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Chapter XIX: Sober Homecoming
Thorongil was still battling his seething temper when, at the bottom of the gully between the two hills,
‘Small wonder you would keep your secrets,’ he said. ‘What have you done to so antagonize the Steward’s Heir?’
‘I have done wrong to hide such truths,’ said Thorongil. ‘In my need for care and my vanity, I kept silent when I should have spoken. Lord Denethor is not a man who appreciates being caught unknowing.’
Now Minardil faced him. ‘I confess,’ he said slowly; ‘that I share some of that frustration. Oh, I understand your reasons for silence,’ he said before Thorongil could speak. ‘Yet time and again you are revealed to be so much more than you seem. Thorongil can command an army in adverse conditions. Thorongil can scent trouble on the wind. Thorongil can heal. Thorongil can cook. What next?’
Suddenly his anger was ebbing. The litany of his diverse talents sounded almost comical upon Minardil’s lips. ‘I can shoe a horse,’ Thorongil said quietly.
Minardil laughed. He shook his head. ‘Will I ever know all that is to be known of you?’
Thorongil felt a pang of yearning. So long, it seemed, he had lived under other names, shrouded in secrets that must be kept for his own sake and that of his people. Would there ever come a day when the shades and dissemblings might be cast aside, that he might walk in the light of day and know the sound of his own name?
‘Someday, perhaps,’ he said. ‘So I hope.’
‘But not today,’ said Minardil.
Thorongil cast him a look that was not quite a plea, and the Captain sighed. ‘I shall have to take care to remember that your talents outstrip your position,’ he said. ‘Had I but learned that lesson a day earlier, many lives might have been spared this day.’
‘No,’ said Thorongil. ‘No. The fault is mine, not yours. Eager to be an obedient soldier and overeager to find my bed, I let myself be pacified when I should not have been. Nor was I forthright in answer to your question. No, the Riders of Rohan have no special aptitude for tracking, but I was not born of the Rohirrim. In the North, such skills were necessary for my survival.’
Minardil studied him
‘Had I but pressed my case, I could have compelled you to give me leave to go,’ Thorongil murmured. He had had no time to dwell upon his complicity in the unlooked-for assault, but it fell upon him now with the weight of a millstone. He could not meet his Captain’s eyes. He had known, his heart had foreboded, that there was no good upon the air that night. Yet he had let himself be swayed by the promise of rest and the reassurance of a less experienced man. No, the fault was not Minardil’s, but his.
‘You could not have known,’
‘Nay, but I guessed, which is worse,’ said Thorongil. He looked up the hill towards the two tents filled with wounded. ‘I must see to my charges, Captain.’
‘Your charges?’ challenged Minardil. At Thorongil’s unsettled expression he smiled wearily. ‘Some day you will have to explain to me how you came by skill enough to confound a healer of Gondor. I had believed ours to be the finest in all the world – unless
‘I assure you that he is,’ Thorongil said. ‘Do not underestimate the courage he has shown this day. It is no small thing to find oneself a battlefield healer instead of presiding over such injuries as might be accrued in mock combat.
A thin half-smile tugged at Minardil’s lips. Then his face grew grave. ‘Thorongil, there is something more of which we must speak. You have said naught of it, which well I should expect from one who not only refrains from
Thorongil veiled his eyes even as he looked earnestly
‘I lack your eloquence,’ said Minardil; ‘and so cannot thank you as is fit. Nor have I the means to reward you now, but know that I am blessed to have fought at your back.’
His sober humility was admirable, but he should not be required to bear it long. Thorongil tilted his head. ‘It has been many years since I have been in
Minardil grinned. It was the grin of a young man feeling his first battle-triumph, as warranted by the day’s events as guilt and sorrow and weariness of heart, surprised and strangely grateful. “We did make a fine pair, did we not?”
Ere Thorongil could answer or take hold of Minardil’s arm in comradeship, a call came from up the hill.
‘Captain!’ It was
‘Sir, I will not,’ said Thorongil. There was no other answer.
Minardil clapped him on the shoulder and sprinted uphill to
‘What are we to make of that?’ asked Thorongil.
‘Verily,’ said Thorongil. ‘He has suffered greatly from
‘I do not understand,’ said
‘A gift it was, indeed,’ Thorongil said. ‘You are right to say that Minas Tirith is a great centre of lore and learning, but not all the knowledge in Middle-earth is contained within. I was taught by a kinsman possessed of healing talents far superior to my own. What I did for
‘Care for him as you would any other among your charges,’ Thorongil instructed. ‘Save that he must be guarded at all times, and you should never
‘A tent stake
‘The High Warden, sleeping rough?’
