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Chapter XXV: Secret Teachings
The dye-maker lived above his storehouse, which stood on a prosperous little street just off of the Great Market. It was a perfect location for one who did not peddle his wares directly to the public. Minardil ascended the stairs at the side of the undercroft and rapped upon the door.
A housemaid in a neat blue kirtle answered. She dipped a curtsey, eyes seeking out the signs of Minardil’s rank. ‘Captain, sir,’ she said softly. 'Have you come to see the master?’
‘Your young mistress, in truth,’ said Minardil. ‘I have tidings she will want to hear.’
‘Oh, yes,’ said the maid. ‘Yes, certainly. Please come in.’
He followed her first into the vestibule and then into a long, narrow dining hall. At one end stood a heavy table surrounded by skilfully carved chairs. At the other, about a tall hearth, were gathered benches and cushioned seats. The accoutrements of industrious ladies were there also: spinning wheel and embroidery frames, and a narrow-band loom. Minardil approached this place where the family clearly gathered in their leisure. He wanted to approach Inweth where she was most at ease.
‘You have asked to see me, sir?’
A young woman stood in the nearest doorway, hands folded decorously before her. She was handsome and dark-haired, and the cut of her gown turned to best effect the generous curve of her hip and the slenderness of her waist. Eyes warm and green as beryls looked Minardil over in puzzlement.
‘Yes, lady,’ he said. He gestured that they should sit, and she took a low-backed chair. He settled on the corner of the nearest bench and leaned in towards her. There was a faint scent of lavender about her, and he found his gaze drawn to the inviting swell of her breast. His shame burned within him. To harbour such thoughts for another man’s betrothed was surely no honourable thing.
‘I have come with a message,’ he said, forcing his composure. ‘I am Minardil son of Mardhir, Captain of the Tenth Company.’
‘I am honoured by your visit, sir,’ said the lady. ‘But I know not what business the Captain of the Tenth Company might have with me. If it concerns the recent import shipments, surely my father is the man you seek.’
Minardil shook his head. ‘I do not seek your father, but yourself. My tidings concern your beloved.’
Her dark brows furrowed daintily, and full lips pursed. ‘My beloved?’ she echoed.
Minardil nodded. ‘Jamon of the Guard. I know that he was absent from your intended meeting last evening, and I have come to make his apologies and to offer some—what is it?’
She was laughing softly, her eyes sparkling and still more jewel-like. ‘You seek Inweth,’ she said. ‘Jamon is her suitor, not mine. I am Míriel, elder daughter of the house.’
‘Míriel,’ said Minardil, trying the syllables upon his tongue. ‘A lovely name.’
‘Some would say an ill-fated one,’ said the lady, a tiny tug of amusement at he corner of her mouth. ‘But if it is my sister you have come to see, I will send her down.’
She moved as if to rise, and Minardil raised a staying hand. ‘No!’ he said, too quickly. She raised an eyebrow in surprise, and he smiled apologetically. ‘I mean that I am in no haste. I would not like to be responsible for bringing you away from your evening’s peace for naught. At least I can offer you my conversation.’
‘An extravagant gift, no doubt,’ said Míriel, but she stood. ‘I will fetch my sister. If you have some explanation for her beloved’s absence, you had best give it to her quickly. She has been in a state of great dismay since last evening.’
Before Minardil could protest again, she was gone. He stole his last glimpse of her swirling hems, and slumped low upon the bench, burying his head in his hand. A lovely name? Had he truly said something so callow and uninspired? Not since the awkward days of his adolescence had he so fumbled a conversation with a lady. He had little contact with women in his daily life, except in passing while he walked street patrols, but Minardil had thought himself able at least to speak with them. Now he was flushing hotly and rethinking every word.
Agitated, he paced before the hearth and tried to focus on his mission. He could not give any intimation of the nature of Jamon’s seconded duty, but he had to make plain that it was an honour and not a punishment. This would be difficult, for he could not say that he knew for certain which it was. The mind of the High Warden was far more subtle and brilliant than that of ordinary men, and it was impossible to follow his thoughts in this. Jamon’s misery cast the situation in a grim light, but Minardil could not doubt that Lord Denethor was acting for the good of Gondor.
He had no more time to mull the matter over, for there came the whisper of soft shoes as Míriel returned. She had an arm around her sister, guiding the younger lady forward. Inweth was more slender of bone than her sister, and the timidity of her approach made her seem very young. She cast her eyes down as she drew near Minardil, and sank out of Míriel’s hold to dip into a deep curtsey.
