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The Eagle on the Ramparts  by Canafinwe

Chapter XIX: Sober Homecoming

Thorongil was still battling his seething temper when, at the bottom of the gully between the two hills, Minardil stopped . Thorongil did not draw abreast of his Captain, nor did Minardil turn. Instead, staring up towards the cluttered camp filled with survivors, he spoke.

‘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 thoughtfully, but said nothing.

‘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,’ Minardil said.

‘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 Midhon is not of the acceptable standard.’

‘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. Midhon did admirably, and continues to do so. I would commend him to the Captain-General himself, save that I fear my recommendation would be to his detriment.’

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 singing of his own deeds but refuses to whisper them in the dead of night. Yet you have saved my life today, and I must needs be grateful.’

Thorongil veiled his eyes even as he looked earnestly upon the other man. “Captain, I would have done the same for any fallen comrade. Yet though such feeling be unfit for a noble man, I am proud to have been able to do so for you.”

‘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 battle with so well-matched a partner,’ he said. Then, with a gleam in his eye; ‘The foe knew not what they faced in us.’

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 Nelior of the Second Company. ‘A word.’

Minardil raised an acknowledging hand, even as he fixed his subordinate with grave eyes. ‘This is not the time for such matters, Thorongil, but when we are at leisure I wish to discuss with you the matter of the Champion’s trials. Do not forget.’

‘Sir, I will not,’ said Thorongil. There was no other answer.

Minardil clapped him on the shoulder and sprinted uphill to Nelior’s side. Soon they were conferring quietly, heads bowed together in an encouragingly egalitarian manner. Pleased, Thorongil averted his eyes so as not to appear over-curious. He made his way back to the tents. He had been away from his patients too long: bannock and hot bean soup would have to wait awhile longer.

Midhon was at Mallor’s side, examining the dressings on his cleaved thigh. Thorongil crouched near, silent but observing intently. Midhon glanced at him and, when it became apparent that Thorongil was not about to speak, carried out the rest of his examination.

‘He bleeds,’ Midhon said at last, drawing up the blanket and tucking it into place. Mallor stirred in his torpor of anguish, then quieted.

‘What are we to make of that?’ asked Thorongil.

Midhon’s eyes flicked over Thorongil’s face, surprised. But he mustered himself for the answer. ‘It is to be expected,’ he said. ‘You left a gap in the external suture so that the wound could drain.’

‘Verily,’ said Thorongil. ‘He has suffered greatly from loss of blood, but now infection is our greatest foe. It may be that our best efforts avail not against it, yet we must try. If the blood flows out, so will purulence and poison.’

‘I do not understand,’ said Midhon. ‘How can you know of these things? Minas Tirith is held to be the chiefest repository of medical knowledge in the West, most like in the world. You were not trained among its masters, and yet the work you have exacted upon this man’s body far exceeds even their skill. How did a man of sword and battle come by such a gift?’

‘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 Mallor is a technique that my uncle perfected during his own years of fighting in the war against the Shadow. It is simple enough, if only one is quick.’

Midhon did not look so certain of this, but neither did he press Thorongil further. ‘The Easterling,’ he said instead. ‘What am I to do with him? I know nothing of his kind.’

‘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 loose more than one of his limbs at once. As for tending his wound, that is work you know well enough. You will find that the differences between his folk and ours extend only as deep as the skin: the anatomy within is identical.”

‘Identical,’ echoed Midhon, assimilating this. From without came the crack of a mallet, and the young healer flinched. ‘What’s that?’ he hissed.

‘A tent stake driven true, I should think,’ said Thorongil, glancing towards the door flap. ‘Lord Denethor has given over the use of his own pavilion for the comfort of the wounded. It seems Captain Minardil wisely reasoned that it was better to bring the shelter to them than they to the shelter.’

‘The High Warden, sleeping rough?’ Midhon marvelled. ‘I had not thought such a thing possible.’

‘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 Minardil also, for he has arranged the camp as well as anyone might have done. Have you eaten yet today?’

Midhon flushed. ‘Waybread after dawn. I was going to attempt to watch the proceedings – I hoped to see you capture the water and best the Second Company yet again – when the orcs came.’

