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Note: I’m a little behind on the review and PM replies, but I promise answers are coming! With the hectic time of year, I’ve only just managed to polish up the chapter, so I thought I would post first and correspond later. Thank you all for your amazing feedback and support!
Chapter XV: War Games
The men of the Tenth Company were gathered on the hillside, awaiting their orders. Some were sitting in the dead, frostbitten grass, where another dusting of snow had been stamped away by many restless boots. Others stood, hoods over leathern helms and cloaked backs to the wind blowing from Anduin. All were silent, watching with interest as their officers conferred quietly around the morning’s dispensation of weapons. There were twenty bows, a like number of quivers, and arrows enough to supply them.
Neither the Lieutenants nor Minardil himself seemed to know what to do with them. They kept murmuring amongst themselves, and now and then the Captain would cast an uneasy glance at the weaponry. It was difficult to watch, and Thorongil was well into devising some pretext to walk down among them that he might offer his quiet suggestion. There did not seem to be many options that were even close to inconspicuous. On the far side of the dell, the Second Company of the Citadel were gathered about their own allotment, and men from each company were erecting four simple targets of wood and straw at each end of the valley. Lord Denethor, directing these latter operations with cool, curt commands, had been moving back and forth between the groups. All in all, there were entirely too many pairs of querying eyes about.
He was spared a difficult decision when Minardil stepped back from the perplexed little knot and beckoned. ‘Gelmir, Amlach, Thorongil: come!’ he commanded.
Thorongil took care not to step forward too swiftly, but neither did he hesitate. The other two Guards did not either, and from the brief glance they shared Thorongil could see that they, too, had been wishing to step in. When they reached the officers, the Lieutenants had already stepped back to make room for them in the circle. The Captain regarded his three men soberly. He nodded at the other two.
‘You are both from the Vale of Morthond, are you not?’ he asked. When they murmured their affirmation of this, Minardil asked; ‘Are you knowledgeable in the art of archery?’
Both grinned, Amlach more importantly than Gelmir. It was he who spoke, also. ‘Yes, Captain, we know a thing or two.’
‘I’m not the surest shot,’ Gelmir said, more modestly. ‘But I do know something of the basics.’
‘Good,’ Minardil said. He thrust a leathern bag forward, and Gelmir took it instinctively. He parted the ties and brought out a coil of bowstrings. ‘See about making them ready, please. I think it best we do not waste time trying to teach each man to do it.’ He turned his gaze on Thorongil. ‘We are to work with the bows all through the day,’ he said. ‘I know such things are not standard knowledge among the Rohirrim, but I wondered whether you might have some experience nevertheless. We are… in some debate as to how best to order the drills.’
Thorongil nodded gravely. ‘I have some experience in such matters,’ he said. ‘I can assist the skilled men of Morthond in teaching the others fundamental technique.’
Minardil drew a deep breath, trying not to look too relieved. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Tell us what you need, and it shall be provided.’ He glanced around at the Lieutenants, searching for dissent, but he found none. Herion’s eyes were narrowed pensively, but no one showed true discontent.
The two men out of Ringló Vale were already at work, bending the bows skillfully to take the taut strings. Thorongil looked down the field to the targets, and then up towards those of the Second Company. The two groups would be back-to-back, so as to minimize the potential for any accidents. That was certainly the priority. Bored though Midhon might be, this was not the sort of occupation anyone wished to give him.
‘I shall need a rope,’ Thorongil said. ‘Thirty ells at least. Four kerchiefs of a size to use as blindfolds—’
‘Blindfolds?’ both Minardil and Lieutenant Dúlin chorused in consternation.
Thorongil smiled. ‘Fear not: I shall be certain that no harm comes to any man in the course of these drills.’
The two swordsmen did not look quite so certain.
Few of the Guards, either of the City or of the Citadel, had much experience as bowmen. Some had been brought up to use them, more likely for hunting than in combat, but even these were out of practice. Denethor had heeded the suggestion of the two Captains who had led the previous expedition, and laid aside this time for the men to familiarize themselves with the tools. He also made himself available, ready to step in with his knowledge when it was needed. His skill was not extraordinary, but it was considerably above the average and undoubtedly greater than that of Nelior or Minardil. He strode among the men, only one out of five at any time with a bow, and offered his advice with cool encouragement.
He was not the only one doing so, he realized after a time. One of the Lieutenants of the Second Company had some aptitude, and it was he to whom the running of the drills had been delegated. Those who knew the bare basics were advising those who did not. And over in the ranks of the Tenth Company, a great deal of peer-tutelage seemed to be going on.
