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Chapter XVI: In the Mists
The following morning, all were reluctant to wake. This was less because of the evening's merriment than it was the new day's weather. Though it was not so cold as some earlier dawns, the air was heavy with a penetrating damp. It wet packs and blankets alike, and soaked the hair of any man fool enough to bed down with neither hood nor cap to cover it. Shivering, Thorongil and his fellow waterbearers went about their labours with set teeth and dogged resolve. The stream bank was slick and treacherous this morning, and Mallor narrowly escaped a miserable ducking.
They rejoined the rest of the Company with their labours complete to discover that the soldiers were trying in vain to ignite the raw wood in the damp. Thorongil went to the fire-pit near which he had been sleeping these last many nights. Forgil was hard at work with flint and steel. As Thorongil squatted near him he cursed and flung the firesteel wrathfully away.
'It's useless, that's what it is!' he growled. 'Not a chance of laying a fire in this damp, not with brushwood. We're in charcoal country: why couldn't His Vaunted Lordship have furnished us with some charcoal, that's what I'd like to know! You'll notice he hasn't seen fit to show his face to the cold this morning.'
There were a few discontented murmurs of agreement at this. Thorongil looked around with unease, that he might gauge the mood of the men. Frustration was understandable, as was offhand resentment, but if it ran deeper it could swiftly ferment into sedition. It was the place of any true soldier to quash such sentiments before they could fester.
'Let me have a turn,' he said, stretching one long arm to pluck up the steel and holding out the other hand to Forgil. The old Guardsman yielded up the flint with a scoff.
'Good luck to you, lad,' he snorted. 'Every one of us has had his turn, and every other man in the Company at his own fire besides. Don't know as you'll have any better chance.'
'Your skills run more to water than fire, don't they?' one of the other men said sourly. It was not quite a sneer, but the disdain in his voice was unmistakable. Again Thorongil found his mind drawn to Captain Nelior's grim and somehow pointed assertion that the Lieutenants had not made the labour assignments.
Instead of replying with equal sourness or demanding an explanation of the man's tone, Thorongil smiled. 'Perhaps,' he said. 'Yet if every man in the Company has had his turn, then surely I ought to take mine as well. I relish a cold breakfast no more than the next man.'
'That's another thing!' grunted the malcontent. He was one of the few who had kept their distance from the new Guard, and his name eluded Thorongil. 'These travel scraps are getting fouler by the day. Why are we bothering with them at all? Surely it's the duty of the local folk to feed and furnish the army. Why, at Pelargir—'
'Pelargir's a city, and a busy port besides,' said Mallor, cutting the other man off short. 'You can't expect a village of shepherds to support two hundred men. They've scarcely got enough to feed their own this time of the year. So I've heard, I mean,' he added almost hastily.
'It's only a fortnight,' the other man countered. 'They could tighten their belts a little!'
'It is only a fortnight for us,' said Thorongil mildly. 'Yet there are fourteen other Companies who must take their turn after, and the Ninth and the Second before us. Two hundred must surely come near to the number of folk native to the area, and eighteen weeks is a long while for a population to be doubled. It is not the place of soldiers to oppress the innocent or to put them to hardship, and to do so in one's own country is unthinkable to me.'
He might have said should be unthinkable to all, but he did not. Thorongil had no wish to start a quarrel. That he could not allow the remarks to pass was quite bad enough. Yet to his surprise, the complainer huffed and said, somewhat chagrined; 'Eighteen weeks. Hadn't thought of it that way.'
Thorongil looked at him with approving eyes. It took integrity for a man to admit to a change in his views before those who had just heard them so vehemently stated. 'I, for one, am glad of the short rations. It most closely approximates what we would doubtless need to endure in wartime. Our fellows in Ithilien are surely surviving on similar fare.'
He was working with the flint and steel now, raking up little showers of sparks. The small heap of dead leaves and shavings was indeed reluctant to catch. As words of agreement passed among the men, Thorongil slipped finger and thumb into the pouch at his belt and brought forth a little piece of charred linen rag. He made an indentation in the midst of the tinder with his thumb, and nestled the rag carefully therein. He was back at work with the fire tools so quickly that no one noticed or remarked upon the pause.
