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Chapter XXI: No Mere Guardsman
Thorongil was led not to Durion's bedside, but into an anteroom of white stone and marble, cool and serene amid the rooms filled with firelight and sickness. A window looked out upon the city below, the twisting byways of the Sixth Circle
The other walls were bare, but the eastward bore a large painting executed with a draughtsman's precision. In it, great lords bearing the sigils of the high houses of Gondor and Arnor stood mournful and aghast about a low-lying camp bed. A prostrate figure,
Lest any should mistake the image, it was marked with a small brass plaque. Elendil at Dagorlad, it read. A tiny curl of amusement touched Thorongil's lips. Legends must remain inviolate, it seemed: the sleeper was not identified.
'The hands of the king are the hands of a healer,' a sombre voice intoned. Thorongil turned to find a man with the lofty bones and piercing eyes of Westernesse. "Do you know the tale, stranger?"
'I know the adage,' Thorongil supplied carefully. The brief epigraph on the painting suggested that the whole of the account was not generally known, and he was but a soldier of fortune out of a distant land. 'So, it is said, the rightful king was ever known.'
'Verily,' said the man. From his near-fitting robes of well-washed cloth and the apron he wore at his belt, it was plain that he was a healer. From his bearing, Thorongil knew him to be a man of authority. 'You are Thorongil,
It was no question. The choice of words caught Thorongil
'So you say. And I am Thalahir, Master of this House. Come, Guardsman, and answer for your work."
Bewildered and uneasy, Thorongil followed him from the room and up the silent corridor. Where doors stood ajar, he caught glimpses of the afflicted and their carers. He might have paused to puzzle over each ailment, divining whether he could diagnose by brief sight alone, but his heart was pounding. Was there any more dreadful charge to lay upon a healer than that he answer for his work?
He followed Thalahir to a small, private room at the quietest end of the corridor. There lay
'He is known to you,' Thalahir noted.
'I have been privileged to call him
Thalahir cast him an appraising glance, no doubt questing for insolence. Finding none, he strode around the foot of the bed and carefully drew back the sheet,
Thorongil, who had half-feared his more ethereal attempt to call back the young man had come to light, almost sighed in his relief. 'The artery was all but severed, sir. It was necessary to close it, lest his life's blood desert him utterly.'
'I do not question the necessity,' said Thalahir. 'What of the possibility?'
'Tell me how such a thing is possible.'
Thorongil closed his eyes to veil his surprise. He had taken
He had nothing to offer save the truth he had given Midhon. 'It is my uncle's technique,' Thorongil said, studying
'That I do not doubt: the Enemy's brutish soldiers strike hard and
'It would be far easier in so well-appointed a place as this,' Thorongil said. 'Yet in the moment of need, such luxuries are seldom to hand.'
'Tell me how it is done,' said Thalahir.
Drawing in a breath, Thorongil explained. His left hand mimicked the contortion necessary to hold fast both sides of the vessel, while his right indicated the placement of the stitches on the invisible artery. Thalahir listened, brows furrowed.
'It is not so different from mending a rent upon the scalp,' Thorongil said at last; 'save that you have not the scaffold of bone beneath.'
'It is the bone that makes such a thing possible,' said Thalahir, almost to himself. Then he reached with careful hands and drew back the dressing on
Thorongil nodded, taking an unconscious step forward to appraise the sutures. They were neat and close, holding the angry red flesh together. He searched the striations of the skin, looking for the dreaded
'And the vessel?' Thorongil asked, glancing up to find Thalahir regarding him with something akin to approval.
'I left it untouched,' said the healer. 'I know better than to undo what I cannot do again.'
Now it was Thorongil's turn to shoot a look of approbation. He caught himself, but not quickly enough. Thalahir's lip curled. It was not the lowly soldier's place to teach the great healer.
'May I ask, how has his pain been tended?' Thorongil spoke humbly, but he had to speak. He had been yearning to learn the state of those he had tended, and this might be his only chance to fulfil – if only in part – that need.
'The Herb-master could tell you better than I,' said Thalahir. 'His tinctures and potions are of the very highest order and quality… or perhaps your uncle would not agree?'
