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Chapter XII: The High Ground
As Thorongil had predicted, by the third evening the Tenth Company was awash with despondency and discontent. They sat huddled near their fires, muddied and melancholy and all but silent as they waited for their day-meal and their bones to warm. It was not merely the discomfort of the camp that had ground down their spirits, but the inelegant defeats of the last two days.
The first series of exercises had proved straightforward enough. Lord Denethor had set the men to sparring one-on-one, that they might accustom themselves to the slippery and variable terrain so different from the well-laid cobbles on which they trod in daily life. There had been no assigning of partners, and little mixing between the two Companies. That morning had proved more enjoyable than onerous, even with the many tumbles and the increasingly mucky earth beneath them.
In the afternoon, however, the head-to-head competition between the men from the Second Circle and those from the Citadel had begun. They had gone through several melees, in which the two companies faced one another head on in the bottom of the dell and, upon the Captain-General’s signal, fallen to fighting with the blunted blades. Men were eliminated by an honour system, expected to bow out if they received a blow that would have been fatal or crippling if dealt by a primed weapon. They divided themselves on the hillside: the wounded and the slain. Those removed early on had the dubious pleasure of watching their comrades whittled away singly and in pairs. The ranks of the Tenth Company shrank rapidly and the Second Company seemed to loose men only by chance, or by sending them against either the Captain or the new man. They, at least, deported themselves brilliantly, but it was not enough. When the contest was called in favour of the Second, and the men at last allowed to seek their rest, only a fraction of the men from the lower city remained upright on the field.
The slaughter had been repeated on the following morning, and this time Lord Denethor had not called a halt until there were ninety-eight upon the hill and two back-to-back in the centre of a circle of Guards of the Citadel. No man in the Tenth had been surprised by the identity of those last competitors. What did surprise Minardil was that the Captain-General had ended the affair when he did, instead of waiting until the ring of swords at last cut down the last two. He supposed he ought to be grateful that his men had been spared that final humiliation, but he was not inclined to be fair-minded tonight.
As if the indignities on the field had not been enough, his men had spent the afternoon toiling to erect makeshift breastworks before their camp. Why these were required his orders had not explained, but there was little doubt in the Captain’s mind that his men were about to take another hard beating at the hands of the superior force. They knew it, too. It was clear in every pair of glowering eyes, in the stoop of weary shoulders and the lackadaisical way they bent their hands to tasks that had been novel two nights before. It was natural that they should awake to the hardships and discomforts of the field, but they were also being forced to face their own inadequacies in a hard and almost cruel manner. No one had instructed them on how to face a superior foe, and no one had instructed Minardil on how to teach them to do better. The futility of even trying sat bitter as gall in the back of the young Captain’s throat.
Yet he tried to keep a dispassionate face as he strode along the ridge from his tent, searching for his lieutenants among the crowd. They had not made any attempt to set themselves apart tonight, doubtless eager to pretend, however briefly, that they had neither authority nor responsibility in this sorry business. Minardil supposed they were among their friends, and he wished he could say the same. It was not his rank that held him apart, but the fact that he had not risen to it by gradual advancement in one Company. His swift ascension first through the city and then through the military hierarchy had left him with few close friends in Minas Tirith. Those he had were not among his own men.
Soemthing strange was happening, Minardil noticed as he walked. The further he moved from his tent, the less wretched the hunched figures seemed. They were all weary and frustrated, it was true, but the sense of fatalism was not so strong here. Puzzled, he slowed that he might listen to the murmured conversation at a fire nearby.
‘…true that we are outmatched, but these two encounters do not reflect battle as it could ever be encountered in open lands,’ a low, rational voice was saying. The other men were leaning in towards the embers and the wind-whipped flames, every hooded head turned to the speaker. Two long hands, bare despite the chill, drew in towards one another, palm-to-palm but untouching, the fingers straight and close as boards. ‘Never will two opposing forces march within two armspans of each other, line up in perfect array, and commence to fighting at a lone man’s word. Never is a victory as simple as the prowess and training of once force over the other.’
