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Note: As the long silence indicates, I am juggling a lot of balls at the moment. One must fall, and after much careful discernment I’ve decided that it must be the review replies. I will hopefully catch up later, but in the meantime please forgive the radio silence. I’ll still respond to any questions left in reviews and to PMs. Thank you everyone!
This chapter contains scenes of violence and detailed battlefield triage. Fair warning.
Chapter XVII: Field of Glory
Ecthelion awoke to the unsettling feeling of a cold bed. He lay in the darkness of the drawn draperies for a moment or two, puzzled, and then let his hand slide across to where Anoriel should have lain. The indentation of her shoulder was still deep in the feather tick and the sheet still held the memory of her warmth, but a draft had crept under the bedclothes where she had folded them back as she rose. The curtain on her side was also agape, and through it he could see the grey sliver of the morning.
He sat up and shifted to her side of the bed, drawing the heavy velvet aside. She stood at the casement, looking out upon a gloomy city. Lost deep in thought, Anoriel gave no sign of hearing his approach. Gently Ecthelion laid his hand upon her shoulder. She startled at his touch and then leaned in towards the warmth of his body. She was shivering.
‘How long have you been abroad?’ he asked.
She tilted her head to look up at him, and he saw now her pallor and the deep lines of care cut deeply at either side of her mouth. She looked far older than her years in that moment, like a woman in the years of her dotage.
‘What is it, my dear? What is amiss?’ Ecthelion breathed, dismayed.
‘I awoke from dark dreams,’ said Anoriel, turning her eyes back to the window. The Steward’s bedchamber looked northward, and the mists that clung to the sheltered places in the streets below deepened to a seamless grey wall upon the Pelennor. The fog would be thick over Anduin that day, likely without respite.
‘Dark dreams.’ His own sleep had been untroubled, but Ecthelion felt a shudder of dread. His wife was of ancient blood, and there was in her a measure of the foresight of Westernesse. ‘Not of Telpiriel?’
Anoriel looked at him in some alarm. Then seeing he spoke not from his own knowledge she shook her head. ‘No, not Telpiriel. She seemed much improved last evening. Our little lady is a leavening presence in a house grown too grim.’ A fond smile touched her lips, but vanished as her eyes travelled once more to the window. ‘Husband, is there aught to fear in these exercises our son is leading?’
‘Nay, surely there can be nothing to fear,’ Ecthelion said. ‘It is but a training excursion, and though not all the men are knowledgeable they are surely obedient.’
‘All the same…’ Anoriel shuddered and drew nearer to him. She had not stopped to put on a robe over her long bedgown, and her feet were bare. Ecthelion savoured the trusting contact. ‘I dreamt of fire and blades, and everywhere smoke…’
‘Fog?’ he suggested, nodding to the window.
Anoriel made a vague humming sound, like a sleeper being talked out of a dream. ‘Fog? Yes, I suppose it might be fog.’ Then voice and expression grew harder. ‘Yet you assure me there is no need for fear.’
‘I do,’ Ecthelion promised. ‘Even were some mischance to find him in these quiet lands, Denethor is the equal of any travail. I would worry more for the Tenth Company were he not with them. In this our son is wise: the Guards of the lower City are ill-prepared for any conflict that might bring them down from the battlements.’
Anoriel took little comfort from his words. ‘Do you believe such a thing is coming?’
‘It may,’ Ecthelion said. He forced the words out before he could yield to the temptation to soften the truth. His desire to spare her in years past had wrought harm upon their marriage-bond. ‘That is the reason I wish to build the wall about the Pelennor. If any such attack came, it could serve as a first defence for our most vulnerable people.’
‘Then there is still no movement in the Council?’ she asked.
Ecthelion shook his head and turned her gently from the window. ‘With Adrahil and Denethor both opposed, I have little hope of swaying the rest. Some look upon the cost and see only economic impediments.’
‘Surely Denethor’s care is not for the cost,’ Anoriel said placidly, letting herself be led to the writing table. There her heavy velvet robe lay waiting, and Ecthelion held it or her as she slipped her arms into the silken warmth.
‘Nay, but he believes the effort unnecessary: a waste and a gesture to appease a nervous populace,’ He sighed. ‘We disagree on that point, alas! Denethor believes that in order to be vigilant all must possess a measure of fear. My own belief is that if our folk dwell ever in terror, then the Enemy has already achieved his first and greatest victory.’
‘Glad words to warm a cold morning,’ Anoriel said with the almost blistering sarcasm she seldom unveiled. At Ecthelion’s startled look, she relented a little. ‘Would that there were someone to mediate between father and son, or else a Councillor with views contrary enough to make Denethor see how closely you are in accord.’
Ecthelion laughed softly, with a rueful effort. ‘Take care with your wishes, my dear. The Council needs no further dissention.’
