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The Eagle on the Ramparts  by Canafinwe

Chapter VII: Tread With Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A week,’ said Ecthelion.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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