He did not say army or foe, Minardil realized, and that was when he looked for the star that clasped the close-drawn cloak. He was wholly unsurprised to spy it, but he had to admit some astonishment that he had not recognized the speaker immediately. Hunched low with his elbows on his knees, legs crossed and hood pulled forward to hide his long nose and his striking eyes, Thorongil was indistinguishable in form from the other men. As for his voice, it held nothing of the careful formality he used in everyday discourse. He was speaking with the persuasive cadence of an orator and the tone of close confidence employed by the most gifted of storytellers. He was coaxing his audience towards a desired conclusion, all the while sounding like the voice of clear and unadulterated reason.
Spellbound and still some yards away, Minardil crouched down to listen. Not one in the circle seemed to have noticed him yet; not even Thorongil himself. He was still speaking.
‘In battle, and in any contest that attempts an earnest imitation of battle, there are other factors to consider: the terrain, the line and disposition of attack, the equipage of each force, their readiness,’ he said. ‘All other things being equal it is natural for the Guards of the Citadel to best us, but it is at best an artificial measure of how either Company would fare in truth.’
‘Sure, sure,’ snorted one of the men. ‘In truth they’d cut us down in half the time, ‘cause they’d have the better blades.’
There were a couple of grumbles of discontentment, but Thorongil shook his hooded head. ‘The quality of the weapon is not the deciding factor. The mightiest blade will break at its appointed hour, and to its wielder’s doom. What I am trying to say is that it is well within our power to outdo the Second Company in some, perhaps many, of the trials to come. Each side has its disadvantages in this game. Ours is our inexperience. Theirs is their confidence.’
‘Confidence, a disadvantage!’ another groused. ‘The grass is greener in Rohan, then, or the men more simpleminded.’
‘If it is simpleminded to have faith in one’s abilities and in one’s comrades, then let me be simpleminded,’ said Thorongil. ‘Tomorrow, when we must hold the hill—’
‘What makes you think we’ll be holding the hill?’ asked a third. This voice Minardil knew instantly. It was Herion, his Second Lieutenant. ‘Even the Captain hasn’t received tomorrow’s instructions.’
Thorongil canted his head to look at him, eyes shadowed but quirked mouth showing beneath the edge of his hood. ‘Why else would we have been set to building fortifications, sir?’ he asked. ‘Surely we are meant to defend them.’
‘Eventually, yes. But tomorrow?’ Herion scoffed sourly. ‘Tomorrow we’ll be put to digging the other enemy’s emplacements for them!’
‘Here, Lieutenant!’ called Mallor, who was sitting near Thorongil. ‘We’ve agreed not to call them enemies, no matter what they might be calling us. It’s only a game, even if it is a miserable game were meant to lose.’
‘Fine,’ agreed Herion reluctantly. ‘The Most Honoured Second Company of the Guard of the Citadel, Servants to the Lord Steward Himself: Our Great and Far More than Worthy Opponents. We’ll be shovelling mud for them in the morning: I promise you that.’
‘I think not,’ said Thorongil, something almost sly in his voice.
‘And what would you know about it?’ Herion challenged. ‘I s’pose in Rohan the poor men don’t wait on the mighty, hmm? The King combs his own horse?’
‘He does,’ said Thorongil; ‘but not for want of hands to do it for him. It is a part of the bond between mount and Rider: each cares for the other in his turn. The reason that I say we will not be digging the Second Company’s fortifications is because they have been grumbling about the order to do so on the morrow.’
This brought a general silence, astonished and implicitly impressed. Finally Mallor spoke. ‘How d’you know that?’
Thorongil shrugged his shoulders. ‘The most expedient road to the stream passes through the heart of their camp. As they must cut through ours for their wood, I have not been grudged the shortest pass. But this much is true, in Rohan and in Gondor and all the world over: those performing the menial tasks of daily necessity are scarcely to be seen by those who need not.’
