27. Chapter 26
When I woke the following morning the camp was in a sombre mood. Few of my squad remained save the brave sergeant, who greeted me warmly, and many had fallen in the battles west of the river too, always in the thickest of the fighting. Word of my combat with the enemy captain at the South Gate had reached their ears, which heartened me a little as it meant at least some of those who had been with me there must have survived. Men clasped my hand and spoke words of praise, including Captain Daeron who came to us and told us that we were all stood down for the day and could rest up. The task of clearing the battlefield would fall to others, including the many prisoners who had spent the night huddled together in a big group out in the open. Wishing very much to be by myself I shed my surcoat and donned my cloak to protect myself from the rain that had begun falling during the night and set off through the ruined camp towards the town. I followed my feet through the gate and wandered uphill through the still strangely silent streets until I found myself in front of my old home, now a wilderness of weeds and brambles amongst the rubble and charred timbers. I stood there for a long time, and wept quietly for the life I had lost and would never have, and those who should have been there to share it with me. My mind wandered back to that last evening before the fire and Fodric, and all the old long suppressed rage and hatred welled up in me again. My hand opened and closed around the hilt of the dirk sheathed in my belt, and I set off quickly, towards the street not far off where I knew he now lived. The town was quiet, none there now knew of my complaint against him, and since I was now a grown man and battle hardened fighter, putting and end to him or any other who stood in my way would present no difficulty.
He lived in the highest part of the town on a quiet winding lane full of large houses with walled courtyards sheltered by the walls of the Keep. Here, facing south the air was cleaner and the views across the hills and down the valley pleasant and extensive, and only the wealthiest and most powerful citizens lived up here. I came to the place relatively quickly, and after a quick glance in either direction to ensure I wasn't being watched I stowed my cloak in a corner, clambered quickly over the gate and landed lightly on my feet on the other side. All was quiet within, and I began to move quickly across the cobbled courtyard when the silence was suddenly broken by thunderous barking and a great brute of a dog came charging towards me, fangs bared. I whipped out my blade and halted his initial attack by slashing back and forth at him, and he stood at bay, snapping at me and barking ferociously, waiting for me to drop my guard. However the noise of the dog did not bring anyone rushing out. I realised that if I could rid myself of him then I could get into the house and see what I could find unhindered, even if Fodric himself would have to wait till another day.
The dog looked lean and probably hadn't been fed since whatever servants had been left in charge of the house had fled the town the previous morning, and I remembered that I had a hunk of dried bread and some hard cheese in my scrip. They bought me enough time to vault quickly back over the gates under the stone arch and back into the street. Checking that I was still unobserved I walked a short distance and climbed cautiously over the wall into the courtyard of the house next door. From there it was an easy scramble up short walls and sloping tiled roofs to the back of Fodric's house, where I was able to slide my blade up the gap between two shutters and flip the bar. Somewhere below the dog barked intermittently, aware that all was not as it should be, but I ignored him and pressed on.
The room I entered was a small sparsely furnished bedroom, perhaps that of a servant. I quickly made my way out into the gloomy corridor and down some stairs to a passageway that looked better furnished, full of new looking tapestries showing hunting scenes. I tried a door at the end of the corridor by another shuttered window that led into a room facing the front of the house, and realised from the furniture and garish hangings that these must be Fodric's own chambers. Thinking that he was a man of little imagination the first place I looked in the shuttered gloom was under his bed, and my heart almost stopped in my chest at what I found. There, plain as day was my grandmother's carved strongbox, the one where she kept all her coin and important papers. It was an ancient thing, reputed to have come over the water from the west with our forebear. I pulled it out from its hiding place and took it to a window where there was a little more light. The lock had been forced and was bent askew and it opened easily. Within the coin and any jewellery that might have been with it was long gone, but all the papers were still there, deeds of ownership, titles to our lands, maps and many other documents yellowed by time. I began to leaf through them, my heart pounding in my chest, imagining all those who might have handled them before me. But my reverie was shortlived, as the dog began barking again in earnest this time. Someone had returned and I head the gates opening and the dog's bark suddenly turned to a yelp. As soon as the Northmen had been defeated men had been sent down the South Road to bring news of the relief to the fleeing townspeople and bring them home, although some chose to continue their journey regardless. It was clear Fodric's servants, or perhaps even Fodric himself had chosen to return. I stuffed the papers back into the chest, quickly returned it to its predictable hiding place and made my exit back the way I had come, pushing the shutter to behind me. Fortunately the people who inhabited the house next door remained absent and after a short while huddled under the archway by their gate in the rain I clambered back over, retrieved my cloak and wandered nonchalantly away back down towards the lower part of the town and spent the rest of the day in one of the few taverns open for business, pondering my next move.