‘Captain,’ she said softly. ‘You wished to see me?’
‘I did,’ said Minardil. ‘Shall we sit?’
She looked up at his voice. ‘You are not Captain Beleg,’ she said in wary surprise.
Minardil grinned. ‘That I’m not. But I have news of Jamon of the Ninth Company nonetheless.’
Inweth nodded tautly, her hands clutching at one another. ‘Is he… is he well?’
Even as he knew that there could be no hesitation in his reply, Minardil found himself hedging. He gave his head a sharp little shake, rallying his wits. ‘He is safe within the walls of the City,’ he said; ‘yet it may be some days before he returns to his Company. He is rendering uncommon service to the Captain-General, and is much engaged in the Fifth Circle.’
The young woman’s eyes fluttered closed and she drew a deep breath. Míriel laid a hand upon her sister’s shoulder and spoke softly; ‘Thank you, Captain. That is glad news indeed.’
She did not say more, but Minardil read it in her eyes. They had feared Jamon dispatched to field service without warning: sent to Ithilien, no doubt, where many were slain in defence of Gondor’s borders. He strove to shape a reassuring smile. ‘He regrets that he was unable to send you word before now, lady, but his duties did not allow it.’
Inweth nodded. ‘I knew he would not forsake me save in some great cause. He is serving Lord Denethor? That is surely an honour.’
Minardil doubted that the Easterling felt honoured by his assignment, but he inclined his head. ‘I can tell you nothing of the work, I fear, but he wished me to assure you that you are ever in his thoughts.’
‘That’s very kind. Thank you, Captain,’ the girl said earnestly. She glanced back at her sister, letting out a little huff of relief. ‘I knew he would not forsake me,’ she whispered.
Míriel made a tiny clucking sound with her tongue, eyes fond. ‘Certainly not,’ she said. Then to Minardil; ‘May I offer you refreshment, Captain? You have brought good tidings to our house.’
Minardil longed to stay, to bask in her presence a little longer, but that would be self-indulgence of the most unsavoury sort. ‘I cannot, lady,’ he said courteously. ‘My duties are many, and I must take council with my lieutenant on a matter of some urgency. Yet with your leave, Mistress Inweth, I shall call again when I have further tidings of your betrothed.’
The younger woman nodded and dropped into a deep curtsey. ‘You are always welcome,’ she said. ‘Thank you for your kindness.’
‘Aye, thank you,’ said Míriel, though she did not offer like obeisance. There was a spark in her eye as she looked at Minardil, though her lips wore a placid smile. For a moment she held his gaze, then turned with a sweep of her arm to indicate the way from the room. ‘May I show you to the door?’
Thorongil considered the matter carefully before he spoke.
‘It is probable that I could lend him useful advice,’ he said. ‘Yet I do not think much of offering it at one remove. Difficult enough to teach such tactics to one who is without experience…’
‘Without passing the teachings through another neophyte,’ Minardil agreed. He thought he saw a flicker of relief in his First Lieutenant’s eyes as he relieved the man of voicing his Captain’s inadequacy. ‘You will have no argument from me.’
‘The question, then, is how to arrange for our meeting,’ said Thorongil. ‘If I was not permitted into the cells to look in on the wounded Easterling, I presume I will not be permitted in for this.’
‘Not without leave of the Lord Warden,’ sighed Minardil. ‘Yet if he is in earnest about extracting information from the prisoner, he may consent to admit you.’
Thorongil shook his head, his lips pressed into a thin line. ‘I doubt that. If he saw such tutelage as necessary, surely he could offer it himself. This cannot be the first captive to come under his purview in need of questioning. Nor do I think that he would take well to the suggestion that we might disagree with his methods – less still to the notion that I might have skill in interrogation.’
Minardil chafed at his brow with the crest of his thumb. ‘How strange that we must tread with such care, when surely we share Lord Denethor’s aim. I have known him to be a stern man, but this…’
‘I am to blame, at least in some part,’ said Thorongil. ‘He was wary of me from the first, and my ill choices have done little to put him at ease. If I challenge him in this, I do not think his displeasure will fall on me alone. I do not intend to put you in an awkward position again.’