It took Denethor two passes to be sure of it, but it was soon undeniable that the bulk of this advice was coming from just one man. There were a couple – like as not from Ringló Vale, where all were trained at the yew bow from boyhood – who were showing others how to hold the things, but most of the serious teaching seemed to be coming from the new man; the Rider of Rohan; Thorongil the Nameless One.
In the thrill of overseeing the manoeuvres, Denethor had half forgotten his reason for lingering the full fortnight this time. He had been asked – nay, charged with the task of evaluating the newcomer’s abilities and deficiencies. Thorongil had been deporting himself very well indeed throughout the exercises to date. His skill with a sword was undeniable, and Denethor was beginning to understand how it was possible that this man had defeated the Champion of the Guard. He had unseated Nelior also, and when the Captain had made this known to him Denethor had at first been quite astonished. Upon reflection that feat was neither so surprising nor so impressive as it at first had seen. Plainly the man had put to work the horse-lore he had learned in Rohan and used Nelior’s own mount to subvert him in the field.
But archery was not held to be the great gift of the Horse-Lords and here Thorongil was, dabbling in that as well. He was working with the four men lined up before the butts, moving from one to another to help them adjust their feet, their shoulders, or the grip of their fingers. Not one of the four seemed able to shoot before he gave them leave, and when they did so their first act upon seeing the arrow strike was to turn to Thorongil for approval or criticism.
One of the young men was doing so right now. His arrow had missed the butt entirely, and lodged in the earth some yards beyond. His brows furrowed and he looked reflexively towards the tall Guardsman. Thorongil smiled, not condescending but encouraging.
‘Much better,’ he said, and the youth flushed with pleasure. ‘Your feet are firm and your shoulders true. Next time, do not lock your knees.’
Then he moved on to the next man. Denethor himself strode off, back towards the Second Company, before he was obliged to take notice of the stranger.
When next he looked back to the Tenth, a strange rearrangement had been made. The rope that had been lying across the ground as a visible line beyond which none could step while any were prepared to shoot had been moved. Before it had been about twenty-five paces from the targets. Now it was only ten. At that distance, even a moderately talented goat would have no difficulty hitting its mark. Irritated at this oversimplification, Denethor came striding across the empty ground and through the assembled ranks of the Tenth Company. Those he nudged aside parted for him with quiet words of obeisance and apology, but all the others were too transfixed even to notice him.
The four men now in front of the butts, Captain Minardil first among them, were blindfolded.
Thorongil stood at his Captain’s left shoulder, half a pace behind and near enough that he could whisper if he chose to. When he tried to do so, however, Minardil shook his head sightlessly. ‘Let the men hear,’ he said. ‘They shall all be trying it in turns; it will do them good to hear it more than once.’
Thorongil’s lips tightened momentarily, almost in disapproval or unease, but he obeyed. ‘You need have no concern for where the arrow goes,’ he said, his voice still meant for one but loud enough for all to hear. ‘You could not miss the shot without a wilful effort, and perhaps not even then. Forget your eyes and the need to aim. Concentrate instead upon the bow in your hand, your fingers on the string, the tip of the shaft against them. Feet firm but ready for swift movement at need. Here…’
Then he did something that no common soldier should have the temerity to do. Thorongil took bodily hold of his Captain, hand beneath one arm and the other on the opposing shoulder. He pivoted Minardil’s upper body by a matter of only a few degrees, but when he let go it was plain to Denethor’s eye that the Captain was in a far better position to shoot true.
‘Now release,’ Thorongil said.
Minardil let the arrow fly, and it sank into the straw with a blunt thunk. It was well off centre, but that did not seem to concern the unsanctioned teacher. He took another arrow from the quiver hanging loosely from his shoulder and placed it in Minardil’s hand.
‘Well done, Captain,’ he said. ‘Do it again.’
He moved on to the next man, who required more than a few corrections before he was given leave to shoot. All the others were watching raptly, those with bows adjusting their own arrowless hold according to Thorongil’s instructions. Now and then the tall man cast a small, appraising glance at the mass of the Company, but if he saw his Captain-General among them he gave no sign. When Thorongil finished with the last man and called for a new row to form, Denethor turned and slipped away. He did not do so, however, before Minardil had plucked off his blindfold.