We returned to duty the following day and joined the continuing work to clear the battlefield, repair the damaged gates and plank bridge. We were assigned to the first of those tasks, which was the grimmest work made worse by the weather. A squally wind and driving rain poured out of a slate grey sky which lowered the spirits still further. The many captured Northmen worked alongside us, under guard, and it became clear from speaking to them in their heavily accented version of my own mother's tongue that many saw their capture as something of an escape rather than a defeat. They told terrible tales of cruelty and hardship in the northern kingdom, of being pressed to fight for a Lord they hated and feared in a war they had never looked for. I had been right to suspect that the Silver Captains inspired fear and hatred amongst their own men, for when some of them heard that I had felled one they congratulated me almost as warmly as my own comrades had. I the end I could only feel pity for them, ragged and fearful as they were for the most part, but Lord Nordir for his part showed them no mercy, fed them little and kept them without shelter until many became weak and ill. Any who tried to flee were put to death, and many of the soldiers from the south, to whom the Hillmen were not close kin also felt no compunction in treating them brutally. It was clear that with winter coming the extra mouths could not be fed for long so after a week or so the prisoners were marched south roped together and under close escort, to be used as forced labour in the fields and forests of the south. I do not know how many of those who left Northford fell by the wayside before they reached their destination, but I would hazard it was no small number. I also heard later that they were subjected to vile treatment when they passed through the streets of the Lastbridge, all things which to our shame made us no better than him who opposed us in my view.
As a result of the loss of so many men the Watersmeet Company was reorganised and several regulars were promoted, Túon to Lieutenant being one of that number. Much to my surprise, for he must have spoken to Arahael on the matter, Captain Daeron also upheld my hasty promotion and I was assigned my own squad, which made me one of the youngest to ever receive that honour. And after the ceremony where we were all sworn in came the announcement that all my fellows must have longed for - anticipating a lull in the fighting with the coming of another long winter, the company was to be sent back south and the men would be home with their families for yuletide. They naturally responded with jubilation and cries of joy, but once they had quietened down the Captain asked for a silence to remember those we would be leaving behind. Afterwards, as the men were dispersing he came across to speak to me, perhaps aware of my uncertainty at this news, since I had no home other than the Keep and no family. "Esteldir, you were joined to my Company on a whim of Lord Nordir's, but in the short time you have served with us you have more than proved your worth. I do not wish to lose you, but if you wish to remain here in Northford I will see that you are transferred to one of the local companies". I considered this for a moment, along with his young, handsome face full of intelligence and told him that I certainly wished to remain under his command, but must remain in Northford for the winter. "On the first count, that is indeed well" he said. "On the second, have no fear, for you must join my family and I and spend Yuletide with us if you wish". I was delighted at this, expressed my gratitude warmly and accepted his invitation. He then looked at me a little quizzically again and spoke in Sindarin, saying the formal words used to offer hospitality to a guest. Without missing a heartbeat I managed to give him the correct reply, though I am not sure to this day how I was able to recall it so easily. His quizzical smile dissolved into a broad grin and then laughter. "There's surely more to these Northerners than we were led to believe, when even common soldiers are so well versed in their letters!".
He clapped me on the shoulder and I walked back to my new quarters and my squad full of childish excitement at what lay ahead. I would truly be leaving Northford behind for the first time in my life, and would see with my own eyes the greatness of Lastbridge, the wide lands that lay beyond it in the south and the famous white towers of Watersmeet where the two great rivers of our land ended their long journeys and were joined together.