‘I am already in an awkward position, and through none of your doing,’ said Minardil. ‘Jamon has asked for my aid, which I owe him as a Captain and a man. Yet to the Captain-General I owe my fealty and my honesty. By rights, I ought to bring Jamon’s concerns to him.’
‘And yet you do not,’ Thorongil said levelly.
‘No…’ Minardil sank deeper into his chair, fingers drumming uneasily upon the desktop. ‘I would not wish to be seen by my commander and my lord in the state in which I saw the Guardsman. If ever there was a man in need of a wise and circumspect friend, it is Jamon of the Ninth Company.’
‘In you he has one already,’ said Thorongil. ‘All that is wanting is my knowledge – and the means to meet with him. I suppose it is out of the question to have him removed from the prison, even for a few hours?’
‘Without involving Lord Denethor, almost certainly,’ Minardil said. ‘He is in every aspect a prisoner, from his raiment to his chains. It seems an ungracious way to use a loyal soldier.’
‘It is, on the contrary, a brilliant stratagem,’ said Thorongil. ‘Who is more likely to sway a captive than one of his own countrymen, afflicted with the same travails? The flaw in the plan is that the art of questioning a foe is not instinctive. It is a delicate practice, and it calls for experience.’ He fell silent for a long moment, but from the pensive absence in his grey eyes Minardil knew better than to speak.
‘You said that there were two with the authority to allow access to a prisoner,’ he said at last. ‘The Lord Warden himself, or a magistrate of the City. Is this so?’
‘Yes,’ Minardil allowed with an uneasy laugh. ‘But if you have a magistrate in your pocket, I have not.’
‘The jurists of Minas Tirith should be in the pocket of no man,’ Thorongil said sharply, eyes flashing. Then he settled himself and said; ‘But I would expect a just one to give ear to the request of a respected Captain.’
It was an easier matter than Thorongil had feared, to gain a hearing before one of the noblemen who presided over the Court of the Commons in the Fifth Circle of the City. He made the arrangements himself, deeming it a suitable duty for a Lieutenant to discharge on his Captain’s behalf. The clerk was somewhat surprised by the request, but certainly not confounded by it: though uncommon, such audiences appeared to be standard. That very afternoon, Thorongil stood silently behind Minardil as the younger man sat before a sallow-faced gentleman in a coat of heavy velvet.
‘You wish to bring your Lieutenant with you to question a prisoner?’ the magistrate said, studying the slip of parchment on which Thorongil had written the petition. ‘That hardly seems a matter for me.’
‘Ordinarily it would not be, my lord,’ said Minardil; ‘save that the man is not held in the City jail. He is in the dungeons of the Sixth Circle.’
Dour brows drew together. ‘The Sixth Circle. Then he is no ordinary prisoner.’
‘No, my lord,’ said Minardil. ‘I believe he may be able to render information on the attack on my company and the Second of the Citadel, where we camped within easy march of Anduin. I fought that day, and many of my men fell to the swords of the Enemy. My Lieutenant stood with me.’
‘And you think him able to question the man on aspects of the battle you did not witness directly,’ the magistrate muttered, nodding his head in understanding. ‘Yet why come to me? If this Easterling has useful knowledge of such things, surely the Lord Warden will consent to have his officers aid in the interrogation.’
Thorongil did not need to see his Captain’s face to sense his unease. When the moment’s silence endured a heartbeat too long, Thorongil took a small half-step forward.
‘It was I who thought to bring the matter to you, my lord,’ he said. ‘The Lord Warden has many concerns before him, and time is pressing. I thought it more expedient to have you weigh the matter.’
Minardil glanced back at him, some consternation in his eyes, but the magistrate only nodded. ‘I see no reason a pass should not be issued,’ he said. ‘Will one audience suffice?’
Minardil looked hastily to the older man and began to nod, but Thorongil said; ‘Three, my lord.’
‘Three…’ The magistrate drew out a fresh square of parchment and dipped his quill to write. ‘If it drags on any longer than that, I advise you to seek the council of Lord Denethor himself. He is a great lord and much versed in such matters.’
‘Thank you, my lord,’ said Minardil hastily. ‘I will certainly take that under advisement.’
So it was that they found themselves, just as the watch was changing, passing through the Sixth Gate on their way to the dungeons. Minardil held the letter of passage in tightly clamped fingers, and hesitated before the arch that led to the jail-yard.
