61. Chapter 60
Angon's craggy face was now heavily lined and framed with a white beard which accentuated the impression of great age, but his eyes were still shrewd and lively, and after we broke apart and he stood back to look me up and down for a moment. "I may be an old man" he said, "and the years have worn me down greatly, but last time I saw you, you were but a youth. I see those years have laid a heavy burden on you too, and there is much hardship and suffering in your face. Pray tell me your tale, and of what has passed in the North, for we have heard such terrible tidings since the Prince returned. But I am so happy to see you that I forget my good manners!". He dismissed and thanked the servant, and then turned to the woman, who had taken a few steps towards us from the table by the window and stood, hands clasped in front of her, smiling.
She was dark haired, handsome and well dressed, and I immediately took her to be someone of importance, but I also had the feeling I had seen her somewhere before, though I could not for the life of me think where. Then it came back to me with a jolt, for this was none other than the companion to the Princess who had caught my eye when she rode past as we had climbed the road back up to the Fortress that freezing night so long ago, and who I had questioned Daeron about . She caught my gaze and held it steadily, and I remembered why I had been so taken by her. "Lady Idhrethil" said Angon, "may I introduce to you Esteldir son of Galdirion of Rushwater Vale in the Northern Marches, who was my ward". I bowed, and she spoke, in a voice that was a little deeper than I expected, but clearly touched with the accent of the north. "He has often spoken of you" she said, "and I am glad to meet you, and will also be pleased to hear your tidings. For my family also once had a holding in the Vales, and mayhap we are distant kin".
Close to she was shorter than I had imagined and her face a little older and less perfect but all the more beautiful for it, and I found myself enchanted by her. My heart pounded in my chest and I felt suddenly awkward and tongue tied and feared I would blush if I tried to meet her gaze again. This was something new and terrible for me for no woman had had this effect on me before, I who had never lacked for companions, be they tavern girls, farmer's daughters or a lonely widow or two in the town. I had always tried to treat them kindly, but it was invariably they who had strong feelings for me, and not the reverse, so it was an uncomfortable surprise to find myself at such a sudden disadvantage in this matter. The spell was broken by a distant hour bell sounding in one of the towers, and a look of disappointment fell over Idhrethil's face. "Forgive me, for much as I would like to remain here I must now depart to my duties. For how long do you remain here in Lastbridge?" I found my tongue at last. "Only today my lady, for an escort party is leaving for Bearcliffe tomorrow, and I must accompany them. For they will be waiting for me back in Northford, and I must not tarry while they labour". I found myself trying to think of reasons to cancel my departure, but she replied, directing her question at Angon. "May I come to your rooms tonight and dine with you?" She turned her attention to me. "For I very much wish to hear you tale too, and speak with you of the lands where I spent my childhood, if you are willing?" Angon gave his immediate assent, and I did not need to give mine, and she bowed and left us.
Angon turned to me with a twinkle in his eye. "She is fair, is she not, the Lady Idhrethil? She comes to spend time with me often of late, and I am as grateful for her company as she may be for mine. For here we can both speak plainly and escape the artifice and spite of the royal household and we often study the beautiful and unregarded books here together . For I deem she is not happy, she was widowed young and has no means of her own, and though she is of noble blood her duties as companion to the princess have are tantamount to that of a servant. Not only that but she has disdained all suitors, finding them all shallow, unpleasant or lacking wit, and now spiteful tongues name her the Lady Icicle and such. Were I not a few years younger I would wipe the smirks from their faces… but enough of this. You are returned to us, whole and hale, and I thank the Valar for this blessing. Come, I have a small repast and some wine here, if you are so minded we will go down into the small courtyard below and share it while you tell me your tale.
I was agreeable to the food if not the wine, though it was rare to find it in those days, and we went through a small door in the wall and descended a stair that brought us out into what would once have been a fine ornamental garden, hemmed in on all sides by tall walls and steep roofs. The fountain in the centre was long dried up and covered in lichen and the rest of the place was a sad wilderness of dead weeds and moss, but it was still a charming spot, and we sat down on a stone bench in a bower. Angon shared out what to my rustic tastes was a very fine meal indeed with trembling hands, and I ate it with relish despite my present fragile condition. I began my tale with the first march on High Burgh, the battle and the atrocities that followed it at Greenhow and the winter that followed, sparing no details. He shook his head and grew very sombre. "We heard a different tale altogether here afterwards, but the truth cannot be buried for long when there have been so many witnesses. Many rumours have circulated since, fuelling discontent amongst those with Hillman blood in their veins, which you now confirm the truth of. In these desperate times we are led by men without honour or scruple, and it will be our undoing. I was there when they brought the Chieftain back here, a man who had more honour and courage than all of them put together. He died well, but any hope of a better future for our land died with him".
I composed myself and continued with my tale, speaking of the misery I had endured trapped in High Burgh and my eventual disgrace and reduction to the ranks when I had broken. I told of my fortuitous escape from the annihilation of my company at Deepvale, my wanderings in the Shaws and my rescue from certain death by what turned, by an incredible twist of fate to be my mother's kin. I spared no detail here either, repeating the tale of my Grandfather travelling to Northford to rescue me and being turned away from the gates of the Keep in Northford empty handed. I spoke of their simple way of life, their honesty and generosity, and the beauty of the vale in which they lived. What I left unspoken hung heavy in the air between us for a few long moments, and then I could contain myself no more. "Why? I need to know why you denied me the right to grow up with my own kin, loved and cherished, preferring instead a cold stone castle full of soldiers and orphans for me? Why?" My voice cracked as I uttered the last, the pain of the discovery made raw again. Angon sat in silence, like a statue, and I noticed his hands were trembling again. Then a single tear coursed down his craggy cheek. "Forgive me Esteldir, for this was a decision made in haste that I have long debated. I was a proud and stubborn man, and could not bring myself to think of Carandir's heir growing up a farm boy in some far forgotten valley. You were from a family of fine soldiers and I saw that as your destiny, and so it has turned out to be, for you stand here before me the equal of any of them. I cannot however look you in the eye say that I did what was best for you, though we cannot know how things would have gone had things been set otherwise. It must also be remembered that there were always plenty in the Shaws who were ready to take against anyone with the blood of the west in their veins, those of supposed high blood in the lowlands are not the only ones guilty of such faults".
It was my turn to be silent and mull over his words for now I had heard what he had to say I knew that there was a deal of truth in them. My mixed blood had already denied me the choice to remain with my family, and even if that obstacle had been overcome there was no reason to suppose that I would not have been pressed into service fighting for a different master, since the farm would always have been Aelred's by right. My heart softened and I laid my hand on the old man's shoulder, for however much I yearned for my kin and what I could have had, I could now find it in me to forgive Angon, and I told him so. He thanked me in turn, and then pleased to be able to change the subject of the discussion asked me to continue with my tale.
I told him of my return to Northford, my imprisonment and the kindness and compassion of Berenion. I told him of the History Of Rhudaur I had been lent, and he smiled, saying it was one of his favourites as well and he possessed a copy in his library there too if I wished to reacquaint myself with it. I spoke of my being freed and my service during the quiet years before the fall of Northford, and I thought it must have pained Angon to hear of so many of the things he had fought for and maintained in our defence being abandoned, but I have no doubt he understood it could not have been otherwise. And then, with the pain and horror of it all still fresh in my own mind I recounted the events of the battle and the terrible siege that followed, the burning of Northford, our eventual relief, the sally to open the gates and the death of Berenion.
I finished my tale, and we sat in silence for a while. "So it is all true then," he said quietly "Northford lies in ruins and the north is lost".