25. Chapter 24
I awoke at dawn, cold and stiff but refreshed as the sun climbed over the jagged and already snowy summits of the Misty Mountains far to the east. Mist swirled over the river below in the rosy light, partially obscuring the far bank, and for a moment it could almost have been a morning just like so many others I had known. I knew it was not however, and the missing section of the plank bridge and the chaos of bodies that lay heaped on the rest of it or beached in the shallows of the river were a stark reminder. I had always loved bright cold mornings like this, with the hint of coming winter in the air, and I remember feeling sad that it might be my last. All around me men were stirring and wearily putting on their gear and the smoke of numerous early morning fires rose straight up into the heavens above the town. We gathered in the small square by the North Gate, close to the spot where I had once waited for my father to march back across the river. It felt like a tale from another life to me now, but I did wonder what he would have thought to see me there that morning. We were fed bowls of warming gruel and given cheese and bread, and then gathered to await our Captain's orders, pitifully few and battered. He came down from the wall a few minutes later, and I was surprised to see Túon at his side. He spoke to us calmly and clearly, and did not attempt to hide what was likely to happen, that the enemy would come in great force, and that we would not hold them for long. The main body of men were to stand there at the North Gate facing the crossing, along with the archers, but two small detachments would also be sent to the South and East Gates. He chose Túon for the East Gate and sent two dozen men with him, and then to my complete surprise looked towards me and spoke. "Esteldir son of Galdirion, I hereby raise you to the rank of sergeant and command you to take two dozen men and hold the South Gate against the foe for as long as you may. For they will surely come upon us that way too. May the Valar protect you". I was momentarily lost for words, but too much had happened to me in too short a time for me to remain witless for long and so I saluted him, called some local soldiers I recognised to me and made my way back up into the town.
We passed through the market place and then back down towards the main gate, through streets that were already thronged with townsfolk despite the early hour. Most were going the same way as us, clutching sacks and baskets and wrapped in their travelling cloaks, and there were also a few carts laden with people or possessions making their way slowly in the same direction. The gate had been opened at dawn, and many of those who remained had decided to make their escape while they still could, for once the enemy made their move the gates would close, and that would be the end of it. The gates were solid, of old workmanship, and set into a strong arch flanked by two small watch towers. We arrived and greeted the gatekeeper, a gruff old man, and I sent two men up one of the towers to keep a watch. After a short pause for thought I instructed the rest of them to forage for anything that could be used to build a barricade. They looked at me glumly and then set off slowly to do my bidding, and I was immediately conscious of my tender years. They were already exhausted and many were carrying minor wounds from the previous day's battle, but they nonetheless soon returned with crates and barrows, hand carts and eventually a couple more of Fodric's wains, which were pushed into position and tipped over in readiness either side of the gate. I was too weary and heartsick to gain much pleasure from this now. There was also a laden hay cart, intended perhaps for the mounts at the Keep or one of the grand houses up the hill, and a few more barrels of precious lamp oil. I decided that the hay could go in the centre of our barricade and we could set a strong fire to it using the oil if the gate was breached. I got a torch from one of the taverns nearby, had it lit and planted it in a convenient sconce in the wall.
In the meantime the river of folk heading off down the south road had turned into a flood. The sun was rising high into the sky and it would surely not be long before the enemy advanced. I foresaw that there would be trouble closing the gate when that time came and warned my squad to be ready and act quickly. I also wondered what dangers the long defenceless line of townsfolk would face on their journey south, caught between the pursuing forces of Angmar, the raiders in the forest and orcs from across the river. However by the time horns sounded across the river and were answered in the town the flood had slowed to a trickle, and in the event there was no problem closing the gate We set about barricading it as best we could and I made sure that my torch was still lit and that the hay was well spread. I told my squad to eat and drink if they could and went up the small tower to relieve my sentries so they could do the same. The scene that greeted me outside the walls was strangely normal, it would be a little while before the enemy would make the now more difficult crossing of the river and send part of their force towards us, if that indeed is what they attempted, but we would not see them until they rounded the angle. The south road, now empty, wound its way off down the valley, the familiar pattern of huts, stalls, pens and paddocks gradually giving way to farmland and forest as the distance from the town walls increased. I wished we had had a few archers too, but none could be spared. I knew that this meant that the enemy would be able to attack the gate almost completely unhindered, and we would be powerless to act until they breached it and came pouring through in greater numbers than we could ever hope to stem. My gloomy train of thought was interrupted by the return of my two sentries, two boys of my own age, and I spent a while talking to them, asking where they were from. It turned out that one of them, a blonde curly haired lad named Dolfur, was from a family who had been in service to my own in Rushwater Vale many years before. I jested drily that this made me his lord and master, but my effort at humour fell flat with him and I felt foolish. The awkward silence that followed was broken by the appearance of the enemy finally rounding the angle in the wall. I shouted a warning down to the men below and then resumed my watch. By the time the tail came into view I guessed that we faced around six hundred men. Not only that but they were accompanied by a mounted captain in silver armour. I remembered the tales my father had told me, and for one fearful moment wondered if the King of Angmar himself had come to face us, but as they drew nearer it became clear that this was a rider of normal stature, one of the turncoat Dunedain. Not only that, but it was obvious that he, like his men, had been forced to bathe in the waters of the Hoarwell before they had made our bank. I wondered what it would be like to fight in cold sodden gear, and that it might perhaps just give us some small advantage, but then I remembered how few of us there were and how many they had.
Their captain stayed out of bowshot but his men soon set about dismantling some outbuildings close by to recover the roof trees to use as battering rams. It was not long before they were ready and after a cautious advance to the gate that quickened once they realised we had no means to hinder them the pounding began. My companions hurled curses down at the Northmen below in the Hill tongue, who replied with mockery and threats in a clearly understandable version of their own. I sighed, told the lads to do as they saw fit, and took what felt like a very long journey back down to the ground to prepare to meet my fate. I fitted my helm and shield and loosened my sword in its scabbard, picked up the torch from its sconce and went to stand in the centre of the small group quietly facing the barricade and gate. I chose not to say anything, but put myself in the front, dry mouthed and now deathly tired. I remember thinking sadly that it might have ended better and on some other day than this.
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