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Chapter X: Come In, Go Forth
This much Denethor would say for the evasive new man: he knew his rightful place.
The stranger calling himself Thorongil was courtly in his words and impudent in his silences, but in his actions he was all that could be asked of a low-ranked Guardsman. At his father's behest, Denethor had set out to make a thorough assessment of Thengel's cast-off Rider, and he had been making inquiries of his trusted men in the lower Companies. The man was quiet, obedient and diligent in his duty. He was never caught wandering from a set post – not even on that night he had stood upon the eastern rampart in what Denethor had correctly predicted to be a cruel wind. When on patrol, he did not duck into shops or undercrofts as many of the men did, to take a hot drink or a piece of buttered bread offered by some well-meaning citizen.
According to Denethor's man in the Tenth Company, Thorongil spent one of each day's off-watches in sleep, and the other in pursuits no one could fault. He worked in the sparring yard, occupied as much with aiding his fellows as in his own exercise. He laboured over the sword he had been furnished by the armoury, carefully restoring a neglected blade to useable condition. He performed his daily tasks around the garrison, and he sat talking with the other men of life in Minas Tirith and the expectations laid upon her men. He had not made any move to fraternize with the young ladies of the first two levels; he had not sought out the company of any women of dubious virtue; and his few dealings with tradesmen and merchants were brief, more courtesy than business because he had little coin to spend. Denethor was glad that he had not dispatched any of his dedicated watchers to keep an eye on the man, for surely they would have perished of boredom.
Watching him now, as he moved among the off-loading men and helped to hoist heavy packs from weary backs or to gather up the bedrolls, Denethor was struck by how truly unremarkable Thorongil actually was. In their three conversations, if conversations they might rightly be called, he had exuded an ill-concealed air of power and status not at all in keeping with his lot in life. In combination with his evasions and his outright refusal to answer certain questions, this had made him seem dangerous.
Denethor would not have characterized him as threatening, precisely, and not only because it was unseemly for the Heir of the Steward to feel threatened by one of his lowliest men. Yet Thorongil's carriage and the quiet confidence he did not so much wear as encompass had made Denethor uneasy from the first. So too had his father's worrying inclination to trust the stranger immediately and implicitly on the strength of a single letter that cited no specifics about his service to Rohan, and a certain undeniably personable air that the man exuded even in his most stiff-necked silences. The Steward had trusted too quickly ere this, and it had cost the White City grievously.
Yet Thorongil was a capable soldier, or at least a passable Guardsman. Now he was navigating the crowded cobbles with unassuming grace, a bucket of water in one hand and a dipper in the other. The men of the Ninth Company, weary from the day's long and brisk march, were only too glad to pause in the sorting of their gear to drink. They were a sorry-looking lot after two weeks in the wild: mud-stained, trail-worn and tired. Not many of their compatriots in the other Companies had come from their leisure to aid in the unpacking – though of course many were on watch, covering the deficit. Yet here was Thorongil and a handful of men he had apparently recruited to the task, helping as they could.
News of the Company's return had spread, and now friends and kinsfolk of the Guardsmen were beginning to arrive. There was no need to hold them back as there had been when the Lieutenants had been trying to sort out well-organized columns for departure, and they meandered up at will. From his comfortable lookout in the shadow of a doorway just up the street from the garrison, Denethor watched as fathers sought out their sons with glad greetings and questions. Mothers wetted handkerchiefs to blot at dusty faces. Small children careened into their fathers' arms with little care for stiff legs and aching shoulders.
And there, in her scarlet cloak, came the Easterling's intended. She seemed to take a long while to search the sea of worst-black and leather, as if her swarthy-faced suitor did not stand out like a stain on new parchment. It was he who spied her, and he climbed up from his knees with a glad cry. He was tired and grubby, like the rest, but he seemed no more so than his fellows. If he was any the worse for two weeks of heavy labour and unsheltered nights, Denethor could not see it. His lips thinned into a line of displeasure.
Yet the girl did not embrace him: there was that much to be said. She moved as if she wished to, looked over his dirty garments, and laughed as she spoke. She held out her hands and he clasped them, their arms swinging together like those of two small children playing at courtship. The Easterling was grinning like a fool, oblivious to how ridiculous the pair of them looked. She was taller than he, and clean. In her clear skin and bright eyes she was the picture of wholesome loveliness. And he, coarse and brown and grimy, looked like a child's clumsy sketch of a man rendered in smudged charcoal.