Anoriel smiled faintly and turned to kiss him lightly upon the cheek. ‘There is no more sleep in me,’ she said. ‘I shall leave you to your morning. I will be taking nuncheon with our daughters, if you have word to send.’
‘Only my love,’ said Ecthelion fondly, wishing he had the leisure to go with her. A quick mouthful in his study was all he was likely to have time for this day.
He went with her to the door and held it for her. Only when Anoriel had slipped into her own room did he retreat to the window again. Indifferent daylight was spreading over a city still kissed with mist. Ecthelion frowned, thinking of his wife’s ill dream. Fear and fire and fog… it chilled his heart.
Minardil’s breath came in thick, shallow pants that burned in his chest and scarcely seemed to reach his lungs, but he had no chance to care for that. Those among his men who were able had retreated into the Second Company’s camp in search of true weapons. The others, and with them about two dozen Guards of the Citadel under Nelior, were trying to hold off the enemy onslaught with blunt blades and belt knives. The latter were not strictly an item of livery, but Minardil had allowed his men to carry them during the exercises. He had reasoned that such tools might be needed at any time in wild country, but never had he imagined such a use as this.
The foe had come from a south-southeasterly direction as expected: Midhon’s hasty warning had achieved that much. Minardil had no clear sense of their numbers, even now when he had cut down seven himself. There were orcs and Men both, the Men mounted and clad in strange scaled mail. When they called to each other their words were peculiar and somehow almost lyrical despite the battle-lust. As for the orcs, their hideous gibberish clawed at the ears and turned the stomach.
One of the Second Company’s Lieutenants had a real blade on his person, and he was heading one branch of their defensive line. There had been just time enough to arrange the men on the high ground in a configuration similar to that the Tenth had employed in their first victorious manoeuvre. It lacked the earthen defences and the central division of men, and even jointly the force was far smaller. Minardil thought it their best chance, and in the heat of the moment Nelior had not voiced any protest.
Now the two Captains, the only soldiers of Gondor in the saddle, were attempting to serve as deadly distractions in the hope that the rest of their Companies would return swiftly with arms. From opposite tangents they had swept down the hill, swords brandished high. Only Minardil’s had a keen edge, but such was the fury of Nelior’s sword-arm that the oncoming force did not seem to notice. Blunt though it was, the overweighted sword was a formidable weapon. Nelior swung the flat against the outthrust jaw of one orc, smashing bone and fang alike. That orc fell to his knees, gabbling senselessly as his lips foamed with bright blood. Another Nelior struck so mightily upon the crown that, helm and horny skull notwithstanding, the creature crumpled bonelessly to earth.
Minardil’s own efforts were just as forceful but far more bloody. He did not think he would ever forget the first gout of black ichor springing from a severed throat. At least that death had been swift: thrall of Barad-dûr the thing was, but the orc had also been a living creature and Minardil would not have wished it lengthy suffering. Even a mad dog had some claim to mercy.
This was a very different matter from driving off wild men from the meadows of Lossarnach. These Men and their gnarled companions were so plated in armour as to be scarcely recognizable, the coats of the Men fitted with high gorgets to shield jaw and cloak. Plumes red as death flowed from their spiked helms, and their feet below the stirrupless saddles were clad in hobnailed boots with narrow toes. Scarcely mortal they seemed, yet when Minardil lopped off the arm of one dour warrior he gave a cry of torment to chill the blood.
The distraction of the two Captains rapidly lost its potency. By that time, however, the men of the two Companies had adjusted their thinking from that of a competitive but amicable contest to that of a deadly struggle. They had mustered their wits and now brandished their dull blades fiercely. They could still parry blows with ease, and indeed with greater efficiency, for the heavier swords were harder for the orcs’ scimitars to shift. The horses made easy targets, too, if a man could get in under the sword of the rider: a hard whack to the side of the head or the back of the leg left the animals dazed or debilitated.
Still, there was little that the men of Gondor could do to dispatch their attackers. With every true strike of his own sword, Minardil found himself waiting with increasing desperation for the return of the men who had gone to seek arms. He was trying to get a count of the enemy, but it was impossible in the thick and ever-shifting fog. Even the noise of the battle seemed to wax and wane, and he was in the midst of it. He prayed that the others would find them. He prayed that Thorongil would be with them – Thorongil, who had known something was afoot and had tried to warn his Captain.
There was no time for self-castigation now, not while the lives of his men relied upon his sword. Minardil shouted encouragement and the few simple orders he could think of: “Stand fast! Keep near! Hold the high ground!”
