18. Chapter 17
So I gradually settled into my new life, though it was hard and bleak and I was constantly tormented by feelings of loss and loneliness. After my battle with the two boys my fellows eyed me with a great deal of respect, but I think some were also a little afraid and I did not go out of my way to spend time with them and most of them shunned me. The exception was Radulf, who was a cheerful good natured soul, often taken advantage of, and claiming me as a friend possibly made some of the others less likely to provoke him. I continued to work in the kitchens alongside the taciturn Arthon, and gave neither him nor his master any cause to give me any more beatings. I willingly gave myself over to the welcome oblivion that hard labour and the deep dreamless sleep that always followed it brought me.
As well as the orphans and foundlings who made up our numbers, there were numerous badly wounded veterans at the keep, who Lord Angon had taken pity on and given work within their means and food and shelter to. Arthon was one such, but there were others too, some in a piteous state with limbs lopped off or the wits dashed from their heads in battle. The most afflicted of these lived on the floor below us in the main hall and some were wretched indeed. At first their plight filled me with horror and revulsion and I considered that death would have been a more merciful fate for them. Perhaps in some cases that was true, and it was almost certainly what would have befallen them if they had been cast out by a less merciful Lord and unable to shift for themselves. But in time I came to learn that they were no different to the rest of us, and whilst my own companions shunned me, some of these maimed men were happy to speak to me and tell me their stories and learn what went on in the town, and they became my friends. Several had fought with my father or my uncle, and all spoke well of them, my heart was stirred with a little pride at this and I swore to prove myself worthy of their kinship.
We were allowed some time off every few days, and though I often wandered the streets and alleys of the town as I had before, more often than not with my cheerful companion in tow, the clan disputes no longer held any savour for me and I took no more part in them. That did not prevent some of my former adversaries from attempting to exact their revenge on me, but word of my fight, possibly grown in the telling went out in the town and this soon stopped. My wanderings frequently took me past the blackened gaping ruin which was all that remained of my family home, and it always shocked me how little had survived the fire. I would stand , lost in painful thought, and former neighbours would pass by and nod respectfully in recognition. Then my feet would take me down the cobbled hill towards the yard and wharehouse where Fodric now conducted his business. He saw me standing in the street once, staring, and came chasing after me with a stave in his hand. I slipped away quickly but swore I would have my revenge, however long it took. There were two matters I could not account for, firstly the unnatural speed and ferocity of the fire that had taken my family away. Secondly the absence of any coin or jewellery in the ruins. Fordric's own hands might have been clean of foul deeds, but I was sure that he must have sent some hired hands to rob us of the strongbox and burn us in our beds. There were plenty of hungry veterans and bad sorts out of the Shaws in the town who would have done the deed for a few gold coins. Without solid proof Lord Angon was unable to act, so I knew I was the one who would have to see justice done.
So another hard winter followed, and then a fine spring and summer. Some of my companions were now old enough to begin their training as soldiers and left our crowded garret, including my two adversaries, Olfric and Bor. They took advantage of their new found status and dished me out quite a beating. I said I had fallen down some stairs in the tower, and that seemed to be the end of the matter. There was never any shortage of new boys to take their place though, and some of them seemed very young indeed to me, poor pitiful creatures. I continued to work in the kitchens, but the fact I could read and write, was well spoken and had sharp wits was soon noted and I was given new duties. Rather than hefting wood I now assisted the Quartermaster and ran errands for him in the keep and town, as well as fetching and carrying from the kitchen to the captain's and lord's quarters. Mileth always greeted me warmly whenever I went up there and I never forgot the kindness she had shown me when I first came there. I would also see or speak to Angon himself from time to time, and he was always courteous and asked how things went with me.
Such was my life for the next five years, and as time went on I found some peace in the routine and became a little less solitary in my habits. However I could never escape the fact that I was a son of nobility amongst plainsmen and hillmen, and my manner and speech always seemed to single me from my peers. Like the two older boys before them some of the newcomers tried to take advantage of this from time to time, but I grew taller and stronger every year, and my quick temper and even quicker fists usually put a quick stop to any of that sort of business. My duties meant I spoke to many and overheard and saw much, both in the keep and the town and especially amongst the waggoners who brought our supplies from the south. This meant I learned much of what passed both near and far.
The brief respite our land had enjoyed from orc attacks inevitably came to an end. In the spring of 1323 the incursions down the vales and off the northern moors began again in earnest, and any thoughts anyone might have had of reclaiming and resettling the empty lands north of the river were quickly forgotten. A general call to arms was proclaimed and the garrison at Northford was soon back up to full strength, which meant the quartermaster and kitchens at the keep had to work relentlessly to keep everyone fed and watered. The forces of Angmar that had ravaged eastern Cardolan were eventually driven back by hosts marching north from Tharbad and East from Stoneyford and crossed the East Road unhindered back into the wilderness of Western Rhudaur. Once they had licked their wounds and resupplied they began to attack us again, in greater force than before. I saw first hand what war really meant when the wounded and dying were brought back from the latest skirmishes, and every so often a soldier or a captain who we knew would go out and not return. I can still remember some of their faces, men of all kinds, some noble, some low born, who might have jested with me or done me a kindness as I ran my errands, who did not come back with their companies.
Things went ill in Rhudaur too in those days, the King grew more and more ill tempered as he ailed, and he finally lost patience with Ulfraer, chieftain of the Hillmen and his growing insubordination. In a rare show of strength and leadership he raised a host, made up mainly of southerners from the lands between the rivers, and marched north to Bearcliffe and then up the forest road to High Burgh. Angon's forces played no part, being both otherwise engaged and also being made up of a large number of Hillmen whose loyalties might well be divided. Ulfraer was taken somewhat by surprise, and not yet trusting that he could successfully rise against the King in open rebellion was forced to do him public obeisance and swear fealty. For a while at least taxes and tribute flowed once again into the coffers at Lastbridge from the Shaws. King Elion however left nothing to chance and established a strong garrison at the High Burgh, and placed a Lord to command there. The road south from Northford became a little less perilous for a while as the number of outlaw attacks diminished, but the renewed threat from across the river meant that it did not remain safe for long. My sworn enemy Fodric prospered meanwhile, as the north became more and more dependant on supplies from the south. He became a man of standing in the town and had a large and comfortable house built. I saw and heard all but did not forget.