‘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, Midhon looked uncertain. Then he got to his feet and shook out his blood-caked garments.

‘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. Midhon bobbed his head in acknowledgment and began to pick his way carefully to the door. Thorongil turned his attention back on Mallor, touching his throat with delicate fingers as he felt for a pulse.

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 Mallor not been young and strong at the outset, he would even now be lying among the dead. Thorongil lifted one eyelid with the edge of his thumb, studying the sclera with its web of thread-fine vessels. The eye itself was rolled far back, but he could still see the sluggish response of the pupil to the light.

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.’

Lingond looked dutifully reluctant, but he was in the same state as the rest of them: drained by the battle and abandoned by its fever, chilled and sore and ravenous. And after all, it was this man of the lesser Company who had given the order for a guard in the first place.

‘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 hither, is there? They will not…’ He looked around at the recumbent men, their various positions dictated by their wounds.

‘They will not suffer for it,’ Thorongil assured him. ‘If any are well enough to covet food, they are strong enough to be fed themselves. Go, and do not run. There will be long watches tonight and a bitter march on the morrow. We will all need our strength.’

The man looked puzzled, as if he could not understand such quiet authority coming from a lowly Guardsman, but he did not question Thorongil’s instructions. Quietly he rose and swiftly he slipped from the tent.

At once, Thorongil turned upon Mallor. He drew back the blanket as swiftly as he dared, and took the man’s left hand in his own. The limp arm bent with ease, and Thorongil drew the hand near his heart. His other palm he placed upon Mallor’s brow. He closed his eyes.

‘Mallor,’ he said. He did not know the man’s patronym. ‘Mallor of the Guard, return to us. Mallor of the Guard, come back.’

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 Mallor cringe from his touch. Not the touch of his hands, for the man was too weak to do that, but the touch of his mind. Mallor shrank from him, fearing the pain. Such pain. He had felt such pain when Thorongil’s hands were within him, one gripping firmly but lightly, the other rapidly whipping the needle in and through the meat of the artery. Mallor could bear no more pain.

‘You can,’ Thorongil whispered. ‘You must. There will be pain. I cannot promise otherwise. Yet there is life also. That I can promise you: life, and a hope of keeping your leg, but only if you come back to me. Come back with me. Come now!’

He tried to draw back, to retract his mind a little and to coax Mallor to follow. He felt that intangible bond between them falter and slip: slick fingers sliding free of a straining fist that loosens but a little.

‘No!’ he cried, as if his command could make it otherwise. It was no use: Mallor was gone again into the warm and milky darkness far from the pain, beyond the weary river that ran shallow with blood. Thorongil’s eyes flew open, and if in that moment there had been anyone to bear witness they would have been struck by the rawness of the failure within.

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 Mallor back… and he had failed.

He beat back his dismay and the strange, wounded anger that only self-recrimination could bring. Gently he withdrew his right hand and laid Mallor’s left comfortably upon the man’s abdomen. Thorongil smoothed the blanket, tucking it as Midhon had before. He studied the wan, slack face before him, and he tried to swallow the sickness that swelled within him. He would be of no use to anyone cowering in doubt and vomiting thin bile. Thorongil felt for Mallor’s pulse again, and found it unchanged.

‘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 heritage, and even practiced it had been a near thing. He was fortunate that he had done no harm.

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, Midhon had carried a small sampling of useful herbs and tinctures. Among these was an elixir of nightshade, which they had used to quiet the writhings of one or two not far gone enough to swoon into merciful unfeeling. Thorongil had used the tip of one finger to paint a modest dose onto the Easterling’s tongue.

This was not for the benefit of the guards: even exhausted, the hale men of Gondor would have no trouble overcoming a lone, wounded man. It was not to keep the alien quiet while he lay among the faithful. Thorongil’s chief concern had been to keep the Easterling from fighting his bonds. He knew the most likely contortions that a body so bound would make, and all of them involved the contracture and straining of the very part of the abdomen where the man had been punctured.