Then he heard a sound as welcome as any he could have imagined in that moment. Ringing clear and fair, transcending the strange muffling of the mists, came the sound of the great white horn of the House of Húrin. The men all heard, and each responded as he could. Those free to do so stiffened and lifted their heads towards the sound. Those embroiled in the heat of immediate need fought now with greater resolve, knowing that the aid so desperately needed was nigh. Minardil’s own heart beat stronger at the musical thunder of that horn: Denethor son of Ecthelion was coming.
Not he alone, either, though he was the first to emerge from the nebulous grey that had so aided the foe. In his wake came men of both Companies, sable and worst-black standing shoulder to shoulder with weapons at the ready. Some of the men of the Tenth bore swords, Minardil saw with astonished gratitude, just as some of the Second had knives or bows at the ready. The last group stopped some paces behind the charge, taking aim at the riders. Minardil had a moment to spare the hope that they recognized the two Captains despite the mist, before one of the enemy’s horses came pounding towards him, its rider brandishing his sword to whisk off a head.
On they fought, some men falling but more felling. From time to time in the chaos Minardil caught sight of his Captain-General. He was without mail or helm to cover him, and his dark hair flowed and rippled loose in his wake. So swiftly he moved that the fog could not escape him: it swirled in eddies and tendrils about him as his long sword found its mark again and again and the bright blade grew black with blood.
Yet they were losing ground. Slowly but inexorably the orcs and their accursed companions were driving them up the hill. There were more than Minardil had first feared, and more still seemed to swell up out of the fog as the others fell. The combatants were tripping over bodies now, both the dead and the wounded. There were curses in four tongues as these ghastly hurdles were navigated well or poorly, and cries from the conscious fallen when a stray boot struck home. Minardil heard voices that he knew among both groups, and he could not bear to remember to which of his men each belonged.
He was thankful that there was nothing behind them to defend: no walled city filled with fair and loyal folk, no manor house with granaries stocked high, no village of the poor and trusting. There was only the camp, empty of its denizens and containing little of value but their travel fare and a few good pieces of furniture. Yet it seemed that they would soon be fighting among the cold fire pits and bedrolls, and they were in danger of becoming outnumbered.
Then the awful cry came from the throat of the Steward’s Heir. “Fall back!” Denethor cried. “Back and southwest!”
Someone, breathless from the fray but not bereft of his insolence, called back in irritation; “Which way’s southwest in this soup?”
In ordinary circumstances this would have earned the soldier a reprimand and a vicious glare of disapproval from the Captain-General – perhaps even a sharp backhanded blow if proximity allowed it. Now Denethor merely raised his off arm, still parrying with his sword, and waved it straight to his side. “My left!” he roared. “Uphill and to my left, as you may! Fall back!”
Minardil wanted to cry out his protest. Retreat? Yield disputed ground and draw up towards where the earth grew level and their one precious advantage would be meaningless? Yet Guardsman though he was he was a faithful soldier, and he would no more question an order in the midst of a battle than he would smite down one of his own men. He took up the cry himself, though with his sword in one hand and the reins in the other he could not gesture.
He did not need to. After the first few men began their backfooted ascent, drawing on the slavering orcs and what riders remained astride, the rest knew where to follow. Denethor had led the charge, but he did not lead the withdrawal: he stood as rearguard, holding a broad swath of the foe at bay. Minardil and Nelior, whose Lieutenant had brought him his own well-tended sword, rode madly through the fray. The horses had been brought as a privilege of rank and a show of power and used in the exercises for the same, but they were true warhorses of Gondor, reared in Lossarnach from stock liberally salted with the seed of Rohan. They were obedient and they were all but fearless, save when one of the vile orcs chanced to speak in the hated tongue of Mordor. Then they would balk a moment or recoil from the speaker, and it took a strong hand to hold them fast.
“Would that your horsemaster were here!” shouted Nelior in a moment when both steeds were circling around to make another pass of the enemy’s northerly flank. “Has he fled in the moment of need?”
Minardil could not answer, for the swell of battle rose again, but he would have wished to speak in defence of his Guardsman. Thorongil had been sent with the small group actually charged with capturing the water. In the muted air he might not even be able to hear that battle had been joined. It was not reasonable to hope that he might come.
The fighting was growing hotter, and there was a sharp staccato cry as a man in cheap black wool crumpled almost beneath the hooves of Nelior’s horse. The Captain had to veer violently left to keep from trampling him. Minardil turned away as swiftly as he could, for he could not bear to know which of his own men had been cut down – not now, when he had to hold his mettle for the foe. The red pool spreading beneath the ruinous form was terrible enough.
He tried to gather his wits and take stock of the battle. That was a Captain’s duty, was it not? But the sight was no glad thing. It seemed they were now outnumbered, but whether because more orcs had come or because of their own losses Minardil could not say. The men of Gondor were still yielding ground, withdrawing steadily as Lord Denethor had commanded. Minardil had no more time to contemplate his position, however, for it was just then that he was unhorsed.
