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Chapter XVIII: In the Wake
At last Thorongil sat back upon his heels with a soft sigh. He felt a weariness wholly disproportionate to the hour. His neck and shoulders ached, and his knees felt bruised with long kneeling. He stretched his cramping fingers, studying hands gloved in gore. He had a bucket of water by his side, scarcely less crimson. He rinsed anyhow.
It had not been an ideal undertaking, but he had had soap and boiling water and stout silk thread. Midhon had found a little wine with which to rinse the wound, behind which Thorongil suspected Lord Denethor’s servant lay. The young healer had even furnished a proper curved needle, so unlike the sewing implements with which the Eagle had often made do in Rohan. All that was to the good. All that might make the difference between life and death for Mallor.
Yet Thorongil did not like the terrible stillness of his charge. It had endured even when he had been obliged to enlarge the wound for clearer access to the artery. There had been no cry, no moan, not so much as a cringe of pain when he had used the wine. It was impossible to guess how much blood the guardsman had lost, nor whether he could have retained enough to sustain him.
Mallor lay upon Captain Nelior’s camp-bed, ashen and still. His breathing was almost unseen, but breathe he did. Save for the wicked bisection of his thigh he was unscathed. That was a mercy, for Thorongil doubted that his body could have endured any further assault.
Now that the artery was closed and the wound was bandaged there was nothing more that a healer could do. At last Thorongil looked at his patient and saw with piercing pain his comrade-in-arms. Mallor, who had fancied himself the best with a quarterstaff in five levels of Minas Tirith. Mallor, who had borne his share of the water so patiently these last many days. Mallor, who had taken Thorongil’s part in excusing the nearby villages of the burden of supporting the Companies. To see him thus laid low, with neither his limb nor his life yet sure, was a blow to the heart. Thorongil had not dwelt long enough in Gondor to make many friends, but he had begun to consider Mallor among them. He bowed his head over suddenly quaking hands. What a fine way to end a friendship, by failing to save a man’s life.
He shook himself. He had not yet failed. He had done his best, and the rest was beyond his power to determine. There were others in need of his aid, and Thorongil climbed up onto weary feet and moved stiffly for the door-flap. He flung it aside and nodded to Midhon, who was bowed over another casualty.
‘They may be brought in now,’ he said, surprised by the hoarseness of his voice. ‘As many as will fit, the most grievously wounded first.’
Midhon was well prepared: he had half a dozen men waiting to help. The wounded were lying on blankets, the corners of which were knotted so they might be used as makeshift biers. Satisfied that his supervision was not needed, Thorongil ducked back into the tent and went to the other bed, rescued from the ravaged camp of the Tenth Company. There lay his other difficult patient: the Easterling.
The man had bled through the pack of linen and the hastily-bound bandage. The wound needed stitching, and Thorongil hurriedly gathered his tools. At his instruction the Easterling was bound hand and foot to the four crude rails of Minardil’s bed. Most likely he was too weak from loss of blood to effect an escape or to harm one of his captors, but it did not do to take chances. At the very least, the ropes would hold him still while Thorongil worked. Fingers once more nimble and sure, he unwound the dressing and plucked out the bloody wad of cloth before setting to work in the poor but adequate light.
Denethor sat upon his charger, one arm across his saddle-horn and the other holding the reins low and loose. A deepening scowl bent his noble features into a countenance to strike terror into any who would oppose him. Around him, the rest of the pursuers wandered through the trampled chaos of what had clearly been the enemy’s landing site. The ground was churned and befouled by orcish feet, and in the shallows of Anduin sat the vessel they had ridden across the river. It was a pontoon raft, the floats made skilfully and doubtless carried in as if over a portage and the deck hastily lashed together: many logs split once and laid crosswise. The thing must have lain very low in the water when laden, for the deck had been painted with pitch to keep back the flood.
How the Easterlings had contrived to get their horses onto so rickety a thing was a mystery. Denethor reflected grimly that fear could compel much folly from even the most sensible of beasts.
