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Chapter VIII: Undefeated
Word travelled swiftly in Edoras, often more swiftly than man could move. In Imladris it scarcely seemed to travel at all, but was dispersed throughout the valley almost instantly, like salt dissolving in a cruet of water. Thorongil had expected a slower dissemination of knowledge here, where the streets were less densely populated and each level was contained so neatly by its two gates. When he came down from his booth at the close of the day watch, he saw this was not so. There was a throng of men waiting around the door that led out to the sparring yard, and it took only a cursory glance to see that they were not all members of the Tenth Company.
They could not have all belonged to the Eleventh Company, either, for in the absence of the Ninth the other two in the Second Circle had half again as many watches to cover. Thorongil's own roster of double watches began tomorrow, and for the first time he could have very easily slept on into the dusk watch – if not for his promise to meet his Captain's challenge. Nonetheless he had risen and outfitted himself for combat. Now he crossed the hall and drew up on the edge of the assembled crowd. There were indeed men from other Companies among them. He saw the sleeve badges of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth, but also of companies from the higher levels: the Eighth, the Fifth, the Fourth. He slipped between them, unobtrusive despite his height, and reached the wide-open door that led out to the yard.
Now he saw why the men were gathered just inside. They had not been waiting for his arrival in order to delay their exposure to the nippy air: the sparring yard was tightly packed with men already. Most of these did indeed belong to the two Second Circle Companies still in Minas Tirith, and the off-watch lieutenants of the Tenth and Eleventh were holding back the crowd from a generous oval of bare ground in which Thorongil and Minardil were clearly meant to meet. Still surveying the men, Thorongil could not see any Company of the Guards of the City that was not represented, save the Second and the Ninth. He was beginning to wonder just what had been said of him, and whether these folk had come in the hope of seeing him vanquished or triumphant.
Yet it was not until he saw the men standing on the bench that ran the length of the far wall of the yard that he understood just how far interest had travelled. There were a baker's dozen of them, the blazon of their office bright against the costly midnight sable of their raiment: Guards of the Citadel, descended from the heights to observe this simple assessment of a new man by his Captain.
Uneasy now, Thorongil nudged through into the open space, where Minardil was tucking his sleeves carefully into the cuffs of his gauntlets. As he stepped forward, he heard an eager shout, and Landor, the page of the Tenth Company, called out; 'Here he is! Thorongil the Undefeated, come to face Minardil, Champion of the Guard!'
An excited rumble moved through the crowd, and those within pressed nearer to the open doorway, jostling to see. Now Thorongil understood, and he stepped to face his superior with a wry curl of his lip.
'Champion of the Guard?' he murmured as they clasped hands in greeting.
Minardil offered him wide, innocent eyes. 'Did I not make mention?' he asked. Then he grinned. 'I was chosen to represent the Guards of the City against the Citadel's Sable Challenger last year. Fear not,' he added, winking. 'I was soundly thrashed.'
Thorongil raised an eyebrow. Defeated or not, to be chosen as the representative of all fifteen Companies from the first six circles was no small honour. 'Now they have come to see you thrash me?' he asked.
His Captain grinned. 'It's the lure of seeing the best of the old pitted against the unconquered new,' he said. 'Do not take it to mean they are out for your blood. Some would be very pleased to see me put in my place by one of my own green men. Win or lose, we shall each have our lauders and our detractors.'
Thorongil knew that well enough: he had been in such contests before, but never before such a diverse selection of onlookers. In Rohan such things had been matters within the éored, or thrown together extemporaneously in a bored encampment. That this trial was so well attended that it almost seemed to have been announced from the watchtowers made him uneasy. He wanted to believe that it was Minardil's reputation alone that had drawn such interest, but he could not. As Captain, Minardil surely sparred with all of his men frequently, to gauge and hone their skills and to keep up his own. A first trial of a new recruit should not have warranted this assembly.
Perhaps, he thought as he tucked his cloak back over each shoulder, he was not integrating into the ranks of the Guard as smoothly as he had hoped.
Two of the more senior members of the Tenth Company came forward, each bearing three blades flat across his forearms. Minardil turned to look at them, and then gestured to Thorongil.
'As I issued the challenge, yours is the choice,' he said. 'Select your man, and we will each pick our weapon.'
