37. Chapter 36
Maelith's eyes widened when I told her what I intended to do, and she immediately demanded to be allowed to come with me. Not knowing what horrors might await I tried to dissuade her, but she became distressed and pleaded with me not to leave her alone amongst men who could not speak her tongue. I gave in and went to find some hot water for her to wash in, and cleaned myself up as best I could too, and a little while later we joined the lines of men heading towards the battlefield to begin the grim work of the day gathering and burying their fallen brothers. The Hillmen would have to wait for this mercy however as they were too numerous and Berthedir was impatient to press his advantage and march on High Burgh before they could regroup, so they were left under the open sky where they had fallen. Any battlefield is a scene of horror and this one was no exception, and the poor woman walked along in a daze, tears running down her cheeks. I said nothing, for I feared we might face worse when we reached the town. I was challenged as to my business several times as we went and answered tersely that I was following orders and not to hinder me. I was forced to draw my sword on one occasion when a group of men began to jeer at Maelith and tried to block our passage.
As we rounded the shoulder of the ridge, what remained of the town came into view and I felt a mounting feeling of dread. Many of the buildings I could see were roofless and smouldering, and the road up to what remained of the town gate was littered with the dead. I could see how the gate had been broken so easily and the walls overcome for they were little more than a palisade on top of an earthen bank. We were alone now, and nobody hindered our entry into the town. My companion said nothing but gathered her cloak around her and increased her pace, stepping over the bodies that were now thickly scattered underfoot. I drew breath sharply at what I saw, for there were townsmen and women amongst those lying there, and then children too. I let out a low moan and choked back a sob of my own, for this was too much to bear. My companion continued on her silent quest, and I followed her from street to street amongst the blackened shells of the shops and houses. Finally she stopped, let out a hideous scream and threw herself down on the ground, grasping at something and giving full vent to her anguish. I stood in the ruin, powerless and wretched and unable to act. She stood up and I saw the something was another child, and then she screamed "murderers!" and launched herself at me, beating me with her fists, demented and distraught. I could not reply, and fell back, but then with a shriek she snatched my dagger from its sheath on my belt and attempted to stab me with it. However I caught the blow instinctively with my shield hand and the knife bit into my palm and blood gouted from the wound giving me a scar I still carry. I cried out in pain, and then turned and fled, but I was lost at first in the maze of narrow streets and alleyways full of death and almost came back upon her before I realised my error and eventually found the gate. I wandered back across the battlefield in a daze, blood soaking the rag I had tied around my wounded hand. Tears streamed down my cheeks, and I cared not who saw them.
I found the company busy with the heartbreaking work of gathering up our fallen and digging a burial pit at the edge of the forest. Bodies wrapped in cloaks lay in neat rows on the ground, and more were being brought to join them whilst I watched. Daeron was preoccupied with overseeing the work but noticed my arrival and came to speak to me, again drawing me away from the others. I think my face told him all he needed to know, but he pressed me to tell him what I had seen. "May the Valar save us" he sighed when I had finished. "And the woman?". "She came with me, I could not stop her" I replied shamefaced. "She went mad with grief and tried to kill me". I raised my wounded hand. "To my undying shame and regret I fled from her, for we wear the red and black of those who burned her town and put her children to the sword, and will never be forgiven for it. We cannot help her now". He looked grave. "I must speak of this with Berenion, for all his stiffness and formality he is a just and honourable man. This is the work of the Lastbridge companies, fiercely loyal to Barachon and eager to avenge the massacre of their brothers in the High Burgh garrison. Come with me".
Berenion's company were engaged in the same grim work we were, and they had dug their pit in the shadow of a copse next to a tumbledown barn out on the plain. He saluted our arrival solemnly. He was much older than Daeron, perhaps forty five years of age or so, tall of stature with short cropped white hair and a pleasing lined face with a naturally wry expression. He nodded towards the pit. "Twenty seven at the last count, how did you fare?". "Thirty five is our tally" replied Daeron, "but I have lost Túon and many other good men. Still we must be grateful there were not more". "Indeed" he replied, "that is a bitter loss indeed given all we have been through these last two years. A quarter of the men who marched north under my command then no longer stand with us from one cause or another. I fear we have taken more than our fair share of the burden of this fight, excepting our brave brothers in the north of course". He nodded towards me and I was surprised and pleased both to be remembered and acknowledged by him and inclined my head in thanks. "Esteldir is it not? You have come far since I assigned you to Daeron's company. But pray, to what do I owe a visit at this time? I divine that you too are troubled by what is said to have happened last night in Greenhow Town. Tomorrow's march will take us past the place and will surely tell all, but I do wonder if there was more to our being ordered to guard the rear by Berthedir than met the eye. It was his men who took the town and did bloody deeds. Hopefully the tale has grown in the telling and things are not so bad as all that". I piped up "I have been in the town today, and they are as bad as can be. Orcs could not have done worse, the whole place was torched and put to the sword. This was no accident caused in the heat of a fight. I would have the head of any of my own men who did harm to innocent townfolk". His face fell and he grew angry "I did not swear my oath of service for this kind of work, and will withdraw my company to Lastbridge and seek the King's mercy if it is so. Let us go and speak on the matter to Berthdedir". "Brother" Daeron replied, looking concerned "I fear it is Barachon who dispenses the King's mercy in Lastbridge these days, so I would temper your words or your neck may be forfeit".
Berthedir was in his tent with two of the Lastbridge Captains, Belegon and Edwenion, looking at a scroll showing a map of the Shaws. They all looked up as his servant announced our entry. Close up he was younger than I had thought, seemingly not much older than Daeron , but he had the easy air of one used to command and once again I marvelled at his impeccable attire and beautifully tooled breastplate. "Brothers, welcome" he said affably. "We were just looking at what lies ahead of us on the march tomorrow. One more day and we will be in striking distance of their main lair. We were debating whether they will stand and fight again, or whether we might have to besiege them. What do you think?". Berenion stepped forward. "My Lord" he said, quiet and dignified. "Please forgive me for speaking frankly. I have to confess I am deeply concerned at the reports that our own soldiers have sacked the nearby town and put innocents to the sword. If they be true then surely this runs counter to our vows of service and all that we stand for as sons of the west?". The mood in the tent changed in an instant, and Berthedir became angry. "The west?" he spat, "what does that avail us? The men of the west were never in such dire straits as we find ourselves now, with all their mighty hosts and shiny elvish friends. They could afford to be delicate and toy with honour and justice, but we are few in number and beset by an enemy at every point of the compass. Only those capable of bold deeds will prevail in such times. Think ye that the campaign was won with the yesterday's victory? No, for the enemy still have the greater number and have the hard country on their side, and that weighs heavily in their favour. And though we might carry another day, and another beyond that you can be sure that they would still grind us down little by little, day by day, month by month and year by year just as Angmar does in the north. There have you have won many battles but still you cannot best your foe. But now because of our strength and resolve we have a mighty and fell weapon on our side - fear. The Hillmen will be filled with doubt and unmanned by the thought of a foe who has no mercy, a foe who destroys all in his path, and even now they will be debating whether they should abandon their insurrection and sue for peace. Against a victory and peace in the realm what are a few townsfolk who few knew of or cared for? All of you - your vow of service was one of loyalty to the King, and those who are set in place to command you do so in his name. It is a hard road and we must all find the strength to do what must be done, and any who fail in their duty will find their lives forfeit. Now return to your companies, bury your dead with honour and trouble me no more. I doubt not that we will fight again ere night fall tomorrow, so prepare yourselves.
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