32. Chapter 31
Two days later the two hundred or so men of the Watersmeet Company marched proudly into their home town at sunset, to much acclaim and applause from the people who had lined the streets to welcome them home. I was reminded of my father's return from battle many years before, but there was nobody here to greet me. Watersmeet was a pretty place, with walls built of a paler stone than that found further north, and it looked almost rosy in the light of the setting sun. The land around it was well ordered and looked prosperous, narrowing to a point between the two mighty rivers, the Hoarwell and Loudwater. We marched into the town square and after brief speeches from the Lord of the town and Daeron, we were dismissed. I bid my squad farewell and wished them well and went to look for Daeron. I found him with a snowy haired man who I immediately recognised as his father, and others of his household. They seemed a little surprised when he introduced me, but they greeted me warmly nonetheless, and made me welcome. Their house was not far from the town but they had come on stocky Rhudaur horses , including one for Daeron to ride home, so my unexpected presence was an additional complication. However Daeron's mount was a strong fellow and I ended up riding tandem with him, much to my relief as my riding skills were non existent and my experience limited to the single journey on Angon's mare many years before. He laughed and vowed to remedy this defect in my education during my stay when I told him this.
It was dark when we reached the hall, but I immediately fell in love with the place. It was exactly as my own family home must once have been, warm and welcoming and full of beautiful things. Daeron too came from an ancient line and his family had settled in the area in the early days of the North Kingdom, and held extensive lands along the banks of the Loudwater, where they farmed and kept flocks just as my own family had once done. Like almost all noble families the pure blood of the west had been mingled over time but they still kept the old customs and observances. Here between the rivers, if anywhere, the blood of the west ran truest in the people, as few had dwelt in that land before the men of the west settled there. The folk in the streets of Watersmeet would not have been out of place in Fornost, or perhaps even one of the great cities of the south.
I have never forgotten those few precious weeks I spent there. It was one of the few times in my life that I have known peace and ease, and I am forever in the debt of those who took me in and treated me as one of their own. I had the opportunity to read books, something I had not done since childhood, sing and play music, and we often spoke in Sindarin rather than the common tongue, so I became more fluent in that speech. True to his word Daeron, and his sister Daerwen schooled me in the arts of riding during my stay, which resulted in much mirth and hilarity and a few bruises for me too. Daerwen was beautiful, and betrothed to the son of the Lord of Watersmeet, but I could not help falling a little in love with her, and I was not convinced that she did not return at least some feelings for me. I had spent time with a few tavern girls like all soldiers did, but this was the first time since my childhood and Lathra that I had really had any genuine feelings for anyone and I was tossed between ecstasy and despair in equal measure. Daeron was no fool and could see what was happening, and tried to gently discourage me, but whilst I agreed with him my heart was not so compliant.
All too soon the day came for us to depart and head north once again. I set aside my borrowed lordling's clothes and put my soldier's roughspun back on, taking comfort in the harshness and familiarity of it. This was not my life any more, and I would not crave what I could not have. However my resolve was severely tested when the time came to say farewell to the family, they had truly taken me too their hearts and implored me to return as soon as I could and to look after their son in the mean time. His mother wept as she embraced me, and so did his sister, and there was nothing sisterly about the embrace and kiss she gave me. I rode away with Daeron in silence, and once he was ahead of me I let painful tears course down my cheeks and my heart felt fit to burst.
I threw myself back into the hard routine of soldiering with enthusiasm and it brought me some relief. I was reunited with my squad at Watersmeet and set to drilling them mercilessly and making sure everything they did was up to standard. This did not make me popular, but it did make them respect me, and eventually most of them took pride in being the best trained and best turned out in the company. The march back north was uneventful, and completed without delay. We were allowed a day's rest in Lastbridge and Daeron and I returned to the Black Bear, but it had been a very quiet winter and Geleth had no guests at that time. We supped some more of her excellent ale and listened to her news and eventually made our way back across the bridge over a river already swollen with snowmelt, an impressive sight indeed. There was to be no repeat of our exploits in the inns on the Great Square however, Daeron had forbidden it as we were marching back to war this time. As we climbed the steep cobbled road up the ravine towards the gates of the fortress a horn sounded and the scattered groups of men ahead of us paused and stepped to one side, waiting. Daeron did the same and I followed, curious to see the cause. Shortly afterwards there came a sound of hooves clattering on the cobbles and a procession of riders appeared, coming slowly down the hill. The riders in front were clearly guards, and I was impressed by the state of repair and cleanliness of their gear and their mounts, which were proper horses rather than the local breed. Behind came a party of richly dressed folk, the first of them a pallid blonde haired youth with a pained expression on his face. Amongst the followers were a pair of women, one a blonde haired girl who looked like a sister to the youth, and beside her another with dark hair and fair features and an air of quiet dignity who caught my eye. They paid us no heed but as they passed Daeron bowed, and I followed suit. "Behold Prince Eldir and Princess Elien of the Royal House of Rhudaur, on their way to yet another feast with some worthy or other" he said with a hint of dry humour in his voice once they were out of earshot. "Spoilt brats the pair of them so it is said, but I didn't say so". I laughed at this and asked him who the lady riding with her had been, for I had found her pleasing. He had to think for a moment. "That would be the Lady Idhrethil, companion to the Royal Princess, family from the north somewhere I think, just like you. A widow too, her husband was killed a few years back when the king went north into Angmar and got lost in the fog . He was quite a lot older than her though, so she's not quite out of your reach". He chuckled. "My father fought there too" I replied, and he became serious again.