‘How fresh are the tracks running North?’ he asked, pointing at a rope of jumbled footprints wending off at a tangent to the broad line that they had followed from the camps.
The men nearest looked reflexively. One squatted, reached as if to touch a ridge of mud and shook his head. ‘Sire, I do not know,’ he said.
‘Useless,’ spat Denethor, not of a mind to be lenient. It was true that these were city men and that most had never dwelt anywhere but on Minas Tirith’s stony heights, but it was no less frustrating to find skills wanting when most they were needed. ‘Can none among you read a trail?’
The men of the Citadel looked around, each hoping to see confidence in a comrade’s eye. Denethor did not leave them to thrash too long upon the hook. He flung his reins to the nearest man, who at least managed to catch them deftly, and swung out of the saddle. He strode to the breaking-off, cloak billowing behind him, and he noted with some satisfaction that the men drew back respectfully to allow him clear passage.
He crouched to examine the marks, noting their shallowness and the rime gathered upon the surface. Old marks, likely made before dawn. Denethor exhaled through his nostrils, rising smoothly. ‘Lieutenant, take six men and follow these to their ending. If they bend back towards our encampment, so much the better. If they do not, you are to return to the hills that we might muster a stronger pursued. Captain Nelior!’
‘My Lord?’ Nelior had dismounted with his Captain-General, as was most suitable. Now he stepped forward and saluted crisply, hands upon his breast.
‘Take the remainder of the men and inspect the villages. Leave guards in pairs: the most prosperous house is to be instructed to see to their board this day. Be sure the people know that there is danger, but that we are at hand should trouble arise.’
Denethor looked around once more. The fog was thicker still by the river, and he could not see further than four yards in any direction. Most of those they had pursued had been cut down, but it was impossible to be certain that all had. Nor was it a sure thing that the whole force had come against the Guards’ camp. From the disturbance of the bank it was plain that the raft had made at least half a dozen crossings.
‘And four of you stay to burn that monstrosity,’ Denethor commanded, pointing to the low-lying vessel. It horrified him that such a thing could be erected swiftly and in secret sufficient to escape the notice of the vigilant watchers in Ithilien. Cairon would have much to answer for in this.
‘And you, sire?’ Nelior asked as Denethor put his foot in the stirrup. ‘Where will you go?’
‘Back to the battlefield, Captain.’ Denethor swung deftly into the saddle and gathered the lines. ‘I have left an incompetent in charge of my army. Do well your duty. Reassure the people, but keep them watchful.’
Then he wheeled his horse and started off at a gallop in the direction they had come.
The men on burial detail worked in diligent silence, digging two long trenches: one for the orcs and another for the Easterlings. Others were wrapping their fallen comrades in makeshift shrouds made from camp blankets sewn coarsely closed. Minardil was certain that Gondor’s dead could be carried back to the City if two wains could be secured from the surrounding countryside. Another two would be required for the wounded, so he guessed: some would be ambulatory, but not all. He had sent a trio of men to the villages to make those arrangements, authorizing them to offer gold in recompense for the use of wagons and dray animals and to promise the safe return of both.
Minardil walked now up the rows of the dead, his heart heavy within him. Gondor’s loss stood at forty-one, a sickening loss that might yet grow. Midhon the healer was doing his best among the wounded, and those with any small experience in nursing had been set to aid him. The healer was in Nelior’s tent, where those with the most grievous hurts lay. Others moved among the wounded who had no shelter. Minardil had given orders for the ruins of his own tent to be brought here and erected. The walls had been slashed, so reported the men he had sent to take inventory of the damage, but three panels were unharmed and the roof had not been torn. It would be better shelter than the bare hillside, at least, especially if the fog turned to snow.
Yet another group of men had been set the task of building fires, both near the wounded and some distance apart. There would be many men, both young and old, fighting off the shock of the morning’s grim battle, and all would have need of warmth. Still other details had been charged with the hauling of water, the gathering and sorting of weapons, and the rescue of all that could be salvaged from the Tenth Company’s camp. Mindardil approached the extemporaneous quartermastery that was growing on the hillside.