Denethor looked away, displeased. He could not fathom what the girl saw in the man Jamon. Her family dwelt in the Fourth Level, far above the Butchers' Quarter and the fishmongers and the narrow stone shacks that housed the public privies so necessary on market-days when the peasantry thronged in these streets. She could not possibly imagine that this foreign recruit would be able to maintain her as her father did. Surely she did not harbour a fantasy of helping him to rise through the ranks to some better post, did she?
The packhorses were relieved of their burdens, and two men led them away up the street. The handcart piled high with the blankets to be passed to the next outgoing Company was nearly at capacity. In pairs and small clutches the men were retreating indoors to wash, that they might sit down to their first civilized meal in two weeks. Captain Beleg gave an order, and the stranger Thorongil nodded and hastened to obey. Yes, he knew his rightful place, and that soothed Denethor's instinctive dislike of him. Perhaps secrecy and prevarication did not disbar a man from making a good soldier.
By now most of the men had dispersed, either to the barracks or to their homes. Married men often lived apart from their Companies, in inherited houses or small suites of rooms. Denethor wondered what sort of lodgings the merchant's daughter expected the Easterling to provide her. Poor foolish child, she had no real sense of the harm she was doing to her position in the world, or the perils she was undertaking. She was shoulder to shoulder with the man now, flushing prettily at something he had said.
Denethor stepped from the shadow where he had been observing the scene unnoticed for nearly three-quarters of an hour. 'You! No more idling. Fetch a broom and put this street to rights: it's not fit for mules to walk, much less men.'
Jamon stiffened, recognizing that the command was for him. He looked around in bewilderment and spied his Captain-General. Quickly but not without effort his shoulders squared and his posture straightened into the precursor of a stiff salute. 'My lord, I shall,' he said carefully. He glanced back at his lover, wanting to speak but knowing it would be a defiance of protocol. Then he hurried off and vanished inside the barracks door.
Denethor crossed the cobbled way, his high boots untroubled by the mud and detritus of many feet, and he approached the girl. 'You are the dye-merchant's daughter?' he asked, though of course he knew the answer.
She curtseyed to him, trying to keep the hem of her mantle up out of the muck. 'Yes, my Lord,' she said meekly.
Denethor nodded tersely. 'You are enamoured of the Easterling. His Captain tells me you are to be married.'
'Yes, my Lord. We are, my Lord,' she said, a little breathless. She looked up at him with worshipful eyes. 'Captain Beleg told us, sire, that it was you who spoke to the Lord Steward on our behalf, that he might give his very own blessing on the match. I… I had hoped I might one day be able to thank you, my Lord.'
Denethor pressed his lips tightly together. This he had not expected. Of course the Easterling must have known of the interest the Captain-General had taken in the match, and the girl had doubtless learned that her father had been questioned about his feelings on the matter. Yet to be taken as a benefactor, when in truth he seemed the only one in Minas Tirith with sense enough to oppose the match, was beyond his comprehension.
'What is your name, child?' he asked. She was not ten years his junior, but her wide eyes and her innocent awe made her seem far younger.
'Inweth, my Lord,' she said, still more throatily. She dipped another curtsey. It was the earnest but unpolished gesture of her class: not clumsy, as a poor woman's salute would be, but somehow too bouncing to be truly dignified. It made her look more than ever like a girl too young to know her own mind or to appreciate her best interest.
'Inweth,' repeated Denethor. 'What do you make of all this, Inweth? Of your suitor's triumphant return to the City?'
She looked puzzled, uncertain of what he was asking. 'I am glad to have him home, sire,' she said hesitantly. 'We are but lately betrothed, and his duties give us little time together as it is.'
'A soldier's duty often takes him away from those he cares for,' said Denethor. He was unable to use the word love. Was an Easterling even capable of such lofty sentiments? 'A time may come when your Guardsman is abroad more often than he is in the City.'
Her eyes widened slightly at this. Plainly the possibility had never occurred to her. It was hard proof of how little thought she had put to the implications of this union. Denethor was seized at once by two desires: to sigh sorrowfully at the girl's unworldliness, and to take hold of her and shake some sense into her airy head.