'—envy the poor sots,' Forgil was saying. 'They might live hungry and in constant danger of death, but they're doing a great good for Gondor; no mistaking that. They'll be remembered long after we're dead and gone.'
Sadly Thorongil reflected that this was no sure thing. Those who fought in lonely lands and fell in quiet valour were seldom remembered as they ought to be. Even among his own people, where every life was priceless and every loss a grievous blow to a small and beleaguered force, there were few who remembered the dead of even two generations past. Too often it was only the Lords and Captains who were remembered, while the others lay nameless in their green graves.
Lost in these unhappy thoughts, he did not notice that he had caught a light until Forgil let out a glad whoop of surprise.
'You've done it, my boy!' he chortled, pointing. 'I'll be hanged, but you've got a flame!'
He did have a flame, but it was small and fragile. Thorongil bent to nourish it with a slow, steady breath of air. The little tongue of fire, already consuming the last threads of rag, latched hungrily upon a shred of dry, brittle bark. A leaf caught next – someone must have hoarded a few in pouch or pack, for it too was dry – and then the whole heap of tinder was burning. It was still little more than a spoonful of fire, but it was greedy despite the damp air. Thorongil fed it with twigs until it grew to a size where it licked up the tented kindling and began to let off dark smoke as the wet wood sizzled and caught alight.
Already the men had their hands out to the blaze, and when Thorongil rose out of his crouch to find a piece of log to sit upon, there was a general sound of impressed approval.
'Did they teach you some special trick in Rohan?' asked Mallor. Not waiting for an answer, he said; 'I would have sworn that we were in for a frozen day. Pass me the skillet, Forgil, and we can get a start on breakfast!'
While the others busied themselves with measuring out simple, stale foods for the morning meal, Thorongil chose a stout brand from the heap of fuel. He broke it off at a knothole and held it in the flames until the thicker end was blazing. He rose up carefully with his shoddy torch in hand, and moved to start passing on the fire. As he did, a memory of the previous evening's troubling scent returned. He worked as quickly as he could.
Minardil frowned, studying the strange man before him. He could no longer think of Thorongil as anything but strange, however much he liked him. A Captain in Rohan – a Captain of more men than the Tenth Company boasted, at that – and Thorongil had not thought to inform his own commander. If he had told the Steward, and he had given Minardil no reason to suspect that he would lie outright, why then had he not asked for some posting more worthy of one of his experience and talents? His arguments against holding a captaincy so soon were sound, but why could he not serve as a Lieutenant? Why had he not been assigned to the Guards of the Citadel, and sworn fealty to his new lord as he presumably had to Thengel of Rohan? And why was he standing here now in the grey, mist-choked day, with such a ridiculous request upon his lips?
'Certainly not,' said Minardil firmly, trying to keep his consternation from his voice. He did like the man, and he had no desire to make it seem that he was angry instead of baffled. 'I shall need you to advise me, and the Company cannot afford to lose one of its best swordsmen right before an uphill assault.'
'I have offered my opinion on the course to take,' Thorongil said patiently, as ever the portrait of earnest respect. 'The mists will lend much to the campaign, for it will make it still easier to outflank the Second Company. As for swordsmen, we now have many whose skill and confidence are sufficient to bear them up. Yet if someone is to explore the aberration on the air, I am the most qualified to do it.'
'Why you?' asked Minardil. They were alone in the tent, but he knew that one or another of the Lieutenants was almost certainly within earshot. The stout canvas walls muffled the sounds of men tucking hungrily into breakfast. These ran with condensation without, but within remained dry unless they chanced to be touched. Then the water wicked through at once. This was yet another fascinating thing that Minardil had learned during this excursion, though its useful applications were negligible.
'What qualifies you for such work?' he pressed, when Thorongil did not answer immediately. 'Are the Riders of Rohan skilled in woodscraft as well as horse-lore?'