Perhaps he would not, Thorongil thought uneasily. Yet he had to have faith in the people of this house, for he could not command them. 'Sir, I do not know what my uncle would think,' he said. 'I ask only for
The healer considered him for a moment, jaw canted thoughtfully. 'You may speak to the Herb-master ere you depart,' he said; 'but do not tell me that you know as much of his craft as you do of mine.'
Thorongil bowed his head. 'I will not, sir.'
Thalahir made a sound midway between a scoff and a snort, but his next words were almost kind. 'And you may see your other
Thorongil met the man's gaze again, surprised. 'That is…' he began.
'That is the due one healer owes another,' said the older man flatly. Then his face furrowed deeply in a frown. 'If you have such skill and know something of herb-lore, why are you squandered in a lowly Company in the
'Yet Gondor's healers still are many,' said Thorongil; 'and her great captains few.'
Thalahir's eyebrow shot high. 'You fancy yourself a great captain-in-waiting?' he asked. 'Until now you seemed a modest man, but that smacks of arrogance.'
Perhaps it did, but Thorongil was not ready to concede. 'My talents lie not only in my sword-arm, nor in my h—my hardened hands.'
He had caught the slip just in time and restrained his expression, but his heart hammered. After the words they had exchanged over the painting, such phrasing would have been utterly incautious. He had given cause enough for suspicion as it was, though he did not think Thalahir would reach the truth on the strength of that alone – so improbable it was, surely.
'Midhon did not name your father,' said Thalahir. 'From what great family have you come, and why does your sire suffer
'I come from no great family of Gondor,' said Thorongil, despite his renewed need for caution unable to lay by the qualifier. 'I have come out of Rohan, and the Captain-General in his wisdom has seen fit to ratify my place.'
It was plain from the depths of his eyes that Thalahir saw much that had not been said, but his countenance did not shift nor his voice
Thorongil moved to obey, but not before reaching out to brush the back of his hand against the wounded man's cheekbone. There was
The room to which he was led was in the cellar of the House, where the air was cold but dry. It held not a
Upon the table lay the haunch of a pig, bristled skin still intact save where the meat had been hacked almost to the bone by a sword-blade. Beside it stood a tray arrayed with the necessary tools. Without waiting to be told, Thorongil moved to the far side of the table where Thalahir had taken up a place. From this vantage he could see how skilfully the beast's limb had been cut, so that the great artery was severed just as
Thalahir tipped a slender hand towards the tools.
'Show me,' he commanded.
Pale and patrician, Telpiriel sat before the hearth with her hands folded over her swelling belly. She stared sightlessly into the fire, but her eyes were clear and her cheeks unmarred by tears. She had said less than Denethor had read in her heart, but even without his father's
'Each day that passes healthfully is a blessing, surely,' he said. 'It must improve the odds of a favourable outcome.'
'A favourable outcome,' Telpiriel echoed, turning to look at him at last. Her lip curled almost rakishly. 'Is that what we are to call
'You are the daughter of the Steward,' said Denethor. 'It is for no one but he to judge what is your duty. If servants presume, they are as insolent as they are insignificant.'
He knew there were whispers, as there would be in any highborn family when the wife of its head proved repeatedly fruitless, but he disdained them. He had no wish to watch another bloodline die, and
Telpiriel favoured him with a thin smile. 'Haughty Denethor, ever dismissive of those on whom his comfort is built,' she said. Before he could raise his voice in his own defence, she raised a staying hand. 'I know that you care not first for comfort, nor begrudge the hardships of the field. It is said that you gave your own tent to house the wounded of the Tenth Company.'
'And the Second of the Citadel,' Denethor corrected, uncomfortable under her unspoken approval. As a
'Even still,' said Telpiriel, and she fell silent.
Denethor was groping for the next suitable words when there came a knock at the door. It was not the timid tapping of a housemaid, nor the
'Only the finest for the lady of the house!' she sang as she came to them on
Now Telpiriel's face was alight with a smile, and she picked a delicate pastry to bite. Denethor found himself less irked by Anaiwen's boldness than he might otherwise have been.
'They were scarcely privations, little sister,' he said. 'Do not make towers out of hovels.'
Anaiwen tossed her head and thrust the tray almost into his lap. 'And you should not clip your own wings,' she said. 'It was an improbable victory with untried troops. No man in Gondor could have wrought it but you.'
