CHAPTER 5: New Blood
Twenty-four of Gondor’s newest young officers stand smartly at attention before the barracks in the first circle. A few of them are already sweating in the fresh morning light, though the air is still cool.
Ingold strides arrogantly back and forth before them, his hands folded behind his back. “Your assignment,” he barks, “has been made.” He turns sharply to face them, icily inspecting each pair of eyes. “You are charged with the defense of Ithilien, the Garden of Gondor.” He steps close to the nearest recruit, his nose mere inches from the face of a young Man no more than twenty-two years old. “It is dangerous,” he growls low, though his voice carries easily through the silent courtyard. “It is isolated. It is unforgiving. And if you do not think,” he bites, “You. Will. Die.”
Mablung stands several paces back and to the side of the assembly, his arms folded before him as he watches Ingold break in the new blood. He appears casual in his observation of the latest academy graduates, his face relaxed and calm, but his eyes are sharp, thoughtful, and stormy. Silently he strategizes, weighs options, and recalls his audience with the Steward and the high Captain of Gondor, just an hour before.
* * *
“Obviously, any sign of a greater presence in Ithilien has the potential to ring alarm bells.” Boromir stands, leaning over a large table, gazing down at a detailed map of northern Ithilien. “You must be as subtle as you can afford to be. I wish you had the leadership present to split them into troops of six outright, send them staggered across various points at the river.”
Mablung shakes his head. “Even if they had more field experience, they do not know the land yet. I am not comfortable with turning untested Men loose with nothing but compass bearings in such a place as Ithilien, and as you say, I have not enough experienced Men present to lead them back in such small groups. And there is the matter of the wains.”
Boromir grimaces, but nods. “Yes. There is no other place but Osgiliath to ford the river?”
“I’m sorry, milord, no. Unless we employ boats.” Mablung remains silent on the matter of the young Captain’s limited topographical understanding of the Anduin.
Boromir frowns. “Cumbersome.”
Boromir gives the map a hard stare down, as if attempting to intimidate the parchment into yielding a plan
Mablung watches him in silence for a long moment. “Milord… if I may?” He tilts his head in deference.
Boromir waves a hand. “Let’s hear it,” he says gruffly.
Mablung’s lips quirk infinitesimally, but with a conciliatory tone, he suggests, “I would be comfortable splitting the force, I believe. Ingold may lead one half back; I will lead the other, a half-day or so behind. If we scout ahead properly, we may miss any Morgul outriders. We’ll turn off the road east of the river at our first opportunity. The wains should not overly slow us until we draw nearer to Henneth Annun.”
Boromir’s eyes meet Mablung’s. He considers gravely a moment, then begins to nod. “The best we can hope for, I think.”
Mablung bows his head to Boromir, more than a little impressed by the young Man’s willingness to accept outside council.
“Making preparations, I see.” Denethor’s oleaginous voice resonates from the archway of the marble room. He strides toward them, his fur-lined robe flowing behind him. An intricately carved staff of rich, dark ebony in his hand clacks on the stone floor as he moves. He smiles broadly, first at his son, then at Mablung. “You see, Captain?” he asks, clapping Mablung on the shoulder. “When her sons ask for provision, Gondor provides without fail!”
Mablung bows his head to Denethor, a smile pasted to his lips. “She does, milord, and for that I am
eternally grateful to her.”
Denethor nods in approval of his words. “I was relieved to hear your trip here was uneventful. Your
little… mascot… arrived safely, I understand.”
Mablung tilts his head, feigning surprise. “An honor to the child is your remembrance of her, milord. Yes, she arrived soundly and is in the care of a family friend until I can make the necessary arrangements, which are being finalized.”
But Mablung’s skill for disingenuousness is no match for Denethor’s. The Steward smiles in a fatherly manner. “Well done, Captain Mablung. Your service to this child has been above and beyond the call of duty. I hope one day she may understand what you have done for her.”
Mablung diverts his eyes to the floor, accepting the Steward’s praise with another bow. “Thank you, milord Steward.”