‘Not probable, perhaps,’ said Thorongil. ‘Yet a great captain thinks first of the needs of his men, and of their relief before his own comfort. The Steward’s Heir has chosen rightly in this, and he is to be commended. Captain
‘It was you who raised the alarm,’ said Thorongil. ‘That was valiantly done. Go now and find sustenance. I will watch over these.’
He gestured about at the men, some sleeping, others panting with pain, still others staring silently into the upper reaches of the pavilion. For a moment,
‘I thank you,’ he said. ‘I will oversee the moving of the wounded from the open tent to that of the Captain-General…’
‘And of those yet unsheltered beneath what is left of Captain Minardil’s,’ Thorongil finished for him.
It was there, but it was thready and uneven. The loss of blood, the sheer brutality of the wound, and the further insult to the body that was the battlefield surgery had all taken a bitter toll. Had
Thorongil looked around the pavilion. But for the man guarding the Easterling, he was alone among the wounded. Thorongil searched his memory for a name he had heard only in the heat of the military exercises.
‘Lingond,’ he said. The Guard of the Citadel turned to look at him. Thorongil raised his eyebrows in sympathy. ‘You too should eat a little. I will guard him.’
‘Very well,’ he said, and he got to his feet. ‘I will not be gone long, I promise you. There is no reason I cannot fetch the food
‘They will not suffer for it,’ Thorongil assured him. ‘If any are well enough to
The man looked
At once, Thorongil turned upon
‘Mallor,’ he said. He did not know the man’s patronym. ‘Mallor of the Guard, return to us.
He felt nothing: not the twitching of a muscle, not the faintest stirring of consciousness. The young man’s chest hitched up and down, and his faint pulse thrummed in his temples. His skin was cold. He had lost far too much blood.
Thorongil focused more intently. He thought of the heart waiting and delaying in the hope of filling just a little farther, like a small child filling her water-jug at the riverside. He thought of the great vessels at slack tide, their red rivers dammed and trickling. He thought of the brain, pulsing and hungry, and of the wounded leg in danger of rot if the blood did not flow.
‘Mallor,’ he called again. ‘Mallor, come!’
Nearby, someone moaned. Another of the wounded, stirring in his half-sleep. Thorongil’s upper mind gauged the sound, triaging and cataloguing. It was no sound of immediate need, but of steady, grinding suffering that he could not likely ease. He would try when he was through with this, but the man beneath his hand now had the greater need.
‘Mallor…’ His voice was softer now, more distant to any ears that might listen. In Thorongil’s mind, however, it rang loud and clear as a call in the woods, meant to be heard for incautious miles. ‘Mallor, come!’
Then he felt it: felt
‘You can,’ Thorongil whispered. ‘You must. There will be
He tried to draw back, to retract his mind a little and to coax
For a moment, he had been so certain that he had it. For a moment, Thorongil had believed that the gift of his kindred flowed full-force through his hands and his heart. He had known that it was within his power to call
He beat back his dismay and the strange, wounded anger that only self-recrimination could bring. Gently he withdrew his right hand and laid
‘At least I have made matters no worse,’ he muttered as he got to his feet. Lightheaded, he groped for the pavilion’s centre pole and gripped it, head hanging as he gathered himself. Such labours were exhausting, and his skill was unhoned. It had been years since last he had plied the Elven mystery that was a part of his lofty
When he was sure of his feet, Thorongil moved to the bed that held the Easterling. Here was a man not lost to the pain, but drugged into a stupor. With his instruments, wisely slung across his back before he abandoned the Tenth Company’s camp before the orcs,
This was not for the benefit of the guards: even exhausted, the hale men of Gondor would have no trouble overcoming
The Easterling’s eyes were also sluggish, but not from
The man’s tongue flicked his lips and he made a sound that might have been speech or an attempt thereof. Thorongil began to probe the bandage.
‘If you understand me,’ he said quietly, keeping his voice soothing but firm; ‘know that you are in the keeping of the Captain-General of Gondor. You will not be slain. You will not be put to torment. The bonds are for your own protection as much as ours. If you understand me, know that I mean you no harm.’
It was impossible to tell whether the man understood, or even whether he could hear the words. He was hovering on the edge of the waking world, and there many strange things walked. Thorongil had been dosed with nightshade himself, more than once, and he knew the strange half-waking apparitions it could bring. He wondered what one of Sauron’s sorry thralls might see. He did not want the answer.
It was a sorrowful and ragged column that passed through the Great Gate and into Minas Tirith. First rode the Lord Denethor, his bright mail dulled by hard wear and orcish blood. Behind him walked the two Companies, no longer in their separate formations but mingled
It was the first of these that Minardil drove, gauntleted hand firm upon the lines. He tried to close his nose to the scent of slow decay, grateful for the biting cold that allowed them the mercy of bearing home their dead. They had lingered only one night after the battle, but they were drawing on to the second sunset of their journey. What had been a swift outward march was a slow and painful homecoming.