'Is the Guard to be dispatched onto the Pelennor, sire?' she asked before he could act upon either impulse. 'There were whispers that it is why they have been sent out on manoeuvres—'
'The Guard is to be dispatched nowhere, save two Companies at a time into the field to refresh their skills away from walls of stone,' Denethor said swiftly, his tone dousing out the flicker of this rumour. He had thought these exercises would reassure the people, not breed new fears. 'And were there any such intention, you would certainly not be the first to know, child.'
'No…' she whispered, casting her eyes down in abashment. She would have made a fine attendant to a noblewoman, with her clean good looks and her modest manners, Denethor thought. She might have married up into the ranks of the lower gentry. It was a shame that she intended to squander herself on a faithless alien.
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her this, or at least to hint at it, when Jamon came out of the garrison with a stiff willow-twig broom. He caught sight of his betrothed in conversation with his Lord, and his eyes grew wide. Then he seemed to flush – with his complexion Denethor could not quite tell – and set about his work with a brisk efficiency that should have been beyond him after a fortnight's heavy labour. Suddenly Denethor was visited by the dark thought that perhaps Beleg had not maintained his orders with regards to the waterbearing.
Souring of the whole affair, he looked back to the girl. 'You deserve a life of gladness and comfort, Inweth the dye-merchant's daughter,' Denethor said. 'Go now. Perhaps we shall speak again.'
With another anxious curtsey and awkwardly mumbled words of thanks, the girl retreated from him. She did not depart, however, but went to stand out of the way in the lee of the garrison wall. Wrapping her cloak around her against the sunset's chill, she settled to watch the Easterling, waiting for him to finish.
Two men who Denethor thought belonged to the Tenth Company hauled away the handcart. Thorongil was making a final pass of the street, gathering up the last few scattered scraps of rope. He stooped to pick up a forgotten gauntlet, and Denethor used the opportunity to move swiftly in. When Thorongil moved to straighten again, he found the Heir of the Steward looming over him.
Instead of startling or cringing or scurrying backward, Thorongil rose steadily with his eyes fixed on Denethor's. only when they stood face to face, their matched height plain, did he take a neat half-step backward so that he might bow.
'Evening's greetings, my Lord,' he said calmly. 'It is good of you to come to see your men returned safely.'
'Should you not be preparing your own pack instead of offloading those of strangers, Rider of Rohan?' asked Denethor. 'Dawn comes early, and are you not on the night watch?'
'You know that I am, sire, or I would not be free now,' said Thorongil, his voice measuredly mild. He had straightened, but was keeping his eyes averted in an unmistakable gesture of submission. 'But my own pack is ready, and I felt that my comrades deserved a gracious welcome. They speak of a hard but worthwhile campaign: your Lordship has done well for his men.'
It was absurd for a commander to seek the approval of a lowly soldier, and yet these quiet words of praise stirred something in Denethor's heart. He quashed it. This man's opinions mattered naught to him, be they favourable or condemning.
'You wished to know what awaits you on the morrow,' he countered, his voice cool and knowing.
'I have performed field manoeuvres ere this, sire,' said Thorongil. 'I have nothing to fear from them.'
'No,' said Denethor, and he found to his surprise that the words did not anger him. Everything about the new man, from his tone and his stance to the way his long fingers were folded about the rubbish he had been gathering, spoke of respect and obedience. There was something about that which awoke in Denethor the instincts of a leader instead of a warrior. Thorongil was making it plain that there was no fight to be had here, and with his mind still largely occupied with the problem of the maiden and the Easterling Denethor was not spoiling for one.
'No,' he repeated. 'There is nothing to fear from this but the bare winter nights. Surely you can endure those?'
A tiny smile touched Thorongil's lips. Denethor tensed, looking for mockery, but what he heard instead was something like fondness. 'I believe I can, sire,' the Guardsman said. 'In the North the winters are long and deep.'
'In the North,' Denethor repeated. He raised an eyebrow and added sardonically; 'In the place your mother called home.'
Thorongil's eyes flicked up to meet his. 'My Lord, I beg you not to take my reticence for disobedience. Every man has something he must keep for his own. I possess naught but my story, and I must guard or share it as I see fit.'
