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Thank you to everyone for their lovely feedback, and especially for the care and concern you’ve all shown for my wellbeing. It’s wonderful to be writing this tale again, but I fear I have not the time or the strength for individual review replies yet. I’m truly sorry for this, and I hope you’ll all understand how grateful I am that you take the time to comment. Cheers!
Chapter XXII: Unsanctioned Deeds
A week passed. The Tenth Company was settling comfortably into its new routine of double watches and empty tables. It should have been a time to take solace in the reassuring structure of the days and the decidedly
It was no one thing that led to his unease. Certainly there was the matter of the sword, which as it dragged on without resolution filled him with a mounting dread that he would be taken for a thief and suffer the consequences of that branding. There was also his concern for his patients, many of whom still bided in the Houses of Healing under Thalahir’s capable care. More than once he had thought to request a return visit, but he dared not. He had drawn enough scrutiny from that quarter already. There was also the deference he was now shown by those wounded who had returned to the Company, many of whom felt they owed him their lives and all of whom now looked to him as something far more than a fellow Guardsman.
Then there was the notoriety that seemed to be rippling through the Second Circle. Thorongil had first noticed it while on patrol in the Butchers’ Quarter. The passing traffic seemed to flow around him at a greater distance than before, and folk would pause to murmur to one another when they saw him. This never failed to bring a crawling sensation to the back of Thorongil’s neck. Only once in Rohan had he felt anything like it, and then he had been infested with lice. His daily ablutions reassured him that this was not the case now. It was the unease of uncommon scrutiny that left him squirming.
When Minardil invited him into the Captain’s small study, Thorongil knew he would not like the reasons. He came peaceably nonetheless. There was nothing to do but face the unpleasant – or the calamitous, as the case might be – with what dignity he could muster.
Minardil’s expression was no reassurance as he closed the door and motioned for Thorongil to sit.
‘It cannot go on,’ he said gravely, rounding the desk and steepling his hands upon its top.
A reflexive ‘Captain?’ rose to Thorongil’s lips, and he swallowed it. They were alone now, and between
Minardil let out a thin huff of laughter. ‘Which part, indeed,’ he said. ‘Then you know you are the talk of the City?’
Thorongil restrained a grimace. ‘Surely not.’
‘Of the Guard, then,’ said Minardil. ‘And folk in the lower circles know your name. The men of this company have kin, many of whom are grateful to you for your deeds on the battlefield and among the wounded. Some talk is natural. You should accept it gracefully and with pride.’
‘I shall try,’ said Thorongil; ‘but I do not like it.’
‘That’s plain enough,’ said Minardil. ‘Yet if you stand for Champion you will gain still more attention.’
That sort of attention Thorongil could cope with. It was suitable to his position and would raise no serious questions. It might even prove a welcome distraction from talk of his tactics and his skill with a needle. ‘That does not confound me,’ he said. ‘I have promised you to stand, and so I will.’
‘I’m glad,’ said Minardil. ‘But that is not what I wished to discuss.’
He turned in his chair and took up a sword that had been leaning unnoticed against the wall. The sheath was of
‘I cannot have you unarmed any longer,’ he said. ‘Already there is talk about it. A few took notice of Lord Denethor’s confiscation of your weapon. Far more have noticed that you now go without.’
Anger and fruitless frustration rose in Thorongil’s breast. He strove not to let them show, but he feared that he failed. Minardil’s apologetic expression tightened marginally.
‘Has there been any word of my… of the other blade?’ he asked, knowing the answer. If there had been any word, he would have either been presented just now with the Númenórean
Minardil shook his head. ‘I have made inquiries with the Master of the Guard and the Lord Armourer, but I have received no reply. Do not abandon hope. It cannot be easy to find the provenance of such a thing, even if Lord Denethor himself scoured the archives. Yet in the meantime, you must have a sword.’
