35. Chapter 34
When we woke the following morning the weather had taken a turn for the worse, an icy wind was blowing and there was sleet in it. We broke fast and then formed up ready to resume the march, every man checking and rechecking his gear in anticipation of what lay ahead. It was however a while before the horn finally sounded and the column began to move, and a command coming down the line to be vigilant. Scouts had been sent ahead during the night and had reported the enemy massed on open land beyond the forest not three leagues distant, so it seemed certain battle would be joined that day. The valley grew less steep and widened as we climbed the road, and our course gradually veered away from the river, running straight between the eaves of the forest. I had no doubt we too were being observed in turn, and wondered why the Hillmen had not thought to attack us from the cover of the forest, strung out and vulnerable as we were in marching order, just as Cardolan and Arthedain had when they had crushed us. The current Chieftain's father had perished in that fight protecting the Prince's retreat twenty three years earlier, and the Hillmen had always maintained that the Prince, now King, had never fully acknowledged his sacrifice.
But no attack came and as the day wore on and the weather worsened the trees began to thin and eventually failed and just as the scouts had forewarned us e came out into open land, dotted with farms and stands of trees. The enemy host was waiting for us up a long low sloping ridge that reached across the vale from the heights to our right hand. The road ran straight up to it and then dog legged towards the river to round it at its lowest part, and just beyond it there lay a small town, half obscured in the rain sodden murk. I had looked at an old map before we set off from Northford and as far as I could remember it went by the pleasant name of Greenhow, presumably from the ridge. Our enemy had the advantage both of the lie of the land and in numbers, I guessed they had at least half as many men again as we had fielded, perhaps seven or eight thousand. Though I still feared death as keenly as any man faced with battle this was something I had faced many times now, and I did so with a clearer mind. I knew what I needed to do to survive, and I also had a responsibility to the twenty or so men under my command to support and direct them, so I was too busy to let any morbid thoughts linger for long. This was however my first fight in a proper pitched battle where we would stand in formation and under direction. Our orders came thick and fast and we dumped our packs amongst the trees and formed up, and I noted the standard of the drill with some satisfaction again. Our Northford companies stood right in the centre of the battle formation, where the fight would surely be fiercest. Although we were the most experienced soldiers I did wonder a little sourly why we, who would be at the very front of the battle had been made to march in the tail all the way from Bearcliffe.
We stood for a while, in neat ranks with the rain stinging our eyes and pinging on our helms, whilst messengers ran backwards and forwards and the rest of the host formed up around us. Another company marched in and lined up behind us along with some squads of archers, and the Lord Berthedir rode past on his horse, shouting and exhorting us, but once again most of what he said was lost to me. Then horns sounded the familiar short signal and we began to move forward in slow step. There will have been few of us whose guts did not churn at the sound and who did not clutch their weapons even harder in anticipation of what was about to happen and I was no exception. Ahead of us on the brow of the ridge, perhaps three furlongs distant milled the great host of Hillmen, who in contrast to our own ranks did not appear fight in any kind of formal order. I could see them clearly now, they wore a great variety of gear and carried many different weapons, some seeming to be little more than farmer's lads carrying scythes and cudgels, whilst others were clearly well equipped and well armed. They had the lie of the land, their greater numbers and the fact they were defending their home soil in their favour. My own heart was certainly not in this fight for these were my countrymen and kin, and I had no love for the likes of Berthedir and his ilk, but all the same I knew what I had to do and I did not want to let my men down.