‘You must help him, Thorongil,’ he said. ‘I cannot imagine being put in such a position myself, not even in the name of Gondor.’
‘I will do all I can,’ Thorongil vowed. ‘Had I but knowledge of the tongue, I would gladly take his place – though my looks might well prove an impediment.’
A nervous chuckle broke from the Captain’s lips. ‘I suppose one with the face of the foe would scarcely seem trustworthy.’
‘Or he would take me for a Black Númenorean,’ said Thorongil; ‘which might well be worse. Sauron’s slavers can scarcely be beloved by his thralls.’
The look of dismayed astonishment upon Minardil’s face brought a patient half-smile to Thorongil’s lips. ‘Fear not, I will not attempt it,’ he said. ‘Yet when this business is over, I may ask Jamon to do a little teaching of his own.’
He walked on before Minardil could remark, and soon they were ensconced in a dreary chamber, awaiting the jailor. Minardil went to the sideboard, where a jug of cheap wine sat next to several earthenware cups. He poured two measures and moved to take a third when Thorongil shook his head.
‘None for me,’ he said. ‘I am here to labour, not to refresh myself.’
Minardil regarded him thoughtfully. ‘You may want it after seeing his state. I did.’
‘Then I will drink when my task is done,’ said Thorongil. He nodded to the table. ‘Sit. There is no need for you to do aught but bear witness.’
When Jamon was brought, Thorongil saw that he was mistaken. The Easterling of the Ninth Company was a pitiable sight: dishevelled, dirty, smelling strongly of confinement and cold sweat. His feet and legs were bare, and the shirt he wore was soiled and ill-fitting. Wrists and ankles were manacled and draped with heavy chains, and it was only at Minardil’s word that the jailor found his key.
‘Your pardon, Captain,’ the man said as he loosed the shackles. ‘I’d half forgot he’s one of yours. Looks every inch the prisoner, don’t he?’
‘Then he has done well at his artifice,’ said Thorongil, watching Jamon’s downcast face as the chains fell away. ‘Thank you; you may leave us.’
Not until the man was gone and the door closed behind him did Jamon look up at last, eyes round with astonishment.
‘Thorongil?’ he breathed. ‘But why?’
He was quaking where he stood, and Thorongil laid a guiding hand upon his elbow. ‘Captain Minardil thought I might lend you council,’ he said. ‘Sit, now, and collect yourself.’
Jamon sank into the offered chair, and Thorongil gave him the cup of wine. He raised it to wan lips with an unsteady hand and took a long swallow. ‘Thank you,’ he whispered. Then his eyes found Minardil and he stirred as if to rise. ‘Captain, I did not…’
Minardil raised a staying hand. ‘Pay me no mind,’ he said. ‘Thorongil has come to advise you, and there is little time to waste. Perhaps it is best if you explain the situation yourself, lest I forgot some important aspect.’
The Easterling looked from one man to the other, uneasy. There was a servile stoop to his shoulders that Thorongil had not seen on their previous meetings. It was remarkable how far the trappings and treatment of a captive went to transforming a free man, and it made him uneasy. In Jamon’s place, even an experienced interrogator would struggle to keep his purpose and his sense of self. For one raised beneath the Shadow, the situation was surely intolerable.
‘Tell me what you have learned so far,’ said Thorongil quietly. ‘Not only what the man has said, but what you make of him. Do not fear to speak your mind; we all seek the same end.’
‘Lord Denethor has bade me learn how the Enemy crossed the river,’ said Jamon. ‘I do not know: the man will not say. If I dare to question him, he falls silent. I think… I fear that he suspects me.’
‘Tell me what he has said to you; do not trouble with what he has not,’ said Thorongil. ‘Have you learned anything of his home, or his position in the armies of Mordor?’
A shudder wracked Jamon’s frame at that word, but he nodded. ‘We are from the same part of Rhûn,’ he said, staring deep into the wine. ‘We speak the same dialect. He told me of his family—’
In the Hall of Kings, Denethor paced between the statues of Isildur and Anárion. He turned crisply on the toe of one boot and strode for the other great brother with the resolve of a general in the charge. On the other side he pivoted again, and made his way back. The sweep of his cloak and the click of his heels compelled him, and the Guards at the far end of the chamber kept their stony eyes from following him. It was no the most private retreat in the White Tower, but on such a night it came close enough.