For a startling moment, he saw that Thorongil had been caught back-footed. His mouth moved in a noiseless, flapping way, and his eyes were suddenly wide and lost. In that instant he looked far younger than his years – which Minardil had not asked, but which he could plainly see fell short of thirty. Then Thorongil shook his head in an almost shivering jerk, and blinked to clear the alarm from his eyes.
'Not particularly,' he said. 'No more than any other soldiers, I deem. Yet it was I who noted the scent, and surely it is fitting that I should be the one to investigate it. If I am right and it was the smell of boiling pitch, it may mean trouble for us and for those dwelling near.'
'What sort of trouble do you expect?' Minardil asked. He was trying to be patient, but the morning was drawing on. They were meant to mount their assault at the top of the forenoon; too long a delay and Nelior's men would be over-ready to receive them.
'I do not know,' Thorongil admitted. 'Pine pitch can be used to paint the bottom of a bark-boat to keep it watertight. Perhaps some agent of the Enemy is attempting to cross the river; spies, mayhap, or even a small raiding party. It may be that I am wrong. It may be that there is some copse of pine unknown to you and I, where a shepherd is proofing canvas or baskets, or making torches. If that is the case I can put our minds at rest and return to join the manoeuvres.'
'My mind is not restive,' said Minardil with more certainty than he now felt. It had been easy to dismiss Thorongil's concern last night, when sleep had been the foremost yearning for both of them. It was not so easy now. He clung to it yet, though he had confessed he could smell nothing of pine tar or any other unusual thing this morning. And there was the irrefutable truth that Thorongil had not yet been mistaken in anything, from his choice of sword to his predictions of the moods of the Company to his military counsel. Still this fear was certainly unwarranted. Minardil's rational mind insisted upon that.
'Mine is,' Thorongil said softly. There was humility to his words and his stance now that was wholly unlike the purposeful insistence he had shown the night before. Even in the face of such intense insistence Minardil had been able to dissuade him. To that, this was nothing.
Yet the helplessness in Thorongil's gaze as he stared resolutely at the ground troubled Minardil. The man was wholly in his Captain's power in this matter, and he knew it. In Rohan he might have lead six score Riders into battle, but here – whatever his talents and the natural justice of the matter – he was but a lowly soldier; almost the lowliest in the City, if truth be told. For some inexplicable reason he had suffered this fall in his fortunes, and now he was trapped by it.
'I ask you, Captain,' he said. 'Permit me to do this, that I might have peace of mind and the Companies the surety they deserve.'
A part of Minardil truly wanted to acquiesce, if for no other reason than that Thorongil had earned his trust and his confidence and surely the right to one small boon. Yet the part of him that was the Captain of an ill-trained Company that had risen to triumph by this man's guidance dissented. That part wished only to win this challenge as it had the last, and knew that it could not be done without the Tenth's greatest asset.
'This evening,' he said with firm finality, trying not to see how Thorongil's shoulders slumped and his jaw tightened. 'If you still wish to investigate after the day's exercises, I will excuse you from waterbearing so that you may do so.'
Thorongil's eyes blazed suddenly afresh, and he raised them to look at his Captain. A sharp question was on his lips; somehow Minardil knew it was no protest. Yet he did not utter it. His face smoothed into impassive lines of resignation to duty. 'Yes, sir,' he said neatly. 'Thank you for considering my request.'
Although there was no hint of admonition in his gaze, his stance or his words, Minardil could not help but feel as if he had done a harsh and hurtful thing. It was a feeling that followed him for a few hours more, before being supplanted by shame and dismay.
In the interest of observing the day's undertaking despite the heavy fog and the grey gloom of the day, Denethor positioned himself squarely in the centre of the Second Company's encampment. The Guards of the Citadel showed him the utmost deference and respect, but they were not so in awe of him as their humbler counterparts. After all, they saw or even spoke to him every day in the execution of their duties in Minas Tirith. Some among them had known him as a youth, or even as a very small boy – but Denethor preferred to believe their want of nervous reverence had nothing to do with that. If Tirlon of the Second Company recalled a lad of six who had come to him tearfully, having lost his way in the narrow streets of the Seventh Circle, then he was wise to keep that reminiscence to himself.