The Captain’s eyes caught the Heir’s, Denethor’s hard and unreadable and Minardil’s made vulnerable by the sudden light. The young Captain blinked several times, rapidly, and then he was taken by sudden wariness – respectful, but uneasy. Minardil of Lossarnach was a clever man, Denethor reflected as he strode back towards the Second Company again. It was always wise to be wary of the mighty.
After a brief halt for the noon meal, the lessons in archery resumed. It had become plain very quickly that Thorongil was the most qualified man to run them. Even the two from Morthond lacked the experience necessary to teach. Their own technique was strong, but they had difficulty explaining why. They knew the form, but not the theory. Nor did Thorongil think that either would feel able to instruct their superiors, and Minardil and the Lieutenants needed tutelage as well.
Every man in the Company had taken his turn at shooting blind, and now they were working on accuracy of aim. There was less coaching to be done in this, for it took time and experience to coordinate eyes and hands, bow and air. The wind was low today, and the ridges provided some shelter. That was a boon to the inexpert and the unpracticed alike. More of the men had some understanding of the art than it had seemed at first, though for most it had been many years since they had last exercised the skill. Nonetheless they needed only a little patient instruction to refresh what skill they had, that they might build upon it.
To allow each man more time to work, Thorongil had ordered the erecting of additional targets. They had no more of the proper straw butts, but thick softwood branches driven into the earth gave each of the twenty bows something to aim at. It was not ideal, and it wore harder on the arrows – but as there were at least three misses to a hit on these narrower goals, that was not especially problematic.
What made the situation difficult, at least for Thorongil, was the rotating scrutiny of the Captain-General. Denethor was moving between the two Companies, trooping up and down behind the lines of archers. He said little, but his air of assessment was eloquent enough. All the men were aware that they were being judged. After the first few disruptions, Denethor did command them to disregard the usual protocol of salutes and murmured respects. Yet still he made them nervous. It was no small thing for a simple soldier to perform under the eye of the highest officer in the realm, especially when one was not proficient in the art in question.
For Thorongil’s part, his performance was not at issue. Yet he was uneasy with the feel of Denethor’s keen eyes upon him as he offered quiet advice or answered a hurried question. He could not shake the sense that the Heir of the Steward was far more interested in the instructor than in the instructions. Thorongil was helping Mallor adjust his stance for the third time in one turn when he was proved correct.
A solid presence drew up behind him, even as he stood behind Mallor. Thorongil finished his recommendation, bodily adjusting the other Guardsman’s off elbow. Then he stepped sideways and back in a single smooth motion before turning to face his Captain-General. Their eyes met, all but level, but neither said a word until the arrow was let fly. From the corner of his eye Thorongil saw the narrow margin by which it missed its mark.
‘Well done,’ he said quietly. Mallor turned, grinning proudly and, seeing Lord Denethor standing so near, took an unsteady step backward. His heel struck the thick rope that was the dead line, and he stiffened. Thorongil smiled reassuringly even as his own pulse quickened in anticipation of the dance to come. ‘Is my Lord enjoying the shooting?’ he asked Denethor. ‘His loyal men are learning much, I think.’
‘Yes,’ Denethor said, rolling the word about his mouth as if tasting a fine wine. One eyebrow cocked ever so slightly higher than the other as he studied Thorongil’s face. ‘It seems they are indeed. My loyal men are learning much, and they seem to be learning most of it from you.’
‘Not I alone, sire,’ said Thorongil, tilting his head but not quite looking up the line, where Amlach of Morthond was reassuring another man of the suppleness of the bow and the force it could bear. ‘We each give of our talents as we may, for the betterment of the Company.’
‘For the betterment of the Company and the glory of Gondor,’ Denethor said sardonically. Now his lip was curling after his brow. ‘Yet it seems that some of you are giving rather more extravagantly than others. You have much advice to offer, Thorongil of the Mark. Yet I have not observed you offering any example to the men.’
Thorongil made an effort to swallow smoothly, though his mouth was dry. He did not think that anyone had noticed the omission until Denethor had spoken, but now anyone within earshot was certainly wracking his memory to recall whether the new man had loosed an arrow after all.
‘I am a soldier, sire; not an archery tutor,’ Thorongil said courteously. ‘I did not think it necessary to offer an example.’
‘A show of your skill, then,’ said Denethor. ‘That your Captain might judge your fitness in this pursuit, as he judges your fellows. Surely you do not mean to suggest that you are above such proofs?’