There was still no word from Ithilien. The messengers had not been seen on this side of the river since their crossing at Osgiliath, and the regular dispatches were late. With every hour that dragged on without tidings, Denethor’s unease mounted. Something had surely gone amiss for Cairon to fail in his duty to guard Anduin, and the protracted silence from the front made it all the more likely that this lapse was a grave one.
Nor did Denethor fear ill tidings for Gondor’s sake alone. Among the faithful men poised to give their lives to guard that debatable land, Esgalad son of Esgalion was one of the most skilled, the most valiant, the most likely to lead the charge in a perilous place. If the news so gravely delayed was news of his death, Denethor feared for the sanity and safety of Telpiriel. Who knew how she, already so fraught with strain in her pregnancy, would bear such tidings? Who could say if her spirit, much less her body, could endure such a shock?
Had he been a younger man, a rasher man, he would have ridden forth this very night to seek the truth himself. It was not such an imponderable thing, to gallop westward with winter’s dying wind in his hair and his sword at his side. Yet Denethor knew he could not. He was not free to lay by his duties to do that for which lesser men were rightly engaged. He had labours in the Citadel and more; for if the news came ill, then he would be needed at his Steward’s side to offer council and to call for action.
So he waited, fraught with unease and sick with apprehension. His appetite had fled him and he could not sleep. Dark dreams waited beyond the restless veil, dreams either prescient or misguiding with no means to divine which. Better to pace, to wear his path to and fro upon these ancient stones, than to court the nightly hauntings of his troubled mind.
Yet suddenly Denethor found himself turning not the full half-circle to stride back to the feet of the first King of Gondor, but down towards the great carven doors with the Throne at his back. His long legs carried him so swiftly that the Guards had scarcely time to lay hand upon the ornate rings, and he slipped through the crack of the parting doors with so little margin that his shoulder struck one with a low thunk. He did not feel the pain, nor the bite of the wind as he passed through the vestibule and into the open courtyard. He said not a word as the men at the Seventh Gate made haste to let him pass. His commands to the door-warden and the jailor were brief, and then he was pacing again, this time the breadth of a suffocating little office, as he waited for the Easterling to be brought to him.
‘Well?’ he demanded, not waiting for the jailor to close the door or for the brown-faced Guardsman to collect himself. ‘What has he said? What have you learned?’
He waited, expecting the man to stammer and hedge as he had before, offering up feeble and fearful excuses. Yet the Easterling, though surely roused from comfortless sleep, spoke calmly as he stood with his head bowed and his hands in chains.
‘Not all, sire, not yet,’ he said. ‘But I do know what caused the Enemy to cross the river.’
‘You do?’ The words came out sharply, bringing to a halt the galloping need in Denethor’s breast. He waved the jailor from the room and seized one of the Easterling’s shoulders. ‘Look at me, Guardsman, and answer. What have you learned?’
Jamon raised his head warily, dark eyes watchful, but he did not quake beneath Denethor’s hand. ‘They were a patrol, scouting the northerly marches of Ithilien and evading our men,’ he said. ‘They had word from watchers – man or orc or beast the captive cannot say – that men of the City were on manoeuvres in lands ordinarily quiet.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Denethor. He had assumed as much, so precise had been the strike upon them. ‘And they dared the river and Cairon’s videttes just to disrupt our training?’
The Easterling’s eyes shone with an almost triumphant light. ‘No, my lord!’ he breathed. ‘No, it is more than that. You see…’ Now he dropped his gaze self-consciously and drew a thin breath through his nostrils. ‘The watchers reported, sire, that you were among them. They came not on an arbitrary raid, nor to make trouble where the Companies made their drills, but in the hope of capturing you.’
Denethor released his hold on the man almost convulsively. He kept his face impassive, but could not entirely disguise the tension in his voice. ‘You are certain?’ he hissed. ‘The watchers knew of my presence? The commander of the invaders sought me?’
Jamon nodded unsteadily, but there was certainty when he spoke. ‘They call you the Mail Fist of Gondor,’ he said. ‘You are their greatest foe, the one whose sword and standard they dread. When the prisoner’s commander learned that you were so near, just across the river in command of inexperienced troops, the order was given to march without regard for Lord Cairon’s patrols.’
‘And did they encounter any?’ Denethor demanded. ‘If they marched without regard, how did they avoid detection? What of the raft? That was not the result of a moment’s cursory effort, but of a hard night of shipcraft. How did they contrive such labours without detection?’
