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Chapter XIII: Confrontations
Minardil knelt before his Captain-General, his colour high and his chest still heaving deeply with the exertions of his victory. His eyes were bright and lively, but he kept them lowered respectfully until Denethor spoke.
‘You may stand, Captain,’ he said, noting the man’s clean etiquette and rewarding it accordingly. After a pause to allow the Captain to obey, he went on in a contemplative tone. ‘That was a remarkable victory.’
‘Thank you, sire,’ the younger man said. Denethor knew he the elder of the two because Minardil’s date of birth was noted in his service record, but it was not readily apparent on his face. The son of the Steward was of the ancient blood of the Númenórean aristocracy, and imbued with a long life even in comparison to the full-blood commoners of Gondor. It was a gift, and in many situations an advantage also.
‘I confess I did not expect it,’ said Denethor. ‘Your Company performed poorly in the earlier exercises.’
‘The earlier exercises were no reflection of genuine battle, my Lord,’ said Minardil levelly. ‘Today we had a truer imitation, as well as the terrain in our favour.’
‘Even so…’ Denethor murmured. He shifted in his seat and then clapped his hands once. The servant appeared, bowing. ‘Fetch a cup,’ commanded the Captain-General. To Minardil he said; ‘It was an interesting tactic you employed. It is not one that I would have chosen myself.’
‘What tactic would you have chosen, sire?’ asked Minardil earnestly. He was not defying his commander, but begging to learn from him.
Denethor smiled. ‘A fair question. Yet I cannot tell you what I would do, lest you should employ my judgement over your own in the upcoming trials. Plainly yours will serve you well, if today is any indication. Such a flanking manoeuvre is generally held to be an offensive technique, not defensive.’
‘Yes, sire,’ said Minardil. He was beginning to shift uncomfortably and clearly trying to resist it. ‘It was—’
‘Of course, that was it’s great virtue, Denethor went on, only loosely aware that he had cut off the man’s sentence. ‘The Second Company was taken unawares, and you pressed the advantage of surprise quickly and with vigour. I was pleased in especial by the discipline of your men. They did not break formation, as I would expect such a force to do.’
That was the great marvel: that the men of the Tenth had managed to hold fast their lines in the heat of combat. Such untried soldiers often forgot the importance of placement and formation when they were overcome by the challenges of swordplay. Unless confident and accomplished with a blade, great focus was called for merely to evade death (or disqualification). Other matters were swiftly thrust aside.
‘Thank you, sire. They are good men,’ the young Captain said. He seemed about to add something more, but he did not.
The servant came back, bearing a wooden mug. Denethor took it and poured a measure of wine. He offered it to the other man.
‘Drink of the cup of victory, Minardil son of Mardhir,’ he commanded. ‘You have done well this day, and you should take pride in that. I am not often surprised by my men, but you have managed it. I eagerly await your next offering.’
Minardil seemed to hesitate for an instant, as if again he wished to speak but did not quite dare. Then he raised the vessel to his lips. The exercise had left him dry: he drank deeply and without refinement. Taking up his own goblet, Denethor took a smooth, cool mouthful of the fragrant fluid. He swirled the contents of the cup thoughtfully.
‘Why did you choose such a manoeuvre?’ he asked at length. ‘An offensive move from a position of defence, a plan better suited to a mounted force, when your men were afoot.’
Minardil’s lips parted and he looked for a moment utterly at a loss for words. Then he closed his mouth and gave a small flick of his head, like a sleepwalker suddenly wakened. ‘It seemed most fitting, my Lord,’ he said softly.
Denethor chuckled and shook his head. ‘So it was,’ he said. ‘So it was. I must commend your imagination as well, I see, and not only your command.’
‘Not my imagination, sire,’ said Minardil. ‘Only my judgement.’
‘Your judgement, then,’ Denethor allowed, raising his cup in salute. He drank again and Minardil, taking his lead, drained the mug. Denethor indicated that he should set it upon the small table, which the man did. ‘In reward for their triumph, your men may have the remainder of the day to use as they see fit. I hope they will put it to some wise use, rather than squander it, but that is for you and for them to decide. Go now: you are dismissed.’
‘Yes, Captain-General,’ said Minardil. He saluted neatly and turned with crisp precision. He even managed a level gait as he descended the hill, though he took off at a boyish and rather less than dignified trot when he reached the flat bottom of the dell.
Denethor watched him go, more pleased than he would have expected. He was not a man who relished being proved wrong, but if he had to be this was the way to do it. His men had surprised him pleasantly, and the Second Company’s loss – though disappointing – was understandable given the unequal ground and the other side’s ingenuity. Far more importantly, Minardil himself seemed just as surprised by the victory as his master. There had been no supercilious arrogance in his demeanour, nor any hint of conceit. He did not swagger, nor did he gloat. His had been the countenance of a servant earnestly pleased in his service, and that gave to Denethor the warm and reassuring feeling of a benevolent Lord justly praising where praise had been earned.
Pouring himself more wine, Denethor settled contentedly in his seat and observed the two camps from afar.
