76. Chapter 75
I marched back into Lastbridge at the head of the men that I had led back from the battle and was proud that I had been able to bring them safely home. The guards at the West Gate looked on us with sympathy and respect and saluted as we passed, and after we had passed over the bridge the crowds in the streets beyond parted and fell silent. We made our way wearily up the steep road to the Fortress, and when I announced myself at the gatehouse I was ordered to report to the citadel without delay. I parted with my men, and told them to prepare a space for me at table, for I did not mean to tarry long.
I made my way over to the Citadel, and once I had reported to the gatehouse a servant came to collect me. I was taken to somewhere near the Great Hall where the feast had been held little more than two weeks previously, but this time I was left waiting in an antechamber and was offered something to eat, which I accepted with grateful enthusiasm. I had barely finished the small but delicious meal of bread and meat when another servant, dressed in finer livery this time, opened the other doors and asked me to enter the chamber beyond. I guessed I must be somewhere in the royal apartments, for although the room was not especially large it was very comfortably furnished and well lit by ornate glazed windows. At the far end another set of doors flanked by guards stood open, and I passed through and found myself in the throne room.
It was a smaller version of the Great Hall, and on the dais at the far end sat King Elion of Rhudaur, slumped uncomfortably on his throne and flanked by his advisors, chief amongst them Lord Barachon. Lord Berthedir stood below them, a white bandage wound about his brow and his face a mask of pain and sadness, and the remainder of the room was filled with many well dressed men and women of sombre countenance, who I assumed must be courtiers. There was a murmur of dismay when I appeared in the doorway and all fell silent, and suddenly I realised I how dreadful I must look, for I had been given no opportunity to make myself presentable.
The servant asked me my name in hushed tones, and then announced me to those within. "Esteldir Of Northford, Captain of the Northford Company". Berthedir looked surprised, and after a moment the King gestured for me to come forward with a weak wave of the hand. I marched up the aisle to the space in front of his throne, saluted and went down on my knees as practice demanded. I looked upon the King close to for the first time and was shocked at how ill he looked, his hands trembled and his eyes were filled with pain and sadness. He did not move or speak but gestured for me to rise and then gave another wave of the hand as if to command me. Barachon spoke up on his behalf. "Hail, Captain of Northford. His Highness Elion wishes to hear your tale, late come as you are from the battle of Amon Sul, especially if you have any news of the fate of Prince Eldir?"
"My Leige" I began. "My Company was in the van as we marched onto the battlefield, behind the Prince and his Lords, and we were in the centre when we formed up. He was in front of us with the rest of the horse when the mounted knights of the enemy charged down on us and we were hard beset. I did not see what happened to him after that but I have to admit that I do fear the worst. After that we were engaged by their foot soldiers and archers, but I am proud to say that the Northford and Watersmeet companies at least held their ground until it was clear the day was lost and the rest of the host was fleeing the field. I feared we would be cut off and taken, as I guess much of our left flank was, so I ordered a retreat and tried to lead my men northward up the vale rather than back along the road. I fear my men paid dearly for their valour, for out of the best part of two hundred who marched westward only fifty have returned with me. The others who came back with us were from other companies. I led them through the wild for three days before we returned to the road and found dead horses there, and they provided us with the meal we were desperately in need of." There was a gasp of dismay and a sudden gale of outraged chatter from the courtiers which was silenced by another gesture from the King. He looked on me with sympathy in his expression and I resumed. "After that there is little more to tell, we continued on our journey until we were met by our own men guarding the East Road yesterday, and knew we were saved. I am sorry I cannot bring you better tidings".
The King stirred himself in his seat with some effort, and spoke directly to me at last in slowly and deliberately. "I thank you and your men for your brave and loyal service". He stopped for a moment, for the effort seemed to cost him greatly. "Your courage and devotion to your duty are an example to us all. I recall your father was a fine soldier too and you do his memory much credit". I was greatly surprised and touched by this last statement. He turned to those who stood by his side. "See that this man has his needs attended to." Then he slumped back on his throne, seemingly spent, and dismissed me with a nod.