Thorongil agreed, but
‘Once you are armed again, the Captain-General may deem the matter settled,’ said Minardil, eerily echoing Thorongil’s thoughts. ‘I don’t want that, so I am not taking you to the quartermaster for a replacement.’ He tapped the flat of the blade. ‘This is my own spare. It is not of the greatest quality, certainly nothing to what you had been carrying, but it comes without signature; without an official record that you have received it.’
‘I thank you.’ It was all that he could say. The warmth of Minardil’s generosity and concern warred with the guilt of further entangling him in the matter. Thorongil laid his palm upon the sword, just above Minardil’s forefinger. It no longer seemed such a lowly weapon. ‘I hope it brings no trouble upon you.’
‘How can it?’ asked Minardil with an easy shrug. ‘I am acting in good faith, expectant of the High Warden’s justice.’
With the Company settled and his best man once more armed after a fashion, Minardil at last had the time to make the long climb to the Sixth Circle to visit his men in the Houses of Healing. He was welcomed by a lady in a close-fitted gown of white, her apron much used and her hair concealed by a veil so that it should not fall upon those in her care. She took him first to the convalescents, all of whom were glad to see their Captain and to pledge their eagerness to return to duty. Next came those with the more serious injuries: battered skulls and missing limbs. These men would never be the same, might never again be fit for duty. It was a hard thing to smile and offer only encouragement and praise.
Then Minardil was shown to the room where
‘Someone must go,’ said Minardil. ‘A page. You must send a page to my garrison in the Second Circle. He must fetch Thorongil, a man of my Company. He… he will know what to do.’
He was loth to rouse Thorongil, for it was the man’s one watch free watch between two doubles, but the stink of the wound struck fear into Minardil’s heart. He did not know if there was anything to be done for a patient so far gone – the fever-spots bright on his cheeks and his brow slick with sickly
He expected surprise and resistance from the woman, but she nodded. ‘The one who joined the artery,’ she said. ‘It shall be done, Captain.’
She moved to leave him alone with his dying subordinate, but Minardil turned hastily to follow. When she had given the orders and sent the gangly boy running, she turned to him.
‘There remains one more,’ she said.
Minardil nodded. ‘Dúrion.’ He had not forgotten his Lieutenant, but he dreaded the meeting. If
‘I see you’re on the mend,’ Minardil said. Dúrion’s gaze was turned to the
‘Captain…’ the lady said uneasily, dismay in her eyes.
Minardil did not heed her. He crossed the room and reached to take Dúrion’s hand. It was then that he turned to look at his commander. It took all of Minardil’s wits to keep from recoiling at the sight. The left side of Dúrion’s face, opposite the thick wad of bandages bound to his shorn head,
‘Apple,’ Dúrion said. At least that was what it sounded like. The word was slurred and sluggish, and the effort it took to form was evident in his one good eye. He frowned with half of his lip and tried again. ‘Apptal.’
Now Minardil thought he understood. ‘Captain,’ he whispered. Dúrion jerked his head in agreement. ‘It is good to see you breathing, Dúrion. And abroad from bed already!’
The gladness he forced into his voice faltered, and he cast pleading eyes at the lady. She shook her head.
‘I should have warned you,’ she said softly. ‘His speech is… it is poor. We see it often in those who have taken a stroke. Sometimes time will bring some improvement; sometimes not.’
‘Can I… should I…’ Minardil gestured helplessly.
‘Talk to him. Yes, Captain. You should,’ she said. ‘But you must show neither frustration nor pity when he cannot answer. If you are not certain what he has said, tell him so. Do not guess at the word unless you are certain; that is more discouraging than helpful. Above all be patient. We must all be patient.’
Minardil took her arm and drew her back towards the corridor. ‘Then he will not be fit for duty?’ he asked, whispering so that Dúrion might not hear.
She shook her head. ‘Not now; not soon. The paralysis has taken half of his body. He cannot stand or use his left arm.’
‘He is my First Lieutenant,’ protested Minardil, as if this could change the truth. ‘He is a good man.’