‘I do not know, sire,’ said the Easterling, but far more steadily than he would have done during his last interview. ‘The prisoner’s times of wakefulness are brief, for his wound weighs upon him. I will learn more when next he wakens.’
‘If the watchers knew I was among the Guard, their sight is either very keen or their lookouts very near,’ Denethor muttered, turning away from Jamon to press his fists to the tabletop. He leaned against locked arms, exhaling a long, hot breath. ‘I had not thought they would take such a risk to capture one man.’
But he was not merely one man, he reflected now. The Mail Fist of Gondor, was it? He had striven always to be an avenging blade, a dour Captain, a mighty lord of war. Yet this was the first he had heard of such a name, of such a pall cast upon the designs of the Shadow. Denethor felt his gaze harden even as the disquiet of the last few days crystalized into stony resolve.
‘You must learn how they reached Anduin,’ he said coldly, though within him the hatred of Sauron’s thralls burned hotter than before. ‘I will come to you after the day-meal tomorrow, and I expect further information.’
He straightened, taking his weight from the table and raising his head high. He turned with slow majesty quite unlike the driven twistings he had made before the Throne. Jamon’s eyes were fixed upon him, wonder and determination within them. Easterling he was, but there was enough of the soldier of Gondor in him to be awed by his Captain-General’s countenance now.
‘You have done well enough in this,’ Denethor said. ‘See that you do not fail to finish what you have begun.’
Then he strode from the room, startling the jailor in the corridor. The man’s fawning words fell upon unhearing ears as Denethor swept away.
In light of all that had come to pass, Thorongil felt it strange and frivolous to turn his attention to the choosing of the Champion of the City. Had he not given Minardil his word to put forward his name, he would have abandoned the pursuit altogether. As he moved through the series of trials, however, he began to understand. Since the Tenth Company’s return to Minas Tirith, the shadow of loss and of fear had hung heavy in the Second Circle. Doubtless it had spread, diluted perhaps but not dissolved, throughout the ranks like some foul disease. Such a habit of disheartenment could easily solidify, crippling morale and with each passing day poisoning the well of men’s courage and weakening the bonds that made it possible for them to trust one another with their lives.
Yet Thorongil could see the cloud rising, dispersing in the excitement of cheering on favourites, good-naturedly maligning opponents, and following the rounds of increasingly intense competition. Clandestine bets were placed, in flagrant violation of the regulations of the Guard but apparently impossible to stop. Over the course of three days, Thorongil fought in fifty-three bouts ranging in length from fifteen seconds to almost four minutes. He was a hopeless mismatch for most of the men he fought, and it was not until the sixth round of trials that he found himself putting forth any effort.
It was no surprise, to him or to any of the men of his Company, when he ascended to the final round, competing with eleven others for the title of Champion. He did not inquire as to the odds placed upon the outcome, but he would not have offered much. At the end of that series of skirmishes, two competitors remained: Thorongil of the Tenth Company, and Minardil son of Mardhir.
On the night before their final bout, Thorongil stood watch on the eastern battlements, looking down over the crowded back streets of the First Circle and the spreading, fallow lands of the Pelennor beyond. The mist was thick over Anduin, and the world lay cold and silent. All looked to be at peace, and yet Thorongil could feel it: the dark and distant menace, the pulsing hatred that lay beyond the river, beyond the debated lands of Ithilien, beyond the bastion of the Mountains of Shadow. Two hundred miles or more, as the raven flew, lay between the walls of the White City and the black ramparts of Barad-dûr where they clawed towards the empty sky. Yet Thorongil could almost taste the ash of Gorgoroth upon his tone. He could almost envision the bleak lands he had never walked. And most of all, he could feel the malice of Sauron upon the very air, still though it was.
He could not turn from the East, not without neglecting his post, but he tried to shut his mind to the unseen pestilence. Below him in the narrow stone houses, peaceful people slept. Children lay tucked in cots and trundle beds. Men and women lay restful in each other’s arms. Old folk dreamed sweet dreams of days gone by. Somewhere a cat yowled, and its mate made a shrill reply. Minas Tirith slept, despite the Shadow, and in the morning it would rise again to its daily routines and diversions. In the latter, at least, he would have some part to play. He could only hope it would be a useful one.
‘No wind tonight,’ a familiar voice observed. From the shadow of the nearest tower came a cloaked figure, helm on head and pike in hand. ‘Perhaps we will see the end of this long winter after all.’