After the first few hard steps up out of the streambed, the onerous weight of yoke and buckets settled evenly across the shoulders. Thorongil found it almost reassuring, though he could feel the stretching of the sinews in his neck and knew that after not so many more days of this toil he would be sore indeed. His hands, slender but strong and very capable, steadied the taut rope handles of the pails. He had filled them to a depth somewhat less than their capacity. It meant that for every eight trips he created for himself an extra one, but it kept the inevitable sloshing of the liquid within the confines of the bucket. He had no wish for wet boots or soaked hose in this weather.
This was the first time it had been necessary to go for water in the middle of the afternoon. Fresh from their victory and invigorated by it, many of the men had decided to seize the chance to wash. For most it was the first time they had done so since leaving the White City, and it was a sign of good spirits and a pride in themselves that it gladdened Thorongil to see. The night before they had been a dispirited and lacklustre lot. Now they were glad, and eager for tomorrow’s challenges. If that meant he must haul more water, Thorongil would willingly bear the price.
He plodded steadily up the ridge into the camp of the Second Company. They enjoyed no greater luxury than their humbler opponents: shallow fire-pits and logs to sit upon, bare earth to lie on and simple foods. It was yet too early to tell if they would bear the hardships of the field with greater or lesser grace than the men of the Tenth. Certainly they were not very accepting of the labour. He heard the grumbling and the waspish protests over the thud of short spades in the hard, frozen earth. They were erecting their own breastworks in anticipation of the morning, when it would be they who held the high ground against an advancing force.
There was little of use to hear as he moved between the cold hearths and the piles of gear. Almost all of the men were at the far side of the flat top of the ridge. Only twenty could dig at a time, but the others were laying branches or standing around to watch as they awaited their turn with a shovel. Two Lieutenants were supervising the proceedings. Of the third – and of Captain Nelior – there was no sign.
‘Still, I can’t quite believe it,’ one of the men was saying. He stood with one foot up on the growing mound of earth, gesticulating to his comrades. ‘Even with the ground in their favour, they’re such a poor match with the swords.’
‘They’re better than I expected, or the one who took me was anyhow,’ another remarked. ‘Seems the Champion has been giving special attention to some of his swordsmen.’
‘They came out of nowhere, didn’t they?’ a third said, chuckling. ‘I’ve never seen the like.’
‘I’m thankful for that,’ said the first sourly. ‘If it had been the Enemy instead of a gaggle of our own with blunted swords, we would have been slaughtered to a man.’
‘Here comes one of them now,’ said the second man, spying Thorongil and jutting his chin to point. ‘Here, Guardsman! A word.’
He came. He did not believe that these men had any authority to command him – certainly not the authority of an officer – but it was courteous to obey. Thorongil wished to make good use of these passes through the rival camp, for he was quite certain that espionage was meant to be an aspect of the exercises. It was the most logical reason to restrict the gathering of wood and water to the same few men each day.
‘Good day to you,’ he said with a stilted tuck of the head that he hoped would be taken as an approximation of the customary salute. It was all that he could manage with the yoke across his shoulders and his hands working to steady the pails. ‘I must laud your skills. The morning’s exercise was most invigorating.’
One snorted and another chuckled. The guard who had bid him come said; ‘Invigorating! Well, it certainly was that! Has your Captain been holding back on us? After the start we had, not a man in the Company expected to be bested!’
Thorongil was trying to gauge the mood of the group, but it was senseless. The man who had spoken wore a shrewd, calculating expression; evidently trying the same thing himself. The one with his boot up on the mound of earth seemed discontent, even resentful. The shortest, perhaps accustomed to personal if not Company-wide adversity, was clearly amused. There was no way for Thorongil to tailor his response to all of them at once.
‘We had the high ground,’ he demurred mildly. ‘That is a considerable advantage, as doubtless you will find tomorrow.’
Now all three of them laughed, the first two rather sourly.
‘If you think that was the deciding factor, my crowd-minding friend, you’re either a blind man or a simpleton,’ chuckled the short one, swagger and humour in his voice. ‘We ought to have come clambering over the dike to all on you like a mason’s mallet!’
Thorongil offered up a chagrined smile, but did not hazard any reply.
‘Where did your Captain dig up such a manoeuvre, anyhow?’ challenged the disgruntled one. ‘That was no standard stratagem.’
‘I understand that he took council within the Company, sir,’ said Thorongil carefully. He was eager for this conversation to be at an end. Much though he wished to divine the mindset of the Second Company, this was his fourth trip up from the stream. His burden was beginning to drag on his shoulders and backbone. Pointlessly he wished that they had stopped him while he was walking in the other direction.
‘So it was one of the Lieutenants who came up with it?’ the man pressed.
‘I am but a Guardsman of no rank, and new to the City at that,’ said Thorongil. ‘I am not privy to Captain Minardil’s conferences with the Lieutenants.’
‘No, you wouldn’t be,’ the first man allowed. Then his perspicacious brows lifted as he grinned genuinely. ‘New to the City! From Dol Amroth? You have the look of that kindred about you. Or Ringló Vale, perhaps?’
Thorongil had to restrain a noise of frustration. The sinews of his neck were burning, and if he answered straightforwardly he could not hope to escape more questions. Yet neither could he devise an honest evasion.