‘Misfortune strikes at good and wicked alike,’ said the lady. ‘All in this house know it, perhaps better than
Minardil nodded tersely. He could think on that at another time. For now, he had to attend to Dúrion. At the
Thorongil bent low over the wound, nostrils closed to the foul odour. It was not the sickly sweetness of gangrene, but the raw and salty reek of an abscess. Carefully he placed one fingertip above the line of stitches and pressed. He felt the give of fluid, not the spongy resistance of healing tissue. Even in sleep,
The wound had been closed perfectly, with all due skill and leaving a small opening through which fluids might drain. Now that gap was swollen almost closed and clogged with fresh secretions. A little oozed out under the pressure of Thorongil’s finger, but not nearly enough to drain away the poisons.
‘We must open him up,’ he said, looking up at the far side of the bed, where Thalahir stood watching. ‘The pocket of putrescence must be drained.’
‘The skin is already knit together,’ said Thalahir, shaking his head regretfully. ‘It is too late.’
‘Then we will cut it,’ said Thorongil, straightening his back and taking his hands from the Guardsman’s thigh. ‘The poisons will reach his blood if we do not do something soon. It is drain the wound or sacrifice the leg.’
‘Cut through new-healed flesh?’ Thalahir paled a little. ‘It is not done.’
There was no time to be the patient teacher, no time to wonder at the lapses in Gondor’s healing lore. Thorongil was already looking around for suitable instruments. ‘I will need fine shears and a newly-whetted bodkin.’
‘The shears we have ready, but a bodkin… I do not know.’ Thalahir’s lips tightened.
‘Would you not lance a boil?’ asked Thorongil. ‘Or drain an abscess? Have you never cut for a stone?’
Thalahir looked uneasy. ‘In a body otherwise healthy, yes,’ he said. ‘But not a battle-wound that proved so difficult to close, in a man so near the brink of death. His stitches were due to be removed on the morrow.’
‘Well, they are coming out now,’ Thorongil muttered, bending again to examine the angry gash of crimson. ‘As soon as Midhon arrives, we will begin.’
Thalahir frowned. ‘I do not understand why his presence is necessary.’
‘He is a good healer and a worthy young man,’ said Thorongil, forgetting for a moment how young he must appear to the healer. ‘He did fine work on the battlefield, as surely you have seen writ upon the bodies of those he aided, and he saved many lives. He has as much stake in
‘I wonder,’ said Thalahir, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. But he went to the door and spoke softly to the page without. Turning back, he remarked; ‘Someone must assist – that is if you will accept my hands within your patient.’
‘He is our patient,’ said Thorongil. ‘I would not touch him without your aid.’
They busied themselves in preparing
The page bore a basin and a
‘Go to the Herb-master,’ he told the youth. ‘Bid him bring his most potent liniment against infection. Honey, also, if he has any to hand. If not, go to the buttery to procure some.’
It seemed that the page had scarcely left the room when there came a soft knock. At Thalahir’s instruction, Midhon entered. He looked pale and uneasy, and his eyes went at once to his teacher.
‘Master,’ he said quietly. ‘I was told that I am wanted? What can I—’
He stopped when he saw Thorongil, standing over
‘Thorongil,’ he managed at last. ‘What is this?’
‘The wound has festered,’ said Thorongil. ‘We are opening it afresh.’
‘Is that wise?’ asked Midhon, casting an uneasy glance at Thalahir. ‘Can such a wound hope to be closed thrice?’
‘Closing it is no worry for today,’ said Thorongil. ‘We
He strode to the corner of the room, where stood a washstand with a hunk of hard soap. He rolled back the sleeves of tunic and
‘You wash,’ he said, something like astonishment in his voice.
‘I do,’ said Thorongil. He had been challenged on this before, in Rohan where the leeches were not accustomed to cleansing their hands unless they showed grime.
‘That is an ancient custom of Westernesse,’ said Thalahir. ‘It is not known among lesser Men. Even some of my own healers do not practice it, though I strive to impress it upon my pupils.’
It was in truth an Elven custom, far older than Gondor or fair
Midhon was surprised into a bark of laughter, drawing all eyes to him. He reddened and offered an apologetic little shrug. Thalahir, however, seemed satisfied with the explanation. He brushed past Thorongil to cleanse his own hands. Midhon in his turn did the same.
