‘Someday, perhaps,’ he said. ‘So I hope.’

‘But not today,’ said Minardil.

Thorongil cast him a look that was not quite a plea, and the Captain sighed. ‘I shall have to take care to remember that your talents outstrip your position,’ he said. ‘Had I but learned that lesson a day earlier, many lives might have been spared this day.’

‘No,’ said Thorongil. ‘No. The fault is mine, not yours. Eager to be an obedient soldier and overeager to find my bed, I let myself be pacified when I should not have been. Nor was I forthright in answer to your question. No, the Riders of Rohan have no special aptitude for tracking, but I was not born of the Rohirrim. In the North, such skills were necessary for my survival.’

Minardil studied him thoughtfully, but said nothing.

‘Had I but pressed my case, I could have compelled you to give me leave to go,’ Thorongil murmured. He had had no time to dwell upon his complicity in the unlooked-for assault, but it fell upon him now with the weight of a millstone. He could not meet his Captain’s eyes. He had known, his heart had foreboded, that there was no good upon the air that night. Yet he had let himself be swayed by the promise of rest and the reassurance of a less experienced man. No, the fault was not Minardil’s, but his.

‘You could not have known,’ Minardil said.

‘Nay, but I guessed, which is worse,’ said Thorongil. He looked up the hill towards the two tents filled with wounded. ‘I must see to my charges, Captain.’

‘Your charges?’ challenged Minardil. At Thorongil’s unsettled expression he smiled wearily. ‘Some day you will have to explain to me how you came by skill enough to confound a healer of Gondor. I had believed ours to be the finest in all the world – unless Midhon is not of the acceptable standard.’

‘I assure you that he is,’ Thorongil said. ‘Do not underestimate the courage he has shown this day. It is no small thing to find oneself a battlefield healer instead of presiding over such injuries as might be accrued in mock combat. Midhon did admirably, and continues to do so. I would commend him to the Captain-General himself, save that I fear my recommendation would be to his detriment.’

A thin half-smile tugged at Minardil’s lips. Then his face grew grave. ‘Thorongil, there is something more of which we must speak. You have said naught of it, which well I should expect from one who not only refrains from singing of his own deeds but refuses to whisper them in the dead of night. Yet you have saved my life today, and I must needs be grateful.’

Thorongil veiled his eyes even as he looked earnestly upon the other man. “Captain, I would have done the same for any fallen comrade. Yet though such feeling be unfit for a noble man, I am proud to have been able to do so for you.”

‘I lack your eloquence,’ said Minardil; ‘and so cannot thank you as is fit. Nor have I the means to reward you now, but know that I am blessed to have fought at your back.’

His sober humility was admirable, but he should not be required to bear it long. Thorongil tilted his head. ‘It has been many years since I have been in battle with so well-matched a partner,’ he said. Then, with a gleam in his eye; ‘The foe knew not what they faced in us.’

Minardil grinned. It was the grin of a young man feeling his first battle-triumph, as warranted by the day’s events as guilt and sorrow and weariness of heart, surprised and strangely grateful. “We did make a fine pair, did we not?”

Ere Thorongil could answer or take hold of Minardil’s arm in comradeship, a call came from up the hill.

‘Captain!’ It was Nelior of the Second Company. ‘A word.’

Minardil raised an acknowledging hand, even as he fixed his subordinate with grave eyes. ‘This is not the time for such matters, Thorongil, but when we are at leisure I wish to discuss with you the matter of the Champion’s trials. Do not forget.’

‘Sir, I will not,’ said Thorongil. There was no other answer.

Minardil clapped him on the shoulder and sprinted uphill to Nelior’s side. Soon they were conferring quietly, heads bowed together in an encouragingly egalitarian manner. Pleased, Thorongil averted his eyes so as not to appear over-curious. He made his way back to the tents. He had been away from his patients too long: bannock and hot bean soup would have to wait awhile longer.

Midhon was at Mallor’s side, examining the dressings on his cleaved thigh. Thorongil crouched near, silent but observing intently. Midhon glanced at him and, when it became apparent that Thorongil was not about to speak, carried out the rest of his examination.

‘He bleeds,’ Midhon said at last, drawing up the blanket and tucking it into place. Mallor stirred in his torpor of anguish, then quieted.

‘What are we to make of that?’ asked Thorongil.

Midhon’s eyes flicked over Thorongil’s face, surprised. But he mustered himself for the answer. ‘It is to be expected,’ he said. ‘You left a gap in the external suture so that the wound could drain.’

‘Verily,’ said Thorongil. ‘He has suffered greatly from loss of blood, but now infection is our greatest foe. It may be that our best efforts avail not against it, yet we must try. If the blood flows out, so will purulence and poison.’

‘I do not understand,’ said Midhon. ‘How can you know of these things? Minas Tirith is held to be the chiefest repository of medical knowledge in the West, most like in the world. You were not trained among its masters, and yet the work you have exacted upon this man’s body far exceeds even their skill. How did a man of sword and battle come by such a gift?’

‘A gift it was, indeed,’ Thorongil said. ‘You are right to say that Minas Tirith is a great centre of lore and learning, but not all the knowledge in Middle-earth is contained within. I was taught by a kinsman possessed of healing talents far superior to my own. What I did for Mallor is a technique that my uncle perfected during his own years of fighting in the war against the Shadow. It is simple enough, if only one is quick.’

Midhon did not look so certain of this, but neither did he press Thorongil further. ‘The Easterling,’ he said instead. ‘What am I to do with him? I know nothing of his kind.’

‘Care for him as you would any other among your charges,’ Thorongil instructed. ‘Save that he must be guarded at all times, and you should never loose more than one of his limbs at once. As for tending his wound, that is work you know well enough. You will find that the differences between his folk and ours extend only as deep as the skin: the anatomy within is identical.”

‘Identical,’ echoed Midhon, assimilating this. From without came the crack of a mallet, and the young healer flinched. ‘What’s that?’ he hissed.

‘A tent stake driven true, I should think,’ said Thorongil, glancing towards the door flap. ‘Lord Denethor has given over the use of his own pavilion for the comfort of the wounded. It seems Captain Minardil wisely reasoned that it was better to bring the shelter to them than they to the shelter.’

‘The High Warden, sleeping rough?’ Midhon marvelled. ‘I had not thought such a thing possible.’

‘Not probable, perhaps,’ said Thorongil. ‘Yet a great captain thinks first of the needs of his men, and of their relief before his own comfort. The Steward’s Heir has chosen rightly in this, and he is to be commended. Captain Minardil also, for he has arranged the camp as well as anyone might have done. Have you eaten yet today?’

Midhon flushed. ‘Waybread after dawn. I was going to attempt to watch the proceedings – I hoped to see you capture the water and best the Second Company yet again – when the orcs came.’

‘It was you who raised the alarm,’ said Thorongil. ‘That was valiantly done. Go now and find sustenance. I will watch over these.’

He gestured about at the men, some sleeping, others panting with pain, still others staring silently into the upper reaches of the pavilion. For a moment, Midhon looked uncertain. Then he got to his feet and shook out his blood-caked garments.

‘I thank you,’ he said. ‘I will oversee the moving of the wounded from the open tent to that of the Captain-General…’

‘And of those yet unsheltered beneath what is left of Captain Minardil’s,’ Thorongil finished for him. Midhon bobbed his head in acknowledgment and began to pick his way carefully to the door. Thorongil turned his attention back on Mallor, touching his throat with delicate fingers as he felt for a pulse.

It was there, but it was thready and uneven. The loss of blood, the sheer brutality of the wound, and the further insult to the body that was the battlefield surgery had all taken a bitter toll. Had Mallor not been young and strong at the outset, he would even now be lying among the dead. Thorongil lifted one eyelid with the edge of his thumb, studying the sclera with its web of thread-fine vessels. The eye itself was rolled far back, but he could still see the sluggish response of the pupil to the light.

Thorongil looked around the pavilion. But for the man guarding the Easterling, he was alone among the wounded. Thorongil searched his memory for a name he had heard only in the heat of the military exercises.

‘Lingond,’ he said. The Guard of the Citadel turned to look at him. Thorongil raised his eyebrows in sympathy. ‘You too should eat a little. I will guard him.’

Lingond looked dutifully reluctant, but he was in the same state as the rest of them: drained by the battle and abandoned by its fever, chilled and sore and ravenous. And after all, it was this man of the lesser Company who had given the order for a guard in the first place.

‘Very well,’ he said, and he got to his feet. ‘I will not be gone long, I promise you. There is no reason I cannot fetch the food hither, is there? They will not…’ He looked around at the recumbent men, their various positions dictated by their wounds.

‘They will not suffer for it,’ Thorongil assured him. ‘If any are well enough to covet food, they are strong enough to be fed themselves. Go, and do not run. There will be long watches tonight and a bitter march on the morrow. We will all need our strength.’

The man looked puzzled, as if he could not understand such quiet authority coming from a lowly Guardsman, but he did not question Thorongil’s instructions. Quietly he rose and swiftly he slipped from the tent.

At once, Thorongil turned upon Mallor. He drew back the blanket as swiftly as he dared, and took the man’s left hand in his own. The limp arm bent with ease, and Thorongil drew the hand near his heart. His other palm he placed upon Mallor’s brow. He closed his eyes.

‘Mallor,’ he said. He did not know the man’s patronym. ‘Mallor of the Guard, return to us. Mallor of the Guard, come back.’

He felt nothing: not the twitching of a muscle, not the faintest stirring of consciousness. The young man’s chest hitched up and down, and his faint pulse thrummed in his temples. His skin was cold. He had lost far too much blood.

Thorongil focused more intently. He thought of the heart waiting and delaying in the hope of filling just a little farther, like a small child filling her water-jug at the riverside. He thought of the great vessels at slack tide, their red rivers dammed and trickling. He thought of the brain, pulsing and hungry, and of the wounded leg in danger of rot if the blood did not flow.  

‘Mallor,’ he called again. ‘Mallor, come!’

Nearby, someone moaned. Another of the wounded, stirring in his half-sleep. Thorongil’s upper mind gauged the sound, triaging and cataloguing. It was no sound of immediate need, but of steady, grinding suffering that he could not likely ease. He would try when he was through with this, but the man beneath his hand now had the greater need.

‘Mallor…’ His voice was softer now, more distant to any ears that might listen. In Thorongil’s mind, however, it rang loud and clear as a call in the woods, meant to be heard for incautious miles. ‘Mallor, come!’

Then he felt it: felt Mallor cringe from his touch. Not the touch of his hands, for the man was too weak to do that, but the touch of his mind. Mallor shrank from him, fearing the pain. Such pain. He had felt such pain when Thorongil’s hands were within him, one gripping firmly but lightly, the other rapidly whipping the needle in and through the meat of the artery. Mallor could bear no more pain.

‘You can,’ Thorongil whispered. ‘You must. There will be pain. I cannot promise otherwise. Yet there is life also. That I can promise you: life, and a hope of keeping your leg, but only if you come back to me. Come back with me. Come now!’

He tried to draw back, to retract his mind a little and to coax Mallor to follow. He felt that intangible bond between them falter and slip: slick fingers sliding free of a straining fist that loosens but a little.

‘No!’ he cried, as if his command could make it otherwise. It was no use: Mallor was gone again into the warm and milky darkness far from the pain, beyond the weary river that ran shallow with blood. Thorongil’s eyes flew open, and if in that moment there had been anyone to bear witness they would have been struck by the rawness of the failure within.

For a moment, he had been so certain that he had it. For a moment, Thorongil had believed that the gift of his kindred flowed full-force through his hands and his heart. He had known that it was within his power to call Mallor back… and he had failed.

He beat back his dismay and the strange, wounded anger that only self-recrimination could bring. Gently he withdrew his right hand and laid Mallor’s left comfortably upon the man’s abdomen. Thorongil smoothed the blanket, tucking it as Midhon had before. He studied the wan, slack face before him, and he tried to swallow the sickness that swelled within him. He would be of no use to anyone cowering in doubt and vomiting thin bile. Thorongil felt for Mallor’s pulse again, and found it unchanged.

‘At least I have made matters no worse,’ he muttered as he got to his feet. Lightheaded, he groped for the pavilion’s centre pole and gripped it, head hanging as he gathered himself. Such labours were exhausting, and his skill was unhoned. It had been years since last he had plied the Elven mystery that was a part of his lofty heritage, and even practiced it had been a near thing. He was fortunate that he had done no harm.

When he was sure of his feet, Thorongil moved to the bed that held the Easterling. Here was a man not lost to the pain, but drugged into a stupor. With his instruments, wisely slung across his back before he abandoned the Tenth Company’s camp before the orcs, Midhon had carried a small sampling of useful herbs and tinctures. Among these was an elixir of nightshade, which they had used to quiet the writhings of one or two not far gone enough to swoon into merciful unfeeling. Thorongil had used the tip of one finger to paint a modest dose onto the Easterling’s tongue.

This was not for the benefit of the guards: even exhausted, the hale men of Gondor would have no trouble overcoming a lone, wounded man. It was not to keep the alien quiet while he lay among the faithful. Thorongil’s chief concern had been to keep the Easterling from fighting his bonds. He knew the most likely contortions that a body so bound would make, and all of them involved the contracture and straining of the very part of the abdomen where the man had been punctured.

The Easterling’s eyes were also sluggish, but not from incipient coma. The nightshade had caused his pupils to dilate almost to their limit, and the grey light in the pavilion made them retreat only a fraction. Even this was hard to see, for the Easterling’s eyes were so dark a brown that it was akin to black. It would have been a beautiful darkness in another face or another place.

The man’s tongue flicked his lips and he made a sound that might have been speech or an attempt thereof. Thorongil began to probe the bandage.

‘If you understand me,’ he said quietly, keeping his voice soothing but firm; ‘know that you are in the keeping of the Captain-General of Gondor. You will not be slain. You will not be put to torment. The bonds are for your own protection as much as ours. If you understand me, know that I mean you no harm.’

It was impossible to tell whether the man understood, or even whether he could hear the words. He was hovering on the edge of the waking world, and there many strange things walked. Thorongil had been dosed with nightshade himself, more than once, and he knew the strange half-waking apparitions it could bring. He wondered what one of Sauron’s sorry thralls might see. He did not want the answer.


It was a sorrowful and ragged column that passed through the Great Gate and into Minas Tirith. First rode the Lord Denethor, his bright mail dulled by hard wear and orcish blood. Behind him walked the two Companies, no longer in their separate formations but mingled all together. Every able man was afoot, and with them many of the injured. Those who could not walk were either ahorse or lying in the two great wains that lumbered behind the marchers. Behind them, last of all, were the wagons in which the dead in their makeshift shrouds were laid.

It was the first of these that Minardil drove, gauntleted hand firm upon the lines. He tried to close his nose to the scent of slow decay, grateful for the biting cold that allowed them the mercy of bearing home their dead. They had lingered only one night after the battle, but they were drawing on to the second sunset of their journey. What had been a swift outward march was a slow and painful homecoming.

From his seat above the wagon-box, Minardil had an excellent view of the second wain of the wounded. In each rode two able men, perched backward on the driver’s board and ready to attend to their charges as needed. The men were packed snugly together, shoulder to shoulder to conserve both space and bodily warmth. When one of their caregivers moved, he had to step cautiously between knees or hips. In the first wain rode the healer and one of his chosen assistants. Another, also of the Second Company, sat beside the driver of the other cart. He was the best of the field nurses, and he was ostensibly in charge of the men he rode with. Ostensibly.

Moving among the wounded with an agility that put Midhon’s merely adequate motion to shame was Thorongil. Despite the cold he wore neither cloak nor leather hauberk: each would have hampered him. Not once in two days did Minardil recall seeing him join his assistant on the seat: when he did sit, it was upon the narrow side slat near where Mallor and Durion lay. The keen grey eyes seldom left them, save to attend to a man in more acute need. The moans and mutterings of the delirious were calmed when Thorongil bowed low to speak to them, and those white with agony and loss of blood seemed strengthened by his reassuring touch. Minardil watched all this with wonder until they reached the Gate.

Denethor had sent word to the city of their misfortune, and the road was lined in sombre soldiers who bowed their salutes as the silent procession passed. Minardil sat as straight as he was able, eyes fixed ahead and face carefully impassive. It would not do for a Captain to ride, weary and despairing, through the streets of the White City. They had triumphed, after all: there was that comfort to cling to. That they had not marched out with the intention of killing or dying was ancillary to that.

So he told himself, but when they reached the Second Gate and the honour guard formed from the Ninth and Eleventh Companies Minardil had to restrain himself from weeping openly. He had ridden forth with the expectation of bringing all of his men home again, but he had not thought to do so like this: twenty-six of his loyal subordinates between this wain and the other, more still wounded gravely, yet others battle-torn and weary. He saw the horror of it in the faces he passed: the men of the Ninth, who had narrowly escaped such a fate themselves, the people of the Second Circle, and those gathered to greet them in the square from which they had departed so few days ago.

Among this number were half a dozen folk from the Houses of Healing. At once they swarmed upon the two laden wains, speaking in low, hurried voices to those who had attended the wounded. There was some shuffling as Thorongil and the two Guards of the Citadel hopped down from the wagons and the healers climbed up. Midhon remained, of course: he would see to the disposition of those he had so courageously treated.

Then Minardil found a man at his own elbow, ready to take his place. A warehouse nearby had been prepared as a laying-out place where the dead could be claimed. Lord Denethor’s secretary had made diligent preparations. Almost before Minardil’s boots hit the cobbles, one of the men of the Ninth Company was on hand to offer him a mug. It held about half a pint of hot, spiced wine. Minardil sipped of it gladly. Around him, many of the men were doing the same.

Lord Denethor’s servant was at his master’s side, now speaking swiftly, now listening attentively. Minardil nodded towards him. ‘Was this the secretary’s command as well?’ he asked.

The soldier shook his head. ‘Captain Beleg gave the order that you were to be welcomed home graciously, as your men welcomed us,’ he explained. ‘The rest is the doing of the Heir’s servant.’

‘I thank you for this relief on behalf of all my men,’ Minardil said. His second mouthful seemed to warm him to the core, and even to take some of the ache out of his rump. The bare wooden board had done him no favours. ‘Please see that the tall man receives a measure. The tall man without a cloak.’

He looked around, but from this vantage could not see Thorongil at once. The Guardsman left his side and hurried off. Others were relieving the men of the Tenth and Second Companies of packs and blankets. Others still were gathering the unwieldy rehearsal swords, sorting them by markings into two piles. All the men were hunched against the wind, which was rolling down from Mindoluin’s heights and whipping through the narrow streets at frightening speeds. In the courtyard, several such streams were funnelled into a maelstrom of cold sufficient to chill the very heart.

The wains filled with the wounded were moving now, some healers crouching in the boxes and others hurrying alongside. One was bowed over Durion, and Minardil was relieved to see the hands in constant motion. He had not expected his lieutenant to die beneath Thorongil’s vigilant gaze, but still his fear for Durion was great.

Now the crowd shifted, making use of the space cleared by the retreating carts, and Minardil spied his strange new Guardsman. Thorongil was striding to Forgil, and the old man seemed to be hastening to follow his instructions. He had been carrying such of Thorongil’s gear as he could not wear or carry while attending the wounded, and Minardil expected Thorongil to retrieve his cloak and cover his head as many of the others were doing. Instead, Forgil held out the man’s sword in its battered handed-down sheath.

Thorongil spoke a quick word of thanks, and hastened to the place where a wide bare patch of cobbles showed. All were giving Lord Denethor a respectfully wide berth but his secretary, who was still deep in consultation with his master. The old man fell silent, however, as Thorongil drew near and bowed in a low salute.

‘What is it?’ Denethor said, his lip curled with irritation at the interruption. Minardil started forward, ready to step in on his man’s behalf if need be, but the crowd would not part for him as it might have done for Denethor. He found himself dodging back and forth, more often than not straining to keep his Lord and his Guardsman in his sight.

‘As you commanded, my Lord,’ Thorongil said, his voice clear and strong but quiet. Still he drew eyes, and more a moment later when he laid the Númenórean sword across his palms and dropped to one knee to surrender it. ‘My sword, sire.’

For a moment, Denethor looked flabbergasted. Minardil doubted if many men saw, but the secretary certainly did. He took a hasty half-step backward, away from his master. Then Denethor’s eyes grew cold and his face impassive. He snatched the weapon disdainfully, taking care to tilt it as he lifted so that the flat of the leather-clad blade smacked hard against Thorongil’s upturned wrist.

Thorongil did not flinch, but something black as the night Sea flashed through his eyes. Now it was Minardil who found himself retreating a pace. Yet as soon as it came the fey thing vanished, and Thorongil bowed his head meekly before his liege-lord’s son.

‘So please you, sire,’ he murmured.

Denethor said nothing to him, but thrust the sword into the startled hands of his secretary. ‘Take this, Valacar,’ he said. ‘You will be investigating its provenance.’ Then he turned to look around at the assembled men. ‘Divest yourselves of what is not your own, and then disperse,’ he said. ‘Others can tend to the common baggage. You have fought a hard campaign, and brief though it was it was also unplanned. Go to your rest. Your Captains shall have further instructions for you on the morrow.’

There was a murmur of weary relief from the assembly. Then someone – Herion, Minardil thought – raised his voice. ‘All hail the Captain-General!’ he cried, and innumerable voices called hail.

Denethor raised his hand to stay further adulation. ‘Rest,’ he admonished. To Valacar he muttered; ‘Have the lieutenants watch that no man take more than a single measure of that wine. Drunkenness will avail no one tonight.’

Then he swung into the saddle and reined his horse into a tight curve, the men parting before him as he followed where the wains had rolled: up towards the next gate and so at last to the Sixth Level and the Citadel beyond. His secretary was left behind to carry out his orders, and on the dirty cobbles still knelt Thorongil, who had not been given leave to rise.

Minardil went to him, drawing him up by one elbow and pressing the mug of wine into his hand. Thorongil looked at him, strangely dazed. His pale skin was grey-hued even in the ruddy light of day’s dying, and there were dark smudges beneath his eyes. It came to Minardil then that if the man had slept at all these last two nights, he had not seen it. He had been almost constantly among the wounded, save when he dispatched his waterbearing duties.

‘Drink,’ Minardil instructed. He knew not what more to say. ‘We must get the men out of this cold.’

Thorongil’s head rocked mutely, and he lifted the vessel to his lips. The scent seemed to rouse him a little, and he drank. ‘Leave them have a few more minutes,’ he decided. ‘It will do them no harm to mingle with their fellows, nor the men of the Second Company to linger a while.’

Only far later that night did Minardil recall that he had spoken to Thorongil as an equal, and had been answered in kind.


Thorongil found his Captain seated at one of the broad tables in the main hall of the barracks, the light of one lonely candle floating just out of the range of the fire’s ruddy glow. As his boots sounded on the stone, Minardil looked up. His face furrowed into a frown.

‘Will you never sleep?’ he asked. His own voice was rough with weariness.

‘I have the role of the wounded, Captain.’ Thorongil came forward to offer the page over which he had laboured this last hour. ‘Our wounded only, I fear, for I do not know every man in the Second Company.’

Minardil had a list of his own before him, and a page with many refusing strokes slashed across it. Another, quite ruined with false starts, was crumpled into a curling ball. He let the quill drop from fingers stained every bit as black as Thorongil’s, and took the outheld sheet.

‘Thank you,’ he sighed. ‘Their families, too, must be notified?’

‘Those who have no close kin in the City, aye,’ Thorongil said softly. ‘They are marked with a cross. Forgil was happy to offer his counsel.’

The Captain studied the list, bleary eyes first skimming and then returning to read afresh, forced into thoroughness by tired will alone. Thorongil waited wordlessly. His long legs ached and his head seemed to be floating instead of anchored firmly to his neck. The back of his throat burned with exhaustion and he had to fight to keep his eyes open, even standing at attention as he was.

‘Sit,’ Minardil said, gesturing to the opposite bench. It was unwise: a risk. Thorongil knew it, but he could not resist. He stepped over the long plank and thumped down upon it. His breathing seemed laboured as he battled for alertness and waited for Minardil to finish.’

‘A very thorough reckoning,’ the Captain said at last, laying aside the parchment. Its edges were uneven and its surface discoloured. Thorongil had scrounged it from the kitchen, where butcher’s orders and greengrocer’s lists were scraped and written over anew as a matter of course.

‘Their states are only as I last saw them,’ said Thorongil. ‘For those who rode with Midhon, only this noontide. Any of their conditions may well have changed by now, particularly those of Mallor and Durion.’

There was a question behind the words; a feeble hope. Minardil met both. ‘A page was sent from the Houses of Healing about an hour ago,’ he said. ‘Mallor survived the climb to the Sixth Circle and the move to a proper bed. He has been washed and his dressings replaced, and his condition is unchanged.’

‘And Durion?’ Knowledge was better than ignorance, and Thorongil tried to be grateful for the tidings alone, independent of their content. He grimaced at his overtired indiscretion. ‘Lieutenant Durion.’

Minardil had the look of a fine hunting hound unexpectedly whipped. ‘He raged against the healers. He spoke nonsensically, and he did not respond to their words.’

Thorongil’s pulse quickened. ‘But he awakened? He spoke?’

