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Chapter XI: In the Field
It was dusk before the two Companies reached their destination. It was easy enough to espy even in the gathering gloom, for the last expedition had left its mark. The dead grass was trampled and torn, the earth churned up in mud that had frozen into hard ridges. In the small dell between the two campsites, there was very little untroubled earth to be seen. This was no hardship, for with these scars there were also small necessities of life already in place. Pits had been laid out for fires, surrounded by flat river-stones suitable for heating food. Logs had been dragged near these to be used as seats, either upon their sides or cut into stool lengths. Most notably, the privy pits had already been dug. They smelled most unlovely, but no one was sorry to be spared the labour of carving into the frozen earth.
Sheltered in the belt of woodland were a few items of furniture and heavier supplies, apparently sent out by wagon in advance of the first group: trestle tables, two narrow bedframes, yokes and buckets, and two chests packed with blunt blades. The rough-cut tent poles were also there, and the work of erecting the two Company shelters began at once and proceeded swiftly.
Thorongil was in the group tasked with preparing the Captain-General’s encampment. Denethor had commanded it to be staked out in the lee of a hill that overlooked both low ridges, so as not to favour one side over the other. The men assigned to the task lit makeshift torches and went into the trees with hatchets to find saplings of a suitable height for poles. Green wood was not the most durable of materials, but it ought to stand up to a fortnight’s rigours. Before they had what they needed it was full dark. By the light of a setting sickle moon they drove stakes and strung guywires. At last the pavilion stood tall, pale against the shadow of the land with its black ornamentation of artful arches echoing the lofty windows of the White Tower.
After that they had only to arrange the furnishings to Lord Denethor’s satisfaction. He took one of the bedframes and a table; two men with some experience in joining were knocking together crude replacements for Captain Minardil out of raw logs. Some provision had been made by the nearby farms, and there were two tall hayricks from which three narrow ticks were stuffed. The bedframe had been strung with rope running in both directions, and it was quickly made up with thick blankets and furs. Denethor’s servant unloaded candles, a covered lantern, a set of pewter dishes, and other small comforts. There was a ledger and a writing box as well, and a small tripod brazier for warmth. The charcoal, Thorongil presumed, had been sourced at the same time as the hay. There was also, inexplicably, a five-pound bag of powdered chalk, which was placed prominently upon the table.
By the time they were finished everything to their Captain-General’s satisfaction, the soldiers’ encampments were well established. Fires glowed, red pinions in the night, and dark shapes huddled beneath cloaks and hoods in clusters about them. The other men hastened to find a place among their fellows, eager for warmth, camaraderie and their day-meal. Thorongil lingered, however, studying the sky.
Behind him the mountains were a thick mass obscured by clouds, but away to the northeast the stars were scattered in a shimmering field, one slender swath more densely sown than all the rest. Menelmacar stood high and proud above the land, the jewels of his belt bright and eye-catching. And there, due North, the lodestar stood fast like a beacon. Night after night for nine years it had served Thorongil as a cool and quiet consolation; a reassurance that when the time came, it would guide him home.
Home was but a fleeting thought tonight, however. The thrill of a new venture in a new land was still fresh in his heart, and the melancholy that had troubled him in the autumn was all but forgotten. What need had he to pine for familiar places and beloved faces now, beset as he was upon all sides with new customs to learn and hearts to study? So Thorongil stood savouring the splendour of the night with only the faintest taste of loneliness. When he began to grow chilled, he walked on to join the rest of the Tenth Company.
The first fire was tightly surrounded, and he passed by without pause. There were those in the Company who kept an aloof distance from the new man. Though they were not especially unwelcoming, and certainly not spiteful, Thorongil had no wish to impose. It proved a sound decision, for even before he reached the next circle, one of the men within it raised an arm and beckoned warmly.
‘Thorongil, here!’ It was Forgil, the aged Guard from Thorongil’s booth. ‘Join us. I have your baggage, and we took the liberty of putting your meat on to fry. Budge over, lads: make room for the finest sword in the Tenth!’
