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Chapter XIV: Needful Work
On the seventh full day in the field, the men were given leave to rest. By that time the wins and losses of each Company tallied thus: the Guards of the Citadel had been triumphant four times, and the men of the Second Circle five. Once they had fought to a draw, with a small group from the Tenth Company pinned down in the trees by an equally small force from the Second. They had maintained a grim balance until sundown, when Lord Denethor had pronounced a stalemate and sent the men brusquely to their supper. Lieutenant Dúlin of the Tenth had been the most senior man in the small knot of defenders. Unlike his Captain, he had not needed to be asked to keep private the contributions of a certain lowly soldier to the maintaining of a position they ought to have lost very swiftly. He was more than happy to accept his Captain-General’s praise and to hold his tongue.
Thorongil was quite content with that arrangement. He had had a hand in each of the Tenth Company’s triumphs, and had mitigated the swiftness and completeness of all but their first two head-on defeats. He had Minardil’s ear and his increasing respect. What concerned him was the younger man’s mounting discomfort with keeping his influence a private matter within the Company. Much though he would have liked a course less risky, Thorongil could not sit back and allow his side to flounder. It was a game, yes, but it was a game with a serious aim and if the Tenth Company did not perform well enough they would be too dejected to learn. If they did not learn, the entire expedition was a waste.
As it was, the men were eager. Outside of the slated exercises they spent their time sparring and holding miniature battles in groups of ten or twelve. They were all growing accomplished at navigating the slopes in the heat of battle, and both Thorongil and Minardil were accosted with countless requests to evaluate form and technique. The Champion of the Guard was only too happy to instruct, and Thorongil tried his best not to. A little good-natured advice was more appropriate from a peer, and beyond the scope of the Tenth Company that was all he wished to seem.
The only person in camp who did not begin each day with vigour and end it in satisfied exhaustion was the young healer, Midhon. There was little for him to do. He bandaged a few contusions and examined numerous bruises, but there was not so much as a wrenched ankle for him to tend. He sat on the ridge, watching the combat, but it was obvious he knew little of the arts plied therein. He confessed one evening to Thorongil that each mock campaign looked identical to him.
Of the hardships of the camp, Midhon was uncomplaining. This made him stand out, for even the most jovial and energized of men were beginning to tire of pickled pork and increasingly tough bannock. The nights were cold, but not unbearable. Worse were the wet, transient snowfalls that left them to waken to drenched blankets and soggy clothing. Many of the men had chapped hands and faces, and some complained of feet never quite allowed to get warm. Thorongil insisted each such grumbling be met by an examination of toes and soles by Midhon, but in every case the feet were found to be dry and free from signs of rot. They were merely cold.
With a day of rest promised, the occupants of most of the fire-circles bestirred themselves long enough to refresh their bodies after the night and to refuel their hearths. Then they got back in under blankets that were mercifully no more than passing damp this morning. Soldiers never had the luxury of sleeping to their hearts’ content, and the first order of business when given any significant time to themselves was to enjoy a leisured nap.
Thorongil had other interests. He rose at the customary predawn hour to haul the water. He was the only one who did so: his two fellow labourers did not at first realize that he was abroad and looked to take their leisurely time about mustering to the chore. After Thorongil’s fourth trip Mallor caught on, and hurried to work with many an unnecessary apology. When the cisterns were full, Thorongil took a simple breakfast of waybread soaked to palatability in a mug of hot water. Then he was off on his own private excursion.
At least, privacy had been the intent. He was striding away from camp at a swift but comfortable pace, long legs falling into the rhythm they had so readily rediscovered after his departure from Edoras. All at once someone came trotting up beside him, puffing out clouds of breath in the chill morning air. It was Midhon.
‘May I come with you?’ he asked, panting a little as he fell into step. He must have come flying down the hill at a great pace, for his pale cheeks were flushed and his breath was high and tight in his breast. ‘I just… there’s not much… with the men in camp all day…’
He did not need to say more. Thorongil had seen how Midhon was so often the butt of some joke or arch remark. These were not cruel, but neither did they permit the healer to feel much solidarity with the men around him. Such needling was expected and impossible to prevent; Thorongil’s choice of Midhon as a bedmate had done much to allay any more active heckling. Yet it was tiresome and Thorongil could well see why the young man would not relish a whole day of it.