‘Briefly,’ Minardil mourned. ‘Briefly and unintelligibly.’

‘Sir… Captain… Minardil,’ fumbled Thorongil. His speech was slurring like that of one drunk, though he had taken no more than a few ounces of wine six hours before. ‘He had not awakened save to loll his eyes and tremble since the battle. If he is speaking at all, it is a promising sign.’

Minardil did not seem to comprehend what he was hearing. He shook his head dumbfoundedly. ‘But they could not understand what he said. Mayhap his mind is addled.’

‘It is possible,’ said Thorongil. ‘Yet it is equally possible that he is insensate with pain or exhaustion, or that he woke from a troubling dream. At least we know that he is farther now from death.’

He saw the hope grow in Minardil’s eyes, fragile and desperate. Then it faded and the Captain hung his head over the arms that propped him up over his writing.

‘Too many already have died,’ he said. ‘How am I to write to their loved ones? Mothers and fathers, wives, lovers, brothers, children – oh, heavens above, some had children…’

His shoulders shook and Thorongil wanted to reach out a comforting hand, but he refrained. He had seen enough of Gondorian grief these last three days that he knew such a gesture might be welcome, but would harm Minardil’s pride. Instead he spoke in his most serene and reassuring voice.

‘They had children who will remember their fathers as heroes who gave their very lives for Gondor, for their safety and their freedom,’ he pledged. ‘Though their grief will be great, always they will bear that knowledge and the honour that comes with it. It may carry them through dark moments in their own lives, desiring to live with the fortitude that their sires bore even unto death.’

An ache opened up in his chest then, such as he would not have felt at a less weary time. He remembered countless occasions when he had asked – of his mother, of Master Elrond, of his foster-brothers and Erestor and Glorfindel and the kitchen folk and the ironmonger and every wood-elf who would pause to listen – how his own father had died. Always he had received the same answer: with honour, with honour, with honour. Not until his manhood had he learned of the orcish arrow and the pierced eye, the long, slow fading as cerebral hydropsy took hold. Yet the details had meant less to him than that reassurance had to the boy he had been: that his father had fallen in the fight against the Shadow, with honour. With honour.

‘They will remember their fathers, aye,’ sighed Minardil. ‘And in part through the letters I now must write. Yet I cannot… there are no words… no words, Thorongil.’

He looked up, helpless and utterly bereft. Now Thorongil did reach for Minardil, gripping his wrist and pinning his left hand to the tabletop. He held the younger man’s eyes, quelling the fleeting thought that Minardil surely thought himself the elder.

‘There are words,’ he promised. ‘I will help you find them. Take a fresh paper… no, do not fear to waste it. A clean page is wanted to begin such work.’

Recognition dawned upon Minardil’s brow. ‘You have written such letters yourself,’ he breathed. ‘Long ere this, in Rohan.’

‘Yes,’ breathed Thorongil. ‘I have written eight score and three, to my sorrow. They grow no easier to write with time, but the language at least comes more readily. Who is first upon the list?’

‘Turgil,’ said Minardil. ‘He has family in Ringló Vale: a mother, a sister, perhaps other kin.’

‘Address it to his mother,’ said Thorongil. ‘That is most fitting. Then begin; it is with sorrow and admiration that I must write to you of the loss of your son. Turgil was slain in the defence of Gondor upon the— you must always write that the man has been slain,’ he explained. ‘If you do not, they will read the words you have written around the truth, and build their own tale to fit them. You must write that he is slain, so that they will believe.’

He half expected a protestation: many green commanders feared to take upon themselves the duty of making a dead subordinate’s kindred believe the truth that would alter all the rest of their lives. But Minardil, new to battle though he was, was no green commander. He was a gifted Captain who knew much of the hearts of men. He nodded, and wrote as Thorongil had dictated. Then he paused, unsure how to proceed.

‘The details of the battle,’ Thorongil prompted quietly. ‘Date and place, what manner of foe, how Turgil fought if you witnessed it, what his comrades said of him if you did not. Never tell them it was a quick death, or easy, unless you know it to be true. Falsehoods are cold comfort.’

He watched while Minardil wrote. Sometimes the letters blurred before his eyes, and more than once he caught himself nodding. He could have picked up a pen himself and halved the time they two must sit thus, but Thorongil knew better than to suggest it. Some Captains might have appreciated the offer. Some might even have delegated the task to their lieutenants, but not Minardil. He felt as Thorongil had felt too often in his place: that this was his duty and his sacred trust, the last gesture of gratitude that he could make to men who had died at his command. So Thorongil let him write, aiding with the wording where needed and offering words of encouragement when Minardil began to flag.

Twice Thorongil suggested to his exhausted Captain that the writing would keep until morning. Twice Minardil refused to halt, as Thorongil would have refused in his place. The missives should ride out with the morning, that news of the deaths reach the far towns and farmholdings in this form before any other. Such a comfort could not be offered those kindred who dwelt in Minas Tirith: theirs would be another kindness and a very different ordeal for Minardil. They would be consoled face to face and hand in hand when they came to claim their fallen warriors.

Dawn found twenty-six letters written, signed and sealed with the sigil of the Tenth Company. They were sorted into two neat rows: the larger to be sent abroad, the smaller to be taken to the gathering-place of the dead. The dining board was littered with scraps of paper cut carefully away, abortive attempts marked heavily with revisions, and the shavings and remains of three spent quills. Arms folded amid this detritus, two men sat with their heavy heads pillowed upon their sleeves and their weight upon chest and elbows. Both were asleep where they sat, too weary at last even to stretch out on the benches.

The stub of one lonely candle sputtered and went out.

Chapter XX: Payment and Price

When the last hand was clasped and the last consolation uttered, Ecthelion surveyed the trestle tables with their tragic burdens. Many of the dead had been borne away by grieving family or friends, but eighteen men remained. Their blankets had been replaced with proper linen shrouds, neatly stitched and packed with herbs to ward off stink and slow decay. Some would be fetched by kin dwelling farther afield, but Ecthelion knew that there would be a few unclaimed.

These he would see buried with honour at the City’s expense. Such was not the usual way, where an unclaimed soldier would be laid to rest by his Company, but these were extraordinary circumstances. These men and their fellows had not marched knowingly into battle, nor fallen defending the walls as was their sworn duty. Death had come unlooked-for on the training field, and the survivors were still struggling to cope themselves. They could not be expected to undertake the funeral labours.

A glance at the two Captains was enough to prove that. Both had the grey-hued and careworn look of men stumbling homeward after a gruelling campaign – as in a way they still were. Ten years had fallen on Nelior’s head, and young Minardil was pale as a wraith. Neither looked to have had any sleep, and Ecthelion reflected that this was likely not far from the truth.

The Steward turned first to Nelior. ‘There will be a gathering of the Captains at the beginning of the dusk watch, to discuss means of bringing your Company back to working strength. Consider well if there are any men you particularly desire to serve under you.’

Nelior made his salute. ‘I will, my lord, and thank you.’

Ecthelion touched the man’s elbow briefly, a small but significant gesture of solidarity. ‘Go now,’ he said. ‘Word will be brought to you when your men are interred in the temporary crypt.’

Nelior nodded, bowed again, and was gone. This left Ecthelion and Minardil alone but for the honour guard from the First Company of the Citadel. Ecthelion took careful measure of the Captain.

‘This is the first reaping of death that you have seen as commander, I think?’ Ecthelion asked.

‘Sire, it is.’ Minardil was striving for grave dignity, but his voice was rough with sorrow and weariness.

Ecthelion’s lips twitched in earnest pity. ‘I fear it grows no easier with long practice, but time at least will salve the pain of it a little.’

‘So I have been told, my lord,’ said Minardil.

So Nelior had taken it upon himself to mentor his more junior fellow. That was well. Ecthelion approved of nothing so much in a soldier as a desire and capacity to teach.

‘If there is aught that I may do to ease the burden on your office, you have only to say,’ Ecthelion promised. ‘It will be some days before I can turn to the question of renewing your Company, but in the meantime I will give orders that the Ninth and Eleventh shall each take on a portion of your watches. Would half between them be sufficient?’

Minardil did not answer straight away, but let his eyes take on a distant light as he ran through the calculations. Ecthelion admired him for that, and still more for his response. ‘Let them take a third, sire. I do not wish my men to lie idle at so harrowing a time.’

‘As you wish,’ said Ecthelion. ‘If it proves too little, see that you are not too proud to tell me. What else can I offer?’

Minardil’s eyes made an awkward slide to the right. ‘Sire, it may sound trivial at such a time…’ he began.

‘Speak, Captain, and let me judge what is trivial,’ Ecthelion urged gently.

‘The men’s pay, sire.’ The words came out in a heavy breath. Minardil closed his eyes. ‘We were in the field for requital day, and they were to have been paid on the day after our return. I know that in light of all that has happened it seems a minor matter, but—’

‘But your men are not men of means, to have their wages lightly withheld,’ said Ecthelion, nodding. ‘They have families to support and debts to discharge, necessities to purchase and comforts too long delayed. It shall be seen to: I will send the quartermaster’s exchequer to your garrison after the midday meal. Has the Captain General instructed that your watches resume on the day they were to have done so?’

‘Two days hence, my lord: yes.’ Minardil coloured faintly, though his face was too ashen to muster much of a flush. ‘Sire, I did not mean to imply…’

Ecthelion offered a small, tired smile. ‘Nonsense, my boy: think nothing of it. The monies are overdue as it is, and there is no need to wait longer. If the quartermaster has not prepared them by now, he is remiss in his duties.’

‘Never that, sire, surely,’ said Minardil politely. Then his eyes travelled to the nearest laden table and swallowed painfully. ‘I must be fetched when each man is  claimed, that I may speak to his family. How do I make that arrangement?’

‘A page will be sent,’ Ecthelion promised. A silence lapsed between them. ‘You have done well, Captain. Under terrible strain, you have upheld your duty and served both your Steward and your men. Take pride in that.’

Minardil bowed his head, accepting the praise quietly. ‘Thank you, sire. I will try.’

When he had taken his leave of the good Captain, Ecthelion made his way slowly through the streets. He could have called for a carriage or commandeered a horse from any stable in the city, but today he preferred to walk. The long, serpentine climb gave him ample time for thought and a welcome reminder that although aging, his body was not yet aged. He did not strain his wind, nor awaken in his limbs anything but the pleasant ache of healthful exertion. By the time he reached the Seventh Gate, he was more restful in his mind than he had been since the terrible tidings had come.

He heard his son’s voice even before he turned the corner that led to the Lord Warden’s office. Ecthelion’s presence in the makeshift morgue had relieved Denethor of the duty, but from the first words it was apparent that he had used the time well.

‘... my privilege to write to you of his courage. He was to the last a valiant soldier and a true son of Gondor,’ Denethor said slowly. As Ecthelion reached the open doorway, his Heir pivoted upon one foot and resumed his ponderous pacing. ‘My gratitude and that of all my people is his, and his honour shall belong to his heirs until the world’s end.’

Valacar sat at his high clerk’s desk, taking meticulous dictation. He did not look up to anticipate the next words, or to allow himself to be distracted by his master’s perpetual motion. Leaning on the doorpost, still unnoticed, Ecthelion watched as his son stopped before his secretary and leaned a languid arm upon the desk’s top ridge.

‘I stand ever yours in honour and service,’ he concluded. The quill scratched softly upon the costly paper. Then Denethor snapped his fingers and Valacar yielded up the implement. The onetime tutor slid from his perch and retreated to the corner, giving Denethor ample room to move in. He signed his name with tight precision, and then gave the pen back to its owner. Without prompting, Valacar began to write again: doubtless Denethor’s august list of titles.

At last Denethor’s eyes found the threshold and the watcher within. ‘My father,’ he said neatly. ‘What would the Steward ask of me?’

‘I came in search of a quiet word, though not as the Steward,’ said Ecthelion. ‘Yet I would not take you from this solemn work.’

Denethor glanced at Valacar. ‘Turgil of the Tenth Company is the last, is he not?’

‘Yes, my lord.’ The secretary was dusting the letter with sand. Upon Denethor’s desk lay two neat piles of documents waiting to be sealed with the Captain-General’s mark.

‘Did you know the man?’ Ecthelion asked softly. ‘You speak as though you did.’

‘No,’ said Denethor. He drew a hand across his mouth, and for a moment he looked very weary. Then his features hardened once more into stoic lines. ‘Yet that is what the family will wish to believe: that he was known even on the heights. That, and that his death was swift and without pain.’

‘And was it?’ asked Ecthelion.

‘I do not know. It is doubtful. He fell to the orcs, and the corpse showed signs of much abuse.’ Denethor reached purposefully for the back of his carven chair, but Ecthelion marked how his hand trembled in the instant before he laid hold. ‘Bestial thralls of darkness,’ he snapped, eyes crackling with righteous fire. ‘If I could slay them all, I would. And I would give much to know how they reached the river.’

‘Mayhap the prisoner will tell us, when he is strong enough to be questioned,’ Ecthelion said, trying to quiet the inferno in his son’s gaze.

If anything, the flame burned brighter. ‘He need not be strong, only lucid,’ said Denethor. ‘I have told the healers to summon me when he wakes, be it even in the dead of night.’

‘Do not be hasty, my son,’ said Ecthelion. ‘It is best to wait until he is fit, rather than to risk losing his cooperation.’

‘He need not cooperate, either,’ said Denethor. ‘Only speak.’

‘Hard words.’ The admonition was quiet, but Denethor stiffened as if at a howl of rage. Instantly Ecthelion regretted his words. His son, too, had but lately been in battle unlooked-for, and the loss of so many good men must weigh heavily upon a commander’s heart. ‘Pay me no mind,’ Ecthelion sighed. ‘It has been a weighty morning.’

Denethor’s expression softened in a way that he would never have allowed had there been any observer but Valacar. ‘How many were claimed?’ he asked quietly.

‘All but eighteen,’ said Ecthelion. ‘More will come for them. The others I will see buried at the City’s expense.’

‘Not the Companies’?’


Denethor did not question him further. His fingertips brushed the larger of the two stacks of letters. ‘I will dispatch these on the morrow,’ he said. ‘It is fitting that word should come first from the Captains.’

Ecthelion nodded. It went beyond a Captain-General’s duty to write the letters at all – for a fallen officer it was expected, but for common guardsmen or simple knights Denethor would have been under no obligation. Nor had he bade the letters be written to form, if he had dictated even the last.

‘Can you wait to seal them, then?’ Ecthelion asked carefully. He knew better than to suggest that Valacar be permitted to perform this task. Denethor guarded nothing so jealously as his seal. ‘I wish to speak to you of more private matters.’

Denethor’s eyes narrowed, glinting like slate. ‘Familial matters?’ he asked.

‘Matters concerning your sister,’ said Ecthelion.

At once the wariness ebbed from Denethor, replaced instead by anxiety well-hidden save from a father’s eye. ‘Telpiriel. How fares she? Is the child…’ He stopped, looked at Valacar, and shook his head. ‘I will walk with you. That will be best.’

It would indeed be best, and Ecthelion led the way.




It was some time before Minardil could bring himself to abandon his shrouded men. In the end, it was the coming of the pallbearers to carry them away to the temporary crypt that broke him free. The walk down to the Second Circle was long and wearisome. His legs seemed reluctant to bear him, and his breathing became swiftly laboured. He had known he was exhausted, but the hard proof still troubled him.

He did not know how long he had slumbered with his head upon the table like a child or a drunkard, but it could not have been more than an hour. He and Thorongil had been awakened by the arrival of the servant come to light the fire in the main hall. There had been no question of slipping upstairs: Minardil had scarcely finished clearing away the signs of the night’s painful labour when the men began to come down in search of breakfast. Minardil thought he was beginning to get the faintest taste of the bitter draught Thorongil had been quaffing in the days since the battle.

He paused before the entrance to the garrison, levelling his breathing and settling his features into a countenance of calm capability. It might be that he was weighed down with sorrow and exhaustion, but he must not let his men see it – or if they saw, which seemed unavoidable, they must equally witness his effort to carry on regardless.

He entered upon the sharp scents of linseed and wool grease, to find the aisle between the twin rows of tables strewn with what appeared to be every scrap of leather possessed by the Tenth Company. There were saddles and harnesses, packs and straps and scrips, helms and jerkins, belts, sheaths and bottles. Only the boots were missing, so far as Minardil could see. Amid this sat five men, legs crossed tailor-fashion upon the flagstones, hard at work with oil and rags.

‘What’s this?’ Minardil asked, greater burdens forgotten in his astonishment.

‘Lieutenant Herion’s orders, sir,’ said Ciryan. He was nearest Minardil, a helm in his lap. ‘All leathers to be cleaned and greased to good condition, damaged stock to be sent for mending.’

‘Oh.’ Minardil picked his way through the first few ranks of goods, which upon second inspection were in truth neatly organized. ‘That is commendable, but it’s the men’s duty to care for their own scabbards.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Ciryan. ‘These belong to the drill swords.’

There was nothing Minardil could say to that, and he did not wish to offer up another flat oh, so he moved up the line. The men had clearly been working most of the morning, but they were only about halfway through the task. He wondered briefly why Herion would have set so few men, and then reflected that there were many other things to be done: the practice blades would need to be cleaned and polished, the camp dishes thoroughly scrubbed. There would be fresh meat and milk to bring in, and a great quantity of soiled clothing to be sent out to the fuller. There was work enough to occupy the able-bodied men of the Tenth until watches resumed.

‘Carry on: it’s most satisfactory,’ said Minardil. ‘When you have finished, you may have the time until the noon meal to rest. The quartermaster will—what is this?’

He had come to the end of the line, where a guardsman sat with his forearms braced upon his knees, rubbing small, vigorous circles into a jerkin. His head was bowed and his forelocks had slipped free of the thong that bound his hair, obscuring his face. His fingers were stained ruddy brown with linseed oil, and there was a dark bruise on the outside of his left wrist.

Thorongil looked up, mild surprise upon a face haggard with weariness. ‘Captain?’

‘What are you doing here?’ Minardil asked. He did not speak the implied question, for he did not want the others to think their faithful fellow was being scolded like a child.

‘Lieutenant Herion requested my aid, sir,’ said Thorongil. There was a dry note to his voice that made Minardil uneasy, and Ciryan’s muttered commentary did not change that.

‘Ordered, more like.’

Minardil frowned at him, wanting to pursue the question but equally eager to avoid the appearance of any difference of opinion among the Company’s officers. To Thorongil he said, ‘Leave that by. Some other man can be found to take your place. Ciryan, you will see to that. I have other labours for Thorongil now.’

Ciryan nodded affably, sprang up and strode off for the sparring yard door. Thorongil laid aside the leather armour with care and set the rag beside his pot of linseed before climbing to his feet. Minardil beckoned him and moved between the nearest tables to the hearth.

‘You know what I am going to say,’ Minardil murmured, keeping his face gravely implacable.

Thorongil inclined his head. ‘I believe I do, Captain, and I am grateful.’

‘Do not thank me; I should have done this three days past. Go.’ Minardil’s hand travelled involuntarily towards the stairway. Thorongil saluted and withdrew.

With a sigh, Minardil surveyed the hall once more and then retreated to his study. He could not be caught abed when the quartermaster came, but catching an hour or two in his chair would certainly refresh him a little.


The quartermaster’s exchequer was a portly man with a wrinkled and desiccated face. He executed his duty with ponderous precision, inured to the shifting impatience of the men before him. Captain Minardil sat beside him, holding the roll of the Company and reading each man’s name aloud in turn. They had arranged themselves without fuss, in order of rank.

From his place at the rear, Thorongil was interested to observe that the procedure was no different than that of the Rohirrim. A name was called, and the man stepped forward to repeat it. Minardil read aloud the amount due to him, any deductions to be made against the monies, and the amount to be paid out. The exchequer, his money box before him, counted out the coins that the man was to be given. There were small pigskin sacks prefilled and coloured to denote the amount within: blue for ten coppers, red for twenty-five. Intermediate quantities and silver were given loose in the hand. Some men stood a moment longer, carefully counting their pay. Others bent at once to leave their mark upon the ledger. Thorongil took note of who did each. He found it illuminating.

The tally also kept his mind occupied. Otherwise he might well have drifted off again where he stood. He had used every minute of his three hours in slumber, foregoing the noon meal entirely. He supposed he could have missed the remittance ritual as well: Minardil surely would have kept back his share as he was doing for each man on the wounded registry (the accounts of the dead would be settled with their kindred). But Thorongil had been eager to observe the process, and reluctant to wait another three weeks to do it. So although his throat stung and his every muscle ached with weariness that his brief sleep seemed only to have whetted, he stood patiently to wait his turn.

There had been an oversight on the part of the quartermaster. Instead of a redacted list naming only the survivors of the attack in the field, Minardil had the original. He carried it off well, but twice he called the name of a dead man. Both times a ripple of discomfiture ran through the Company, and Minardil’s face tightened in reflexive anguish. Thorongil watched him, an experienced Captain facing his first great loss of life, and felt nothing but sorrow and admiration. Minardil was bearing up as best he could, and the continued cohesion of the Company was owed to that.

The name of each of the wounded, read only once before the exchequer handed Minardil the monies due, struck Thorongil’s heart. Exhausted though he was, thoughts of the men he had tended so ceaselessly weighed upon him. Had he but the pass-words, he would have run for the Sixth Level as soon as dawn had broken and well before Herion could have wrangled him into leather-polishing. The thought of them, and especially the gravest cases, in the hands of other men gnawed at him. He did not doubt the capabilities of the healers of Gondor, but he suspected that his own training was superior. He knew, at least, that he could offer intrinsic skills that they did not possess. At the least, he longed to see the wounded properly tended, that he might rest easy in his mind.

The line was gone now, and Thorongil stood awaiting his turn. Minardil called him forward with a faint, unsurprised twitch of the lips. ‘Thorongil of the Guard.’

‘Thorongil of the Guard presents himself, sir,’ Thorongil said quietly, stepping forward.

‘Guardsman’s wage, one month less four days’ nonattendance,’ Minardil read. ‘Ten pence twenty-four coppers.’

It was straightforward enough. Thorongil had taken no credit against his wage, had damaged no equipment save in battle, and had no fines for lateness or disrespect or drunkenness. The exchequer plucked up two blue sacks and the appropriate coinage. These Thorongil took in his left hand. Not even glancing at them, he bent to sign his name. At the sight of the ledger, he knew that Minardil had not read aloud what was on his list. Thorongil son of no man was written in bold black letters, their very Elven elegance an accusation. Thorongil closed his eyes and signed blind.

Many of the men were gathered near the head of the room, leaning on tables or with a foot up on a bench. They were counting their pay, handing off coin to discharge loans or debts, laughing and talking in subdued voices. On an ordinary payday, Thorongil did not doubt that this would have been a glad and boisterous gathering. Even tonight there would be visits to the wine-houses and to the shops that sold small luxuries. He had himself intended to visit a leathermongers in search of wrapping for the hilt of his sword, but as Lord Denethor had confiscated it this seemed pointless.

The thought of his sword, the Númenórean sword that he had found by fortune and a sharp eye, soured Thorongil’s stomach. He had spent countless hours restoring it to working condition and a semblance of its rightful glory. He had toiled to scour away the rust without scratching the blade, had dug the crusted grime of years from the tracery on the hilts, had polished the whole thing with care. It was truly his blade, anointed in battle with saved lives and slain foes to its credit. To be stripped of it so ignominiously was a bitter blow.

He understood, or could try to understand, Lord Denethor’s interest in ensuring the weapon’s provenance. It was an extraordinary piece to be found in one of the humblest armouries in the City. But the accusation of false witness, without evidence or testimony, had stung Thorongil sharply, and the Heir’s handling of the sword had awakened in him an anger such as he had not felt in years.

The blow to his wrist might have looked accidental, but no mere loss of balance could lend such force to a sword. His wrist throbbed yet, and there was a livid bruise upon it. Such a spiteful act from one endowed with such power would have been dismaying if it had been against a peer. Against one who appeared but a lowly soldier, of poorly-disclosed origins or not, it was an abuse of position that dismayed and troubled Thorongil deeply.

Thorongil tried to remind himself that Denethor, like all the rest of them, was still under strain from the battle and its tragic consequences. He forced himself to admit that the man’s cares were not at an end, as was the case for his subordinates: he had Ithilien to think of, and the dreadful lapse that must have presaged the crossing of Anduin. Surely Denethor was still angry over the revelation of Thorongil’s long-held captaincy; ignorance of so significant a fact would gall a man who wished to know all. And yet whatever excuse he tried to make, Thorongil could not justify Denethor’s behaviour.

‘Are you off to spend your coin?’ Minardil’s voice was low, circumspect.

Thorongil shook his head. ‘What I crave cannot be bought,’ he said. He joggled his hand, testing the weight of his first wages as a servant of the Steward of Gondor. The thought brought a twist of guilt and apprehension. He could not make right the errors that had so contributed to tribulation in the field, but there was one thing he had to do. ‘Captain—’

‘Minardil,’ the other man corrected. ‘You are my equal and more. Address me thus.’

‘That is not fitting. Not where others may hear,’ said Thorongil. He hesitated, pressing his pale lips together as he braced himself.

‘What is it?’ asked Minardil. ‘Never have I seen you uncertain.’

