55. Chapter 54
Later that evening Arahael and I, along with the Northford men and townsfolk who had accompanied us to the Watersmeet Company's camp enjoyed our first proper meal for several weeks, a tasty mutton stew cooked in large cauldrons and accompanied by cheese, hard bread and some tasty Lastbridge ale. Humble as it might have been it was one of the finest meals I have ever eaten, and I felt an unfamiliar but very comfortable torpor come over me afterwards, feeling for a little while that perhaps all would be well in the world again after all. We sat around a token fire that had been lit more for light than warmth, as it was another fine summer evening, and listened intently to what had passed since we were last together as the sun sank over the empty forested hills across the river.
There was much interest in what had befallen me after my Company had left me behind in High Burgh, and I did not hold anything back. Daeron looked concerned and warned me that all my old adversaries had marched north and were present in the camp, but agreed that I ought to have nothing to fear from them. Berenion had acted correctly in corroborating my tale and then reenlisting me in his own service. There was surprise too at the strange twist of fate that had reunited me with my mother's family, and they agreed that I had had no choice in leaving them and making my way back to Northford. Things had got very bad in the Shaws in the last few years, and Ulfred's fighters had kept High Burgh in a virtual state of siege. However he had made the mistake of overreaching himself and attempted to meet the army of Rhudaur in open battle. The Prince had come up from Bearcliffe with the strongest possible force and won a decisive victory, with the aid of a renegade cousin of Ulfred's from the south Shaws named Brodir. Ulfred had escaped the field again, along with many of his men, but his power was broken for now. The loyal newcomer had been installed by Eldir and Berthedir as the new Chieftain in High Burgh, and it was said many of the Hill Folk, weary of the fighting and having to pay tribute to maintain Ulfred's rebellion, had pledged their loyalty to him. Perhaps there was now renewed hope that I might see my family there again now, and I sincerely hoped that this would be the case.
Our companions then listened intently as Arahael recounted how things had been in Northford and what had passed during the siege. He told them of Berenion's courage and wise leadership in the face of overwhelming odds and the way he had not hesitated to lead the hopeless defence of the wall himself during the first attack as the enemy had poured across the ford. The wound he received there eventually cost him his life, but he had remained clear minded and continued to guide us wisely even as his life ebbed away. He spoke of the fall of the town and the terrible fire that had consumed it, the desperate defence as the Keep was repeatedly assaulted and finally the horror of life under siege. He was too modest by far as to his own part, so it was left to me to tell how Arahael had rallied the men, weak and starving as they were and led the sally that opened the gate and helped break the siege. Our companions exchanged glances and Daeron spoke up. "That explains why the Prince holds you in such high esteem then brother, and rightly so. That was a great deed, and it is clear why he has seen fit to name you as Berenion's successor." I sat up, startled at this. "You did not say?" I asked him. "It did not seem appropriate in the circumstances" he replied quietly. "And though I may now be Lord in name, my command will be modest, for I fear that Lastbridge can no longer be defended and must be abandoned. Only the Keep will remain to watch our northern border, and it will be a lonely watch far from help". He looked at me seriously. "I must ask you two questions Esteldir. Firstly Berenion will begin his final journey home in the morning, and it is fitting that one who served with him and loved him, and was well loved by him should accompany him and see him laid to rest with all due ceremony. Will you do this task for me? Secondly, I now need a Captain to serve as my right hand, and I can think of none more fitted or deserving of that position than you. What say you?" Daeron nodded and smiled, and I had no hesitation in agreeing to both questions. There was a quiet murmur of approval and congratulations and we stood and embraced. Despite the terrible circumstances that had brought me to this point, there was still a small part of me, a remnant of my boyhood perhaps, that was elated at the idea that I had made captain at the age of only twenty two. My father would have been proud indeed, for I had beaten his record by the best part of five years. However I knew that we now lived in very different times to those he had known, and far too many men who might have stood ahead of me in the ranks in better days now lay asleep under the earth.
A little discomfited by that last thought and regretting my childish burst of pride I changed the subject of the discussion and asked Daeron and Galunir to recount all that had passed since we had parted four years since. Galunir went first, and said there was no great tale to be told. After being stood down over winter, they had gone north again with their new captain, Eryndir, and returned to Lastbridge for a spell, resuming their earlier duties patrolling and repairing the East Road. The new captain sat nearby listening and nodded at the mention of his name. I knew him well, for he was a cousin of Túon's and a man of not dissimilar character and appearance to our old friend, and I thought him a fitting replacement. A spell back in High Burgh had followed, during which they were ambushed and suffered heavy losses, and afterwards as winter approached again they had been stood down, and told not to remobilise again until called for. The King's coffers were empty once again, and he had far more men under arms than could be kept fed and supplied. So they went back to their homes and families and had remained there until the start of the current campaign. He told us of the march back north, led by the Prince in his gleaming armour, and of the battle at High Burgh. The renegade Hillmen had come late to the battlefield, but their appearance had been decisive, and the additional numbers had persuaded the foe that the day, already in doubt was indeed lost, and they had broken and fled.
For his part Daeron had hastened home after his return to Lastbridge to find his father had died, and that he was now master of the family dominions and its new head. This by custom released him from his army service in all but the most serious circumstances, and he had thrown himself enthusiastically into his new life. Young, handsome and now a man of means, he had caught the eye of the Lord Of Watersmeet's daughter, and they had been wed nearly two years. He had recently become the father of a fine baby boy, and in time would inherit the title and duties from his wife's father too. I thought such good fortune could not have come to a better man, and said so, and wished him a speedy return to his family. He smiled, and said he did not doubt that it would be the case, since Lastbridge could not maintain such a large host for long in the field. Indeed little if any allowance had been made for the garrison or starving townsfolk in the supplies that had been brought north, and it would only be a matter of days before they were gone. The march south would have to commence soon, else we would all go hungry again, and it was very much to be hoped that no relief force was on its way down through the vales from Angmar to delay it. But before all else the heavy task of clearing the battlefield and burying the dead would have to be faced, and I for one was glad my duty to Berenion meant I it was likely that I would play no part in it.
Eventually the fire, and our conversation with it burned low and we retreated into our private thoughts under a beautiful starlit sky. It was not long before sleep overtook me, exhausted and replete as I was, and I was grateful for the oblivion it brought. Too many things had happened to me in too short a space of time, and for the moment I could no longer take it all in.
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