‘No, my Lord,’ Thorongil breathed, dropping his gaze but not his head. He wished Denethor to understand that his words held no challenge, but he could not quite bring himself to scrape for the anonymity he had once again unwittingly mislaid. ‘I am happy to take my turn, when it may come.’
‘There are but twenty bows for a hundred men, sire.’ It was Minardil who spoke, stepping up to Thorongil’s side with his shoulders squared and his head inclined respectfully. ‘We must each take it in turn.’
‘I am aware of that, Captain,’ said Denethor. ‘Too many bows in inexperienced hands would swiftly turn an orderly exercise into chaos. Yet I have witnessed the changing of hands now four times since the line was drawn back. Is this man to be the only one excluded from the endeavour?’
He had been watching far more astutely than Thorongil had guessed, then. Denethor had been back to the Second Company twice during this particular series of shooting, and yet he had kept careful count of the changes. Thorongil could not help but feel some chagrin at his own surprise.
‘I hope that none of my men shall be excluded from any endeavour that may benefit them,’ said Minardil graciously. ‘I thank Your Lordship for drawing my attention to the matter.’
‘And you will rectify it?’ asked Denethor.
‘Sire?’ Minardil looked up, bewildered. Thorongil understood all too well, and he was not delighted. Offering advice was one thing. Actually shooting was another.
‘You will have the man shoot at once, of course,’ the Captain-General declared, as though this should be quite self-evident. ‘You, soldier: give your fellow that bow.’
He beckoned to Mallor as he spoke, long fingers imperious. The master of the quarterstaff obeyed at once, casting an uneasy look at Thorongil as he passed off the weapon.
‘And the arrows, soldier. The arrows,’ Denethor said, his tone a condescending apery of patience.
Mallor surrendered the quiver, which still held two long darts. Then he retreated swiftly into the anonymity of the crowd of idle men now watching their Captain and their Lord and the new man out of Rohan. Most of the shooters had expended their stock of arrows, and were awaiting the sign that the field was safe, that they might retrieve them. All these were watching also.
With what grace he could muster before so many eyes and with Denethor’s own slate grey stare fixed on him, Thorongil slung the quiver across his back. His fingers rippled against the glass-smooth shaft of the bow. He kept his gaze level with that of the Steward’s son.
‘What would my Lord see me shoot?’ he asked, when it was plain that Denethor had no intention of saying more.
‘Your predecessor’s target will do nicely. Show us, sir Rider, the precision of form and the care of aim you have been preaching so diligently to others.’
There was a hint of a smile on Denethor’s lips now; not quite a sneer, but certainly no gesture of benevolence. It was plain what he thought. Before him was a braggart: one who had much to say to others of their faults, while being too cowardly to lay bare his own. He was eager to see the man taken down a peg or two in the eyes of those who were beginning to admire him for his tutelage; to show him up as a fraud before his peers.
The difficulty was that Thorongil was not a fraud, nor could he counterfeit to be one. He had been given his first bow at the age of six, and it had been no toy. At eight he had mastered field lengths of fifteen, twenty and thirty paces. He had ridden to his first hunt with bow and arrow at the age of twelve – and shooting from atop an Elven pony was no small feat. He had been educated in the nuances of archery by some of the greatest bowmen in this age of the world; exacting teachers who did not so much demand excellence as simply expect it. He might miss the target, yes – but not for a moment did he believe he convince the sharp-eyed lord of men beside him that he had done so unintentionally.
Worse, Mallor had been shooting at one of the stout branches. It was a far narrower goal than the straw butts, and it was equidistant between two of those. Thorongil could not pretend to misunderstand and to aim for the larger target.
‘Show us, son of no man,’ said Denethor, louder now. ‘Prove what you have preached.’
All eyes were upon him now, but it was Minardil’s that Thorongil felt most keenly. His Captain, who had trusted his advice in campaign after campaign, was struggling to trust him now. Minardil was trying to believe that Thorongil could outshoot those he had been making bold enough to teach, but Lord Denethor’s surety of failure made the good Captain uncertain. No, Thorongil realized. There was no question of even attempting to appear mediocre.
‘Yes, my Lord,’ he said; it was not quite a sigh. He stepped up so that his lead toe fell just short of the rope. He raised the bow and nocked an arrow. Thorongil lifted his chin, stretching his neck ever so slightly and fixing his shoulders into the precise scalene configuration that despite his want of recent practice came naturally as his runner’s form. He drew back the bowstring and let fly. The speed of the arrow’s passage whistled in the cold air, cut off abruptly with a decisive thunk as the iron head sunk deep in the wood of the target.
