19. Chapter 18
And so in the year of 1327 I reached my sixteenth year and the time came at last for me to follow in my father and uncle's footsteps and begin my service with the King's Army. I had grown tall and strong, the hardships of my life as a rat in the Keep had seasoned me physically and mentally and I felt I was ready for what lay ahead. If I lacked some of my father's wits and keen eye, or my uncle's speed and strength, then perhaps it the toughness and endurance that my mother's stock had conferred on me made up for it.
When the day came I rose, dressed and broke fast with the other rats for the last time. They went off to carry out their allotted tasks as I had done so many times before, and it was strange to find myself crossing the already bustling main yard towards the gatehouse to report for duty. Radulf would also be reporting for duty too, so there would be at least one familiar face there, but the crowd of boys who had come up from the town that morning looked a motley bunch, many of them poorly dressed and sickly looking. They clutched their packs and bundles and most looked nervous and uncomfortable. Sergeant Cenric, for it was he who would be taking charge of our training, was not impressed. We were lined up in the courtyard and he proceeded to rant at us, demanding to know how he was supposed to make soldiers of such poor quality stock, and describing us in many choice terms. I suspect that some of the newcomers were terrified of this outburst, coming from such a ferocious looking giant of a man, but I knew he barked much more loudly than he bit from long experience. Even so I resolved not to seek any favours from him or give him any reason to upbraid me on any matter.
We were then taken across to the Healer's Hall, stripped, inspected for health and defect, and our heads were shaved. One or two of the recruits were deemed unfit to serve for various reasons and sent away, a disgrace I knew I would not suffer, the Leeches nodded approvingly when I presented myself. We then stood in line, were measured up by the orderlies and our regulation issue clothing, gear and boots were handed to us from several great untidy heaps. The undergarments, breeches and tunic were all of rough stuff, and would once have dismayed me with their poor quality, but I had grown used to such garments now. The boots were of passable quality, and I also collected a leather breasplate, belt, hooded cloak and pack, and finally a bright red surcoat with the prancing black bear stitched crudely onto it. We dressed in silence, full of excitement as to what this meant, and though my stuff felt heavy and clumsy on me I did not care. We were ordered back out into the courtyard clutching our bundles and lined up, standing to attention with them at our feet. Although my new clothing was a little stiff and uncomfortable I felt like a man, but looking down the line most of my new comrades had the air of boys who had dressed up as soldiers rather than the real thing.
Cenric roared a few more commands and made further comments about our lack of value and then Lord Angon came across the courtyard to address us. I had not seen him for a little while, and he looked tired, whether he was ill or simply worn down by his duties I did not know. He spoke to us about the history of our land, and how its story had begun with the downfall of the west and the founding of Arnor. He spoke of the settlement of the eastern lands and the pacts of friendship that were made with the Hillmen, the division of the Kingdom and of the campaigns against Cardolan and later Angmar. He also described the kingdom to us, spoke of its many rivers and vales, the hard craggy lands of the north and east and the gentler rolling country to the south between the rivers. He spoke well, of duty and honour, and we all listened intently to what he had to say, though I suspect some of it meant little to some of the listeners. He finished by warning us of difficult times ahead, and great danger, and the need to stand together as brothers. I felt inspired by what he had said to us and thought that he was indeed a leader that a man could fight and die for. I also wondered with a sudden pang how many of us that stood there would be dead within a year or two but quickly pushed the thought to the back of my mind. The speech concluded and he wished us all well, and told us he hoped to hear our vows when we had completed our training. We were then allowed to stand at ease, but before he departed he came over to me and clasped my arm, somewhat to my dismay and embarrassment. "Esteldir, you are the very image of your father in that gear, I am sure you will do him proud. He was a fine man, one of the best". I thought I detected a little catch in his voice and mine caught in my throat as I replied "I will do my best, my Lord". He smiled patted my arm and turned away, walking over to talk to Cenric. I got a few curious looks from some of the others and did my best to ignore them. As we walked over to the main hall to drop out gear off in our new dormitory Cenric came alongside me and gave me a hard look. "Don't expect no favour from me boy". I tried to hold his stare and assured him I had no intention of doing so.
Our new sleeping quarters were just as crowded and uncomfortable as the old one had been, but I was used to that now and this time nobody had interfered with my chosen pallet. An unusually quiet Radulf took the cot next to me, and two lads who looked like they had come straight off the Shaws installed themselves in the other two spots in our corner. Their names were Efred, who was indeed a Hillman, and Aldarion, who turned out not to be and was the son of a Landholder from one of the villages downriver.
After a modest lunch, which to my mild amusement was served by some of my former fellow rats, we were taken to the armoury. This was a bustling place, with several smiths and their mates at work on the ground floor and many folk coming and going on various errands. We were taken upstairs through a barred door to a dingy hall where more weapons than I could ever have imagined were stacked and piled up and hung from the walls. I had never seen this part of the keep. We formed up into a line and again worked our way along, picking up a steel helm, round wooden shield, dagger, and sword. They seemed terribly heavy, especially the sword, but I was certainly not going to let on that I thought so. It was a plain blade of no great quality, nothing like the fine old sword my father had once carried, but it was mine and I grasped it eagerly. When we were all done we returned to the courtyard and began to learn our drills in full gear, and it was hot, tiring and very uncomfortable. All the while soldiers and Keep servants came to and fro past us and gave us barely a glance. Finally the sun began to sink in the sky, but if we thought our toil was about to end we were mistaken. After a brief rest when a skin of water was passed round we were roared back into line, made to stand untidily to attention. We then marched in quick time out of the keep and down the hill into the town, where people were beginning to pack up and close for the day and go home. They paid us little attention, and we soon left the town by the main gate and set off along the south road, which was still busy with carts and wains at this time. I was coping better than many of my fellows but it was still a struggle. My new boots chafed, my shield arm ached, the scabbard belt was digging into my hip and the helm was hot and uncomfortable and I had an overpowering urge to tear it off and throw it in the ditch. We had soon marched further than I had ever been before, past the burial ground on the hillside above the road where I gave a silent greeting to those who rested there. We were out into an open country with a few scattered farmsteads and hamlets nestling in the wooded hills to our left, and the mighty Hoarwell coursing silent and grey to our right. Eventually, when some of the lads looked like they were about to drop Cenric called a halt, and we gratefully sank into the grass alongside the road. The sun was beginning to set behind the steep rolling hills across the river, and I knew that somewhere over there were what were now in name only my lands. I did not have time to ponder long on this though as Cenric soon had us up and away again, cursing us in colourful terms as we set off back towards Northford. It was almost dark when we returned to the keep, sore and exhausted and the first stars were beginning to show in the sky,mirroring the twinkle of torches and lanterns being lit in the town. After a cursory meal we retired for the night, fearing what further hardships the next day would bring. We were not disappointed.