A thin, wry laugh rose to Denethor's lips. The man fancied himself a hero out of the old tales: a widow's son, no doubt, destined for glory and greatness. Small wonder the women on the heights were gossiping of him. 'Guard it, then, but guard also your insolence. I do not like secrets, and you will be watched all the more diligently because of them. That is the price for keeping your… possession.'
Thorongil ducked his head again. It was the same act of subservience the girl had made, but in this man it was far more graceful – more artful. He did not move like a commoner, nor even like the noblest of the Rohirrim. He moved like a lord of ancient family, bred to grace and dignity. It did not fit the tale he had told Denethor's father of a poor cotholder's life, and it did not fit with his claim of long service under Thengel. It fit with nothing at all, thought Denethor, save for that simply but exquisitely wrought star even now clasping his cloak.
'I understand the need for care, my Lord,' Thorongil was saying. 'I am amenable to your scrutiny of my deeds and open to your judgment. I have come to serve Gondor, and at one remove you are Gondor. Command me as you will.'
Just as there had been pure truth in his eyes and his voice on the day Denethor had returned to find him ensconced in the Steward's study, there was earnest readiness in them now. For a moment Denethor truly believed what the man professed: that he was but a servant, and willing to follow his Lord's commands. For a moment he believed that he might command this man to scale the fiery heights of Amon Amarth itself, and he would be obeyed. But reason told him otherwise. Reason said that the man was a place-seeker like any other, offering adulation to his Captain-General in hope of winning some small measure of his favour. Sincere flattery was flattery still, and it would avail the stranger nothing.
'Tonight I have no command save this,' said Denethor. He did not hear the change in his voice, nor see the faint flare of relief in the other man's nostrils as it grew detached and disinterested, condescending instead of penetrating. 'Finish your self-appointed toils here, and find your rest. There are but three hours left before your watch, and you shall have no time for slumber after. We muster at dawn.'
'Yes, sire. I thank you for your wise counsel,' said Thorongil. Again there was no hint of acerbity or amusement in his voice, and Denethor felt his wariness retreat a little further. He did not trust this man; that was true. Yet perhaps he could be allowed to prove his intentions. There was the testament of the King of Rohan to consider, after all.
'At dawn, Nameless One,' he said imperiously. Then he turned and strode off, leaving Thorongil to go back to scavenging hemp. It was, after all, his rightful place.
Thorongil stood fast until the Steward's son disappeared at the street corner, turning upward towards the higher gate. Then he let the martial tension ebb from his shoulders and turned back to his survey of the street. He and Jamon of the Ninth Company were the only men still abroad, and from through the open door of the garrison sounds of fellowship were wafting with the scent of roasted pig. The lamp above cast a broad wedge of the dusk in warm golden tones, but all else was cold cobalt fading rapidly to grey.
'Give me that,' Thorongil said, closing the distance between himself and the other man. He wadded the scraps of rope in one hand and reached to exchange the glove for the broom. 'I trust you will be able to find its owner?'
Jamon turned back the cuff of the gauntlet and checked the chalked mark. 'Gadhrir,' he said with a rueful little snort. 'He would lose his left leg if not for his hip.' He looked at the broom. 'The Captain-General bade me—'
'The Captain-General has gone to his supper, and now you may go to yours,' said Thorongil. 'I did not march five leagues this day: a few minutes' work will harm me not at all. Besides,' he added with a pointed little tilt of his head; 'perhaps you might wish to see your lady safely to her father's house before you dine?'
Jamon looked over his shoulder, following Thorongil's gesture. It seemed he had not noticed the maiden's lingering. She caught his eye, and her cold-pinkened cheeks grew pinker. Her suitor grinned and raised his hand in greeting, then turned back to Thorongil.
'You have my thanks,' he said. 'I shall be sure I am there to greet you in my turn.'
He clapped Thorongil's arm and hastened off towards his beloved. Thorongil watched him go, wondering if Jamon even felt the tremor of exhaustion in his hand. It was remarkable how much a man would say in answer to a quick question or two from the one helping him off with his burden at the end of a long day. He had gleaned enough to know that not all the men had been uniformly used upon this foray, and that Jamon was among those overburdened in the imbalance.