There were appreciative grunts and a couple of stifled noises of delight from the men of the Tenth, but no one dared to cry aloud or to cheer. The tension that had presaged the shot subdued them still.
Slowly Thorongil lowered the bow and turned away from the range. Denethor’s eyes, hard as flint and as appraising as a horse-merchant’s, were locked upon him.
‘Very pretty,’ he said. Then he wafted a broad arm and raised his voice into a bellow of command. ‘All of you: up on the ridge! Out of the field! At once!’
The men scrambled to obey, snatching up cast-off helms or cloaks or quivers as they went. A moment later the churned ground was vacant but for Denethor, Thorongil, and Minardil. The young Captain stood fast, though Thorongil thought perhaps he would as lief have gone with the rest of his men.
Denethor marched up to the rope, matched his heel to it, and counted off ten more paces. With the toe of his boot he scraped a line in the dead grass. ‘Now from here,’ he said. ‘Place the arrow one handspan beneath the other.’
Thorongil’s mouth was dry. It was an easy shot by the standard of many he had tried. Long though Denethor’s strides were, thirty paces was still little challenge. The truth was that Thorongil could easily outstrip the range of this bow of middling length without sacrificing any of his accuracy.
He made the shot. And the next, at thirty-five paces with an arrow retrieved by one of the other men. At forty, he had to raise the plane of his aim to compensate for the falling-off of the arrow. At fifty he shook his head.
‘I would require a longer bow to shoot so far, my Lord,’ he said honestly, expecting ridicule and glad of it. Four perfect strikes made him look like something more than a simple swordsman, however gifted. A little scorn would assuage that perception somewhat.
But Denethor’s jaw twitched, and he said coldly; ‘I would have you prove that, had I a longer bow to hand,’ he said. His expression was unreadable. ‘What of a moving target, stranger? A bird? A hart? An orc?’
‘The same,’ Thorongil said quietly. He could not perjure himself, and in any case a lie would be far too blatant after the performance he had just made.
Denethor’s nostril’s flared with a puffing exhalation. Then he waved a dismissive hand. ‘Very well,’ he said. He turned from Thorongil and addressed Minardil. ‘Resume the exercises, Captain. I expect the men to be at their best tomorrow.’
Only when he had strode off in the direction of his pavilion did Thorongil see that the bulk of the Second Company was also watching, having borne witness to his feat.
On the following day, the Tenth Company was issued a simple directive. They were to hold the copse of trees, that their opponents might prove unable to gather wood. To aid in this endeavour, they were furnished with a peculiar set of tools. All forty bows were given them, and with these an allotment of arrows the like of which Thorongil had never seen. They were straight and true, impeccably fletched with stiff goose shafts. Yet in place of an arrowhead each had a small pouch of loose-woven linen packed hard with powdered chalk. This, it seemed, was the purpose of the five-pound bag among the Captain-General’s belongings.
Thorongil studied one of these strange arrows, lifting it in his hand to feel the balance. They had been prepared with skill. The weight of the bag was almost exactly that of an iron head, and it was so tightly stuffed that it did not shift or drag upon the arrow. Within the sack, the tip of the arrow had itself been turned in a rounded point. The thing was perfectly functional, save that it would do no damage to a man struck by it. It might smart a little, if shot at close range by a strong arm, but it was no more lethal than the blunt swords or Mallor’s quarterstaffs.
‘Why chalk?’ asked Minardil, studying the arrow in his own hand with puzzlement. ‘A wad of wool would serve as well, and with less effort.’
Thorongil had no ready answer, but as he tilted the shaft once more in his hand it came to him. He closed his fist upon the slender rod of wood and turned the arrow swiftly, pivoting it around so that the chalk-filled tip struck his forearm. His sleeve, worst-black though it was, was new-dyed and dark. The impact drove chalk through the canvas to mark it with an unmistakable white circle. He held out his arm to his Captain and the three Lieutenants.
‘Thus we may all see who has been struck, and who has not,’ he said. With an appreciative curl of his lip, he added; ‘Lord Denethor is a man possessed of a creative mind.’
‘In matters of war, he undoubtedly is,’ said Minardil, shaking his head in wonderment. Then he grinned boyishly. ‘This ought to prove fun.’