Thorongil looked from one laden soldier to the other, studying their burdens cursorily. He chose the one on the right, which necessitated their concerted shuffling to change places. Then he reached to test the long, slender blade that had taken his eye. It was not one of the overweighted practice weapons meant to train the arms and the mind to expect a far more unwieldy thing than a man would bear in battle, that his own might seem feather-light in contrast. This was a real sword, truly weighted and precisely balanced. Its edges were dull and the tip had been blunted, but in every other respect it was a genuine weapon. This was no test of skills, to be a source of learning as well as exhibition: it was a true challenge to stand forth and prove himself.
Minardil was still testing each of his three blades, but Thorongil had made up his mind. He spoke quiet thanks to the bearer, and stepped back towards the ring of men gathered about. As he did so, he caught sight of a familiar face along the east wall of the yard. It was Bregold, the Provost Lieutenant who had given him such an effusive welcome eight days before. From the displeased and disdainful look upon his face, at least one member of the crowd truly was eager to see the stranger put in his place.
It was the Captain of the Eleventh Company of the Guard who was officiating, doubtless by virtue of his status as the most senior non-combatant of the Second Level. It was he who directed Minardil and Thorongil to their positions and gave a cursory reciting of the rules. For the participants this was simple: true combat, save that there was to be no striking above the neck. The watchers, however, were admonished to refrain from interfering with the bout in any way, from spitting and profane language, from intruding upon the central ring, and from numerous other colourfully but vaguely named transgressions that Thorongil could not quite decipher. At last the man stepped back, and barked out the command to begin.
Like prowling war-hounds the two men circled slowly, each keeping his opponent squarely before him. They were gauging one another's stance and movement, learning the set of one another's limbs. Minardil was tall even among the many tall men gathered, but Thorongil overtopped him by half a head. Minardil was the better equipped of the two, in mail and well-fitted garb of superior blacks, while Thorongil's silver star caught a glint of sunlight as his sidestep took him out of the shadow of the garrison roof. Doubtless they made a captivating spectacle as they measured each other, but Thorongil was more interested in his Captain's sharp eyes and limber shoulders than in the aesthetics of the moment.
After a quarter-minute of silent observation, the question became which man would strike first. Whoever did would take the opportunity to act, rather than be forced to react – but it was generally held that the one who dealt the first blow surrendered a certain advantage. In single combat, strategy and foresight were just as important as instinct and reflex. Most were taught, and indeed believed, that these first blow was always an act of nerves; a breaking of the latent tension of scrutinizing and being scrutinized.
Thorongil, however, had been taught by unconventional swordsmen. He knew that it was possible to make the first blow a calculated one, if one's thoughts moved more swiftly than the other man's nerves. Minardil was not a nervous sort. He was still moving with the sinuous deliberation of a hunter, and not once had he twitched even his lips in aborted aggression. He was waiting, believing that his new man would bend to the tension and the pressure of the strange crowd, and strike in haste.
He struck swiftly, yes, but not in haste. Thorongil's first swipe of the sword was long and smooth, whipping through the air and curling back as if to slash at Minardil's right hip. The Captain danced back easily, but that had been the intention. Rather than trying to land a blow, Thorongil had been watching for the way in which the Captain's armed side moved to evade. He saw what he wanted even before Minardil moved his own sword to riposte.
These early exchanges were almost noiseless, boots shuffling sharply against the frozen earth and blades singing through the winter air like the sighs of a lovelorn giantess. The gathered Guards were quiet, though soft noises of approval and dissent followed each swipe and counter. All were on edge now, waiting breathlessly for the first meeting of steel.
When it came, it was Thorongil on the defensive. He had just danced back out of range of an arc that would have disembowelled a man in battle. In the brief breath before he assessed his response, Minardil swooped in again. This time, the sword was coming for the shelf of his shoulder, where a blow even from a blunt blade would leave a gruesome bruise if not a cracked collarbone. Lightning-quick, the sword that had been rising for a breast-high pass at Minardil's left whipped like the arm of a trebuchet, Thorongil's wrist almost motionless. He changed the vector of his resistance at precisely the proper moment, his off-hand flying up to lend strength, and the edge of Minardil's sword met the flat of the Guardsman's blade with a resounding clang.