‘You are welcome,’ he said; ‘though I do not think it will be a journey worthy of song. I wished only to visit the little village and perhaps meet some of the herdsmen. I have seen little of Gondor beyond the white walls of Minas Tirith.’
‘I have seen little enough myself,’ Midhon confessed. At least, the shifting of his eyes made it look like a confession. ‘I was born in the White City.’
Thorongil sensed that the healer wished to say more, but he did not seem able. He let them walk on in silence for a few breaths to be certain, then said; ‘It is my understanding that there are charcoal-burners at work in this vicinity as well as shepherds. Do you know anything of the craft?’
‘I’m new enough to my own craft,’ Midhon deprecated. Then he flushed, recognizing that he had just professed something he would have rather left unsaid.
‘The arts physic are no small study,’ said Thorongil. ‘It is enough to be capable and willing to go on learning. You need not be able to boast of comprehensive knowledge. How long have you been practicing?’
‘A little over a year,’ Midhon admitted. His flushed deepened. ‘But I studied far longer. I began my work in the Houses of Healing when I was but fifteen.’
‘I did not realize the healers of the White City took apprentices so young,’ said Thorongil. His own education in matters of the body had begun at the age of eleven, but that was decidedly atypical. His had been a very special case, his aptitude presumed and his interest enormous.
For a moment Midhon was silent. It was clear that he wished to speak. There was in his tone and his countenance an unmistakable desperate hope that he might be able to make something of himself known to this patient ear. Yet in the end his courage failed him.
‘How do you win the men’s affection?’ he asked instead. ‘It is plain that they respect you for your skills, both with a blade and in matters of stratagem. Yet it is more than that: they like you. You have been in the Tenth Company… how long now?’
‘Four weeks,’ said Thorongil.
Midhon nodded as if to say his own estimate had been confirmed. ‘Already they are friendly with you. How do you manage it? The provost’s men…’
He stopped, but Thorongil knew what he was about to say. The provost’s men had made no attempt to befriend the healer who served beside them. He was unsurprised, but saddened. It was much as he had feared.
‘Some men, some groups of men, are more welcoming than others,’ he said reflectively. ‘Yet what is most important is to make the overtures of friendship of your own accord, rather than waiting to be invited. Had you waited today to be asked to join me, you would have waited in vain: it did not occur to me that anyone might be interested in a long trek for the sole purpose of beholding the commonplace lives of simple folk. Yet you dared to follow, and to ask to walk along. Has it served you well?’
‘I think so,’ said Midhon. ‘That is, yes: this is what I wanted and now I have it. But… but it was you who made the first overture. You welcomed me on the first night, when no one else seemed to see me. Had you not, I never should have dared this.’
Thorongil nodded. He understood. He had struggled with similar doubts during his early weeks in Rohan, when his want of the language had left him crippled and unsure of himself. In that time a few good-natured jokes had bloated in his mind into unending mockery, and the smiling men around him had seemed hostile instead of kindly. It was easy, beginning from the position of an outsider, to see only the disadvantageous and the hurtful.
‘Yet I am pleased that you did,’ he said. ‘My tour of idle interest may bore you, but I am glad of your company and of the chance to learn more of you. In sooth, Midhon, I could see from the very first that you were not closely bound to the men of the provost.’
‘You could?’ asked Midhon.
‘It was clear that you disapproved of their conduct, and equally clear that you felt unable to say so,’ Thorongil explained. ‘A man among friends does not fear to criticise their errors.’
Midhon laughed, a surprised and shivering sound that was at once very old and very boyish. ‘I have seen that plainly enough. You are ever criticising the errors of your fellows.’
‘More importantly, I am aiding them in improving upon them,’ said Thorongil. ‘Thus they are glad for it. Perhaps the Provost Captain would have been glad to have his error pointed out and corrections suggested.’
Midhon snorted, and Thorongil smiled ruefully. No, that was not a very plausible scenario: far less plausible than that the first melees between Second and Tenth had been accurate facsimiles of battle. The Provost Captain had struck him as a man who took even the advice of senior commanders grudgingly and with ill-concealed resentment.
‘Not everyone can be won over by advice, however well-meant and respectfully rendered,’ he said. ‘Sometimes you must duck your head and trod along as amicably as you may, whatever your true feelings. Yet that is no foundation for friendship. Seek out those who value what you have to say, and who take your honesty at its true worth.’
‘I see,’ said Midhon. Yet plainly he was not satisfied with the answer. That was all right. Advice was not always followed; it was enough that it was not scorned. Together they walked on.