So it did, though it seemed somewhat decadent to take such easy delight in such a thing. As ever, the Captain consulted with Thorongil as to the strategy of defence. It would have been Thorongil’s preference to have the forty archers aloft in trees around the perimeter, but this was not feasible. It took long practice and many hard falls or close calls to learn how to cling to a stout branch, well-balanced with only the use of one’s legs, while firing a precise and reliable arrow. Instead they placed the bowmen strategically just inside the eaves of the wood, choosing the highest places they could find: a hillock, a tangle of tall roots thick as ridgepoles, a lately-felled stump.
Of the men on foot, half were dispersed around the northmost marches of the wood with their rehearsal-swords at the ready. Then twenty were assigned to be the first line of resistance and the remaining men secreted in a thicket, reserved to pursue the survivors of the Second Company if the others failed to repel them all. The officers were dispersed through the four groups, with Minardil taking the unenvied position among the archers. Thorongil was under Herion’s command in the ranks of last resort.
The skirmish itself was brief. The men of the Tenth had been well-positioned, and the men of the Citadel were unexperienced in woodland warfare. Their vanguard did well among the first defenders, but many were felled by the archers. Most of the rest were taken by the next line, though the mock casualties upon the other side were just as great. In the end the Second was left with their Captain and a baker’s dozen of elite swordsmen. Half of them fell to hurriedly gathering brush and branches while the rest faced off against Herion and his little contingent.
At that point Thorongil feared that it might come down to a standoff between Nelior and himself, as man after man was touched by the blunt blades of the Second Company. Just when he knew he had to step in or forfeit the exercise, Minardil came charging through the trees at the head of a column of archers who had survived the onslaught. The final encounter was heated but brief. The Tenth Company had wrangled another victory against their superiors.
That evening there was laughter and revelry in the camp. Men sang and storytellers stood up in the firelight to animate their tales with dramatic poses and sweeping gestures. Someone had smuggled three quart flagons of dark wine out of Minas Tirith and had managed to reserve them until now. These were given over to Minardil to share out. It amounted to little more than a taste for each man, but it was the spirit of shared triumph of which they drank. In any case, it would have been foolish for any to drink to excess with the Captain-General’s vigilant eyes so near.
Thorongil moved quietly amid the happy throng, accepting praise and congratulations with effortful grace. His contributions to the campaign were no secret among his fellows, at least. He supposed word would travel swiftly enough, both to the Second Company and throughout Minas Tirith upon their return. He hoped that by the time any whisper of it reached the ears of Lord Denethor, it would be so embellished and inflated as to be dismissed wholesale as ridiculous.
Tonight, anyhow, he had other business. His own camp was bright and merry, but across the dark dip of the dell the other was not. In the glow of their fires, men moved with the slow stiffness of the tired and despondent. The glow of a lone candle illuminated one corner of the command tent, speaking of a brooding Captain sitting silently within. It was a troubling sight, for it showed Thorongil his error in judgment. So eager had he been to boost the morale and improve the skills of his own Company that he had not paused to think of the detrimental effect such an uprising would have on the other.
Now he saw, with the embarrassment of one who has overlooked something beneath his very nose, that of course it must be so. The men of the Second Company of the Guards of the Citadel had come into this expedition expecting easy victory and a dalliance with rustic leisure away from their daily labours. Instead they had found a feisty and creative opponent – not so skilled with blade and pike, perhaps, but filled nonetheless with tactical surprises and possessed of a small clutch of excellent swordsmen. That they were learning more than they might otherwise have done was no consolation while they did not see that benefit to their toils.
‘Here, now!’ called Forgil as Thorongil left the last ring of firelight and stepped into the cold darkness beyond. ‘Where are you off to? We’ve hardly got started yet.’
‘I know,’ Thorongil called back. ‘I shall return shortly: fear not!’
It was a restful thing, to vanish into the night as he strode easily downhill. Once he was well out of sight of the encampment, Thorongil reached to knead the base of his neck. Tonight’s waterbearing had proved painful. Though his body was strengthening to meet the punishing challenge, it was not doing so without pain. He wondered how the small Easterling had managed to haul such a load day after day for a fortnight. Most of all he wondered why Jamon had been chosen for such a detail. Of the Tenth Company’s water-carriers, Saelir was lazy, Mallor was broad-shouldered, and Thorongil was new. Jamon was neither of the latter, and Thorongil could not believe of him the former. It did not make sense. Captain Nelior had intimated the assignments were a punishment or consequence for something, but in Jamon’s case Thorongil could not imagine what that might be.
The walk across the narrow valley was a short one, and soon Thorongil was climbing up the opposite slope. He stepped into the first ring of firelight and strode on through it.
