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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,
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.
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