I noticed as I was escorted back the way I had come that Berthedir looked furious but I could not at that moment divine why that should be the case. I was taken along several corridors and up a flight of steps to a small chamber with a table set in the middle of it. Presently a large bucket of warm water was brought in along with some cloths and fresh garments and I to my delight and great relief I was left to wash and dress in clean gear. Afterwards the servants brought me what can only be described as a feast, for I have rarely eaten such fine food or been so hungry for it, and I fell on it with a vengeance, eating till I could no longer face another mouthful. I hoped that my men had eaten half as well, and thinking of them began to fill one of the washing cloths with the remainder of the banquet. I was interrupted by a knock at the door, and after a moment's hesitation decided to brazen it out with my food filled bundle. I asked whoever had knocked to enter.
A woman, a little older perhaps than I, beautifully dressed and very comely with fair hair entered the room, but she was not alone, and the person who I longed to see more than any other in the world came in behind her. I leapt to my feet in joyful surprise and my bundle fell open on the table, but I knew I could not say the words I wanted to utter at that moment and instead I kept my counsel and bowed low, guessing the fair haired woman to be Princess Elien. "Your Highness, my lady" I said, feeling awkward and confused, but she smiled kindly. "Be at ease Captain, and continue with whatever you were doing". She looked quizzically at the pile of food in the cloth on the table. "As you see I have brought Idhrethil with me, who you already know, for if it please you we would hear more of the battle and what transpired afterwards if you are not too weary?" Our eyes met, and I looked once again into that face, grave and beautiful, the one I had longed so much to see again during our flight eastward. She looked a little tired and careworn, and her dark eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. I could not help myself, but went to her, took her in my arms and held her tight to me. She sobbed a little as she lay in my arms, her heart thumping against me through her gown, and when I finally remembered we were in company we parted a little awkwardly there were tears running down my cheeks too. "I thought I would never see you again" she said softly. "I promised I would come back" I replied, smiling kindly.
The Princess however seemed completely unperturbed by this exchange, and gestured for us all to be seated at the table. I began my tale again, and the two women listened to me with grave expressions on their faces, especially when it came to my account of the battle. I did not stint on the detail, and when the Princess asked me about Eldir and what might have befallen him I told her that I feared our horsemen had been overwhelmed in the first charge of the enemy and that it had shown true courage for him to lead his men from the front in battle. "Unlike my husband then" she said tartly. "He should have been at my brother's side, but somehow his business took him to the rear and he was forced to flee for his life". I suddenly understood the import of the words I had spoken and the replies I had received in the throne room and thought that if Berthedir had not been my enemy before, then he most certainly would be now. I continued with my tale, speaking of the valour of my men, of the full horror of the battle, and of the hardships of the long retreat home that had followed it and as she had done once before Idhrethil took hold of my hand, but this time did not let go.
"My husband did not return from the battle" she said quietly, but she did not look at me as she spoke. "Have you any news of him?" I pondered for a moment before replying, for I had not known this to be the case. "There were some Lastbridge companies alongside us on our left hand at the start of the battle, and one of them could well have been Belegon's, but they were overwhelmed by the men of Cardolan and I fear a good number were encircled and captured. What their fate was I do not know, but it could be that he still lives, and I pray that he will be returned safe to you." The last part was not spoken sincerely, but I felt it was good manners to say it given who was present. Elien however surprised me with her reply. "For myself, and the love I bear my friend Idhrethil I pray that he will not, for he is an unworthy brute". I felt Idhrethil's hand tighten on mine as the Princess continued. "I deem that she has spoken truly of you, that you are a faithful and honourable man, so I will speak freely. We have both been cursed by misfortune in the choice of husband that was made for us, and I am doubly cursed because mine was returned to me when he should instead have died bravely on the battlefield at my beloved brother's side. But if my dearest friend has a chance to follow her heart, even if it is just for a short while, then I will do all in my power to see that she may. But now I fear we must both depart ere we are missed". With that they both rose, and once again I held my beloved in my arms for a few moments, and they were happier ones this time. Then I turned to the Princess, knelt and kissed her hand and thanked her sincerely and she smiled radiantly at me, gesturing for me to rise at once, before her expression suddenly changed and she asked me "just what are you doing with that food?" I admitted that I was pilfering the remains of the meal to take back to my men and she laughed and said I was a kind captain indeed. With that they left the chamber and I was alone again.
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