Smiling his thanks for both the invitation and the praise, Thorongil stepped over the log and drew his cloak up so it would not pull taut when he sat. Forgil leaned in to butt him with a bony shoulder.
‘Thought you’d be up there ‘til dawn,’ he ribbed. ‘His Lordship’s bedchamber all laid out as he likes, is it? Feather bed and silken pillows?’
There was a general chuckle at this, but it had a hushed and subversive quality to it. Thorongil did not laugh, but neither did he eye them reprovingly or speak against their mirth. Denethor was surely not housed in the state he was accustomed to, but his pavilion was more richly appointed than the barracks booths his men occupied at home. In comparison to their field arrangements, he lay in utter luxury. All but the officers would bed down beneath the open sky, and all but the Captains and the Heir would sleep on the frozen ground.
It was not the hardship that Thorongil found distasteful. Hardship was unavoidable upon a campaign, and important to the verisimilitude of a training expedition. It was the disparity that displeased him. In Rohan there had been similar provisions for those of rank, though often mounted men could carry at least a sheet of canvas that, with two forked branches and a crosspole, would make a shelter sufficient for a body or two. Yet always had Thorongil slept in the open when there was no such provision for his subordinates, reserving his own tent for command business and the housing of the ill and wounded. In the North, of course, the Chieftain was immune to none of the hardships borne by his men. He took his privations in turn, and was grateful they were no greater.
Yet although he might have done otherwise, he knew he ought not hasten to judge the Steward’s Heir for his choice. There were reasons other than comfort that might lead a Lord to hold himself apart from his men. Thorongil had not been long enough in Gondor to know the unspoken ways in which a leader’s actions in this land affected those who followed. Perhaps seeing their Captain-General made no more than other men would do greater harm to the confidence of the soldiers than did this small mocking envy. He did not know.
One of the younger men was crouched by the fire, tending a thin skillet in which sizzled a strip of pickled pork for each of them. Some of the others were munching on hunks of waybread. Tonight it would be fresh and pleasant, dense and comfortingly to chew upon. By the end of two weeks, whatever was left would be hard and stale, and they would have to soak it to soften it enough that it could be gnawed. Thorongil was pleased to note that no man had taken out too large a share of the goods he carried. He had wondered whether that temptation would visit the city-born in time, accustomed all their lives to the endless availability – in proximity if not always in price – of a little more food.
‘Have sleeping arrangements been decided upon?’ Thorongil asked.
‘It’s generally agreed that we’ll take it in pairs, back-to-back to keep warm,’ said Forgil. ‘If it’s possible to keep warm. I’ve got an ache in my leg: we might get snow tonight.’
Thorongil nodded. The same thought had occurred to him. There was a stillness upon the air, as if in expectation of something. He did not open his mouth to tell them to hope for snow rather than rain. Instead he put his hands near the fire and savoured the heat.
‘Each pair should put one blanket beneath them, and share the other above,’ he said. ‘The ground steals a body’s warmth more swiftly than the air. Pass on the word to the rest of the Company when it is time to lie down.’
The thought of lying down made him suddenly aware of the ache in his back and the heaviness of his limbs. It had been a long, long day: but for a couple of hours snatched after helping the Ninth Company unload, he had not slept since the dusk watch two days before. Yet Thorongil knew he had to eat, if he was to expect himself to be nimble and alert on the morrow. Nuncheon for the soldiers had been naught but a hunk of bread or a wrinkled apple eaten on the march. So he settled quietly amid the others’ good-natured talk and waited.
The meat was taken from the fire and laid aside until it grew cool enough for each man to snatch up his slice. There was much laughter over burned fingers and scorched mouths, for all were ravenous and few were patient. Spirits were high despite the long day of uncommon exertion, and when the men rose to seek out a companion and a flat piece of earth they did so with good cheer.
Herion, the Second Lieutenant, was picking his way between the bedrolls and calling for volunteers to stand watch. There was little danger looked-for in this place, but they were not many miles from Anduin, and in any case there was always the chance of some wild beast wandering near. Despite the need, there were few willing to answer it tonight. All were weary. Herion began to threaten to choose men himself if the required number did not stand forth, and the first grumblings of the expedition were heard.