As Ithilien’s newest Rangers break ranks, Mablung snaps from his reverie and watches Ingold bark orders, assigning tasks to small groups of the young Men. Three and four at a time break off to gather foodstuffs, cache weapons, or tack up the horses that will be pulling the four wains they will take with them.
Fey would like the horses, he finds himself musing. What is she doing? Is she happy? …does she miss me?
The night before, he had left her.
* * *
The cozy, spacious house Mablung approaches is warmly lit as twilight creeps over Minas Tirith. Feygil trots beside him, clasping two of his fingers in her small hand. He looks down at her as children’s voices carry on the wind toward them. Her round little head swivels toward the sounds of play, her wide eyes searching for the source.
Walking beside Mab, Ioreth says quietly, “‘tis the finest children’s home in the City, funded by two of the more charitable nobles in the High Court. Their wives’ pet project, really. But the children benefit.”
Mablung’s brow creases as he stares warily up at the house’s stone facade. “You really think they’ll give a place to Fey?”
Ioreth gives Mablung a comforting smile. “I will keep her until a place opens for her. I’ve been assured by my sources that she is now first on the list. The proprietress is a good woman. It was her idea to have Fey visit, so that she may begin to be incorporated.”
Looking sick to his stomach, Mablung nods slowly. But he does not move, even as Fey toddles forward a step, toward the other children’s laughter, wafting through the open window.
Laying a gentle hand on Mablung’s broad shoulder, Ioreth’s smile is pitying. “Come, dear,” she encourages, gesturing toward the door. “We’ll both stay a while, see how she does with the other children, hmm?”
“…yes, of course.” Mablung strides reluctantly to the door and knocks.
As they wait, Fey looks up at him. “Whassat, Papa?” she asks, her hand jerking toward the door.
“What’s what, Fey?”
“Whassa noise, Papa?”
The door opens on peals of laughter and a high shout, followed by a resounding thump. The woman who has opened the door has turned away from them. “Baranor! For heaven’s sake! Take your tomfoolery with the boys outside! I’ll not have you riling the little ones just before bed like this again!” Finally, she turns to them. She is short and stout, dressed in a simple homespun dress that looks a bit rumpled. Her round face is kind, her cheeks dimpled and red, and there are prominent bags under her eyes. Her dark hair has begun to fall out of the bun at her nape. “Do forgive me! Our Man who helps with the older boys is wonderful, though a bit simple. I must always remind him that the boys’ bedroom is not the place for roughhousing!” She opens the door further, welcoming them inside with a gesture. “I am Ethuil, do come in.”
Mablung gives Ioreth a long look, then turns his gaze upon Ethuil, who appears to falter somewhat under his scrutiny. Her hand flies to her hair in an anxious attempt to pat it back into place.
“Er, yes!” Ioreth interjects, smiling at Ethuil. She steps forward and over the threshold. “I am Ioreth, I wrote to you. This is Captain Mablung, of the house Inglorion, who has taken ch–”
At Ioreth’s pronouncement of Mablung’s title, Ethuil blanches and drops into a curtsey.
Mablung’s already stony face darkens further with a frown. “Please,” he says, waving a hand. “I’ve little use for titles beyond ‘friend’ and ‘enemy.’ Just Mablung will do, thank you.”
From the look on Ioreth’s face and Ethuil’s nervous smile, Mablung suspects his request has come out rather more like an order. He grimaces in what he hopes looks like apology, and leads Feygil across the threshold.
An orphanage. It comes to this, he thinks to himself. I will leave her here. I will betray and abandon this little girl, to whatever fate befalls her. He is silent as Ethuil leads them to a sitting room.
“…well,” Ethuil begins hesitantly. “I… gather Healer Ioreth has explained that we do not have room for little Feygil right now, but I assure you, when she is placed, she will have the utmost care…”
As Ethuil and Ioreth discuss the finer details, Mablung watches Fey closely. A small basket of toys has
drawn her attention. Sitting on Mablung’s knee, she stares for a long moment, then points at the basket and looks to him.
“Papa, s’Babi?!” she asks excitedly, beginning to squirm off his lap to investigate what appears to be a stuffed animal’s ear poking out from the basket.