‘What have we to work with?’ he asked, motioning that the men should not rise to his approach. He knelt down with them and began to help with the sorting of the packs: personal effects to one side, foodstuffs to another, tools to a third. The men could reclaim their possessions later, but they could not be expected to devise their own meals this day.
‘Most of the blankets are whole, though many are filthy,’ said one of the men. He wore the white and sable of the Citadel, badly marred with gore. He had taken the time to wash his hands before rooting around for rations, which Minardil silently lauded. ‘Most of the packs nearest the pavilion were badly ravaged. The further along the hill, the lesser the damage.’
‘We took the liberty of rounding up Second Company’s baggage as well,’ said another. ‘We have about a hundred and twenty measures of dried beans, about five days’ rations of meat for the same number. Seems the waybread was the first to get eaten: only about two days left of that.’
‘And we found a couple of sacks of Lord Denethor’s chalk,’ added a third man, smacking a large bundle that let out a puff of white powder.
Minardil found a smile, the first he had made all day. ‘That is not chalk,’ he said. ‘That’s flour.’
The men looked at one another, and then one laughed and the others grinned. There was a slightly manic quality to the laughter, but genuine relief in it as well.
Minardil’s calculations were complete. ‘Gather the big cookpots and start on some soup for the men. You can make some fresh bannock also; surely that will make a welcome change.’
The men exchanged an uncertain look. ‘Soup, Captain?’ said one. ‘How do we do that? Might as well get soup from a stone as from this fare.’
Minardil opened his mouth to speak, and found that he did not know. They had no stewing meat, no spices, no vegetable but the beans. He looked around him. ‘Forgil!’ he called. The old soldier was toiling up the hill with a load of brushwood to feed the fires. He nodded and approached. ‘Your campfire had soup three nights past, did you not? How was it done?’
‘Thorongil did it,’ said Forgil. ‘He did nothing special. It was more that he had the confidence to try it.'
‘Can you reproduce it?’ Minardil asked.
The old man offered half a heavy shrug. ‘I reckon I could. Might not be half as good.’
‘That is of no matter, provided it is hot and nourishing,’ said Minardil. ‘The men may not feel hunger now, but it will come. Stay here and aid these men.’
‘Yes, sir!’ Forgil said crisply. He looked down at his burden and grinned. ‘Suppose we’ll have need of this, fellows, won’t we?’
Satisfied, Minardil left them to their task. He strode back across the hill, pausing briefly to watch the men struggling gamely to dig in the frosty ground. Then he turned for Nelior’s tent, now a makeshift house of healing.
Already the place smelled strongly of blood and sweat. Men lay upon blankets in a neat hatched pattern that allowed for the round walls and the thick central pole. Midhon was squatting over one of them, checking the dressing on a thigh wound. The man beneath his hand was Helchon, one of Minardil’s own. He was conscious, but struggling to look away from the healer as he worked.
Midhon did not work long, however. He glanced up, saw Minardil, and rose to his feet as swiftly as circumspection allowed. ‘Captain!’ he exclaimed softly, mindful of the wounded about him. ‘You… you will want my report.’
‘Only if your ministrations can be spared long enough to give it,’ said Minardil. He looked around. Four other men were moving among the wounded, three with water and clean rags to lave fevered heads or to sponge away blood. The fourth, his back bowed and turned to Minardil, seemed to be working on an open wound.
‘We have sixty-eight wounded in all, sir,’ Midhon said, stepping around his patients to draw near the Captain. ‘Of these, perhaps twenty are minor hurts: shallow slices or scalp wounds, bruised ribs, three broken arms, a twisted ankle.’ A strange, wry look took him and he gave an unsteady little laugh. ‘I got my twisted ankle.’
Minardil did not pause to question this remark. Sixty-eight wounded and forty-one dead. Their strength was reduced by half. It would be a sorry homecoming for the Second Company and the Tenth when they returned to Minas Tirith. ‘One score with but minor hurts. And the rest?’ he asked.