They took up their places by the bed, Thorongil in the centre with Thalahir at his left. Midhon stood at the right, the instruments before him on the mattress’s edge. Thalahir nodded to the four junior healers, and as one they wrapped their towels about each of
Thorongil, who was accustomed to having inexperienced men kneel upon limbs to hold them, approved of the method. It reminded him that he had much to learn from the people of Gondor, even when his own art seemed to surpass theirs.
‘Give me the shears, please,’ he said, holding out his hand. Midhon supplied them, and Thorongil gave a slight nod to Thalahir as he bent to cut the sutures. With each snip, Thalahir’s fingers made a swift pass to pull away the severed knots. The wound was indeed all but closed, a thick line of scar tissue sealed over all but the obscured drainage hole. Thorongil could understand the reluctance to break that well-knit barrier, but the need outweighed all other concerns.
Asking for the bodkin, he began to cut.
Thorongil did not return in time for the evening watch, and so it was Minardil who found himself pacing the ring-like lane that ran through the middle of the Second Circle. The streets were quiet, and the air was dank with the first scent of spring. Soon the snows on
At the corner where the lateral road met the broad upward avenue, Minardil chanced to meet his counterpart. The sigil of the Ninth Company was plain even by the fogged light of the street lanterns, and as the other man saw him and drew near Minardil recognized the Easterling. He did not know his name, but he was the only one of his race serving in the Second Circle and one of only a handful in the City.
‘Well met, friend,’ said Minardil, inclining his head politely.
The Easterling, seeing his own insignia, bowed. ‘Captain.’
‘I am Minardil of the Tenth Company,’ he said. ‘And you are?’
‘Jamon of the Ninth, sir,’ said the man. He did not offer a patronym, which until the coming of Thorongil would have made Minardil uneasy. ‘I am ready to serve you.’
‘Thank you,’ said Minardil; ‘but it is enough that you serve Gondor. How fares the Ninth Company?’
‘Better than the Tenth,’ said Jamon reflexively. Then he grimaced and dipped another hasty bow. ‘Forgive me, Captain. I meant nothing.’
‘Never mind; it’s true enough,’ Minardil sighed. He chafed the back of his gauntlet against his jaw. ‘We have sustained a difficult loss, and it will be some time before we are returned to full strength.’
Jamon nodded. ‘Captain
‘Do you?’ asked Minardil. ‘I have need of good men and seasoned veterans. You have served Minas Tirith for several years, have you not?’
‘I have,’ said Jamon. There was a peculiar strain in his voice, and he cast his eyes away. This changed the angle of the light upon his face, and Minardil frowned. What he had taken for a shadow on the man’s left cheekbone was a bruise black as midnight. The Easterling straightened his backbone and squared his shoulders. ‘But with respect, Captain, I must stay where I am. I cannot yield my place in the Ninth Company.’
This was reasonable enough: a step down the scale of numbers was a step down the
But wonder was all that he could do. The inner workings of another man’s Company were no business of his, and he would give
‘I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Jamon of the Ninth Company,’ he said. ‘I hope we may renew it soon.’
‘Thank you, Captain.’ Jamon bowed again. ‘You give me
Then each went his separate way, Minardil with some unease. He would have to make cautious inquiries into the happenings in the Ninth Company. Jamon had not the countenance of a brawler, though that was possible. So too was an injury sustained at
Thorongil was too weary to haul and heat water for a proper bath, but the reek of infection was thick upon him and he could not inflict it upon his booth-mates. Instead he knelt at the foot of the great stone cistern that fed the Tenth Company’s bathing chamber, and filled a shallow bucket with the cold water. He bowed his head low and scrubbed his face. The shock of the chill roused him a little, though it lent no strength to tired limbs. His back ached from bending low over the bed for hours, and his hands were unsteady after their hard and meticulous labour. He cared little for such pains. The wound was clean and well-packed. The infection was already in abeyance. There was no reason that
For this Thorongil was humbly grateful. He was grateful to Minardil, who had convinced the healers to send for him. He was grateful to Thalahir, who had seen fit to let him work almost unquestioned. He was grateful to Midhon, who had proved almost as tireless as the two more experienced men during the long process of scraping and draining. He was grateful that the muscle of the artery had already knit over the silk stitches that held it, that the infection had not penetrated that cut. He was grateful for his skill and for the one who had nurtured it. He was grateful for the grace of the Valar, without which all the rest could not have transpired.
