34. Chapter 33
Two days later we formed up in full order at dawn on the road outside the South Gate, around five hundred strong. Once again the bite of approaching winter was in the air, and the first snows on the distant summits of the Misty Mountains were rosy in the early morning light. No crowds cheered us on our way, notwithstanding the early hour it was likely that many who lived in Northford harboured some sympathy toward the uprising. Furthermore Nordir who stood for the King in the town was now deeply unpopular amongst the ordinary folk. There had been some talk in our camp from some of the lads about putting the troll-kin in their place and the like, as soldiers are wont, but I heard none from my own men and they knew I would not have tolerated it from them. Daeron too was also troubled by this expedition and thought no good could come of it. We had spoken on the matter privately and he told me that he feared that too strong a response on the King's part would drive the Hillmen into the arms of Angmar, but that any perception of weakness on his part would only embolden them. The mission we were embarking on needed a leader of skill and diplomacy, however Lord Berthedir who Daeron had named, and who was a cousin of Nordir's, was not such a man. He was bold, impatient and prideful, and no doubt marched north like all his soldiers determined to crush the rebellion mercilessly. It seemed the long accord and mutual dependance between our mingled peoples that had bound the realm together for so long was finally unravelling, to the great peril of us all.
I marched south in the van of our Company alongside Daeron, who had asked me to bring up my squad up to the front so that I should be on hand if there was any need to speak or understand the Hill Tongue. We did not lead however as Berenion took overall command through his seniority, and his men marched ahead of us. We made excellent time on the march and were not surprisingly untroubled by orc or brigand on our way down the South Road. We came upon the main army outside the walls of Bearcliffe at dusk on the second day, their many camp fires twinkling like stars in the evening sky and gratefully joined them. They were about three and a half thousand strong, all that could be raised at short notice in Lastbridge or spared in Bearcliffe, and though a strong force I did wonder whether it would prove sufficient against a numerous foe defending their home ground. I did my best to banish any gloomy thoughts and let sleep take me.
In the morning we broke our fast and were ordered to gather outside the town gate and listen to Lord Berthedir make a speech. He sat astride a large prancing horse dressed in shining plate, shouting and gesticulating, and when he had done a mighty cheer went up from those ahead of us, but we were too distant to hear anything he said. Afterwards he rode through the press of men and I got a better view of him. He reminded me very much of his kinsman in appearance as far as it was possible to make out, but he was much younger and still of an age to wield a blade well enough from the look of him. Afterwards horns sounded and we formed up along the road, finding ourselves once again towards the rear of the column. It was a while before we eventually got moving and I had time to have a good look around. There were crowds of townsfolk watching from the walls and gathered by the gate, but not many were cheering or waving. For all the enmity between Lastbridge and High Burgh, this town depended on the trade between the two for its livelihood, and here as well as in the north the blood of the west and the hillmen had become mingled, as a result loyalties were divided amongst the common folk.
The road climbed gently away at first from the town under the shadow of the lowering crag that named it, following the land on the east bank of the White River, which was well named as it thundered down to meet the Hoarwell. It ran in a steep sided vale that cut deep into the heart of the Shaws, a great craggy forested highland that covered most of central and northern Rhudaur. It was about 15 leagues and three day's march from Bearcliffe to the chief town of the Hillmen, and the road provided the only easy way in and out of the highlands, certainly for anything that went drawn on wheels. After a few hours marching the valley narrowed and steepened, and farmland gave way to sombre forests of tall pines, and we passed a great standing stone at the side of the road. This was the Borderstone, which marked the ancient boundary beyond which the writ of the chieftains of High Burgh ran, though they also remained loyal subjects of the King. Now we were marching in what was now enemy territory our vigilance increased, but in truth the ground either side of the road there would have been too steep for an effective ambush and we remained untroubled.
We passed a few scattered hamlets and a small roadside inn that clung to the edge of the road where the ground had relented a little. The inhabitants had wisely fled into the forest or up along the road as we approached and by the time we passed them the buildings with their thatched roofs were all well alight, having been torched by our vanguard as they passed. I wondered what would become of those who had dwelt there, with winter approaching. Daeron shook his head at the sight. "There is no need for this" he said sadly. "These simple folk did not rebel and we should have no quarrel with them, what love will they have now for a king who burns them out of their homes with the first snows of winter on their way?"
We knew from the maps that there was a small town half a day's march hence where the valley widened, and expecting the Hillmen to make a stand there. Berthedir called a halt before nightfall, so we should not risk coming upon the enemy with the light fading and give them the advantage of knowing the country. We set up camp strung out along the road and in the margins of the forest, for the valley was still steep and rocky here, and the White River roared endlessly in its bed far below. Though a light rain fell there was plenty of kindling to be found and we soon had good fires burning to keep our spirits up as the night fell. I ate with Daeron and Túon and some of the others and they quizzed me about the Hillmen and the Shaws. I told them as much as I could remember from my lessons with my grandfather and the things my mother had told me, and they listened with interest and asked me a questions that I answered as best I could. The mood in our camp was quiet and reflective as it always was the night before battle but to my surprise there were sounds of merriment further up the road. I went round my own men and spoke quietly to them all in turn, and then we drew lots for the watches. I escaped for once and found a good spot under a large old pine and settled down, like I had so many times in the last few years, and let sleep take me at will, an important skill for any soldier.
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