We had closed half the distance to the enemy when their inferior organisation and discipline caused them to make a fatal error. Seeing us closing, a spontaneous roar went up and parts of the host began to stream down the hillside, and despite ther obvious dismay and reluctance were soon followed by the rest who came running across the fields towards us to meet us on equal terms. Horn blasts sounded, a hailstorm of arrows rushed over our heads and we formed a shield wall and levelled our spears. Then they were onto us, the first few wavering as they ran into a double line of spear tips, but the more that were skewered the more gaps began to form and the Hillmen crashed through into out shield wall. It gradually disintegrated in the press as brutal hand to hand fighting broke out, but we held our ground, and the arrows continued to whistle and whine through the air around us in both directions. It was a dreadful battle, fought in pouring rain on muddy ground, and I only just managed to avoid slipping over on more than one occasion when a fall would almost certainly have been fatal. Two years of hard soldiering had however left their mark on me, for now I was able to fight with a clear mind, and felt less when faced with the terrible sights, sounds and deeds. I rallied my men and we drove forward into the crowd of enemies, hewing and slashing and driving them back. They were many and fierce, and for a while their greater numbers still counted. After a while I began to grow more and more weary, and took blows that shook me and marred my shield. However our experience and discipline did begin to tell, and we began to drive their centre backwards, a little at first and then with increasing speed until it turned into a full scale retreat. We followed them up the bank, cutting them down as they fled, and made the crest, gasping for breath and sinking to our knees in relief. I met Daeron there, as weary, muddy and bloodied as I was and we clasped arms and smiled joyfully. "Well met brother" he said. We both turned to survey the battlefield as our men continued to stream up the slope and join us, calling out in joy and relief to each other, for it was clear that the day was going our way. We had driven a wedge through the centre of our foe and had split them clean in two. Towards the river the fighting still raged, but on our left hand the enemy were continuing to retreat towards the edge of the forest and the heights above it.
We did not rest for long though, our numbers swelled, and Berenion joined us. He and Daeron resolved to take the companies down the crest of the ridge to the road where the battle continued and attempt to cut off the enemy's escape. The command was sounded and we formed up once again into battle order. Although we had not suffered excessive losses there were still many obvious gaps in the ranks of my squad, all made by good men I had lived and fought alongside for a very long time and who had become my friends and brothers. I shook my head to try and clear those thoughts, but another kept gnawing at me, and that was that I had not seen Túon since the beginning of the battle. Ordinarily he would have been in the thick of it and inseparable from Daeron, and I hoped that there was a simple explanation for his disappearance.
The march down the ridge proved decisive, and in fear of being cut off the remainder of the army of the Hillmen fighting by the river broke and fell back when they saw us coming. They fled back along the road around the end of the ridge and onward towards the town. A cheer went up, among our own ranks and those below, for it was clear the day was ours. We rejoined the main part of the host at the road, and Berthedir, still mounted on his great horse and resplendent in his markedly clean enamelled armour, dismounted and strode across to meet Berenion and Daeron. He clasped arms and embraced them both in turn, and praised their valour and discipline, hailing them as heroes for breaking the enemy's centre and outflanking them. A cheer went up from all those around us, but I did not join in, for I was too weary and heartsick. Our companies were commanded to hold the road and field whilst the others who were still relatively fresh pressed on towards the town, and Berthedir went with them.
It was suddenly very quiet, and it began to rain again. Men stood in small groups, talking quietly or resting in silence, and others tended to wounded comrades. Daeron came over to me looking grim, and I knew what he was going to tell me. "Túon?" I asked him, and he shook his head. "Malvegil and his lads saw him go down early on. We have one of the finest men I ever knew". His voiced cracked and he turned away, and I could make no reply. We moved back across the battlefield, only able to succour a few of the many who still lay there dying of their wounds and pleading for help, both in the Common and Hill tongues. It was a scene of death and devastation on a scale greater than I had ever seen before, even at Northford. As night began to fall we returned to the eaves of the forest and recovered our packs. I could not help but notice ones strewn along the ground that would never now be collected. The time would soon come for friends to empty them and share anything of use and value, as was the tradition. Unable to find enough dry kindling to start a fire we ate a cold supper and began to prepare a camp for the night. Though the light was beginning to fade I noticed a great pall of smoke go up over the town on the far side of the ridge, and thought our enemy must have made a stand there after all.
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