His hurried calculations were cut short by a sharp voice. ‘You were instructed to keep no man from his duties! Simply because he is not of your Company does not exempt him. Be off and fetch more wood if you cannot stand idle without distracting others!’
The three sable Guards scattered with hasty salutes and muttered apologies. Thorongil found himself alone at the edge of the earthen parapet, faced with the Captain of the Second Company of the Citadel.
‘Captain,’ he said humbly, repeating his hobbled attempt at a bow. In the first moment he had been grateful for the interruption. Now he felt a crawling trepidation as the Captain’s look of general irritation darkened in recognition.
‘Well, now: the horse-master,’ he said silkily, striding up to look over the lowlier soldier. He was taller than he had appeared when mounted, and the winged helm made him taller still. Bareheaded as he was, Thorongil was overtopped by three finger-breadths. He had the higher sightline, but still the sense of another looming over him brought some unease. He tried to stand a little straighter, although he was already as upright as the weight upon his shoulders allowed.
Captain Nelior drew nearer, his eyes travelling over the yoke and down the buckets and the reddened hands that gripped them. ‘So you are a troublemaker, are you?’ he asked. ‘I might have guessed. That was a cheeky bit of business you pulled this morning, young man.’
His eyes were hard and his voice unreadable. Thorongil chose to take a chance and presume that it was a mask of formality and perhaps distaste rather than a sign of open animosity. It was natural for a man to be cross with one who had bested him so unexpectedly.
‘I meant no disrespect by my actions, sir,’ Thorongil said, earnestly but with no anxiousness. ‘You were the greatest obstacle to my Company’s objective. How many of our men did you dispatch unaided?’
‘Thirteen,’ said Nelior. His lip curled into a shadow of a proud smirk. Then his eyes narrowed. ‘Tell me how you came up so quickly upon my right. You had no time to dash behind, and you did not circle in front. How did you manage it?’
Thorongil restrained a grin, restricting himself to a small smile. ‘By doing what I was so often admonished for daring when I was a boy, Captain,’ he said. ‘I ducked beneath.’
It was not as simple a thing as it might sound. It was one thing to slip under the belly of a calm horse, and quite another when the animal was startled and skittish. The Captain paused a moment, taken aback. Then he jerked his head in a way that said this should have been self-evident.
‘You could have been killed, or kicked in the head,’ he pointed out dryly.
‘So my mother often warned me, sir,’ said Thorongil.
This surprised a sharp guffaw from Nelior. He was about fifty, with brown eyes that spoke of mixed heritage and might mean he was a little younger, and he did not look as if he laughed very often. Certainly he bit back this one as quickly as he could, restoring his face to its stern lines.
‘Insolent,’ he said, but with more irony than scorn. ‘Was it your tongue that earned you this duty?’
Thorongil wished he had not said that. He had almost forgotten the weight, and now it was crushing him again. He should have been back in his own Company’s encampment by now, offloaded and permitted at last to take his rest and some noontide morsel. He closed his mind to the discomforts of the body and focused his intent upon the question instead.
‘I think rather it is my newness to the Tenth Company, sir,’ he said. He could not quite bring himself to say inexperience, for although he was not practiced in the ways of Gondor, he was hardly a green blade. ‘My Second Lieutenant thought it suitable to assign me the task.’
‘The Lieutenants didn’t make the assignments, my boy,’ said Nelior, his words ruefully amused and yet almost with a warning in them. Thorongil was compelled to wonder whether he was trying to sow discontent against Minardil, but he quelled that thought. Such tactics were surely beneath the dignity of a veteran knight and officer.
‘May I have your leave to depart, Captain?’ he asked quietly. Deciding that it would do not harm to show a glimpse of weakness, he added; ‘The buckets are heavy, and I have another rise yet to climb.’
‘Yes, yes: go on,’ the Captain said with a dismissive wave of his hand. It was followed almost at once with a slow, sardonic smile. ‘But tell the great strategist of the Tenth Company that he should expect some surprises tomorrow. It is my men who will have the high ground then.’
The words had the flavour not so much of a threat as of a competitor’s boastful ribbing. Thorongil nodded vigorously.
‘I shall, Captain,’ he said. Then he added, just to be certain of the other man’s perspective on the matter; ‘These are to be fine games, I think.’
‘They will be now,’ said Nelior with an appreciative little jerk of the head. ‘I was beginning to fear it would prove a dull fortnight. But beware, young man. The next time you spook my horse, I may just let him trample you.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Thorongil, holding back his smile just enough that he seemed to be unable to do so. Among the men of the Tenth he could be the voice for moderation and mutual respect, but here someone else had to set the tone. Perhaps with a little gentle prompting, this man might take on that task. ‘Forgive me, Captain, but do your men understand that this is only a game? A way to make our training more engaging?’
‘Of course they do,’ said the Captain, gruff almost to the point of indignation. ‘They understand that neither side is in this to kill. They bear their rivals no ill will – save in the heat of the moment when they are thwarted from victory.’
He was answering not as a commander speaking to a lowly soldier, but as a man speaking to his equal. Thorongil glanced hastily around, moving only his eyes, but no one seemed to be interested in their discourse. That was good, but he had to mend his behaviour. He had brought trouble on himself already by behaving too much like a senior officer: it was that which had stirred Lord Denethor’s suspicions.