‘The time is ill,’ Thorongil said. ‘With all that has come to pass and all that must be done, Lord Ecthelion is not at leisure to entertain the pleas of the least of his men. Yet… I must make arrangements to speak to him. It need not be now; it need not even be soon. But the request must be put in at once. It must be known plainly that I have made the attempt.’

‘The attempt. To speak to the Steward,’ Minardil said. ‘Dare I ask why?’

‘It would be best if you did not,’ admitted Thorongil. Perhaps the worst of misdeeds was this: that he had entangled a true and noble man in his ill-starred machinations.

Minardil gave him a long look. In Thorongil’s hand, the coins felt cold and heavy as lead plumbs. At last the Captain spoke. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘I shall petition the Master of the Guard for an audience before the Steward. You should know, however, that such audiences are often attended by the Captain-General, whether his presence is requested or no.’

That would indeed make the matter still more painful, but Thorongil could not have the situation of his own choosing now. He had let that time pass him by, and he would have to pay the price for it. He closed his hand upon its burden of currency, restraining the urge to fling the lot into the fire.

‘Thank you,’ he whispered. ‘You should escort me to my booth, Captain. I think we both have pressing business upstairs.’

Minardil chuckled, softly but sincerely.


Midhon stood in the far corner of the little whitewashed room, watching solemnly as the senior healer stitched closed the wound that his assistant had cut open. The coils of Thorongil’s neat suture lay in a basin with the bloodied bandages and the squares of linen that had been used to mop the gaping hole in the man’s leg while a thorough inspection was made of the work within. The wounded guardsman, Mallor by name, lay lost in a dreamless sleep bought for him with the Herb-Master’s powerful philtres. He had awakened thrice in the night, each time clenched in agony and slick with sweat.

With his patients delivered and his debriefing made, Midhon had expected to be told his services were no more needed, sent from the House, and escorted back to the lower levels of the City. Instead, he had spent the evening moving from bedside to bedside with Thalahir and his entourage of pupils, nurses and healers. At each bed he had been asked to give his account of the man’s condition and to offer opinions as to his treatment. This was a privilege usually reserved for the most promising of the students and the healers of the House itself. Not once in the years of his training had he been permitted such an honour.

Now Thalahir laid aside the curved needle and the tiny shears, and looked at Midhon with eyes appraising and cold as the snows of Mindoluin. ‘You did not stitch this vessel,’ he said. ‘I did not teach you such things. I do not know of such things myself. What is this?’

Midhon swallowed hard. All during the triaging of the wounded and on into the long night-watch and the limping journey home, Thorongil had made every attempt to restrain the appearance of taking charge. He had deferred to Midhon’s every suggestion as if it were a command, and when he dissented at all he had done so with the softest voice and a note of subtle uncertainty. He had insisted that the most skilled of the field nurses ride with him in the wain, that the man might readily be assumed to be in charge. He would not like talk of his deeds to pass through the Houses of Healing as all gossip did: swiftly and with frightening precision.

Yet what could Midhon say? Thalahir had given him his one chance to lift himself out of the gutter, and it had worked – even if he had not flown to the heights. Tending brawlers’ bruised knuckles and checking new recruits for lice was a privilege when weighed against what he had come from. And now? Now he had tended men in the battlefield, serving Gondor in the most immediate way any healer could – save perhaps to wait upon the Steward. He was proud of the work that he had done, and of the way that he had managed (though he knew not how) to remain collected through the worst of it.

‘It… it was the work of a soldier, Master,’ he said reluctantly. ‘A man lately come to Minas Tirith out of Rohan. He spoke of an uncle who fought against the Enemy and perfected the technique on the battlefield.’

‘This is the work of no battlefield butcher,’ the healer said, wiping the blood from his hands and tossing the stained towel into the bowl. ‘This is artistry the like of which I have seldom seen, and never upon an artery, however thick. Who is this man?’

Midhon swallowed against a dry throat. ‘Thorongil, he is named. He came to us out of Rohan.’

‘So you have said. The horse-lords may be our betters in farriering, but their understanding of the healing arts is rudimentary compared to that held in this House.’ Thalahir’s brow furrowed. ‘Is that all he had to say for himself? That a soldier uncle taught him what the great scholars of the Arts Physic know not?’

‘Sir, I did not press him,’ Midhon said. That was true enough. He had not dared to press him, so capable and knowing he had appeared. So lordly, too, though that was absurd. No soldier of such mean estate ever bore noble blood. ‘I was grateful enough of two steady hands and a level head. There was work enough for five men, and we were but two.’

Thalahir clicked his tongue. ‘I fain would meet this man. Can it be arranged?’

‘I… I do not know, sir,’ said Midhon, rebuking himself. What trouble had he brought on Thorongil, who had been kind to him when he was a lone outcast and who had saved so many lives before his very eyes? ‘A simple soldier of the Second Circle… I could not bring him hither myself. I do not think he has been given the pass-words.’

‘I will send for him,’ said Thalahir decisively. ‘My word should carry weight enough with the Guards.’

‘Sir, if I may…’ Midhon dared to step forward, out of the security of the corner. His hand even moved in a plaintive gesture. Thalahir raised his eyebrows and Midhon froze, but he did not fall silent. ‘Send for him as a comrade of one of the men, not as a party of interest to yourself. In his ravings, perhaps Lieutenant Durion called for him.’

‘Did he?’ asked Thalahir, genuinely curious. In truth, no one had been able to make sense of Durion’s disjointed ramblings as he drifted in and out of an unnatural slumber.

‘Mayhap he could,’ said Midhon, helplessly.

His erstwhile teacher stared at him, grey eyes searching. Perhaps he saw what he sought, or did not see what he feared to. In any case, he jerked his chin. ‘Very well. He is a comrade of one of the men. Of the Lieutenant,’ he amended. ‘That will seem less of an indulgence. All in the House now know of his delirium. It is only natural that we seek to break it with persons and things familiar.’

Midhon’s stomach churned. Such a pretext seemed to skirt the edge of deception. Yet Thorongil was known to Durion, and he had seemed friendly with all the men of the Tenth Company. At least it would give him the opportunity, for which any healer would yearn, to see to the disposition of those he had tended. ‘Yes, sir. I think that would be best,’ he allowed.

Thalahir looked down at Mallor again and shook his head. ‘No mere Guardsman did this,’ he muttered. ‘Never. Never.’

Chapter XXI: No Mere Guardsman

Thorongil was led not to Durion's bedside, but into an anteroom of white stone and marble, cool and serene amid the rooms filled with firelight and sickness. A window looked out upon the city below, the twisting byways of the Sixth Circle wending down to the lower wall. The casements were hung with gauzy draperies meant more to soften the sunlight than to shut out the night. The walls were lined with chairs and couches carved of pale woods, and there was a sideboard bearing simple refreshments. Thorongil surmised that this was the place to which the healers removed when their duties allowed.

The other walls were bare, but the eastward bore a large painting executed with a draughtsman's precision. In it, great lords bearing the sigils of the high houses of Gondor and Arnor stood mournful and aghast about a low-lying camp bed. A prostrate figure, wan as if in death, lay with his head cast towards the viewer, dark hair spread sinuously on the crude pillow. Beside him, back all but turned, knelt a tall and slender man, the strong shoulders of a warrior tempered by the gentle hands laid upon his patient: one on the brow, another clasping the grey-hued fingers. Upon the Healer's head sat the lofty winged crown borne from fallen Númenor, and between him and his son there was a light that cast the anxious watchers in shadow.

Lest any should mistake the image, it was marked with a small brass plaque. Elendil at Dagorlad, it read. A tiny curl of amusement touched Thorongil's lips. Legends must remain inviolate, it seemed: the sleeper was not identified.

'The hands of the king are the hands of a healer,' a sombre voice intoned. Thorongil turned to find a man with the lofty bones and piercing eyes of Westernesse. "Do you know the tale, stranger?"

'I know the adage,' Thorongil supplied carefully. The brief epigraph on the painting suggested that the whole of the account was not generally known, and he was but a soldier of fortune out of a distant land. 'So, it is said, the rightful king was ever known.'

'Verily,' said the man. From his near-fitting robes of well-washed cloth and the apron he wore at his belt, it was plain that he was a healer. From his bearing, Thorongil knew him to be a man of authority. 'You are Thorongil, sempster of the Tenth Company.'

It was no question. The choice of words caught Thorongil backfooted. 'Sir, I am a Guardsman and a blooded soldier,' he said, puzzled.

'So you say. And I am Thalahir, Master of this House. Come, Guardsman, and answer for your work."

Bewildered and uneasy, Thorongil followed him from the room and up the silent corridor. Where doors stood ajar, he caught glimpses of the afflicted and their carers. He might have paused to puzzle over each ailment, divining whether he could diagnose by brief sight alone, but his heart was pounding. Was there any more dreadful charge to lay upon a healer than that he answer for his work?

He followed Thalahir to a small, private room at the quietest end of the corridor. There lay Mallor, flat upon his back with his hands folded upon his breast. For a ghastly moment, Thorongil thought that he had been laid out in death. Then came the tell-tale rise of the ribs. Someone, perhaps while changing the bed linens, had positioned him thus, and the weight of his arms maintained the position.

'He is known to you,' Thalahir noted.

'I have been privileged to call him friend,' said Thorongil. Too late he added, 'Sir.'

Thalahir cast him an appraising glance, no doubt questing for insolence. Finding none, he strode around the foot of the bed and carefully drew back the sheet, baring the loose dressing wrapped about Mallor's thigh. Long fingers tipped to indicate the leg. 'What is this?'

Thorongil, who had half-feared his more ethereal attempt to call back the young man had come to light, almost sighed in his relief. 'The artery was all but severed, sir. It was necessary to close it, lest his life's blood desert him utterly.'

'I do not question the necessity,' said Thalahir. 'What of the possibility?'


'Tell me how such a thing is possible.'

Thorongil closed his eyes to veil his surprise. He had taken Midhon's amazement as a sign of his limited expertise. It had not occurred to him that such a procedure, imparted to him as an essential of traumatic leechcraft, might be beyond the scope of the great healers of Gondor. Now the epithet of sempster rang true, if he had stitched what others could not.

He had nothing to offer save the truth he had given Midhon. 'It is my uncle's technique,' Thorongil said, studying Mallor's face. The muscles drooped, heavy with laudanum. There was no sign of fever, nor any scent of infection. He longed to feel for the man's pulse, but he did not dare. 'He saw many such wounds in battle.'

'That I do not doubt: the Enemy's brutish soldiers strike hard and oft ignobly.' Thalahir's expression darkened from cold questioning to hatred – the hatred for the one who tears that only he who must patch together the remains can know. He shook his head slightly, and the interrogative eye was back. 'Yet I cannot be persuaded that so delicate a procedure can be performed in the mire of the battlefield.'

'It would be far easier in so well-appointed a place as this,' Thorongil said. 'Yet in the moment of need, such luxuries are seldom to hand.'

'Tell me how it is done,' said Thalahir.

Drawing in a breath, Thorongil explained. His left hand mimicked the contortion necessary to hold fast both sides of the vessel, while his right indicated the placement of the stitches on the invisible artery. Thalahir listened, brows furrowed.

'It is not so different from mending a rent upon the scalp,' Thorongil said at last; 'save that you have not the scaffold of bone beneath.'

'It is the bone that makes such a thing possible,' said Thalahir, almost to himself. Then he reached with careful hands and drew back the dressing on Mallor's leg. 'You will understand that I felt it necessary to reopen the wound.'

Thorongil nodded, taking an unconscious step forward to appraise the sutures. They were neat and close, holding the angry red flesh together. He searched the striations of the skin, looking for the dreaded spider-legs of infection. They were present, but minute: no more than could be expected after the desperate field measures. To all appearances, Mallor had been given the best of care.

'And the vessel?' Thorongil asked, glancing up to find Thalahir regarding him with something akin to approval.

'I left it untouched,' said the healer. 'I know better than to undo what I cannot do again.'

Now it was Thorongil's turn to shoot a look of approbation. He caught himself, but not quickly enough. Thalahir's lip curled. It was not the lowly soldier's place to teach the great healer.

'May I ask, how has his pain been tended?' Thorongil spoke humbly, but he had to speak. He had been yearning to learn the state of those he had tended, and this might be his only chance to fulfil – if only in part – that need.

'The Herb-master could tell you better than I,' said Thalahir. 'His tinctures and potions are of the very highest order and quality… or perhaps your uncle would not agree?'

Perhaps he would not, Thorongil thought uneasily. Yet he had to have faith in the people of this house, for he could not command them. 'Sir, I do not know what my uncle would think,' he said. 'I ask only for myself, because I have laboured to help Mallor even as you yourself have done.'

The healer considered him for a moment, jaw canted thoughtfully. 'You may speak to the Herb-master ere you depart,' he said; 'but do not tell me that you know as much of his craft as you do of mine.'

Thorongil bowed his head. 'I will not, sir.'

Thalahir made a sound midway between a scoff and a snort, but his next words were almost kind. 'And you may see your other charges, if it pleases you.'

Thorongil met the man's gaze again, surprised. 'That is…' he began.

'That is the due one healer owes another,' said the older man flatly. Then his face furrowed deeply in a frown. 'If you have such skill and know something of herb-lore, why are you squandered in a lowly Company in the coarse rings of the City? Minas Tirith has Guardsmen enough, and there is always a need for more healers.'

'Yet Gondor's healers still are many,' said Thorongil; 'and her great captains few.'

Thalahir's eyebrow shot high. 'You fancy yourself a great captain-in-waiting?' he asked. 'Until now you seemed a modest man, but that smacks of arrogance.'

Perhaps it did, but Thorongil was not ready to concede. 'My talents lie not only in my sword-arm, nor in my h—my hardened hands.'

He had caught the slip just in time and restrained his expression, but his heart hammered. After the words they had exchanged over the painting, such phrasing would have been utterly incautious. He had given cause enough for suspicion as it was, though he did not think Thalahir would reach the truth on the strength of that alone – so improbable it was, surely.

'Midhon did not name your father,' said Thalahir. 'From what great family have you come, and why does your sire suffer to have you serve in the Steward's humblest ranks?'

'I come from no great family of Gondor,' said Thorongil, despite his renewed need for caution unable to lay by the qualifier. 'I have come out of Rohan, and the Captain-General in his wisdom has seen fit to ratify my place.'

It was plain from the depths of his eyes that Thalahir saw much that had not been said, but his countenance did not shift nor his voice alter even to give warning. 'Come,' he said, drawing the sheet carefully over Mallor. He strode for the door.

Thorongil moved to obey, but not before reaching out to brush the back of his hand against the wounded man's cheekbone. There was fever in his blood, but it only smouldered. With the curious sucking sensation upon his heart, Thorongil thought he felt will within the man yet. He could not plumb for it now. He followed the healer.

The room to which he was led was in the cellar of the House, where the air was cold but dry. It held not a bed, but a long table with one pair of legs higher than the other. This answered another of Thorongil's questions about the city of his ancestors. Vivisection, abhorred in Rohan, was practiced here in some measure – though the remote location of the room made him wonder how openly.

Upon the table lay the haunch of a pig, bristled skin still intact save where the meat had been hacked almost to the bone by a sword-blade. Beside it stood a tray arrayed with the necessary tools. Without waiting to be told, Thorongil moved to the far side of the table where Thalahir had taken up a place. From this vantage he could see how skilfully the beast's limb had been cut, so that the great artery was severed just as Mallor's had been.

Thalahir tipped a slender hand towards the tools.

'Show me,' he commanded.


Pale and patrician, Telpiriel sat before the hearth with her hands folded over her swelling belly. She stared sightlessly into the fire, but her eyes were clear and her cheeks unmarred by tears. She had said less than Denethor had read in her heart, but even without his father's warnings he would have known her longing. That she did not let it rule her filled him with pride in his sister.

'Each day that passes healthfully is a blessing, surely,' he said. 'It must improve the odds of a favourable outcome.'

'A favourable outcome,' Telpiriel echoed, turning to look at him at last. Her lip curled almost rakishly. 'Is that what we are to call it, if the aged lady does not once more fail in her duty?'

'You are the daughter of the Steward,' said Denethor. 'It is for no one but he to judge what is your duty. If servants presume, they are as insolent as they are insignificant.'

He knew there were whispers, as there would be in any highborn family when the wife of its head proved repeatedly fruitless, but he disdained them. He had no wish to watch another bloodline die, and Esgalad's peril in Ithilien placed great stakes upon this wager of fate. Yet his care was first for his sister, and if she could not be relieved of her sorrow at least he could assuage this guilt.

Telpiriel favoured him with a thin smile. 'Haughty Denethor, ever dismissive of those on whom his comfort is built,' she said. Before he could raise his voice in his own defence, she raised a staying hand. 'I know that you care not first for comfort, nor begrudge the hardships of the field. It is said that you gave your own tent to house the wounded of the Tenth Company.'

'And the Second of the Citadel,' Denethor corrected, uncomfortable under her unspoken approval. As a child he had ever craved Telpiriel's admiration, and it had been no more frequent than that of any elder sister. Grown now, he preferred the banter and debate of equals.

'Even still,' said Telpiriel, and she fell silent.

Denethor was groping for the next suitable words when there came a knock at the door. It was not the timid tapping of a housemaid, nor the deferential click of Thiadel's knuckles. It was a brisk, warning rap that was followed immediately by the inward swing of the heavy oaken slab. Anaiwen came in, one arm crooked beneath a tray of dainties.

'Only the finest for the lady of the house!' she sang as she came to them on fleet and silent feet. She stood between the two chairs, bending low with her offerings. 'You are too pale, my dear one, and this troublesome man but lately returned from the privations of battle.'

Now Telpiriel's face was alight with a smile, and she picked a delicate pastry to bite. Denethor found himself less irked by Anaiwen's boldness than he might otherwise have been.

'They were scarcely privations, little sister,' he said. 'Do not make towers out of hovels.'

Anaiwen tossed her head and thrust the tray almost into his lap. 'And you should not clip your own wings,' she said. 'It was an improbable victory with untried troops. No man in Gondor could have wrought it but you.'

It seemed he was high in the favour of all his sisters tonight. He should expect a letter of adulation from the third. Denethor took one of the sweets before Anaiwen tried to impale him with the tray. She turned to lay it upon the little table, and sat smoothly upon the hearth-bench. Her movements were unconsciously graceful, yet untempered by the care of a young woman and yet lovely.

'No man but one,' said Denethor, inclining his head to Telpiriel. Then he wished he could have bitten off his tongue. She needed no reminders of Esgalad's prowess in battle, or the heightened risk that such a commander took upon himself. He cleared his throat. 'Certainly it would have been beyond Cairon's reach, if he could not defend the river with his great force of veterans.'

'The Guards are talking of that,' said Anaiwen, now grave. 'Is it true that you captured one of them? It was not an… not an orc, was it?' A shiver ran up her spine at the thought of such a creature within the walls of the White City.

'Nay, little one: a craven Easterling,' said Denethor. Almost to himself he muttered; 'As if we have not enough of those.'

Anaiwen looked relieved, but Telpiriel was now wary. 'What is to be done with him?'

'He is in the care of the healers, suffering from a wound in the flank,' said Denethor. 'When he is lucid he will be questioned.'


'Questioned,' he repeated, eyes flashing briefly at Telpiriel's flat tone. He had not meant for that to happen, but he could see that Anaiwen had marked it. He turned to her, gently. 'Fear not, child. He is under constant guard, and will make no more trouble for Gondor.'

'It seems to me that he could make a great deal more trouble if he bears false witness,' said Anaiwen frankly. 'Take care not to question him too harshly.'

From approval they had gone suddenly to wariness, and Denethor did not like it. 'Such matters are not for young girl's heads,' he chastised.

Anaiwen laughed. 'Nay, nothing is ever meant for my head! I am to wait until I am grown, when all the secrets of Arda will be laid out before me! It must be a marvellous and terrifying day, when one reaches five and twenty.'

'Don't be pert, dear heart,' said Telpiriel indulgently. She had never been one to scold Anaiwen except in the fondest of terms, but her soft admonitions always seemed more effective than Denethor's own more terse ones.

Anaiwen shrugged a sheepish shoulder. 'Well, it's true,' she said. 'I've been promised knowledge of so many things when I am grown that I am expecting endless revelations.'

'Which is but to say that you will remember each instance and call us to account,' said Denethor. 'How I shall rue the day.'

It was he, this time, who was rewarded by Telpiriel's laughter.


The discourse at the morning meal had returned to its usual jollity, and still the dining hall seemed too quiet. The Tenth Company was much reduced in its numbers, and there was no word of fresh appointments. Minardil hoped that he would be allotted some experienced men in addition to green recruits, but the prospect of the latter did not concern him as much as it might have done six months ago. He had not merely an able man but an overqualified one to teach them.

Such work was by rights that of the First Lieutenant, but Durion lay yet in the Sixth Circle under the care of the healers. Thorongil had brought the news that he was often conscious, or seemed so, but he spoke little and poorly. 'It is not uncommon after such a wound,' the Guardsman-healer had said gravely. 'It may yet resolve itself, though there is little that can be done to speed it.'

Two of the wounded had returned to the garrison, one on crutches and the other in slings. They would not be fit to stand watch for some time yet, but Minardil was too grateful to see them restored to the Company to quibble over that. Drawing up the new rotation had been difficult, with so many posts vacant. They would all have to work harder to make up the deficit, but he knew that he could rely upon Herion to hold the men to task – and on Thorongil to offer an example to challenge them.

The keen-eyed soldier of fortune sat quietly in a corner of the hall, watching the others. What he saw Minardil could not guess, but he trusted that if it was of concern he would be notified. He thought he knew now just how much he might rely upon his newest man, and he would have to resist the temptation to lean too heavily.

Still he could not help but approach, taking the bench opposite Thorongil and laying down his own meal. 'Good morrow, good sir,' he said, only half in jest.

Thorongil did not smile, but his eyes were warm. 'Good morrow, my Captain,' he answered. He took another mouthful of his breakfast and chewed slowly. 'I had expected to be out on the ramparts this morning.'

Minardil had considered putting Thorongil on the Company's inaugural watch, but he had dismissed the idea. Let the man lie late for once; he had earned a week of slumber. 'I did you no favour,' Minardil said. 'You have a double watch tomorrow.'

Thorongil nodded. He stirred the stewed grain with the tip of his spoon, watching it pensively. 'Am I to be issued a new sword?' he said at last. His voice was as bleak as Minardil had ever heard it – almost bitter?

'Your own sword will be returned to you,' he promised, though in truth he had no right. 'Its provenance will prove out.'

'Do you know it?' Thorongil asked almost hastily. 'Would the armoury-master?'

'He might,' said Minardil. 'You have my leave to ask him.'

'How is our quartermaster supplied? From a storehouse higher in the city?' pressed Thorongil. He sounded almost like an advocate preparing his suit.

'In the Fifth Circle,' Minardil agreed.

For a moment Thorongil looked hopeful, but then his shoulders slumped and he took a desultory swipe at the meat. 'And I have not the passwords.'

'I have,' said Minardil. 'We will go together. If the Captain-General's man is making inquiries, there is no reason we cannot aid him.'

He wondered uneasily what Lord Denethor would make of such aid. He did not understand the High Warden's concern about the sword. It seemed such a petty matter when weighed against the loss of life, the concerns about the river-defences in Ithilien, and the matter of the Easterling. Yet perhaps there were aspects of the problem that Minardil knew not. Was it possible that such a sword had been reported stolen? He feared for Thorongil if it were so. Protestations of innocence from a stranger would carry little weight against the wrath of one of the great lords of Gondor.

'No,' Thorongil said. 'I have entangled you already too far. If there is aught to find, I may need to call upon your testament to my character and the circumstances of the sword's finding. But not now.'

'I have put in your request to see the Steward,' Minardil sighed. 'Though if it is anything that can be said in the light of day, you might do better to bring it before him on petitioner's day.'

'Petitioner's day?' Thorongil raised his eyes from his plate.

'Each week, the Steward hears supplications from his people,' explained Minardil. 'Those with disputes unresolved in the courts, or those asking for dispensations of state, or those in need of mercy may come before Lord Ecthelion to seek justice.'

'I do not seek justice, but to make reparation,' said Thorongil. He shifted uneasily. 'And I do not think the matter suitable for the eyes of all the City.'

'If you would but tell me what it is, I could help you judge,' Minardil offered. He hoped that he did not sound wounded by his subordinate's lack of trust.

Thorongil gazed steadily at him. 'Captain,' he said. Then his voice softened. 'Minardil. I would tell you if I could, but it is not fitting that I should disclose this to anyone before I place it before the Steward. It is a matter of ancient courtesy, if not of today's protocol.'

The explanation meant less than the tone of friendship. Minardil nodded. 'I understand,' he said. 'I hope I may be counted among those to be told later on.'

'The moment I return from the Citadel, I promise you,' said Thorongil. His lips tightened as he added; 'If I return at all.'

What sin he might confess that would imperil his position, when he had served so steadily in the City and so mightily in the field, Minardil could not guess. He half dreaded to try. Instead, he bowed his head and started in on his meal.