Midhon’s pallor seemed to deepen. ‘Everything from deep flank wounds to… to a man whose great artery was severed in the leg.’ His glance shifted to the better of the two bed, where lay a ghostly figure beneath a close-tucked blanket. ‘He lives, though I know not how Thorongil contrived it.’
Midhon nodded to the man with his back turned, the one who was labouring over the wounded man with the intensity of a healer hard at work. ‘He has proved invaluable, sir. How a warrior should know of such things I cannot say, but he stitched the artery with a skill I could not hope to equal.’
Minardil knew little of the inner workings of a body, but the hushed awe in the healer’s words was testament enough to the nature of the deed. ‘Then you are fortunate to have so able an assistant. Who among the wounded is most grievously hurt?’
‘There is Mallor, who would not live now but for Thorongil’s skilful fingers,’ said Midhon, indicating Nelior’s bed and the grey-hued wraith upon it. ‘I do not know if we will be able to spare his leg even so, though we will try. Rúlar of the Second Company lost his left arm between elbow and wrist. One of his fellows had the presence of mind to make a tourniquet with his belt, or he too would be dead of lost blood. I do not know what can be done for Lieutenant Durion.’
‘And what is the nature of his hurt?’ asked Minardil, casting about for his First Lieutenant and spying him at last on the ground at the foot of his own crude bed. Wan and lifeless he lay, his head surrounded by a tightly rolled blanket bent into an inverted horseshoe. One of the waterbearers hovered near at hand, doubtless to take some swift action if Durion chanced to stir.
‘His skull, sir,’ murmured Midhon gravely. ‘He took a blow sufficient to batter his helm. Had it been steel instead of leather, perhaps…’
Minardil dropped to his knee beside the Lieutenant. He touched one neatly folded hand and found it cold – not the chill of death, praise be, but the chill of a man left long unmoving in winter’s air. Carefully Minardil took hold of the blanket tucked about the man’s waist and drew it up to his shoulders instead, covering the leather armour and the bloodstained tabard and the poor, frigid hands.
‘Rest well, friend,’ he whispered. ‘Your men await your awakening.’
Then he got to his feet and moved carefully for the door-flap. He had much to oversee, and the wounded were surely in good hands.
A time came at last when Thorongil had done everything he reasonably could for the wounded, and there was nothing more to offer than routine care. This even untrained men were capable of offering, and Thorongil was able at last to lavish a little attention upon his own human needs.
He stretched back and neck and aching arms as he stepped out into the grim afternoon, and looked about with smarting eyes. The camp was in better order than he would have expected, with the remains of Captain Minardil’s tent erected over those whose wounds were not grave and the campsites tidy and peaceful. A few fires had been lit, though not all, and about these weary men huddled with their wooden travel cups in hand. Upon the air was the toothsome aroma of salt pork and white beans. Someone had made a batch of hearty soup, and each man seemed to have a measure to warm him.
Thorongil had long ago conquered the ravening beast that was a young man’s stomach, but he had broken his fast in the dark before dawn and not generously. His mouth watered and his innards grumbled at the scent, so welcome after the metallic stench of blood and pain.
‘Here, lad: sit awhile!’ It was Forgil, of course, spying the aimless wanderer and beckoning. ‘You’ve the look of one doing hard duty. Do they have you on the burial detail?’
Thorongil shook his head and drew near. He did not try to crouch, for his legs had done more than their share of that among the wounded. He folded his long legs beneath him and sat. ‘I have been labouring under Midhon’s command. There are many wounded to care for, and I know something of splints and bandages.’
Forgil grunted offhand approval. He gave the contents of the cooking-pot a lively stir and ladled out a generous portion into one of the cups. ‘There’s fresh waybread, too. Toasted, not baked, but it’s a treat to have something not gone stale.’
Thorongil curled his hands about the mug, hoping to glean the heat that would slowly bleed through, and he raised the vessel near his lips. The scent was still more welcome at close quarters, and Thorongil took a cautious sip. The pork lent a fine flavour even without the herbs that should enrich the broth. He let the warmth of it trickle through him, and he closed his eyes in relish.
