73. Chapter 72
Behind me in the hall I heard the noise subside, someone speaking and then applause which gradually melted into a repeated chant of "Rhudaur, Rhudaur" from those assembled within. I guessed that the King and his household had descended from the dais and were now leaving the hall. After a few minutes from my hidden vantage point the dark of terrace I saw the King appear, walking slowly with his helpers, a blissful smile on his ruined face, but then he was quickly obscured from view by others in his party and I turned away. The terrace overlooked another courtyard, surrounded on all sides by windowed walls, and for all I knew it might have been the one where Angon and I had shared lunch three years previously, but I could not tell for sure. I had a very bad feeling about the adventure we were just about to embark on, though the idea of crossing the river and travelling west would have thrilled me in any other circumstances. I could only think that the King was indeed dying, and wanted to seize one last chance to avenge the defeat that had nearly cost him his life in his youth. It made no sense otherwise.
"Esteldir?" A soft voice shook me suddenly from my gloomy reverie, and I spun round to see who the speaker could be. There, framed in the light from the doorway, stood Idhrethil, so beautiful and sad that I could hardly draw breath. "My lady?" I replied, the words almost sticking in my throat as I uttered them. She approached and clasped my hands in hers, smiling. "How fare you? So much time has passed, and so much has changed, little of it for the better. I cannot tarry here, for I will soon be missed, but I will say this. I fear greatly for the outcome of this expedition, and for all those who must take part in it. I pray that you will stay safe and come back to us". Her eyes were deep pools and they brimmed with tears, and overwhelmed with feeling for her and no longer caring about the outcome I let go of her hands, threw my arms around her and held her tightly, and to my undying joy she reciprocated enthusiastically and buried her head in my shoulder and began to sob. The scent of her hair was intoxicating and I smoothed it gently to console her. After a moment she drew away from me, smiling sadly and with tears running down her cheeks. "I must go" she said softly, and kissed me gently on the lips. "Stay safe for me". She pulled away, wiped her face and turned away, walking quickly away back into the antechamber.
I stood for a long moment trying to take in the import of what had just happened, and then fell to my knees in the darkness with my back against the carved stone parapet and wept myself for a little while. All the anguish and doubt I had felt for so long had all been in vain, for it was now clear as day to me that everything that I had felt for her had been returned in equal measure. I became calm, rose to my feet and composed myself. I very much had something to live for again, and I would return safe to her. Regardless of circumstances I would be there for her, and that would be enough.
Early the following morning we assembled in the great yard in the dark in the pouring rain. It was not an auspicious start, and my men at least had taken the idea of marching on Amon Sul with as much incredulity as I had. I did not attempt to paint the picture any brighter for them, but told them that it would be a quick march and surprise attack. One of the old veterans piped up with "haven't they got the magic stone? Won't they see us coming?" to general laughter and I confess I joined in and replied that I hoped they had forgotten to look in it, but I thought the man did have a point. We marched down through the empty streets of the town, through the square and across the ancient bridge. The guards on the West Gate wished us luck as we passed and then we were clear of the walls and marching at last through the former lands of Western Rhudaur.
As the gloomy daylight grew I could see that we passed through a hilly land that still showed traces of former habitation, a low stone wall here and a pile of rubble there amongst the scrub and thicket. The road though ran largely as straight and true here as it did to the east, and despite the neglect and lack of use was still in good repair and largely free of encroaching grass and weed. Despite the poor weather we still made good time but it was a long while before the first halt was called. We marched in the van of the column behind the Prince and his guard and commanders, who were all mounted on large horses. Scouts ran ahead on foot, skirting the road to check for signs of any enemy, and returned periodically to report, but it was unlikely that we would meet anyone hostile so close to the river.
The rain never let up and by the time we halted for the night and set up camp under the eaves of a wood we were all cold and miserable, and the lack of a camp fire to take the edge off our discomfort made it all the worse. It did stop raining overnight, but the following morning after we had been marching for an hour or so it returned and continued relentlessly. The second day's march ended up being very much like the first, except that we now passed through wild empty lands and the monotony meant that any pleasure I had gained from seeing new places soon wore off and I ended up oblivious of my surroundings, trudging along trying to stay warm.
