43. Chapter 42
I became vaguely aware of a light shining, and I felt colder than I had ever done in my life. I began to tremble uncontrollably and gradually regained my senses. My head was wet and I was tangled in my cloak, which had become stiff with frost. The light that shone in my eyes resolved itself into moonlight on snow and it dawned on me that I was still alive, lying at the bottom of a steep slope amongst snow covered pine trees. I knew that unless I could still move then I would die there, so I tentatively tested each of my limbs in turn to see if they still responded normally. To my amazement it appeared that they did, so I slowly drew myself up into a sitting position. My head was pounding and I felt sick and dizzy but I managed to get myself upright. The wet on my face turned out to be blood, and there was no sign of my helm, I could only assume that it had been knocked off on the way down and had perhaps saved me from a worse fate. There was however a large crimson stain on the snow where I had been lying, so it was clear I had still done myself quite a mischief. After a while my head cleared a little, though my shivering continued unabated, and I tried standing and taking a few steps which I managed without falling over. Feeling encouraged I tried to take stock of the scene around me, which was brightly lit by a full moon and full of deep shadows. Above were the steep crags I had fallen from, and I when I saw them from below I marvelled that I had lived to tell the tale. To my left hand as I faced them there seemed to be a weakness that might be a way up or down, for the trees were thicker there. If Bardir had made it down as well then he would have come that way, and perhaps I would be able to pick up his trail and find him. I rallied a little at this thought and set off through the trees, the movement warmed me and my shivering subsided.
Eventually I reached the bottom of the tree covered ramp and to my delight found the snow trampled by numerous sets of boot prints, which disappeared behind me into the trees. I felt inordinately pleased at my good sense and set off in pursuit, easily reading the trail even in the shadows. I followed it for what felt like several hours until I started to tire and the eastern sky began to grow pale with the first hint of day. As the light improved I noticed that some of the boot prints were heading the wrong way, which troubled me, for I could not understand why any of my fellows would have halted and retraced their steps, unless they had found their way barred or some danger in their path. The idea that I might have missed them somehow in the night and that even now they might be heading away from me in a completely different direction was deeply troubling, but I reasoned that even if I had missed the point in the trail where they had branched out in a different direction in the gloom under some tree or other, then at least I would be no further behind them than I had been when I had set off. The fact that they had met something that had caused them to turn tail worried me though, for I had lost my sword and had nothing but the small dagger in my belt to defend myself with. I was also becoming desperately hungry, my head still ached and I felt increasingly weak and helpless, but I forced myself to go on just a little further.
It was almost day when I found Bardir and the others. I had been following the trail along the bottom of the valley, when the trees thinned and suddenly the tracks fanned out in many directions. Ahead of me, under a great snow laden pine I saw what I took at first to be a boulder or large root, but as I approached it I realised it was a man, laid face down in the snow. I knew him at once as a tall gangling fellow with prominent teeth, who had raced up the hillside like a deer with apparently little effort when we attempted to spring the Hillmen's trap. I never learned his name, and I never would now, for an arrow, buried almost up to the fletchings, was stood up in his back. Beyond, in a clearing, were other bodies. There had obviously been a pursuit, and it had ended here in a fight, that none had survived. I found Bardir, laid on his back, eyes staring blanky into the sky, a great red stain in the snow below a rent in his surcoat. The snow all around him had been well trampled, and there were other patches of crimson that indicated that he had not gone quietly and probably taken some of his assailants with him to the halls of Mandos. I knelt and closed his eyes, and began rather foolishly to weep, for I knew now that I was completely alone and lost in a wild land, and I did not know what to do.
I sat there for a while, too tired to move, until the first rays of morning topped the wooded heights to the east and I felt the faint kiss of the sun. Yet again the sky was a flawless blue, and it was hard not to find some beauty in the dazzling white of the scene around me and the profound silence. I rallied a little, and tried to decide what to do next, though my pounding head made this a difficult task. I faced a choice, either to strike out for Northford, with no supplies, and no clear idea of the way in incredibly difficult country. Or to try and regain High Burgh, for surely I could not be accused of any failure of duty after what had happened. Perhaps a relief force was already on its way, and I could meet up with them, or there might be others who had survived the battle? My first priority however was food, for I was now weak with hunger and my strength for any march questionable. Grim as it was, my first task would have to be to search my dead comrades for any scraps they might have been carrying in their scrips, and my search soon bore fruit, the tall man had obviously been unable to finish his lunch, and had put the remainder by. I consumed the hard bread and dried meat hungrily, and thought that I had rarely taste anything so good. I recovered some more pieces of bread and biscuit, and also found the fresh graves of three Hillmen under the trees. I wondered that I had not come across the rest of them during my pursuit, but then realised that I must have been out of my senses for quite some considerable length of time.
Somewhat restored, and with my thirst slaked by a little snow I resolved to take what I thought would be the safest, most honourable and blameless course and attempt to return to High Burgh. I armed myself with a discarded sword and set off back along the trail through the snow. I made much better time in daylight, and by noon I had made the bottom of the tree clad ramp that bisected the steep crags that separated the vale I found myself in from that of the White River. I ate a little more bread and started to climb, and as I rose above the vale marvelled that I had not suffered worse injury from my fall, for it looked higher still viewed from above. I eventually made the ridge and stopped for a rest, and took a moment to admire the view, which was nothing less than splendid. To the east the high snow clad tops of the misty mountains stood close by, as close as I had ever seen them even when we had travelled as far up the Hoarwell as the old tower. All around me rank upon rank of craggy pine clad ridges marched into the distance, and far to the north loomed the high land of the Ettenmoors and beyond a glimpse of the distant Trollfangs. I bestirred myself and crawled cautiously through the rocks I had tumbled off until I was able to look down into the vale. The woods below the crest were empty, and there was no sign of the foe we had slain there. A short distance off lay the town of Deepcliff, looking tranquil in the sunshine, smoke rising from the fires in many hearths. Once I was certain I was not observed I moved as quickly and quietly as I could down from my lofty perch until I was safely under the cover of the trees, and moving cautiously from trunk to trunk I gradually worked my way down towards the track where the fight had taken place. Already I was passing red surcoated corpses feathered with arrows amongst the trees, and as I approach the track that led to the village it became like a scene from a charnel house. Our dead lay thick on the ground, shot by arrows or hewn by axe and sword, and I wondered how any could have escaped the slaughter, so complete did it seem. My reverie almost cost me dearly, for I only heard the Hillmen coming in the nick of time, and dropped to the floor, laying crumpled against the tree trunk, hoping to be taken for just another corpse. I hardly dared breathe as passed close by, chattering amongst themselves about the fight and what would happen next. One of them opined that they would be waiting for the search party from High Burgh and that there would be more sport ere the week was out. I waited for a long time after they were gone before I even dared to raise my hood and look around me, and once I was sure I was not observed I made my way back the way I had come, resolving to wait for dark before I made any further attempt to go down river.
I found a reasonable hiding place between two large moss covered boulders, and made myself as comfortable as I could, sleeping a little on and off. Eventually the light began to turn rosy and I knew it would soon be time to set off again, so I ate what remained of my stolen rations and waited for night to fall.
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