79. Chapter 78
Once out on the East Road and clear of the gates we mounted and attempted to ride the horses, and I found that the Ostler had been as good as his word and mine was calm and docile despite her size. She was also apparently disinclined to move at anything more than a steady walk, which I rather approved of. I felt very far above the ground, and soon found new muscles beginning to ache, but I had still not fully recovered and it was still easier than marching on foot. My companions also fared reasonably well on their smaller horses and we made good time that day, halting for the night while it was still relatively early and pitching camp well away from the road. Somewhat sore and stiff, we did not light a fire but had the novelty of a tent and good rations and it would have been almost agreeable in other circumstances. The horses were hobbled and tethered as we had been instructed and left to graze and we drew lots for the watches. I was fortunate and got the first, so slept on afterwards without interruption, but all my thoughts and dreams were of one thing only.
We struck camp the following morning having gathered and tacked up the horses with some difficulty, but fortunately one of our number had grown up on a farm that used oxen as draught animals and was a little more adept with the harness than the rest of us, but even so it was already much later than I would have liked when we resumed our journey on the road. The weather was kind, and there was already a hint of spring in the air. I was growing more used to being up on a horse, and though it was necessary to keep a watch we were still far from any known enemy and I allowed my thoughts to wander back to the events of two nights before. Never has a man been so blessed and cursed! I thought to myself, but at least I could face my fate having known true happiness with the woman I loved, and that was still worth a great deal. My reverie was interrupted by the gradual realisation that I could hear a song on the breeze, so quiet I wondered if it was imagined at first, but no imagination of ordinary men could have rendered such music. It grew louder, until all my companions fell silent, spellbound by the beauty and sadness in the voices that sang it. Then it stopped suddenly and we saw at last whence it had come. Behind us on the road, and gaining rapidly on us, a company of folk on foot came into view, clad in grey, and I knew at once what they must be. There was no doubt they had already seen us, but they must have decided we posed no threat to them. I ordered my companions to steer their mounts off the road to let these travellers pass, and they did so with a little effort and one or two curses.
The company numbered about twenty, and as they came up the road I saw that they wore the same garb and had the same look about them as the Elder Folk we had met at the Inn of the Black Bear all those years before. Just like those that we had seen then they appeared to take little interest in us as they approached, but moved by the beauty of their song I stood up in my stirrups and greeted them in Sindarin in the same form of words that I had heard Daeron use. They halted and their leader turned to me and bowed, and once again I marvelled at their eyes, so deep and full of wisdom. "Rarely do we meet other travellers in these lands, and even rarer are those who remember the old customs and the tongue you speak. We thank you for your courtesy". He bowed again and then they resumed their march and were soon gone. I think we all hoped that they would resume their singing, but if they did it must have been when we were no longer in earshot, and I can only think that it was nhad not been intended for our ears. My companions regarded me with new found wonder, impressed that I could speak 'elf' but when they asked me about it I assured them that most of the high and mighty in Lastbridge would have been able to do the same, and that drew some further ribald comment about my true status and qualities.
Once again we made good time but when we reached Halfway Hill I decided to continue for another hour before we made camp, and again we spent the night well away from the road and lit no fire. The weather continued to be clement, but our impending approach to Amon Sul and the raw memory of the battle and the suffering that had followed meant our mood became increasingly sombre, and we spoke little. The following day was also uneventful, though we were now well within range of any patrols, and I ordered the banners unfurled and carried for any such eventuality. That night we camped by the road and lit a fire, and left the banners planted in full view. We ate well and I permitted the men to drink the small amount of ale that we had found in our packs, for it might well be our last evening, and sometime tomorrow we knew we would meet the forces of Cardolan and Ardethain and that our fate would be decided.