‘I wondered, sir,’ he said, almost vacuously; ‘because our Captain, Captain Minardil that is…’
‘Yes, I know the name of your Captain, young man,’ said Nelior, not quite paternally but certainly with the air of a not-quite-patient uncle. ‘What of him?’
‘He has been making a point to call you and your men our opponents or rivals, not our foe,’ Thorongil said. ‘I thought it much more suitable myself, as we are coming up against each other in play, after all.’
‘In play? I fear you may not be taking these exercises seriously,’ said the Captain. ‘We are not here for our enjoyment, Guardsman, but to ready ourselves to defend Gondor.’
‘Yes, I believe that is the point of choosing our words with care,’ said Thorongil. ‘At the end of the fortnight, we will go back to safeguarding the same city against the same Enemy in the East. If each Company grows too entrenched against the other – if we think of one another as enemies – how can we go back to standing united?’
Nelior gave a low, pensive grunt. ‘Back to your camp, soldier,’ he said. ‘Mind you don’t slip on your way down the hill. The grass is churned up already. This time tomorrow it will be a mire.’
‘Yes, Captain. I thank you, Captain,’ said Thorongil. Wise enough to know he could press no farther today, he gave another jerky bow of the head and turned. This was a ponderous motion, slow and deliberate. His hands steadied the buckets so that they did not sway, but the fluid within was reluctant to move with them. The water swirled, and would have overflowed the sides if he had filled too deeply or pivoted too quickly. Heeding Nelior’s advice and his own good sense, he made an unhurried and gawky descent. From the corner of his eye he caught someone pointing him out to a comrade and there was laughter, but it seemed more humorous than cruel. He could bear to be the butt of a joke or two, if it humanized him – and by extension his Company.
The crossing of the long and narrow dell was uneventful, though even at this distance Thorongil half imagined he could feel Denethor’s eyes upon him. The Steward’s Heir had been sitting outside of his tent for most of the day. Now the wind had picked up and he had retreated just inside its mouth, but the door-flap was tied back so that he could continue his observation of the camps. Thorongil wondered what he found so compelling, and he could think of no ready answer.
It was when he began to mount the Tenth Company’s hill that Thorongil truly felt the fatigue in his shoulders and back. Each step required a firm and dreary effort, and by the time he reached the crest of the rise his breath was coming from high in his chest – no quicker, at least, but certainly more strained. Wearily he wended his way to the cisterns and upended his cargo within. More water had been drawn in his absence, and the vat was but half-full. That would mean several more trips come evening, but Thorongil did not wish to think that far ahead.
He was tired and he was hungry. He laid his yoke with the other two, lately abandoned by bearers who had not been waylaid by their competitors. Then Thorongil moved stiffly to the log beside which his pack and blanket lay slouched. He folded the latter into a pad to drape across the log, and sat down with the former between his heels. For the moment he was too glad to be able to rest his legs and curl his spine to think of food. He bowed low over his lap and kneaded the base of his neck with his knuckles.
Thorongil had just begun to ease out of his weary slouch when a pair of good-quality boots appeared before his own. He looked up, knowing already who he would see.
‘Do not rise on my account,’ said Minardil. He bent and grabbed a stool-length from the same fire circle, planting it before Thorongil so that he too might sit. ‘You have done a good day’s work, and the dusk watch is still two hours off.’
Thorongil considered shrugging, but the strong tented muscles that kept his head above his shoulders instead of dangling between them were threatening to cramp. He let out a rattling huff that was meant to be a laugh. ‘Every man in the Company has. They seem the better for it.’
‘Much the better,’ agreed Minardil. ‘As for our Captain-General…’
‘He is displeased?’ Thorongil asked. Plainly the favourite had not triumphed this day, and he feared to think how Denethor would voice his displeasure at that.
‘No!’ Minardil himself looked pleasantly surprised. ‘He applauded my imagination and the obedience of the men, and he granted us the afternoon to use as we wish.’
‘Your imagination?’ Thorongil asked, needing to hear the words for himself. His whispered request made hastily on the new-won field had left his Captain little time to plan his responses.
Minardil smiled and shook his head. ‘I did not tell him of your contribution, though I am sure he will discover who unhorsed my counterpart. Why could I not praise you to the Heir? If he thinks little of you, such prowess at the tactician’s art might serve to impress him.’
His genuine puzzlement was endearing, and most reassuring. Thorongil scrubbed his mouth and chin with one cold palm. He could not wear his gloves to haul water unless he wished to have them soak and shrink. The result was unpleasant but not unexpected.
‘His Lordship is uncomfortable with me and with my tale,’ he said. ‘I do not think he trusts me, coming as I do from a land where it is plain I was not born. I think it would be best for a time if I might elude his notice as much as possible, and certainly in matters of command. I am but the most junior of your soldiers, Captain: it behoves me to behave thus.’
‘The most junior in terms of days served,’ said Minardil; ‘but junior neither in age nor in skills. Perhaps it was a departure from usual practice for you to advise me, but the results prove the merits of the arrangement.’ He looked over his shoulder, gesturing at the camp.