A reflexive cheer, more for the deftness of the move than any affinity towards the wielder, went up from the men. Fists clenched and arms jerked in satisfaction, and dozens of hungry eyes watched as the combatants drew back into the slow prowling that had begun the bout.
It went on in that way for several more passes. They would strike at one another and evade, then unexpectedly meet with the cold clatter of steel, then step warily away to begin again. Sometimes the aggressor on the landed blow was Thorongil, but more often Minardil. To those observing, the Captain seemed the more confident fighter and the more skilled: able to force his opponent to rebuff his blow with the blade instead of eluding it entirely. After their fifth fearsome contact, Thorongil saw from the almost imperceptible widening of his eyes that Minardil now knew differently.
Parrying was hard work, but striking was harder. It required, save in extraordinary circumstances like the first, a broader motion than fending off the blow. Further, the recoil of the descending blade placed an enormous strain upon hand and wrist, elbow and shoulder and backbone to keep the sword from flying back from the sudden obstacle – far, far more strain than was needed to resist the impact. Each time Minardil brought down his sword against Thorongil's, he tired himself still more. By the ninth time the blades met, the strength in his arm was noticeably lessened.
None of Thorongil's earlier bouts had been such a contest of attrition. Those he had strung out as well as he could without the appearance of condescension, as interested in measuring their skills as protecting their pride. He had a Captain's eye for such things: seeking weaknesses with a mind to school rather than exploit them. Out of long habit he was doing the same with Minardil, but there were far fewer flaws to be found and they were taking longer to draw out. He was an accomplished swordsman, strong and swift and skilled. He was a worthy opponent, no doubt, but in the end he was not so much a challenge as a welcome exertion.
When the speed of the passes began to quicken and the thirsty energy of the watching men mounted into restless shifting and frequent cries to goad or encourage, Thorongil laid by his pretext of reluctance. He had promised to spare his Captain nothing of his skill, and he meant to abide by that promise, however injudicious. He dealt a thrust that narrowly missed Minardil's flank, and swooped sideways to elude a blow. The momentum of that evasion was channelled into another sweep of his sword, and this time the blunted tip caught momentarily upon the edge of the Captain's cloak.
When they circled now, each was hunched low with knees bent to spring and backs rounded with brooding energy. The exclamations of the crowd had the muffled quality of voices above heard by a swimmer, or rumblings deep within the earth that reach the ears of one who walks above. They had no discernable quality to them: it was impossible to say whether any one man called for Minardil, or for Thorongil. Perhaps they were all jeering that the two should be done with this, that everyone might go and oil their boots. It did not matter.
Minardil flung up his arms to rebuff the descending blade, and Thorongil felt in his own shoulders what the Captain felt whenever he landed a blow. His breath was coming quickly now and perspiration was trickling into his eyes, burning in the chill of the afternoon. It was time to end this.
Yet even with his mind made up, Thorongil was obliged to dally on. Minardil knew his business, and it was not as simple as deciding the contest was over and ending it. They exchanged a few near swipes and the new Guard retreated back to his hovering position. Thorongil was pleased when Minardil did the same, rather than advancing across the gap he had made between them. The Captain was expecting several steps of wary sidelong shuffling, as they had done each time until this. Instead Thorongil thrust, diving in with a perfect echo of his opening move. Save that this time when Minardil shifted his lead foot back, Thorongil's left leg shot forward and his toe snagged his Captain's heel.
It was not an easy manoeuvre, and it brought with it a dull pain. Thorongil had to duck low to evade his opponent's sword, and his right knee struck the hard earth with an impact that jarred into his hip. But the imbalance in Minardil's back-step had been tipped, and even as Thorongil's shin met the ground the Captain was falling. He landed bruisingly, flat on his back, and the crown of his helm made a dull thud of impact. His sword was still in his hand, but his grip faltered in shock and Thorongil swept forward, snatching it away with his off-hand. He moved smoothly to his feet, ignoring the sullen throbbing of a stubbed great toe, and he looked down at his opponent.
'Do you yield, my Captain?' he asked, courteous and imperious at once.
'I yield!' gasped Minardil, not quite winded but near enough.
Thorongil nodded neatly, crouched to lay down both blades, and then offered his conquered opponent his hands. Minardil took them and launched to his feet, eyes still dazed but laughing. He was grinning broadly.