He opend them to find Forgil grinning and holding out a coil of unleavened bread. There was a hole through the centre where it had been wrapped around a green stick for toasting. Thorongil reached to take it, but withdrew his hand at the sound of his name.
‘Thorongil? Thorongil of the Guard?’ It was Lord Denethor’s servant, striding with great purpose among the men.
‘I am here.’ Thorongil rose, handing his soup off to Forgil. He stepped around the older man as the messenger looked him over appraisingly.
‘You are Thorongil, son of no man?’ he asked.
Thorongil inclined his head. ‘So I have been called.’
‘You are wanted before your Captain-General. Lay by your arms and come at once.’
Thorongil hesitated. Fresh from battle, it ran counter to instinct to unbuckle his belt and abandon his blade. Yet what else could he do? He moved to offer the sheath to Forgil, but the other soldier – no Guardsman he, but a veteran of the endless conflict in Ithilien – intercepted it. He gave Thorongil a hard look, daring him to dissent.
Denethor’s servant stopped short of seizing Thorongil’s arm, but from the brisk and commanding way he moved it was plain that the new Guard was little better than a prisoner. The other man led the way, coming up upon Minardil where he stood conferring with two men of the Citadel.
‘Captain, your presence is required before Lord Denethor at once,’ he said, scarcely less brusque.
‘I?’ Minardil said. Then he saw Thorongil and the curiosity died into a grim understanding. ‘At once,’ he said crisply.
The man did not deprive the Captain of his weapon, but that was almost the only courtesy afforded him. He strode on ahead, leaving Minardil to fall into step with his most junior subordinate. Eyes were drawn to their passage or cautiously averted, and Thorongil felt apprehension brewing where a moment ago there had been only hunger.
Down the head of the hill they walked, and up the smaller rise upon which Lord Denethor’s encampment sat untouched. His servant flung aside the flap and disappeared within.
‘My Lord, Captain Minardil of the Tenth Company and the man Thorongil,’ he announced.
‘Leave us,’ said Denethor. ‘Tend to the horses.’
The soldier emerged, holding the heavy triangle of canvas for Minardil and then stepping back so that Thorongil had to thrust out his arm to catch it. With this last petty slight and an ill-concealed smirk, the man was gone. Thorongil stepped into the luxuriant warmth of the Captain-General’s pavilion.
The Steward’s Heir sat behind his heavy table, leaning back in the many-legged chair. He did not straighten as the two men drew near, but he nodded his acknowledgment when they bowed their salutes. He was freshly washed and clad in clean garments, his long hair brushed free of the knots and tangles of battle. Before him Thorongil could not help but feel befouled and unkempt, with his garments soaked in sweat and blood and the beds of his nails dark with gore. He squared his shoulders a little more, reminding himself that he had come honestly by his grime and need not be ashamed. Needful work.
‘Well, Captain?’ Denethor said, imparting strange mockery into the title. ‘What have you to say for yourself?’
Minardil inclined his head. ‘Sire, I have failed you in the field. I could not allow you to entrust to me a task of which I was incapable, and I was re miss in allowing you to think me more proficient than I—’
‘Not you,’ Denethor said with a dismissive wave of the hand. ‘I want to hear from the Captain out of Rohan. What have you to say for yourself, dissembler?’
For a ghastly moment Thorongil was stricken with astonishment so disarming that he could not even guard his eyes. His lips parted soundlessly and his right hand splayed wide at his side. Then he closed it into a firm fist, collecting himself as he did so. He pressed his lips together and inhaled slowly through the nostrils. Then at last he had the composure necessary to form coherent words.
‘My lord,’ he began; ‘it is true that under Thengel King I served as a leader of men. Yet coming to Gondor as a stranger I thought—’
Denethor, it seemed, was not of a mind to listen. ‘You thought it best to conceal the truth, not only from your Captain-General, but from the Lord Steward himself.’
This Thorongil could not let pass. Though he knew it was unwise, he raised his voice in contradiction. ‘Lord Ecthelion is aware that I led and outfitted my own éored.’