‘What do you want?’ someone groaned.
‘Come to gloat?’ asked another.
‘Get out of here and leave us be,’ muttered a third.
And so Thorongil found himself at the centre of a field of resentful eyes. He made a slow circle, smiling. Then he lifted his voice up into the booming cadence that had commanded a thousand men.
‘Noble Guards of the Second Company!’ he announced, his smile broad and earnest. ‘I have come to invite you to join in our merriment.’
A mutter of discontent rippled through the crowd. One or two bit back that they were not about to celebrate their own defeat.
‘We do not celebrate,’ Thorongil said, still declaiming proudly. ‘We rejoice. For we are Gondor’s guardians, and we are strong, and we are free. What are we simple men of the Tenth but your little brothers, learning from your hands how to better ourselves for the protection of this noble land? Will you not come, and sing with us, and savour our shared liberty and the good work every man in this bare place has done?’ He dropped his voice now to a companionable tone, and picked out one young Guard who sat with his winged helm in his lap. ‘Will you not come?’ Thorongil invited. He extended his hand.
For a moment he feared the man would not take it, but after a moment he swallowed, gave a curt little nod, and closed his fingers about Thorongil’s. With a smooth jerk, Thorongil helped the Guard leap to his feet. Then he clapped him on the shoulder and nodded bracingly.
‘All are welcome,’ he said, again in a voice meant to be heard at a distance. Then he turned upon one heel and strode off and away from the camp again. As he did so, he caught a ripple of movement in the corner of his eye: other men, rising to follow.
It was well into the middle night when the fellowship began to disperse. Thorongil was stirring up the embers of the fire near which he and Midhon had been sleeping these many nights, preparing to bank them to burn until morning. He looked up at the approach of a pair of unadorned but well-made boots. His Captain stood above him.
‘Sir.’ Thorongil sprang to his feet before Minardil could bid him stay. Such spry exertions required more energy than he felt he possessed, weary as he was after yet another long day. His had been the dawn watch that morning, and he was more than ready to lie down.
Minardil glanced around and then beckoned. ‘Walk with me, Thorongil. I promise it will not take long.’
He led and Thorongil followed obediently, out of the camp and off onto the empty stretch of ridge that fell off towards the foot of the Captain-General’s hill. Minardil turned and leaned in towards the taller man, his pensive expression only just reflected in distant firelight.
‘That was an extraordinary gesture: to draw the other company in,’ he said. ‘All but a few came: did you mark that?’
Thorongil nodded. He had indeed marked it, and he had been pleased with the result. Men who until now had been rigidly partisan in the games – sometimes to the point of forgetting that they were games at all – had spent the long evening becoming acquainted with one another as individuals. There had not been one among those who had crossed the divide who had left unsmiling. Even two of the Second Company’s Lieutenants had joined the gathering.
Minardil was studying him, or trying to. The light was in Thorongil’s favour, not his Captain’s. ‘What drove you to try it?’ he asked.
‘I feared the men were becoming on the one hand too proud, and on the other too resentful,’ said Thorongil. The answer came of its own accord, for his mind was occupied elsewhere. There was a peculiar scent upon the wind, blowing up out of the river valley. He inhaled deeply and held his breath, trying to discern what it was.
‘The men.’ Minardil repeated the two words flatly. ‘Do you realize that when you speak thus you sound like a Captain yourself?’
Thorongil’s eyes focused sharply, his head whipping leftward a few degrees so that he was looking squarely at the other man. ‘Forgive me, sir,’ he said. ‘I do not mean to usurp your authority.’
‘I know you do not,’ Minardil said softly. ‘Nor do you usurp it; not precisely. But you speak and move with an authority yourself, far greater than I would expect of any common soldier. Such an instinct for leadership does not spring forth full-grown. It must be nurtured and made strong through years of study.’
Thorongil was silent. There was no indignation or anger in the Captain’s voice, and his words were those of puzzlement rather than suspicion. Yet plainly he had been thinking these thoughts for some time, and could be silent no longer.
‘You are no mere mercenary, Thorongil,’ said Minardil. ‘You are no low-born sell-sword who lent his arm to Rohan and now offers it to Gondor. Your understanding of tactics upon the field, in different situations and on varied terrains, far exceeds that which I possess. It exceeds Nelior’s skill, and even Lord Denethor is impressed – though by your insistence he credits me wrongly with our triumphs. What were you in Rohan?’