The others chortled at this, nudging one another with their elbows. One leaned to clap Thorongil on the shoulder, and was met with a dry smile. Herion nudged his hood further back on his head and narrowed his eyes to peer at the newest man.
‘Do you know their plan of attack, then?’ he asked.
‘I am a waterbearer, not a spy,’ said Thorongil. ‘I hear only what the simple soldiers say about their fires, not what the Captain and your own counterpart may discuss in their command tent. If the Second Company has obtained their instructions for the morning’s engagement, I do not know it. Yet I can make a good guess as to how they will come, and I believe we can repel them. Take heart: dawn brings hope anew even in such trivial business as this. Today we conceded. Tomorrow we may triumph.’
He drew in his limbs and seemed ready to stand, when another of the young men spat disparately into the fire. The embers hissed.
‘Conceded,’ he growled. ‘We were licked, and badly. They would have got you in the end, too, if Lord Denethor hadn’t called for a halt. Didn’t fancy that, either: him on his high seat, sitting in judgment.’
‘Any game must have an arbiter, to see the rules are observed and to judge any unconventional play,’ said Thorongil mildly. ‘Perhaps tomorrow we shall give him some challenging exchanges to weigh.’
There were some doubtful looks exchanged at this, but more of the men chuckled softly. All sat less dejectedly now, as Thorongil got to his feet and stepped back over the log with almost noiseless agility. They were already talking eagerly amongst themselves as the new Guardsman retreated from their group and started off towards the next. Quietly Minardil rose and stepped to intercept him.
‘What is this?’ he asked in a low voice. ‘Do you labour to undo the day’s lessons?’
‘Only those that have been wrongly learned, my Captain,’ Thorongil said. He did not look in the least surprised at his commander’s appearance, and Minardil was compelled to wonder whether he had indeed passed unnoticed after all. ‘There are those among the men who take the defeats of the last two days to mean they are unfit to meet the soldiers of the Citadel in combat.’
‘Are we not?’ asked Minardil. Too late, he realized that this sentiment should never have been given voice. He did not think any but Thorongil had heard them, but now he was aware how the two of them were drawing eyes from the nearby fires. He beckoned to the soldier. ‘Come with me.’
Thorongil inclined his head and followed wordlessly, weaving in Minardil’s wake between the small gatherings of men. Knowing it would give rise to talk but deeming that a small price for privacy, Minardil went to the tent and flung aside the flap with one hand. Thorongil bowed low to enter, more out of need than chivalry: the entryway was low even for a man of common height, and he far exceeded that even among those of old blood. Minardil swept after him, letting the door slap closed, and he found the bench that he had in place of a table. A moment’s work had a candle lit, and the close space of the pavilion was made at once smaller and more comfortable by its glow.
‘Sit,’ Minardil invited, indicating one of the log-stools as he took his own. As Captain he should have had a few items of real furniture, but most of that had been appropriated for the Captain-General’s use. If Thorongil had any thoughts upon his commander’s rustic lodgings, he gave no sign. Perhaps, coming out of Rohan, he did not care for such things as a man of Gondor would. Selfishly Minardil hoped this was so. He did not want this man, peculiar and somehow extraordinary as he undeniably was, to think less of him for this.
‘So the men are saying we are mismatched?’ he asked heavily. ‘Do they believe it was intentional?’
‘Do you?’ Thorongil queried, tonelessly but with an arced eyebrow that spoke of some surprise.
Minardil sighed. ‘It could not possibly be unintentional,’ he quibbled. ‘That is to say, the Captain-General could not genuinely expect a Company from the City to be pitted fairly against one from the Citadel. They are knights of Gondor, and we…’ He gestured vaguely, encompassing the sparse furnishings, the utilitarian garments with their inferior dyes, the leather jerkin Thorongil wore, his own bare-iron mail. ‘We are not,’ Minardil finished.