The Heir looked at him sharply, eyes seeming to pierce the leather jerkin and to burn into Thorongil’s very heart. ‘You will speak when questioned, Guardsman, and not before,’ he snapped.
Thorongil inclined his head, the back of his neck burning with embarrassment. He knew better than to offer a superior any unsolicited opinion. He would be given an opportunity to defend himself in time, or so it ought to be. ‘Forgive me, sire,’ he said.
Denethor grunted disapprovingly. ‘Perhaps your stature in Rohan has given you an overblown sense of your own importance. You are no captain here. You are a common soldier and worse, a deceiver. What would possess you to hide your former rank, stiff-necked as you are?’
‘I wished to be taken upon my own merits, my Lord,’ said Thorongil, knowing even as he spoke that the man before him would not understand such a motive. ‘I thought it best to learn the ways of Gondor and her people before I presumed to aspire to any office.’
‘You thought it best to mislead the provost, to make grave omissions before the Steward, and to deceive me,’ Denethor snapped. ‘Furthermore, you put your own Captain in a compromised position, coercing him to deceit on your behalf.’
Minardil moved as if to speak, but Thorongil rallied his wits quickly enough to beat him to it. ‘Captain Minardil knew nothing of this!’ he said, rather more sharply than was wise. ‘Not until recent days when I felt compelled to confess to him. He kept secret my words, for it was most fitting that I make a like confession to you when the time came.’
‘I see.’ Denethor’s face seemed carven of granite, and his eyes were chips of slate. ‘And when did you anticipate such a time might come?’
‘Sire…’ Thorongil began, then fell silent. There was no excuse to be made. He had chosen this path out of pride as much as a desire to learn, and his plan had failed. He saw in Denethor’s mistrustful glare just how wholly and terribly it had failed.
‘Yes?’ the Captain-General pressed, seeing his discomfort and prodding it. ‘What have you to say? You have a ready answer for every question, great equivocator that you are. Have you no clever riposte to make this time?’
‘No, sire,’ Thorongil said, eyes fixed upon the table-leg.
‘What is that, Nameless One?’ Denethor lilted. ‘I do not think your voice carried as far as it ought to.’
Thorongil drew a deep breath. He had erred, and this was payment for his error. He beat down his pride and bowed his stiff neck. ‘No, sire,’ he said, very clearly. ‘I have no more to say.’
‘Hmmph.’ Denethor shifted in his chair, leaning now on the other arm. ‘Step back behind your Captain where you belong, sell-sword, and be silent.’ When Thorongil obeyed, Denethor fixed his eyes upon Minardil.
‘Captain of the Tenth Company, Champion of the Guard, honest son of Lossarnach,’ he said. ‘You relied upon the advice of the lowest of your soldiers in manoeuvres, and took credit for his stratagems. Then in the moment of battle when such skills were wanted, you were unable to perform. What is to be done with such a Captain?’
‘Sire, you bade us make the best showing that we could in the field,’ Minardil said calmly. ‘A Captain makes use of the resources he has to hand, and that includes the expertise of his men. As for your praise, which I value above that of any other man, that I accepted on behalf of my Company, Thorongil included.’
‘Do not feign innocence with me,’ said Denethor; ‘least of all to protect this prevaricator. He bade you keep his secret, did he not?’
‘He implored me not to elevate him above his fellows, my Lord,’ said Minardil. ‘I held it to be an act of humility, not deception.’
Thorongil had to fight to keep from flinching. It was a torturous thing to listen to Minardil, brave and kind-hearted and fiercely loyal to his men, making excuses for him: far easier to endure Lord Denethor’s questioning and those probing eyes. Thorongil’s shame deepened. What he had done had not been well done, and now Minardil too would pay for his folly.
‘And what of your own failure in battle?’ Denethor demanded. ‘Do you not see how your pretence of great command might have brought disaster upon the pursuing party?’
‘Your pardon, sire, but I saw it at once,’ Minardil said softly. ‘That was why I could not allow you to lay the charge upon me.’