Thorongil’s mouth was dry, but he knew that he owed his Captain an answer. He could not tell him the whole truth, not even of his time in the Riddermark, for he had not told all to Ecthelion. That tale was due his liege-lord first, when the time came for it to be told. Still Thorongil swallowed painfully and spoke.
‘I have been a sergeant,’ he said. ‘I have been Lieutenant in the éored of Thengel King himself. When I achieved a captaincy of my own, I commanded six score men in what it pleased the Riders to call the Eagle’s Éored.’
Minardil was agape. He blinked very slowly, once. Then his mouth worked for a moment in silence. Finally he gave a little shake of his head. ‘Does the Steward know of this?’ he asked.
‘I have told him,’ said Thorongil truthfully.
Minardil’s brows now furrowed. ‘And yet he leaves you to patrol the street-corners and haul water for the Tenth Company?’ he said incredulously. ‘It is not for one such as I to question the wisdom of Ecthelion himself, but…’
Thorongil shook his head. ‘It is right and it is fitting,’ he said. ‘How can I command men I do not understand? How can I lead if I do not know the structure of the system in which I lead? How can I come to a new place, a stranger with only his nine years’ foreign labour to commend him, and expect the men to follow? I must earn their trust, my Captain. Then perhaps I can earn my place.’
‘You have earned more than that,’ Minardil said with a thin little laugh. He drew a hand across his brow and took a shaky breath. ‘I do not know what to make of you, Thorongil. I suspect you have not told me all, but I thank you for your honest words. Had I the power to lift you up from your present rank, I would do so tonight. Were it not for my full compliment of Lieutenants, I would have the power, at least in some small part. But know that I shall not look upon you as a common soldier any longer. Those days are finished.’
He did not think that such days had ever been, but Thorongil did not dispute Minardil’s words. They were gallantly meant, and in his position he had nothing but humblest appreciation for his Captain’s fair-mindedness. It would have been far easier to rant and rail, to accuse him of sedition and deception, and to tear from him any threads of influence he had gathered.
‘Thank you, Captain,’ he said softly. ‘I am grateful for your discretion, and I yearn for no rank now. I too am learning, and not teaching only. I have learned much under your command.’
Minardil grinned. ‘Not of command, nor of warfare,’ he said. Then he nodded towards the encampment. ‘You should go to your bed. You look weary.’
Thorongil was about to demur when the wind rose again and the scent assailed his nostrils more strongly than before. ‘Captain, do you smell that?’ he asked.
Minardil inhaled. ‘Smoke,’ he said. ‘We are downwind from the camp.’
‘No. No, it is not campfire smoke, nor does it come from near at hand.’ Thorongil inhaled again, holding his wind as long as he could. He let it out hastily and shook his head. ‘It is distant and it is dusky; darker, almost sour. Do you not smell it?’
‘Most likely it is the charcoal mounds,’ said Minardil. ‘The stink is one reason folk keep their distance.’
But Thorongil had smelled the crisp blackness of charcoal-baking, and this was not it. This was a syrupy scent, strangely spiced and unique. He knew it. He ought to know it. If only he could remember…
‘Pitch,’ he said abruptly, turning to look not to the camp but past it, towards the river. ‘Pine pitch, boiling. Yet are there pines near? I have seen none.’
‘Nay. They are to be found on the shoulders of the mountains, but not here,’ said Minardil.
‘And on the other side of the river?’ Thorongil asked sharply.
‘The other side of the river? But that is miles away. How could you smell—’
‘Are there pines on the far side of the river?’ demanded Thorongil, not sharply but with a voice that was hard with urgency.
‘I… no… I don’t know,’ said Minardil, shaking his head helplessly. ‘I do not know; how could I? It is possible. What does it matter?’
The bewilderment in his voice brought Thorongil back to himself. What did it matter, after all? If someone was boiling pitch on Anduin’s far bank, what of it? If he had misidentified the smell, perhaps it was indeed the whiff of charcoal away southward in the woods. He was overtired. His mind and his nose might both be deceiving him.
‘Most like it does not, Captain,’ Thorongil sighed. ‘Most like it is but my wild imaginings. Let us to bed. Dawn comes early, and we shall have wet work before us.’
Minardil chuckled and started back towards the camp. Thorongil fell in step. ‘Wet work, aye,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow we shall all be waterbearers, not you alone!’
Though he thought no more of it in his waking moments, the distant reek of distilling pitch invaded Thorongil’s dreams with memories of birch boats on Lake Nenuial far away.
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