‘Yet someone must be paired with them, if we are to be trained two by two,’ Thorongil said. ‘There are three Companies in the Citadel and fifteen in the City, are there not?’
‘Yes.’ The word ground out over Minardil’s teeth. He had not stopped to reflect upon it, but now he could see that he shared an equal measure of his men’s discouragement. ‘Yet at least those in the upper City are… are…’
He could not find the words. The First and Second Companies of the Guard of the City, serving in the Sixth Level, received much the same training as those in the Second Circle. They were no more equipped to face the men from the Citadel than Minardil’s men. But at least they were… what? More genteel, of higher birth generally. Better paid and better clad, certainly. But not, now he paused to think of it, greatly superior in any martial skill. The Champion of the Guard had come from one of the three lowest levels of Minas Tirith in each of the last four years, and that was telling. No, there was not a Company in the City any more qualified than the Tenth to face the Guards of the Citadel. Still, that did not make it right.
‘Perhaps we are favoured with a greater opportunity than those Companies who face a lesser challenge,’ said Thorongil. ‘Our rivals are well-trained and experienced in field warfare. It is they, is it not, who would ride forth in the Steward’s Guard if he went to war?’
Minardil nodded at this. Such an exigency had not arisen in living memory, but that was the intent of the law.
‘Then who better to try our mettle?’ asked Thorongil. He had pushed back his hood, baring his head out of respect for his commander’s humble dwelling-place, and his eyes shone with eagerness. ‘If they are Gondor’s best, should we not look upon this as a chance to be tried in the fiercest fire we may find upon the home hearth? Today’s defeat was painful for the men, but it will drive us to seek our victories with greater resolve, and make them all the sweeter when they are won.’
Minardil laughed, restraining himself so that those without would not hear. He shook his head, a grin of disbelief wide upon his face. ‘Thorongil, you are a dreamer out of a land of merry children! We cannot defeat the Second Company: we will be fortunate to last a week in pace with them. Had the Heir not raised his hand when he did, you and I should have been whacked by half a dozen blunt blades today.’
‘Indeed?’ Thorongil challenged with a small, knowing smile. ‘We cut down eleven between the moment we were cut off from the others and the raising of that hand. They had only forty left to send against us.’
Minardil gaped at him, unbelieving. If a jest, this trespassed far beyond the absurd. If meant in earnest, the man was either delusional or drunk upon his own conceit. Never before had Minardil felt so cornered as he had that forenoon, with hostile swords all about him and his men nowhere in sight. There had been a bracing comfort to the lithe and ready form at his back, but it had been as inadequate to quell his fear as had been the knowledge that it was only a game.
‘I see!’ he gasped at last, startling himself out of his astonishment. ‘Lord Denethor raised his hand not to show us some mercy in our humiliation, but to prevent you and I from cutting down three dozen knights of the realm with our dulled blades.’
Thorongil shrugged one shoulder wryly. ‘It is possible,’ he lilted. ‘In any case, it is better for our Company’s resolve to look at it that way than from the other. If the men do not believe they might succeed, they never shall.’
‘Thorongil, I do not believe we might succeed,’ said Minardil. He gestured to a small piece of parchment folded on the bench beside them. ‘Herion is mistaken. I do have my orders, and you are right: tomorrow morning we are to hold the ridge. The men of the Citadel will be storming our camp. How can we hope to hold them back?’
‘We shall have the high ground,’ said Thorongil, a slow smile spreading across his pale face. ‘And there are other tactics we can employ; things, I think, that they will not expect. Have you a wax tablet?’
Puzzled, Minardil fetched it. At Beleg’s advice he had brought writing gear and measuring tools to complement the map of the area with which he had been provided. The Ninth Company had done well by planning their campaigns on paper as if in genuine warfare. Such efforts had seemed futile against the Tenth’s fearsome opponent, but plainly Thorongil felt otherwise. His eyes flashed still more brightly as he sketched out the ridge with the smooth bone stylus, blocking in the tent and their clumsily erected embrasures. Then he began to speak.