Ecthelion left his study for that of his son as the sun climbed on to noontide. He had read the last of the reports on the action near the charcoal-forests, and though he had no questions it was his custom to speak with his Captains after any such action. That this one had occurred so near the heart of Gondor struck him with an urgency and a concern that he had not felt since the last hard defeat in Ithilien. He prayed that there was not another, as yet unheralded, that had caused the breach of the river defences.

The door was open, and the warmth of the fire spilled into the corridor. Ecthelion paused before striding across the threshold, courtesy not in keeping with custom. When Denethor's door stood open, he would receive any of his subordinates without delay. Where they need not hesitate, surely the Steward could walk with impunity.

Denethor was at his desk, writing in the thick tome in which he chronicled his daily labours. He was a man not merely of letters but of lore, and the archival of such knowledge was of greatest import to him. He raised his sharp eyes, and almost in the same motion was rising to his feet to bow over the desk. The chair scraped the stone.

'Father,' he said. Then he laid down his pen and stood aside, offering his own chair. This was courtesy and custom both. Ecthelion sat.

'I have read your reports, and those of the Captains,' he said.

Denethor was taking the lesser chair that sat on the other side of the desk. It put his back to the door. 'Was there anything unclear?' he asked in a level tone that made plain that he knew there was not.

Ecthelion respected his son's confidence. In a man of highest office, it was fundamental. 'Nothing. I have questions, but they are the ones you yourself have posited.'

'Cairon,' said Denethor darkly. 'Were it not for the Easterling, I would ride for Ithilien at once.'

'No ill news has come through Osgiliath,' said Ecthelion. 'That is some small hope.'

'If there has been no calamity, the lapse is worse,' said Denethor. 'It is unlike Cairon to fail so in his duty.'

'Do not judge before the facts are made known,' Ecthelion warned. 'The Enemy is crafty and Ithilien is vast. What concerns me is that the foe has become so emboldened. It was an act of invasion and of open war.'

Denethor nodded, his face set in grim lines. 'It will not happen again. I have summoned the excess troops from the northern crossroads to safeguard our bank of Anduin between the place of attack and the Pelennor. Swift ships from the Harlond will make regular patrols.'

'Wise precautions,' said Ecthelion. 'I would propose a third.'

'Anything,' said Denethor. His voice was hard and his eyes cold with righteous hate. 'The spawn of Mordor shall not touch our soil again, unless it be to overrun us in multitudes.'

'Do not say that!' Ecthelion breathed. He shook off the dreadful thought. 'Yet we must be prepared. The Council meets tomorrow. I will once more raise the proposal of a wall to guard the Pelennor. I ask that you stand with me.'

Denethor's lips tightened and his brows lowered in reflexive disapproval. He had spoken so adamantly against the wall, and still it seemed he did not see its worth. But the situation had changed in those few short weeks, and he had already pledged himself to uphold anything if it might defend against the next assault.

'My Steward's wish is as good as a command,' he said. The words were terse, but honest. 'The Council will approve the construction.'

He was bold to make such a declaration, with Adrahil of Dol Amroth and the other dissenters yet unswayed, but he was most likely right. Where Steward and Captain-General stood in accord, no man would argue long.

Slow but confident footsteps stopped suddenly in the doorway. Valacar bowed deeply, his hands folded over a scroll. 'My lord,' he said, addressing Ecthelion. 'Forgive me. I did not mean to interrupt.'

'It is no interruption,' said Ecthelion. 'Come in and be about your business.'

He did not often sit in Denethor's study out of mere camaraderie, but Ecthelion thought he might do so today. His son was in a grave but not overly grim mood, the fire was welcoming, and if he vacated the chair then Denethor return to his work with little distraction.

He already had, it seemed. Twisting in the chair, he looked expectantly at his secretary. 'Well?' he said. 'What have you found?'

'More than I expected, my lord,' said Valacar. 'As I thought from its markings, the blade was wrought for a son of the House of Tolbarad in the time of Anardil; its lineage is given in the Great Book of Arms from the reign of Narmacil the Second.'

Denethor made a soft sound of wonder. 'You had to search so far back?' he said.

'The Lord Armourer judged that it was wrought early in this Age, before the crafts of Westernesse began to decline,' Valacar explained. 'It seemed most likely to find record of it earlier rather than later, and Narmacil's Book of Arms is the first since the time of Meneldil.'

The reasoning was flawless, and Ecthelion found himself about to ask after the sword in question when he saw it, lying across the top of Valacar's tall desk. The workmanship of the hilt was unmistakably Númenórean, like enough to that of Ecthelion's own blade and the one that Denethor now bore. It gleamed with the sedate dignity of steel well tended. The scabbard, however, was made of inferior leather, carefully oiled but shabby. New questions arose at once, but the Steward did not speak.

'You did well,' Denethor said with palpable satisfaction. 'So the sword is the property of the House of Tolbarad, and must be returned at once to its heirs.'

Valacar shifted uncomfortably, his scribe's fingers playing up and down the roll of parchment he held. 'Not… precisely, my lord,' he said. He closed his eyes as he thrust forward the document. 'This is a deed of gift from the grandsire of Lord Dervain to the Great Armoury, listing some seventy items of armour and weaponry. Among them is a sword of the same dimensions and description as the one you bade me authenticate.'

Ecthelion's puzzlement deepened. It was a fine sword, certainly, but hardly worth such close scrutiny. Was his son taking inventory of the Armoury? If so, why? But patience was a virtue as much as a trial, and he listened.

'Let me see that,' Denethor said brusquely, though the scroll had already been offered. He unrolled it and scanned the neat lines. Dervain was the present heir of the House of Tolbarad. His grandsire had been a man of great generosity, giving many gifts to the City. This was but a small one when measured against his contributions to the restoration of the aqueducts that fed Minas Tirith's many fountains and filled her wells.

With a noise of disgust, Denethor flung the paper upon the desk. 'And from the Great Armoury, it was by some error of judgment allotted to the Second Circle,' he said.

'So it appears, my lord,' said Valacar. He had not flinched at Denethor's show of disapproval. He respected his master deeply, but he did not fear him. Denethor was fortunate to have such a man in his service. 'It is perfectly logical.'

Denethor closed his lips and drummed on the arm of the chair, swift thoughts cycling behind his eyes. 'It was clearly an oversight,' he said. 'The sword may be returned to the Great Armoury, to be given to a more worthy bearer. One of noble blood suited to the sword's lofty lineage.'

Valacar bowed, offering silent assent. As he crossed the room to claim the blade, Ecthelion decided it was time to speak.

'More worthy than whom, my son?' he asked.

Denethor's head moved sharply, as if he had forgotten his father's presence in the room. 'A lowly Guardsman of the Second Circle,' he said. 'A man of no birth and no parentage who came from afar to seek your charity.'

'I see,' said Ecthelion. 'One of my Follies, no doubt. Why did you take it from him in the first place?'

'Look at it,' Denethor said, wafting a hand. 'It is a blade of Westernesse, or near enough in quality. It shines with the glory of the old times. What business has such a sword in the hands of a mercenary beggar? I suspected it stolen, and justly so.'

Ecthelion could not judge the justice of the suspicion, not without putting himself in his son's place. But one thing he knew. 'The steel of Westernesse tarnishes with time, just as baser alloys do,' he said. 'That sword shines with the careful labour of one who knew how to tend it. Its bearer has put great care into the restoration of that blade.'

It was not quite a scowl that touched the Captain-General's face, but near enough. 'A rank apprentice can learn how to restore a blade,' he said.

'Perhaps,' said Ecthelion. 'Yet the sword comes from the Second Circle? Can it be that it was borne by a member of the Tenth Company?'

Denethor evaded his gaze but nodded tersely. 'It was.'

'Was it whetted in battle when the Enemy crossed Anduin?' asked Ecthelion.

Again the words came, reluctant but truthful. 'It was.'

'What makes a man's sword his own but the blooding in a just cause?' said Ecthelion. He rose smoothly but with care, pushing back his son's chair as quietly as he could. It lent gravitas to his movement. 'Shined and sharpened, anointed in battle: what more can you ask?'

Denethor parted his lips but closed them sharply again.

Ecthelion strode from the room, but he paused at the doorway to look back. His eyes held Denethor's, and he knew they were filled with a fatherly reproach that he did not allow upon his face or into his voice.

'Denethor,' he said levelly. 'Give the man his sword.'

Thank you to everyone for their lovely feedback, and especially for the care and concern you’ve all shown for my wellbeing. It’s wonderful to be writing this tale again, but I fear I have not the time or the strength for individual review replies yet. I’m truly sorry for this, and I hope you’ll all understand how grateful I am that you take the time to comment. Cheers!

Chapter XXII: Unsanctioned Deeds

A week passed. The Tenth Company was settling comfortably into its new routine of double watches and empty tables. It should have been a time to take solace in the reassuring structure of the days and the decidedly unperilous duties. Instead, Thorongil grew increasingly restless.

It was no one thing that led to his unease. Certainly there was the matter of the sword, which as it dragged on without resolution filled him with a mounting dread that he would be taken for a thief and suffer the consequences of that branding. There was also his concern for his patients, many of whom still bided in the Houses of Healing under Thalahir’s capable care. More than once he had thought to request a return visit, but he dared not. He had drawn enough scrutiny from that quarter already. There was also the deference he was now shown by those wounded who had returned to the Company, many of whom felt they owed him their lives and all of whom now looked to him as something far more than a fellow Guardsman.

Then there was the notoriety that seemed to be rippling through the Second Circle. Thorongil had first noticed it while on patrol in the Butchers’ Quarter. The passing traffic seemed to flow around him at a greater distance than before, and folk would pause to murmur to one another when they saw him. This never failed to bring a crawling sensation to the back of Thorongil’s neck. Only once in Rohan had he felt anything like it, and then he had been infested with lice. His daily ablutions reassured him that this was not the case now. It was the unease of uncommon scrutiny that left him squirming.

When Minardil invited him into the Captain’s small study, Thorongil knew he would not like the reasons. He came peaceably nonetheless. There was nothing to do but face the unpleasant – or the calamitous, as the case might be – with what dignity he could muster.

Minardil’s expression was no reassurance as he closed the door and motioned for Thorongil to sit.

‘It cannot go on,’ he said gravely, rounding the desk and steepling his hands upon its top.

A reflexive ‘Captain?’ rose to Thorongil’s lips, and he swallowed it. They were alone now, and between them the walls of formality had crumbled. ‘Which part?’ he asked.

Minardil let out a thin huff of laughter. ‘Which part, indeed,’ he said. ‘Then you know you are the talk of the City?’

Thorongil restrained a grimace. ‘Surely not.’

‘Of the Guard, then,’ said Minardil. ‘And folk in the lower circles know your name. The men of this company have kin, many of whom are grateful to you for your deeds on the battlefield and among the wounded. Some talk is natural. You should accept it gracefully and with pride.’

‘I shall try,’ said Thorongil; ‘but I do not like it.’

‘That’s plain enough,’ said Minardil. ‘Yet if you stand for Champion you will gain still more attention.’

That sort of attention Thorongil could cope with. It was suitable to his position and would raise no serious questions. It might even prove a welcome distraction from talk of his tactics and his skill with a needle. ‘That does not confound me,’ he said. ‘I have promised you to stand, and so I will.’

‘I’m glad,’ said Minardil. ‘But that is not what I wished to discuss.’

He turned in his chair and took up a sword that had been leaning unnoticed against the wall. The sheath was of good tooled leather, but the hilt was unadorned and dull with the lustre of a young weapon. Thorongil’s throat closed as Minardil laid it across the desk.

‘I cannot have you unarmed any longer,’ he said. ‘Already there is talk about it. A few took notice of Lord Denethor’s confiscation of your weapon. Far more have noticed that you now go without.’

Anger and fruitless frustration rose in Thorongil’s breast. He strove not to let them show, but he feared that he failed. Minardil’s apologetic expression tightened marginally.

‘Has there been any word of my… of the other blade?’ he asked, knowing the answer. If there had been any word, he would have either been presented just now with the Númenórean blade, or clapped in irons for a thief.

Minardil shook his head. ‘I have made inquiries with the Master of the Guard and the Lord Armourer, but I have received no reply. Do not abandon hope. It cannot be easy to find the provenance of such a thing, even if Lord Denethor himself scoured the archives. Yet in the meantime, you must have a sword.’

Thorongil agreed, but still he balked against the necessity. Once he was armed again, there would be no reason for the Steward’s son to return the other weapon.

‘Once you are armed again, the Captain-General may deem the matter settled,’ said Minardil, eerily echoing Thorongil’s thoughts. ‘I don’t want that, so I am not taking you to the quartermaster for a replacement.’ He tapped the flat of the blade. ‘This is my own spare. It is not of the greatest quality, certainly nothing to what you had been carrying, but it comes without signature; without an official record that you have received it.’

‘I thank you.’ It was all that he could say. The warmth of Minardil’s generosity and concern warred with the guilt of further entangling him in the matter. Thorongil laid his palm upon the sword, just above Minardil’s forefinger. It no longer seemed such a lowly weapon. ‘I hope it brings no trouble upon you.’

‘How can it?’ asked Minardil with an easy shrug. ‘I am acting in good faith, expectant of the High Warden’s justice.’


With the Company settled and his best man once more armed after a fashion, Minardil at last had the time to make the long climb to the Sixth Circle to visit his men in the Houses of Healing. He was welcomed by a lady in a close-fitted gown of white, her apron much used and her hair concealed by a veil so that it should not fall upon those in her care. She took him first to the convalescents, all of whom were glad to see their Captain and to pledge their eagerness to return to duty. Next came those with the more serious injuries: battered skulls and missing limbs. These men would never be the same, might never again be fit for duty. It was a hard thing to smile and offer only encouragement and praise.

Then Minardil was shown to the room where Mallor lay. He was drugged into slumber, for his wound was festering. The smell of it filled the air and brought a clenching dread to Minardil’s heart. His escort had no comforting words to offer here, save; ‘The infection is not yet in his blood. There is hope.’

‘Someone must go,’ said Minardil. ‘A page. You must send a page to my garrison in the Second Circle. He must fetch Thorongil, a man of my Company. He… he will know what to do.’

He was loth to rouse Thorongil, for it was the man’s one watch free watch between two doubles, but the stink of the wound struck fear into Minardil’s heart. He did not know if there was anything to be done for a patient so far gone – the fever-spots bright on his cheeks and his brow slick with sickly sweat. He did know that after all he had done for Mallor, Thorongil deserved at least the chance to try.

He expected surprise and resistance from the woman, but she nodded. ‘The one who joined the artery,’ she said. ‘It shall be done, Captain.’

She moved to leave him alone with his dying subordinate, but Minardil turned hastily to follow. When she had given the orders and sent the gangly boy running, she turned to him.

‘There remains one more,’ she said.

Minardil nodded. ‘Dúrion.’ He had not forgotten his Lieutenant, but he dreaded the meeting. If Mallor was so far gone, what of him? Such a hurt as he had taken had killed many a greater man. Yet when they entered Dúrion’s room, Minardil’s heart quickened with hope. He was out of bed, seated in a chair by the window with his feet upon a stool and his lap draped in a soft woollen blanket.

‘I see you’re on the mend,’ Minardil said. Dúrion’s gaze was turned to the window, so that he sat in profile. ‘You’ll soon be back among us. The men are in need of their lieutenant. Herion is capable, but he lacks your tact.’

‘Captain…’ the lady said uneasily, dismay in her eyes.

Minardil did not heed her. He crossed the room and reached to take Dúrion’s hand. It was then that he turned to look at his commander. It took all of Minardil’s wits to keep from recoiling at the sight. The left side of Dúrion’s face, opposite the thick wad of bandages bound to his shorn head, drooped grotesquely. It was as if all the life had gone out of that half, leaving only sagging flesh; a slitted eye, a hanging mouth.

‘Apple,’ Dúrion said. At least that was what it sounded like. The word was slurred and sluggish, and the effort it took to form was evident in his one good eye. He frowned with half of his lip and tried again. ‘Apptal.’

Now Minardil thought he understood. ‘Captain,’ he whispered. Dúrion jerked his head in agreement. ‘It is good to see you breathing, Dúrion. And abroad from bed already!’

The gladness he forced into his voice faltered, and he cast pleading eyes at the lady. She shook her head.

‘I should have warned you,’ she said softly. ‘His speech is… it is poor. We see it often in those who have taken a stroke. Sometimes time will bring some improvement; sometimes not.’

‘Can I… should I…’ Minardil gestured helplessly.

‘Talk to him. Yes, Captain. You should,’ she said. ‘But you must show neither frustration nor pity when he cannot answer. If you are not certain what he has said, tell him so. Do not guess at the word unless you are certain; that is more discouraging than helpful. Above all be patient. We must all be patient.’

Minardil took her arm and drew her back towards the corridor. ‘Then he will not be fit for duty?’ he asked, whispering so that Dúrion might not hear.

She shook her head. ‘Not now; not soon. The paralysis has taken half of his body. He cannot stand or use his left arm.’

‘He is my First Lieutenant,’ protested Minardil, as if this could change the truth. ‘He is a good man.’

‘Misfortune strikes at good and wicked alike,’ said the lady. ‘All in this house know it, perhaps better than anyone save a soldier. I cannot give you false hope, Captain. You will have to find yourself a new First Lieutenant.’

Minardil nodded tersely. He could think on that at another time. For now, he had to attend to Dúrion. At the least it would keep his fear for Mallor at bay.


Thorongil bent low over the wound, nostrils closed to the foul odour. It was not the sickly sweetness of gangrene, but the raw and salty reek of an abscess. Carefully he placed one fingertip above the line of stitches and pressed. He felt the give of fluid, not the spongy resistance of healing tissue. Even in sleep, Mallor tensed. The area was inflamed and ghastly red, the trails of infection spreading in an angry starburst. The sutures strained, and crusts of pus gathered where they pierced the flesh.

The wound had been closed perfectly, with all due skill and leaving a small opening through which fluids might drain. Now that gap was swollen almost closed and clogged with fresh secretions. A little oozed out under the pressure of Thorongil’s finger, but not nearly enough to drain away the poisons.

‘We must open him up,’ he said, looking up at the far side of the bed, where Thalahir stood watching. ‘The pocket of putrescence must be drained.’

‘The skin is already knit together,’ said Thalahir, shaking his head regretfully. ‘It is too late.’

‘Then we will cut it,’ said Thorongil, straightening his back and taking his hands from the Guardsman’s thigh. ‘The poisons will reach his blood if we do not do something soon. It is drain the wound or sacrifice the leg.’

‘Cut through new-healed flesh?’ Thalahir paled a little. ‘It is not done.’

There was no time to be the patient teacher, no time to wonder at the lapses in Gondor’s healing lore. Thorongil was already looking around for suitable instruments. ‘I will need fine shears and a newly-whetted bodkin.’

‘The shears we have ready, but a bodkin… I do not know.’ Thalahir’s lips tightened. Clearly he was warring within himself, measuring the barbarity of the suggestion against Thorongil’s clearly demonstrated skill.

‘Would you not lance a boil?’ asked Thorongil. ‘Or drain an abscess? Have you never cut for a stone?’

Thalahir looked uneasy. ‘In a body otherwise healthy, yes,’ he said. ‘But not a battle-wound that proved so difficult to close, in a man so near the brink of death. His stitches were due to be removed on the morrow.’

‘Well, they are coming out now,’ Thorongil muttered, bending again to examine the angry gash of crimson. ‘As soon as Midhon arrives, we will begin.’

Thalahir frowned. ‘I do not understand why his presence is necessary.’

‘He is a good healer and a worthy young man,’ said Thorongil, forgetting for a moment how young he must appear to the healer. ‘He did fine work on the battlefield, as surely you have seen writ upon the bodies of those he aided, and he saved many lives. He has as much stake in Mallor’s recovery as I.’

‘I wonder,’ said Thalahir, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. But he went to the door and spoke softly to the page without.  Turning back, he remarked; ‘Someone must assist – that is if you will accept my hands within your patient.’

‘He is our patient,’ said Thorongil. ‘I would not touch him without your aid.’

They busied themselves in preparing Mallor for the knife, tucking the sheet carefully around his body so that from his shoulders to his toes only the wounded leg was bare. The Master of the Houses of Healing painted his gums with a tincture potent enough to keep him in slumber, or so both men silently hoped. At length the page returned, and with him four younger men in healers’ garments. They took up posts at each quarter of the bed, slender towels in hand.

The page bore a basin and a carven tray. Upon the latter sat the instruments Thorongil had called for, as well as two curettes and all the necessary equipment to stitch a wound. Thorongil did not pause to explain that there would be no need for a sempster today.

‘Go to the Herb-master,’ he told the youth. ‘Bid him bring his most potent liniment against infection. Honey, also, if he has any to hand. If not, go to the buttery to procure some.’

It seemed that the page had scarcely left the room when there came a soft knock. At Thalahir’s instruction, Midhon entered. He looked pale and uneasy, and his eyes went at once to his teacher.

‘Master,’ he said quietly. ‘I was told that I am wanted? What can I—’

He stopped when he saw Thorongil, standing over Mallor in the aspect of a healer. He must have made a strange spectacle, in his tunic of worst black and his well-worn leathers, for Midhon gaped.

‘Thorongil,’ he managed at last. ‘What is this?’

‘The wound has festered,’ said Thorongil. ‘We are opening it afresh.’

‘Is that wise?’ asked Midhon, casting an uneasy glance at Thalahir. ‘Can such a wound hope to be closed thrice?’

‘Closing it is no worry for today,’ said Thorongil. ‘We labour now to save a leg and a life: let worries for the scar come later.’

He strode to the corner of the room, where stood a washstand with a hunk of hard soap. He rolled back the sleeves of tunic and shirt, and began to scrub vigorously. He turned again to find Thalahir watching him.

‘You wash,’ he said, something like astonishment in his voice.

‘I do,’ said Thorongil. He had been challenged on this before, in Rohan where the leeches were not accustomed to cleansing their hands unless they showed grime.

‘That is an ancient custom of Westernesse,’ said Thalahir. ‘It is not known among lesser Men. Even some of my own healers do not practice it, though I strive to impress it upon my pupils.’

It was in truth an Elven custom, far older than Gondor or fair Elenna, but Thorongil did not raise the correction. Instead he said; ‘My mother taught me to wash well ere I ate. Is my mouth more sacred than my patient’s innards?’

Midhon was surprised into a bark of laughter, drawing all eyes to him. He reddened and offered an apologetic little shrug. Thalahir, however, seemed satisfied with the explanation. He brushed past Thorongil to cleanse his own hands. Midhon in his turn did the same.

They took up their places by the bed, Thorongil in the centre with Thalahir at his left. Midhon stood at the right, the instruments before him on the mattress’s edge. Thalahir nodded to the four junior healers, and as one they wrapped their towels about each of Mallor’s limbs: wrists and ankles. They twisted the ends of the folded cloths and gripped them in firm fists: soft restraints lest the potions of the Herb-master prove inadequate against the pain.

Thorongil, who was accustomed to having inexperienced men kneel upon limbs to hold them, approved of the method. It reminded him that he had much to learn from the people of Gondor, even when his own art seemed to surpass theirs.

‘Give me the shears, please,’ he said, holding out his hand. Midhon supplied them, and Thorongil gave a slight nod to Thalahir as he bent to cut the sutures. With each snip, Thalahir’s fingers made a swift pass to pull away the severed knots. The wound was indeed all but closed, a thick line of scar tissue sealed over all but the obscured drainage hole. Thorongil could understand the reluctance to break that well-knit barrier, but the need outweighed all other concerns.

Asking for the bodkin, he began to cut.


Thorongil did not return in time for the evening watch, and so it was Minardil who found himself pacing the ring-like lane that ran through the middle of the Second Circle. The streets were quiet, and the air was dank with the first scent of spring. Soon the snows on Mindoluin’s flanks would begin to melt, and the streets would run with mud. Then it would be time for the men of the City Guard to turn their hands to the labours of repair and renewal that kept the White City fair and healthful.

At the corner where the lateral road met the broad upward avenue, Minardil chanced to meet his counterpart. The sigil of the Ninth Company was plain even by the fogged light of the street lanterns, and as the other man saw him and drew near Minardil recognized the Easterling. He did not know his name, but he was the only one of his race serving in the Second Circle and one of only a handful in the City.

‘Well met, friend,’ said Minardil, inclining his head politely.

The Easterling, seeing his own insignia, bowed. ‘Captain.’

‘I am Minardil of the Tenth Company,’ he said. ‘And you are?’

‘Jamon of the Ninth, sir,’ said the man. He did not offer a patronym, which until the coming of Thorongil would have made Minardil uneasy. ‘I am ready to serve you.’

‘Thank you,’ said Minardil; ‘but it is enough that you serve Gondor. How fares the Ninth Company?’

‘Better than the Tenth,’ said Jamon reflexively. Then he grimaced and dipped another hasty bow. ‘Forgive me, Captain. I meant nothing.’

‘Never mind; it’s true enough,’ Minardil sighed. He chafed the back of his gauntlet against his jaw. ‘We have sustained a difficult loss, and it will be some time before we are returned to full strength.’

Jamon nodded. ‘Captain Beleg made mention that some men from our Company would be reassigned to your own, so to even the numbers a little. He has asked us to consider whether we wish to volunteer.’