It happened so rapidly that he had time only for one thought: that he must keep hold of his sword. Minardil saw first the dark, swiping sabre and the terrible spray of bright scarlet as his horse’s throat was slashed wide. The poor beast could not even call out in its final agony, so deep was the wound. Its legs began to fold and Minardil only just had time to kick his feet out of the stirrups before the horse began to pitch to the left. He did not remember what more to do, for his days of riding his father’s land were long behind him, but his body had its own notions.
As the horse fell, Minardil rolled his body in the other direction, his ankle sliding up towards his hip as his knee bent of its own accord. The right foot struck the ground at about the same moment as the horse’s left shoulder, and Minardil pitched his weight over it and into the trampling chaos churning up mud and frost-bitten grass.
The jarring impact left Minardil winded and momentarily severed from his surroundings. First to return was his sense of his own body in relation to the hard ground. The elbow of his sword-arm was pinned beneath him, but somehow he managed to keep from landing on the blade. His grip upon the hilts was so desperately tight that he could not feel his fingertips within the supple leather glove. He shifted onto his back with an unlovely jerk of hips and shoulders, just in time to raise his blade to swipe away a descending scimitar.
The orc, who had hoped to impale him, let out a bellow of rage. Minardil tried to disentangle his feet from the loose lines of the reins and his own heavy cloak, but all he succeeded in doing was skidding on his back like an overturned turtle. One knee struck the warm, lifeless bulk of his horse and he felt a pang of regret for the loss of a faithful beast. A moment later all finer feeling had fled as he found himself struggling for his life.
All about him the broad feet of the enemy were pounding. The orc above him was not the only one eager for a piece of the heretofore deadly rider: they were swarming upon him. Minardil struck out with his sword, finding a soft spot below the ragged edge of one mail shirt. His hand and arm were suddenly stained with blood and he had to scramble swiftly out of the way before the creature fell across his legs. He did not dare to turn his back that he might get to his knees, and when he was compelled to roll sharply to the right to evade a studded mace Minardil was glad he had resisted the impulse. A hard foot caught him in the shoulder blade, one orc at least striking out as was most natural.
Twisting and trying to fend off all of them at once, the Captain knew he could not endure long. They had him surrounded and he was too beleaguered even to call for aid. The sounds of battle pounded in his ears and he tasted the sickening dread of death. Above him the clamour and chaos was growing. He heard the harsh, guttural oaths of the Black Tongue and a cry of indignant terror. Then the one that had kicked him fell to earth in a thunder of armour and horny flesh.
There was another pair of feet now, weaving in amongst the others with great speed and remarkable calm. A flash of bright metal crossed paths with a dark orcish sabre, and another of the hideous things fell. Minardil turned his attention to guarding his head, trying to make some sense of the chaos. There was a man of Gondor close above him, feet in close-fitted boots dancing with deadly grace. He ducked low to evade a blow from one of the riders, and the sodden hem of his cloak smacked squelchingly against Minardil’s hip. The blur of faded poor-black whipped around then and the man leapt nimbly over the body he guarded against the ravening swarm.
Minardil dared at last to roll onto his side, away from his defender with his sword still at the ready. He got his knee under him and rose at last, swaying a little. There was an Easterling, unhorsed and raging for revenge, descending upon him. He struck out with all his might, and the man’s sabre went flying. Minardil hesitated. He could not cut down an unarmed man: he was certain that he could not.
‘Captain!’ a familiar voice called, rousing him from his reverie in time to see the Easterling draw a long and wicked knife and swipe it for his throat. Minardil ducked the blow, felt his balance wavering again, and then found himself buoyed up by something strong and firm across his shoulder blades. In a bewildered moment he realized that it was another body: his protector was now standing behind him, back-to-back as two men ought to stand when surrounded by the foe.
He needed no further words to identify him: his height and his skill were enough. Yet as Minardil found his feet again Thorongil spoke, breathing quick but not strained. ‘We shall hold them, you and I! Aid is coming. Stand fast, Captain!’
As best he could, Minardil obeyed.
He had been goading the men on into retreat, and at last the moment came. Denethor took one last swift glance to orient himself, paused to smite down the craven goblin thing that had come charging to slay him, and raised his voice to the heavens. ‘Forward, rearguard! Forward as one! Flank us: draw up behind and take the foe! Forward!’
Out of the mists they came: men of the Citadel in their high helms and dark mail, and men of the Second Level, staunchly determined. There was to be seen in their hands the same mismatched assortment of weapons that the first wave carried, but even at first glance Denethor could see a greater proportion of swords. Only later would he learn how a Lieutenant of the Tenth Company had come from the other, ravaged encampment with twelve men, arms laden with swords like so many kindling branches.
