26. Chapter 25
The regular pounding of the rams on the gate was soon mingled with the sounds of distant fighting across the town, it appeared that the main assault on the River Gate had started in earnest. For a while it looked like the battering might be to no avail, but as time went on the stout timbers began to splinter, and the studs began to loosen on the mighty hinges. Eventually one of them gave way and crashed inwards onto the timbers of the barricade to a mighty roar of approval from the Northmen outside. Suddenly they were visible, pale faced, grim and heavily armed. We drew our swords in readiness for the assault, but it did not come at once. There was a clatter of hooves, the enemy ranks parted and the Silver Captain rode up to the breach, apparently keen to be first in. I noted with curiosity that some of the men round him appeared to be as fearful of him as we might be. He drew his sword and ordered the attack, and at the same moment I flung my torch into the oil soused hay. It exploded into a satisfying wall of flame, and once again the vigour of it reminded me for a moment of the terrible night my family perished.
The captain's mount reared and span and he fell to the ground, even as his front line began clambering over the barricade. Some of them were immediately engulfed by the fire and died screaming, the rest fell back, momentarily dismayed. Not for long though, someone amongst them was thinking on his feet and they quickly began clearing a way through the centre of the fire with one of the battering rams. It did not take them long, and through the smoke and flame the Captain came again in his beautifully enamelled armour, sporting the device of a ghostly white tower worked on his breastplate and shield. 'Mine' I commanded, suddenly no longer weary, and strode forward towards him in reply. He hesitated for a moment, obviously surprised and then laughed.and spoke to me in the common tongue, in an accent I did not know. "What's this? A boy? Is that all you have left to defend this dung heap?" He laughed again and came on.
His men, and mine hung back awaiting the outcome, the main battle temporarily suspended. We came together in a furious exchange of blows, and I immediately noticed that his breastplate and helm were scuffed and dented on his shield side and that his shield arm seemed a little stiff, perhaps from his fall. He was also very very good, and well rested, and I hoped that he was not seeing the fear I was feeling rising in my own eyes as I had several times in the eyes of others. I repeatedly turned his blows on my rapidly splintering shield, and was on the defensive almost from the off. But then I managed to land a couple of good blows of my own, and I realised that whilst a man girded in leather was going to need to land a lucky blow in the right place to fell a man clad in steel, that I was able to move much more quickly on my feet. However his next attack split my shield and I staggered back, dropping what remained of it. I heard a quiet groan of dismay rise behind me, but then silenced it with a quick two handed reply on his shield side. I stepped back out of reach of his next swing and went in again, my plain notched blade clanging on the ornate workmanship of his plate and putting an ugly dent in the pale tower. Growing weary I repeated this tactic a couple more times, and felt a little doubt creep into him.
And then, as he swung at me again, I feinted at his shield side then dropped my weight and swung in low on his supporting leg, using my old trick in one last desperate throw of the dice. It worked, taken off guard he toppled onto the cobbles with a crash and a clatter and his sword flew from his gauntleted hand. Spinning on my feet I brought my sword down hard on his gorget, but it only buckled, and he began choking and writhing, clutching at it with his hands whilst blood began seeping from under his helm. I stood over him and finished him through the eye slit in his helm and then he twitched and lay still. There was a moment of shocked silence when time stood still and then a roar of many voices as the main force of Northmen attacked. My fellows tried to close around me but we were beaten back and though I tried to swing my sword we were almost lifted off our feet by the press. I took a glancing axe blow to my helm, which knocked it clean off and rendered me senseless. I fell, and another fell upon me as I went down, but as the world faded I became vaguely aware of more horns sounding, many of them, muffled and far off, and that they sounded like ours. I wondered how this could be for a moment before the darkness took me.
I was not mistaken. Almost too late, the new Lord Of Northford and his host had returned to find their town about to fall into the hands of the enemy. Taken by surprise in their rear, the Northmen of Angmar holding the north bank of the river were quickly overcome, and the crossing recaptured. Seeing their most direct means of escape cut off and the tables turned on them most of the enemy broke and fled, mainly up river, the rest cast away their weapons and threw themselves on the ground instead, hoping for mercy or a quick death. Arahael and the ragged remnant of his forces made a sortie out of the broken River Gate in response and met Nordir and his captains as they came up out of the river, as wet and bedraggled as the lowest foot soldier with dead of the battle all around them. It was not a joyous meeting. Nordir knew he had taken the bait laid by the enemy, overplaying his hand and almost lost everything. The victories in the vales against the orcs had been too easy and the enemy suspiciously reluctant to stand and fight thereafter. They had pursued them for several days into West Rhudaur before Berenion and Daeron, growing increasingly concerned, had counselled a rapid return home, and Nordir had eventually assented. Arahael for his part had divined as much and his words of greeting to his new Lord were full of bitterness and anger. He feared, rightly as it turned out, that the heroism and sacrifice of his men would pass unmarked, for to do otherwise would have highlighted Nordir's folly. The two men, already estranged, became sworn enemies thereafter.
I came too in darkness, my head swimming and all my thoughts in a fog, but surprised to still be alive at all, and all the more surprised to find myself apparently whole, although I could barely breathe. As my mind cleared a little I became aware that I was under a great weight, and after a while I summoned enough strength to free myself from my burden, the corpse of a great Northman with a red beard and eyes still open and full of the terror of his last moments. I was drenched by the blood and filth that had drained from him as he died, and after I rolled his stiffening corpse off me I staggered to my feet and retched, surrounded by a scene of devastation. I staggered across to the tavern wall and slumped against it, exhausted and overwhelmed, and I am not ashamed to admit I broke down and wept then, unable to cope any more with all the horror I had witnessed in such a short space of time. A company of Northford soldiers coming through the gate found me there, and took me up to the Keep through the deserted streets of the town. My head wound was dressed in the House of Healing, I was allowed to wash and given some clean things to wear and allowed to leave, much to my relief. It was horribly crowded in there and full of dead and dying men, with the leeches running hither and thither and doing what they could, which was never enough. The Northford lads took me to the Main Hall, which was also very crowded, and I ate what felt like the first proper meal I had eaten for days, glad to be back in familiar surroundings and amongst people I knew. After that I began to feel quite a lot better and weariness overtook me, so making my excuses, I thanked them sincerely and left. I descended through the eerily quiet town, to the East Gate this time. It looked like this one had held unlike the others, and it the enemy had attempted to sack the camp instead, as many fires were still burning out along the road. I was pleased as it hopefully meant that Túon still and his squad were still alive, but I did not see him amongst the group at the gate who waved me through.
Luckily for me the Northmen had not got as far as our section before they were interrupted and driven off, and I was able to find my tent and bed down. Evening was falling but there were very few people around, and there was nobody else in our previously crowded tent. I realised with a pang that it was probably because most of the others were dead. I wrapped myself in my blankets, too weary for any further thought, and fell gratefully into a deep exhausted sleep.
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