Men were talking contentedly, laughing, striking up games of knucklebones or dice. A few brave souls had gone beyond scrubbing faces and hands, and had their tunics off so that they could lave the pits of their arms. Every man among them sat straighter and held his head higher than he had the previous day. Amid the clamour of voices, Thorongil could hear a few speculating about tomorrow’s attack upon the opposite ridge and how it might best be executed.
‘Sir, I am glad to see them eager,’ said Thorongil. ‘This is my company, and if I can help her to triumph even in play I shall be proud. But if I am to serve quietly, unobtrusively, then it must not be generally known that I suggested the tactic. I will be unable to discharge my duties, to do the work that I am here to do, if Lord Denethor learns of my part in our defence and trusts me still less because of it.’
‘I do not understand,’ Minardil said frankly, his brow furrowed. ‘What cause has he to suspect you, and of what?’
‘There are questions, standard questions, that I cannot answer,’ said Thorongil. ‘There are those I may answer only in part, and others still where my truthful responses seem less plausible than any lie. I come from the North, upon my honour I swear it. Yet to look at me, from whence would you say I had come, if not from Gondor?’
‘There were men of Westernesse in the North of old,’ hedged Minardil. ‘It is not possible that all of their blood could have died out with the falling of their kingdom. You could be a man of the North.’
‘Aye, for I am,’ Thorongil said. He dared not touch the subject of the residual blood of Númenor, and in any case it would do nothing to serve his point. ‘But if you found that too implausible – nay, impossible – to believe, what is left?’
‘Dol Amroth. Lamedon. My own home in Lossarnach—’
‘Yet I have sworn I am not a child of Gondor,’ pressed Thorongil. It was to Minardil’s credit that his mind was too trusting even to see the suspicion, but Thorongil still half-hoped to bring it out of his Captain’s mouth instead of his own. 'I am not a son of the Mark. I am no Dunlending.'
‘I do not know,’ sighed Minardil at last. ‘I have never heard tell of men so tall and both so dark and so pale as you are, save among those who came out of the West. It seems you must have some measure of Númenórean blood within your veins.’
‘If you are sure of that, and if you did not accept my tale, would you not be compelled to wonder whether I had come from another stronghold built long ago when ships first sailed between Elenna and these easterly shores?’ asked Thorongil.
Minardil shook his head. ‘My lessons in history stretched no further back than the Great Plague,’ he said. ‘If you speak of the days when Elendil and his sons set sail, those I know of only in children’s rhymes and a few fireside songs. What stronghold? The great cities of the North have been long laid ruin: that much I do know.’
Thorongil pursed his lips, wondering whether he would do more damage now if he spoke or if he remained silent. Yet the truth was that he trusted his Captain and he owed him frankness whenever it could be given, in trade for circumspection where it could not.
‘Umbar, Captain,’ he said. ‘The ancient havens of the Black Númenóreans, who peopled that southerly shore long before the Lords of Andunië grew estranged from their kin upon the throne. Is it so farfetched that one such as I might have come from the South and not the North? Or indeed, from the East? There are men not so different to look upon from you or I, high in the service of Sauron and in the ranks of his armies. What better spy to send?’
‘A spy with a better tale, I should say,’ Minardil remarked, far less troubled than Thorongil had feared. ‘Why supply you with this story of empty lands and mountain shadows, if all you needed to smooth your path was the name of a village and of a father?’
Thorongil looked at him in some surprise. Plainly more was contained in his dossier than he had expected. Perhaps the Steward corrected and redacted the record after speaking with a newcomer? Perhaps he had only done so in this case, his interest drawn by the letter of character. Yet Minardil had asked his question in earnest and he was waiting for an answer.
‘In sooth? I cannot think why,’ Thorongil said. ‘I cannot imagine a spy commissioned with such a flimsy tale of origin, for that very reason: that the want of a story is more damning in the eyes of the suspicious than the most unlikely of yarns. Still, my reluctance to speak has troubled the Captain-General. Mayhap he is overly wary because of the discovery of treachery last year?’
‘Mayhap,’ said Minardil reluctantly. ‘Yet that man was no Númenórean, black or otherwise. I do not think that Lord Denethor would conflate you with him.’
‘Still,’ said Thorongil. ‘Until I can show my worth to Gondor, I would be wise to keep beneath his notice.’
Minardil regarded him for a long moment. ‘Answer me this, Thorongil,’ he said at last. ‘How are you to show your worth if you will not let your achievements be seen?’
The Citadel was quiet at the hour of the changing of the watch, when the Steward of Gondor moved silently down through the Seventh Gate between saluting Guards. He was alone, with neither companion nor escort nor servant. Over one arm he carried a basket, its contents well-wrapped against the chill of the night. Anoriel had wanted to accompany him, bearing the parcel of succulent eatables herself, but Ecthelion had persuaded her to stay in out of the weather. There were storm-clouds off to the northeast, blotting out the stars over Anduin. The wind would bear them to Minas Tirith eventually, most likely before dawn. Perhaps they would bring snow, perhaps rain or even sleet. It was not likely to prove a clement night.