The men were fresh and ready to fight, and they were well armed. They swarmed around the rear of the other group as one, driving the enemy into a more compact space. A spattering of arrows rained down upon the fray, before Nelior screamed at the archers further up the hill to hold. That was good. Denethor had not thought to remind the bowmen (inexperienced as they were) to fire at close range or not at all, lest they should strike their comrades instead of the foe. He hoped that most would have the good sense to hang back. It took an accomplished archer to strike an enemy bearing down upon him at speed, and few of those present had such skill.
Denethor himself was never more in his native element than on the field of battle. His quick eyes and quicker mind surveyed the struggle, in as much as it could be seen. Every muscle in his body was taut, intent upon the swipe of his sword and the navigation of the slippery hillside beneath him. The most deadly risk was the horsemen, but the orcs were far more numerous. Once he had found a piece of suitable ground, Denethor stood fast and let them come to him. Come they did, the arrogant wretches. Even when he stood in a ring of foul-smelling carcasses, still they came.
He did not know their number. In the mists it was impossible to say. It was sufficient to strain two hundred strong, and all further tallies could wait until the foe was vanquished. Denethor cared only for the felling of the next orc, and the next. All about him his men were putting forward all their best, Citadel and City alike. He saw a man in worst-black and leathers cut down an Uruk twice his breadth. Nelior, now properly armed, was deadly upon his horse. With the fever of combat Denethor burned also with pride in the might and courage of his men.
He did not see Minardil fall, but all at once the Captain of the Tenth Company was gone and his mount lay dead in the blood-soaked mud. Whether the rider had managed to free himself in time, or been crushed beneath the horse’s bulk could not at once be seen. But then came the orcs, eager for blood, and Denethor knew that Minardil yet lived – for a little while, at least.
He tried to win through to defend his fallen Captain, but his efforts were in vain. Marked now as the deadliest fighter on the field, Denethor was besieged. He fought on, turning now one way and now another. But he was facing in the right direction when a tall body sprang suddenly from the mists.
It was the sword that first caught his eye: long and slender, seeming despite the gloom and the edges black with blood to glint with a glory of old. A sword of Númenórean steel if Denethor knew aught of such things, and it was wielded with skill such as was seldom seen in Gondor.
The man – in the frenzy it was difficult to make sense of his face – ran at once for the slain horse and the orcs clamouring to reach the fallen Captain. He scarcely seemed to pause in his stride as he severed one orc’s throat and cut the arm from another. He ducked beneath an Easterling’s mace and its horse, startled, recoiled from the determined runner. Denethor’s attention was snatched then by the need to preserve his own limbs, and a few harried moments passed before he had leisure to look back.
There was no doubt now that Minardil lived, and Denethor felt a clenching relief. Gondor could ill afford to lose such a man. He could see the Captain’s shoulder and bowed head as he fought to rise. Above him, sheltering his commander beneath his long legs, the tall man fought on. Then suddenly Minardil was on his feet, swaying and bloodied but able. He derobed an unhorsed Easterling, and then with the other man’s cry slew the hated thing. Denethor felt a savage burst of vindication. Let all the might of Mordor fall upon them, but these cringing thralls would never be the equal of one of Gondor’s champions.
Nor were they the equal of two hundred doughty men, he saw as he was suddenly afforded respite enough to draw breath. The enemy was now at little more than a tenth its original strength, if he guessed aright. There was a cry in the tongue of Rhûn and then a bellowed order in the vile language of Mordor. It was repeated twice before the orcs began to obey, and by then Denethor had recognized the call to retreat.
Swiftly he sprang into action. There were horses roaming loose upon the field, skittish but unharmed. He hastened towards one, catching hold of the bridle before the stallion could lurch away. Denethor reached to pat his muzzle, but the horse shied from the blood on his glove. He turned his face from the animal and raised his voice to shout for Minardil.
He came, ashen save for the flush of exertion blooming upon his cheeks. His sword was slick and his back and left flank smeared with mud, and tendrils of sweat-soaked hair had slipped from beneath his low helm. Most of the blood upon him seemed to belong to the orcs; it smelled foul enough, anyhow. ‘Sire?’ he panted, chest heaving.
Denethor seized the lines and thrust them into his hands. ‘Go!’ he said hurriedly. ‘Lead the pursuit. They must not be allowed to prey upon the villages.’
Minardil’s eyes widened and he glanced about. Already most of the foe had vanished into the fog. ‘Lead… how, my lord?’
‘However you see fit,’ Denethor said. ‘You have shown extraordinary skill as a tactician these last days: use some of it now!’
The last of the colour drained from Minardil’s face. He looked wildly around again. ‘Sire… sire, I cannot…’
‘At once, Captain! I have given you my orders: obey!’ Denethor snapped. It was natural to be dazed in the midst of the battle, and the man had taken a bad fall as well, but this was not the time for diffidence.
