40. Chapter 39
So Ulfraer, Chieftain Of the Hillmen and now a prisoner, led Berthedir's host into the town of High Burgh. The column made its way through narrow streets thronged with onlookers, who watched them pass by in a silence thick with hatred and fear. Berthedir and his Lastbridge companies made their way up into the second circle and the relative comfort of the great hall as the chieftain's guests. Our companies were not so fortunate, Daeron was given orders to secure and guard the main gate and lower town, so our men halted there and waited whilst I, as the speaker of the local tongue, went into the town with a dozen men to look for a suitable billet. On first impressions the town itself was much to my liking, and although simpler and more rustic than the likes of Northford or Bearcliffe it had an air of vigour and prosperity. Unsurprisingly the people in the streets melted away when they saw us coming, but a few brave souls shouted curses at us before they retreated. A few streets away from the gate near an empty marketplace I found a large building which looked like it would suit our purposes. Nobody answered our knocking on the doors so we broke one and entered. The place was clearly a trader's or merchant's hall, for there were piles of fleeces, skins and furs stacked within along with many other barrels and sacks of goods. It smelt terrible, and was gloomy and poorly lit but there would be room enough for us all and it would be good to sleep under a roof again and be warm and dry.
That hall became our home for the next few weeks, and at first it was a relief to take our ease and enjoy the relative comfort it afforded after all the marching and fighting we had done in the open. Daeron knew that this inactivity would soon pall and turn to boredom though, and then to trouble, so he kept the men occupied patrolling and taking turns doing guard duty at the main gate. Feeding us all however was rapidly becoming an issue as the campaign rations were running out. Supplying the additional four and a half thousand soldiers without bringing up supplies would soon present far too much of a burden on a place the size of High Burgh with winter on the way and Berthedir seemed unconcerned about this at first, but a deputation of his captains, including Berenion and Daeron soon changed his mind on the matter. We were already on short rations and going hungry, and would have been hungrier still had some of the goods in the hall not turned out to be edible, mainly salted and dried mutton and some rather good ale. Messengers were sent back to Bearcliffe demanding that supplies be sent up the valley, and it was also resolved that now victory had been secured several companies would be sent back to Lastbridge. They would escort Berthedir and his prisoner to when they departed and would afterwards be stood down and sent home for Yule. It seemed most likely that both the Northford companies would be among them, as they had seen continuous service for eight months. My heart leapt at this news - I would see Lastbridge and Angon again, and perhaps even get to spend another Yule with Daeron's family.
So it proved, as far as the companies were concerned, but I was not so fortunate. My ability to speak the language of the hill folk had proved to be very useful at the town gate and I was able to help defuse several difficult situations there that might otherwise have ended badly. Word of this had reached Berthedir and he summarily reassigned me to to Belegon's company. He was to command the new garrison in Berthedir's absence, and with the departure of Ulfraer it would become necessary to have someone to hand who could converse with the town's elders who either could not or would not use the common speech in their dealings with us.
So it was that I found myself face to face for the first time with my new captain, in the pleasant well furnished room that he had taken for his own use. It had a window that faced west, with a fine view of the town and along the vale of the White River, towards the scene of his blackest deeds I thought sourly to myself. Daeron had returned from a council that morning and I had known straight away from his manner that something was amiss, and the news he brought me was bitter indeed. He had done what he could, he said, but Belegon was the sort who enjoyed getting the upper hand over anyone he considered to be a potential rival.
He was a big man, and from the look of him the blood of the west did run fairly true in his veins, but perhaps it was the prideful cruel sort that had done for our ancestors. He had a fearsome reputation amongst the ranks and where Daeron's men fought at least in part for the love of their captain, Belegon's knew only fear of theirs. He was sat at a table looking at some scrolls, with his lieutenant Glordir at his shoulder. The latter shot me a look which spoke volumes as I entered, and I prepared myself for what I knew must follow.
Belegon ignored me at first, and I stood feigning patience, but inside I was already angry, angry at been torn away from men I knew and trusted, from friends, and worse still denied the rest that was my right, trapped in a place I did not want to be. Eventually he deigned to notice me, and cleared his throat. The handsome blonde haired lieutenant by his side allowed himself a smirk. I chose to speak first "Lieutenant Esteldir reporting for duty". He looked at me critically. "Lieutenant? You're no more than a boy, how did you come by such a rank? Mind, Daeron is barely whiskered himself, so it should come as no surprise". He gave a humourless chuckle and his ally joined in. "So you're the one that speaks pig tongue are you? How did you come by such a useful skill?" I did my best not to show any reaction. "My mother was of the hill folk". He sat back in his chair and folded his hands across his belly. "So you're a half pig then? How did you come to be serving in a southern company then? I hope it didn't stop you doing your duty at Greenhow". I assured him stiffly that I had done my best, and that Berthedir had commended us, but he ignored me. I felt the old anger rising in me but I was in no doubt how dangerous it would be to lose my temper now. "You will attend to me whenever I need you, and no doubt Berthedir will do so too when he returns. The hours are long and I've no doubt you will find it very tedious listening to the pigs squealing all day long, I know I do. Glordir here will show you your new billet, but don't get any ideas about pulling rank on the men, I only need one lieutenant. Any questions?" I braced myself, knowing that it was futile and foolish and would not end well, but I was so angry and disappointed I could not help but ask why I was not being allowed the leave I was entitled to. His face darkened. "Do not question my orders. This duty will be your leave, you are not expected to fight or bear arms in this task and you will winter in relative comfort in this pigsty. We are at war, and normal rules do not apply". I thought of several answers to this last comment but wisely kept them to myself.
So began one of the dreariest and most miserable periods of my life, even as a castle rat I had friends around me and felt realtively safe and protected, but now I was alone, friendless and disliked by all. To my dismay I found myself billeted with some of the soldiers who had abducted Maelith, notably the sergeant, a beast of a man who went by the name of Beleg. Once they discovered whose company I had been serving with, and that I was half Hillman the die was truly cast with them. Fear of my rank kept them at bay for the most part but they made no secret of what they thought of me. Not so much the lieutenant though, who took every opportunity to mock and bait me, but for a while I managed to avoid giving him any reason to complain of my conduct. Hard and dangerous as it had been, I greatly missed my old life fighting in the north, with the easy camaraderie of men I knew and trusted doing a duty which had great worth and was within my compass. The elders and townsfolk who came to the hall on business hated and feared me too, for the bearer of unwelcome news and bad tidings will always carry the taint of it, even if it is not his own handiwork and I was Belegon's mouthpiece.
Daeron and Berenion's companies left for Lastbridge with Berthedir and his prisoner two days later, and I watched them leave with a troubled heart. Once again I was impressed by the quiet dignity shown by Ulfraer as he was marched from his town for the last time with his hands bound behind him. The streets were lined with people who watched him depart, but this time many cried out in support, or wept, knowing the fate that awaited him at the end of his journey. Many hundreds followed him down the valley, unarmed save for digging implements, for there was still much grim work to be done in the town and on the battlefield at Greenhow. When they arrived there Daeron and Berenion set their own men to helping the Hill folk while they could, but Berthedir would brook any delay to his journey and they marched away the following morning, spirits greatly subdued yet again by what they had seen.
In the streets of Bearcliffe and Lastbridge too, many people came out to witness the Chieftain of the Hillmen pass by on his journey to face the King's justice. If Berthedir had hoped for a triumphant progress as he returned home then he was disappointed, for by all accounts as many took the part of the prisoner as praised him for his victory.
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