Thorongil had not overheard Lord Denethor's words to the young woman, but his eyes had been plain to read. The Captain-General was not pleased by the impending nuptials. It had been equally clear that Jamon's sweetheart, at least, had no idea. Her eyes had been great with gratitude, and her every movement aflutter with worshipful eagerness to please. The very thought of it made Thorongil sick at heart.
He knew he ought to be concerned about the ways in which Denethor's displeasure might thwart the loving couple, but the sorry, selfish truth was that it had been painful to witness such a show of excitement and affection. The lady's eagerness and thankfulness at the prospect of her wedding had been so plain to see. He could not imagine… he dared not imagine.
Closing his mind to such fruitless dreams, he set briskly to work with the broom.
It was the same scene that had heralded the departure of the Ninth and Second Companies, though Minardil knew it not. He had been on watch himself that morning, the unenviable watch upon the corner of the Upward Road and the broad Second Way. It was a busy corner, and during the dawn watch it quickly became congested with wains and riders and handcarts and folk afoot. It was not infrequently the site of scuffles and fisticuffs, though usually the knife fights only happened near dusk when everyone was tired and too many were well in their cups. Minardil did not subscribe to the notion that Captains had earned for themselves the privilege to eschew the more distasteful postings, and he took them in his turn. As it was he stood fewer watches than the men, for time had to be allotted for the business of administering the Company.
That was Minardil's great talent, and the reason he had never pursued a posting beyond the city walls. The youngest son of a modest landowner of old but not noble lineage, he had left Lossarnach to seek a post of respectability and his own living in the service of the Steward. In the six years since, he had done well for himself. He had, in fact, risen as far as the Fifth Circle as a Guardsman before taking first a transfer to the Third Level in exchange for a Lieutenant's rank and then this further step down the mountain to take a step up in the hierarchy of the Guard. He hoped to work his way upward again, but at present he was content. The men of the Tenth Company were loyal, and most were obedient. Their skill ranged greatly, but that was all to the good: there was work for Minardil here.
And now there was Thorongil. Minardil was not quite certain what to make of him, but what he could comprehend of the puzzle he liked. He had been ambivalent towards the idea of inducting one of the foreign hopefuls into his well-run Company, for they often brought with them complications and strife. Few were conversant with the ways of Gondor, and some scarcely spoke a word of either Westron and Sindarin. That last, at least, was less of a problem now: there were men aplenty in the City who were fluent in the tongue of Rohan, and for those from the East there was the man in the Ninth Company. There were no Dunlendings in service in Minas Tirith, for they did not take well to the rigidly regimented daily life. When one came, which was rare enough, they were dispatched swiftly to the eastern front or down to Pelargir. As for the few who had escaped not from the Enemy's armies but from his labour camps and mines, they bore their own problems as they bore the marks of their chains.
So Minardil had expected, at the very least, a period of uncomfortable transition as the new man acclimatized himself and the other men learned to carve out a place for him. Neither had been necessary. With one hot meal, a brief orientation, and the provision of an ill-fitting suit of garments, Thorongil had fallen into step with the Tenth Company as if he had been transferred from the First Circle instead of ushered in off the road by the provost. Not three weeks had he been among them, and already it was difficult to remember how the Company had been without him.
He was personable and likable: quiet with those who wanted to listen, patient with those who wanted to learn, and good-natured even when his hands were bent to a soldier's more unpleasant duties. There had been no complaints of his behaviour on watch, no irate remarks from those who shared his booth, and no ripples of tension even among the most entrenched men of the Tenth. At first, when he had heard Thorongil was knocking down man after man in the yard, Minardil had feared he might breed resentment and discontent. The effect had been quite the opposite, and in his own bout Minardil had seen why.
Thorongil had a way of drawing out a man's best in a match, drawing him up from his first testing efforts into his usual scope and then to the very pinnacle of his skill. Every blow of their contest had brought Minardil one rung higher on the ladder of his own achievements, until he found himself precariously perched at the very top. There he had seen not the drop below, into the defeat, but the gap between his present apex and the next step above – a gap he had not clearly perceived until that moment, and one that looked in that moment almost achievable. Then, and only then, had Thorongil swept his foot out from under him and claimed a well-earned victory. Minardil had been left with the title of next-best, the sure knowledge that he had done his utmost, and an exhilarating certainty that to do better was within his grasp. If that was what each man felt at the close of his encounter with the newest Guardsman, small wonder they all climbed to their feet laughing and amicable.
