70. Chapter 69
We quickly settled into an uneasy coexistence with our new commander and garrison members, who had not forgiven us for the discourtesies we had subjected them to when they arrived. Fortunately there was room enough for all of us in the Keep and they continued to billet separately from us, although Daelric insisted on taking the Lord's apartments for himself. I had taken the precaution of removing the contents of the library with its numerous ancient and valuable volumes elsewhere before he took possession, but if he objected to or even noticed this appropriation he did not say so.
We were however now beholden to them for our food and supplies as the agreement that had been struck in handing control of the Keep to them now gave High Burgh the responsibility of keeping the garrison supplied rather than Bearcliffe. I was naturally concerned about this in the circumstances and feared that we would be kept short and hungry, but to my surprise we soon found the opposite to be the case. We ate better than we had for a very long time, and the supply trains of laden pack animals came regularly and reliably from the north east. However they were frequently accompanied by further reinforcements to the Hillmen's numbers, and it was not long before we were outnumbered.
Even though Daelric had not used his control of our rations against us, there was still a good deal of mistrust and rivalry, especially on the part of the new arrivals. My dealings with him were kept to a minimum, and the duties of my men limited by choice to sentry duty and menial tasks around the keep. The Hillmen on the other hand, once their numbers were sufficient, resumed patrols in the area and regularly crossed the river and travelling up the vales but if they saw any sign of the enemy they did not report it to us. Although there was little direct threat of hostility from the Hillmen it soon felt as if we were prisoners in our own stronghold. We did not mix with or share any duties with them, I ordered the men to move around the Keep in groups, remain armed at all times and we kept the doors to our halls barred at night and posted guards. I abandoned my room and slept with my men, for those of us who were clearly Dunedain in appearance, myself included, were often on the receiving end of dark looks and muttered threats as we went about our business and I did not wish to risk being murdered in the night, far from help. The men were restive and unhappy, some openly claiming that they had been betrayed and abandoned to their fate by the the King, and since I had great sympathy with their sentiments I did not gainsay or chastise them for doing so. Instead I counselled patience, as we were not as yet directly threatened, nor could we contemplate the disgrace of fleeing our posts in such circumstances, or the mockery of the Hillmen that would follow such an act.
Ironically, though there was never more than guarded caution in my dealings with Daelric I found that he was actually quite a genial and intelligent man, and as far as I could tell was well loved and respected by his own men. In other circumstances I think we might have become friends, but such is the way of it for a soldier, chance and fate dictate who we fight for and make enemies of those who otherwise might have been fast friends. I did notice a few of the Hillmen speaking in familiar North Shaw accents, and was tempted to ask after my family, but refrained, for to do so would not only have revealed my ability to speak their tongue, but also put my family at risk, and me as well, especially if it somehow became known that I had fought at Greenhow.
The year waned, but there had been a good harvest in the Shaws and when the snows came the Keep's storerooms were well stocked and for the first winter in a long time we did not go short or hungry. However the snow made an already bad situation worse, forcing the men to remain largely idle and they became even more restive and despondent. As ever I did my best to keep them occupied, but their frustration eventually boiled over and their was a fight between a small group of my men and some Hillmen who had offended them in some way, and as a result two of the Hillmen were killed. The mood in the Keep immediately turned ugly, and our halls were surrounded by an angry heavily armed mob. The men had barred the doors and were preparing for a fight when Daelric appeared and ordered me to open the door and come forward to explain myself. I knew I had no option but to comply, or face a possible massacre, so I ordered my reluctant men to open the door, which would have afforded little protection to us in any case.
There followed one of the most difficult moments of command I ever had to face. The men involved in the fracas, one of them badly wounded, were brought forward and asked to give their account, along with the surviving members of the group they had faced. It was immediately clear that the attack had been unprovoked, and that the fault lay entirely with my own men, one of whom was a particularly hot headed sergeant who had already caused me a few problems in the past. I knew there could only be one outcome in this case, and Daelric also knew it only too well. I stood frozen, my men at my back, facing him and his soldiers, knowing that things stood on a knife edge. If I refused it would come to a fight, and Daelric would be within his rights to execute anyone who actually survived it as a mutineer, so we would all be doomed. But I also knew that at this moment that my men would not see it that way and would take seeing their brothers, however culpable, handed over to those they saw as the enemy very badly. I let the rising anger I felt at the act of stupidity that had put us all at risk seethe inside me, gritted my teeth, and cursing pronounced sentence on the troublemakers. I told Daelric they were his to take, but justice would have to be swift and clean. Some of my men made as if to defy me but I turned on them in a rage and asked them if they too wished to lose their heads. The condemned men, the hale ones still armed, made as if to fight off any attempt to take them, but I ordered them surrounded and drew my own blade on them. Very fortunately for me, and for all the others, enough men heeded my order and they were disarmed and handed over, cursing and weeping to the Hillmen.
Now heedless for my own safety, I strode after them and loudly demanded of Daelric that justice be served immediately and in my sight, and I followed as the guilty men were dragged to the icy courtyard and executed in turn, their hot blood steaming in the frigid air. When all was done I grimly nodded acknowledgement to Daelric and made my way back to the hall. There had clearly been a heated discussion going on in my absence, for the sudden silence as I entered was deafening. But I vented my rage on them, threatening to have the neck of any one of them who chose to put the rest of us in mortal danger again by disobeying orders. But I also promised them that enough was enough, and I would send word to Bearcliffe as soon as the road became passable again asking for us to be relieved from a situation that was rapidly becoming dangerous and intolerable. Fortunately for me my words appeared to have the desired effect, for none dared openly challenge me. I believe that after they had some time to reflect on what had happened that they may have understood that I had been given little choice but to act as I had.
The thaw came quickly the following spring, and even before I could act myself a very nervous errand rider arrived from Bearcliffe. But to my disappointment he did not seek me out, but went instead to Daelric to deliver his message. My summons came shortly afterwards and I made my way there, flanked by my lieutenants. Daelric was almost jovial, and handed the scroll over to me to read for myself. The order was plain enough, but still came as a shock, for the Northford Company was ordered to decamp with all due haste and march for Lastbridge and Lord Daelric and his Hillmen would continue their duties without us. We would not be replaced.
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