‘I cannot, my Lord!’ cried Minardil, his features contorted in an agony of doubt and reluctance. ‘It… it was not I, my Lord, who led the Tenth to victory!’
Denethor seized his shoulders. ‘What?’ he snapped. Every moment wasted was one more in which the enemy might draw nearer to the shepherds’ villages and the all-important charcoal works that supplied Minas Tirith with fuel. ‘What do you mean? Then who did?’
Minardil hesitated, looking like a man being compelled under torment to betray an oath. ‘Thorongil, sire,’ he gasped at last. ‘My new man, the Captain out of Rohan.’
For a moment Denethor could not speak. He could scarcely think. Thorongil? The insolently courteous young swordsman who had come bearing Thengel’s favour? But there was no time, no time at all.
‘Gather our men. See the wounded are cared for. Be sure…’ Denethor halted, shook his head once, disgusted, and snapped; ‘Use what judgment you have been given. Go!’
He snatched the reins so swiftly that one trailing edge slapped Minardil’s cheek. The man jerked back, startled, then stepped clear as Denethor swung into the saddle and compelled the horse to turn in a broad wheel.
‘Men of the Citadel!’ he roared. ‘Come! We must make pursuit! Follow! Follow!’
Out of the mist came Nelior at a canter, and such of the men in sable yet unscathed came running. Satisfied that they were following and thinking now of the assets imperilled, Denethor rode.
Thorongil had to stay the urge to race after the pursuing party. He had to, for he had not been bidden to follow. It was not his place to join the call, as it had not been his place to defy Minardil’s verdict that morning. Besides, there was work enough here. All about him lay the wounded of West and East alike, and still here and there the men were embroiled in combat. This latter was under control, like the last licking flames of a wildfire that has met its end. He turned, therefore, to the nearest survivor.
He was a man of the Second Company. Twisted painfully upon his side, he was struggling to keep pressure on an ugly gash that had rent open his mail and bit deep into his arm. Dropping to his knees, Thorongil laid his sword in the muck and reached to remove the high, winged helm weighing down upon the wounded man’s neck.
‘Fear not,’ he said, the trumpet of battle gone from his voice. ‘I shall tend you. I am Thorongil of the Guard, man of the Tenth Company.’
The man tried to pull away. In doing so his fingers slipped. Where they wiped away the blood there showed briefly the depth of thou wound: the yellow of the fatty flesh and the grey muscle sheath beneath. Thorongil’s lips tightened, but he gave no other sign of his dismay. He would have to act quickly if there was to be any hope of saving the arm.
‘Leave me be!’ the man snarled, savage in his anguish. ‘The healer! Where is the healer?’
Thorongil did not know. A swift glance of the sphere of the world visible gave no sign of Midhon, but the trail of battle stretched far back and down the hill. He might be anywhere at all. ‘Tending to another,’ Thorongil said, hoping for the sake of the other casualties that he did not speak false. ‘I must bind the wound, or you may bleed to death.’
‘I want a healer,’ the man protested, now sounding more like a sulking child than a wounded animal.
Thorongil leaned near so that the man could read the truth in his eyes. ‘I am a healer,’ he whispered. ‘The hurt to your arm is grave. Death is not your only peril.’
The man made a sound behind clenched teeth and thrust his head away from the gored appendage. In doing so he rolled upon his back, and Thorongil was able to examine the wound.
The first impediment was the mail shirt. There was no hope of removing it, but the jagged edges of the broken rings were digging dangerously into the riven flesh. A sword could only inflict such damage if wielded with terrible force, and Thorongil wondered with dread if the arm were broken also. He did not test it, for the bleeding was the first concern. It was the bleeding that would kill his patient.
He took his hunting knife from his belt, grateful that Minardil had allowed his men to carry them despite their unsuitability with the uniform. It was wrought of Noldorin steel, though in an unremarkable design that had quite distressed the smiths of Imladris. It had affronted their dignity to turn out so common-looking a thing, but Gandalf had been most insistent. Through the years, Thorongil had found cause to be very glad of this wisdom. He slid it up the half-sleeve of black rings and jerked upward in a motion that drew upon all the strength in his tired sword-arm. With a squawk of yielding metal and a few bright sparks, the shirt was split up to the original rent. This allowed him to fold back the flaps and lift the worst of it out of the way without the picky and time-consuming labour of gathering individual shards from the rings.
The wounded man moaned as fingers probed the wound. Thorongil had no bandages, so he used the other side of his knife – which would need careful attention by a swordsmith to undo the damage he had just wrought – to cut a strip from the man’s sable hauberk. The White Tree was smeared with scarlet gore, and the stars and crown could scarcely be seen.