The lamp above the door of Esgalad’s house was dark, but in upper windows candlelight glowed behind rich draperies. Ecthelion mounted the marble steps and rapped loudly on the door. From within he heard the sleepy scrambling of a servant hurriedly dragging on a coat, likely to hide a state of bedtime dishabille. Ecthelion was proved right when the door opened to reveal one of the footmen, his outer garment fastened neatly with bare legs sticking out beneath. Sparing the man the embarrassment of being teased or scolded by his Steward, Ecthelion pretended he did not see this deficiency of dress. He came in, let himself be relieved of fur-lined cloak, hat and gloves, and then thanked the man and informed him that he could go to his rest: his mistress’s father would see himself out when it was time.
All the lights had been in the northern and westerly windows, for it was the corner of the house where these two walls met that Telpiriel’s chambers were located. It was the best place in the house, with a splendid view down the Avenue of Maidens to the Sixth Wall. Beyond that, the city stretched out like a painting, all slate roofs and walled gardens, and the Pelennor rolled broad and fertile beneath. The rooms also caught the afternoon sun well, and they were out of Mindoluin’s shadow for the greater part of the day. This made them warmer as well as brighter: ideal accommodations for a great lady.
The chiefest of his daughter’s attendants was at the anteroom door when Ecthelion reached the top of the stairs. She was wearing a night robe fastened to the throat with looped silk ribbons and her hair was loose, but she showed her breeding in her posture and every move as she came forward. She simultaneously drew the door closed behind her and began to sink into a deep and elegant curtsey while approaching Ecthelion before he could gain any more ground.
‘My Lord Steward,’ she said, in the low and breathy voice that mothers of a particular pedigree trained their daughters so diligently to use. ‘I fear you have caught the household unawares: you were not expected.’
‘No, child, I was not expected,’ Ecthelion agreed pleasantly. ‘I have come early from my labours to visit my daughter, and to bring her some dainties chosen especially by her mother.’ He nodded to the basket. ‘Let me pass, Thiadel. She will not mind if I catch her with her hair in disarray or her nightclothes rumpled.’
He moved to circumvent the lady, but she stepped deftly and yet innocently to block his path.
‘Sire, let me take her the sweetmeats and come again tomorrow,’ she said with an enticing little smile. Her uncle was the Keeper of the Keys, and she had been Telpiriel’s comrade and playmate almost since each could walk. Yet unwed despite her prospects and her fair, if un-extraordinary appearance, Thiadel was a companion rather than a servant. Since the beginning of this prolonged confinement, she had taken on all the more active duties of running the household.
‘Tomorrow? Is she asleep already?’ Ecthelion was surprised: that had not occurred to him. Telpiriel had always been a flower of the evening, preferring to lie in late and keep watch with the owls, and since being relegated to her bed she complained that she slept less than ever and was seldom even considering slumber before the height of the night watch that had just begun.
Thiadel’s lips parted determinedly, then faltered. She had been about to lie and had lost her resolve to do it. ‘She is indisposed, my Lord,’ she said instead.
‘Then I shall give her mother’s greetings, kiss her to ward off bad dreams, and be gone like the mists,’ Ecthelion promised. He started again for the anteroom door.
Again she wove in to stop him. ‘Please, sire,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow.’
Only then did a hand of ice close upon Ecthelion’s heart. Another clawed at his throat. What was amiss with his daughter? Had the crisis they had all been fearing so silently come by night? Surely if the healers had been summoned someone would have come for him, but would they have found him? He had left the Tower by the side door, but the Guards in the Court of the Fountain had seen him. Surely every effort would have been made to fetch him…
‘Is she…’ The words came out in a strangled croak. His pulse was pounding with more ferocity than it had shown since the old days of frenzied battle and desperate stakes. Yet what stakes could be more desperate than this? The lives of his daughter and his grandchild hung precariously by a rope too fine to hold them. Perhaps it was beginning to fray.
Thiadel read the fear in his eyes, and she shook her head violently. ‘No, sire! Oh, no, she is in no peril! She is… she is merely disinclined to receive visitors at so late an hour.’
It was then that a cry came from beyond the door, muffled enough that it could not have come from the anteroom but must have originated in the grand bedroom beyond. Ecthelion stiffened, but the cry was not one of pain and it was followed by a snarled oath and the sound of something striking the floor with a dull thud. He fixed sharp eyes on the middle-aged maiden before him, and the fire of his ancestry flared within them.
‘She is distressed, my Lord,’ Thiadel blurted out, her artful dignity forgotten. Realizing how the words sounded, she corrected herself. ‘She is angry, my Lord.’
Ecthelion nodded. That much was abundantly clear. He reached with his free hand to guide the lady aside by her elbow. It was soft and plump beneath the sleeve of crimson lambswool, not at all in keeping with her slender body and lean jaw. Thiadel let herself be led: she knew the game was lost.
‘I have seen her angry ere this,’ said Ecthelion. Such was his relief in knowing that his daughter was neither sickening nor melancholic but merely enraged that he smiled playfully. ‘There is nothing she can say to me at this late date that will mar her fortunes.’
Defeated and perhaps rather relieved, Thiadel gathered the skirts of her robe and moved to open the anteroom door. The room beyond, a hive of feminine activity during the day, was cast in deep shadow with only one candle to light the passage between tapestry looms and embroidery apparatuses and drawing tables and the tall boxwood harp. The woman hurried forward to part the inner doors, and Ecthelion swept past her into the far brighter space of his daughter’s bedchamber. Once it had been her sanctum of quiet contentment. In these last weeks it had become her prison, and it seemed that tonight she was flinging herself against the bars.
