36. Chapter 35
Although it had finally stopped raining there was frost in the air and I could not get warm in my damp clothes, so sleep was slow to come and fitful. I could not stop thinking about Túon either, he had been such a large and seemingly indestructible presence in our lives, and to lose him so abruptly made me feel much more vulnerable. There was further disturbance too as other companies returned across the battlefield to collect their gear and pitch camp, some carrying torches, others almost blundering into us in the dark, many of them apparently drunk. That would have been bearable, and normal enough, but suddenly, in the distance there was another sound, the unmistakeable sobbing and pleading of a woman. It became louder, and there were shouts and laughter too, and then the flickering of torches. They entered our camp to find their way blocked by Daeron, arms folded, with at least twenty men at his side. The group halted, perhaps ten or twelve strong, two of them grasping a struggling woman by the arms. She had thick dark curly hair just like my mother's, and in the torchlight she could almost have passed for her. Their purpose with her was clear, and weary though I was the old rage rose within me and I found myself trembling. "Explain yourselves" said Daeron in the cool tone we all recognised and had learned to fear. "Unhand her". The leader of the group, who was a sergeant and obviously drunk looked nonplussed for a moment. "Why? We're just having some fun, it is our due!". "Not in this army" came the stern reply, and the grin vanished from the man's face as he suddenly realised the gravity of his situation. "Let her go boys" he said quietly. "Do what the Captain says". She dropped to the ground, where she remained sobbing, and they backed off into the night. Daeron was furious, and disgusted at the lack of correct behaviour and discipline which he would never have tolerated in his own Company. He swore he would go straight to Berthedir, and Belegon their captain, in the morning and report them. Disquiet had added to his anger however, for smoke, drunken soldiers and captive women were the hallmarks of a sacking, something only orcs had previously been capable of, it was unthinkable that our soldiers could do the same to a town full of the king's own subjects. And yet I thought, Berthedir had not thought twice before ordering innocent villagers and innkeepers burned out of their homes as we had marched up from Bearcliffe.
I went to the woman and put my cloak around her. She recoiled at first, and whimpered, but when I spoke to her in her own tongue and told her we would not harm her she became a little quieter, and remained where she was, trembling and sobbing. A sleeping draught, such as that given to the wounded or dying was brought out and offered to her and she took it from me reluctantly, but afterwards fell quickly into a drugged sleep. Men stood round with expressions of concern on their faces, until they were dismissed by Daeron, who charged me with taking care of her and finding out what had befallen her. I regretfully rummaged in some packs and found a dead man's cloak and threw it over her, and took another for myself and settled down nearby.
When I woke, cold and stiff and covered in frost she was already sat up in her cloak, staring mutely into space with red rimmed eyes full of pain. It tore my heart to see anyone like that, and when I rose and went to speak to her she did not answer me at first. I left her, walking the stiffness from my limbs and went over to where some of the lads had finally managed to get a smoky fire going and were brewing some tea. They gave me a cup and I took it back to her and she took it from me, sipping it thirstily between bruised lips. It seemed to revive her a little, and she thanked me in a whisper. I told her my name and asked her if she was hungry. She nodded and I brought us some bread and dried meat and we ate it together in silence. Once she had finished I asked what her name was. "Maelith" she replied quietly. "wife of Derlath the Baker and mother to his five children". Her voice was dry and matter of fact up until that point but at the mention of her children she broke down again. I waited until she eventually became quiet again, stifling the odd sob. I made to speak but before I was able to phrase my question she began to answer it, in a low voice. "We saw the battle end and the fighters retreating round the hill, so many men running, stumbling and falling. The red bears caught up with some of them and cut them down, most carried on up the Burgh road, while others came into the town, and the gates were eventually closed just in time. But our walls were built to keep thieves and wild animals out at night, not an army. The bears broke the gate and streamed in over the walls and fighting started, but when they had killed all the soldiers then they carried on… Derlath saw what was happening and we hid in the cellar and barred the doors, but they set fire to our home and we were forced to come out or burn". She paused for a while, trembling, and became a little incoherent. "Derlath… they got him, the children, I don't know, I think they ran but I don't know. Then they took me…I…". I raised my hand gently to indicate I had heard enough, got up and turned away, filled with dread at what I had heard. I found Daeron and without a word he ushered me away from the others so we could speak privately. I told him what I knew and it was obvious he shared my dismay. "It is as I feared, our Lords have taken leave of their senses. We may subdue the Hillmen for a time in this fashion, but they will never forgive what we have done here. Their hatred will grow like weeds, and so too again in time will their strength. If there was ever any doubt of it before they will league themselves with Angmar now, and the days of the kingdom are numbered". His voice cracked with emotion and I thought he would weep. "All we have stood for, fought for and bled and died for has been betrayed here. I wish I could throw away my arms and walk away from here and never look back, or strike down those who did these evil deeds, or did nothing to prevent them. Yet to attempt to do any of these things would see my head struck from my shoulders without a second thought, and I have no wish for that either. Men such as you and I are trapped here now, and for the first time in my life I know not what to do". I was shocked at his frankness, and thought for once how young and lost he looked. He rallied a little. "Yet we must do what we can, for what little worth it may have". "The woman?" I asked. "What is to become of her?". The pain returned to his face. "Today we honour our dead and bury them. I fear there is little we can do for her, but go into the town and see if you can find her some clothing and food. We will give her a purse and perhaps she can travel with the wounded back to Bearcliffe?". I thought it unlikely she would, did not say so, and made to turn away and go back to her, but he was not done with me. " There is also the small matter of the loss of my lieutenant, and though none could truly replace a man of such worth I am still in need of a replacement, someone I can trust and rely on. You are still very young, but wise beyond your years and battle hardened., These are strange days when all we knew and took for granted is thrown into the hazard. Your men like and respect you and you do not lack for courage, so I am minded to name you. Think on it, and give me your mind on the matter later". I was almost too surprised to speak, but managed to thank him and say I was honoured to be considered. I felt tormented by conflicting emotions, despair, fear and elation. My father had been made a captain at the tender age of twenty seven, and here was I potentially a lieutenant at nineteen. I knew he would have been proud of me,but the dread of our situation and surroundings soon stifled any small glimmer of happiness I might have felt and I steeled myself as I returned to Maelith and tell her what we purposed for her.