Ecthelion hesitated, quill in hand, as he looked over the letter once more. It had been long in the drafting, and he had abandoned the previous version in the depths of the middle night. Returning to it after a short but deep and blessedly peaceful sleep at Anoriel’s side, he had found much of it serviceable and some passages in need of thorough redaction. Now at last he had a clean copy that he believed struck the right tone. It had to be a letter of easy inquiry, not pressing need. Most of all, there could be no hint of urgency or catastrophe, for that would surely colour the response. All this he believed he had achieved, and yet he hesitated.
Ordinarily he would not have considered forging such a missive without consulting Denethor. In most cases, in fact, it was to Denethor that he would have delegated the task of preparing it. He was the Captain-General, after all, and Lord Cairon was his direct subordinate. The proper chain of command ran from Steward to Heir to Captain, and so down to the more junior commanders throughout the land. Ecthelion was overstepping his son in this, and although it was his right as liege-lord and ruler to do so, he was not wholly comfortable with the matter.
In this, at least, he took some comfort: he, and not Denethor, was the one best suited to writing the probative letter. Denethor would have imbued the whole matter with a sense of greatest import, or else dismissed it altogether. Which, Ecthelion could not say. It was difficult to tell which way Denethor would shift in a tangible debate, much less a hypothetical one. And Denethor would not return to the City for seven days, by which time the letters could already be in the hands of their recipients in Ithilien.
The first letter, the one to Esgalad himself, had been far easier to write. Anoriel had produced her own, filled with motherly talk of the preparations being made for the baby and Telpiriel’s fond remembrance of her husband in every conversation. Ecthelion’s own had been somewhat more restrained. He passed on the healer’s assurances that the expectant mother was benefiting from her prolonged rest. That report had been a great relief: they had all feared, Telpiriel most of all, that the exertions of her outburst of some days past might have imperilled the babe. Of that incident Ecthelion wrote nothing, nor did he frame his daughter’s yearning for her husband as anything more than the gentle desire that she had felt in less difficult days. She wanted him, aye, but not at the expense of Gondor’s welfare.
Ecthelion prayed that he had not crossed the line from modulation to outright deceit. For all Telpiriel’s bitter tears, she had not begged for Esgalad to be summoned home. She knew that he was needed, and that the needs of the army must supersede her own if the border was to be held. She was a true daughter of Gondor, that was certain: valiantly enduring what she must for the sake of her home and her people. Ecthelion could not have been more proud of her had she been leading the vanguard against the Enemy herself.
This second letter, the more difficult of the two to write, was addressed to Cairon. It contained the usual praises and reassurances, and the pledge that the fresh troops he needed so desperately would be provided as quickly as they could be mustered. Ecthelion asked after the army’s supply requirements, for there had been no mention of that in the dispatches. And he asked, as idly as he could, whether perhaps Esgalad son of Esgalion might be spared a short while for a visit to the City. It was no urgent matter, as Cairon would surely understand: merely that if such an extraction posed neither a danger to the Lord in question nor a hardship to the army, it might be a welcome furlough for a man who had been serving tirelessly since autumn’s fading.
Ecthelion believed that he had struck the proper chord, including the most salient question in amongst those that seemed on the face far more important. He did not think he had let anything of his own fears or of Telpiriel’s heart-breaking desperation spill over onto the page – not in this final copy, anyhow. Even the penmanship was indolent, easy, perhaps even bored with the workaday dullness of such routine and necessary but uninspiring business. Only the lines of praise stood out bold and eager on the page. Cairon and his staff, and all the scores of men beneath them, needed every affirmation of pride and support that those at home could offer.
Decided at last, Ecthelion dipped the pen and brushed its nib lightly on the rim of the inkwell. With a steady hand and each accustomed flourish, he signed his name. A dusting of sand set the dark figures, and he lifted the letter to read it through once more.
It was Anaiwen, of course. She was leaning on the doorjamb, almost wrapped around it as she peered into the antechamber. She blossomed with morning’s freshness, her clear skin scrubbed and her long hair brushed smoothly into its plaits. She had a silk cap upon her head, and she wore her half-length overgown with guards of the same brocade. She looked at once as young as snowdrop buds and far older than her slender years. Her face was solemn and her eyes were stormy.