The bed was in disarray, silk coverlet and soft blankets bunched and knotted and sliding down off all three sides. There were pillows on the floor and one on the reclining couch, but none at all on the mattress. Two maidens in attendance, at least fifteen years younger than Thiadel and their mistress, were fluttering distractedly around the bed like a pair of evicted sparrows. Both were trying to no avail to calm their mistress. A chambermaid in a kirtle of inexpensive but comely golden-yellow was scurrying about the room gathering up linens, towels, articles of jewellery and half a dozen books that had been flung haphazardly about the room. Ecthelion guessed that it was one of these last that had been dropped moments before, accounting for the thump he had heard.
In the middle of the broad bed was the lady of the house herself. Telperiel was on her hands and knees, but the later were planted to either side so that she sat low upon crossed heels. Her growing belly, not yet large enough to prove any impediment to motion, protruded from the gaping front of her sumptuous robe with the pearl adornments. The pleats of the linen nightdress beneath were stretched from their usual symmetry by the unaccustomed bulk. Telpiriel’s hands were clenching fat fistfuls of the uppermost feather tick, and her elbows were locked against the weight of her shoulders thrust upon them. Her head was stretched forward like that of a huntress-cat, and her dark hair was tumbling in every direction about her head.
All this gave her an exotic, untrammelled look, but it also made her appear much more like her three-year-old self than she had in many years. As her head whipped away from the young woman she had been upbraiding, seeking out the intruder on the threshold, Ecthelion found himself smiling fondly. He was taken by a memory of scooping her up onto his shoulders and surprising her right out of a tantrum over some monstrous injustice perpetrated on her by her nurse or her sister or perhaps even the newly crawling babe destined to become High Warden of the Tower.
‘Evening’s felicitations, my dear one,’ he said, taking three steady steps towards the bed.
Telpiriel did not bare her teeth and snarl at him, but she looked like she wished to. ‘What do you want?’ she demanded. ‘Come to gawk at the monstrosity like all the rest of them? Come to toss breadcrumbs to the bear in the cage? Mayhap she’ll dance! Get out of here: go on! All of you!’ she roared, wafting one wild arm at the women.
One of the attendants hopped back a pace, and the little maid cringed and clutched her bundle of debris tighter. The other maiden did not move, and Thiadel closed the doors firmly to shut in both the people and the din.
Ecthelion came nearer, stopping to deposit the basket upon the casement seat. Let the apple tart and sugared plums cool. There were more important matters at hand.
‘What is this?’ he asked patiently. ‘Has someone displeased you?’
‘They all displease me!’ Telpiriel cried, bouncing back upon her heels and flinging up both hands in utter frustration. ‘Fussing and coddling and poking and prodding!’
‘I was only trying to brush her hair, sire,’ the more timid of the two young ladies-in-waiting protested. Realizing her temerity, her eyes grew enormous and her mouth shrivelled to a tiny purse-knot.
‘I am a daughter of the House of Mardil!’ roared Telpiriel, turning on her and shifting her knees ungainfully as if she meant to lunge off the bed and shake the girl. ‘I am able to brush my own hair!’
‘You will ruin your voice if you keep abusing it so, my daughter,’ Ecthelion said calmly. He took another step towards the bed. He was not afraid of her: quick though she was, and tall, she could not truly hurt him. She lacked the heart to hurt anyone, save with her angry words. The two girls and the chambermaid did not look nearly as certain. ‘Why do you not take a few deep breaths and a mouthful of wine, and tell me what is amiss.’
‘Amiss? Amiss? What is amiss?’ Telpiriel’s voice rose almost to a shriek. Then all at once she burst into hot, choleric tears, driving the fingers of one hand into the hair at her temple, and using the other to pound at the largest mound of tangled bedclothes. ‘I am shut up in here like a prisoner, fretted over and cossetted as if I’m made of blown glass – round enough to be made of blown glass, too! – and that silly wench—’ Here she gesticulated vaguely at the frightened maiden before thumping at the blankets again. ‘And then they try to hush me, as if I’ll wake the household! As if I mustn’t wake the household, never mind that they are my folk and I’ll wake them when I please and they’re all fortunate I don’t dismiss them and turn them out to fend for themselves and—'
Ecthelion was at the bedside now, and he caught her hammering hand to clasp in both of his. First she tried to keep her white-knuckled fist. Then she uncurled her fingers to close about his, gripping as fiercely as a man bracing for a field amputation. Telpiriel was sobbing now, feral with fury and frustration. She was still babbling about a hundred tiny slights and annoyances, each of which seemed to have the weight of a catastrophe in her mind. When she found a firmer hold about his thumb, Ecthelion moved his other hand to hold her far shoulder. He sat down upon the disarrayed bed, scarcely aware how his hips canted awkwardly and rather uncomfortably.