From his seat above the wagon-box,
Moving among the wounded with an agility that put
Denethor had sent word to the city of their misfortune, and the road was lined
So he told himself, but when they reached the Second Gate and the honour guard formed from the Ninth and Eleventh Companies
Among this number were half a dozen folk from the Houses of Healing. At once they swarmed upon the two laden wains, speaking in low, hurried voices to those who had attended the wounded. There was some shuffling as Thorongil and the two Guards of the Citadel hopped down from the wagons and the healers climbed up.
Then Minardil found a man at his own elbow, ready to take his place. A warehouse nearby had been prepared as a laying-out place where the dead could be claimed. Lord Denethor’s secretary had made diligent preparations. Almost before Minardil’s boots hit the cobbles, one of the men of the Ninth Company was on hand to offer him a mug. It held about half a pint of hot, spiced wine. Minardil sipped of it gladly. Around him, many of the men were doing the same.
Lord Denethor’s servant was at his master’s side, now speaking swiftly, now listening attentively. Minardil nodded towards him. ‘Was this the secretary’s command as well?’ he asked.
The soldier shook his head. ‘Captain
‘I thank you for this relief on behalf of all my men,’
He looked around, but from this vantage could not see Thorongil at once. The Guardsman left his side and hurried off. Others were relieving the men of the Tenth and Second Companies of packs and blankets. Others still were gathering the unwieldy rehearsal
Now the crowd shifted, making use of the space cleared by the retreating carts, and Minardil spied his strange new Guardsman. Thorongil was striding to
Thorongil spoke a quick word of
‘What is it?’ Denethor said, his lip curled with irritation at the interruption. Minardil started forward, ready to step in on his man’s behalf if need be, but the crowd would not part for him as it might have done for Denethor. He found himself dodging back and forth, more often than not straining to keep his Lord and his Guardsman in his sight.
‘As you commanded, my Lord,’ Thorongil said, his voice clear and strong but quiet. Still he drew eyes, and more a moment later when he laid the Númenórean sword across his palms and dropped to one knee to surrender it. ‘My sword,
For a moment, Denethor looked flabbergasted. Minardil doubted if many men saw, but the secretary certainly did. He took a hasty half-step backward, away from his master. Then Denethor’s eyes grew cold and his face impassive. He snatched the weapon disdainfully, taking care to tilt it as he lifted so that the flat of the leather-clad blade smacked hard against Thorongil’s upturned wrist.
Thorongil did not flinch, but something black as the night Sea flashed through his eyes. Now it was
‘So please you,
Denethor said nothing to
There was a murmur of weary relief from the assembly. Then someone –
Denethor raised his hand to stay further adulation. ‘Rest,’ he admonished. To Valacar he muttered; ‘Have the lieutenants watch that no man take more than a single measure of that wine. Drunkenness will avail no one tonight.’
Then he swung into the saddle and reined his horse into a tight curve, the men parting before him as he followed where the
Minardil went to him, drawing him up by one elbow and pressing the mug of wine into his hand. Thorongil looked at him, strangely dazed. His pale skin was grey-hued even in the ruddy light of day’s dying, and there were dark smudges beneath his eyes. It came to Minardil then that if the man had slept at all these last two nights, he had not seen it. He had been almost constantly among the wounded, save when he dispatched his
‘Drink,’ Minardil instructed. He knew not what more to say. ‘We must get the men out of this cold.’
Thorongil’s head rocked mutely, and he lifted the vessel to his lips. The scent seemed to rouse him a little, and he drank. ‘Leave
Only far later that night did Minardil recall that he had spoken to Thorongil as an equal, and had been answered in kind.
Thorongil found his Captain seated at one of the broad tables in the main hall of the barracks, the light of one lonely candle floating just out of the range of the fire’s ruddy glow. As his boots sounded on the stone,
‘Will you never sleep?’ he asked. His own voice was rough with weariness.
‘I have the role of the wounded, Captain.’ Thorongil came forward to offer the page over which he had laboured this last hour. ‘Our wounded only, I fear, for I do not know every man in the Second Company.’
‘Thank you,’ he sighed. ‘Their families, too, must be notified?’
‘Those who have no close kin in the City, aye,’ Thorongil said softly. ‘They are marked with a cross.
The Captain studied the list, bleary eyes first skimming and then returning to read afresh, forced into thoroughness by tired will alone. Thorongil waited wordlessly. His long legs ached and his head seemed to be floating instead of anchored firmly to his neck. The back of his throat burned with exhaustion and he had to fight to keep his eyes open, even standing at attention as he was.
‘A very thorough reckoning,’ the Captain
‘Their states are only as I last saw them,’ said Thorongil. ‘For those who rode with
There was a question behind the words; a feeble hope. Minardil met both. ‘A page was sent from the Houses of Healing about an hour ago,’ he said. ‘Mallor survived the climb to the Sixth Circle and the move to a proper bed. He has been washed and his dressings replaced, and his condition is unchanged.’