It seemed he was high in the favour of all his sisters tonight. He should expect a letter of adulation from the third. Denethor took one of the sweets before Anaiwen tried to impale him with the tray. She turned to lay it upon the little
'No man but one,' said Denethor, inclining his head to Telpiriel. Then he wished he could have bitten off his tongue. She needed no reminders of
'The Guards are talking of that,' said Anaiwen, now grave. 'Is it true that you captured one of them? It was not
'Nay, little one: a craven Easterling,' said Denethor. Almost to himself he muttered; 'As if we have not enough of those.'
Anaiwen looked relieved, but Telpiriel was now wary. 'What is to be done with him?'
'He is in the care of the healers, suffering from a wound in the flank,' said Denethor. 'When he is lucid he will be questioned.'
'Questioned,' he repeated, eyes flashing briefly at Telpiriel's flat tone. He had not meant for that to happen, but he could see that Anaiwen had marked it. He turned to her, gently. 'Fear not, child. He is under constant guard, and will make no more trouble for Gondor.'
'It seems to me that he could make a great deal more trouble if he bears false witness,' said Anaiwen frankly. 'Take care not to question him too harshly.'
Anaiwen laughed. 'Nay, nothing is ever meant for my head! I am to wait until I am
'Don't be pert, dear heart,' said Telpiriel indulgently. She had never been one to scold Anaiwen except in the fondest of terms, but her soft admonitions always seemed more effective than Denethor's own more terse ones.
Anaiwen shrugged a sheepish shoulder. 'Well, it's true,' she said. 'I've been promised knowledge of so many things when I am grown that I am expecting endless revelations.'
'Which is but to say that you will remember each instance and call us to account,' said Denethor. 'How I shall rue the day.'
It was he, this time, who was rewarded by Telpiriel's laughter.
The discourse at the morning meal had returned to its usual jollity, and still the dining hall seemed too quiet. The Tenth Company was much reduced in its numbers, and there was no word of fresh appointments. Minardil hoped that he would be allotted some experienced men in addition to green recruits, but the prospect of the latter did not concern him as much as it might have done six months ago. He had not merely an able man but an overqualified one to teach them.
Such work was by rights that of the First Lieutenant, but Durion lay yet in the Sixth Circle under the care of the healers. Thorongil had brought the news that he was often
Two of the wounded had returned to the garrison, one on crutches and the other in slings. They would not be fit to stand watch for some time yet, but Minardil was too grateful to see them restored to the Company to quibble over that. Drawing up the new rotation had been difficult, with so many posts vacant. They would all have to work harder to make up the deficit, but he knew that he could rely upon
The keen-eyed soldier of fortune sat quietly in a corner of the hall, watching the others. What he saw Minardil could not guess, but he trusted that if it was of concern he would be notified. He thought he knew now just how much he might rely upon his newest man, and he would have to resist the temptation to lean too heavily.
Thorongil did not smile, but his eyes were warm. 'Good morrow, my Captain,' he answered. He took another mouthful of his breakfast and chewed slowly. 'I had expected to be out on the ramparts this morning.'
Minardil had considered putting Thorongil on the Company's inaugural watch, but he had dismissed the idea. Let the man lie late for once; he had earned a week of slumber. 'I did you no favour,' Minardil said. 'You have a double watch tomorrow.'
Thorongil nodded. He stirred the stewed grain with the tip of his spoon, watching it pensively. 'Am I to be issued a new sword?' he said at last. His voice was as bleak as Minardil had ever heard it – almost bitter?
'Your own sword will be returned to you,' he promised, though in truth he had no right. 'Its provenance will prove out.'
'Do you know it?' Thorongil asked almost hastily. 'Would the
'He might,' said Minardil. 'You have my leave to ask him.'
'How is our quartermaster supplied? From a storehouse higher in the city?' pressed Thorongil. He sounded almost like an advocate preparing his suit.
'In the Fifth Circle,' Minardil agreed.
For a moment Thorongil looked hopeful, but then his shoulders slumped and he took a desultory swipe at the meat. 'And I have not the passwords.'
'I have,' said Minardil. 'We will go together. If the Captain-General's man is making inquiries, there is no reason we cannot aid him.'