Dispirited but resigned, Thorongil left his pack and blanket near Forgil’s camp-space. He made his way to the torchlit space before the Company’s pavilion. He swallowed many times as he went, trying to clear the sting of exhaustion from the back of his throat. He had not known how anxious he was for sleep until the prospect of forgoing it yet again rose before him.
Captain Minardil was out in front of the tent, a wooden trencher balanced upon his lap. He was finishing his own simple supper, and as the taller man approached he looked up without raising his head. Forcing down his mouthful, he frowned.
‘What is it?’ he asked. Concern furrowed his brow. ‘Is there trouble?’
‘No, sir,’ said Thorongil. ‘The men seem quite content. Any novel situation may at first be more pleasure than discomfort. Two nights hence we will need to be watchful for dissatisfaction.’
‘I shall be sure to remember,’ Minardil said, rather dryly. ‘But why have you sought me out, if naught is amiss? Does the Captain-General…’
He cast an uneasy eye along the ridge to where Denethor’s pavilion, lighted from within, glowed pale in the darkness.
‘No, Captain,’ Thorongil said. ‘To my knowledge, all is well. I have come to volunteer for the watch.’
‘That makes four,’ said Herion, trudging up and shaking his head. ‘It looks as if we’ll have to call up the rest.’
‘Three,’ said Minardil. ‘Thorongil will sit no watch this night.’
‘Sir?’ Thorongil said, as Herion protested; ‘But if he’s willing—’
‘No.’ Minardil shook his head once with great finality. To Thorongil he spoke. ‘You stood the night watch and mustered forth at dawn. By my reckoning you slept less than two hours after returning from the Ninth Company garrison. You have done your share, Thorongil. Take your rest.’
Thorongil was about to reply when the shuffling of many boots sounded behind him. He looked, to see half a dozen men standing in a loose group with their faces set.
‘We’ve come to stand watch,’ one of them said. It was Mallor, whom Thorongil had outdone with the quarterstaff on the day Lord Denethor had come to the garrison. ‘If he can find the strength to do it, we can.’
The other men nodded, and Thorongil turned back to the Captain with a small, deprecating smile. Minardil gave a low snort of laughter and wafted a hand. ‘You sought ten, Herion, and you have them,’ he said. ‘I shall stand watch in Thorongil’s place. He has had a longer day than most of us, and less sleep than any.’
Unsure if this would shake the resolve of the other men, Thorongil prepared himself to speak in readiness again, but Mallor grinned and nodded. ‘That’s true, Captain,’ he said amiably. ‘Showing the rest of us up, that’s what he’s doing. Folk will start expecting all of the Tenth to run on tireless, and we can’t have that.’
‘No,’ Minardil agreed with a sardonic grin. ‘We can’t have that.’
He got to his feet, setting the empty trencher upon the upturned piece of log, and beckoned for the men to follow him around to the other side of the tent, where the few pikes they had brought were laid out in the frozen grass. Thorongil waited until the last moved off, and then turned to make his way back to where Forgil was keeping his kit. Herion stepped forward and caught him firmly by the arm, standing close.
‘The Captain-General’s given orders that three men are to be set the task of waterbearing for the duration of the exercises,’ he said in a low voice that brooked no argument. ‘You’re one of them. Muster promptly at first call and get to it: cisterns for the men, the trough for the horses. Since you’re such an inspiration to the others, you can keep your two cohorts to their business as well.’
‘Yes, Lieutenant,’ Thorongil said obediently. He had not precisely expected this command, but neither was it astonishing. The same imbalance of labour had been imposed upon the Ninth Company, with Jamon of Rhûn among those chosen. It seemed more prudent to rotate the duty and prevent any one man’s exhaustion, but it was not worth questioning.
Herion nodded shortly. ‘Go on then: rest while you can. Though how any of us are supposed to get much sleep in this cold is beyond me.’
‘I am sure we will manage it, sir,’ said Thorongil. He saluted and moved quietly away.