‘And Durion?’ Knowledge was better than ignorance, and Thorongil tried to be grateful for the tidings alone, independent of their content. He grimaced at his overtired indiscretion. ‘Lieutenant Durion.’
Thorongil’s pulse quickened. ‘But he awakened? He spoke?’
‘Briefly,’ Minardil mourned. ‘Briefly and
‘Sir… Captain… Minardil,’ fumbled Thorongil. His speech was slurring like that of one drunk, though he had taken no more than a few ounces of wine six hours before. ‘He had not awakened save to
‘It is possible,’ said Thorongil. ‘Yet it is equally possible that he is insensate with pain or exhaustion, or that he woke from a troubling dream. At least we know that he is farther now from death.’
He saw the hope grow in Minardil’s eyes, fragile and desperate. Then it faded and the Captain hung his head over the arms that propped him up over his writing.
‘Too many already have died,’ he said. ‘How am I to write to their loved ones? Mothers and fathers, wives, lovers, brothers, children – oh, heavens above, some had children…’
His shoulders shook and Thorongil wanted to reach out a comforting hand, but he refrained. He had seen enough of Gondorian grief these last three days that he knew such a gesture might be welcome, but would harm Minardil’s pride.
‘They had children who will remember their fathers as heroes who gave their very lives for Gondor, for their safety and their freedom,’ he pledged. ‘Though their grief will be great, always they will bear that knowledge and the honour that comes with it. It may carry them through dark moments in their own lives, desiring to live with the fortitude that their
An ache opened up in his chest then, such as he would not have felt at a less weary time. He remembered countless occasions when he had asked – of his mother, of Master Elrond, of his foster-brothers and Erestor and Glorfindel and the kitchen folk and the ironmonger and every wood-elf who would pause to listen – how his own father had died. Always he had received the same answer: with honour, with honour, with honour. Not until his manhood had he learned of the orcish arrow and the pierced eye, the long, slow fading as cerebral hydropsy took hold. Yet the details had meant less to him than that reassurance had to the boy he had been: that his father had fallen in the fight against the Shadow, with honour. With honour.
‘They will remember their fathers, aye,’ sighed Minardil. ‘And in part through the
He looked up, helpless and utterly bereft. Now Thorongil did reach for
‘There are words,’ he promised. ‘I will help you find them. Take a fresh paper… no, do not fear to waste it. A clean page is wanted to begin such work.’
Recognition dawned upon Minardil’s brow. ‘You have written such letters yourself,’ he breathed. ‘Long ere this, in Rohan.’
‘Yes,’ breathed Thorongil. ‘I have written eight
‘Turgil,’ said Minardil. ‘He has family in Ringló Vale: a mother, a sister, perhaps other kin.’
‘Address it to his mother,’ said Thorongil. ‘That is most fitting. Then begin; it is with sorrow and admiration that I must write to you of the loss of your son.
He half expected a protestation: many green commanders feared to take upon themselves the duty of making a dead subordinate’s kindred believe the truth that would alter all the rest of their lives. But Minardil, new to battle though he was, was no green commander. He was a gifted Captain who knew much of the hearts of men. He
‘The details of the battle,’ Thorongil prompted quietly. ‘Date and place, what manner of foe, how Turgil fought if you witnessed it, what his comrades said of him if you did not. Never tell them it was a quick death, or easy, unless you know it to be true. Falsehoods are cold comfort.’
He watched while Minardil wrote. Sometimes the letters blurred before his eyes, and more than once he caught himself nodding. He could have picked up a pen himself and halved the time they two must sit thus, but Thorongil knew better than to suggest it. Some Captains might have appreciated the offer. Some might even have delegated the task to their lieutenants, but not Minardil. He felt as Thorongil had felt too often in his place: that this was his duty and his sacred trust, the last gesture of gratitude that he could make to men who had died at his command. So Thorongil let him write, aiding with the wording where needed and offering words of encouragement when
Twice Thorongil suggested to his exhausted Captain that the writing would keep until morning. Twice Minardil refused to halt, as Thorongil would have refused in his place. The missives should ride out with the morning, that news of the deaths
Dawn found twenty-six letters written, signed and sealed with the sigil of the Tenth Company. They were sorted into two neat rows: the larger to be sent abroad, the smaller to be taken to the gathering-place of the dead. The dining board was littered with scraps of paper cut carefully away, abortive attempts marked heavily with revisions, and the shavings and remains of three spent quills. Arms folded amid this detritus, two men sat with their heavy heads pillowed upon their sleeves and their weight upon chest and elbows. Both were asleep where they sat, too weary at last even to stretch out on the benches.
The stub of one lonely candle sputtered and went out.
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