He wondered uneasily what Lord Denethor would make of such aid. He did not understand the High Warden's concern about the sword. It seemed such a petty matter when weighed against the loss of life, the concerns about the
'No,' Thorongil said. 'I have entangled you already too far. If there is aught to find, I may need to call upon your testament to my character and the circumstances of the sword's finding. But not now.'
'I have put in your request to see the Steward,' Minardil sighed. 'Though if it is anything that can be said in the light of day, you might do better to bring it before him on petitioner's day.'
'Petitioner's day?' Thorongil raised his eyes from his plate.
'Each week, the Steward hears supplications from his people,' explained Minardil. 'Those with disputes unresolved in the courts, or those asking for dispensations of state, or those in need of mercy may come before Lord Ecthelion to seek justice.'
'I do not seek justice, but to make reparation,' said Thorongil. He shifted uneasily. 'And I do not think the matter suitable for the eyes of all the City.'
'If you would but tell me what it is, I could help you judge,' Minardil offered. He hoped that he did not sound wounded by his subordinate's lack of trust.
Thorongil gazed steadily at him. 'Captain,' he said. Then his voice softened. 'Minardil. I would tell you if I could, but it is not fitting that I should disclose this to anyone before I place it before the Steward. It is a matter of ancient courtesy, if not of today's protocol.'
The explanation meant less than the tone of friendship. Minardil nodded. 'I understand,' he said. 'I hope I may be counted among those to be told later on.'
'The moment I return from the Citadel, I promise you,' said Thorongil. His lips tightened as he added; 'If I return at all.'
What sin he might confess that would imperil his position, when he had served so steadily in the City and so mightily in the field, Minardil could not guess. He half dreaded to try. Instead, he bowed his head and started in on his meal.
Ecthelion left his study for that of his son as the sun climbed on to noontide. He had read the last of the reports on the action near the charcoal-forests, and though he had no questions it was his custom to speak with his Captains after any such action. That this one had occurred so near the heart of Gondor struck him with an urgency and a concern that he had not felt since the last hard defeat in Ithilien. He prayed that there was not another, as yet unheralded, that had caused the breach of the river defences.
The door was open, and the warmth of the fire
Denethor was at his desk, writing in the thick tome in which he chronicled his daily labours. He was a man not merely of letters but of lore, and the archival of such knowledge was of greatest import to him. He raised his sharp eyes, and almost in the same motion was rising to his feet to bow over the desk. The chair scraped the stone.
'Father,' he said. Then he laid down his pen and stood aside, offering his own chair. This was courtesy and custom both. Ecthelion sat.
'I have read your reports, and those of the Captains,' he said.
Denethor was taking the lesser chair that sat on the other side of the desk. It put his back to the door. 'Was there anything unclear?' he asked in a level tone that made plain that he knew there was not.
Ecthelion respected his son's confidence. In a man of highest office, it was fundamental. 'Nothing. I have questions, but they are the ones you yourself have
'No ill news has come through Osgiliath,' said Ecthelion. 'That is some small hope.'
'If there has been no calamity, the lapse is worse,' said Denethor. 'It is unlike
'Do not judge before the facts are made known,' Ecthelion warned. 'The Enemy is crafty and Ithilien is vast. What concerns me is that the foe has become so emboldened. It was an act of invasion and of open war.'
Denethor nodded, his face set in grim lines. 'It will not happen again. I have summoned the excess troops from the northern crossroads to safeguard our bank of Anduin between the place of attack and the Pelennor. Swift ships from the Harlond will make regular patrols.'
'Wise precautions,' said Ecthelion. 'I would propose a third.'
'Anything,' said Denethor. His voice was hard and his eyes cold with righteous hate. 'The spawn of Mordor shall not touch our soil
'Do not say that!' Ecthelion breathed. He shook off the dreadful thought. 'Yet we must be prepared. The Council meets tomorrow. I will once more raise the proposal of a wall to guard the Pelennor. I ask that you stand with me.'
Denethor's lips tightened and his brows lowered in reflexive disapproval. He had spoken so adamantly against the wall, and
'My Steward's wish is as good as a command,' he said. The words were
He was bold to make such a declaration, with Adrahil of Dol Amroth and the other dissenters yet unswayed, but he was most likely right. Where Steward and Captain-General stood in accord, no man would argue long.