‘Do you?’ asked Minardil. ‘I have need of good men and seasoned veterans. You have served Minas Tirith for several years, have you not?’

‘I have,’ said Jamon. There was a peculiar strain in his voice, and he cast his eyes away. This changed the angle of the light upon his face, and Minardil frowned. What he had taken for a shadow on the man’s left cheekbone was a bruise black as midnight. The Easterling straightened his backbone and squared his shoulders. ‘But with respect, Captain, I must stay where I am. I cannot yield my place in the Ninth Company.’

This was reasonable enough: a step down the scale of numbers was a step down the ranks, unless accompanied by a significant promotion. Yet there was something else in the Easterling’s voice; almost defiance. Minardil found his eyes drawn to the bruise again, and he wondered.

But wonder was all that he could do. The inner workings of another man’s Company were no business of his, and he would give offence to Beleg if he was seen to meddle. They had lingered too long, also: it was time to turn and resume the patrol.

‘I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Jamon of the Ninth Company,’ he said. ‘I hope we may renew it soon.’

‘Thank you, Captain.’ Jamon bowed again. ‘You give me honour.’

Then each went his separate way, Minardil with some unease. He would have to make cautious inquiries into the happenings in the Ninth Company. Jamon had not the countenance of a brawler, though that was possible. So too was an injury sustained at sparring, or even an unlucky encounter with a bedknob. But the bruise on the man’s cheek had the look of something else to Minardil. It had the look of a hard right-handed blow dealt upon an unsuspecting subject.


Thorongil was too weary to haul and heat water for a proper bath, but the reek of infection was thick upon him and he could not inflict it upon his booth-mates. Instead he knelt at the foot of the great stone cistern that fed the Tenth Company’s bathing chamber, and filled a shallow bucket with the cold water. He bowed his head low and scrubbed his face. The shock of the chill roused him a little, though it lent no strength to tired limbs. His back ached from bending low over the bed for hours, and his hands were unsteady after their hard and meticulous labour. He cared little for such pains. The wound was clean and well-packed. The infection was already in abeyance. There was no reason that Mallor should not now live.

For this Thorongil was humbly grateful. He was grateful to Minardil, who had convinced the healers to send for him. He was grateful to Thalahir, who had seen fit to let him work almost unquestioned. He was grateful to Midhon, who had proved almost as tireless as the two more experienced men during the long process of scraping and draining. He was grateful that the muscle of the artery had already knit over the silk stitches that held it, that the infection had not penetrated that cut. He was grateful for his skill and for the one who had nurtured it. He was grateful for the grace of the Valar, without which all the rest could not have transpired.

But he was weary, and he longed for bed. He had to wash first, however, and so he took some of the coarse, soft soap and began to lather it across chest and arms. Splashes of water rinsed the soap away and trickled down the floor to the drain sunk for that very purpose. It was the heart of the dawn watch: anyone not marching the streets or standing silent at the gates was abed. There was no one to interrupt him, to induce him to move from the cistern’s spigot, to remark upon the scars he had brought out of Rohan. His garments lay folded neatly on the bench by the wall, undisturbed by the riot of other men’s things. It was almost peaceful.

The stench was in his hair, too, and Thorongil bent low over the bucket to wet his head. He was shivering steadily now, cold water and cold stone taking their toll. He had lit the charcoal brazier and the lamp overhead, but had not troubled with the hearth. The fire had been left to burn out, and now needed to be raked and laid anew. He had neither the strength nor the will for such labours now. Better to shiver.

The cheap soap was gritty against his scalp, and it burned in his eyes however he screwed them closed. Thorongil was groping blindly for the tap when he heard the heavy door creak open. At this hour of the night, it could only be Minardil come to check upon his errant Guardsman.

‘I must thank you for taking my turn,’ Thorongil said, still bowed low over his lap and fumbling for fresh water. His eyes were trying to water, but that only intensified the searing discomfort of the soap. ‘The time escaped me, and I could not abandon him.’

‘Abandon whom?’ a mocking voice drawled. ‘Just what were you up to, that you missed your watch? I took you for a reliable soldier.’

For a moment the tone was disconcerting, and Thorongil did not recognize the voice. When it grew hard, he had no trouble at all. ‘It is a grave thing to neglect your duties, son of no man,’ said Lieutenant Herion. ‘It warrants stern punishment.’

‘It is a misunderstanding,’ Thorongil said. He found the spigot and turned it at last. Frigid water cascaded into the bucket, and he took a greedy handful to rinse his eyes. It was not enough, and he reached again. ‘I had the leave of Captain Minardil. I was needed in the Sixth Circle.’

‘Why would anyone need you in the Sixth Circle?’ asked Herion. ‘You do not have even the passwords to reach the great market.’

Unsure whether his presence in the Houses of Healing had been properly sanctioned, Thorongil said nothing.

‘You will stand when your Lieutenant is speaking,’ Herion said sharply. Before Thorongil’s tired reflexes could react he had strode across the floor and seized the newcomer by the arm. Thorongil’s bare toes scrabbled on the wet stone as he was hauled to his feet.

The water was running into his eyes again from tresses stiffened with soap. He swept back the mess of hair and tried to blink away the offending grit. Still it burned, blinding him when most he had need of his eyes.

‘Much better,’ said Herion, almost smugly. He kept his right hand tight around Thorongil’s upper arm, denying him the chance to improve his position or to reach for the bathing sheet to blot at his eyes. Thorongil tried to scrub at them with his free hand, but it was smeared with soap from his hair. ‘It’s time you started showing me the proper respect. I’m to be the First Lieutenant now that Dúrion’s gone gormless, you know.’

‘I did not,’ said Thorongil. He had heard of Dúrion’s state from Thalahir, but the Lieutenant had been long abed by the time they were finished with Mallor’s wound. It was natural that Herion should step up, but it had not occurred to him until that moment that such a thing was in the wind.

‘The Captain thinks much of you, and when I see your skill in battle I cannot blame him,’ Herion hissed. ‘But it is not prowess alone that makes a soldier. Obedience and humility are just as important.’

Thorongil did not point out that he was standing naked before the other man, half-blind and hurting and still respectful in his tones and unmoving beneath the tight grip of the Lieutenant’s hand. ‘I understand that, sir,’ he said as mildly as he could manage.

Herion snorted. ‘You will have a chance to prove it. You’re on kitchen detail for the next week in punishment for missing your watch. Miss another, and it’ll be the cesspits.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Thorongil. He wished only to hasten the end of this encounter, that he might rinse his burning eyes. ‘Thank you, sir.’

Herion made a noise of anger, and Thorongil half expected a slap to the face. Instead, the Lieutenant gripped his arm all the harder and shook it. Thorongil’s foot slipped, and he had to ram it hard against the stone to brace himself. ‘That tongue,’ Herion growled. ‘Courteous in its insolence, or insolent in its courtesy?’

‘I strive only for courtesy,’ said Thorongil. ‘I do not wish to be taken for insolent.’

‘I don’t imagine you do,’ Herion said. He let go of Thorongil’s arm then, and gave his shoulder a one-handed shove. All that he had done, he had done one-handed, Thorongil noticed now. ‘Get back to your scrubbing. You smell like a slaughterhouse.’

Grateful despite himself, Thorongil fell to his knees and groped for the edge of the bucket. The rinse water was not clean, but still it felt delicious upon his eyes. He scooped up three handfuls in rapid succession, and then laved his hands so he could rub at his eyelids. He raised them a little, warily, and felt the residual sting. He blinked several times, eyes watering copiously. He could feel Herion’s disdainful gaze upon him.

‘The mighty warrior, cowed by a little soap?’ he sneered. It was unfair: surely there was not a man in the armies of Gondor who had not got the foul stuff – ash lye and tallow, and strong enough to blind an ox – in his eyes. Thorongil bit his tongue and groped for the corner of the threadbare bath sheet. He blotted at the offended organs, still tearing.

‘What does Minardil see in you?’ asked Herion. His boots moved for the door, and stopped. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said, relishing the words. ‘I have a gift for you from your Captain-General.’

There was a clatter and a clang as something was thrown down upon the wet floor, half the sound muffled as if by leather. Still Thorongil knew the noise. He had heard it often enough upon the field of battle, when a man fell or a foe surrendered. It was a falling sword.

He remained still, kneeling with the towel in his hand, until the door grated closed. Then he scrambled across the floor, bent low so that he could feel his way with his fingers. The room was a blur of shadows, and his eyes watered to smudge it further. His fingertips brushed the coarse grain of poor leather long-worn, and he found the hilt with his other hand.

Thorongil had expected to lay hands upon some inferior blade, ill-balanced and doubtless rotten with rust. Instead he felt the familiar contour of a hilt smooth as ground glass, and the intricate tooling of a master-smith’s hands. As his vision cleared at last he could see the star embossed upon the pommel. When he drew it into his lap, he felt the perfect weighting. His anger at Herion faded, replaced only with relief and quiet joy.

He had his sword once more.

Note: This chapter is posted in commemoration of the Council of Elrond since I missed the real date. ;-)

Chapter XXIII: None Shall be Pleased

Word came at last that the Easterling was well enough to be taken from the Houses of Healing. Denethor had made the necessary arrangement days before, and he did not personally oversee the transfer. He would have more authority in the eyes of the prisoner if he appeared only as the looming voice of justice. For the same reason, he let the man languish for a day and a half before he at last descended from the Citadel to begin the interrogations.

The chief dungeons of Minas Tirith were located in the Fifth Circle beneath the high magistrates’ court, where thieves and miscreants wore out their sentences and murderers and worse awaited the scaffold. The Easterling had instead been taken to the lesser-known and far more secure cells in the Sixth Circle. It was said that these grim cages had housed all of Gondor’s most notorious prisoners, from the Gatekeeper of Minas Morgul to the spies of Queen Berúthiel – the two-footed ones, anyhow. Denethor had last visited them to dispatch the traitor sell-sword who had wormed his way into the heart of the City.

The Easterling was in one of the smallest and most secure cells, deep in the sub-cellar where the Sun’s light never came. At Denethor’s order, the man had been chained to the wall with a six-foot lead. This was a courtesy, for it allowed him to get up off the plank that served as a bed and to keep himself clean. The healers had been adamant that he was to have careful treatment, if he was to be expected to stay strong enough to be questioned. Still the room had the stale smell of slumber to it, and Denethor’s nostrils flared as he entered.

The guards brought with them torches to be placed in stone brackets, for only a madman would allow his prisoners fire. The servants of the Enemy had little care for self-preservation, fearing both the rumoured brutality of their westerly captors and the still more awful prospect that they might be released: thrust back across the river into the arms of Sauron’s men, ever watchful for treason. Apart from any risk of escape, an Easterling might take it into his head to burn himself alive rather than face that. It was almost piteous.

‘Do you speak the language of the West?’ Denethor demanded as he strode into the cell.

The prisoner sat in the middle of his bunk, hands and legs in irons in preparation for the Captain-General’s visit. His swarthy face was stained by the torchlight, and his lower lip was split and swollen. It seemed he had offered resistance during the relocation. Denethor’s disapproval of the wretch deepened.

‘Do you speak the language of the West?’ he repeated, this time watching the dark eyes for signs of understanding. He read only fear and a desperate belligerence. The man was determined to resist, but he was owned by terror.

That was no bad thing, not when you wanted to induce a man to talk.

Speak!’ Denethor commanded. Now he used not the Common Tongue, but the rasping and guttural syllables of the language of Mordor. He was far from fluent, but he had dealt with his share of the Enemy’s thralls. Those that did not have Westron as a shared language made do with this.

The Easterling flinched, eyes widening as he stared at Denethor. The guards shifted uneasily, moved by the hideous sounds if not by the knowledge of their origin. Denethor took a menacing step forward. ‘Speak,’ he repeated.

Are you…’ the man stammered. He swallowed hard and licked his cut lip. ‘Are you…’ He spoke a word that Denethor did not know: some word in his own garbled language.

How many crossed the river?’ Denethor demanded. When the man shook his head slightly, he repeated the question twice more.

Do you speak this tongue?’ he pressed.

Speak,’ said the Easterling. ‘Ramin speak.’ He gestured at himself. ‘Ramin hear, Ramin speak.

It was almost gibberish, and despite his own limited knowledge of the Black Speech, Denethor knew the sound of less poisoned syllables when he heard them. Nonsensical though the word was, ramin was no adverb of Mordor.

Do you understand this tongue?’ he tried instead.

Evidently the Easterling knew that phrase at least, for he shook his head frantically from side to side. Suddenly he was on his knees on the bare stone floor, bound hands clasped in supplication. He gibbered senselessly in the animal noises of his sort. He was begging – for what Denethor did not know – with a desperation most often seen within the shadow of death. The terror of some torment was on him, and Denethor’s command that he be silent only seemed to stoke it.

‘Silence!’ he tried again, in Westron this time. It worked. The Easterling’s eyes grew wide and he cowered against the shelf, but he said nothing more. Denethor looked at him, scorn at this craven creature filling his heart. Then he turned upon his heel.

‘See that the prisoner is fed,’ he said to the nearest guard.

‘My lord?’ The man hesitated. Denethor tolerated no hesitation where his orders were concerned.

‘See that he is fed. The healers insist that he be given gentle treatment while he recovers from his wound.’ It was more of an explanation than the man deserved. ‘If he weakens on your watch and proves unable to answer my questions, it will be the worse for you.’

He strode from the cell, followed by the jailor. ‘Forgive me, my lord: we fared no better,’ he said. ‘The man does not speak a word of the Common Tongue. We even tried Elvish, and—’

‘What would possess you to try Elvish?’ Denethor scoffed, halting before the guardroom. ‘That thrall of darkness has never heard such fair language in his life.’

‘Yes, sire,’ said the jailor. Denethor had made the man’s appointment, and yet he could not for the life of him remember his name. ‘Was that… did your lordship speak…’

‘It was the tongue of Mordor,’ Denethor confirmed grimly. The taste of those foul syllables was still bitter upon his tongue. ‘If the Easterling understands it, he is too fearful to use it properly.’

‘Then what is to be done? How can we question him without a common language?’

A slow smile visited Denethor’s lips. He had pondered this question at length, and he had the perfect answer. ‘We shall set an Easterling to catch an Easterling,’ he said. ‘I know of one who has cause to believe that he is in my debt.’


Kitchen duty was no great hardship. Thorongil pared a great many parsnips and scrubbed more pots and pans than he would have thought possible, but the work was straightforward and hardly backbreaking. He was on good terms with the cook and his assistants, for he had ever been pleasant and never complained about the food. The lone difficulty was that the labour cut into his scant off-watch hours, leaving him little time for sleep and less still to prepare himself for the upcoming Champion’s Trials.

He wanted to perform his best, for Minardil’s insistence that he compete was tantamount almost to sponsorship. Thorongil owed him an extraordinary effort. He did not know if Minardil intended to defend his title, nor how he would approach the final encounter is he did. Yet he was determined to ascent at least so far, and that warranted diligent preparation.

Thorongil emerged from the buttery one evening, stepping out into the yard to find Forgil at work with the quintain. The old soldier’s movements were slower than Thorongil’s, but they were neat and economical. They had been sufficient to preserve his life in battle also, which was no small thing.

‘Come to best me, lad?’ asked Forgil, stepping back from the straw form. ‘I’ll give it a good hard try, but I can’t promise to be much of a challenge. The weather leaves my old bones stiff.’

‘I would be glad of a partner, to watch my form if not to fight,’ said Thorongil. ‘I must reacquaint myself with my blade.’ He drew the Númenórean sword and let it glint in the lamplight.

‘Got it back at last, have you?’ Forgil chuckled. ‘His lordship took his time in vetting it.’

‘I imagine he was most thorough,’ said Thorongil, not without a trace of bitterness. He did not know how the sword had proved itself justly in his hands, but it seemed to him that the research could not have taken so long. He knew that he had antagonized the Steward’s son, but he did not precisely know how.

‘That’s our good Captain-General,’ said Forgil. ‘Thorough, I mean. You’re proud of it, aren’t you? The blade.’

Thorongil, who had spent the first of his pay upon leather wrappings for the hilt, had to smile. ‘It is a blade to take pride in,’ he said. ‘Though I say it as shouldn’t, I have done good work to restore it, also.’

Forgil chuckled. ‘No need to play modest with me. You did a fine job, better than many I’ve seen. Old swords need careful handling – not unlike old soldiers. While I’m sure you’d play gently, I think I’ll sit out this fight. Watch your form, you said? That I can do.’

Thorongil smiled. ‘Thank you,’ he said, letting the blade sing through the cold night air. There was the faint scent of spring upon the wind, but its warmth had not yet found the stone City.

The old man nodded in satisfaction. ‘Have you named it?’ he asked. ‘A sword like that ought to have a name.’

The suggestion startled Thorongil. He had not considered it. Many noblemen in Rohan named their blades, but he had never partaken of the practice: he had never considered the swords he had borne in that land his own. He had a sword of his own, and one that bore a nobler name than ever he could bestow. But he could neither bear that blade nor speak its name, not until… until.

‘Angellui,’ he declared, raising high the long and slender sword with both hands. He looked up at the shining blade that had cost him so many hours to hone. ‘I name it Angellui.’


The swarthy Guardsman kept his eyes upon the ground as he rose from his genuflection. ‘What does your lordship want of his humble servant?’ he asked.

Denethor rapped his knuckles once upon the jailor’s table. ‘I have a task for you. There is a man in custody, one of your countrymen. I want you to find out what he knows of our defences, and I want you to find out how his company breached the line in Ithilien to cross the river.’

‘I, sire?’ said Jamon. ‘What do I know of such things? Surely it would be better to use a man skilled in interrogation…’

‘Perhaps it does not occur to you that the wretch does not speak the Common Tongue?’ Denethor drawled. His tone brought a shadow of a grimace to the Easterling’s face; he knew that he looked the fool in front of his master. That was good. ‘You have served Gondor for several years now, but do not tell me you have forgotten the language of your birth.’

‘I have not, sire,’ Jamon promised. ‘Am I to translate for the questioner, then?’

‘You are to be the questioner. The only questioner,’ said Denethor. ‘You will affect to be a prisoner of the Steward, that you may woo the man to trust you. You see the faith I place in you, Guardsman.’

‘My lord, I am honoured,’ said Jamon. His voice was steady, but his hands trembled. ‘Yet I do not thing I am worthy of such an assignment. I fear I may fail you.’

‘You had best not,’ Denethor declared. ‘Our defences in Ithilien – indeed, the very security of Gondor – may rely upon it.’

The Easterling swallowed painfully, raising his eyes at last. They were plaintive. ‘Sire, I beg you…’

‘Show your loyalty to Gondor, man!’ Denethor snapped. ‘This is your opportunity to prove your worth to the Steward and to your Captain-General. It is not a request.’

‘But sire…’ Jamon looked sidelong at the jailor where the man stood  in the corner. He found no help in that quarter. The dark eyes vanished beneath dark lids. The Easterling seemed to brace himself. ‘I am to learn what he knows of our defences, and how his people crossed Anduin,’ he said quietly.

‘And anything else you can get out of him,’ Denethor agreed. ‘Now you may disrobe.’

Jamon’s eyebrows furrowed. ‘My lord?’

Denethor’s temper flared. It was a day to be beset with fools, it seemed. ‘Disrobe,’ he repeated as if speaking to a dimwitted child. ‘If you go to the cell in the garb of the City Guard, the man is bound to be suspicious.’

To the Easterling’s credit, he did not argue further. Hurriedly he stripped to his linens and stood barefoot before his lord. His toes curled against the chill of the floor. Denethor looked him over. ‘The shirt as well,’ he said. ‘It is far too clean. I see that you keep your livery well.’

The man did not seem touched by the compliment, but he crossed his arms and lifted off the garment. The jailor had another ready, ragged and stained as befitted a captive, but as he offered it Denethor raised a staying hand.

Jamon’s ribs bore livid bruises, round as fists dotting his flanks. Some were dark and fresh, others yellowing against the brown skin. There was a bruise to match upon his face as well, and several more oblong ones on his thighs. Clearly he had been brawling, and had come out the worse for it. Either that, or not all the men in the Ninth Company approved of a thrall of Sauron wooing a daughter of Gondor.

‘That is good,’ Denethor said, gesturing at the marks. Jamon’s cheeks darkened and he crossed shamed arms over his chest. Denethor nodded. ‘You can prove to the prisoner how we have brutalized you. He will not doubt your loyalties.’

He motioned to the jailor, who gave the dirty garment to the Easterling. Jamon slithered hastily into it, as if ashamed to go uncovered. Perhaps his breed was not entirely without modesty.

‘Your hair,’ said Denethor.

A hasty hand rose to the long black locks. Jamon’s eyes widened, but he did not speak.

‘Muss it,’ Denethor instructed. ‘When you reach the cell, put some straw in it. You must look as if you have lain there for many days. You were captured across the river, by the rearguard of Cairon’s army. The rest of the tale I leave to you. See that it is a good one. Do you understand me?’

‘I… I understand, sire,’ Jamon stammered. His fear was evident: fear of failure and fear of the task ahead. Denethor had to fight his disdain. After all, the man had been trained to walk the ramparts and to dispel market brawls. What did he know of spy’s work? Yet there was no time to teach him. He would have to manage.

‘Good. Hold out your hands.’

The Easterling obeyed, and the jailor took up a pair of heavy manacles. Jamon’s eyes grew wide and his lips moved as if to protest. Wisely, he held his tongue and let himself be draped with the chains.

‘Go now,’ said Denethor. ‘Prove your competence. Prove your loyalty.’

The jailor led Jamon from the room, his bare brown feet skidding on the stones. Satisfied, Denethor sat back. He did not know his new spy’s abilities, but he was quite certain he had impressed upon the man the need for excellence. It remained to be seen what came of it.


One name upon the list of Guards and Guardsmen requesting audiences with the Steward stood out to Ecthelion. He tried not to disrupt the order of the applications, as a rule, but this name struck him and he made an exception. One Thorongil, of the Tenth Company, sought counsel with his lord.

He was brought into the Steward’s study by one of the Guards of the Citadel. Denethor was not present to have the man derobed, and his long sword hung at his side. Ecthelion’s eyes widened when he saw the blade – no longer bare, but unmistakable.

‘That is your sword?’ he asked, raising a staying hand before the young man could kneel.

Thorongil glanced down. ‘Sire, it was issued to me by the armoury in the Second Circle. The Captain-General himself has deemed me worthy to carry it.’

The words cut Ecthelion, for he knew his son thought no such thing. ‘I should think that one who has been a Captain to our closest ally is worthy of the best we have to offer him. Sit, Thorongil, and tell me why you wish to see me.’

‘Sire, it is more fitting that I stand,’ said Thorongil. There was an unease to his stance and his expression that troubled Ecthelion.

‘As you wish,’ he said. ‘It is said that you deported yourself well in the unlooked-for battle to the north. Your Captain has written a fine letter in praise of your deeds.’

A flush of colour touched Thorongil’s pale cheeks. ‘I did not know that, my lord,’ he said. ‘Many men fought bravely that day.’

‘Bravely, yes,’ said Ecthelion; ‘but few so skilfully, from what Minardil claims. You should be proud. Gondor has need of good men. Have you come to ask a reward for your deeds? I have been known to offer silver to men who have given extraordinary service; that is well known among my soldiers of fortune.’

The flush deepened. ‘Sire, I would ask no reward for the discharging of my duty, nor could I accept one if it were offered. I have come… I have come to make my confession.’

A flutter of apprehension rose in the Steward’s breast. Were Denethor’s doubts about the man warranted? His son had insight into the hearts of men far greater than his own. Had he seen deception from the start? ‘What have you to confess?’

The words came steadily, though in the grey eyes Ecthelion read dread and shame. ‘I have been less than forthright with you, my lord,’ Thorongil of the Guard said. ‘I was indeed a Captain in Rohan, and I served with all the skill and loyalty I had to offer. Yet that is not the whole of the tale.’

So he had been disgraced, Ecthelion thought. Somehow this man had erred and lost his position. Then doubt visited him. Thorongil had lost his position and kept the favour of Thengel King? That notion did not hold water. The letter was no forgery. Ecthelion knew his friend’s hand as well as he knew Anoriel’s, and even Denethor had proclaimed the seal genuine.

‘Will you not sit to tell it, then?’ he asked kindly. The poor lad looked unsure upon his feet, and there were shadows beneath those keen eyes. They kept shifting for the door, too, as if Thorongil meant to make a swift flight. ‘I do not like my men to tower over me thus.’

Thorongil’s face opened in frank dismay. ‘My Lord Steward, I did not think!’ he breathed. Swiftly he sat, angling his sword with long practice. His slender hands knotted together in his lap.

‘Now tell me your tale, and do not be afraid,’ said Ecthelion. ‘I have executed no man yet for the sin of being less than forthright.’

‘I did not lie,’ Thorongil murmured; ‘but I have not told the whole truth. I was indeed a Captain in Rohan…’

He was repeating himself, which in one so well-spoken was usually a sign of a difficult tale. ‘Go on,’ coaxed Ecthelion.

‘My service was noted by my Marshal and by the King himself,’ said Thorongil. ‘When a chance arrow took the life of Eamon of Westfold, I was chosen to take his place. As… as Undermarshal.’

