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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.
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