I knelt, my armor creaking, to hold Darrien’s hand, and for a few moments I could only think of what an agonizing death comes of a wound like his. In the Halls of the Gentle Hand I had seen my mother treating soldiers with an arrow lodged in the gut, and not even a tincture of maresfoot could stave off the pain. It was a slow and lingering way to die.
Darrien noticed my hesitation. “I die for Gondor in honor and glory, sir,” he reassured me, giving my hand a little tug. “But you must not linger. The others need your leadership now.”
He was right. “Your family in Lebennin will know of your glory; I will see to it myself when this is done,” I said to him. As I let his hand go and stood, there was a hint of surprise in his eyes, and of satisfaction. There had only been a moment to spare for the fallen; now it was time to make his sacrifice meaningful.
In flushing out the enemy soldier at the top of this pile of rumpled ruins, Darrien had given us the best kind of advantage: the one that the enemy commander didn’t recognize. With a gesture I led the rest of the unit to a silent perch atop it. This ruin was of no use as a point from which to make an attack, which is why the enemy had guarded it so lightly. The cover below us would baffle even the best of archers — and as it happened, the best of our archers was the man who fell to buy us this perch. But it did allow us to see, through the movement of leaves and shadows, where the enemy was. To prevent us from stopping their invasion at a chokepoint they had spread themselves all over the ruins of this fallen city, moving in stealth through it, all but ensuring that, even if we found and slew many of them, at least one of them would reach the fortress undetected. Except now we knew where every last man was. With gestures I assigned my men to turn the enemy’s surprise on itself, and one by one, they were cut down.
“But I only won five of the eleven sorties,” I protested.
The master-at-arms of the garrison at Minas Tirith stared at me as if I were standing in a burning pyre, singing of faraway lands. He glanced back down at the scroll before him a moment, and then spoke as patiently as if he were lecturing a distracted child. “It is more a matter of how you won them, than how many you won, Ioreld. Those you won were amongst the most challenging, and you won those decisively and with few losses. The defense of the ruins of Bâr Húrin in particular. Sacrificing one man to capture a strategically worthless lookout point was an excellent tactic. Of the officers to conduct this exercise, scarcely one in a dozen thinks of it, and fewer still succeed at it. You did so with the loss of only one man.”
“Perhaps, but it was my best archer. Perhaps he could have used–” I began, but the master-at-arms shook his head and interrupted me.
“You know full well not even Darrien could have hit the enemy from there, and if he’d tried he would have given away your element of surprise. And speaking of Darrien, after the exercise, he gave you a better review than I’ve seen him give any other candidate officer.”
I blinked and was for a moment at a loss for words. I had had no idea that the soldiers assigned to my unit would be reviewing me. All of us in officer training had been led to believe that all that mattered was how many sorties we won.
The master-at-arms was looking at the scroll and continuing to speak. “In fact, you received high marks from nearly all the men under your command. Many of these soldiers have served under scores of officers, you know. This one speaks of how you took the time to learn about him, and then used that knowledge to advantage in a later sortie, having him approach an enemy from the right flank to attack from uphill…”
“Well, he’d had an injury in the right leg a few years ago and could strike better from the right,” I protested as if this were patently obvious.
“Indeed, but even in a true battle few captains would take the time to learn this, and even fewer in an exercise. And this one speaks of how you not only learned where he was from, but remembered it days later. This is the sort of leadership that builds morale and inspires men to their best. Now, we have many officers who take an interest in their men, don’t mistake me. Particularly those who have come up from the infantry. Those, like you, who come from a family of officers are less likely to do so. I recall your brother did not.”
“Which one?” I asked.
“You have more than one brother in the officer corps?” the master-at-arms asked, but before I could reply, he shook his head. “Well, I might expect as much from the sons of Eldethen. But I speak of Hathalon, who is now master-of-arms at your own home of Imloth Melui, is he not?” I nodded, but he was already continuing. “That took considerable work, as a lump of ore becomes a fine-edged sword. When I first was training him he didn’t even remember the names of the men under his command. And yet,” he moved down the scroll farther, “most in officer training who take an interest in their men then fail to lead them. They hesitate to send men into an honorable death, or they do not lead with decisive strength and swift action. Your record shows that you do both in equal measure; and that is the sign of a promising officer. Now, I’ll have no more argument from you.” He set the scroll down and once again held out the badge that was to be my insignia of rank. “There’s no time, for I have need of a Captain straight away, as I have an assignment. And you aren’t going to like it.”