Once, twice, thrice he wound the length about the man’s arm, yanking the bandage tightly each time. No large vessels had been cut: with pressure to close the others, there was every hope of this man surviving to see more careful treatment later. Thorongil knotted the dressing and placed the man’s good hand upon it. ‘Hold fast here, and do not move,’ he said. ‘Someone will come to bring you water.’
The warrior, a hair’s breadth from a swoon of pain, made a vague noise of assent. Thorongil was already on his feet, wiping his sword upon his cloak as he strode onward. He saw two of his fellows standing in the midst of the carnage, looking vague and disoriented. They were in danger of giving in to the shock, and he had no need of more patients. Firm orders and a tangible task were usually enough to stave off the malady in soldiers, at least for a little while. Thorongil called to them.
‘Fetch water,’ he said when they turned to their names. ‘Offer it to each of the wounded. If any of the enemy survive, do not deny them. Remember that we are not thralls of Sauron: show mercy.’
He did not stay to see himself obeyed. He did not need to. He moved swiftly to the next body, to find an Easterling with the great, staring eyes of the dead. Thorongil knelt swiftly to draw a corner of the man’s head-wrapping across his face. Further care could not be spared the dead now, but this would at least be a sign to others that this man had no need of their care. On he went to the next man.
The orcs lay still. Those that had not been slain outright had either risen up to strike again as best they could or dispatched their own pitiable lives sooner than risk capture. Scarcely glancing at them, Thorongil dropped beside another, this one in the poor-black of the Tenth Company.
It was Lieutenant Dúrion, unconscious but breathing. A swift pass of the hands under his limbs and body revealed no flowing blood, but the side of his helm bore a telling dent. There was nothing that Thorongil could do for a blunt head wound, not quickly. He stood and called to another wanderer, commanding him to sit with the Lieutenant and to speak to him, to keep him from slumber if he woke, and to remain at his side until Thorongil’s return. On he went, seeking the next in need.
So he moved down the trail of the battle, from body to body like a child hopping step-stones in a pond. Some he could help, some he could not. Others, like those suffering broken bones or ankles wrenched upon the slippery ground, would have to wait until the life-threatening wounds were staunched. As he moved, Thorongil found himself almost instinctively raking up the count of Gondor’s dead. He was at thirty-one when he caught sight of Midhon.
The healer was bandaging the side of one of the men who had followed Herion to fetch swords. The leather jerkin that served as his armour had been little impediment to an orc’s scimitar. The situation seemed well in hand, and Thorongil bent to the next body.
It was an Easterling, swarthy skin sickeningly ashen. A trickle of blood came from the corner of his mouth, but there was no deadly pink foam to accompany it. His breastplate hung askew from one shoulder, its straps severed. The deep dent in the scales beneath told Thorongil that he had been struck with the flat of one of the hefty practice blades that had been all the men had been carrying at the moment of need. He leaned low to listen to the man’s breath, finding it laboured and shallow, but steady.
‘Fetch rope!’ he called to no one in particular. He threw the man’s sword far out of reach and began to search for other weapons. ‘I need three men and rope! Saddle-girth, lead lines, whatever comes to hand! Quickly.’
He was unbuckling the man’s belt when he stirred. ‘Be still,’ Thorongil said, not knowing if he would be understood. ‘You are wounded, and must be still. You are a prisoner of Gondor, and you shall not be harmed. Do you know the Common Speech?’
The Easterling moaned and shifted his head. Thorongil drew the man’s hands before him and cinched the belt about the wrists, watching his face for any grimace of mounting pain. There was none. If he had taken other hurt, it was not to his arms. Thus assured that he would not be seized about the throat as he worked, Thorongil began to search for further wounds.
The men he had called for came swiftly, two of his own Company and one from the Second who had somehow missed his Captain-General’s summons. That was all to the good for Thorongil, who had then a ready man to put in charge. Yet he let them hang back as he continued his search. He found what he had feared beneath the corner of the breastplate where it had slipped to hide the crest of the man’s hip: he had been stabbed cleanly with the tip of a keen sword. It was the wound that had surely unhorsed him, with the blunt blow following after. It needed staunching, and swiftly, but the muddied and bloodied garments the man wore beneath his mail were too befouled to use.
Thorongil shoved up his own left sleeve high upon his arm, momentarily glad for the want of real mail that had made him feel so naked when he had first joined the battle. He cut away the sleeve of the shirt beneath, sweat-dampened but otherwise clean. One of the men standing above gave a cry of protest, but Thorongil was already packing the wound with his first two fingers. The Easterling’s next moan had a guttural, wrenching quality, and then all the rigidity ebbed from his body as he fell unconscious.
Thorongil tore strips from the hem of the man’s strange garment to bind around his body. He was slipping them beneath when the man from the Citadel crouched down and reached over to seize his shoulders.