When we reached the draughty hall one of the lads came up to us, saluted and told Daeron that an old man had come there asking for me, and would wait a while at the gatehouse of the citadel if I was minded to see him. I was naturally surprised and intrigued, and asked Daeron's leave to go back out, which was granted without hesitation. Who could know I was in Lastbridge, and wish to meet me? Then as I strode across the great courtyard, my breath making clouds in the icy air, I realised with a pang of guilt that it could only be Lord Angon, or plain Angon of Northford as he now was. I owed him so much and yet I had not so much as given him a passing thought, let alone enquired after him when we had passed southward before Yule. I made my way up to the gate where the guards were expecting me and I was directed to the guard room, which was pleasantly warm and well lit. There, looking much older than when I had last seen him, and sporting a white beard was indeed Angon. Abandoning all previous formality between us I stepped forward and we embraced. He seemed very pleased to see me, and was surprised and impressed by my unexpected badge of rank and changed appearance. In a short few months I had been transformed from boy into a battle hardened soldier, and it showed. I took off my cloak and we sat down on an bench by the fire and warmed ourselves.
I asked him what had happened to him after he was summoned from Northford, and how he fared here now. "I was brought here in disgrace, stripped of my title and honours and brought before the king to face his justice. I pleaded my defiance, said that I had been faithful in all that I did, but could not give the truth of it without speaking ill of the king's command and lack of aid when it was most needed. The truth is that the weasel Barachon sought to place his own man in my stead as he attempts to do everywhere in this land". He looked around to make sure none overheard us and lowered his voice. "He makes pretence of being the King's oldest and most loyal friend and servant, but the king is too weak and ill from his constant maladies to see his true purpose. It was only my own long service alongside the King in the old battles that saved me from harsh punishment, he looked upon me mercifully and although I am prisoner in the Fortress I have modest lodgings of my own and am free to go as I wish in both fortress and citadel. I pass my days teaching the children of the Lords and Ladies their lore and history and studying in the King's library, where there are many wondrous ancient scrolls and tomes. The King is also wont to call for me from time to time and speak with me of the old days, when he was young and vigorous. However I know Barachon does not like this and will often contrive to have our meetings interrupted by one means or another. So for my part I am content enough for now, but fear for the future. But enough of this" he said smiling, "please bring me news of the north?".
I too glanced around to make sure we were not overheard and told him of all that had passed, of Nordir's ill fated expedition, of the heroic defence of the ford and town, and lastly of my discovery at Fodric's and what had passed subsequently in his regard. And then to leaven the mood a little of my journey south, the meeting with the elvish folk and my yuletide sojourn in Watersmeet. But Angon's craggy face was grim when I finished and I could see that he was full of anger at what he had heard. "These are ill times, and I fear it will not end well. The King's coffers are empty, the Hillmen are restive and our enemy in the North grows ever stronger. He grinds us down little by little, year after year, and soon we will be too weak to resist him. I am almost glad that I am banished to this fortress, to pass my days amongst dusty books, far from these matters. Yet I fear for those like you who must shoulder the burden of what is to come". He clasped my arm. "Yet while such as you stand for us there is still hope, and you are well named, Esteldir. I knew your father and uncle in their prime, fine men both, and it is clear from your words and deeds that you are more than worthy to stand in their company." I opened my mouth to reply, but was unable to form an answer in time as the door opened and two of the guards entered stamping their feet and clapping their hands together and came to the fire to warm themselves. We exchanged pleasantries with them, and then Angon said I would be missed if I did not soon return to my billet, and we rose, put our cloaks back on and went outside into the freezing night air. We embraced once again. "May the Valar protect you" he said, his voice thick with emotion. "Be sure to bring me your tidings next time you pass this way. Neither you or I have any kin left to us now, so like a son shall you be to me if you will". I was surprised and abashed at his unexpected frankness, but deeply touched too, and told him that it would be so. We parted, Angon turned and departing slowly back under the citadel gate, and I trudged over the frosted cobbles back the way I had come with my mind a whirl of conflicted thoughts and feelings. When I reached the hall the fire had burned low and everyone was asleep, and it took me some time before I was able to join them.
We resumed our uneventful march north the following morning, and Daeron soon found me and asked me about the previous night's mystery visitor. I told him everything that had passed between us and he grew thoughtful. "I fear all he says is true" he said. "Lord Angon is a brave and honourable man and has been very badly used. Barachon seeks to make himself the true power in the land behind the back of a King weakened by illness, and Nordir is one of his men, rash and ambitous. I fear he may be right, and we are all doomed, but I hope it is not so and will do all I can to that end, especially if I have good men around me. Do not breathe a word of this to anyone else, for such talk could cost us all our necks". I swore that I would not and thanked him, and when he had gone marvelled a little once again at my good fortune in having such a fine friend and Captain.
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