There was a protracted silence, in which Ecthelion groped for fitting words. ‘Undermarshal,’ he managed at last. It was not eloquent.

Thorongil was staring at his hands. ‘Yes, sire,’ he sighed.

Slowly, carefully, Ecthelion spoke. ‘An Undermarshal commands a thousand men.’ There had to be some mistake.

‘Yes, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘A thousand and more. I had under my command twelve hundred and ninety-six at greatest capacity.’

Ecthelion shook his head. ‘But you are serving in one of the lowliest Companies in my city,’ he said weakly. ‘You are not even an officer. You… you guard the flour!’

‘Sire?’ Thorongil raised his eyes at this last, puzzled.

‘Something my son once said,’ Ecthelion muttered dismissively. He fixed steady eyes on Thorongil. ‘You have made a fool of me in this. Why did you not speak the truth at once? Why did you not come riding to my gate clad in fine mail and mounted upon a mighty steed of Rohan?’

‘That I could not do,’ said Thorongil. ‘I did not serve Thengel King for the sake of reward. For the other… I hoped I might be taken upon my own merits, and not upon the rumour of past deeds. It seemed to me that coming to Gondor as a humble man was the best means to learn of her ways.’

It was baffling. That a great commander of men should humble himself merely to learn the ways of Gondor was beyond understanding. Yet for the rest… Ecthelion had oft times wondered, in his youth, whether he would have merited such deference from his Captains and his men had he not been born the son of the Steward. He thought he understood the need to measure oneself anew.

‘Had you but told me, had you even told me of your captaincy at the outset,’ said Ecthelion; ‘I would have found better use for your talents. Would that not have been to the greater good of Gondor?’

‘I do not know, sire,’ Thorongil said softly. ‘I am still learning of Gondor’s needs.’

‘Her ways and her needs. Do they merit such careful study, and from such a lowly vantage?’ asked Ecthelion.

Again Thorongil raised his eyes, and in them was an earnest fire that startled the Steward. ‘Does my lord know how those he invites open-handed to his City are greeted?’ he asked.

Ecthelion was taken aback. ‘I have given orders that they are to be treated with the courtesy due to any son of a gentleman sent to serve me,’ he said. ‘Is it not so?’

‘I fear your provost has misinterpreted your orders, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘Others could perhaps tell you better than I, but until I came beneath the command of Captain Minardil I did not feel welcome in Minas Tirith.’

The Steward shook his head. ‘It grieves me to hear it,’ he said. ‘You should have been greeted as a great warrior, so it now seems.’

‘Sire, I would have been content to be greeted as a man,’ Thorongil said.

Ecthelion very nearly flinched at those words. He had trusted that his orders would be obeyed. He had not considered that those selfsame soldiers who had named his recruits Ecthelion’s Follies might extend that jibing into true disdain and ill treatment.

‘I am sorry,’ he said, earnest and uneasy. ‘It shall be rectified. I will see that my son has words with the provost.’

Thorongil looked ready to speak again, but he thought better of it. ‘Sire, it would be wise,’ he said at length.

‘It shall be done,’ said Ecthelion. ‘As for your own position, I will see that improved as befits your experience.’

Something like vindication flashed in Thorongil’s eyes, but his countenance grew grave. ‘My lord, I beg you to let that matter rest awhile,’ he said. ‘I am ill positioned to rise higher now. There would be men embittered by it; men whose disfavour I have already courted. I have been in the City less than six weeks. It would not be fitting for me to be reassigned so soon.’

‘It would not be unprecedented,’ said Ecthelion. ‘Yet I do not wish to reassign any man unwillingly. It is a hard necessity of war, but I do it only when pressed. If you wish to remain with the Tenth Company for a time, I will not stop you. But know that you will now be watched. When the need arises, I will have to move you, willing or no.’

Thorongil inclined his head. ‘Yes, sire,’ he said. ‘I seek first to serve Gondor. I ask only time, that I may discern how best to do so.’

‘Time I can give you, at least for a little while,’ said Ecthelion. ‘Yet you should know – and as a leader of men yourself, surely you already see – that my policy of welcome is not driven solely by altruism. Gondor has desperate need of soldiers both lowly and great. I cannot waste a gifted man on simple duties.’

‘I do see that, my lord,’ said Thorongil quietly. ‘I thank you for your indulgence, and this I promise you. Were I to be elevated to greater position now, there would be discord in the ranks – and not in the Tenth Company alone. If you will trust my council on the strength of my former position, I beg you to trust it first in this.’

Ecthelion considered. He wanted to press the man further, to demand details of this anticipated discord. Yet he did wish to trust the man, and to show that trust. It was the surest path to unswerving loyalty. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘For the time being you may remain where you are, unless your Captain-General should decide otherwise. He may well do so when he learns the extent of your past service, and I do not override Lord Denethor in matters concerning his armies.’

‘Yes, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘I do not think he will wish to have me moved.’

‘I would not be so certain of that,’ said Ecthelion. ‘Yet I wish you good luck in your endeavours. They seem needlessly difficult to me, but a good man is worth his price. If this is yours, you may have it.’

Thorongil rose and bowed deeply. ‘I thank you, my lord,’ he said. There was a pause. ‘Have I your leave to go?’

Ecthelion granted it, and the Guardsman departed. The Steward was left to his puzzling.


Denethor seethed with anger, pacing the breadth of his office with such fervour that Valacar could not help but glance up from his work with each pass. The secretary was uneasy but unafraid. Nor should he know fear: this farce was not of his making. Another was to blame, and another would be duly punished – as soon as he got his worthless hide up to the Citadel.

The letter of request lay upon Denethor’s desk, bearing the seal of the Tenth Company and the signature of the well-meaning but unperceptive Captain Minardil. Denethor did not understand the man’s reasoning. It was a grave matter that Dúrion could not return to the post of First Lieutenant, and the need for a replacement was immediate. Yet the natural choice would have been the Second Lieutenant, Herion. The young Captain’s suggestion cast aside convention and disrupted the natural order of things.

Perhaps, Denethor thought wrathfully, Minardil knew already what his own informant had just brought before him. Perhaps he knew of the act of grievous insubordination. If so, he would be rewarded for his reticence with the wrath of his Captain-General. Denethor son of Ecthelion tolerated no hesitation in the discharging of his orders.

Upon the threshold, the sable-clad Guard cleared his throat. The sight of Denethor pacing was enough to cast unease in the bravest of hearts. ‘Lord Warden,’ the man said steadily. Anything less than steadiness was not to be tolerated in these elite men. ‘I have brought before you Lieutenant Herion of the Tenth Company.’

The man in question stepped into the room, looking about with great interest. He had never entered the Captain-General’s study, and he was clearly expecting favourable news. The thought stopped Denethor in his tracks, and he drew up to his full and most impressive height. ‘You may go,’ he said to the Guard. To Herion he said; ‘Get out of the threshold and close the door.’

Herion hesitated – small wonder – and looked unsure. Denethor’s tone was not that of a man bestowing a coveted promotion. He obeyed in his own good time. He seemed too inclined to do things in his own good time. Denethor’s temper flared again.

‘Do you think me a fool, Herion son of Hergil?’ Denethor demanded, fixing fiery eyes upon the man.

‘S-Sire?’ There was fear in Herion’s voice and bewilderment upon his face.

‘Do you think I do not know everything that happens in this City? Among my own Guardsmen? Do you think me an incompetent commander?’ snapped Denethor.

‘Sir, no, sir,’ said Herion hurriedly. ‘I… I have nothing but the utmost respect for Your Lordship, and—’

‘Then tell me why you do not obey my orders!’

The stunned silence was most gratifying. Even moreso was the tremor in Herion’s voice when he said; ‘I do not understand, sire.’

‘Nine days ago, a messenger came to you with a clear command,’ said Denethor. ‘What was that command?’

At least the imbecile did not furrow his brow in laboured thought. ‘To return the ancient sword to the son of no man,’ Herion yipped.

‘And did you?’ Denethor demanded curtly.

‘Sir, yes, sir,’ Herion stammered. It was the second time he had used the lowly epithet, but Denethor did not upbraid him. It was the least of his transgressions.


‘T-Two days past?’ It was more question than statement.

‘Two days past,’ said Denethor, tasting each word. ‘I entrusted you with a valued piece of property and a direct order, and you waited seven days to obey me.’

‘Sire… I thought it was what you wanted,’ Herion protested. ‘All can see that you mislike the sell-sword, that he is not high in your favour. You bade me set him to draw water on manoeuvres with the malcontents; you did not reward him for his deeds on the field. You… you took the sword in the first place because you do not trust him!’

‘Whom I may trust or distrust is no business of yours,’ snarled Denethor. ‘Obeying my orders is. You were to carry out my instructions immediately, and yet you delayed. What am I to make of that?’

‘But sire, the water—’

‘Did it not occur to you, fool that you are, that I might have assigned him that task because he was most suited to it?’ Denethor demanded. It was not a falsehood; merely a hypothetical question. ‘Is it any business of yours if I chance to dislike some particular Guardsman? Is it any reason to court my displeasure yourself?’

‘I thought you would be pleased,’ Herion said in a small voice.

Denethor’s glare withered the man. ‘Pleased. To have my word so wantonly disregarded. And why? So that you might watch the man squirm like a worm upon a hook?’

‘Well…’ Herion had sense enough not to say it, but it was clear from his tone. Then he stiffened defiantly. ‘He is an upstart. He is too much in favour of the Captain. He has designs upon—’

‘And what have you designs upon?’ snapped Denethor. ‘The post of First Lieutenant, no doubt. I had thought to give it to you, against your Captain’s wishes.’

‘Against his wishes?’ cried Herion. ‘Then Minardil would promote that bastard mercenary over me?’

Captain Minardil,’ Denethor spat. ‘You will show your superiors the proper respect. I will teach you that by any means necessary, son of Hergil. Make no mistake about that.’

He took a slow round of the room, turning regally to find Herion cowering. ‘Do you know what I hate more than a disobedient man?’ Denethor asked, speaking slowly and with grim relish. ‘A place-seeker. One who seeks to curry favour on the heights, instead of to serve diligently and with honour. When you sought to please me by your negligence, Guardsman, that is precisely what you did.’

‘But sire…’

‘Silence!’ Denethor barked. His tone was so sharp that even Valacar tensed. Herion very nearly fell back against the door in fear. ‘Do you know what your disobedience has bought?’

He stepped to the desk and picked up the letter from Minardil of the Tenth Company. He thrust it into Herion’s hands.

‘I now have no choice but to ratify your Captain’s appointment,’ he hissed. ‘I cannot put forward my own candidate, for that candidate is a conniver and a mutinous wretch. Because of your attempt to please me, that proud and equivocating sell-sword will be First Lieutenant.’

He stood silent to let the ramifications of this sink in. From the dawning dread in Herion’s eyes, Denethor wondered just what the precise circumstances of the returning of the sword had been. Since Thorongil surely did not know the source of the delay (and was that not the most galling thing of all, for the Lord Warden to be thought incompetent in his research?), Denethor guessed that Herion had taken the opportunity to humiliate the man. He would not ask, for he had no interest in punishing that. Let lesser men behave like lesser men: there was no stopping it.

‘As for you,’ said Denethor at last; ‘I could strip you of your rank for what you have done. Nay, I could remove you from the Guard and banish you from the City.’

‘Sire, I have lived all my life in Minas Tirith!’ Herion pleaded. ‘I am true! I am loyal! I erred in my judgement of your wishes, but it was only out of the desire to please you…’

He realized what he had said, and looked ready to swallow his tongue. Denethor curled his lip scornfully. ‘You will oversee the cleansing of the City when the weather turns,’ he said. ‘If you wish to keep your place, you will do so without complaint. I have eyes in every Circle, in every Company. Even the stones bear me tidings. I will know if you are discontented in this.’

Herion’s cheeks burned red. The punishment was not as great as it could have been, but it was disgraceful. All would know that he had fallen from favour. And the work he was to oversee was some of the most unpleasant to be had in a great city. His discomfiture pleased Denethor.

‘And I trust you will think twice ere you again delay my commands or waylay my messages,’ he said with cold satisfaction.

Herion pledged many times that he would, until Denethor grew tired of the grovelling and drove him from the room.

Chapter XXIV: First Lieutenant  

Minardil was gratified by the confidence with which Thorongil entered his study. Between the return of his sword and his visit to the Citadel, it was as if a weight had been lifted from his back. He smiled as he closed the door and cast a querying look at the empty chair. Minardil gestured that he should sit.

‘How can I serve you, Captain?’ Thorongil asked amiably.

Minardil’s own smile broadened. After all the ill tidings he had imparted in recent weeks, it was a delightful thing to bear glad news. ‘You have proved difficult to find these last few days,’ he said. ‘I know you are preparing to stand for Champion, but must it lead you to miss your meals?’

Thorongil shrugged one lean shoulder. ‘I have been occupied during my off-watch mealtimes, with kitchen duty.’

‘Kitchen duty?’ Minardil echoed. That was customarily a punishment for minor or first-time infractions. He could imagine nothing Thorongil might have done to warrant it. Yet he would be relied upon to volunteer at need. ‘Is there sickness among the workers? I was not informed.’

‘There is none,’ said Thorongil. ‘It seems Lieutenant Herion disapproved of my absence from my watch on the night I tended to Mallor.’

Minardil frowned. ‘It ends today.’

Thorongil shook his head. ‘It cannot. If you override Herion’s authority in this it will only breed resentment – and not against me alone.’

‘I fear he will resent us anyhow,’ said Minardil. ‘He is not a man to take well to disappointment. But what of your audience with the Steward? I have not forgotten your promise to enlighten me in my turn.’

Thorongil had been readying to speak, brow bowed in inexplicable concern. Now his mouth closed and he let fall his gaze. ‘I was not forthright about my service in Rohan,’ he said. ‘I did not leave the ranks of Thengel King a Captain.’

A dismissal in disgrace might have explained all: the secrecy, the evasions, even Thorongil’s insistence that the Steward be the first to learn the truth. Yet Minardil could not reconcile such dishonour with the skilled and upright and noble-spirited Thorongil he knew.

‘You… you do not mean that you served as a Marshal?’ he ventured, the thought driving his heart to race. To think he might command such a man was terrifying.

‘Not quite.’ Thorongil offered a small, hangdog smile. ‘I was an Undermarshal. Each Marshal commands three, and beneath them serve the Captains of the ëoreds. The Companies.’

Awed, Minardil shook his head. ‘I have treated you as a common soldier,’ he protested.

‘You have treated me graciously and with dignity,’ Thorongil said. ‘You have weighed my council, and—’

‘Weighed it!’ cried Minardil. ‘I should have obeyed you in all things without question! Here I stood, pleased to offer you the post of First Lieutenant, when you were to Rohan what Lord Cairon is to us!’

In his own dismay, he scarcely heard Thorongil’s.

‘The post of First Lieutenant? I do not understand. The Steward agreed that I might remain as I am, at least for a time. Surely Lord Denethor did not approve the appointment.’

‘He did, and rightly so,’ said Minardil. ‘He would have done better to make you Captain in my place – or in Nelior’s, or Lord Esgalad’s. Does he know what he wastes in this simple Company?’

‘No honest labour is wasted,’ said Thorongil. ‘I am needed here. I have things to offer.’

‘You do,’ Minardil agreed, glad to bring the conversation back around to the matter at hand. ‘And you have much to offer as First Lieutenant. We will be getting new men – a few veteran Guardsmen from the Ninth and Eleventh Companies, but more from the First Circle and still more green recruits. I will entrust you with their training, and the oversight of their early watches.’

He was grateful when Thorongil nodded. ‘I am honoured to be so entrusted,’ he said. ‘What of Herion? He will need some new responsibility, to ease the blow of being passed over.’

Minardil chuckled. He knew that it was spiteful, but he could not help it. ‘Herion will soon have more work than he knows what to do with,’ he said sheepishly. ‘It seems he is out of favour with Lord Denethor. He has been chosen to supervise the cleansing of the city.’

Thorongil glanced reflexively over his shoulder, as if to look up towards the Citadel’s heights. ‘Is that not a task for a man of greater experience?’ he asked. ‘To oversee the cleaning of the streets, the maintenance of the aqueducts, repairs to the walls, to the cobbles, to the…’ He paused at Minardil’s expression. ‘I do not understand.’

‘It is a euphemism,’ said Minardil; ‘and I should take no pleasure in my subordinate’s humiliation. He will be organizing and personally supervising the crew responsible – under the purview of the Chamberlain of Minas Tirith – for the mucking-out of the public privies that have been left to stew through the winter. Including those of this Company.’

Something flashed in Thorongil’s eyes, but his face was grave. ‘I do not think that Lieutenant Herion will take kindly to such work,’ he said.

‘Who would?’ asked Minardil. ‘Yet someone must do it, and Lord Denethor informs me that Herion is the man. As the command came with the same missive confirming your appointment, perhaps I can be forgiven for feeling little inclined to argue his verdict.’

Thorongil steepled his long fingers. ‘I confess, Minardil, I had not expected His Lordship to approve such an appointment. Not for me. I have displeased him greatly, and he is right to question my judgement. Had I been less reticent, had I held more sway upon the field, fewer men would have perished on the charcoal plains.’

Minardil’s innards twisted sickeningly. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You cannot permit such thoughts; no commander can.’

‘One of my experience must,’ said Thorongil. ‘It will not hobble me with doubt, but neither can I ignore my fault. I sought to avoid the pitfalls of pride. Instead I stumbled into the ravine of over-humbleness. It will not happen again. I accept your offer of the post of First Lieutenant, Captain. I will exert my every effort and ability to excel in it.’

It was a pledge any Captain would be glad to hear of a new officer. Coming as it did from such a man, Minardil was left to wonder how he had been found worthy of such loyalty and respect. 


The pretext of interrogation provided a natural means of debriefing the infiltrator. First Denethor had the captive Easterling removed from the somewhat larger cell he now shared. He was shackled to a chair and questioned fruitlessly in Westron. Denethor himself made a fresh attempt to use the Black Speech, but it sickened him and he got little better than gibberish for his efforts. When a suitable interval had passed, the prisoner was brought back to the cell and Jamon taken away. The natural assumption was that the same awaited him.

So it did, after a fashion, albeit without the restraints on the chair. Denethor received his newest informant in the guardroom instead. Jamon was escorted by the chief jailor, shuffling awkwardly with shackles clanking. He certainly looked the part of the beleaguered prisoner. The dirty, ragged shirt clung to his lean body, and his hair was matted as Denethor had instructed. His bare feet were dark – or darker, at least – with grime, and there was a wild, anxious look in his eyes that made all the rest believable.

The Easterling Guardsman tried to kneel before his Captain-General, but the chains between his ankles tripped him. The jailor, accustomed to such stumbles, caught him by an elbow and chuckled.

‘Easy, there. Watch yourself,’ he cautioned.

‘You may stand,’ said Denethor, acknowledging the man’s attempt at courtesy. ‘Release his hands.’

The jailor produced a well-oiled turnkey and opened the manacles. As he took them away, Jamon rubbed at his wrists. The cuffs were not tight, but they were heavy: they left red marks upon his flesh.

The jailor paused, watchful. Denethor gave a slight shake of his head. There was no reason to free the Easterling’s feet: the shackles would only have to be replaced again.

‘Now tell me,’ Denethor said. ‘What have you learned?’

There was dread in Jamon’s eyes, he kept his voice steady. ‘Little, sire. His name is Ranim, and his father was Raksha. He comes from nearer Rhûn, and he served beneath the Gatekeeper.’

Denethor frowned. Few of Sauron’s commanders were known by their right names. Even their subordinates did not always know them; it was all but impossible for the spies of Gondor to learn them. They were known instead by their postings. The Gatekeeper, naturally, oversaw the defence of the Morannon and the command of the Enemy’s northern armies. If the Easterling and his fellow invaders had come so far, they had either done so with remarkable stealth, or Cairon’s position was more precarious than Denethor had feared.

‘You are certain that he said that? The Gatekeeper?’ he demanded.

Jamon nodded anxiously. ‘Sire, we speak the same dialect. We come from the same province. There is no mistake.’

That was gratifying news where the other was not. It was good fortune that Jamon and the prisoner could understand one another readily. If the clannishness of Gondor’s small villages was any indication, the Easterling would also be more inclined to trust one of his near countrymen.

‘What else have you learned?’ Denethor pressed, hopeful.

Jamon shifted uneasily. ‘Very little, my lord. He is cautious. First it was he who made the questions. Then he told me what I have told you. Then he slept long. He told me of his wound, and of the silent healers who attended him in the City. He remembers another from the battlefield, one who was not silent. He does not understand why a prisoner would be tended, unless we mean to put him to torture.’

‘Do not speak as though you are one of us!’ Denethor instructed. ‘If he for a moment suspects, you will get nothing from him.’

Jamon bowed his head. ‘Yes, my lord,’ he mumbled.

‘Remember who you are, and keep fast to the story,’ said Denethor. ‘You must entice him to trust you, that he may tell you all. Do you understand?’

‘I understand, sire, but…’ Jamon did not finish. His voice trailed away and he hung his head. ‘I understand, sire.’

‘Good. Have you any further questions?’ Denethor asked. It was a reflex rather than an earnest question: he would not think much of a man who dithered over his duties.’

‘One, my lord,’ Jamon said, his voice unsteady at last. ‘How long—I attempt to ask—until when—when may I go home to my Company?’

Denethor eyed him coldly. ‘When you have found the truth, Guardsman, and not before.’

The Easterling looked as if he had been struck. ‘And if I cannot, sire?’

‘I would not fail in your place,’ said Denethor. ‘Gondor’s need is great, and you can readily be spared from your other duties. You have pledged yourself loyal; now give me the proof.’

‘But sire, I have watches to stand. My fellow Guardsmen will be resentful if I do not do my part,’ Jamon ventured.

‘What does their resentment matter, when you are serving the greater need?’ asked Denethor. Too late he remembered the bruises Jamon wore; he had reason to fear the displeasure of his comrades. Unwilling to go back upon his dismissal of the matter, he added; ‘Captain Beleg has been informed of the reason for your absence. He can tell the men that you are serving me for a time.’

If the Easterling took comfort in this, it did not show. ‘My lady, sire. My beloved,’ he pleaded. ‘She will not know why I am gone. I have pledged… we are to meet this eventide.’

If this had occurred to Denethor – and he supposed it must have, in a tangential sort of way – it had caused him no amusement until now. The corner of his mouth twitched, but he restrained all other signs.

‘She can seek word from your Captain also,’ he said. ‘Fear not: it is a faint heart that would spurn a man for one night’s broken tryst.’

The battered dismay upon the man’s face might have spoken to a deep and abiding affection. Denethor saw only artifice. The man did not want the assignment, with its discomforts and its dangers and its challenges. He was trying to wriggle out of it by any means he had. No doubt he now sought to sway his Captain-General with sentiment where neither pleas nor protestations had worked. Little did he know that nothing could dissuade Denethor in this.

‘Take him back,’ he said to the jailor. When the man moved to open the door for Jamon, Denethor coughed pointedly. ‘The wrists.’

The Easterling held out his hands. As the shackles were closed, he let them fall leadenly. His shoulders sagged suddenly and his head drooped so that the matted hair shadowed his face. No man could have counterfeited a better aspect of a prisoner. If only he proved as clever as he was skilled in this, they would soon know all that the prisoner did. Denethor’s confidence that he had chosen the right man grew as Jamon was led away, chains rattling.

He was not blind to the man’s misery. No doubt the Guardsman missed the luxuries of the garrison: well-appointed beds, hot and regular meals, and leisure time in which to come and go as he pleased. No one, not even an Easterling, would be glad to abandon such comforts for a cold cell and prisoners’ fare. Denethor himself would not wish to endure it, but for the good of the state and the sake of Gondor’s defence it was a small price to pay. In Ithilien and the southern fiefs, men were taxed of their very lives each day. Jamon should be grateful to be given such an opportunity: to do so great a service with so little peril. 


With his elevation to the rank of First Lieutenant, Thorongil was given the passwords to the next three Gates. Now he could ascend to the Fifth Circle on his own recognizance, and whenever he wished. Yet it was not the Great Market that he longed to visit, nor the ornamental gardens still slumbering for spring. He wanted to return to the Houses of Healing, and that he could not do. He was an officer now, but an officer in a lowly Company. He did not warrant such access.

Minardil did, however, and when next the two of them shared an off-watch they ascended together to the white stone building overlooking Minas Tirith’s living streets. They were greeted courteously, and Minardil was led to visit the convalescents of the Tenth Company. Thorongil was brought straight to Mallor.

‘He is much improved,’ his escort said. One of the younger healers had been charged to attend him. ‘He awakens often, for the pain does not allow easy slumber and the Herb-master hesitates to give him potions too strong for his constitution. Yet he is eating, and he can sit up if we aid him. The fever smoulders yet, but it is not deadly. The wound smells only of unguents and honey.’

All this was good, but Thorongil was not satisfied until he saw Mallor with his own eyes. The Guardsman was propped up in bed, chest heaving with the deep breaths that allowed a man to compose himself against grinding pain. When he saw Thorongil, his wan lips broke into a smile.