Denethor had lingered only long enough to watch the Ninth Company assemble for their assault upon the enemy camp, before setting off for home. He had missed the charge, and had not learned the outcome of the challenge until ten days later when the men returned to Minas Tirith. It was with eager anticipation that he observed the preparations this morning. The Second Company made a splendid sight in the winter sunshine, their raiment and their mail black as ebony. The white of their heraldry and the high silver helms seemed almost afire with brightness. Even the blunted blades seemed to shine, and the twenty armed with pikes lent the force a splendour of ancient days. Nelior, their Captain, was astride his horse in readiness to lead the charge, and he guided the beast in a neat circle about his men as he called out last-minute commands.
Behind their humps of mud and sticks, the men of the Tenth Company crouched in the chill wetness of churned and melting snow. A layer had fallen in the night, half an inch of fluffy and ephemeral-looking stuff that had coated every blanket and crept under every collar. Denethor had to allow that there was not a man who had bedded down in the open last night who was anything but damp and miserably cold today. The difference between the two groups was that the men of the Tenth Company of the City looked it. The men of the Second Company of the Citadel did not. They were imposing even in their discomfort, and the business of sweeping down into the dell and up to challenge the makeshift fortifications would warm their bones and put vigour into their hearts.
As for the Tenth Company… well, they looked less than impressive where they were, squatting so as to be hidden almost from view by their low-built fortifications. It was difficult to look at them without either a sneer of contempt or a groan of despair. These were men, after all, whose lone purpose in life – apart from breaking up tavern fistfights and keeping fishwives from squabbling too violently – was to guard and hold a wall. They did not look able to do either this morning.
They were not even spread out evenly along their ridge of dirt. A quarter of the men were bunched at its nearest end, and another quarter distributed about evenly down the main length of the parapet. The other half, fully fifty men unless Denethor’s eyes were failing him, were huddled together at the very far end so that the wall scarcely shielded them all. It was important for an army to reinforce its flank, but if that was what Minardil thought he was doing, he had made a ludicrous overcompensation. The men should have been more evenly and tightly distributed along the wall, with a second line in place to step up as the first was felled. They surely would be felled, after all. It was inevitable.
Denethor clapped his hands once, and his servant came hurrying from the far side of the pavilion. He had been seeing to the horses, and he still had the currycomb in his hand as he swept a low bow.
‘My lord?’ he gasped, breathless with haste.
‘Fetch me some wine,’ said Denethor, settling more easily in the field chair. The seat was hinged and the twenty crossed legs fixed upon a pivot. It folded flat for ease of transport, and when laid out the props formed an X. On the upper branches, he could rest his arms. The lower formed a sturdy base. With a band of cloth across the back and a fur draped over the bare wood, it made a very comfortable seat. From his high place on the small round hill, Denethor overlooked the field of battle like a potentate. It was as if the entire spectacle about to unfold had been contrived for the amusement of an audience of one.
A Lieutenant from each Company was posted near the foot of the Captain-General’s hill, lest orders should have to be sent swiftly to one or the other of the Captains. Denethor did not anticipate such a need, nor did he believe that anything might arise that was beyond the power of his voice and his horn to halt in a single breath. Still it was best for form to be observed in such matters, and this was the convention employed both to train (however large or small the force) and to direct men in battle.
The only difference between today’s arrangement and the latter was that Denethor sat perpendicular to the action rather than behind the vanguard. That and the wine, of course. The servant – not one of Denethor’s household men, but a soldier assigned to the duty by the Master of the Guard – brought cup and flagon and a small camp-table, so that Denethor might refresh his measure at will. The man made an obsequious inquiry as to his Lord’s other needs, and he was dismissed with an absentminded flick of one tooled gauntlet. The Second Company was falling into ranks now, and Denethor’s attentions were upon the field.