‘Come in, my dear one,’ Ecthelion said, beckoning to her. Anaiwen came hurrying across the floor on almost soundless feet, lithe as an Elf-maiden of old. She slipped her hand into his and he gripped it snugly.
‘Naneth has gone to see Telpiriel,’ she said softly. ‘She says if she is no better today the healers will have to prepare a tincture to revive her.’
There were no tinctures for this ailment, Ecthelion knew. From her wild rage, Telpiriel had sunken into the very melancholy he had feared. She lay long hours of the day in silence, and her ladies could coax her neither to speak nor to eat. Anoriel had better luck with the latter and Ecthelion with the former, but neither was at liberty to pass all the day with her. The Steward’s duties were many, and he had taken on such of Denethor’s tasks as could not be allotted to Councillors or servants. Had it not been for Valacar, the Heir’s faithful secretary, this burden would surely have been doubled.
Anoriel herself was occupied not only with the running of her own household, which might easily have been neglected for a time in Telpiriel’s favour. The Steward’s wife was also responsible for the welfare of the indigent and unfortunates of the city. It was she who oversaw the process of emergency food allotments from the state granaries, and the relief of those without the means to clothe their children or bring them care in illness. Such supports were imperfect already, with the old ways of managing such things forgotten and so much of the City’s resources diverted to the defence of the border. Without the Lady’s tireless oversight, what aid there was would soon collapse. It was winter. Without these few inadequate supports, the poor would begin to die.
Nor was this the full extent of Anoriel’s labours. She saw to the fiscal operations and supplying of the Houses of Healing, allotted monies to the men who organized the sanitation and furnishing of public buildings, and gave three hours each week to the Great Archive. As the mistress of the Steward’s household, she was also responsibility for the wellbeing and moral education of the young sons and daughters of Gondor’s elite who had been placed at court to be educated. Though she spared her middle daughter every moment that she could, it was nowhere near what Telpiriel needed in this tormented time.
‘We must continue to trust that all will be well with your sister,’ said Ecthelion gently, looking at his youngest and reading the worry in her sombre eyes. ‘Try not to fret overmuch. In a few months it will all be behind us, and you shall have a little nephew or niece to dote upon.’
Anaiwen nodded, but the gesture had an unsettlingly deliberate quality to it. She was too intelligent to have failed to grasp the fears for the child, whose every sibling had perished unborn. Not until that moment had Ecthelion been certain that she knew of the peril to her sister also. All that they had so carefully left unsaid was reflected now in Anaiwen’s stance and her fixed expression.
‘She longs for Esgalad,’ she said presently. ‘Her maidens have told me. She is lonely and she is trapped in her bed with nothing to distract her. She must be afraid also, Ada. Has anyone considered that?’
Ecthelion sighed. Yes, he had considered that. Of course Telpiriel was afraid: for her husband, dwelling in debatable camps across Anduin; for her baby, so precariously rooted within her; and last of all for herself. Fear was natural, but it was the enforced inactivity that permitted the fears to spawn and multiply. She had little else to do but brood upon pains and losses that might come.
She was not even able to enjoy the fine sewing of dainty and exquisitely broidered baby clothes, as most expectant mothers did, for with each stitch she could not help but think that her child might never live to wear the garment. There was a chest filled with gauzy smocks, soft little shirts, gowns of every cloth, bearing blankets couched in gold, breechclouts by the dozen, and caps so tiny that they scarcely seemed real: the fruits of earlier pregnancies. Her mother was at work on raiment of the finest wools and cambrics and fair southern silks. Her ladies hemmed endless squares of diapered flannel. No doubt Anaiwen would try her hand at a frock or two when her sewing for the Hallows was complete. But Telpiriel had not touched her sewing box since her condition had been confirmed.
‘I cannot ease her fears, my loyal heart,’ Ecthelion said sadly. ‘Would that I could, or that I might at least allay yours. You are too young to bear such worries.’
‘I am too young to take on any of Naneth’s toils, either,’ said Anaiwen matter-of-factly. ‘I offered, and I was told on no certain terms that I would not be permitted to oversee next week’s allotment of grain.’
A fond little smile touched Ecthelion’s lips at the faint indignation in her voice. ‘That cannot have been a surprise to you, can it?’
‘It was not,’ Anaiwen admitted with a long-suffering sigh. ‘Naneth is determined that I shall bask in the irresponsibility of girlhood a little longer before turning my soft little hands to any such genteel labour. Telpiriel cannot be about her business, and it seems I cannot either. That is why I would like to propose that we do it together.’