Slow but confident footsteps stopped suddenly in the doorway. Valacar bowed deeply, his hands folded over a scroll. 'My lord,' he said, addressing Ecthelion. 'Forgive me. I did not mean to interrupt.'
'It is no interruption,' said Ecthelion. 'Come in and be about your business.'
He did not often sit in Denethor's study out of mere camaraderie, but Ecthelion thought he might do so today. His son was in a grave but not overly grim mood, the fire was welcoming, and if he vacated the chair then Denethor return to his work with little distraction.
He already had, it seemed. Twisting in the chair, he looked expectantly at his secretary. 'Well?' he said. 'What have you found?'
'More than I expected, my lord,' said Valacar. 'As I thought from its markings, the blade was wrought for a son of the House of
Denethor made a soft sound of wonder. 'You had to search so far back?' he said.
'The Lord Armourer judged that it was wrought early in this
The reasoning was flawless, and Ecthelion found himself about to ask after the sword in question when he saw it, lying across the top of Valacar's tall desk. The workmanship of the hilt was unmistakably Númenórean, like enough to that of Ecthelion's own blade and the one that Denethor now bore. It gleamed with the
'You did well,' Denethor said with palpable satisfaction. 'So the sword is the property of the House of
Valacar shifted uncomfortably, his scribe's fingers playing up and down the roll of parchment he held. 'Not… precisely, my lord,' he said. He closed his eyes as he thrust forward the document. 'This is a deed of gift from the grandsire of Lord
Ecthelion's puzzlement deepened. It was a fine sword, certainly, but hardly worth such close scrutiny. Was his son taking inventory of the Armoury? If so, why? But patience was a virtue as much as a trial, and he listened.
'Let me see that,' Denethor said brusquely, though the scroll had already been offered. He unrolled it and scanned the neat lines.
With a noise of disgust, Denethor flung the paper upon the desk. 'And from the Great Armoury, it was by some error of judgment allotted to the Second Circle,' he said.
'So it appears, my lord,' said Valacar. He had not flinched at Denethor's show of disapproval. He respected his master deeply, but he did not fear him. Denethor was fortunate to have such a man in his service. 'It is perfectly logical.'
Denethor closed his lips and drummed on the arm of the chair, swift thoughts cycling behind his eyes. 'It was clearly an oversight,' he said. 'The sword may be returned to the Great Armoury, to be given to a more worthy bearer. One of noble blood suited to the sword's lofty lineage.'
Valacar bowed, offering silent assent. As he crossed the room to claim the blade, Ecthelion decided it was time to speak.
'More worthy than whom, my son?' he asked.
Denethor's head moved
'I see,' said Ecthelion. 'One of my Follies, no doubt. Why did you take it from him in the first place?'
'Look at it,' Denethor said, wafting a hand. 'It is a blade of Westernesse, or near enough in quality. It shines with the glory of the old times. What business has such a sword in the hands of a mercenary beggar? I suspected it
Ecthelion could not judge the justice of the suspicion, not without putting himself in his son's place. But one thing he knew. 'The steel of Westernesse tarnishes with time, just as
It was not quite a scowl that touched the Captain-General's face, but near enough. 'A rank apprentice can learn how to restore a blade,' he said.
'Perhaps,' said Ecthelion. 'Yet the sword comes from the Second Circle? Can it be that it was borne by a member of the Tenth Company?'
Denethor evaded his gaze but nodded tersely. 'It was.'
'Was it whetted in battle when the Enemy crossed Anduin?' asked Ecthelion.
Again the words came, reluctant but truthful. 'It was.'
'What makes a man's sword his own but the blooding in a just cause?' said Ecthelion. He rose smoothly but with care, pushing back his son's chair as quietly as he could. It lent gravitas to his movement. 'Shined and sharpened, anointed in battle: what more can you ask?'
Denethor parted his
Ecthelion strode from the room, but he paused at the doorway to look back. His eyes held Denethor's, and he knew they were filled with a fatherly reproach that he did not allow upon his face or into his voice.
'Denethor,' he said levelly. 'Give the man his sword.'
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