22. Chapter 21
So began my life as a fully fledged soldier of Rhudaur. For the first few days we were employed in construction and improvement work to the camp, which for our squad meant digging a lot of trenches. What I did notice straight away was how much better drilled these soldiers were compared to what I had been used to in training. When we formed up and were put through our morning drills it was a real effort to make sure we didn't make a mistake and draw attention to ourselves. I managed to keep up but poor Radulf was not so lucky, and got bawled at loudly by Sergeant Túon several times for his troubles, who in the manner another sergeant cursed the poor quality of the northerners who had been inflicted on him.
Rumours were rife that our new commander was planning to send his enlarged forces on a foray across the river to test the enemy's strength and show them his intent before winter set in. However when our orders came through we found out that we would not be involved, much to our dismay. Túon's squad had been assigned the far more mundane job of guarding the woodcutters who ranged up the Hoarwell valley feeding the town's endless appetite for firewood. When the day arrived Túon himself did not seem best pleased either but ordered us to form up and march smartly up the road to where the woodcutters and their carts would be waiting for us.
Behind us most of the rest of the camp was preparing to march off in the other direction. It was cold and windy and looked like it was going to rain but in truth I was actually quite happy to be doing some real soldiering at long last. We made our way up the old road and passed several farms. The first few were inhabited but as we got further from the town they had been abandoned and a few burnt out too, however some of the nearer fields were still being worked by folk travelling out daily from Northford. Further on the road soon dwindled to nothing more than a track, the forest closed in around us and the river, trammelled once again beneath steep rocky banks ran fast and fierce down below. After crossing an ancient and mossy stone bridge over a powerful tributary stream our column halted, and we were ordered to pair up and fan out along the road and up into the wood. Radulf and I left the road and headed uphill into the forest, with our fellows doing likewise to either side of us. The woodcutters followed and set to work, the tap tap tap of their axes adding to the rhythm of the rain that now fell dripping through the branches and on to our heads. I sat on a fallen trunk, staring uphill into the gloom, shield on one arm and spear clutched in the other. Túon would walk by periodically to make sure we were alert and about our work or offer words of encouragement. My initial enthusiasm was soon replaced by boredom, but as woodcutting parties had been attacked in the area recently we had to remain alert. As the afternoon wore on the sound of the axes gradually stopped and after the carts had been loaded we got the order we had been longing for to stand down and return to the road. When we finally reached the half empty camp and sat down for our evening meal we heard that Lord Angon had left the town for Lastbridge with an escort that morning, riding his old black mare, the same one he once sat me on. Apparently word had spread and the townspeople had lined his route and applauded him as he went past. I was glad when I heard this and hoped that it had lifted his spirits.
The next few days all followed pretty much the same pattern, we would march up the valley with the woodcutters and their carts and then spend a dull day staring into the forest, before returning to the camp at night. I think most of us wished that we had gone with the main host for some proper soldiering, especially when we heard from the Keep that they had met and defeated a large force of orcs in one of the vales and were pursuing the remnants westward. The following day began in exactly the same way as all the others, although the rain had finally stopped. The weather had instead turned bright and cold, with an early frost on the ground and a cold mist floating over the river. We went a little further on past the old stone bridge, all the easy wood having been worked out of that locality by now, to an area below a small grey crag and several large tumbled boulders covered in moss. Radulf and I set ourselves up on one of these and prepared to commence our watch. We had a good view up the hill, which was strewn with more boulders, some the size of cottages, and the thought did cross my mind that they would provide a lot of cover for anyone wanting to attack us. It was an uncomfortable thought, and I resolved to pay as much attention as I possibly could. Tuon began making his rounds and the woodcutters began their noisy work.