‘Oversee the allotment of grain?’ Ecthelion asked, mystified. There was no rational way in which this could be considered a solution to any problem. Telpiriel was in no condition to spend three long days in the almery, smiling benevolently and keeping the record while the men doled out measures of meal to the destitute. Nor was it any fit place for a child Anaiwen’s age.
His daughter was grinning now, shaking her head in loving exasperation. ‘No, Ada! That’s clearly unsuitable,’ she said. ‘I meant that if we two cannot be about any business, at least we should be idle together.’
Ecthelion understood now, and he smiled gently. ‘I do not doubt she would be glad of more frequent visits,’ he said.
‘Visits, fie!’ said Anaiwen, gesturing dismissively with one pretty hand. ‘I mean that I should stay with her. I could read to her, and keep her occupied. She wouldn’t mind my coddling as she does her maidens’, for such things have always been a game betwixt the two of us. I could stay with her at night, also: I’ll be a much better bedmate than dear, bony Thiadel. I can make Telpiriel teach me the dulcimer.’
Ecthelion considered. As a babe, Anaiwen had been the pet of both her elder sisters: a darling little doll to be dressed and cossetted and endlessly entertained. As she grew older, she had been the one responsible for the endless entertainment, never failing to make some piercingly candid remark that brought laughter and applause. Telpiriel adored her, and was always bright and cheerful in her presence. Perhaps it would help her to have Anaiwen as a constant presence in her home. It would certainly allow Anaiwen to feel less helpless in the painful situation. He had to wonder, though, whether the outcome would be as Anaiwen expected, or whether he would soon have two unhappy daughters instead of one.
In the end, he did not have the heart to say this. The hopeful face before him was so earnest in its desire to do something to help.
‘Consult with your mother, my dear one,’ said Ecthelion at last. ‘If she feels it is suitable, you have my leave to go.’
Anaiwen laughed joyfully and kissed his cheek.
The visit to the village proved illuminating. Thorongil found the folk who dwelt there pleasant and welcoming, idly curious about the soldiers and happy enough to talk. He spared himself any lengthy explanations of his interest in their way of life: these were unnecessary. They seemed to think it perfectly natural that a man from the City would know little of their ways, and equally natural that he should be interested.
He was pleased by the reverent way in which the shepherds and labourers spoke of the Steward. Ecthelion was well regarded here, fifteen miles from the gates of Minas Tirith. The general portrait of him in the eyes of these humble subjects was that of a lordly and beneficent figure: not quite a king, but something more than a father. It was a perception that spoke well of the stability and security that Ecthelion provided for his people. Certainly Thorongil, as a member of the City Guard, was welcomed with willing courtesy, and with him Midhon. They were offered a mug of ale at one cottage, where they sat for an hour or more listening to the master of the house as he explained his part in the wool trade. If Midhon wondered at Thorongil’s keen interest, he said nothing.
Afterward, a young man about of an age with the healer took them down to the woods of which the stand near the soldiers’ camp was but a tendril. Here, beneath the trees, the complex task of charcoal-making was carried out by lean, weathered men and their wiry sons. This fascinated Thorongil. He was not wholly ignorant of the process, but never had he seen it plied upon any significant scale.
In Rohan there was a lively trade in firewood: the cutting, the curing, the buying or trading. In the North, where there were few communities of any great size and an abundance of forests, it was gathered most often by individual households according to their own need. In both traditions, charcoal was reserved for forges and tempering fires requiring a great and steady heat – and that, in the North at least, only when true coal was inaccessible for reasons of cost or isolation. Here, the stands of woodland had to supply not only the farmholdings and watchposts, but the thousands of hearths and braziers and manufactory fires in Minas Tirith. It would have been a prodigal waste of effort hauling wood in and bulky ashes away. Some more efficient fuel was required, and charcoal answered that need.
The great mounds smouldered, filling the air with a dark smoky smell. The smoke itself was sparse, venting in each case from a small gap in the well-packed earthen crust. These kilns, reconstructed afresh for each batch, were set right in the forest, in clearings made by felling their contents. By some good fortune, the charcoal-burners were in the midst of constructing a new mound and Thorongil was able to see the way in which the thick logs were stacked and interlaced. This method trapped the fearsome heat of the fire that would leave the wood black and desiccated, compacted and ready to burn. It was a wondrous thing, that half-burned wood should burn more hotly than the unburned.