Nor did Thorongil stop there. He had spared almost half a watch one morning to work with Minardil in the court, showing him his flaw and helping him to correct it. Minardil was the only one with the authority and the capacity to lock the door that led out to the yard, and he was glad he had done so that day. There were few of his men he would have liked to see him hopping and dancing to and fro like a drunken man in a pit of coals, or trying to dodge a snaking rope that Thorongil whipped along the ground while giving calm, level instructions to his frenetic pupil. Yet somehow before Thorongil's gaze these seemed not indignities but challenges to be overcome with pride and mounting confidence. Later Minardil had learned he had done the same for each of the men he had beaten, though not all so thoroughly or so privately.
'Several of the men have the same impediment,' Thorongil had explained simply when Minardil asked him of this. 'They benefit more from correcting it together, where they can watch one another and learn from each other's mistakes and triumphs, than they would alone. And the simpler the error, the swifter it is to correct.'
Minardil's own weakness had been a very subtle one: the sort of weakness that only showed in an advanced swordsman whose other flaws had been smoothed away. It was also very deeply ingrained, having gone unnoticed for so many years. He had been working at it on his own, and now felt that he stepped firmly more often than not. He would have to have Thorongil put him through his paces again to be certain. Never save in his disastrous bout with the Sable Challenger last spring had he been pitted against a blade so much more skillful than his own.
Yes, he liked Thorongil; or what he saw of Thorongil. Even now, fresh off the night watch and pale-lipped with want of sleep, he was hard at work with the men tasked in lashing the heavy rolls of linen canvas to the backs of the packhorses. There were three sets to carry out: a small square command-tent for each of the Captains, and Lord Denethor's own war pavilion. At the same time the word had come down from the Master of the Guard that the roster for these exercises had been changed, it had been announced that – far from riding out for three days to see them settled – the Captain-General would be administering the whole of the expedition himself.
Minardil wondered at this decision, but he knew better than to question it. One might question the Master of the Guard, if one did so respectfully and behind closed doors, but no city Captain in his right mind would question the Heir of the Steward. It was said that Lord Cairon dared, at times, but Cairon was Gondor's first bastion against the incursions of Mordor. He was far more valuable than any leader of the Guard, even the three charged with the fastness of the Citadel. It was said that Adrahil of Dol Amroth chose well his moments to criticise Denethor, and by ancient custom his father was as near an equal as the Steward possessed.
So when it had been announced that the Fourteenth Company was to remain and the Tenth Company to be sent out in its place, Minardil had merely nodded and reflected that at least the fortnight's roster he had painstakingly drawn out could be given to Beleg to adapt for his own men. He did not ask why the Second Circle was to be left bereft of one Company for four weeks straight, when the initial rotation would have made that unnecessary. He did not ask why, rather than the Sixth Company, they were now paired with the Second Company of the Guards of the Citadel – men whose skills in all ways surpassed the vast majority of Minardil's men. It looked entirely too much like the Tenth Company was being set up to fail, and that thought could not even be permitted to enter a loyal Captain's mind.
Instead he busied himself in walking among the crouching figures, offering help or advice where he could. His own men had gravitated towards the lower half of the square. Just as instinctively, the sable-clad Guards of the Citadel were gathered at the top. The horses were the barrier, the pack animals shuffling uneasily and the six mounted Lieutenants taking one another's measure with hasty, competitive glances. What little Minardil had heard of the last group's experience, the two City companies had enjoyed one another's companionship and had been well-matched in the proscribed scenarios. Clearly this was not to be so for them.
'My Captain?' a low voice ventured as the tall body swathed in a much-worn cloak stepped up to Minardil's side. It was Thorongil, of course, and he was speaking almost surreptitiously out of the side of his mouth so that neither the men nearby nor any of the observers ringed around the soldiers would notice. 'Has an allowance been made for supplementary provisions?'
'What do you mean?' asked Minardil, turning in a little but trying to maintain the same circumspect mode of speech.
