38. Chapter 37
We bade farewell to our fallen and heaped the soil over them as the daylight faded into an angry sunset. The strengthening wind had turned to the north again and clouds were massing, and I thought it could not be long before we would see snow. Daeron said the traditional words of parting and then warned the men that there would be no rest, and that the following day's march would bring us close to High Burgh where it was to be expected that the Hillmen would stand and fight. He urged every man to do his duty, to the King, the people and to each other and to remember the vows they had made when they became soldiers.
We had left Berthedir's tent in silence, and Berenion parted from us without a word to rejoin his own men. When Berthedir had spoken of townsfolk whom few had heard of or cared for I could only see Maelith clutching her dead child, and the old hot rage rose in me again. However I had known that anything other than complete self mastery would mean death in that place - unlike most of the soldiers from the south the blood of the Hillmen ran thick in my veins, and the suspicion of treason would sit easily on my shoulders. Indeed my thoughts were treasonous, I wished for nothing more than to be able to throw away my weapons and gear and disappear into the wilderness and not return. I felt as if I were trapped inside a bad dream with no means of escape, I felt guilt and shame for the way I had abandoned Maelith and I hated Berthedir, Nordir and all their kind with a fierce passion, for I felt they had betrayed all the things we thought had bound us together.
We passed another bitterly cold and uncomfortable night and rose in the morning to find a covering of snow on the ground and more blowing in on the wind. The mood in the camp was sombre, not only because it was likely that we would be fighting again that day, but also because it was clear that many of the men, even those who had taken part in the sack of Greenhow had misgivings about it. I was with my own, checking that everyone's gear and arms were in order, when I saw Daeron approaching. I realised at once that I had been so preoccupied that I had forgotten his offer and failed to consider it. He saluted and greeted us, and asked me to come away with him for a moment. He looked very tired, and I suspected that he too had spent a troubled night. He came straight to the point and asked me whether I wished to accept the post of Lieutenant, and I did so without further thought, somewhat to my own surprise. "That is good" he said, "but you have stepped over the heads of many other older and more experienced men to take on this duty. Some will wish to see you stumble as a result, and a company is a much bigger and more difficult proposition than a squad. Your first task will be to win the sergeants over, though I think you are popular enough with the men in general". He took a badge of rank from his scrip and pinned it to my cloak, we clasped hands and then saluted and he congratulated me. "What then of your squad? Have you anyone suitable in mind to take over in your stead? Galunir strikes me as a good man?" I concurred, and replied that he was my choice too, and we went back to speak to the men and tell them what had passed. In normal circumstances I would have been elated, but in my miserable state of mind my promotion felt like just another added and unwelcome complication to deal with. Daeron called the Sergeants and gave them the news, and though some looked surprised, most were generous enough to congratulate me.
Finally the horn sounded and we began to form up, and this time the Northford companies were toward the front of the column, just behind Belegon and Edwenion's men. It felt a little strange to be marching alongside Daeron, and also to find myself unencumbered by a spear. We set off from the edge of the forest and regained the road, through the fields still littered with the dead, now dusted with a uniform covering of white. It was as if someone had begun to try and hide them, or make them somehow less dreadful and failed. My stomach churned as we approached the stark ruins of the town, and I wondered whether poor Maelith was still there somewhere. She still had my dagger, and I hoped a little feebly it might prove useful to her. I tried to keep my eyes to the front but I could not fail to notice several bodies at the roadside that were clearly not those of fighting men. They did not escape the attention of some of our men either, and I was secretly heartened to hear a few cries of "murderers" from our ranks directed at those marching ahead of us. Hearing the cries some of them broke ranks for a moment and turned, angry, but the bark of their sergeant brought them quickly back in to line. He came storming towards us, a squat brute of a man, his face like thunder, demanding that we find those who had slighted his men. Daeron said nothing, and I realised that he meant for me to deal with the situation. I suddenly found my new rank had its compensations after all, barking "back in line sergeant" at him and stopping him in his tracks. He opened his mouth to argue but then he noticed my badge and he suddenly thought better of it, spinning on his heels and returning to his own men cursing under his breath. Daeron remained silent, but I was sure I caught the merest hint of a smirk on his face for a moment.
Greenhow was soon behind us, but what happened there will live in infamy so long as there are any left to remember it, and it marked the beginning of the end for the Kingdom. The valley sides closed in once more and the land regained its former steepness. As we marched steadily through the fine blowing snow, eyes stinging in the gusts, every tree lined bend in the road could have been the perfect spot for an ambush. Yet none came and neither we nor our scouts saw any sign of our foe. The column halted several times that day as we came upon villages and farms along the road, and they were wrecked and set ablaze but fortunately those who lived there had fled at the rumour of our approach. Anyone watching from a distance would have been able to mark our progress from the smoke rising high into the wintry sky, and once again there were mutterings and curses from the men marching behind us as we left the scenes of wanton destruction. Many of them had been farmers and villagers, and knew what it meant to be burnt out and lose everything with winter coming.
It was beginning to grow dark when the column halted again. Ahead on the road in a clearing I could see a farmhouse, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw smoke was rising from the chimney. Surely none would have been foolish enough to remain? I heard shouting and the men at the head of the column brought two figures out of the house, and even at that distance I could see that they were old and infirm. My hand fell instinctively onto my sword hilt at the sight, but I made no further movement as Berthedir rode up to them, towering over them on his horse and gave a command. I remained frozen to the spot as the men surrounding the two captives drew their swords and hacked down first one and then the other. My hand gripped the hilt so hard it ached and yet I could still not move or speak or look anyone around me in the eye, so appalled was I at what I had witnessed, and at my inability to act and prevent it. Some of my men were much braver and better than I was though, indeed it was Galunir, who I had not long since elevated to sergeant who piped up first. "Captain, what is happening? We are become a rabble worse than orcs! Enough I say!". There was a murmur of agreement from the ranks. I remained frozen to the spot, knowing I ought to act but unsure of what to do and feeling suddenly very foolish. Daeron however turned calmly and went back to where Galunir stood surrounded by a crowd of men. "Peace Galunir" he said calmly. "I promise you now that once we return west I will do all that I can to see justice done for all this. But until then anyone who speaks against orders risks their neck, and I promise you I will not risk mine to save yours if you cannot stay your tongue. That goes for all of you. Now get back in line". He turned away and came back to where I was standing, and the men did as they were bid. He did not look at me, and he appeared calm, but I could see his hand was trembling.
The farmhouse was set alight, and the flock of sheep in the pen nearby slaughtered, and we set up camp in the meadows, lit eerily by the dancing flames. The sheep were roasted, and smelt delicious, but none in Berenion or Daeron's companies partook of them, and many others also refused when they saw the bodies of the old farmer and his wife lying crumpled at the side of the road. If Berthedir was aware of this silent mark of protest then he did not show it.