Today the men in their sable livery were courteous but brisk, moving to and fro as they prepared for the expected assault. By Denethor's estimate, the Tenth Company was late. He had not shared with Nelior or his Lieutenants the hour at which Minardil had been ordered to attack, but he believed that it was now upon them. Without the Sun it was hard to be certain, but that did not mean he could not begin to bristle a little with impatience. The camp was positively crackling with it, and with the attendant apprehension of men who know a blow is to fall, but cannot say how or when.
The Second Company was divided in three. The first two groups guarded the flanks of the hill down to the water. The third segment was positioned at the rear of the camp, lest the Tenth prove bold enough to make a frontal assault. They might do it, too, if for no other reason than because it seemed so improbable. Nelior was learning not to underestimate his opponent, a stance that Denethor had abandoned after the Second's initial defeat. Where Minardil had acquired his tactical acumen was unclear, but it far exceeded what was expected for a man of his position and experience.
After the first accolade, Denethor had not lavished further praise upon the young Captain, feeling that his approval was implicit. Yet his initial grudging respect for a lively effort was growing into frank admiration of genuine ability. Clearly Minardil's talent had been much underestimated. Denethor had come to evaluate the merits of Thengel's man, and had found one of his own to be more worthy of notice. Prowess with sword and bow was well enough, and these the man Thorongil admittedly possessed. But a sophisticated grasp of strategy was far more valuable, and an instinct for command could not be taught. In these, Minardil was wealthy.
That was why Denethor had chosen to observe the day's scenario from so near at hand. He would have done so even without the muffling mists. It was impressive enough to watch the Tenth Company repel an attack, but even the lowliest of the City Captains had some measure of defensive theory to their credit. To see Minardil's unconventional attacks was undeniably extraordinary.
From out of the fog came a cry of alarm, followed by the clatter of arms and a shouted warning. It was difficult to be certain in the mists, but Denethor believed that the sound originated eastward at the far head of the hill. There the stream lay nearer to the rise than on the other side, though it flowed nearest at about the midpoint of the hill. The Captain-General's brows began to furrow into a frown of disappointment. The easterly way was the route an inexperienced commander would choose, seeing only the quicker path and not the fact that Nelior would espy the same temptation.
Quickly the noises mounted: men scuffling on the slick slope, the grunts of effort as heavy rehearsal blades were hefted or struck, the twanging of bowstrings letting fly the blunted arrows. Denethor was privately very proud of that notion. It had been both practical and amusing for the men, and both Companies seemed to have come out of yesterday's enterprise in fine spirits: they had gathered together in the Tenth's camp, and there had been singing and laughter long into the night.
The sounds of battle, absent only the screams of the slain, were drawing nearer. Now there was no doubt that the encounter was easterly. Denethor got up out of the chair he had appropriated from the Second's command tent and paced off in that direction. He did not wish to draw too near. It was well that the fog concealed him, for he would have proved a distraction to the men. Far better like this: to listen unseen.
There was a pounding of booted feet and some brusque orders. Those guarding the centre block were dividing, that one-half might fly to the aid of the easterly line.
'How many?' Denethor heard one Lieutenant cry. The answer, coming from a greater distance, was not quite intelligible. From the sound it had to be at least half of the Tenth Company's hundred, but it could not be all. Denethor was learning to have too much trust in Minardil's intelligence to believe he would spend all his men on one line of assault. But where would he send the others?
His answer to that question came more swiftly than he had expected. With the scuffling awkwardness of men who are unaccustomed to moving silently, a contingent of the Tenth came sweeping into the camp. There were twenty of them, led by the Second Lieutenant, and Denethor was aware of them long before they saw him. When the leader stiffened, eyes wide, and prepared to offer his salute and respect, Denethor gestured wrathfully that he should be silent. Was the fool going to jeopardize his mission for petty protocol?
