23. Chapter 22
That night, back at the camp in the tent with an empty space next to me where Radulf should have been snoring I found myself grieving bitterly for him. I felt both sadness and guilt, for in life I had taken his cheerful companionship and endless optimism for granted and had held him in little regard. But now he was dead I realised that I had lost the truest friend I could have had. He had never asked anything of me, and put up with my angry moods and solitary habits without complaint year after year. I am not ashamed to say I wept many tears for him that night silently in the dark until an exhausted sleep overtook me.
The following morning dawned bright and frosty, and the smoke of a hundred different early morning fires climbed straight up into the clear blue autumn sky above Northford. I had done my ablutions, put on my gear and was helping another of the lads to start our own cooking fire when the peace of the morning was shattered by the sound of horns blowing down river. Such a signal could only ever mean one thing, and the camp was suddenly alive with activity. Túon burst from his tent, and cast quickly about before his eye settled on me. "Esteldir, run to the Keep and find out what's happening. The rest of you, gear on and form up at the double!". I picked up my sword and shield and put on my helm and set off at a fast trot, conserving my energy for the stiff climb up the hill. Even before I got close to the town gate I could see something was amiss, figures were streaming across the plank bridge over the ford. The horns sounded again, and I picked up my pace.
The worried looking guards on the East Gate waved me through and I set off up the hill towards the Keep. As I passed shutters and doors were banging open and people were coming out into the street to see what was happening. As I reached the gatehouse a horn sounded from within the Keep. I paused a moment, panting and composed myself, and then asked the guard who commanded there. "Arahael" was the reply. "He is in the yard mustering the men, the enemy are just across the river". I thanked him and set off again but did not have to go far before I found him. Men were forming up in the yard ready to march, far too few I thought. "Esteldir of the Watersmeet Company, Sergeant Túon awaits your orders". There was a flash of recognition in his eyes when he saw me and he calmly replied "To the Ford with whatever strength you have". He was young for a Captain, and had a striking face with a sharp nose and dark brow which spoke of breeding and intelligence. The newly arrived southern captain had taken an instant dislike to him and deliberately left him behind in charge of guarding woodcutters and wagons whilst the rest of the garrison went off to war. I nodded, spun on my heels and set off back the way I had come. As I descended I glimpsed columns of enemy soldiers approaching the fortification surrounding the small cluster of buildings on the far bank. Angon in his wisdom had ordered a ditch, bank and stockade wall to be built a few years since to protect the river crossing, but it would only have been manned by a handful of soldiers that morning. I did not give much for their chances of holding it.
More horns blew as I negotiated the now crowded streets on the way down to the East Gate. When I got there I could see that the hundred or so men who had remained in the camp and were fit to fight were approaching quickly along the road with my own squad. I hailed Túon, passed on Arahael's orders and fell in with my comrades. We skirted the walls alongside the river bank rather than entering the town and soon came to the ford. A crowd of townsfolk was gathering there, and cries of "Angmar is come" greeted us. Arahael and his men had not yet arrived, and nobody commanded there, so Tuon muttering "on my head be it" ordered us onto the bridge. "We've got to help those poor lads on the wall". My heart was pounding in my chest and my mouth was dry, I did not feel ready to face another fight so soon.
The plank bridge was just that, a wooden causeway built across the shallows so that the river could be crossed dry footed. In high summer it was possible to wade across as the river lost its vigour here and braided into a hundred smaller channels in a wide wilderness of boulders and gravel, but each winter it regained that vigour and the deepest channels could be difficult for a man to cross without being swept off his feet. The spring snowmelt turned the wide boulder field into the course of an immense torrent and the parts of the plank bridge were often washed away. On that bright Autumn morning the water in the main channels was deep enough to make life difficult for an armed man, or the enemy could simply have flanked the fortifications and crossed unhindered.
We had not gone far when a distant cheer went up, followed by a gout of flame and smoke as one of the buildings on the far bank was set ablaze. I saw three or four red surcoated soldiers run onto the other end of the bridge, pursued by others who to my surprise were clearly men rather than orcs. Our soldiers did not get far though, all of them were quickly shot down by the enemy's archers. The men at the far end of the bridge advanced towards us and as soon as we were in range began to fire on us in turn. The all to familiar swish of flying arrows and the thud and plop as they either found wood or water was all around us again. Realising that our rescue effort was now in vain, Túon called a halt and retreat, and I did not need telling twice. The enemy pressed their advantage, and came after us, loosing off as they went. A man in front of me went crashing down onto the planks with an arrow in the back of his neck, stone dead, and another shaft whistled right past my ear, so close I felt the draught. Yet another cried out in anguish behind me and then our retreat turned into a rout and I broke into a run, as did those around me. But then arrows were coming the other way over our heads and the pursuit ended. I sank to my knees in relief when we finally made it back onto the solid ground, of the river bank but that relief was tempered by the realisation that this was only the beginning and that there would be much more fighting to come. A cold dread clutched at my guts, and I wanted more than anything to be far away from where I was but I gradually mastered myself and got back to my feet. "You all right lad?" Túon asked me, putting a fatherly gloved hand on my shoulder. "You did well there, keep it up". I assured him I was fine and drew myself up a little more, after all I told myself, real soldiers did their duty and did not show fear.
Arahael had arrived and had immediately set about ordering the defence in his usual calm manner. He had fewer than three hundred soldiers at his command, along with some townsmen of fighting age. Anyone who could wield a bow was given one and the archers were arranged along the bank either side of the bridge. A good stock of arrows had been brought down from the keep on handcarts and castle rats were tasked with keeping the bowmen supplied. We were ordered to seize some nearby wains and push them out onto the bridge, where they were toppled to form a barricade. It gave me a little satisfaction to see from their livery that they were Fodric's, and they went over with a satisfying crash and a sound of splintering wood. We took up our positions behind this substantial barrier and waited. A meal of sorts came our way in fits and starts, bread, cheese, ham and beer brought up by the townsfolk, very welcome since none of us had eaten breakfast. I ate as best I could, feeling a little sick rather than hungry but I knew it might be a long time before I ate again. Or even never at all, but I did not allow myself to dwell on that thought.
Some of you may remember Bebe / Amanda from NR, EE and other forums. She's decided that Bebe has had enough and has booked the vet to come and have her PTS next Thursday, her 20th birthday.
I really feel for her and I don't know how she manages to go to the yard and hold it together every day knowing it's one day closer. I think I would need to get it over and done with once I had decided. She couldn't have done any more for that horse, she was one of those who had one problem after another, but she kept retiring her and she kept coming back into work for spells. But I think she's in a position now where her quality of life is compromised and she's not happy any more. I hope I'm brave enough to make the call soon enough for my two when the time comes.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.