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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.
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