Nelior gave the call to march, and his men moved forward in four long columns. They advanced slowly at first, cautiously. This was wise: if the entrenched force had projectile weapons a swift-moving force might be cut down by half before its commander was even aware of the threat. Nelior and his men did not know that the Tenth Company had neither bows nor arrows. Those had not been issued yet, for that was to be a separate trial. The men of the Citadel were stagnating after a long winter, and the men of the City were wholly untried. One challenge at a time.
Behind the low wall of mud, the Tenth Company was remarkably calm. There was little fidgeting, and no anxious shuffling. Anticipation thrummed along the line, from one absurdly bloated end through the lean centre guard to the engorged terminus where half the Company crowded on their haunches useless as crows. After yesterday’s thorough defeat, Denethor would have expected more apprehension. Perhaps he had been too swift to judge the mettle of these lowly men. Perhaps their courage made them worthy of the White City after all.
At the foot of the Tenth Company’s hill, Nelior urged his men on to a charge, blades at the ready. It was not an advantageous approach, nor one that any commander in his right mind would have chosen save at greatest need, but that was the purpose of the exercise. There were instances where it was unavoidable: high ground and fortified positions must at times be assailed. After the lazy triumphs of the last two days, the Second Company was ready for a challenge. An inferior foe on more favourable terrain made an interesting one.
A bellowed command arose from behind the mound of earth, but Denethor could discern neither the words nor the speaker. The nearest group of men on the hill abruptly routed, scrambling away from the fortifications like hound pups recoiling from a hill of stinging ants. Ere Denethor could make sense of the spectacle, the men were scattering down the hill with swords at the ready. They were forming a loose but purposeful line at an obtuse angle to the earthy ridge.
Startled but swift, the rightmost men of the Second Company turned and spread out to engage them. As blades met and men dodged their opponents, Denethor was surprised to note that – almost to a man – the Guardsmen in poor black and leather were manoeuvring themselves to stand uphill. Not of the entire force, as they might have done meeting the onslaught head on, but each man above his one rival. The Tenth Company now had the invaders’ attention divided.
There was a flurry of motion from the far side of the line as the first of the Guards of the Citadel mounted the hump of packed earth to meet the sparse centre section of the defenders. Denethor’s view of the field was somewhat limited, and the flying swords obscured it further. Nonetheless he knew a moment before it happened what Minardil intended to do.
The far half of the Tenth Company sped forth as the first quarter had done, a line of men cascading down the hillside. Like a sweeping arm or a closing gate they charged perpendicular to the slope, swiftly closing their angle and descending upon the Second Company from the left. Surrounded now upon three sides, Nelior’s men scarcely knew where to turn. The knights fought skilfully, but the advantage of surprise was held by the common men. It was only heightened, no doubt, by the fact that they had been underestimated by their opponents as well as by their Lord.
Denethor watched in astonishment as men scrambled back out of the action to sort themselves into camps of dead and wounded. The sable cloaks outnumbered those of worst-black, and one lofty helm after another was doffed in frustration or astonishment. The men still in the fray were struggling fiercely, low and lofty alike, but those now removed were shaking their heads or laughing in disbelief. The jubilation among the men of the Tenth Company was obvious, and it grew with each new Guard of the Citadel forced to retreat from battle.
Denethor could spy Minardil now. It was he who had led the second charge, seizing the offensive instead of merely minding his wall of dirt. He had held the crucial position at the very tip of the arm of men, the lynchpin of the operation. Now he was moving through the increasingly disordered combat with his dulled blade flashing. He was a fine swordsman, and watching him it was impossible to imagine how a mere sell-sword out of Rohan could have bested him.
The lone horseman in the conflict was proving an impediment to the efforts of the Tenth Company. Nelior was making good use of his lofty seat, dispatching men quickly with a swat to the back with the flat of his blade. It might smart a little but it would not even bruise, and no man thus struck could deny he could easily have been slain had the rider employed a quarter turn and a whetstone. Surely Minardil saw the threat, but the other Captain and his horse were in the thick of the action and the Champion of the Guard was trying to hold the line. He was doing well, too, but there was only so much one competent combatant could do when in command of eight dozen commoners.