We had eaten our lunch and the sun was beginning to come round into the west when I thought, or thought I had imagined movement in the gloom amongst some rocks up to our right. Then sunlight glinted briefly on something and before I could cry out or give a warning whistle the air was suddenly filled with the swish and rattle of arrows. I yelled, and heard answering cries, and then there was a damp thud and a crash right at my side and I turned to see Radulf on the ground twitching and thrashing with an arrow buried deep in one eye and blood gouting from the wound. I had been right next to him, and the arrow could so easily have been mine, such are the narrow margins that separate life and death in battle. "Back to the carts!" came a barked order from behind me, and covering myself with my shield as best I could I dropped down off the boulder and carefully retreated. Arrows clattered down around me and one thumped into the thick wooden rim of my round shield, thick and crudely fletched with crow feathers. My two dozen or so comrades were forming up into a defensive line, spears at the ready and I fell in with them beside Túon. He glanced at me "Radulf?" I shook my head mutely and he spat a curse. The woodcutters crouched behind us by their carts, some with axes at the ready. Arrows began to clatter and thump around us, and there was a shriek further down the line and someone crumpled.
Then they were upon us, no more than ten or fifteen of them, shrieking and yelling as they came, visibly faltering when they realised that they had underestimated our numbers, but on they came on nonetheless. We raised a cry and charged them in return, everything had an air of unreality to me. I singled out my chosen foe, and closed in on him, pausing to throw my spear, which missed. I swept out my sword and blocked his first wild swing with a loud clang as we came to blows. He was smaller than me and it became clear very quickly that I was not only stronger but a lot more skilful too. Wild elation rose in me as I realised this and I saw the fear grow in his eyes. Moments later he made a mistake and I saw my chance and drove my sword deep into his chest under the breastbone. No amount of stabbing grain stuffed sacks can prepare you for what that feels like. He dropped his blade, made a gurgling sound, clawed briefly and ineffectually at the sword in his guts and fell back dead with a thump on the forest floor. They say you never forget your first kill on the battlefield, and orc or no I have sometimes wondered who he was, what his story was and what chanced to have brought him there to meet me that day. I had never seen orcs before, and twisted and ugly as they were they were still far more man like than I had expected.
However I had no chance to reflect on any of this at the time, free of my adversary I turned to see Túon clashing with a larger orc, and since I was at his back simply took a good swing and saw my blade bite through his leather breastplate just above his sword belt. As he staggered back under my blow Túon finished him off. Another arrow whistled past and scooping up my spear from where it lay nearby I set off at a run in the direction it had come. The battle rage was on me now, and I knew no fear. The orc archers, three of them and all small and puny creatures, were stood up on the boulders near the spot where Radulf had fallen. I paused for a moment as I closed on them and hurled my spear, and this time it found a mark, catching the leftmost of the three square in the chest as he knocked another arrow, taking him backwards off his feet and off the top of the boulder. One of his companions shrieked and loosed his arrow in my direction and I only just managed to raise my shield in time to block the shot. Even so the heavy iron tip struck it with great force and it pierced it clean through at such a short range. Fortunately it stopped short of any harm and I leapt up onto the boulder and struck down my assailant as he turned to flee. The remaining companion was too quick for me and disappeared into the maze of boulders on the hillside. So ended my first battle, and I fell to my knees suddenly exhausted. Túon and another came running up and he clapped me on the shoulder. "Good work lad" he said, "up you get".
The remainder of the afternoon was spent clearing up the aftermath of the fight. All the orcs save the one who escaped me had perished, but they had made us pay too. Aside of Radulf we had lost two others, and had three wounded, one seriously. The dead men, southerners, were too far from home to send back to their families so Túon ordered us to dig them a grave by the roadside. I was reminded of my uncle at this, and wondered if I might also end up in an unmarked pit by the side of a road in the wild one day. I confirmed that Radulf had no kin that I knew of and nobody waiting for him back in Northford, so he was buried there too with as much dignity as we could muster. The dead orcs however were stripped of their weapons and armour and piled up before being covered with some of the brash the woodcutters had left and burned. We loaded the wounded men and spoils into the woodcutter's carts and set off for home leaving a plume of smoke rising through the treetops into the clear evening sky behind us.