When the men had finished constructing the broad and intricate pile it would be taller than a man. They would cover it with earth then, and ignite the pillar of kindling and tinder built in the centre of the pile. Like the others, it would smoulder carefully for days, its fearsome heat trapped by the earth.
‘Got to mind it day and night,’ said one charcoal-burner, gratified by the interest of what he referred to as such gentlemen. ‘If it gets too hot, it’ll flame up and burn all the wood clean away. If it snuffs out…’ He shrugged as if to say that the consequence there was self-explanatory.
The men were welcoming, and invited the two city-dwellers to join them in their simple meal. This they gladly did, for their camp breakfast was far behind them now. As they ate, the charcoal-burners expressed their surprise and pleasure that there was any interest in their work.
‘Dirty and dangerous: most folk keep well away,’ said a middle-aged man with a broad swath of scar tissue down the left side of his face. It was the mark of a serious burn that had not been tended as it should have been, and Thorongil’s healer’s eyes were pained to look upon it. Doubtless Midhon felt the same. Had either of them been present at the time, there was much that could have been done to reduce the deformity and to ease what must have been an anguished healing process.
A boy, scarcely more than twenty, snorted his agreement. ‘No use for our kind,’ he said; ‘but they’re happy enough to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Begging your pardon, my Lord,’ he amended, nodding to Thorongil. ‘It’s plain you’re not of that sort, and we’re glad to have you come to see what we’re about.’
Thorongil smiled and shook his head. ‘I am no man’s lord here or anywhere else in Gondor. I am but a man doing what he can to earn his honest bread, even as you are. I am grateful for your toils, and if other folk paused to think of it they would be also.’
Midhon was largely silent throughout, and only when they were at last on the campward road and a good three-quarters of a mile from the last of the mounds did he ask his question. Clearly it had been pricking at him for hours.
‘What is the cause of your fascination?’ he asked, gesturing backwards. His voice was not scornful, but only baffled. ‘Such lowly employment, and such rough folk: why did you think that worth a journey on your day of rest?’
‘It is needful work,’ said Thorongil placidly, striding steadily on. ‘I believe it important to understand the making of those things so integral to daily life. If we do not understand how such necessities come to be, we are not only ungrateful to those who provide them but we are foolish. Besides,’ he added with a small smile; ‘I came to Gondor hoping to learn more of her people and their ways. Those men are her people, as much as the noble knights who guard the Citadel or the fine ladies of the Sixth Circle. I must understand them.’
For a while they walked on in silence, Midhon considering this. Twice he stirred as if to speak, but lost his nerve. The third time, he managed to form the words.
‘I said I began my work in the Houses of Healing at fifteen,’ he said quietly; ‘but I did not say what manner of work it was.’
The embarrassment in his voice told Thorongil all that he needed to know, but he listened nonetheless. It was plain that the young healer needed to unburden himself, and Thorongil was glad to let him do it.
‘I was a servant,’ Midhon said. ‘Nay, that is too lofty a term. I was a drudge. I scrubbed the floors, mopped up the sickness, saw to the patients’ bed pots and the disposition of soiled linens and bandages. Any task too menial or too unpleasant for the healers’ attendants fell to me. I slept beneath a table in the scullery, lest I should be needed in the night. I often was.’
He was flushed now not only with brisk walking on a cold day, but with shame. Nonetheless he pressed on.
‘From the time I was small I wanted to be a healer,’ he murmured. ‘But they don’t choose their apprentices from my sort in the Houses of Healing, and I had not the means to buy a private placement elsewhere in the City. I thought that if I worked long enough, diligently enough, I would be noticed and allowed to study. No one noticed me.’
‘That should not have been,’ Thorongil said soberly. He had suspected that Midhon had risen from lowly means to his present scholarly shabbiness, rather than fallen in his fortunes. It seemed he was correct. ‘That too is needful work, as important to a convalescent as the ministrations of the most skilled of healers.’
Midhon did not quite flinch, but his face tightened miserably. ‘In the end I went to one of the healers who was not disdainful of me, unseen though I still was to him. I asked if I might strike some bargain so that I might study among the apprentices. He spoke to the Master of the House on my behalf.’ Painfully he swallowed. ‘Had he not taken my part, I would be there yet: scouring out the filth and hauling ashes. Had he not… had he not taken an interest.’