Then from the skirmish still warring feebly on at the embrasure a lithe figure leapt, over the wall of earth and down its outer side as if wholly untroubled by the branches and bracken laid out to discourage a frontal assault. He landed firmly despite the slick of mud and dead grass beneath the men’s feet, and with no regard for the fighting around him plunged into the heart of the melee.
What he did Denethor could not see. His sword was at the ready but not presently raised, and he made no move to swipe out with his cloak. But as the man from the Tenth strode purposefully up to the left of Nelior’s horse, the animal spooked. It shied to the right, jerking its head and the reigns away from the man. The Captain of the Second Company, winged helm catching the sunlight, tried to get his beast under control one-handed. His efforts only seemed to increase the steed’s anxiety, doubtless already high because of the commotion all about. The horse was skittering on unhappy hooves, tossing its proud head and snorting. Then Denethor noticed that the man who had come from behind the dike of earth was gone.
Not gone, he saw a moment later. The soldier was now, inexplicably, on the other side of the horse. As Nelior used the last three fingers of his sword-hand in an attempt to steady his hold on the reigns, a gauntleted fist closed on the hilts of his weapon and plucked it from his hand. The Captain, astonished, looked around as if expecting to see some acrobat suspended from a line above, having snatched away the sword by its tip. Then he looked down at the soldier in shock and anger.
Even at this distance it was obvious from the cant of the man’s head that he had said something good-natured – impudent, perhaps, but good-natured. He raised Nelior’s blade in his off-hand, threading it deftly under the Captain’s still-labouring arms so that he could tap him across the front of his tabard with the edge. Then Nelior, torn between shock and the need to quiet his steed before it threw him or began to trample the men, had to fumble to catch the sword before it fell from his lap: the other man had let loose his hold.
He used his left hand instead to take a firm hold on the headstall of the unhappy warhorse. Immediately the beast quieted, whether in response to the touch or some word from the Guardsman. The soldier from the Tenth Company raised his blade in a deliberately nonthreatening but unmistakable gesture, as if to say to Nelior that his horse, too, would have been slain in this moment had the stakes of the game been mortal. Now it was the man who snorted, not the horse, and he shook his head as he gathered the lines. Then he was shouting to the men to make way as he navigated through the ongoing struggle, guiding his mount out into the open and down towards the large and perturbed-looking group of Second Company casualties.
With the mounted threat dispatched and the number of their enemy ever dwindling, the Tenth Company did not have to strive much longer for victory. Soon enough Minardil and the Lieutenant who had headed the shorter arm of advancement met, and they had the Second Company surrounded. It was over before Denethor could make up his mind to spare the men of the Citadel from the embarrassment of being felled to a man. As the last sable warrior bowed out – this one flinging himself to earth in the dramatic death-throes of a boy at play – Minardil raised high his sword.
‘FOR GONDOR!’ he bellowed joyously. ‘THE TENTH COMPANY FOR GONDOR!’
His men cheered, and even some of the defeated joined in. Still others were laughing, and others still looked stunned, not quite believing their loss even now. At the foot of the Captain-General’s hill the two runners strode to congratulate one another, one on the victory and the other on the skilled fight and gracious defeat. Still somewhat taken aback himself, Denethor interrupted their meeting with a snap of the fingers.
‘You, Lieutenant,’ he said, pointing to the one in poor black and leather. ‘Fetch me your Captain, at once.’
The man bowed and took off at a run, along the foot of the ridge to where Minardil was surrounded by the revelling throng of his triumphant Company. Denethor allowed himself a nonplussed shake of the head. Had he not beheld the spectacle with his own eyes, he would not have believed it. Clearly he had underestimated the young Captain. His skills extended beyond nimble feet and a fell sword-arm. It was extraordinary.
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