‘You have come!’ he said. ‘They told me – the healers – that you are my saviour. You sealed my wound on the battlefield, the provost healer said?’

‘I did all that I could in the moment,’ said Thorongil, drawing near to the bed and taking the hand that reached for him. He clasped it between his own, gauging the fever as much as bracing his comrade. ‘I am told that you are in great pain.’

‘Not so great now,’ said Mallor stoutly. ‘When they change the packing, I sometimes think I shall go mad. But it is nothing to the pain I knew in the darkness.’

Thorongil remembered. He had tried to coax Mallor out of that gloom and into wakefulness, fighting all the while the pull of agony. He had felt it himself, or thought that he had. ‘You have come back to us now. I am grateful, as are all your friends in the Tenth Company.’

‘Do you know, it’s strange,’ said Mallor. ‘I remember my dreams – some of them quite bizarre, which I’m told is to be expected with the herbs I’ve been given. But one of them was very clear and not bizarre at all…’

‘Do not speak of it,’ said Thorongil, his voice low and comforting though his heart had skipped painfully. He knew what Mallor remembered, and in whatever form he did, it would be too near the truth for comfort. ‘There is no need to remember your fever-dreams.’

Mallor shrugged, and winced as that side of his body shifted. ‘I suppose you’re right,’ he said. ‘It’s bad luck to speak of nightmares, isn’t it?’

Was it? Thorongil still knew little of the superstitions of Gondor. He was content with the excuse, and he smiled. ‘You’ve had quite enough of that.’

‘I’m told I’ve been overrun with luck of the other sort, actually,’ said Mallor. ‘Had the sword struck me higher, it would have taken my hip-joint. Lower, and I might never walk again. Had it been left to fester I would have lost it. Had your clever hands not closed the large vessel I would have bled to death. Had the healers not cleaned out the wound in the face of all convention – I am told that you decided upon that, as well?’

‘The Master of the Houses and I, yes,’ said Thorongil. ‘All your careful care you owe to him.’

Mallor nodded. ‘I know. I’ve thanked him many a time already, and I mean to keep doing it until he lets me go from this place. But I want to thank you, too. You’ve been more than a friend to me, and I owe you my life.’

‘That is a precious debt indeed, and I am honoured,’ said Thorongil. ‘While we both serve Gondor, there is always the chance that you will one day return the favour.’

‘I hope so,’ said Mallor. Then he grimaced. ‘That sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? Wishing you into that sort of position.’

Thorongil smiled and laid down the other man’s hand with care. ‘I promise I will not take it amiss,’ he said.

Dúrion slept, and so Thorongil could do little to assess his crippled speech and his paralyzed limbs. He was allowed to walk among the others he had aided, both the men of the City and the Guards of the Citadel. Many remembered his care. Others did not. He found Minardil in a ward of the recovering, sitting on the foot of Dúlin’s bed. The most junior lieutenant of the Tenth Company had taken a club to the shoulder that had cracked his scapula, broken his collarbone, and snapped his upper arm in three places. Still he was cheerful, and he reached with his good hand to greet Thorongil.

‘My congratulations!’ he said earnestly. ‘You’ll make a fine Lieutenant, and there’s no one I would rather be passed over for.’

‘You would surely not have been passed over if not for the need to fill the post at once,’ Thorongil demurred. ‘I will have to defer to your insight as I grow accustomed to my new role. You know the men far better than I.’

‘Have you finished?’ Minardil asked. ‘I half expected you to labour long into the night again.’

Thorongil shook his head. ‘Mallor will recover, and Dúrion will find more good in sleep than he could at my hands. Yet there is one patient more I would attend before we depart. I must ask after the Easterling.’

‘He’s been removed to the dungeons,’ said Minardil. ‘The healers found him well enough to be questioned. Gondor owes you much for sparing his life, and will owe you more still if he talks.’

His words were carefree enough, but Thorongil’s thoughts darkened. He had tended the Easterling during the long wain-ride back to Minas Tirith, and then he had feared for the man’s life. Had he made such a remarkable recovery? Thorongil trusted Thalahir’s judgement and knew that he would not send an unfit man to be locked away, but he was more uneasy about the treatment the prisoner might receive once out of the healers’ care. His own experience with the provost’s men had been refreshed in his mind by his visit to the Steward, and he found himself hesitant to trust.

‘Do you know where he is held?’ he asked. ‘Is it possible for me to see him there?’

‘Lieutenant for a day, and already you wish to extend your reach,’ Minardil said fondly. ‘You’ve learned your lesson in the dangers of meekness, all right.’

Thorongil gave him a long look, part admonition and part plea. Minardil sighed.

‘I’ll make inquiries,’ he said, hauling himself to his feet. ‘I do not know how far you may follow, but unless he is held in the Citadel itself I ought to be able to get an audience with him. I suppose it’s better if I don’t mention that I have a First Lieutenant who wants to prod his wounds.’


On his second full day of counterfeit captivity, Jamon was again brought before his Captain-General. This time he did not try to kneel, but stood with his head hanging and his eyes upon his manacles. At Denethor’s question he flinched.

‘No more than yesterday, my lord,’ he confessed. ‘He has served the Enemy long. He fears the West. He is slow to trust.’

‘You were told to make him trust you,’ said Denethor coldly.

‘Sire, I am trying,’ said the Easterling. His voice wavered. ‘I am trying as best I can.’

‘And you have learned nothing new?’ Denethor pressed. ‘The guards say that you were heard talking long into the night. Am I to believe you spoke of nothing at all?’

Jamon raised his head, and his eyes burned with desperation. ‘We spoke of our homeland, my lord,’ he said. ‘Of places known to both of us, and of the old ways and times. He is as much an exile as I, imprisoned in the armies of the Eye and pressed into unending service on the frontiers.’

‘Do not make the mistake of thinking him an unwilling slave,’ said Denethor. ‘Men have died ere this, resisting service to causes too evil to countenance. You yourself risked death and torment to abandon such labours. This man did not.’

‘My family was gone,’ Jamon whispered. ‘His is not. He has a wife. Children. They would be punished if he deserted the foe. They may be punished now, if those that escaped the battlefield do not think him dead. He prays they think him dead.’

Denethor had a certain sympathy for that position. Better to be thought dead even by your loved ones than to be thought a traitor to Sauron. Still, the notion of an Easterling longing for his family from afar seemed strange. Even Jamon, Guardsman though he was, had no such ties save those he sought to forge with the dye-merchant’s daughter.

‘This talk of Rhûn and of family,’ he said; ‘is it bringing you any closer to what you need to learn?’

The question caught Jamon back-footed. From his eyes, it was plain that he had not considered it. The poor, inexperienced fool had forgotten his objective in the pleasure of reminiscing with a countryman. It was a green man’s mistake, and not one that could be long tolerated in a spy.

‘You must always remember why you are there,’ Denethor said sternly. ‘Forget, even for a moment, and you may sacrifice an opportunity to succeed. Yesterday you spoke of a desire to return to your Company. How can you hope to do that unless you finish the work before you?’

Jamon swallowed painfully. He shifted his hand as if to reach for his jaw, but the chains clattered and he let it fall. Too late Denethor realized that he had not given the jailor leave to remove the manacles. He upbraided himself. He was too eager for tidings; he too was allowing desire to make him careless. He pledged silently that it would not occur again.

‘Perhaps you do not understand the import of the task before you,’ he said gravely, holding the other man’s eyes with his gaze. ‘You have in your hands the safety of Anduin. Perhaps the fate of the armies in Ithilien. You have an opportunity to learn that which we may never otherwise know. How did the Enemy’s forces reach the river? Why did they seek us out, a small band on a training excursion? What did they hope to gain? These questions must be answered if Gondor is to be secured against the next attack. You speak fondly of your beloved. Would you have her entrenched in a besieged city? Would you have the men of your Company die upon the walls?’

‘No, sire,’ Jamon whispered.

‘What was that?’ Denethor asked.

‘No, sire.’

Denethor sat back with a sigh. ‘I thought not. You are new to this work, Jamon of the Guard. This I know, and I am making allowances for it. Yet you must resist all temptation to stray from your goal. If this gossip of old times helps to woo the prisoner to trust you, that is well and good. If it is naught but a distraction, it must be stopped. Only you can decide which it is: you are the infiltrator.’

Jamon’s brows knit. ‘Forgive me, sire. I do not know the word.’

‘Infiltrator?’ Denethor asked. ‘Spy, man. You are my spy. If you succeed in this, perhaps I will find more work for you. You might rise above your present state.’

The Easterling cast despairing eyes at his naked legs and the chains that bound them. Denethor had to restrain himself from rolling his eyes.

‘Not this state: that of a simple Guardsman,’ he said. ‘This is but part of the subterfuge. A moment’s discomfort for the good of Gondor.’

‘I am loyal to Gondor, sire,’ Jamon whispered. His voice was very taut, rasping in the back of his throat. ‘I seek only to serve the Steward.’

‘And you are serving,’ Denethor promised. ‘See that you also serve well.’


Waiting in the narrow courtyard that ran the length of the prison, Thorongil fought the urge to pace. He stood instead beneath the eaves, cloak wrapped close against the damp. There was snow on the air tonight: it would fall before the dawning. He had expected to find mild weather in Gondor, but here amid the mountains it was not so different from what he had known as a boy. The tempering hand of his foster-father had brought to Imladris a chilly winter peace that had proved a sharp contrast to the wild snows of the Hithaeglir. Here there was no such gift at work: only the southerly air gentled nature’s vagaries.

The great front door was pushed open from within, two Guardsmen in middling black holding the halves wide. A pair of Guards of the Citadel, immaculate in their sable garments and black mail, came next. Striding in their wake with his proud head high came Lord Denethor himself. His fur-lined cloak rippled with the wind of his passage. He spared not even a glance for the figure lurking in the shadows. The gate was hauled aside and he passed with his escort into the street, done with his business in this grim place.

It was difficult to imagine any prisoner important enough to warrant the Captain-General’s personal attention, save the captured Easterling. Plainly an interrogation session had just concluded. There was no better time to see to a prisoner’s health. The most merciful of questioners might grow so engrossed in the quest for information that he forgot to look to his captive’s care: the offering of water might be neglected, food would be forgotten, weariness ignored. With the stakes so high and Gondor’s ways yet little known, Thorongil wondered what state the Easterling might be in.

Yet he had to wait. Now he did pace, out of mounting impatience more than any attempt to keep warm. The watch was wearing out: he was expected at the Third Gate at its ending. He could not miss the watch, though out of no fear of Herion and his cesspits. Thorongil was now First Lieutenant, and with that came a greater onus to present a pristine example of dedication to the men. If Minardil did not emerge soon, there would be no time to see to the Easterling.

Still he waited.


‘You’re welcome to see him; you took him captive after all,’ the chief jailor said, swigging down a generous mouthful of cheap wine. ‘Begging your pardon, but His Lordship has a way of leaving a man thirsty.’

Minardil chose to overlook the less than flattering remark. ‘I did not take him captive. It was my Lieutenant who did that. May he see the prisoner?’

‘Nope,’ said the jailor. ‘No one less than a Captain, that’s the rule. Not just for Easterlings, neither. Anyone else needs permission of a magistrate or of Lord Denethor himself. You could ask him, seems to me. If the man really did catch the Easterling. His Lordship’s mighty pleased to have him to question.’

‘Is he?’ asked Minardil. Then he considered the situation. ‘Yes, I suppose that he is. One of the servants of the Enemy would be a valuable witness to the events preceding the battle.’

‘Just so,’ agreed the jailor. ‘He’s got his spy in there now, questioning the man. Day or night, when he’s ready to talk there’ll be ears to listen.’

‘His spy?’ Minardil echoed. ‘You mean that there’s someone…’

‘Posing as another prisoner, aye.’ The jailor refilled his cup and offered it to Minardil. The Captain shook his head. ‘Looks the part, true enough, though he’s not done much by way of interrogating. Might’ve been best just to have the poor sot translate for a proper questioner. His Lordship can coax cheese from a stone when he’s got a mind, but that’s no good when the wretch can’t understand a word he says.’

‘The Easterling speaks no Westron,’ Minardil translated. That was logical enough, but he wondered how much of an impediment that actually was. There were rumours among the men of the City Guard that their lord spoke more tongues than were taught to noble children. There were rumours that he knew the speech of the orcs of Mordor. Whether such tales made Denethor more awesome or more frightening to his men was a matter of opinion.

‘Not a word of it. Nor the other.’ The man shivered and took another swallow of wine. ‘You’ll not get anything out of him, if that’s what you’re hoping.’

‘It’s not,’ said Minardil. ‘May I step out for a moment? If my Lieutenant cannot enter, I must send him back to my Company.’

The jailor waved his assent, and Minardil left the man’s study. When the guards at the outer door heaved it open, Minardil stepped out to face a gloomy courtyard and an irritated Thorongil. He strode at once for Minardil, the question burning in his eyes.

Minardil shook his head. ‘Not without the order of a magistrate,’ he said. He did not mention the other avenue. He still did not quite believe his good fortune in having Denethor approve Thorongil’s appointment. He was not prepared to risk having that decision rescinded.

For a moment, Thorongil looked ready to rebel. Then he pressed his lips into a thin line and nodded his head curtly. ‘Then there is nothing for me here,’ he said flatly. ‘I must return to the Second Circle. Perhaps I can eat a little before I go on watch.’

His tone made eating sound positively inconsequential, as if he had not missed nuncheon while on duty, nor failed to pause to refresh himself before making for the Houses of Healing. Guilt took Minardil. He had promised the man an opportunity to see to those he had cared for in the field. That promise was not fulfilled.

‘Tell me what to look for,’ he said. ‘I will examine him for you. Give me the signs to know if all is not well.’

Thorongil nodded gratefully. He gave a few brief instructions: simple things like searching for a fever. Then Minardil and his Lieutenant took leave of one another, and the Captain went back in search of the jailor.

The man was reluctant, but even a lowly Captain was due certain courtesies. The right to visit his prisoners was among them. ‘Just don’t you out the spy,’ he warned as he led Minardil down the winding stair to the lowest level of the dungeons. ‘Lord Denethor’s put a great deal of trust in that business, and it’ll be the worse for both of us if it’s overturned tonight.’

He gave his lantern to Minardil. With a long key he unlocked the door before them, letting the stink of unwashed bodies waft into the dim corridor. ‘Go on,’ he said. ‘I’ll be just up the way when you’re ready to be let out.’

Minardil nodded and stepped across the threshold, holding the light aloft. He heard the thud of the door closing behind him, and the clang of the tumblers as he was locked in.

There was a bracket on the wall not half a step into the room. From it he hung the lantern. The stone sconces could have held torches, which would have bathed the whole room in light. As it was, the corners were cast in shadow. The Easterling was visible enough, lying on his unwounded side with his head turned in to the wall. The plank bed was piled only with straw inexpertly gathered, but the man wore the robe of a convalescent and he had a thick wool blanket to cover him. His chest rose and fell in sleep. Though he was chained, he had a good lead. The foul-smelling slop bucket was within his easy reach. He had been given every reasonable consideration, so far as Minardil could see.

A sound to his left startled him, and he whirled. He had forgotten Lord Denethor’s spy, who had been lying in a ball upon a far more scanty covering of straw. He was now halfway into a crouch, dark eyes wide and wary.

‘Peace, prisoner,’ said Minardil, remembering the jailor’s admonition. ‘I mean you no harm.’

The man leaned forward, out of Minardil’s shadow. ‘Captain?’ he said, hoarse and hesitant. ‘What… why are you here?’

It was Jamon of the Ninth Company.

Minardil dropped to one knee. ‘What is this?’ he hissed. ‘I was told that there was a—’ He glanced over his shoulder at the slumbering form. The jailor said the man spoke no Westron. That did not mean he could not understand it.

Jamon followed his gaze and shook his head. ‘He sleeps deeply,’ he whispered. ‘And he knows nothing of the speech of the West. Not one word.’

‘That may be artifice on his part,’ Minardil warned. ‘Why are you here?’

‘We speak the same language,’ said Jamon. ‘I… oh, Captain, I do not know why I am here!’

He looked younger than his years, like a grubby and frightened youth caught stealing apples from the market. He reached for Minardil, but stopped abruptly as the chain between his wrists clattered. He was shackled hand and foot. Minardil fought off the urge to shudder. Setting a spy was one thing. Locking up a loyal Guardsman in this fashion was quite another.

He looked again at the bunk where the Easterling lay. He got his foot back under him and rapped upon the door. ‘Jailor!’ he called.

Reluctant footsteps sounded in the corridor. The man had not expected to be summoned so soon. The lock creaked and the door opened. ‘I would question this man,’ Minardil said, gesturing at Jamon.

He was glad of his careful words, for with a low grunt the Easterling stirred. He twisted his neck, squinting against the light. Minardil snatched the lantern from its hook. ‘Now,’ he said.

‘Up you get,’ the jailor said, taking hold of Jamon’s arm and hefting him to his feet. The motion was not vicious, but it was practiced and implacable: this was how the man rousted his prisoners. Jamon’s colour deepened, and he let his head hang beneath the curtain of his hair. Ordinarily well-kept as any Guardsman’s, it hung in knots and straggles.

Safe in the guardroom with the jailor sent to settle his other charges for the night, Minardil took hold of Jamon’s wrist. The key he had been given turned easily in the lock. He reached for the other, and then crouched to free the man’s feet.

‘You need not be bound in here,’ he said. ‘Now sit: you must be stiff from lying on that floor.’

Jamon took one chair, falling heavily into it. He looked up to follow Minardil with his eyes as the Captain sat also.

‘Why are you here?’ Jamon asked. ‘What brings you to this place?’

‘I could ask the same of you,’ said Minardil; ‘but I came to look in on my prisoner. It was one of my Company who took him in battle. Thorongil of the Guard.’

‘He is known to me,’ said Jamon. ‘A kind man.’

Minardil could think of no more fitting description of his new First Lieutenant. ‘He treated the captive’s wounds, and wanted to look in on him himself. That is not allowed, so I promised to bring my own account. Now. What is this about you spying for the Captain-General?’

‘He wishes me to learn all that the prisoner knows,’ Jamon said. His words came very quickly, as if he feared their time was short. ‘He demands that I learn how the Enemy reached the river, why they came, what they sought. He does not understand… I am trying, but those who have served the Eye are slow to trust.’

‘Surely he does understand,’ said Minardil. ‘Lord Denethor is a master of tactics and stratagem. He has questioned many men, both friendly and otherwise. He would interrogate the Easterling himself if he could.’

‘I offered to stand as translator,’ said Jamon. There was a desperation in his eyes that Minardil did not like. ‘He said this way was… this way is the only way.’

He reached to grip Minardil’s forearm. He shook his head wildly. ‘I do not know anything of this!’ he moaned. ‘How to question a prisoner, what to ask, what I should not say. I was a man of no rank and no consequence beneath the Enemy’s standard. What if this man is the same? What if he knows nothing of use?’

‘If he knows nothing of use, Lord Denethor will find another way to learn what he would know,’ Minardil said. He did not understand the man’s fear. The High Warden was a stern man, but he was no monster. He would not punish failure of an earnest effort with anything worse than a few harsh words and some unpleasant duties.

Jamon withdrew his hand and hugged his abdomen. ‘I have been here two days,’ he said. ‘Only two days. It seems far longer.’

Minardil shook his head helplessly. ‘At least the man will know how they reached Anduin,’ he said. ‘If nothing else, you can learn that.’

The dark eyes fixed upon him again, piteous and glassy. In their sheen, Minardil saw something he had last seen in a pair of keen grey orbs: utmost exhaustion. Jamon might have been lying in the corner of the cell, but it was plain that he had not slept. Small wonder he was wild in his speech and in his notions. Ordinary men could not endure sleeplessness as stoically as Thorongil: two days without was quite long enough to leave a man jittering and mistrustful.

‘Inweth,’ Jamon said. ‘She does not know… she has not been told where I am. I do not think she can be told. But I want her to know that I have not turned my back upon her.’

‘Your betrothed?’ Jamon nodded. Minardil offered a small smile. ‘I will see that she learns that you are dispatched on special duties for the Captain-General. Tell me where she dwells, and I will visit her myself.’

Jamon gave the street and described the house, punctuating all with frequent murmurs of thanks. Minardil tried to reassure him that such gratitude was unwarranted. ‘I only wish that I could do more to help,’ he said at last.

‘I know nothing of these things,’ Jamon bemoaned. ‘I cannot question a prisoner. I do not know how. You are a Captain. Can you teach me?’

This was far beyond the scope of what any Guardsman, even a Captain, was trained to do. Minardil shook his head regretfully. ‘I cannot,’ he said. ‘I do not know of such things, either.’

As Jamon curled over his arms in despair, another thought struck Minardil. It was one of hope, however small. He reached to put a hand on the other man’s shoulder.

‘Fear not,’ he said. ‘I know nothing of the questioning of a captive, but I know another who might.’


Chapter XXV: Secret Teachings

The dye-maker lived above his storehouse, which stood on a prosperous little street just off of the Great Market. It was a perfect location for one who did not peddle his wares directly to the public. Minardil ascended the stairs at the side of the undercroft and rapped upon the door.

A housemaid in a neat blue kirtle answered. She dipped a curtsey, eyes seeking out the signs of Minardil’s rank. ‘Captain, sir,’ she said softly. 'Have you come to see the master?’

‘Your young mistress, in truth,’ said Minardil. ‘I have tidings she will want to hear.’

‘Oh, yes,’ said the maid. ‘Yes, certainly. Please come in.’

He followed her first into the vestibule and then into a long, narrow dining hall. At one end stood a heavy table surrounded by skilfully carved chairs. At the other, about a tall hearth, were gathered benches and cushioned seats. The accoutrements of industrious ladies were there also: spinning wheel and embroidery frames, and a narrow-band loom. Minardil approached this place where the family clearly gathered in their leisure. He wanted to approach Inweth where she was most at ease.

‘You have asked to see me, sir?’

A young woman stood in the nearest doorway, hands folded decorously before her. She was handsome and dark-haired, and the cut of her gown turned to best effect the generous curve of her hip and the slenderness of her waist. Eyes warm and green as beryls looked Minardil over in puzzlement.

‘Yes, lady,’ he said. He gestured that they should sit, and she took a low-backed chair. He settled on the corner of the nearest bench and leaned in towards her. There was a faint scent of lavender about her, and he found his gaze drawn to the inviting swell of her breast. His shame burned within him. To harbour such thoughts for another man’s betrothed was surely no honourable thing.

‘I have come with a message,’ he said, forcing his composure. ‘I am Minardil son of Mardhir, Captain of the Tenth Company.’

‘I am honoured by your visit, sir,’ said the lady. ‘But I know not what business the Captain of the Tenth Company might have with me. If it concerns the recent import shipments, surely my father is the man you seek.’

Minardil shook his head. ‘I do not seek your father, but yourself. My tidings concern your beloved.’

Her dark brows furrowed daintily, and full lips pursed. ‘My beloved?’ she echoed.

Minardil nodded. ‘Jamon of the Guard. I know that he was absent from your intended meeting last evening, and I have come to make his apologies and to offer some—what is it?’

She was laughing softly, her eyes sparkling and still more jewel-like. ‘You seek Inweth,’ she said. ‘Jamon is her suitor, not mine. I am Míriel, elder daughter of the house.’

‘Míriel,’ said Minardil, trying the syllables upon his tongue. ‘A lovely name.’

‘Some would say an ill-fated one,’ said the lady, a tiny tug of amusement at he corner of her mouth. ‘But if it is my sister you have come to see, I will send her down.’

She moved as if to rise, and Minardil raised a staying hand. ‘No!’ he said, too quickly. She raised an eyebrow in surprise, and he smiled apologetically. ‘I mean that I am in no haste. I would not like to be responsible for bringing you away from your evening’s peace for naught. At least I can offer you my conversation.’

‘An extravagant gift, no doubt,’ said Míriel, but she stood. ‘I will fetch my sister. If you have some explanation for her beloved’s absence, you had best give it to her quickly. She has been in a state of great dismay since last evening.’

Before Minardil could protest again, she was gone. He stole his last glimpse of her swirling hems, and slumped low upon the bench, burying his head in his hand. A lovely name? Had he truly said something so callow and uninspired? Not since the awkward days of his adolescence had he so fumbled a conversation with a lady. He had little contact with women in his daily life, except in passing while he walked street patrols, but Minardil had thought himself able at least to speak with them. Now he was flushing hotly and rethinking every word.

Agitated, he paced before the hearth and tried to focus on his mission. He could not give any intimation of the nature of Jamon’s seconded duty, but he had to make plain that it was an honour and not a punishment. This would be difficult, for he could not say that he knew for certain which it was. The mind of the High Warden was far more subtle and brilliant than that of ordinary men, and it was impossible to follow his thoughts in this. Jamon’s misery cast the situation in a grim light, but Minardil could not doubt that Lord Denethor was acting for the good of Gondor.

He had no more time to mull the matter over, for there came the whisper of soft shoes as Míriel returned. She had an arm around her sister, guiding the younger lady forward. Inweth was more slender of bone than her sister, and the timidity of her approach made her seem very young. She cast her eyes down as she drew near Minardil, and sank out of Míriel’s hold to dip into a deep curtsey.