That morning dawned bright and clear, and as I had drawn the straw for the final watch this time I saw the sky gradually lighten and saw the sun creep above the horizon. I savoured every moment, convinced that this might well be the last dawn I would ever see, and that we would be slain or captured and executed. But now the day we had dreaded was upon us I found a reserve of inner calm I could draw on, just as I had often been able to before a battle. I roused the men, and we went through the routine of breaking our fast, preparing the horses and striking camp as we had done during the preceding two days. Before we set off I spoke to my companions thanking them most sincerely once again for their courage in choosing to accompany me, asking them for one last effort and promising them that I would bring them home safely again if it were in my power. Then we mounted, with varying degrees of grace and proficiency, and were on our way. The banner bearers rode with me on either hand, and we had all made an effort to look the part, for I knew appearances were everything when carrying out the sort of task we had been charged with.
We reached the site of the final camp not long after noon, and by mid afternoon crested the rise that brought the tower into view in the distance. None of us spoke, and the tension in the faces of my companions was unmistakeable, but we continued unchallenged along the road, banners aloft. Despite all my efforts to remain calm my stomach was in knots as we descended into the vale towards the battlefield and approached the bridge over the stream. The ground had been churned over large areas to either side of the road, and here and there the debris of battle, helms, shields and belts, or the odd pack or cloak lay strewn here and there where they had been dropped in the heat of battle. But of the fallen there was no sign, save a number of long mounds standing either side of the road covered in freshly disturbed earth. On the summit of each stood a stone, on which runes had been cut, and when we halted at the first I saw from the inscription that our own dead lay beneath. I felt a little surprised and grateful that our fallen had been dealt with with so much respect, and their final resting place duly marked. The other mounds we passed covered more of our men, and finally, where the ground began to rise a single mound set apart held the dead of our enemy. The disparity in numbers made it clear what a terrible defeat had been inflicted on us there.
As we crested the rise on the far side of the vale and the tower came into view again, we saw that the road now ran straight and true towards the base of the hill on which it stood. A small town lay at its foot, and the tower itself was surrounded by battlements and fortifications, just as had been described to us during the preparation for the assault. We had not gone far when we spied horsemen coming down the road toward us at speed, and I called my own men to a halt and waited for them to reach us, my heart pounding in my chest. There were about thirty of them, the same type that had wreaked havoc in our ranks on the battlefield, and they dropped back to a trot as they closed in on us, levelling their lances and fanning out into a half circle around us before halting. My horse became restless and shied as they did so, and for one terrible moment I almost lost my balance and fell to the ground, but fortunately I recovered and my dignity was preserved. We had not immediately been cut down, and that was as good a start as we could possibly have hoped for. Now it fell to me to attempt to carry out my duty, and I signalled to my companion to pass me the white flag. I took it from him and rode forward a few steps towards the waiting lance tips. "I, Esteldir Of Northford, come under a flag of parley to speak for Elion son of Eldaer, King of Rhudaur. I therefore request safe passage for myself and my men".
The lead rider gave a signal and in a moment their lances were raised, and then he removed his helm. He was a handsome man, his close cropped hair and beard beginning to turn grey, and his eyes betrayed bemusement as he spoke. "So be it, we shall honour your flag of parley as custom demands, and we will take you to speak to the Prince at the tower. But you must forgive my impertinence, for your kingdom must have fallen lower than any could have imagined if all they are able to muster for such a task is a boy on an old nag and a handful of men on ponies". A ripple of laughter went round his men at this, but rather than take offence at the slight I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. "Perhaps it has, but I must do as I am bid, and I am given authority to speak for my King". The knight smiled in turn at this, nodded, then gave another command and his riders wheeled round and formed up into two lines, one to either side of us as an escort. He himself came alongside me and gave a small salute. "Captain Amdir of the Third Horse at your service. You did well to stay on just then, and I will refrain from letting my men trot their horses back along the road as it seems clear enough that it might well cause yours to fall from your mounts". He laughed again and I gave him a rueful smile. "I pray for your sake that you can speak better than you ride, for Prince Argeleb does not suffer fools, and may refuse to treat with an embassy of such low standing. I do not doubt your sincerity, or that you have the credentials you claim, but I fear that you have been ill used by those who sent you here in such a fashion". I did not reply to this, but hoped my expression would be enough of an answer.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.