Thorongil stopped moving and turned in towards the younger man, his expression gentle and knowing. ‘As we took in the charcoal-burners,’ he said.
Midhon nodded almost urgently. ‘What I mean to say is that you are right. We should all take better notice of those who do what must be done that others may live in comfort. I should have seen it myself, and never questioned you.’
‘It is never wrong to question, I promise you that,’ said Thorongil. ‘Yet you should not be ashamed of your humble start. You took the path that was open to you, and though it cannot have been the easiest or the quickest you reached your destination. Did you not?’
‘Yes. That is, almost. In a way.’ Midhon started walking again, as if too uneasy to remain still. Thorongil fell into step beside him, letting him set the pace. ‘I do not wish always to be the provost healer, checking the men for parasites and tending to brawlers. Yet I do not see how I can rise any farther, however hard I work.’
‘Opportunities always present themselves, though most often in unexpected ways,’ Thorongil said. It was in the forefront of his mind to tell of the curious chance that had raised him up to his first post of responsibility in Rohan, but he did not. What he had not even told his Captain was not fit to be disseminated now. ‘You have seen that in your own life, have you not?’
‘Yes,’ sighed Midhon. ‘Yet at times it is hard to find the patience to wait.’
Thorongil’s lips twitched and he restrained a shrewd laugh. ‘That I know full well!’ he said.
‘Even if I do escape my present post, I can only rise so far. I will never be a respected healer; never be welcomed to ply my art in the Houses of Healing, for all that I was educated there.’ Midhon snorted ruefully. ‘Can you imagine one such as I tending to the great captains of war when they are wounded? Or attending the Steward’s daughter in her confinement? It is absurd.’
Again Thorongil stopped, this time startled. ‘The Steward’s daughter?’ he said. ‘Wherefore is she confined? I had not thought the Lord Ecthelion a man to permit such a thing.’
Once, long ago upon a night of wonder unrivalled, he had spoken in jest of noble lords keeping their daughters locked up like jewels in their hoards, but he had never supposed such things might truly be done. The prospect was horrifying. Even the mad should not be imprisoned when there were means to care for them, and if any had the means it was the Steward of Gondor.
Midhon had been momentarily puzzled, but now his eyes widened in realization. ‘No, not confined,’ he said hurriedly. ‘In her confinement. Ensconced in her home until such a time as she can be delivered of her child. All gentlewomen observe the practice in the last weeks before the glad event is expected. The Lady Telpiriel has been put early to her rest, for there is some fear for the babe.’
It was a euphemism, Thorongil realized. He felt a flush of mortification at his ignorance. He had heard tell of the practice of isolating expectant mothers, but the use of this term was unfamiliar to him. In truth, the practice itself was unfamiliar. It was not the custom among the Dúnedain of the North: women went abroad throughout their pregnancies, and often saw to the work of maintaining house and holding until the very moment of the birth-pains. In Rohan, even Queen Morwen had not concealed herself. She had walked proudly, big-bellied with another child to grace the King’s family. It was nonsensical to keep women apart when most they had need of friendship and diversion.
‘Forgive me,’ Thorongil said. ‘I did not understand. Such things were not done in my home.’
Midhon nodded sympathetically. ‘It is a luxury the poor cannot indulge in,’ he said. ‘A peasant woman must keep to her labours; a woodsman’s wife to the tending of her cot. The Lady Telpiriel is fortunate to be under no such restraints, for it is said she will lose the child else. She has not been blessed by good fortune in childbed.’
Thorongil wished to ask for more detail, driven by a healer’s curiosity and desire to help. He held his tongue. It would not be suitable. Midhon did not know of his skill in the arts physic, and undue interest in such matters from an unwed man would surely seem strange. Yet he could not but wonder about the particulars of the case, and about the fear such a situation must surely be rousing in the Steward and all his family.
Perhaps that was a part of the Lord Denethor’s unpleasantness, he reflected as they rose out of a dip of the land to see the encampment spread before them. If he was preoccupied with concern for his sister – and it seemed scarcely possible that any man in his position would not be – small wonder he had no patience for reticent tongues and stubborn footsoldiers.
These thoughts were foremost in his mind as Thorongil came back among the men of the Tenth Company. Evening was nigh, and the fires were glowing with cooking embers. He returned the greetings offered him as he went to take up the yoke and buckets, that he might be about his own needful work.
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