Thorongil’s dismay deepened as he listened to this, piecing together what had come to pass. Denethor had given some command to Minardil – likely to lead the pursuit of the retreating enemy – and Minardil had refused on the grounds that Thorongil, not he, was the source of the Tenth Company’s prowess on the field. Now Thorongil understood how the knowledge of his rank had come to Denethor, too: it was natural that it should arise in such an exchange.
Again Denethor grunted his disdain for this excuse. ‘I left you instead to reorder the camp. Have you failed in that also?’ He did not wait for an answer, but proceeded to give instruction as if to a halfwit or a very small child. ‘The foe must be buried, lest they befoul the land.’
‘My Lord, it is done,’ Minardil said meekly. ‘A goodly distance from the river there are now two mounds: orcs and Easterlings interred separately.’
Denethor raised an eyebrow. ‘You might have saved the men the effort of a second pit,’ he said. ‘Yet our own dead must be laid out in such honour as we can contrive.’
‘I have ordered them shrouded in their blankets, sire,’ said Minardil. ‘Men have been sent to the villages to procure carts, that we might bear them back to their families for proper funerary rites.’
The eyebrow twitched higher. When he spoke again, Denethor’s tone was marginally less condescending. ‘The wounded must not be neglected in favour of the dead.’
‘They shall not be, my Lord,’ vowed Minardil. ‘Those who are not fit to walk will fill two carts, the dead another two. It is my belief that the villages can spare the wains and the animals in this season, at least for a few days. I took the liberty of instructing my messengers to offer just recompense.’
‘And the wounded?’ asked Denethor, no longer giving curt commands. ‘Have they been amply seen to?’
‘Sire, Midhon the healer has done his utmost to provide for them. He enlisted help from both Companies: men who know a little of his art or battlefield care,’ Minardil said.
Thorongil did not know whether to be grateful for the obvious omission or not. Such secrecy had just been proved to be dangerous, and yet he could not help but be glad that his more peculiar talents were still unknown to Denethor. Then again, he was not certain how much of it was known to Minardil.
The Captain-General seemed lost for a moment in silent contemplation. Then his eyes narrowed in sly satisfaction, like a hunter who has laid a particularly clever trap. ‘What of the needs of the other men, those who have not been wounded? For many it will have been their first bloodletting. What have you done for them?’
‘Your Lordship will have seen the fires,’ Minardil said neatly. ‘I have given orders that all are to rest as they complete their assigned duties. Water has been brought for all, and I have a small contingent of men preparing a hot meal for the camp.’
Denethor’s lips twitched, and Thorongil could not quite tell if this was a sign of approval or annoyance. ‘I see,’ the Heir said coolly. ‘Well, Captain. It seems you have some useful talent after all, beyond your skill with a blade. If you speak true, there is naught that I would alter save to ensure the wounded were sheltered according to their need.’
‘It is done, my Lord,’ said Minardil. ‘Those with the gravest hurts are housed in Captain Nelior’s pavilion. Others shelter in the remains of my own. Only those with the least wounds are without cover.’ He hesitated, drawing in a deep breath and plainly gathering his courage. ‘If Your Lordship would offer his own lodgings, we might see them all out of the wind and the weather.’
Denethor scrutinized him with dour contemplation. Then he nodded his head curtly. ‘See that it is done,’ he said. ‘Is there aught else that has required your care and may now require mine?’
‘One thing more, sire,’ Minardil said. Denethor had to hide his surprise and did so admirably: Thorongil doubted that his Captain saw it. ‘There is a prisoner: a wounded Easterling. Midhon cares for him now, among our own wounded. If he survives he may be questioned.’
A light of triumph ignited in Denethor’s eyes. ‘A prisoner,’ he said, grimly satisfied. ‘That is well. We do not know how they eluded our men in Ithilien. Instruct the healer that the Easterling is not to be allowed to die, on pain of my displeasure. You may go, Captain. Your behaviour in battle is not to be excused, but you have done much to redeem yourself in my eyes this day. Continue as you have begun.’