‘Are you mad?’ he hissed. ‘There are good men of Gondor now dying, and you see to this foreign rabble? This thrall of Mordor?’
Thorongil flung him off and resumed his work before the man could recover from the shock of such treatment from one of inferior rank. ‘I too am a foreigner; perhaps you did not know,’ he said coldly. ‘And thrall of Mordor he may be, but he is a man and he yet lives. If that is not enough to satisfy you, consider this: if we save him, he may talk. We do not know how they crossed the river, or eluded the watchers in Ithilien.’
A calculating look passed through the man’s eyes, but he came swiftly enough to the inevitable conclusion. ‘How can I help?’ he asked, his voice giving no indication of which argument had swayed him.
‘Bind his feet. He must be watched. Waterbearers will come: bathe his face and if he awakens, let him drink. Do not allow him to move. The three of you can hold him down if you must, but he cannot be permitted to rupture anything within,’ Thorongil said. He pulled to the knot and was on his feet almost before the others knew he was moving. The man in sable opened his mouth to speak, but Thorongil was gone at a run.
Midhon had moved on to another body, this one in faded brownish cloth. The healer was working over the man’s thigh in a panic, his hands covered in bright blood. There was a spray of blood upon his face that Thorongil had not noted before, and in another moment he saw why. As Midhon’s hand shifted, a gout of blood leapt from the wound. Thorongil was at his side as swiftly as his long legs could carry him, skidding to his knees on the opposite side of the body.
There was a deep, ragged gash in the man’s thigh, and Midhon had both hands in the wound, trying to stem the river of life flowing out of the body. Thorongil did not allow himself the luxury of looking into the face of the wounded man. He assessed the wound instead.
‘He lay quiet,’ said Midhon, his words made rapid with horror. ‘He lay quiet, but he breathed! I found blood and I turned him, and—’
He gestured instinctively, but another spurt of blood arced out. Thorongil thrust his hand deep into the wound and found the pulsing vessel. He pinched it tightly closed, and the fountain was quieted.
‘His weight kept the wound closed,’ he explained rapidly. ‘When you moved him—’
‘I had to move him! I had to!’ Midhon cried. The calm capability had left him, and he was losing himself to the panic. ‘There was blood, oozing blood. I did not know, I could not know—’
‘No,’ said Thorongil firmly, startling the wide, anxious eyes to his face. He fixed his own steady ones upon them. ‘No, you could not know. You did what I have been doing all down the field. Now listen. Midhon, can you listen?’
The young healer nodded spastically, swallowing his terror and his gorge in one hard motion. He was trembling, but he did not look away.
‘Put your hand over mine. Feel down until you can touch the vessel I am holding. It is his great artery, feeding his leg. It must be held closed until I can find the means to tie it off. It will throb with his heart, but you must not let go.’
Midhon shuddered, but placed his hand as he was told. He had already cut away the hose and the tails of the guardsman’s shirt, Thorongil noticed with some satisfaction. He glanced at the ghastly pallor of the unconscious man. They would have hard work in saving him, if it proved possible to do it at all.
Midhon’s fingers had found the vessel, and he clamped down. Thorongil withdrew his hand and snatched the cut piece of linen. The gore on his fingers made his task easier, as he pulled loose several threads of the weft and twisted them into a piece of slender twine. Then he slid it beneath Midhon’s hand and nudged it into place above his fingertips. It was not a good sign that they could fit three working hands into the wound, but there was no time to dwell on that. Thorongil knotted the string tightly, then nodded to Midhon.
‘Withdraw,’ he said softly.
Midhon did so, pulling back a steady hand. As soon as it was free from the body it began to shake. Mortified, Midhon tried to hide it in his lap.
‘No,’ Thorongil said, firm and kind. ‘Do not be ashamed. You held it still when it was needed. You have done well. Now help me: we must bind the wound as tightly as we can. Have you the means to stitch a wound? If I can rejoin the vessel, perhaps we can spare him his leg.’
Midhon gaped at him. ‘Such things are not possible,’ he breathed. ‘Even in the Houses of Healing they cannot—’
‘Such things are possible,’ Thorongil promised. ‘Have you the means?’
‘In the camp,’ said the healer. ‘In the other camp. My tools… I came so swiftly to bear the warning that I did not think…’
‘Fetch them now, then,’ instructed Thorongil. ‘Go swiftly, but be wary. There may yet be foes lingering in the mists.’
Midhon went, and Thorongil planted both hands firmly upon the wound, compressing it as best he could. He tossed his head to shake the hair from his eyes. As he lowered his gaze again he saw Lieutenant Herion some distance away, battle-grimed and weary, but upright. He was staring in mingled wonder and dismay at what he had witnessed.
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