‘There, now: tell me everything,’ he coaxed, much as he had once quieted her in the wake of terrible nightmare. Telpiriel went on, spewing out her venom of discontent and disproportionate distress. Beyond her the three young women were inching away as Thiadel beckoned them towards the small side door that opened on the servants’ passage.
They were gone by the time the litany of grievances petered out into heavy panting. Telpiriel’s head was hanging low, her hair obscuring her face. She heaved a shuddering breath, and her grip upon Ecthelion’s hand grew painful.
‘I want to go outdoors,’ she whispered hoarsely, no longer angry but heartbreakingly desperate. ‘I want to walk in the winter sunshine and feel the wind on my face. I want to stand up on the ramparts and look out towards the river. I want… I want… I want Es—Es—Es—’
Ecthelion knew what she was trying to say, and it broke his heart to know he could not grant it. He was her father. He was the Steward of the realm, the most powerful man in Gondor – perhaps among Men. He ought to be able to give his child anything she pleased. But this he could not. Even if the risks of recalling a high-ranking commander in the midst of winter’s stalemate were not so enormous, Esgalad’s expertise could not be spared. The turn of the seasons had slowed the fighting, but the position of Cairon’s army was precarious at best. The dispatches that had arrived the day before held little good news, and all that there was to be thankful for was that the casualty list included with them had not run onto a second page.
‘My brave girl,’ Ecthelion whispered. He held her shoulder tighter, not quite daring to slide right next to her so that he could take her in his arms like the child she would always be in his heart. ‘My brave and beautiful girl.’
Telpiriel tried to swallow a choking noise far too much like a sob, and all of a sudden it was she who was scooting towards him. She curled into his one-armed embrace, pressing her cheek to his shoulder and still clutching his other hand tight. The defiant dignity of her womanhood was laid aside like a labourer’s leather apron at the end of a backbreaking day, and she let him hold her. Ecthelion murmured soft and senseless reassurances to her, petting the crown of her tangled head with his cheek as he whispered.
The tension of blind rage had ebbed from her body, but the desperation in her hold remained far longer. Ecthelion could not say how long they sat thus, while Thiadel moved silently to put the room to rights. Eventually Telpiriel was coaxed to the couch, still clinging to her father. Without summoning a servant, the patient lady in attendance smoothed the mattress and tucked the bedclothes and plumped the pillows.
By the time she was finished her mistress was quite calm again, but with a slump to her shoulders and a hollow, deadened look in her eyes. She had released her grip upon her father, and now crossed arms hugged her growing belly as if she feared it would slip away. Ecthelion still held her, knowing naught else to do. He wished Anoriel had come after all, as she had wished. Thiadel went to the dressing table and fetched the brush she had so lately retrieved from the corner. She approached resolutely and thrust it into Telpiriel’s line of sight.
‘You are a daughter of the House of Mardil,’ she said, quietly but firmly. ‘You can brush your own hair.’
Ecthelion half expected an apoplectic retort or a fresh flood of tears. Instead Telpiriel reached with a shaking hand to take the brush. Inching only far enough from her father to give her arms room to move, she set to work with the tool. Ecthelion remained where he was, within easy reach if she needed him. It was all that he could do for her, much though he wished that were otherwise. In all the days of his reign, he had never felt so helpless.
The Second Company succeeded in holding their hill and their hurriedly erected embrasure, but by the narrowest of margins. Had it not been for the night’s freezing rain, which left the slope one broad chute of muddy ice, the Tenth Company might well have prevailed. Certainly every man threw himself wholeheartedly into the scenario, and their cooperation even under strain was heart-warming to see. But the terrain was against them, and the Second Company indignant at their prior defeat. Minardil and his two remaining Guardsmen surrendered rather than let the mock carnage proceed any further. There were less than a dozen men of the Second Company left to accept the truce, however, and that was no small achievement. Thorongil himself had yet to be felled in any exercise.
It was another glad night in the camp of the Tenth, with singing and storytelling around almost every fire. Some of the young men eschewed these amusements that they might get up another game of dice, though such pursuits were forbidden the soldiers outside the daylight hours. If Minardil noticed, he said nothing. He was entirely too proud of his troops despite the defeat. It was obvious, to him and to them, that taking a high place was as much luck as skill. They would try again tomorrow.
They truly would try again tomorrow, for they were set to take the same ridge again. Thorongil was not so naïve as to expect Lord Denethor to repeat the same unembellished scenario a third time, but whatever he intended had not been divulged to the advancing side. Minardil had received orders identical to the last set: take the hill and seize or slay the men of the Second Company. Thorongil did not need the gossip of the Ninth Company to know that something unexpected was in store for them, or that the Second Company’s orders were not identical. The dynamics of the manoeuvres demanded it.
He did not know quite what to look for, for it was quite possible that Denethor had changed the scenarios to thwart precisely the sort of advance reconnaissance that Thorongil had performed. Yet if he had not, and the Tenth would be facing slings and softwood marbles in the morning, he thought he knew how best to prepare.
So it was that late into the night, while the camp was quiet and Midhon slumbered at his back, Thorongil lay on his side propped up on one elbow, sketching with a twig in the ashes surrounding the glowing remains of the campfire. Now and then he raised his head as if to scent the wind or to take stock of his surroundings. Then he bowed his increasingly sore neck again and resumed his notations.
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