Mablung releases her. Hesitating briefly, he finally murmurs, “…I don’t know, Fey. Why don’t you go
Fey scampers across the small room and pulls on the ear. A threadbare and stained stuffed donkey emerges and Fey cocks her head at it. Her small brow puckered, she mumbles, “s’not Babi…” Nevertheless, she turns the toy over in her hands, examining from all angles.
Small scuffles of feet sound at the doorway. As the two Women continue their conversation, Mablung and Fey both turn to the sounds. Two children peer wide-eyed around the corner. A little boy, who looks to be about Fey’s age, and a girl a few years older, stare back at them.
Ethuil glances toward Mab, as though gauging his reaction. “Calagon, Selawyn, you may come in, if you are quiet.”
The little boy steps toward Fey, promptly digs in the basket, and produces a small wooden wagon. He sits and begins to scoot it across the floor. Fey stares at him, transfixed.
“Are you a lord?” The little girl appears suddenly at Mablung’s elbow, her curling blonde hair falling
almost to her waist, curtaining her face.
Surprised, Mablung turns to her. He scrutinizes her curiously a moment. How did such a tiny Rohirrim find her way here…? “No,” he answers quietly, glancing aside to keep one eye on Fey. “I am a soldier.”
Selawyn’s pale blue eyes stare solemnly into his. “I guess you want a boy, then.” Her delicate face falls with disappointment.
Mablung blinks. “…what?” Suddenly, it dawns upon him. “Oh! I… I’m not here to adopt a child. I’ve come t– I brought–” He stutters to a halt, arrested by Selawyn’s gravity.
Selawyn looks at Fey, then slowly turns her gaze back to Mablung. “…oh,” she says simply, and turns to leave the room.
At a loss, Mab is silent as she slowly shuffles away. He observes that she has no shoes on her feet, but rather two thick, mismatched woolen stockings.
His heart in his throat, he turns from the doorway. His hand covers his mouth, as though to suppress the bile rising from his stomach as he slumps back in his chair.
Fey seems to be having better luck with the little boy. She has found some carved figurines with which to load the small wagon, and each time Calagon stops, she piles a few more of them on for a ride. The two toddlers giggle as several precariously positioned wayfarers tumble from the wagon. They converse in toddlerish on how to fit all their riders in. Fey’s voice bubbles and chatters across Mablung’s ear.
“…I’m very glad to hear it,” Ioreth is saying. “And perhaps we might visit further on the Houses of Healing contributing some supplies, or perhaps some small services. I shall speak to the other Elders on it.”
Ethuil beams. “Wonderful!” She rises. “Milord Captain, I do apologize, but I must ensure the smallest ones are all to bed…”
Mablung rises as well, his eyes staying on Fey as she plays. “Of course.”
Ethuil glances at Ioreth, then smiles gently. “Feel free to stay as long as you like.” She slips quietly out and bustles up the stairs.
“I suppose this is the first time Fey has ever seen another child. That is, since you found her, anyway,” Ioreth observes, smiling at Calagon, who has taken to acting the monster, terrorizing the wagon-riders while Fey attempts to steer them to safety.
“…yes,” Mablung mutters.
Ioreth purses her lips worriedly at him. “You’re positively grey, Mablung. I… hate to say it, but perhaps now might be the best moment…? She’s well distracted.”
For a long moment, he is silent, still as the statues guarding the Houses of the Dead. “…I can’t,” he whispers. “I need her, Ioreth. I can’t leave her.”
Ioreth’s brow contracts with sympathy. Glancing at the doorway, she places a hand on his arm. “You have done your duty, Captain, honorably. Your Men await your return. They need you.”
His eyes close. Broken, he turns and walks slowly, stiffly away. As he opens the front door, Fey’s fluting voice floats through the air, asking a question he cannot make out the words to.
Ioreth’s lower murmur carries easier. “…no, darling, Papa must go now. Look, Calagon needs your help with the blocks!”
Traitor! Filth! COWARD! His throat so tight he can hardly breathe, Mablung stumbles away into the night.
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