He had to wave the men on, and even then he was not certain that they understood they were meant to continue as if he were not there. Perhaps it would have been prudent to inform both companies of his intent to observe at close hand.
The twenty men would have been up against half again their number, but the heavy blow to the Second Company's left had split the centre guard. Now the din of mock-combat was near at hand, and Denethor could hear the oaths and calls of the men. He returned to the chair, smiling. He was very pleased with how the training was progressing: proud of the humble men for rising to the situation, proud of the knights of the Citadel for taking the unexpected challenge with grace, and proud of himself for devising the whole affair.
A fresh clamour signified a fresh charge, this time from the Second Company's right. Their other flank, set to guard the longer way to the streambed, was coming to the aid of the remnant of the centre line. Minardil's twenty men stood little chance against the new onslaught. Denethor did not doubt that they would fight stalwartly to the last, but to what end? The greater force was nearer the stream, and they had struck first instead of leaving the headlong attackers to draw the Second's strength towards the camp.
Understanding now, Denethor gave a low and rueful chuckle. Without the aid of the sun or clear air by which to see one another's signals, the larger force had attacked too soon. Obviously the contingent of twenty was to have struck first. For all his cleverness, Minardil had failed to take the weather into account.
Denethor was still pondering this error when the sounds of battle changed from energetic to frenzied.
When the far flank of the Second Company broke formation, Lieutenant Herion and his little band of raiders were ready. The original plan had been to loop far around and take shelter in a stand of ragged hedges beyond the tip of the long, narrow hill. The mists had rendered this unnecessary. Both Herion and Minardil had been reluctant to trust the weather so far, but Thorongil had swayed them. His years of living roofless beneath the sky had been few but almost uninterrupted. He knew the difference between a morning mist and a deep, impenetrable fog destined to linger all the day. This was the latter, and it leant the Tenth Company an advantage in their mission.
All had gone precisely to plan, from what Thorongil could tell as he moved all but soundlessly at the rear of a considerably less silent column. The distant noise of battle had signalled Minardil's strike upon the east side of the hill, and with the men on the west side now dispersing it was evident that Dúlin's twenty had engaged the centre. Now, with the mist to shield them, fourteen men passed across the guarded perimeter and out of sight with greater swiftness than Thorongil could have hoped.
They would be less nimble upon the return trip, but not as hobbled as they might have been. The natural assumption was that they were meant to carry back the water using the yokes and pails employed every day. Instead, each of the fourteen had half a dozen leathern bottles slung across his back. Empty they were scarcely to be felt. Full they would prove some impediment, but far less than having to guard three men lumbering under a heavy load.
'Thorongil!' hissed Herion, keeping his voice low enough that it would not carry far in the fog. 'Get up here!'
He had been ordered to stand as rearguard, but Thorongil was not in the habit of contradicting for contradiction's sake. He strode swiftly to the Lieutenant's side. 'Sir?'
'Where's this shallow place?'
Thorongil led the way. The stream was on average about four feet deep, but there was a sandbar that brought it down to less than two. Nimble feet could cross it without flooding their boots. All but one of the men managed it: Forgil was not so quick on his feet as he had been in his youth, and he let out a sharp curse as his right calf was soaked with icy water. The Guard beside him cuffed his arm for quiet and then took hold of it to help him across.
Once on the far bank, the little band followed their guide – who had taken full advantage of his labours to scout the terrain – to a place where the bank was low and level. With two men to stand watch, the rest knelt to fill their bottles. Thorongil was dipping his third, precisely tipped so that the air could escape with ease, when they all heard the cry.
It was no whoop of battle-eagerness, no indignant exclamation as someone took a hard or undignified smack from a blunt blade. It was a high, horrified scream of anguish. That sound, that particular timbre of a man's voice, was one Thorongil associated at once with the lopping off of a limb: when the physical pain had yet to strike, but the torment of knowing that what was done could never be undone had begun. Thorongil stiffened, straightening his back like a hound scenting the wind. His innards seemed to shrivel and his mouth went dry.