'On the last expedition, the packhorses were burdened with kegs of flour, and the men carried the tents,' said Thorongil. 'Why is this not the case this time?'
Minardil frowned, about to ask just how thoroughly his new man had debriefed the other Company when he went to unbuckle straps and collect blankets. Then he remembered that Thorongil had been on the Gate at dawn on the morning the Second and Ninth marched out. It had been his first watch upon the Gate, in fact, and Minardil had thought at the time what a spectacle the exodus would make for the new man.
'I do not know,' he said. 'Each man has been issued with his fortnight's ration. Surely that is sufficient?'
'It is, if naught goes amiss,' said Thorongil, now moving his eyes as if surveying the crowd. He had all the seeming of a leader trying not to alarm his troops – though it was Minardil who was the leader and the troops under his command. 'Yet it is prudent to plan for trouble, particularly when ranging so far from a port of supply. Do you know the land we will be using? Is there a civic granary nearby? A wealthy manor? A sizeable town?'
'Shepherds' cots and charcoal forest, so far as I know,' said Minardil. He was trying to follow the other man's line of thinking, but this was beyond his experience. The supplying of an army in the field was a very different thing from balancing account books and taking inventory of the buttery. 'Why?'
'Nowhere to readily resupply,' Thorongil said. 'Not without hardship to the local folk. I know something of foraging, but unless I miss my guess that is an uncommon skill in this city.'
'I doubt very much that you miss anything, Thorongil,' muttered Minardil, looking around at his men. Most of them had been born in Minas Tirith or on the surrounding lands. The others were either the overflow of fertile farmlands, like himself, or rivermen and fisherfolk from away to the South. The Guards of the Citadel were of a more privileged cast, still less likely to know how to snare a hare or to tell a succulent mushroom from a poisonous toadstool. 'But surely if there were any chance of delay or misfortune the Captain-General would have made allowance for it.'
'He did, with the first expedition.' Thorongil's statement was dry and factual, but his brows were knit in puzzlement. 'Why would he not do so now?'
'Perhaps it was too great a burden on the men to carry the pavilions,' Minardil reasoned. 'That is no small weight to toil under for fifteen long miles. Besides, a cask of flour alone is hardly the makings of a beneficial diet.'
'Perhaps not,' Thorongil agreed, still looking everywhere but at his Captain. 'Yet it is a greater comfort to the stomach than charcoal.'
Minardil vacillated for a long moment. He knew little of Thorongil's time in Rohan, or of the knowledge he might have gathered there. He did know that with sword, mace, knife and quarterstaff the man was more skilled than almost any man in the City. He could see that he knew much of the hearts of men and the art of command, humble soldier though he was. Was it not then quite plausible that the feeding of an encampment was also well within his experience? Yet to question the Captain-General was no small thing; no small thing at all. He sat there upon his white-clad horse, aloof and proud in the dawning, and he watched his men with stern satisfaction. No doubt he had his reasons for eschewing the extra provender.
'If you believe it necessary,' said Minardil slowly; 'I will go…'
'No,' Thorongil said with a note of finality that was almost, but not quite, an order. Minardil looked at him in some surprise. Always he acted with propriety and deference. He seemed to realize he had overstepped, also, for he shook his head and said more quietly; 'No, Captain. With your leave, I will fetch a quarter sack from our garrison and bear it myself. It will not feed two hundred long, but it will provide us some small buffer. If we come to such a pass, no doubt the Lord Denethor will have some strategy to provide further.'
'Very well,' said Minardil, not quite easy in his mind but determined to settle the matter. He had a common soldier, one he trusted and respected even after a short acquaintance but still only a common soldier, questioning the decision of the Heir of Gondor. He could not validate the criticism, nor could he ignore it. This quiet compromise seemed best. 'Fetch one for me as well, and be quick. I shall endeavour to slow the muster so that you are not left lagging.'
Thorongil nodded wordlessly, and melted into the crowd of men now beginning to climb to their feet to arrange their cloaks and tighten one another's pack-straps. Almost before Minardil could look for him again, he was emerging at the corner of the square and slipping between two old women watching the muster with great fascination. Conscious of having stood too long unmoving, Minardil resumed his round of the Company. Unreasoning though it was, he thought he could feel Lord Denethor's keen and knowing eyes upon his neck.
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