All about the camp men were settling down in pairs, as near the embers of the fires as they could get. Forgil and the others had spread the word: most were spreading one blanket and lying down together beneath the other. Thorongil’s eyes were blurring a little with exhaustion, and he was profoundly grateful to his Captain for the reprieve from the watch.
As he drew nearer to the place where he had eaten, Thorongil noticed one man standing motionless amid the disordered activities of a Company unused to making their own arrangements for slumber. He had his arms crossed tightly over his chest, pulling close his cloak, and he was looking around with trepidation. A few more steps brought Thorongil near enough to make out the man’s features by the glow of the nearest fire-pit. To his surprise, he recognized him. It was the provost healer who had examined him on his first morning in the city.
‘Midhon, is it not?’ Thorongil asked, drawing near.
The young man’s eyes darted anxiously to the Guardsman’s face as he nodded frenetically. ‘Yes, it is. I mean to say… ‘ His eyes widened in recognition, and he took an unsteady step backward. ‘I…’
‘You found me fit to serve in the Guard,’ Thorongil said, translating the man’s thoughts into the most positive interpretation he could devise.
Midhon’s lips moved soundlessly for a moment, and then he closed his mouth with a painful swallow.
‘You have come to tend us should anyone grow a little overenthusiastic in the melees, have you not?’ Thorongil asked. He was trying to smile conversationally, but he feared that between his weariness and the poor light, the resulting expression was less than becoming.
‘I understand the last group had no worse hurt than a skinned knee,’ the healer mumbled awkwardly. ‘I hope to see still less.’
Thorongil did not speak to this, for he could make no guarantees. As he had been in the provost office, he was struck by the uncertain way the young man carried himself. He looked like one who had never been secure in his place in the world. As one who had suffered such doubts for a brief and painful time despite being surrounded by love, reassurance, and safety, Thorongil felt an aching empathy.
‘We are sleeping back-to-back for warmth,’ he said. ‘Have you someone on whom you may lean?’
Midhon did not answer, but the hasty aversion of his eyes spoke clearly. He did not know these men, and was not likely treated with much respect by the Guardsmen he worked beside. It was too easy for men of action to disdain those whose hands plied gentler arts – until, of course, such hands were needed to stem their own blood. To be left alone in an encampment full of soldiers was surely a daunting experience for the young healer.
‘Nor have I,’ said Thorongil. ‘Shall we bide together, then? It may be that tomorrow night I will be on watch, but at least for now we can lend one another some comfort in the winter chill.’
Midhon once again seemed to struggle for words. Nearby, a bevy of Guardsmen were jostling over a choice piece of ground, deep laughter and playful curses flying among them. The healer shied away from the noise and his shoulder bumped against Thorongil’s arm. The nervous eyes flew to his face and, seeing no irritation thereon, eased a little.
‘I would be grateful. Thank you,’ he said. ‘I am no stranger to cold nights, but…’
He looked around the darkness that seethed with settling bodies in half-shadows, and he shook his head helplessly. ‘I would be grateful.’
Thorongil acknowledged this with a nod and went to scout out a place. He settled upon a dip in the earth that, though not perfectly level, was sheltered from the worst of the wind. It was the undulation of the turf that had deterred less experienced men. Thorongil knew a leeward position lent more to a traveller’s comfort than a few lumps would detract. He spread his blanket and laid his pack nearby. He stretched out gratefully, turning on his side and resting his heavy head upon his hand.
Midhon was kneeling as he fumbled with something, and Thorongil realized he was trying to remove his shoe. The poor young fool should never have embarked on a winter journey without a sound pair of boots, but it was likely that he did not possess a pair – and that he would have been unable to afford such a purchase upon short notice.
‘Leave them on,’ Thorongil advised. ‘You will need all the cover you have, if you are to lie warm through the deeps of the night.’
The healer made a small noise of assent and hurried to settle his belongings. He shook out his blanket, hesitated, and then spread it over Thorongil and the woolen pad beneath him. Then Midhon crept under and lay down upon his side with a judicious gap between his spine and that of the other man.
