57. Chapter 56
The town of Elford where we were bound lay on the Loudwater on the eastern border sof Rhudaur, some 25 leagues distant and four days march from Lastbridge. As the name suggested, it stood where the Great East Road forded the river, and beyond it lay lands which had never been part of the greater kingdom of Arnor, but rather fell under the protection of the Elf Lord of Rivendell. Any dealings there might have been with that realm in ancient times had long ceased, and instead there were many rumours and fantastical tales and and a good deal of mistrust. However there were inns in every town along that road that were occasionally frequented by travellers from that realm, but as in Lastbridge they kept their own counsel and had as few dealings with us as possible.
The road itself, like the bridge that took it across the Hoarwell, was of immense age and marvellous construction, wide enough for two fully laden wagons to pass with ease and smoothly paved, even after we had left Lastbridge. Unlike the North Road it ran more or less straight and true, almost disregarding the rise and fall of the land, and here and there it had carved its way through hills that stood in its path, or where the land dropped away rode across it on mighty earthworks. As a result we made very good time and were no longer hindered by other travellers, and the mood of the Carter improved. After a journey where he had spoken with me little more than absolutely necessary he gradually became more talkative. Fradur was his name and he hailed from Greenwood, which lay ahead on our road, and once he began to talk it was like a dam had been released. I did not mind, for he had travelled widely and was no fool, and amongst the chatter there was much of interest to me, especially regarding the doings of the nobility in Lastbridge. He in turn was interested in what had passed in the north during the battles and the siege, and I was in no doubt that whatever I recounted to him would soon be currency in many taverns before the year was out. I made sure I painted the man who slept in the cart behind us in the most heroic terms possible.
There were many small settlements and villages along the road, and like the land that lay between Lastbridge and Watersmeet there was an air of peace and prosperity here, for it had never been touched by war. The country was steep and hilly, for we were effectively still in the Southern Shaws, but the writ of the King in Lastbridge ran here. Nonetheless many of the inhabitants we passed on the road were clearly of Hillman stock and I wondered where their loyalties lay. Despite the sad nature of our journey I could not help but begin to enjoy it a little, for the weather was now pleasant and any risk of ambush long past and it pleased me greatly to see these new lands. We spent the night at an Inn, before making good time again the following day and reaching Greenwood by mid afternoon. It was a smaller than Northford, surrounded by open farmland and steep wooded hills and had a small keep set well back from the road overlooking the town. I remembered Berthedir and his kin were masters in this land, and thought that I must be looking at their home. I thought of poor Maelith, who had lived in a very similar town not so far to the north, and what he had seen done to her home and family.
We spent the night there in another larger inn, and once again attracted another large audience keen to learn of what had passed at Northford, for news of the victory at High Burgh had already reached them. None spoke ill of their Lord, but I detected caution and a little fear in some of what they said, so it was clear he was a man more feared than loved there at home too. We resumed our journey in the morning, and found the country beyond Greenwood wilder and the farms and settlements dwindled. The land grew steeper and though the road still ran more or less true hills that slowed our progress became more frequent. On our right hand the land fell away towards the lowlands between the two rivers, and ahead in the distance the bulk of the foothills of the Misty Mountains loomed. We found a pleasant spot by the road and camped on the last night of our journey, with soldiers who were all in good spirits, for the following day would see them home and back with their families. The sergeant ordered a cask of ale opened and we drank to all those who would not return, and to the Lord they had escorted home to his final resting place.
At noon the following day we passed through a particularly impressive cutting through the same rock of pinkish hue that Watersmeet was built of, and soon afterwards came to the top of a long hill that led down into the vale of the Loudwater. On the plain below, the road continued to run straight and true through a plain dotted with farms and patches of woodland, and at the end of it where the river ran and the land began to rise steeply again beyond, stood the town of Elford. Somewhere amongst the tall ranks of wild hills beyond, standing against the distant lofty summits of the mountains lay the hidden Elf Hold. The very thought of it filled me with a strange excitement, and I wished that I could go there and speak to them and see the wonders it held.
My thoughts were soon brought back to more immediate matters, for our approach had been noted and by the time we reached the town crowds had gathered to meet us, and the garrison had formed up as a guard of honour. The joy of seeing some of their husbands and sons returned was tempered by the news of Berenion's death, but he had spent little time there in recent years, and many only knew of him by name. His family lived in a great house an hour's march up the vale from the town, and I readied myself for the task of bearing the tidings of his death to them. I told the sergeant that I would not hold the men to the duty of accompanying us on the last part of the journey if they wanted to depart with their loved ones. He put it to them, and I was heartened when all of them to a man insisted on seeing Berenion home, and we were joined by the men of the garrison and their captain. I had recovered somewhat on the journey, walking a little further each day, and now I walked at the head of our solemn file with the captain and sergeant through the heat of a late summer afternoon, along a road that reminded me a good deal of the abandoned roads in the vales back home.
The house too, was uncannily similar, and was just as Berenion had described it, built stoutly on four sides with an arch and gate around a central courtyard. As we approached through the meadows, the members of the household poured out through the archway and stood in front of the gate waiting for us to arrive. I gathered myself up to break the sad news to the family gathered there, and saw a tall well dressed woman with elegant features who could only be his sister sobbing, anticipating what I was about to tell her. The presence of the wagon and so many men at arms could only mean one thing. I signalled for the column to halt and stepped forward.
"My Lady Lenthel, I must bring you the saddest tidings, for your brother, the Lord Berenion of Northford is fallen, and we have brought him home to lie with his fathers. He was the finest and bravest of men, and died of wounds sustained in battle fighting against bravely and fiercely against overwhelming odds. All who knew him honoured and revered him, and I was proud to serve under him". The woman began to weep uncontrollably, and others around her, also weeping, gathered around her to comfort her. The man who had been standing next to her, who I judged must be her husband, and who Berenion had taken a strong dislike to took charge of the situation and replied. He was a Hillman from the look of him, once handsome but now long gone to seed with the sour expression of one who considered himself hard done by. "So it has come to pass. I fear he is overdue for the earth if you have brought him so far, let the thing be done now without delay. He bore me no love, so I leave the duty to you to discharge as you see fit". I was taken aback by this dismissal, for as I understood it he was now master of the family holdings by marriage, and it should have been him who laid his brother by marriage to rest, regardless of any ill feeling between them.
But I did not shirk the duty which had been placed upon me. I thanked the soldiers who had accompanied us from the town for their honouring of Berenion and released them from their service, unless any wished to remain. Those who had marched with me from Northford bore the body reverently from the wagon, and I asked the weeping Lady to guide us to the burial ground. Once there I set to with the others and we dug his grave as the sun began to sink into the west. When all was ready I spoke of our departed brother, of his qualities and the life he had led, and then I said the formal words of departure and we laid him in the earth. I was one of the youngest there, but had already performed the same duty for countless men I had lost in forest clearings and on bare hillsides, and I felt I did him justice nonetheless. And when all was done the Lady implored me to remain there as a guest under her roof for the night, and I dismissed the remainder of my companions, wishing them a joyful return to their families. I was weary now, but glad that I had been able to do what I had done for the man who had given me another chance and become my guide and true friend.
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