The Easterling’s eyes were also sluggish, but not from incipient coma. The nightshade had caused his pupils to dilate almost to their limit, and the grey light in the pavilion made them retreat only a fraction. Even this was hard to see, for the Easterling’s eyes were so dark a brown that it was akin to black. It would have been a beautiful darkness in another face or another place.

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 all together. Every able man was afoot, and with them many of the injured. Those who could not walk were either ahorse or lying in the two great wains that lumbered behind the marchers. Behind them, last of all, were the wagons in which the dead in their makeshift shrouds were laid.

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, Minardil had an excellent view of the second wain of the wounded. In each rode two able men, perched backward on the driver’s board and ready to attend to their charges as needed. The men were packed snugly together, shoulder to shoulder to conserve both space and bodily warmth. When one of their caregivers moved, he had to step cautiously between knees or hips. In the first wain rode the healer and one of his chosen assistants. Another, also of the Second Company, sat beside the driver of the other cart. He was the best of the field nurses, and he was ostensibly in charge of the men he rode with. Ostensibly.

Moving among the wounded with an agility that put Midhon’s merely adequate motion to shame was Thorongil. Despite the cold he wore neither cloak nor leather hauberk: each would have hampered him. Not once in two days did Minardil recall seeing him join his assistant on the seat: when he did sit, it was upon the narrow side slat near where Mallor and Durion lay. The keen grey eyes seldom left them, save to attend to a man in more acute need. The moans and mutterings of the delirious were calmed when Thorongil bowed low to speak to them, and those white with agony and loss of blood seemed strengthened by his reassuring touch. Minardil watched all this with wonder until they reached the Gate.

Denethor had sent word to the city of their misfortune, and the road was lined in sombre soldiers who bowed their salutes as the silent procession passed. Minardil sat as straight as he was able, eyes fixed ahead and face carefully impassive. It would not do for a Captain to ride, weary and despairing, through the streets of the White City. They had triumphed, after all: there was that comfort to cling to. That they had not marched out with the intention of killing or dying was ancillary to that.

So he told himself, but when they reached the Second Gate and the honour guard formed from the Ninth and Eleventh Companies Minardil had to restrain himself from weeping openly. He had ridden forth with the expectation of bringing all of his men home again, but he had not thought to do so like this: twenty-six of his loyal subordinates between this wain and the other, more still wounded gravely, yet others battle-torn and weary. He saw the horror of it in the faces he passed: the men of the Ninth, who had narrowly escaped such a fate themselves, the people of the Second Circle, and those gathered to greet them in the square from which they had departed so few days ago.

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. Midhon remained, of course: he would see to the disposition of those he had so courageously treated.

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 Beleg gave the order that you were to be welcomed home graciously, as your men welcomed us,’ he explained. ‘The rest is the doing of the Heir’s servant.’

‘I thank you for this relief on behalf of all my men,’ Minardil said. His second mouthful seemed to warm him to the core, and even to take some of the ache out of his rump. The bare wooden board had done him no favours. ‘Please see that the tall man receives a measure. The tall man without a cloak.’

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 swords, sorting them by markings into two piles. All the men were hunched against the wind, which was rolling down from Mindoluin’s heights and whipping through the narrow streets at frightening speeds. In the courtyard, several such streams were funnelled into a maelstrom of cold sufficient to chill the very heart.

The wains filled with the wounded were moving now, some healers crouching in the boxes and others hurrying alongside. One was bowed over Durion, and Minardil was relieved to see the hands in constant motion. He had not expected his lieutenant to die beneath Thorongil’s vigilant gaze, but still his fear for Durion was great.

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 Forgil, and the old man seemed to be hastening to follow his instructions. He had been carrying such of Thorongil’s gear as he could not wear or carry while attending the wounded, and Minardil expected Thorongil to retrieve his cloak and cover his head as many of the others were doing. Instead, Forgil held out the man’s sword in its battered handed-down sheath.

Thorongil spoke a quick word of thanks, and hastened to the place where a wide bare patch of cobbles showed. All were giving Lord Denethor a respectfully wide berth but his secretary, who was still deep in consultation with his master. The old man fell silent, however, as Thorongil drew near and bowed in a low salute.