But he was weary, and he longed for bed. He had to wash first, however, and so he took some of the coarse, soft soap and began to lather it across chest and arms. Splashes of water rinsed the soap away and trickled down the floor to the drain sunk for that very purpose. It was the heart of the dawn watch: anyone not marching the streets or standing silent at the gates was
The stench was in his hair, too, and Thorongil bent low over the bucket to wet his head. He was shivering steadily now, cold water and cold stone taking their toll. He had lit the charcoal brazier and the lamp
The cheap soap was gritty against his scalp, and it burned in his eyes however he screwed them closed. Thorongil was groping blindly for the tap when he heard the heavy door creak open. At this hour of the night, it could only be Minardil come to check
‘I must thank you for taking my turn,’ Thorongil said, still bowed low over his lap and fumbling for fresh water. His eyes were trying to water, but that only intensified the searing discomfort of the soap. ‘The time escaped me, and I could not abandon him.’
‘Abandon whom?’ a mocking voice drawled. ‘Just what were you up to, that you missed your watch? I took you for a reliable soldier.’
For a moment the tone was disconcerting, and Thorongil did not recognize the voice. When it grew hard, he had no trouble at all. ‘It is a grave thing to neglect your duties, son of no man,’ said Lieutenant
‘It is a misunderstanding,’ Thorongil said. He found the spigot and turned it at last. Frigid water cascaded into the bucket, and he took a greedy handful to rinse his eyes. It was not enough, and he reached again. ‘I had the leave of Captain Minardil. I was needed in the Sixth Circle.’
‘Why would anyone need you in the Sixth Circle?’ asked
Unsure whether his presence in the Houses of Healing had been properly sanctioned, Thorongil said nothing.
‘You will stand when your Lieutenant is speaking,’
The water was running into his eyes again from tresses stiffened with soap. He swept back the mess of hair and tried to blink away the offending grit.
‘Much better,’ said
‘I did not,’ said Thorongil. He had heard of Dúrion’s state from Thalahir, but the Lieutenant had been long
‘The Captain thinks much of you, and when I see your skill in battle I cannot blame him,’
Thorongil did not point out that he was standing naked before the other man, half-blind and hurting and still respectful in his tones and unmoving beneath the tight grip of the Lieutenant’s hand. ‘I understand that, sir,’ he said as mildly as he could manage.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Thorongil. He wished only to hasten the end of this encounter, that he might rinse his burning eyes. ‘Thank you, sir.’
‘I strive only for courtesy,’ said Thorongil. ‘I do not wish to be taken for insolent.’
‘I don’t imagine you do,’
Grateful despite himself, Thorongil fell to his knees and groped for the edge of the bucket. The rinse water was not clean, but still it felt delicious upon his eyes. He scooped up three handfuls in rapid succession, and then laved his hands so he could rub at his eyelids. He raised them a little, warily, and felt the residual sting. He blinked several times, eyes watering copiously. He could feel
‘The mighty warrior, cowed by a little soap?’ he sneered. It was unfair: surely there was not a man in the armies of Gondor who had not got the foul stuff – ash lye and tallow, and strong enough to blind an ox – in his eyes. Thorongil bit his tongue and groped for the corner of the threadbare bath sheet. He blotted at the offended organs, still tearing.
‘What does Minardil see in you?’ asked
There was a clatter and a clang as something was thrown down upon the wet floor, half the sound muffled as if by leather.
He remained still, kneeling with the towel in his
Thorongil had expected to lay hands upon some inferior blade, ill-balanced and doubtless rotten with rust.
He had his sword once more.
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