'I confess I was expecting you to be the one flat on his back,' he panted. Then he looked around at the dumbstruck men ringed about, and he raised his voice in a booming roar. 'I yield!'
At this clear prompting, a cacophony of voices erupted. Some were cheering, others voicing their confusion or discontent. A few were groaning or jeering good-naturedly. Only one voice, sour and insistent, cried that there had been foul play. The Captain of the Eleventh Company silenced this dissenter, whoever it was, with his own deep-throated proclamation that the match had been clean and the victory just.
Thorongil did not listen to the adulation any more than he had listened to the heckling: it mattered not for whom the words were meant, for they were only empty noise. He was about to bend to retrieve the swords when Minardil caught his arm and gripped it companionably. Thorongil reciprocated the gesture, and found himself looking into clever, earnest eyes.
'Do not think you have harmed your prospects with me,' Minardil said, his voice low enough that no other could hear amid the din. He was not smiling now: his words were too gravely meant for smiles. 'I know my own worth, and I know when it is exceeded by others. I respect a man who can best me, even when I do not like him. You, I respect and I like. I am pleased, Thorongil of Rohan, to count you among my men while I may.'
'I am proud to count you my Captain,' said Thorongil with equal solemnity and no servility. 'You fought well indeed. Were it not for the weakness in your back-step, it might not have gone as it did.'
Minardil's eyes widened at this, and Thorongil realized abruptly that he had known of no such weakness; not even after falling to it. Then his face settled back into lines of calm command. 'We must discuss that,' he said, as the sword-bearers drew near and the circle began to collapse as men broke into rapidly-talking groups. 'At another time.'
'At another time,' Thorongil agreed, scarcely finding the time to get the words out before the first congratulatory hand crashed down upon his shoulder. He was rocked vigorously by his assailant, who all the while was laughing and voicing his opinion on the match. Resuming his smile, Thorongil turned to accept the adulations of his peers.
There were resentful glares aimed at him also, but these were few. In the crackling excitement and the re-enacting narratives already being taken up in some clutches of men, Thorongil read clearly a more significant truth. By dawn, this tale would spread throughout the city. He was not certain whether that was good or ill for him, but he was in that moment very grateful that the suspicious Heir of the Steward had ridden out that morning.
The Companies were set up like opposing armies, glaring at one another across a dip in the land. In truth, of course, they were two groups of men with like lives and skills who were not often afforded the opportunity to fraternize together. During the drills and mock battles they put on a show of viciousness. Immediately afterward, their rivalry dissolved into sociable ease that soon turned to merriment as the Sun slipped down. From the perspective of a commander trying to lead a serious exercise in field combat, it was frustrating. To the eyes of a Lord who might one day have to lead these men in earnest, side-by-side as they marched to their doom, it was heartening.
Denethor intended to return to the City on the fourth day, once he was assured that all was as he had ordained it and that the two Captains would be adequately equipped to maintain discipline in his absence. He did not expect them to have any difficulty. Carefully planned and meticulously executed, this excursion was sure to run smoothly.
He had laid out the camps with deliberate intent, placing each more advantageously to one critical resource than to the other. The Second Company was nearer the deep rock stream that would furnish the men with water. The Ninth Company was nearer the stand of fir and aspen that would provide both camps with fuel. This served two purposes. The first was that scenarios could then be drawn around the recovery of one supply or the other. The second was to ensure that each Company had to have men assigned to fetching the thing their camp lacked at some distance, and with some inconvenience.
This built inter-reliance and an appreciation for the hardships of a field campaign, but Denethor's interest in the arrangement was more personal. If wood and water had to be fetched, men must be set to fetch it. His terse suggestion that this be a fixed assignment, rather than a rotating one, had been accepted unquestioningly by the Captains. Then it had only been a matter of choosing which men were to be saddled with this additional and admittedly rather heavy duty. Jamon the Easterling, of course, was among them.
Carrying water in this weather was a far more miserable task than carrying wood. If any of the men noted this, it was readily apparent that the lower-ranked company should be assigned the worse chore. Nor did anyone question the selection of the men: Denethor knew his subordinates too well for that. Two of those he condemned to fetch wood were in disfavour with the Captain of the Second Company; the other a troublemaker rather too fond of strong spirits. From the Ninth Company, he chose the Easterling, a man out of Blackroot Vale who was as strong as an ox, and the man with the most reprimands for slothfulness upon his record. If Captain Beleg saw anything incongruous about that first selection, he said nothing.