‘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, sire.’

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 Minardil who found himself retreating a pace. Yet as soon as it came the fey thing vanished, and Thorongil bowed his head meekly before his liege-lord’s son.

‘So please you, sire,’ he murmured.

Denethor said nothing to him, but thrust the sword into the startled hands of his secretary. ‘Take this, Valacar,’ he said. ‘You will be investigating its provenance.’ Then he turned to look around at the assembled men. ‘Divest yourselves of what is not your own, and then disperse,’ he said. ‘Others can tend to the common baggage. You have fought a hard campaign, and brief though it was it was also unplanned. Go to your rest. Your Captains shall have further instructions for you on the morrow.’

There was a murmur of weary relief from the assembly. Then someone – Herion, Minardil thought – raised his voice. ‘All hail the Captain-General!’ he cried, and innumerable voices called hail.

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 wains had rolled: up towards the next gate and so at last to the Sixth Level and the Citadel beyond. His secretary was left behind to carry out his orders, and on the dirty cobbles still knelt Thorongil, who had not been given leave to rise.

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 waterbearing duties.

‘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 them have a few more minutes,’ he decided. ‘It will do them no harm to mingle with their fellows, nor the men of the Second Company to linger a while.’

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, Minardil looked up. His face furrowed into a frown.

‘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.’

Minardil had a list of his own before him, and a page with many refusing strokes slashed across it. Another, quite ruined with false starts, was crumpled into a curling ball. He let the quill drop from fingers stained every bit as black as Thorongil’s, and took the outheld sheet.

‘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. Forgil was happy to offer his counsel.’

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.

‘Sit,’ Minardil said, gesturing to the opposite bench. It was unwise: a risk. Thorongil knew it, but he could not resist. He stepped over the long plank and thumped down upon it. His breathing seemed laboured as he battled for alertness and waited for Minardil to finish.’

‘A very thorough reckoning,’ the Captain said at last, laying aside the parchment. Its edges were uneven and its surface discoloured. Thorongil had scrounged it from the kitchen, where butcher’s orders and greengrocer’s lists were scraped and written over anew as a matter of course.

‘Their states are only as I last saw them,’ said Thorongil. ‘For those who rode with Midhon, only this noontide. Any of their conditions may well have changed by now, particularly those of Mallor and Durion.’

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.’

Minardil had the look of a fine hunting hound unexpectedly whipped. ‘He raged against the healers. He spoke nonsensically, and he did not respond to their words.’

Thorongil’s pulse quickened. ‘But he awakened? He spoke?’

‘Briefly,’ Minardil mourned. ‘Briefly and unintelligibly.’

‘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 loll his eyes and tremble since the battle. If he is speaking at all, it is a promising sign.’

Minardil did not seem to comprehend what he was hearing. He shook his head dumbfoundedly. ‘But they could not understand what he said. Mayhap his mind is addled.’

‘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. Instead he spoke in his most serene and reassuring voice.

‘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 sires bore even unto death.’

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 letters I now must write. Yet I cannot… there are no words… no words, Thorongil.’

He looked up, helpless and utterly bereft. Now Thorongil did reach for Minardil, gripping his wrist and pinning his left hand to the tabletop. He held the younger man’s eyes, quelling the fleeting thought that Minardil surely thought himself the elder.

‘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 score and three, to my sorrow. They grow no easier to write with time, but the language at least comes more readily. Who is first upon the list?’

‘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. Turgil was slain in the defence of Gondor upon the— you must always write that the man has been slain,’ he explained. ‘If you do not, they will read the words you have written around the truth, and build their own tale to fit them. You must write that he is slain, so that they will believe.’

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 nodded, and wrote as Thorongil had dictated. Then he paused, unsure how to proceed.

‘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 Minardil began to flag.

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 reach the far towns and farmholdings in this form before any other. Such a comfort could not be offered those kindred who dwelt in Minas Tirith: theirs would be another kindness and a very different ordeal for Minardil. They would be consoled face to face and hand in hand when they came to claim their fallen warriors.

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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