‘Nearer,’ said Thorongil. ‘We ought to be right up against one another, or the chill will creep in between.’
Midhon obeyed, but with unease. His slight frame settled against Thorongil’s long one, at first rigid with nerves but soon relaxing out of sheer weariness. Thorongil thought him well on the way to slumber, and was drifting in that enticing direction himself when Midhon’s chest hitched suddenly and he spoke.
‘I did not agree to it,’ he said, his voice quiet but very fretful. ‘I did not… I mean, for the health of the men such an examination is necessary, but it was not needful to shame you thus.’
‘No, it was not,’ said Thorongil. ‘I took no hurt from it, though another might well have done. Next time, perhaps, you will find voice to dissent; when the recruit is one more vulnerable than I.’
He felt a bobbing of the backbone as Midhon swallowed painfully again, then the rocking of a fervent nod. ‘I shall try,’ he said. ‘Why are you not angry?’
‘I save my anger for those who have earned it,’ said Thorongil. ‘Timidity and silence are not cause enough. We would all be well-served to remember that we fight upon the same side, and for the same principles. Now sleep. The nights are yet bitter, but they grow ever shorter. Winter is dying, and soon morning will come.’
The healer made another soft sound of agreement, and then fell silent. Soon his breath had deepened and levelled off towards repose. Thorongil’s awareness lingered a little longer as around him men whispered and chuckled and elbowed one another in the darkness. Yet soon enough he too left the waking world behind.
Relieved midway through the night by a second shift that had proved easier to recruit than the first, Minardil had slept a little more than three hours when he awoke shivering in the first grey of dawn. The rough-hewn bedframe that had been erected for him lifted his body from the ground, and even with that reprieve and his blankets he was mercilessly cold. He drew his legs up as far as the narrow tick allowed and hugged the bedding nearer. In the gloom he could just make out the shapes of Herion and Dúlin lying back-to-back like the men without. The lieutenants, at least, were spared the wind as their Captain was spared the hard earth, but no one slept in comfort. Even Lord Denethor, Minardil suspected, would wake chilled and stiff today.
He would grow no warmer lying as he was, and yet it took him some minutes to gather his courage for the ordeal of abandoning the meagre but tangible protection of the bed. When at last he had, he flung off the blankets and sat up in one quick motion, keeping his feet tucked up under the ropes and well off the ground as he reached for his boots. As he wrestled them on, he reflected that he would not make that mistake again. Uncouth it might be to put shod feet in bed, but in this matter manners would bend to expediency. His grim resolve was lightened a little with mirth, reflecting how dismayed his mother would have been by such unrepentant impropriety. She had tried her utmost to rear her boys in gentlemanly ways, after all, and that legacy lingered after her.
He had not removed any of his other garments, with the exception of his sword-belt, and Minardil left that where it was. He had looped around the log that served as the right upper leg of the bed, that the blade still hung upon it might come readily to hand if it were needed. Minardil looked for no trouble on this excursion, but neither was he an incautious man. In the fastness of Minas Tirith it was easy to forget the daily dangers of the word, both great and small. Without even a single wall to protect him, Minardil was reminded of the vastness of the land and the great speed with which peril might travel.
He hugged his cloak tightly ‘round him and let his hood fall low over his face as he slipped under the heavy canvas door-flap and out into the air. At once he felt the wind plucking at him, not high but still inclement upon so cold a morning. A few of the men were abroad already, huddled over the first hungry flames of the cook-fires. Far more were still asleep, their blankets bulging like plump chrysalises upon the land. There was frost along the top edge of the one nearest Minardil, where the breath of the two men huddled beneath it had frozen. Some still lay with their backs conjoined, as they had doubtless all settled the night before. More had turned inward, brow-to-brow and nestled near one another like small boys upon a stormy night.