Denethor took a dark satisfaction in rising while the camp was still stirring drowsily in the predawn gloom, and watching the waterbearers toil back and forth from the stream to the hastily joined troughs that served the men of the Ninth Company as cisterns. They had wooden shoulder-yokes to help to bear the weight of the six-gallon pails, but even so it was difficult to keep from sloshing the water. Boots and cannions were swiftly soaked with spillage, and their arms wet to the elbows from whatever contortions were necessary in the stream-bed itself. Of the three Jamon was the smallest, and though he was strong (for did not the Enemy breed his thralls for strength?) he necessarily tired. By the fourth or fifth trip he would come back bowed low under the weight of the yoke, chapped hands clutching the pail-handles with white knuckles. By the sixth his feet would be slipping uncertainly on the frosty ground, and it was only through luck and determination that he did not fall.
He spoke no word of complaint, either public or private. He had not complained of the weight of the ten, either, or of having been relegated to the group set the backbreaking task of digging privy pits in the frozen earth. Nor did he shirk his other duties, taking his turn on patrol and fulfilling his role in each exercise. Yet it was clear to Denethor that he was growing weary. As early as the third night, he was heavy-headed over his day-meal, his limbs stiff when he rose to seek out his blanket. By the end of two weeks, he would be fortunate to be able to stagger back up the slope to the Second Gate, much less come prancing gaily home to his beloved.
It was with stern commands and strict instructions that Denethor left his Captains on the fourth day of the expedition. He had met with them separately the night before, as well, that he might order each to watch the other and to maintain a report on his behaviour. Between evaluating his better and keeping order among his men, Denethor doubted that Beleg would find time to worry overlong about the labours of one lowly soldier. A few disdainful words within earshot of the malcontents of the Ninth Company had laid the final trusses of the plan.
Riding back down into and across the Pelennor that morning, Denethor was quiet in his mind for the first time since the bitterly cold night when he had walked sleepless in the wake of unremembered nightmares. He had all but forgotten the tedium of his winter duties, and he felt again the vigour of command in his blood. He was leaving behind two hundred men who would come back to him much the better for their absence, and he was returning to a City in need of a firm hand to guide it into readiness for spring. There were diversions to look forward to as the weather grew mild, and there would be sound sleep awaiting him after a day in the saddle. He felt his youth and his strength and the keenness of his mind, and he was glad.
Not once in four days had he been troubled by any thought of the newest of Ecthelion's Follies.
It was on the morning that his son was expected to return to the City that word of the match between the new man from Rohan and the Champion of the Guard reached the ears of the Steward. In Denethor's absence, Ecthelion had taken upon himself the weekly meeting with the Master of the Guard. It was from him he had the tale. It was impossible to be certain how much it had metamorphosed in its journey through six levels of Minas Tirith, but in Ecthelion's experience the passing on of a tale from tongue to tongue was a more reliable form of record-keeping than many among the lore-masters of Gondor would allow.
He owed this opinion, as he owed much else in his life, to his dear friend Thengel, now King of Rohan. It was Thengel of whom Ecthelion was thinking when he passed into the Court of the Fountain on his way back to the Tower. The day was crisp and very bright, and in the frozen sunshine a crowd of little sparrows were hopping and jostling cheerily on the stones, competing for attention. Anaiwen sat upon the stone rim of the Fountain, a hunk of old bread in her lap. She was crumbling it with one gloved hand and sprinkling the little morsels for the birds. As Ecthelion drew near, two sparrows darted for the same crumb and butted beaks. Both drew back, wings half-spread, and circled one another with hops and little flaps. They were chirping indignantly, as if quarrelling, and the other birds retreated from the fracas. Anaiwen's laugh, delicate and lovely as hoarfrost, tinkled upon the air.
'You need not fight: there's plenty for all,' she chided, letting more fragments rain down. Then she caught sight of her father and beckoned cheerily. 'Only walk around so you don't startle them.'
Ecthelion did not hesitate, though he should have. There was work enough awaiting him: more than was usual, with Denethor absent. But as ever his youngest child's charm swayed him. He came to her, cutting a broad swath around the little flock, and sat next to her. Even through his layers and furs he could feel the chill of the stone beneath him, and he spread arm and cloak around Anaiwen's shoulders.