‘Captain,’ she said softly. ‘You wished to see me?’

‘I did,’ said Minardil. ‘Shall we sit?’

She looked up at his voice. ‘You are not Captain Beleg,’ she said in wary surprise.

Minardil grinned. ‘That I’m not. But I have news of Jamon of the Ninth Company nonetheless.’

Inweth nodded tautly, her hands clutching at one another. ‘Is he… is he well?’

Even as he knew that there could be no hesitation in his reply, Minardil found himself hedging. He gave his head a sharp little shake, rallying his wits. ‘He is safe within the walls of the City,’ he said; ‘yet it may be some days before he returns to his Company. He is rendering uncommon service to the Captain-General, and is much engaged in the Fifth Circle.’

The young woman’s eyes fluttered closed and she drew a deep breath. Míriel laid a hand upon her sister’s shoulder and spoke softly; ‘Thank you, Captain. That is glad news indeed.’

She did not say more, but Minardil read it in her eyes. They had feared Jamon dispatched to field service without warning: sent to Ithilien, no doubt, where many were slain in defence of Gondor’s borders. He strove to shape a reassuring smile. ‘He regrets that he was unable to send you word before now, lady, but his duties did not allow it.’

Inweth nodded. ‘I knew he would not forsake me save in some great cause. He is serving Lord Denethor? That is surely an honour.’

Minardil doubted that the Easterling felt honoured by his assignment, but he inclined his head. ‘I can tell you nothing of the work, I fear, but he wished me to assure you that you are ever in his thoughts.’

‘That’s very kind. Thank you, Captain,’ the girl said earnestly. She glanced back at her sister, letting out a little huff of relief. ‘I knew he would not forsake me,’ she whispered.

Míriel made a tiny clucking sound with her tongue, eyes fond. ‘Certainly not,’ she said. Then to Minardil; ‘May I offer you refreshment, Captain? You have brought good tidings to our house.’

Minardil longed to stay, to bask in her presence a little longer, but that would be self-indulgence of the most unsavoury sort. ‘I cannot, lady,’ he said courteously. ‘My duties are many, and I must take council with my lieutenant on a matter of some urgency. Yet with your leave, Mistress Inweth, I shall call again when I have further tidings of your betrothed.’

The younger woman nodded and dropped into a deep curtsey. ‘You are always welcome,’ she said. ‘Thank you for your kindness.’

‘Aye, thank you,’ said Míriel, though she did not offer like obeisance. There was a spark in her eye as she looked at Minardil, though her lips wore a placid smile. For a moment she held his gaze, then turned with a sweep of her arm to indicate the way from the room. ‘May I show you to the door?’


Thorongil considered the matter carefully before he spoke.

‘It is probable that I could lend him useful advice,’ he said. ‘Yet I do not think much of offering it at one remove. Difficult enough to teach such tactics to one who is without experience…’

‘Without passing the teachings through another neophyte,’ Minardil agreed. He thought he saw a flicker of relief in his First Lieutenant’s eyes as he relieved the man of voicing his Captain’s inadequacy. ‘You will have no argument from me.’

‘The question, then, is how to arrange for our meeting,’ said Thorongil. ‘If I was not permitted into the cells to look in on the wounded Easterling, I presume I will not be permitted in for this.’

‘Not without leave of the Lord Warden,’ sighed Minardil. ‘Yet if he is in earnest about extracting information from the prisoner, he may consent to admit you.’

Thorongil shook his head, his lips pressed into a thin line. ‘I doubt that. If he saw such tutelage as necessary, surely he could offer it himself. This cannot be the first captive to come under his purview in need of questioning. Nor do I think that he would take well to the suggestion that we might disagree with his methods – less still to the notion that I might have skill in interrogation.’

Minardil chafed at his brow with the crest of his thumb. ‘How strange that we must tread with such care, when surely we share Lord Denethor’s aim. I have known him to be a stern man, but this…’

‘I am to blame, at least in some part,’ said Thorongil. ‘He was wary of me from the first, and my ill choices have done little to put him at ease. If I challenge him in this, I do not think his displeasure will fall on me alone. I do not intend to put you in an awkward position again.’

‘I am already in an awkward position, and through none of your doing,’ said Minardil. ‘Jamon has asked for my aid, which I owe him as a Captain and a man. Yet to the Captain-General I owe my fealty and my honesty. By rights, I ought to bring Jamon’s concerns to him.’

‘And yet you do not,’ Thorongil said levelly.

‘No…’ Minardil sank deeper into his chair, fingers drumming uneasily upon the desktop. ‘I would not wish to be seen by my commander and my lord in the state in which I saw the Guardsman. If ever there was a man in need of a wise and circumspect friend, it is Jamon of the Ninth Company.’

‘In you he has one already,’ said Thorongil. ‘All that is wanting is my knowledge – and the means to meet with him. I suppose it is out of the question to have him removed from the prison, even for a few hours?’

‘Without involving Lord Denethor, almost certainly,’ Minardil said. ‘He is in every aspect a prisoner, from his raiment to his chains. It seems an ungracious way to use a loyal soldier.’

‘It is, on the contrary, a brilliant stratagem,’ said Thorongil. ‘Who is more likely to sway a captive than one of his own countrymen, afflicted with the same travails? The flaw in the plan is that the art of questioning a foe is not instinctive. It is a delicate practice, and it calls for experience.’ He fell silent for a long moment, but from the pensive absence in his grey eyes Minardil knew better than to speak.

‘You said that there were two with the authority to allow access to a prisoner,’ he said at last. ‘The Lord Warden himself, or a magistrate of the City. Is this so?’

‘Yes,’ Minardil allowed with an uneasy laugh. ‘But if you have a magistrate in your pocket, I have not.’

‘The jurists of Minas Tirith should be in the pocket of no man,’ Thorongil said sharply, eyes flashing. Then he settled himself and said; ‘But I would expect a just one to give ear to the request of a respected Captain.’


It was an easier matter than Thorongil had feared, to gain a hearing before one of the noblemen who presided over the Court of the Commons in the Fifth Circle of the City. He made the arrangements himself, deeming it a suitable duty for a Lieutenant to discharge on his Captain’s behalf. The clerk was somewhat surprised by the request, but certainly not confounded by it: though uncommon, such audiences appeared to be standard. That very afternoon, Thorongil stood silently behind Minardil as the younger man sat before a sallow-faced gentleman in a coat of heavy velvet.

‘You wish to bring your Lieutenant with you to question a prisoner?’ the magistrate said, studying the slip of parchment on which Thorongil had written the petition. ‘That hardly seems a matter for me.’

‘Ordinarily it would not be, my lord,’ said Minardil; ‘save that the man is not held in the City jail. He is in the dungeons of the Sixth Circle.’

Dour brows drew together. ‘The Sixth Circle. Then he is no ordinary prisoner.’

‘No, my lord,’ said Minardil. ‘I believe he may be able to render information on the attack on my company and the Second of the Citadel, where we camped within easy march of Anduin. I fought that day, and many of my men fell to the swords of the Enemy. My Lieutenant stood with me.’

‘And you think him able to question the man on aspects of the battle you did not witness directly,’ the magistrate muttered, nodding his head in understanding. ‘Yet why come to me? If this Easterling has useful knowledge of such things, surely the Lord Warden will consent to have his officers aid in the interrogation.’

Thorongil did not need to see his Captain’s face to sense his unease. When the moment’s silence endured a heartbeat too long, Thorongil took a small half-step forward.

‘It was I who thought to bring the matter to you, my lord,’ he said. ‘The Lord Warden has many concerns before him, and time is pressing. I thought it more expedient to have you weigh the matter.’

Minardil glanced back at him, some consternation in his eyes, but the magistrate only nodded. ‘I see no reason a pass should not be issued,’ he said. ‘Will one audience suffice?’

Minardil looked hastily to the older man and began to nod, but Thorongil said; ‘Three, my lord.’

‘Three…’ The magistrate drew out a fresh square of parchment and dipped his quill to write. ‘If it drags on any longer than that, I advise you to seek the council of Lord Denethor himself. He is a great lord and much versed in such matters.’

‘Thank you, my lord,’ said Minardil hastily. ‘I will certainly take that under advisement.’

So it was that they found themselves, just as the watch was changing, passing through the Sixth Gate on their way to the dungeons. Minardil held the letter of passage in tightly clamped fingers, and hesitated before the arch that led to the jail-yard.

‘You must help him, Thorongil,’ he said. ‘I cannot imagine being put in such a position myself, not even in the name of Gondor.’

‘I will do all I can,’ Thorongil vowed. ‘Had I but knowledge of the tongue, I would gladly take his place – though my looks might well prove an impediment.’

A nervous chuckle broke from the Captain’s lips. ‘I suppose one with the face of the foe would scarcely seem trustworthy.’

‘Or he would take me for a Black Númenorean,’ said Thorongil; ‘which might well be worse. Sauron’s slavers can scarcely be beloved by his thralls.’

The look of dismayed astonishment upon Minardil’s face brought a patient half-smile to Thorongil’s lips. ‘Fear not, I will not attempt it,’ he said. ‘Yet when this business is over, I may ask Jamon to do a little teaching of his own.’

He walked on before Minardil could remark, and soon they were ensconced in a dreary chamber, awaiting the jailor. Minardil went to the sideboard, where a jug of cheap wine sat next to several earthenware cups. He poured two measures and moved to take a third when Thorongil shook his head.

‘None for me,’ he said. ‘I am here to labour, not to refresh myself.’

Minardil regarded him thoughtfully. ‘You may want it after seeing his state. I did.’

‘Then I will drink when my task is done,’ said Thorongil. He nodded to the table. ‘Sit. There is no need for you to do aught but bear witness.’

When Jamon was brought, Thorongil saw that he was mistaken. The Easterling of the Ninth Company was a pitiable sight: dishevelled, dirty, smelling strongly of confinement and cold sweat. His feet and legs were bare, and the shirt he wore was soiled and ill-fitting. Wrists and ankles were manacled and draped with heavy chains, and it was only at Minardil’s word that the jailor found his key.

‘Your pardon, Captain,’ the man said as he loosed the shackles. ‘I’d half forgot he’s one of yours. Looks every inch the prisoner, don’t he?’

‘Then he has done well at his artifice,’ said Thorongil, watching Jamon’s downcast face as the chains fell away. ‘Thank you; you may leave us.’

Not until the man was gone and the door closed behind him did Jamon look up at last, eyes round with astonishment.

‘Thorongil?’ he breathed. ‘But why?’

He was quaking where he stood, and Thorongil laid a guiding hand upon his elbow. ‘Captain Minardil thought I might lend you council,’ he said. ‘Sit, now, and collect yourself.’

Jamon sank into the offered chair, and Thorongil gave him the cup of wine. He raised it to wan lips with an unsteady hand and took a long swallow. ‘Thank you,’ he whispered. Then his eyes found Minardil and he stirred as if to rise. ‘Captain, I did not…’

Minardil raised a staying hand. ‘Pay me no mind,’ he said. ‘Thorongil has come to advise you, and there is little time to waste. Perhaps it is best if you explain the situation yourself, lest I forgot some important aspect.’

The Easterling looked from one man to the other, uneasy. There was a servile stoop to his shoulders that Thorongil had not seen on their previous meetings. It was remarkable how far the trappings and treatment of a captive went to transforming a free man, and it made him uneasy. In Jamon’s place, even an experienced interrogator would struggle to keep his purpose and his sense of self. For one raised beneath the Shadow, the situation was surely intolerable.

‘Tell me what you have learned so far,’ said Thorongil quietly. ‘Not only what the man has said, but what you make of him. Do not fear to speak your mind; we all seek the same end.’

‘Lord Denethor has bade me learn how the Enemy crossed the river,’ said Jamon. ‘I do not know: the man will not say. If I dare to question him, he falls silent. I think… I fear that he suspects me.’

‘Tell me what he has said to you; do not trouble with what he has not,’ said Thorongil. ‘Have you learned anything of his home, or his position in the armies of Mordor?’

A shudder wracked Jamon’s frame at that word, but he nodded. ‘We are from the same part of Rhûn,’ he said, staring deep into the wine. ‘We speak the same dialect. He told me of his family—’


In the Hall of Kings, Denethor paced between the statues of Isildur and Anárion. He turned crisply on the toe of one boot and strode for the other great brother with the resolve of a general in the charge. On the other side he pivoted again, and made his way back. The sweep of his cloak and the click of his heels compelled him, and the Guards at the far end of the chamber kept their stony eyes from following him. It was no the most private retreat in the White Tower, but on such a night it came close enough.

There was still no word from Ithilien. The messengers had not been seen on this side of the river since their crossing at Osgiliath, and the regular dispatches were late. With every hour that dragged on without tidings, Denethor’s unease mounted. Something had surely gone amiss for Cairon to fail in his duty to guard Anduin, and the protracted silence from the front made it all the more likely that this lapse was a grave one.

Nor did Denethor fear ill tidings for Gondor’s sake alone. Among the faithful men poised to give their lives to guard that debatable land, Esgalad son of Esgalion was one of the most skilled, the most valiant, the most likely to lead the charge in a perilous place. If the news so gravely delayed was news of his death, Denethor feared for the sanity and safety of Telpiriel. Who knew how she, already so fraught with strain in her pregnancy, would bear such tidings? Who could say if her spirit, much less her body, could endure such a shock?

Had he been a younger man, a rasher man, he would have ridden forth this very night to seek the truth himself. It was not such an imponderable thing, to gallop westward with winter’s dying wind in his hair and his sword at his side. Yet Denethor knew he could not. He was not free to lay by his duties to do that for which lesser men were rightly engaged. He had labours in the Citadel and more; for if the news came ill, then he would be needed at his Steward’s side to offer council and to call for action.

So he waited, fraught with unease and sick with apprehension. His appetite had fled him and he could not sleep. Dark dreams waited beyond the restless veil, dreams either prescient or misguiding with no means to divine which. Better to pace, to wear his path to and fro upon these ancient stones, than to court the nightly hauntings of his troubled mind.

Yet suddenly Denethor found himself turning not the full half-circle to stride back to the feet of the first King of Gondor, but down towards the great carven doors with the Throne at his back. His long legs carried him so swiftly that the Guards had scarcely time to lay hand upon the ornate rings, and he slipped through the crack of the parting doors with so little margin that his shoulder struck one with a low thunk. He did not feel the pain, nor the bite of the wind as he passed through the vestibule and into the open courtyard. He said not a word as the men at the Seventh Gate made haste to let him pass. His commands to the door-warden and the jailor were brief, and then he was pacing again, this time the breadth of a suffocating little office, as he waited for the Easterling to be brought to him.

‘Well?’ he demanded, not waiting for the jailor to close the door or for the brown-faced Guardsman to collect himself. ‘What has he said? What have you learned?’

He waited, expecting the man to stammer and hedge as he had before, offering up feeble and fearful excuses. Yet the Easterling, though surely roused from comfortless sleep, spoke calmly as he stood with his head bowed and his hands in chains.

‘Not all, sire, not yet,’ he said. ‘But I do know what caused the Enemy to cross the river.’

‘You do?’ The words came out sharply, bringing to a halt the galloping need in Denethor’s breast. He waved the jailor from the room and seized one of the Easterling’s shoulders. ‘Look at me, Guardsman, and answer. What have you learned?’

Jamon raised his head warily, dark eyes watchful, but he did not quake beneath Denethor’s hand. ‘They were a patrol, scouting the northerly marches of Ithilien and evading our men,’ he said. ‘They had word from watchers – man or orc or beast the captive cannot say – that men of the City were on manoeuvres in lands ordinarily quiet.’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Denethor. He had assumed as much, so precise had been the strike upon them. ‘And they dared the river and Cairon’s videttes just to disrupt our training?’

The Easterling’s eyes shone with an almost triumphant light. ‘No, my lord!’ he breathed. ‘No, it is more than that. You see…’ Now he dropped his gaze self-consciously and drew a thin breath through his nostrils. ‘The watchers reported, sire, that you were among them. They came not on an arbitrary raid, nor to make trouble where the Companies made their drills, but in the hope of capturing you.’

Denethor released his hold on the man almost convulsively. He kept his face impassive, but could not entirely disguise the tension in his voice. ‘You are certain?’ he hissed. ‘The watchers knew of my presence? The commander of the invaders sought me?’

Jamon nodded unsteadily, but there was certainty when he spoke. ‘They call you the Mail Fist of Gondor,’ he said. ‘You are their greatest foe, the one whose sword and standard they dread. When the prisoner’s commander learned that you were so near, just across the river in command of inexperienced troops, the order was given to march without regard for Lord Cairon’s patrols.’

‘And did they encounter any?’ Denethor demanded. ‘If they marched without regard, how did they avoid detection? What of the raft? That was not the result of a moment’s cursory effort, but of a hard night of shipcraft. How did they contrive such labours without detection?’

‘I do not know, sire,’ said the Easterling, but far more steadily than he would have done during his last interview. ‘The prisoner’s times of wakefulness are brief, for his wound weighs upon him. I will learn more when next he wakens.’

‘If the watchers knew I was among the Guard, their sight is either very keen or their lookouts very near,’ Denethor muttered, turning away from Jamon to press his fists to the tabletop. He leaned against locked arms, exhaling a long, hot breath. ‘I had not thought they would take such a risk to capture one man.’

But he was not merely one man, he reflected now. The Mail Fist of Gondor, was it? He had striven always to be an avenging blade, a dour Captain, a mighty lord of war. Yet this was the first he had heard of such a name, of such a pall cast upon the designs of the Shadow. Denethor felt his gaze harden even as the disquiet of the last few days crystalized into stony resolve.

‘You must learn how they reached Anduin,’ he said coldly, though within him the hatred of Sauron’s thralls burned hotter than before. ‘I will come to you after the day-meal tomorrow, and I expect further information.’

He straightened, taking his weight from the table and raising his head high. He turned with slow majesty quite unlike the driven twistings he had made before the Throne. Jamon’s eyes were fixed upon him, wonder and determination within them. Easterling he was, but there was enough of the soldier of Gondor in him to be awed by his Captain-General’s countenance now.

‘You have done well enough in this,’ Denethor said. ‘See that you do not fail to finish what you have begun.’

Then he strode from the room, startling the jailor in the corridor. The man’s fawning words fell upon unhearing ears as Denethor swept away.


In light of all that had come to pass, Thorongil felt it strange and frivolous to turn his attention to the choosing of the Champion of the City. Had he not given Minardil his word to put forward his name, he would have abandoned the pursuit altogether. As he moved through the series of trials, however, he began to understand. Since the Tenth Company’s return to Minas Tirith, the shadow of loss and of fear had hung heavy in the Second Circle. Doubtless it had spread, diluted perhaps but not dissolved, throughout the ranks like some foul disease. Such a habit of disheartenment could easily solidify, crippling morale and with each passing day poisoning the well of men’s courage and weakening the bonds that made it possible for them to trust one another with their lives.

Yet Thorongil could see the cloud rising, dispersing in the excitement of cheering on favourites, good-naturedly maligning opponents, and following the rounds of increasingly intense competition. Clandestine bets were placed, in flagrant violation of the regulations of the Guard but apparently impossible to stop. Over the course of three days, Thorongil fought in fifty-three bouts ranging in length from fifteen seconds to almost four minutes. He was a hopeless mismatch for most of the men he fought, and it was not until the sixth round of trials that he found himself putting forth any effort.

It was no surprise, to him or to any of the men of his Company, when he ascended to the final round, competing with eleven others for the title of Champion. He did not inquire as to the odds placed upon the outcome, but he would not have offered much. At the end of that series of skirmishes, two competitors remained: Thorongil of the Tenth Company, and Minardil son of Mardhir.

On the night before their final bout, Thorongil stood watch on the eastern battlements, looking down over the crowded back streets of the First Circle and the spreading, fallow lands of the Pelennor beyond. The mist was thick over Anduin, and the world lay cold and silent. All looked to be at peace, and yet Thorongil could feel it: the dark and distant menace, the pulsing hatred that lay beyond the river, beyond the debated lands of Ithilien, beyond the bastion of the Mountains of Shadow. Two hundred miles or more, as the raven flew, lay between the walls of the White City and the black ramparts of Barad-dûr where they clawed towards the empty sky. Yet Thorongil could almost taste the ash of Gorgoroth upon his tone. He could almost envision the bleak lands he had never walked. And most of all, he could feel the malice of Sauron upon the very air, still though it was.

He could not turn from the East, not without neglecting his post, but he tried to shut his mind to the unseen pestilence. Below him in the narrow stone houses, peaceful people slept. Children lay tucked in cots and trundle beds. Men and women lay restful in each other’s arms. Old folk dreamed sweet dreams of days gone by. Somewhere a cat yowled, and its mate made a shrill reply. Minas Tirith slept, despite the Shadow, and in the morning it would rise again to its daily routines and diversions. In the latter, at least, he would have some part to play. He could only hope it would be a useful one.

‘No wind tonight,’ a familiar voice observed. From the shadow of the nearest tower came a cloaked figure, helm on head and pike in hand. ‘Perhaps we will see the end of this long winter after all.’

‘Long?’ Thorongil asked, mustering a quiet laugh as if it had the power to drive the grim thoughts from his mind. ‘I come from a land where winter lingers long into March, and spring is a dreary season of muck and frosty nights.’

‘Yes, well, we cannot all be as hale as the Northmen,’ said Minardil. He stopped next to Thorongil and they stood, shoulder-to-shoulder, looking out over the Circle below. ‘Off to bed with you, now,’ he said. ‘The watch is half through.’

‘Aye, half through,’ said Thorongil. ‘Never has a man in your Company stood a half watch, I think.’

Minardil shrugged, gazing out towards the rolling hump of fog that obscured the river. ‘You’re standing one tonight, and I am also. I would not have you at a disadvantage tomorrow. If we both cut short our night, we will be more fairly matched.’

Now Thorongil’s laugh was more genuine. ‘You are sending me to my bed so that we will be fairly matched?’

Minardil grinned at him, teeth flashing in the faint lamplight that filtered up from the streets. ‘Not unfairly handicapped, then,’ he said. ‘Respect my gesture of sportsmanship, Lieutenant, and go.’

It was not for Thorongil to say that he was more than a match for his Captain, short of sleep or no. He recognised the gesture for the chivalrous act it was. ‘The time would be wasted. I do not think I shall sleep tonight.’

‘Are you suffering from nervous agitation, then? Perhaps I am a more formidable opponent than I thought,’ Minardil teased. When Thorongil did not respond in kind, he lowered his voice gravely. ‘Is there something in the air tonight?’ he asked. ‘Is this like the night when you smelled the pitch?’

‘No,’ Thorongil said firmly. Then he inhaled deeply through his nostrils, the cold air burning between his eyes. ‘Not precisely. I am troubled, Minardil. Why am I here?’

‘Because someone must watch the walls?’ Minardil offered. ‘Or rather, because you have yet to take advantage of my generous offer.’

‘Nay.’ Thorongil closed his eyes as if by doing so he could shut out the sense of palpable evil lingering just beyond sight. ‘Why am I here, safe within the City walls, when there is need of men elsewhere, to greater end? I should not be resting easy in my new rank, but demanding to be removed from this service entirely. In Ithilien—’

‘In Ithilien, Cairon and his men labour tirelessly,’ said Minardil. ‘But that does not mean that your service here is useless. I have watched you these last days, encouraging those you bested and teaching those who were slated to face you. I have seen you smile and raise a glad hand to the crowds, when in your eyes there was only care and sorrow. You have laid by your troubled thoughts for the good of my Company, and for the consolation of the City. You are needed here, Thorongil, now most of all.’

‘To face you in a mock battle, a pretty tournament to distract the masses?’ asked Thorongil. ‘Any man who fought this afternoon could do as well.’

‘But could any man who fought this afternoon help me to train three dozen recruits to full readiness before the safety and the order of the Second Circle suffers?’ asked Minardil. ‘I had the first list of names from the Master of the Guard today. There is not a seasoned man among them. Most are coming from beyond the walls of Minas Tirith, unaccustomed even to our streets and our ways. There is long work ahead, and important work. Or do you disagree?’

Thorongil shook his head. The training of the new men was indeed a far nobler pursuit than the quest for personal glorification – even in the name of morale among the Guard. ‘Yet still I am troubled.’

‘In dark times, wise men are troubled,’ said Minardil. ‘Give me three months, I beg you. If in that time you are not snatched from me to serve some greater need, then I give you leave to sue for a place in Cairon’s battalions. I will even do all in my power to seek such a place for you, though any Captain would be mad to foist such a one as you from his service.’

‘Three months,’ Thorongil said softly.

Minardil nodded. ‘By then, they will be assembling fresh troops for summer’s advances. They would not send you now even if you begged it of the Steward himself.’

‘Three months, then,’ agreed Thorongil. He turned at last to look at his Captain. ‘And I will accept your offer of the half watch. Mayhap I shall find sleep after all.’

‘See that you do!’ Minardil sang out as Thorongil withdrew along the wall. ‘I expect you to put forth every effort to defeat me tomorrow. Another man might have offered me contest enough to make a good showing, but no man in the City has a better chance against the Sable Challenger. Not even I.’

Thorongil carried that thought with him back to the silent garrison.

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