Late in the afternoon that day we rounded a slight bend in the road and saw a low hill topped with a ruin ahead, with the traces of more old buildings lower down and to either side of the road. I assumed this to be what remained of the old way station and village of Halfway Hill, and thought that my uncle must be buried somewhere nearby. The rain did not relent, but I received the chance of a brief respite when I was ordered to Berthedir's encampment to receive my orders for the assault on the watchtower. There would be no avoiding him now, and if he remembered me then there were certain to be some awkward questions. However I was a captain now, with an exemplary record, and there was always a chance the prince would vouch for me if I needed it.
I entered the tent with the others who had been called at the same time and found not only Berthedir within, but the Prince and also Belegon and Edwenion. When it was our turn I bowed and announced myself, and a look of recognition and surprise immediately crossed several faces within. However he continued with the briefing, telling us what was known of the tower and its defences, how the battle would be conducted and assigning the Northford company a position right in the centre of the assault, just as I had expected. Once everybody had received their orders we were dismissed, in time for the next group, and I turned to go, half hoping nothing would be said, but I was to be disappointed.
"You there, of Northford, a word please" said Berthedir tartly. "I heard you announced at the feast, but could not credit that it could possibly be the same man, and that it must be another of the same name. But it seems I was mistaken in the matter. Explain how one moment you are reduced to the ranks in disgrace and presumed lost in battle and yet you turn up several years later as a captain in Northford?" I held his gaze levelly and without fear, for I felt great anger towards all of those present. "It is so my Lord" I replied, "I fought honourably at Deepvale, though none remain to vouch for me, and only escaped death by a mischance. I tried to return to High Burgh but found the road well guarded and perilous, so attempted to reach Northford instead and succeeded thanks to the help of loyal Hill Folk who saved me from the snows and sent me on my way again when I had recovered. Lord Berenion wrote to you, and you corroborated my story, and as he was in need of men then engaged me to his own service rather than send me back whence I had come, as was his right. I have served loyally since, first as lieutenant to the late Captain Arahael, and Prince Eldir who stands here present commended us at the East Gate of Northford after we captured and opened it to lift the seige". The Prince, gazed hard at me, as if trying to remember but said "it is so, that was a great deed". Berthedir looked discomfited at this turn of events, but I spoke directly to the Prince before he had the chance to say anything further. "May I return to my men my leige? They are weary from marching and we have much to do". He assented with a nod, and I bowed, turned on my heels and left as quickly as I decently could, meeting the next group of captains gathering outside for their briefing. I nodded acknowledgement to them and then went on my way, filled with renewed hatred for both Berthedir and especially Belegon, who had regarded me with undisguised loathing all the while I had been in the tent. If only he knew what I knew, then he would truly have cause to hate me, I thought to myself and smiled ruefully.
We marched for another two days in that rain, and halted early on the last, within two hours march of our destination, but hopefully out of sight. The scouts reported that all was quiet ahead, and that there was no sign that we had been discovered. However the men were cold, wet, hungry and already half exhausted as a result of the long march such bad conditions, and I knew that my own men were not in a fit state to give the best account of themselves if it was going to come to a fight. However I did my best to raise their spirits and did what I had always done on the eve of a battle, walking from group to group, speaking to them, encouraging them and making sure my sergeants understood what was expected. Satisfied I had done all I could I settled down for the night, trying as best I could to get comfortable in my sodden gear, but I slept fitfully at best and woke frequently, shivering in my blanket. When dawn came it was a relief to be able to stand and try and get warm, and I saw that at long last the clouds had cleared away and that a watery sun was climbing into a blue sky at our backs as we looked westward along the road. I had long been able to remain calm the morning before a battle, but that day I felt nothing but trepidation, for everything about this journey so far had made me uneasy and I feared death lay at the end of it.
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