'Are you cold, dear one?' he asked as she cuddled near him.
'Only a little,' she said. The fresh air is so pleasant after a week indoors.' She brushed the crumbs from her hand and drew the edge of his cloak across the opening of her own, stroking the fur against her cheek as she looked up at him. 'You seem troubled, Ada. Is it a worry I might ease?'
'It is not a worry at all,' he said; 'but more of a conundrum. Do you recall the letter you brought to me?'
'From Thengel of Rohan. To be sure: how could I not?' Her brows lifted. 'Has this to do with the new man besting his Captain with a blade?'
Ecthelion drew back his head in surprise. 'You know of that?'
'Oh, assuredly. The Guards have been talking of it for days. It seems to have made for a compelling match.' Her voice fell to a dramatic whisper and there was a mischievous glint in her eye as she added; 'Some are saying the Sable Challenger will have to have a care for his record of unbroken triumphs.'
'Surely not,' Ecthelion demurred. 'Yet it does make me wonder. Clearly Thengel wrote truly of the man's abilities, but there is some incongruity. It is no small feat to outdo a Captain of Gondor, and Minardil's skill with a sword is considerably above the average. I have naught but fond regard for our northern brethren, but this is more than I would have expected of a common Rider.'
'He is not one of the Rohirrim: that too they are saying,' Anaiwen remarked. 'He has a look of Gondor about him: is he of Queen Morwen's people?'
'He told the provost that he was raised far in the North, in the shadow of the mountains,' said Ecthelion. 'I did not ask him of it, but now I rather wish I had.'
Anaiwen gave him a look of patient indulgence, as if explaining something to a slow but rather sweet child. 'You are the Steward, Ada. Call him back if you have unanswered questions.'
Ecthelion hugged her more snugly for a moment. 'It is a mite more complicated than that, my dear one,' he chuckled. 'Folk will wonder why I am singling the man out if I send for him again so soon. It will breed unease in the ranks, and it will make trouble for the man. He may well have difficulty enough over this business.'
'The Guards seem to speak well of him,' countered Anaiwen. 'They are saying that he was honourable in combat and gracious in victory.'
Ecthelion looked wonderingly at her. He had had no notion that his daughter listened so closely to the talk of the Guards. Their silent presence was such a constant in the Citadel that most who dwelt within were inclined to disregard them when they did speak. Certainly neither of the Steward's other daughters had been aware of the gossip and opinions of the Guards of the Citadel, and still less the men of meaner rank who kept the peace in the lower levels.
'What else are they saying?' he asked, genuinely curious.
Anaiwen considered. 'About the new man, very little. Until a few days ago, I do not think anyone knew his name. Why did he leave Rohan?'
'I did not ask him that, either,' Ecthelion admitted. It seemed that in his eagerness to greet one bearing words from his dear friend, and his desire to counterbalance Denethor's suspicion, he had neglected many worthwhile questions. 'Thengel implies it is because he may be put to better use upon our beleaguered borders. Would that the letter had come to me before Denethor made his assignment. I might have found him some more suitable post.'
'I suppose that to reassign him so soon would also breed unease among the ranks?' Anaiwen queried, her voice lilting in a way that made her father wonder if she guessed more than she ought about his concerns for Thorongil's easy integration into the Guard.
'It might,' said Ecthelion. 'More importantly, I have ever made it a policy to move men upon their merits alone. Rumour of a successful swordfight is hardly sound ground for an advantageous transfer.'
Anaiwen made a little sound of dissent, and hopped down from the lip of the fountain. She lifted Ecthelion's cloak from her shoulder, and turned to wrap it snugly around him. She patted his arm and smiled fondly at him.
'Perhaps it would be impolitic to move him,' she said confidentially. 'Yet you should send for him, and ask your questions. If any take exception, they can be told it is only natural that you would want tidings of your friend's city and the doings in his court. A man so lately in his service should be a ready source of news.'
She leaned in and pecked him lightly on the cheek. The last crust of the bread she ground to powder in her hand, and tossed it out across the stones. The birds, who had retreated to the branches of the lone, dead tree, came flocking down to claim their fodder as Anaiwen flitted away on fleet booted feet. Ecthelion watched her go, considering. Then he called for the Guard.
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