Minardil bowed low and turned, beckoning that Thorongil should follow.
‘Not you, sell-sword,’ said Denethor coldly. ‘I have not finished with you.’
Minardil turned again, chin thrust high as he settled to wait. Denethor frowned. ‘You have been dismissed, Captain,’ he said, a warning in his voice.
‘Forgive me, sire, but my place is with my man,’ Minardil said. ‘While he stands before you I must remain.’
Denethor’s expression darkened and he fixed Minardil with a glare that would have made many men quail. Minardil swallowed forcefully, but he held his ground.
‘Very well,’ Denethor growled, teeth set. ‘Stay, then, if you will.’ His hand left the chair and returned bearing the Númenorean sword. He laid it upon the tabletop and pushed it towards the far edge. ‘Tell me, son of no man, what you make of this.’
‘It is the sword that was given to me when I entered the Steward’s service, my Lord,’ said Thorongil serenely. He had expected some far worse accusation. In the matter of his sword, he had no cause for concern.
‘Is it, indeed? And how did a simple soldier of fortune come to be endowed with such a weapon?’
‘I was given my choice of a selection of blades, sire,’ said Thorongil. ‘I believe they were in the keeping of the armourer of the Guard. This one was the sword of my choosing.’
‘You lie,’ spat Denethor. ‘Such swords of ancient make are not given into the keeping of the armourers of the lower City! How did you come by this sword?’
Thorongil had to restrain himself from biting back against this accusation. Not once in these last weeks had he uttered a falsehood, many though his omissions and evasions had been. Anger rose red within him.
‘My Lord, if I may explain…’ Minardil offered.
‘You may not,’ said Denethor sharply. ‘I wish to hear what the silver-tongued Thorongil has to say for himself.’
‘I have no more to say than I have said already, sire,’ Thorongil said with careful calm. His blood might be boiling, but his face must remain impassive. ‘It was among an assortment of lesser swords, rust-bitten and ill-tended but by far the superior weapon. As I was given leave to choose among them, I selected it.’
Denethor took hold of the hilts with one hand and the sheath with the other. He drew them apart, baring a blade as bright as silver. He had ministered to the wounded to the detriment of his own weary body, but Thorongil had not neglected to wipe his sword.
‘Rust-bitten and ill-tended?’ Denethor challenged.
‘I laboured to restore it to some semblance of its former state, sire,’ said Thorongil.
Denethor frowned deeply. ‘By rights I should confiscate this until I can confirm its provenance,’ he said. Minardil moved as if to protest, and the Captain-General raised a staying hand. ‘However, we are fresh from the field of battle and it is not certain that the enemy is wholly fled or vanquished. I have need of each man’s good sword arm, and your skill cannot be disputed: it matches the skill of your slippery tongue.’
He sheathed the weapon and held it out by the hilt, forcing Thorongil to take hold of the sheath instead.
‘You will remit it to me as soon as we are once more within the walls of Minas Tirith,’ Denethor commanded. ‘If you do not – if I am even required to remind you – then I will hold it as an act of contemptuous insurrection, and deal with you accordingly. Am I understood?’
‘Yes, sire. Perfectly,’ Thorongil said. He kept his voice level and courteous, though he longed to utter sharp words. His head was pounding with frustration and exhaustion, and Denethor’s treatment wore hard upon his patience.
‘Good. Now go,’ the Captain-General said. ‘You are not excused from water-bearing, even if the camps have been amalgamated. It seems I was right to assign you that duty in the first place.’
Thorongil’s jaw slackened a little. Lord Denethor himself had assigned that task? Such an order was far beneath the consideration of so lofty a commander. It would have been a petty matter to bring before a Captain. Why would the Heir of Gondor trouble himself with such minutiae?
‘Did you hear me? Be gone!’ Denethor ordered, wafting his hand for the door-flap.
Thorongil blinked twice, clearing his mind, and then hastened to hold back the canvas that his Captain might pass through. Then, not without some relief, he followed.
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