24. Chapter 23
The respite did not last long. Our squad were right in the van and I sat with my back to one of the overturned wains with my companions close around me. Nobody was in the mood to say much but Túon did give us all a few words of encouragement. I asked him if he'd been in battle before, and he said he had, in the battle on the East Road where my uncle had died. He told me that this would be a mere skirmish in comparison, and not to worry, and I took heart from his words. Then horns blew across the river and a roar of many voices went up and we were under attack. "Up and at it lads" cried Túon. "Lets show this filth what we're made of". There was a clattering and a commotion as we armed ourselves with spears that had been brought up to the barricade, they would be our first weapon until the enemy had closed enough for us to draw our swords. I chanced a quick glance over the top of the wain and my heart sank, a solid mass of men were moving onto the bridge, and we must have been outnumbered at least ten to one. However Arahael had prepared his defence wisely, as they could only approach six to eight abreast at a time and would be under fire for a considerable distance from the archers on the bank as they approached us.
Very soon arrows began to fly overhead, and from the cries and screams we could hear many were finding their mark as well. Then they were almost upon us and we began hurling spears over the barricade, one after another, and many of those found a target too. It was wearying work, but a well thrown shaft could take even a well armoured man off his feet, and my arm was soon aching. Then something crashed against the wain and Túon barked out the order to form a shield wall and rather than throw the spear that had been passed to me I braced the base of the shaft against the timbers of the bridge and raised my shield alongside my fellows. Anyone coming over the barrier would fall into a hedge of sharp spear points, and all of a sudden they were there, wild eyed men, mostly bearded and wearing leather armour covered in steel rings with the emblem of a ghostly white tower on their surcoats and small round shields. "Forward" came the cry and we surged towards them in return, catching many of them on our spear points as the men behind forced them forward. The sight and sound of it was terrible. The barricade began to buckle and slide and unable to hold my spear or draw my sword I found myself crushed against the side of one of the wains as we tried to push back. And then it was gone with a mighty splash into the river and many men went with it, but I somehow managed to stay on the bridge and drew my sword just as the press closed in again.
Crushed together by those behind us, the fighting was close, vicious and intimate, and the thought of it still makes me shudder, I did many deeds then that I could never normally have contemplated. In the end I was forced to drop my sword in the press and drew my dirk instead, and my world became a frenzy of close range stabbing, gouging and stamping as the battle fury took me. Then all of a sudden it stopped and I was in the chest deep icy water, still grappling with the man I had been fighting on the bridge. He came up choking and unable to get his bearings and that made it easy for me to finish him off with a slash to the throat. He didn't look much older than me, and with a pang I again momentarily wondered who he was and what his story had been. It was one thing to kill an orc, but men, and especially those who looked like we did were another matter altogether. The strong current took me briefly off my feet again, drawing me away from the mayhem on the bridge, and I got a brief view of the whole of the battle unfolding. The full length causeway on the northern side was solid with men, but the all the while our archers were taking a terrible toll. All the same the advantage in numbers looked to be telling and our red surcoated soldiers, so few in number compared to the enemy already were being relentlessly forced back back. The noise was indescribable, and men were continually falling into the water, both alive and dead, and a battle of sorts continued there too. I let the current take me for a short distance until my boots found firm footing again. The red surcoated living were all around me now, making their way back to the bank. I was soon in shallower water and then back on the bank shivering under the watchful eye of several of the archers. Overhead the sun still shone brightly in a clear blue autumn sky. It seemed impossible to think that only a short distance away there was no battle and life continued as it always did.
Those of us who were not wounded and could still fight made our way back to the bridge. I rearmed myself with another sword and shield from the ground and marched back onto the planks towards the fray with several others. Arahael was there in the thick of it, still encouraging his men despite the cause appearing to be lost. In a last desperate throw of the dice he gave the order to fall back. Men staggered back, exhausted and bloodied to the bank and then turned to stand at bay, weapons ready, and I fell in with them. All the while the archers continued their bloody work to either side of us, and temporarily unhindered by our presence did even more damage, though the keep had been emptied and their stock of arrows was beginning to fail. Hindered by the great heaps of dead on the bridge the enemy did not at first follow us, and some tried to retreat out of bowshot but could not due to the numbers behind them. Arahael took off his helm and turned to face us "Men" he cried. "I cannot ask any more of you, you have all done mighty deeds today that should long be remembered in song. But it is all in vain and we are about to be swept away by the coming tide. I for one will not go meekly, the filth of Angmar will pay dearly for this crossing. Who is with me?". Without hesitation I stepped forward, soaked and shivering and said "I", and then all around men were pressing forward again and a great cry went up. My heart gave a leap of joy to see the Túon amongst them, bloodied but hale and he grinned when he saw me too. "Rhudaur" yelled the Captain dropping his helm back onto his head and raising his sword and we took up the cry and sprang forward onto the bridge again, running at full speed towards the enemy and what felt like certain death. All feelings of cold and weariness left me and I felt totally alive as I sprinted alongside the captain towards the front rank of the enemy, sword and shield raised, ready to die.
Though we were few in number our charge took the enemy completely by surprise, and with their front line already discomfited we ploughed into them and they began to fall back, many throwing themselves into the water to escape us. We fought them like demons and their fear spread, before long they began to surge back the way they had come. Seeing the disarray spreading their captains had their horns sound the withdrawal, knowing perhaps that we were pitifully few and one more day would make no difference. I finally stumbled and fell to my knees amongst a great heap of dead northmen, most of them felled by our archers, shafts sticking out of the lifeless jumble of limbs and torsos at all angles. The battle rage quickly drained out of me and I was suddenly as weary and heartsick as I had ever been in my life. I swooned a little and would have toppled forward and joined the slain but at that moment a hand clasped my shoulder and steadied me. It was Túon, battered and magnificent and grinning from ear to ear, with Arahael at his side and surrounded by our comrades. "You are a fine warrior, lad" he said. "Let me help you up". We turned and walked wearily back to the bank, victorious that day at least.
So ended the first day of the first battle of Northford. With more than half his men dead or wounded, and the other half utterly exhausted and with his archers almost out of arrows, Arahael knew there would be no repeat. It was time for desperate measures, and as night fell he sent men and boys back out onto the bridge to scavenge as many arrows as they could and then put it to the torch. They had poured lamp oil on the timbers and it burned brightly and fiercely, lighting up the night, and I was instantly reminded with a jolt of the fire that had claimed my family. But the enemy mocked us by setting a greater fire amongst the remaining buildings on the far bank, and the night was held at bay for a little while by the light of the competing flames.
Arahael gave orders for all to withdraw inside the town walls and the gates were shut and barred. The townsfolk who had not already fled down the South Road provided us with food and blankets and we settled down and took what rest we could on the walls. The night was cold and the sky blazed with stars, and I gave thanks briefly that I had somehow come through this day with barely a scratch when almost all my squad had perished. The morning would have to bring what it would, I had never felt so weary and I soon fell into a deep and untroubled sleep.
and to my completely untrained eye the fronts are left with flare
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