Knowing that they would all mislike such thoughts from their Captain, Minardil walked on as if unseeing. The sentries were walking their sections of the perimeter, forming a shifting eddy of watchfulness around their fellows. Minardil had consciously ordered patrols rather than a set watch, knowing that even men accustomed to standing motionless upon the high walls would suffer from the cold in this exposed place. And such men did not have a warm bed in a sheltered booth to greet them at watch’s end, but a coarse blanket upon bare ground. Minardil wondered why the manoeuvres could not have been delayed another month, until the weather was more clement. He supposed the Captain-General had his reasons.
Across the dell, the camp of the Guards of the Citadel was in a similar state of half-drowsing fluidity. Squinting into the wind, Minardil could see their first fires and the hunched shapes of men sable black against the dusky sky. He wondered if their Captain was awake, and if he knew any better than Minardil what lay in wait for his men today.
He continued on his walk, feeling the blood warm his limbs as they moved. He took care to skirt around those yet sleeping, and realized that most of these were in fact fighting off both wakefulness and cold with little success. Instead of moving in silence, therefore, Minardil began to offer quiet words of encouragement as he went. He kept his tone low so that his small praises would not be taken as a call to reveille. First light was yet some way off, and cold though it was these men had earned their sleep.
A motion drew his eyes down the slope of the rise, and it was with some surprise that Minardil saw a pair of men toiling up towards the camp beneath the burden of yokes and buckets. Their breath came in snowy puffs that seemed almost to glow in the blue gloom, and they placed their booted feet with care to keep from sliding down the frosty incline. Minardil moved to intercept them as they passed the sentries, and recognized them as Saelir, a notorious dodger of unpleasant chores around the garrison, and Thorongil.
‘What is this?’ he asked.
‘Lieutenant’s orders,’ Saelir puffed. Thorongil, more circumspect and less breathless, bowed his head in brief deference.
‘Water for the men and the horses, Captain,’ he said. ‘The stream is beyond the Second Company’s encampment. They must pass us to gather wood. Doubtless at some point in the proceedings we will each be set to wrest our needs from the other by force or guile.’
Saelir had stopped with his fellow, but as Thorongil talked on he apparently decided that this was time he need not squander in carrying his burden. He walked on to the hastily-coopered cisterns near the centre of the camp. Minardil was looking at the new man intently.
‘I see,’ he said. ‘Are you then scouting on our behalf?’
‘It would be a lost opportunity if I did not, sir,’ said Thorongil. ‘My first concern, however, is to secure our supply for this day.’
‘Has a roster been drawn up for this labour?’ asked Minardil. He had naively expected water to be as readily obtainable as wood, which each man had gathered with scarcely a thought from the stand of timber that curled near the outer foot of their low hill. Having to haul it for a hundred men and half a dozen horses would be no small chore.
‘I understand that it is a fixed duty, Captain,’ said Thorongil, his voice without inflection. ‘We three are to carry it out each morning and evening until camp is broken.’
‘Three?’ asked Minardil, looking over his shoulder at the other man, who was emptying his pails with indiscriminate haste.
‘Mallor has also been allotted the task, but as he had the first watch I thought it better to let him sleep until muster,’ Thorongil answered. ‘I hope I have not overstepped my authority in this, but Lieutenant Herion intimated that I was to see to my fellows’ execution of their business.’
‘Did he, now?’ Minardil was torn now between irritation that Herion had not seen fit to consult him regarding these arrangements, and approval of his Lieutenant’s sound judgment. He knew by now enough of the new man’s ways to be certain he could be trusted with such a delicate matter as overseeing his equals in rank.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Thorongil. The faintest note of strain was in his voice, and Minardil recalled too late the heavy pails that he held. Yoke and all, the apparatus when full-laden weighed better than eight stone.
‘Go on; do not linger on my account,’ Minardil said hastily. ‘When you have finished, come to break your fast before my tent, and we shall talk of your observations in the enemy camp.’
‘In our opponents’ camp, my Captain,’ Thorongil corrected. ‘The men of the Citadel are not our foe, and we should not speak of them as such even in jest. This is a game, if on a great scale, and they are our opponents; that is all.’