‘Long?’ Thorongil asked, mustering a quiet laugh as if it had the power to drive the grim thoughts from his mind. ‘I come from a land where winter lingers long into March, and spring is a dreary season of muck and frosty nights.’
‘Yes, well, we cannot all be as hale as the Northmen,’ said Minardil. He stopped next to Thorongil and they stood, shoulder-to-shoulder, looking out over the Circle below. ‘Off to bed with you, now,’ he said. ‘The watch is half through.’
‘Aye, half through,’ said Thorongil. ‘Never has a man in your Company stood a half watch, I think.’
Minardil shrugged, gazing out towards the rolling hump of fog that obscured the river. ‘You’re standing one tonight, and I am also. I would not have you at a disadvantage tomorrow. If we both cut short our night, we will be more fairly matched.’
Now Thorongil’s laugh was more genuine. ‘You are sending me to my bed so that we will be fairly matched?’
Minardil grinned at him, teeth flashing in the faint lamplight that filtered up from the streets. ‘Not unfairly handicapped, then,’ he said. ‘Respect my gesture of sportsmanship, Lieutenant, and go.’
It was not for Thorongil to say that he was more than a match for his Captain, short of sleep or no. He recognised the gesture for the chivalrous act it was. ‘The time would be wasted. I do not think I shall sleep tonight.’
‘Are you suffering from nervous agitation, then? Perhaps I am a more formidable opponent than I thought,’ Minardil teased. When Thorongil did not respond in kind, he lowered his voice gravely. ‘Is there something in the air tonight?’ he asked. ‘Is this like the night when you smelled the pitch?’
‘No,’ Thorongil said firmly. Then he inhaled deeply through his nostrils, the cold air burning between his eyes. ‘Not precisely. I am troubled, Minardil. Why am I here?’
‘Because someone must watch the walls?’ Minardil offered. ‘Or rather, because you have yet to take advantage of my generous offer.’
‘Nay.’ Thorongil closed his eyes as if by doing so he could shut out the sense of palpable evil lingering just beyond sight. ‘Why am I here, safe within the City walls, when there is need of men elsewhere, to greater end? I should not be resting easy in my new rank, but demanding to be removed from this service entirely. In Ithilien—’
‘In Ithilien, Cairon and his men labour tirelessly,’ said Minardil. ‘But that does not mean that your service here is useless. I have watched you these last days, encouraging those you bested and teaching those who were slated to face you. I have seen you smile and raise a glad hand to the crowds, when in your eyes there was only care and sorrow. You have laid by your troubled thoughts for the good of my Company, and for the consolation of the City. You are needed here, Thorongil, now most of all.’
‘To face you in a mock battle, a pretty tournament to distract the masses?’ asked Thorongil. ‘Any man who fought this afternoon could do as well.’
‘But could any man who fought this afternoon help me to train three dozen recruits to full readiness before the safety and the order of the Second Circle suffers?’ asked Minardil. ‘I had the first list of names from the Master of the Guard today. There is not a seasoned man among them. Most are coming from beyond the walls of Minas Tirith, unaccustomed even to our streets and our ways. There is long work ahead, and important work. Or do you disagree?’
Thorongil shook his head. The training of the new men was indeed a far nobler pursuit than the quest for personal glorification – even in the name of morale among the Guard. ‘Yet still I am troubled.’
‘In dark times, wise men are troubled,’ said Minardil. ‘Give me three months, I beg you. If in that time you are not snatched from me to serve some greater need, then I give you leave to sue for a place in Cairon’s battalions. I will even do all in my power to seek such a place for you, though any Captain would be mad to foist such a one as you from his service.’
‘Three months,’ Thorongil said softly.
Minardil nodded. ‘By then, they will be assembling fresh troops for summer’s advances. They would not send you now even if you begged it of the Steward himself.’
‘Three months, then,’ agreed Thorongil. He turned at last to look at his Captain. ‘And I will accept your offer of the half watch. Mayhap I shall find sleep after all.’
‘See that you do!’ Minardil sang out as Thorongil withdrew along the wall. ‘I expect you to put forth every effort to defeat me tomorrow. Another man might have offered me contest enough to make a good showing, but no man in the City has a better chance against the Sable Challenger. Not even I.’
Thorongil carried that thought with him back to the silent garrison.
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