20. Chapter 19
I remember those first few weeks of our training as one long torment, the forced marches, the runs and the constant drills accompanied all the while by the yells and curses of our fearsome sergeant. But I survived it all and soon I realised that I no longer noticed the gear as much or felt as weary. It was the same for all of us, and after a month it seemed that we might make soldiers after all. Cenric seemed to agree, because it was then that we began our combat training in earnest, sword, spear, bow and barehanded. Having a little previous experience of all of these from those distant days with my father stood me in good stead, especially at first. I gave no quarter in our practice rounds and the sergeant or one of my colleagues had to pull me away from my opponent more than once. I felt a hot rage rise inside me when I was fighting and gave no quarter. In the end Cenric lost patience with me. One fine summer morning we were in the courtyard practising our swordplay with wooden practice swords and I soon made short work of some poor lad from the Shaws, dropping him to his knees and disarming him under a hail of blows, knocking off his helm, smashing my shield into his face and bloodying his nose. Cenric, who had been shouting instructions to an another pair of fighers nearby saw what was happening and roared his disapproval. "Enough!" he roared "I've warned you to lay off too many times Lordling - time you learned your lesson". And with that he picked up the boy's sword and shield and came for me at speed, meaning it. I was immediately on the defensive, but I had learned my lessons well so far and kept him at bay to start with, somewhat to his surprise. And then, with a fierce rage rising in me, I tried my old tactic of going in hard, unexpected and dirty. It almost worked, and he nearly went down, but I think he had been half expecting it from me and I tumbled away to the side, hitting the ground with a thud that knocked the wind out of me, temporarily unable to untangle myself from my shield. He came steaming in ready to brain me with his weapon but I managed to swing my wooden blade with enough force to break it across his knee and he crumpled and roared with pain even as the killer blow crashed down on my helm. I remember briefly hearing the sound of splintering wood and then knew no more until I came groggily round a few minutes later, with a circle of faces looking down at me out of a clear blue sky. Cenric was amongst them, clutching his knee. "Up you get Lordling" he said with a wry smile. "You're not as good as your father was, but you're not bad. Just save the rough stuff for the orcs in future, and get that temper of yours under control, you'll end up dead before your time otherwise". After that I did my best to remember his advice, and to control myself, and my colleagues probably liked me all the more for it. As time went on several of them became my equal or better with sword and shield, and with the hand to hand fighting so I did not have it all my own way any more, and neither did I excel with the bow.
We were a happy companionable bunch all in all, and I grew especially close in those days to my immediate neighbours in our little corner of the dormitory. I feared a little for what would become of Radulf, as he was not blessed with great strength or ability in any of the skills we had been taught. I had no such concerns about the other two though, Efred and Aldarion were both strong and quick and decent swordsmen. I had much in common with Aldarion, and grew to like him very much. He was a plain honest sort but a true Dunedain, and I drew comfort from his customs and manner of speech, which were so familiar to me from my childhood. He would face the west in silent contemplation for a moment before he began his evening meal, something we had always done at home with grandfather. Some of the others, lads from the hills, used to tease him for it, but I soon decided to join him in the ritual, and after that a few others began to take part too. We would also attempt to speak to each other in broken Sindarin, and both of us listened intently to the greybeard who came to give us history and geography lessons once a week. I already knew much of what he told us, but the rest of the lads were either fascinated or took the opportunity to doze or make mischief amongst themselves.
After eight weeks our training was as complete as it ever would be and the time had come for us to swear our oaths of service. The garrison was in tumult at that point in time as orcs were raiding down the vales in greater numbers than ever before and our forces were being beaten back. Even the previously secure settlements within sight of the town on the north bank of the river were no longer safe, we woke several nights running to see fires burning in the hills, and in the morning the survivors and those fleeing in fear of their lives made a forlorn sight crossing over the plank bridge. Once again Angon sent word south pleading for reinforcements, and did his best with what he had. The night before the ceremony was spent getting our gear as clean and shiny as we could manage, but it dawned wet and windy and much of our work was soon undone. We stood out in the courtyard in our neat ranks, about one hundred men standing in our various companies with the sergeants who had trained us. The oath taking itself was long and tedious as each company in turn broke ranks and went forward to a dais where Lord Angon stood under a canopy, but sopping wet nonetheless, and said the words with each man, clasped his hand and wished him well. Again I wondered sombrely how many would still be alive by the time the next set of soldiers took their vows. When my turn finally came I was shocked at how old Angon looked close up, he reminded me very much of my grandfather now, his youthful vigour all gone. He recognized me of course, and I held his gaze whilst I repeated my promise to serve my king and country to the death if necessary, to be faithful, true and just and asking for the Valar to witness my oath. When it was done he clasped my arm and wished me well. I also wished him well in return, from the bottom of my heart, but then it was time for Aldarion to take his turn and I stepped away and back into the ranks.
That evening we were permitted to descend into the town and visited the taverns round the marketplace to celebrate our new status. I did not get as drunk as some, but we were all a little subdued the following morning. I had more reason than most though as in one of the taverns I had spied Fodric and his fine friends tucked away in one of the alcoves reserved for more distinguished patrons. He looked older and fatter than the last time I had seen him and was dressed in an exquisitely embroidered jacket, every inch the gentlemen. He had no cause to notice me in the throng but I had cursed him under my breath and the sight of him had soured my mood and cut my thirst for the sour watery beer.
We gathered in the courtyard under the grim battlements waiting to be assigned to our units. Those who had shown a particular aptitude, with the bow or woodcraft for example, were dealt with first, and assigned to companies of archers or scouts, but I had no such expectations. Fortunately the weather had improved a little and we did not have to nurse our sore heads in the pouring rain. While we waited there a horn sounded in the distance, and was answered. There was a murmur of voices and we guessed that the reinforcements from the south had finally arrived. The main body of soldiers and their supply train made straight for the camp on the East Meadows, but the captain who had led them came up through the town mounted on horseback with his escort, and they soon clattered into the keep. He was an imposing figure, in fine tooled armour and a great red cape on a black horse. He was a solid impressive looking man, of middling years with thick black hair framing a face with a hooked nose and a mouth that turned down naturally at the edges, giving him a serious air. The look on his face said he was not impressed with what he saw around him. "Who commands here?" he asked imperiously. Captain Arahael who had been overseeing the assigning stepped forward and named himself, offering his service in the name of Lord Angon of Northford, Commander Of The North Marches. "Commander no more" replied the other sternly, raising his hand in which was clenched a sealed scroll of a sort we all recognised. "I, Lord Nordir Of Greenwood am sent by command of the King to relieve Angon of his duties and sent him under guard to Lastbridge to answer for his failings. The King speaks and ye shall listen: for far too long have we sent men and supplies north and seen them wasted by weakness and incompetence. That time is at an end, and you shall change your ways or face the consequences of our displeasure". A stunned silence fell, and Nordir dismounted. Anger welled up in me, when I heard this and thought of how we had fought and lost in the North, too often with too few men and insufficient supplies. Most of all I was hurt at the injustice to Angon, who was wise and just and well loved by his people and had given his all in maintaining their defence. He had been a true and loyal friend to my family, and had saved me when I had nothing. I almost blurted something out, but fortunately at that moment Cenric caught my eye and gave a quick shake of the head. He had been around long enough to know what manner of man this new Lord was, and I was very grateful to him for it afterwards.
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