This brought an unexpected grin to Minardil’s face. Thorongil was correct, of course, and it was something he had not even paused to think on. The Second Company of the Citadel was indeed their opponent, and a vastly superior opponent at that. Yet when the games were ended they would return together to Minas Tirith, and resume their duties in service of the same Lord against a common threat. They should not be sullied with the label of enemy, not even in play.
‘Opponents, then,’ he agreed. Thorongil nodded patiently and started off for the cisterns. Minardil watched him go, resolved that word should be spread to that effect. A competitive spirit in such an undertaking was natural, and his men were severely outmatched. It would be hard enough to stave off resentment without encouraging combative language. As Thorongil crouched to ease the buckets to the ground, Minardil frowned pensively at his dark shape. What soldier contemplated the impact mere choice of language would have upon his fellows?
His breakfast eaten and his pavilion put to rights, Denethor emerged at last into the crystalline sunlight upon a world of frost and brisk breezes. Ducking to keep from catching the wings of his helm upon the edge of the tent roof, he straightened as he cleared it and stood proud to survey his good work. The two camps were orderly and peaceable at that lazy hour, cook-fires smoking from the centre of ring after ring of cloaked men. The horses were picketed behind each tent, as his own and his servant’s were on this low hill. Both Captains had wisely set sentries the night before, but none were now circling. Denethor paused to consider the rightness of this. Vigilance was always necessary, but perhaps he could excuse this lapse. The men were new to the open land, and they had made an uncomplaining march and, so he was assured by his informers in each Company, passed an amiable night. He could suggest the improvement without demanding explanations for the oversight.
The free air of the field filled his lungs, and Denethor felt the invigoration of action course with his blood. It did not matter that these were training manoeuvres or that he himself would have no active part in the proceedings. He was away from the city in command of two hundred loyal men. Winter’s dullard dreariness seemed banished from his heart and his mind. It was glorious.
He had not felt this thrill upon the earlier expedition, but that was surely because he had known his intention to return forthwith to Minas Tirith. The prospect of a fortnight unfettered, far from petty matters of administration and the constant harping of his father’s Councillors, left Denethor almost buoyant with good spirits. There was fine sport to be had here, as well.
The Second Company of the Guards of the Citadel was one of Gondor’s finest, whether behind white walls or out in empty country. The knights in her ranks were trained in the arts of battle as carefully as any soldier in Anfalas or Ithilien. Their expertise and their expectation ranged far beyond simple sentry duty and gate-minding. They were warriors as much as doorwardens, and they had earned their reputation for greatness.
As for the Tenth Company of the City… well, they were adequate for their ordinary duties. They could keep the peace on market day, with help from the other two Companies in the Second Level. They seldom erred grievously in their manning of the Second Gate. Yet they were hardly extraordinary. It could be seen even in their Captain. Minardil was a capable enough administrator and he had a reputation for skill with a blade, and yet? Yet he had been defeated in single combat by his greenest man, and all his prowess with a pen would avail him nothing in this forum. It would be interesting to watch his inept efforts to outthink his counterpart on the northerly ridge. Most interesting indeed.
Denethor drew in another bracing breath and smiled. He was glad, so glad to be abroad and poised to achieve something. He expected the Tenth Company to be thoroughly trounced, yes, but it would make of them better soldiers if only they had the capacity to let it. As for the men from the Citadel, they were like as not as weary of winter’s stagnation as he.
It was time to begin. Denethor raised his white horn, its silver tracings a brilliant echo of the frost in the dead grasses, and he blew a long, strong blast upon it.
The effect was immediate. In both camps men sprang up from their fires, letting fall the blankets that had been wrapped around shivering shoulders and abandoning the remains of their waking meal. From near each pavilion the Captains came running. Denethor was surprised and grudgingly impressed when Minardil, rather than straining to see through the crowd of his men, ran a few paces downhill from the encampment’s edge so that he could see his Lord. Denethor blew a second resonant note, then lowered the horn to hang once more from its baldric. He drew in a deep breath and let forth a call in the resounding battlefield bellow mastered by all great commanders.
‘Men of Gondor!’ he shouted, feeling the sound rise up from its very core to echo from the hills. ‘Assemble! Now, we begin!’
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