A moment later he was on his feet, drinking vessels forgotten. The others were trading bewildered looks and murmured questions. Even Herion did not seem sure of what was happening. Thorongil was. He had scented pitch on the night air, and he had known. The most compelling reason to boil pine tar in the wilderness was to caulk a boat.
The sounds of desperate battle now filtered through the grey slurry of the air. With the first clang of steel, another grim and awful realization visited Thorongil. Almost to a man, the two Companies were unarmed. Thorongil had left his drill sword and belted on his true one instead, still uneasy, but most had only the practice weapons. There was a chance that the men of the Second could retrieve their arms from the encampment, though it would mean drawing the enemy in. But the Tenth…
'To arms!' cried Herion, drawing his blunt blade and taking three bold steps before freezing in his tracks. He had come to the same conclusion, and he looked helplessly about.
'Back the way we came, swift as you are able,' said Thorongil in a low but purposeful voice. 'Catch up as many blades as you can find, and cut across the dell. The mists will shield you until almost the last.'
'I?' said Herion, black disapproval on his brow. 'And what of you, so favoured of our Captain?'
'I am armed,' Thorongil said, drawing the Númenórean blade he had so painstakingly restored to glittering deadliness. Even the mists could not dim its sheen. 'Whatever the danger, every sword will be needed.'
With this there could be no argument. Already the sounds of battle were nearing. Herion beckoned to the men, uttering a clipped command. They ran off, back towards the shallow ford. Thorongil stood a moment, considering. The stream was not more than eight feet across, and time was short. He drew back and thrust his off foot against the slope of the bank. Taking off at a run, he sprang at the water's edge and leapt to the opposite shore. His boot landed deep in the sandy soil, and he thought for a moment that his ankle would twist. It did not. Most like it knew, as every other fibre of his body knew, that there was no quarter for failure here. With long, smooth strides, Thorongil ran up the hill and eastward.
Had the young healer not raised the alarm, Minardil reflected, both Companies might have been slaughtered to a man. Both sides had been engaged in a spirited melee, sprawled along the slope. The Tenth Company had been making use of the techniques Thorongil had shared during their unstructured practice time, focusing each on one opponent and trying to capture a single small piece of high ground. It had been working, too, with few eliminated Guards on either side and the dull blades whipping through the air. Yet short of the two weeks, the men were already strengthening: they wielded the heavy swords as artfully as they did their own. From his command position, mounted at the rear of the column, Minardil watched his men with pride.
Then one of the men gave a sharp curse just out of sight in the mist. Another laughed, and yet another made some snide remark about disarrayed garments. Minardil heard his own name, repeated urgently.
'Captain Minardil! Where is he? Where?'
'Here!' called Minardil, at the same time one of the men of the Second Company announced laughingly; 'There: I've got you in the ribs. You're dead.'
The target of the ribaldry came running, ducking and weaving between men still hotly engaged. He had the rangy agility of an accomplished street thief, Minardil thought, before recognizing the young healer.
'Here, now, what's all this?' he asked, reining in his horse so that the man could approach safely. Minardil was well back from the fighting, for he was not armed for this game. Troubled by Thorongil's obvious concern about the scent of pitch, he had his own sword buckled at his side instead of a dull one: he could not join in the mock combat. 'Has someone been injured?'
'Sir! Captain! There are men!' panted Midhon, pointing back over his shoulder as if the mists did not obscure everything beyond a six foot radius. 'Men on horseback, ransacking the camp!'
Minardil frowned. 'Bandits?' he asked. It was a brave brigand who would try to loot the encampment of a Company of Gondor, but perhaps the weather had made them bold.
'No! No!' The healer was breathing very shallowly, high in his chest. His eyes were glazed with panic and he was very pale. Minardil feared he would faint, and was relieved instead of annoyed when Midhon seized hold of his stirrup-strap and gripped it. 'On horseback, the Lidless Eye. There are orcs, Captain: great black orcs!'
There was no time to puzzle through the particulars of this. There was no time for anything at all but action. Minardil opened his mouth, ready to order the men into formation. Then he remembered the swords.
