42. Chapter 41
Our destination was a small town at the confluence of the northern and southern branches of the White River, called Deepvale, some five hours march away. Two days before, a foraging party had found their road blocked there by a large crowd, which greatly outnumbered them and was armed with whatever the people had been able to put to hand, making it very clear that they were ready to defend their winter stores. The sergeant in charge of the foragers had wisely withdrawn his men, but news of what had happened was met with fury back in High Burgh, and Tharon's company had been sent out with orders to bring the place under control and attempt to round up and return with any ringleaders that could be found.
We passed through several villages on the way, but saw few if any people, they must have either fled or hidden themselves in their homes when they saw us approaching and I suspected that they had already been given good reason to fear and resent us. They were the homes of simple poor folk, and anything they had managed to put by would have been hard won and barely enough. Once again I found myself liking the look of the places we passed through, though humble they were well arranged and in good repair. The land was growing steeper yet around us, and as the valley narrowed we often found ourselves in the icy shade cast by tall cliffs and forested heights, and the march began to lose some of its initial attraction. Many valleys and short ravines branched off it to either hand, all jagged and equally steep. It was easy to see why no true roads had been made in this country, nor probably ever would be. It was a chaotic landscape, where progress in any direction other than that dictated by the course of a river was difficult, and it was very easy to lose your sense of direction and become lost. If my memory served me correctly we were probably no further than ten leagues or so from Northford as the crow flew, but it would not be a journey to be lightly undertaken, even for someone such as I who had often been in the forests on the northern edge of the upland.
At mid day we halted for a meal, which was eaten in a taciturn silence. I strongly suspected that my new fellows were wishing just as hard as I was that they could have been anywhere other than where they found themselves. Any pleasure I had found in escaping from my confinement in the great hall and marching in the wild was gone now, and been replaced by a nagging dread of what might lay ahead. In little more than an hour I might have to try and prove my loyalty, and I did not think I could. The alternative was desertion, and that would mean certain death if I returned to any land where the king's writ ran. The thought of never seeing Northford, Daeron or Angon again was too painful to consider, as was the idea that I could ever break my vows of service and dishonour the memory of my father and uncle and the stain name of my family. And who in the Shaws would give refuge and succour to someone who had been at the battle of Greenhow, however innocent of the massacre they claimed to be? The only other possible choice, a journey to Cardolan or Arthedain would be far too long and perilous, and the welcome to be found there too uncertain to risk. I felt very tired, and sad, and decided that I could not do what Berthedir wanted, and if that meant I would face death then so be it. After all, what was I? The last of a line who few now remembered, beggared by fate and forced to serve cruel men.
Whisps of smoke rising straight into the clear sky from the fires of Deepvale town could be glimpsed through the treetops and between the cliffs, but as yet there was no sign of the townsfolk or their barricade. We marched along a well trodden trail through the snow, and some way ahead it was clear from the light that the trees thinned and halted and gave way to open meadow. A horn sounded abruptly somewhere off to our left and uphill, and it was answered by another further off. We had been seen and the signal for whatever welcome was prepared for us had been given. For the moment no orders came down the line and we continued to march at the same pace, unconcerned. I had been fighting for too long in forests however, because I sensed that something was amiss, and then caught a glint of sun on steel from up the valley side. There were men there, very many of them and they were definitely not rustics armed with hay forks. "Ware!!" I shouted, and drew my sword, and my squad halted and did the same, causing disorder in the line behind us. Bardir, who was a canny old fox had spotted them too and nodded to me. Then there was an all too familiar thump and the man who had been standing between us crumpled with an arrow buried deep in his chest. The air was suddenly thick with them, and they fell on us from both sides. Men were suddenly dying all the way along our line and we had no means of reply, and no way to evade them. Bardir had the presence of mind to yell an order to charge the foe who stood uphill from us, and I could see what he purposed, for there was a cleft in the heights above us that might provide a means of escape if we could reach it. Ahead and behind us on the trail more Hillmen were advancing, and we were clearly outnumbered. I remembered surprise at how depleted in numbers the army we had faced outside High Burgh had seemed, and now perhaps I had an explanation, for I had no doubt that we faced Ulfred's men there. The sounds of battle and the screams of the dying filled the air, and as we charged uphill through the trees to meet our unseen foe many fell around us, their blood stark red against the brilliant white of the snow. By the time we met our foe hand to hand more than half our number had fallen, but we had good fortune, and despite being encumbered and very short of breath found our enemy spread thinly and were able to kill them and reach the top of the ridge and our hoped for means of escape. I was too hasty however as we scrambled over snow covered boulders at the crest, and gave no thought to the fact that the far side might be steeper and more dangerous than the one we had just climbed. I realised my mistake too late, and could not recover my slip before I found myself falling through space and feeling vaguely foolish and regretful. The rocks and trees below came rushing up to meet me with surprising speed and then I knew no more.