'Arm yourselves!' he bellowed. He did not stop to consider that perhaps Midhon had mistaken the shapes in the mist. Such an assumption would have been too great a risk. If the healer was wrong, or exaggerating in his fear, then Minardil would look a fool before Nelior and the Captain-General both. Yet if he was right and Minardil did not act, they could all be slain: not a man save himself had a real sword at hand.
He unsheathed his own and brandished it. 'Your swords!' he bellowed. 'Second Company, fetch your swords!'
'What's this?' a hard voice demanded. It was Nelior, also mounted, riding through a gap in the crowd of men now beginning to slow in their play-fighting. Some looked puzzled, some disdainful. Others were clearly dismayed.
'There has been a sighting of the Enemy's forces,' said Minardil as levelly as he could. Midhon's grip upon the stirrup tightened, as if to have an officer take him at his word was a dizzying thing. 'They are in my Company's camp even now, and we must prevent them from ravaging further.'
Even as he said the words, Minardil's throat was closing in disbelief. Never in his life had he faced the forces of Sauron. Wild men and Dunlendings, yes; but even so his lot in life was to guard street corners and stand watch upon an inner wall of a stalwart fortress. If Midhon spoke true, Minardil was about to be blooded.
'The Enemy cannot cross the river,' scoffed Nelior. 'Not with all Lord Cairon's army between! Osgiliath is guarded: the bridge is closed.'
Minardil's limbs were suddenly cold. He remembered now what Thorongil had said about pine pitch and boats. 'It is the Enemy,' he said, deathly certain.
Something of that surety was seen by Nelior, who though he cast a dark and skeptical look at Minardil raised his voice and a commanding hand. 'Men of the Second Company! Fetch your swords!'
Then before either Captain could give further orders, chaos descended upon the obscured field.
Denethor heard the hollered commands of the two Captains as vague echoes far off in a world of mist. Puzzled he rose. He carried his blade, of course. Beyond the fastness of Minas Tirith, Dagarod was ever at his side. Yet he did not draw it at once. He was still standing by the chair, frowning into the fog as if his very will might disperse it, when the first men came running. They were knights of the Citadel, casting off their practice gear as they came. They rummaged for their own blades among camping gear and timber.
'What is this?' Denethor demanded. They had neither ears nor eyes for him.
More men were coming now, frenzied in their search for their swords. Denethor stepped forward and seized a young Guard by the shoulders, shaking him twice. 'What is the meaning of this? Speak!'
For a moment the man's mouth worked senselessly. Then he shuddered, finding both his courage and his voice. 'The Enemy, my Lord,' he said breathlessly. 'In the other camp: Men, orcs!'
'What?' The single syllable was breathy with wrathful disbelief, or what wanted very much to be disbelief. But just then the first shriek of agony rang on the air. Denethor's blood seemed to freeze momentarily in his veins. Then it resurged with swelling swiftness, hot as molten gold.
It mattered not how the foe had reached them, nor what the answers might be to a hundred questions more. It mattered not that if they had crossed the river then Cairon had somehow failed in his charge. All that mattered was that Denethor's men were imperilled and the safety of innocent countryfolk was at stake. He released his hold upon the man and drew his sword.
'Men of Gondor, to arms!' he roared. Then, with less grandeur but more practicality, he began to issue swift commands. 'Take up a sword: never mind whose. Form two columns around the crest of the hill, one behind the other. We must hold the high ground! Let those with skill at the bow take arrows. Men of the Tenth Company, find what you may! Pikes, knives. If need be your dull blades can be used as cudgels. To arms!'
The men of Minas Tirith mustered with admirable swiftness, ordering themselves with a neatness they had not possessed ten days before. The noises from the head of the hill were growing still more terrible, and it was impossible to guess the numbers of the Enemy or how many of the Guards had been trapped in the engagement without true weapons to wield. Sprinting to the head of the first column as he shouted to the second to hold fast, it was Denethor son of Ecthelion who led the charge.
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