28. Chapter 27
As expected resounding defeats and the approaching winter brought another respite from attacks from the foe, and the scouts reported little if any activity in the forests and moors north of the river. The weeks passed quietly, the weather began to turn cold and then the first snows came. At the beginning of Narbeleth we finally received our orders to march south, providing escort to a large returning train of wains and carts as we went. I had thought long and hard on the matter of Fodric and my mother's box and in the end decided to share my full tale with the Captain, and seek his counsel. He heard me out, thought on the matter and then took my part, much to my relief. However he counselled caution as Fordric had grown wealthy in the past few years and now had influence and the ear of those in positions of power in both Northford and Lastbridge. He said he would do what he could to gain me an audience with the Lord, and true to his word an audience was forthcoming.
Lord Nordir sat in session in the Great Hall with his captains and advisers once a week , and I was instructed to wait in an antechamber with a group of townsmen, some with grievances, some seeking aid, but all in obviously in varying states of trepidation, for unlike his predecessor the new Lord was not known for his patience or kindness. I was convinced that had old Angon still sat in the carved chair that the discovery of my mother's possessions would have been Fodric's death warrant, but I was not confident that this new Lord would care so much for justice, knowing none of us or our history.
And so it proved. I was called forward from the chamber and strode up the aisle to where the Lord sat brooding in the gloomy hall, surrounded by his advisers. I had made sure I looked the part, my gear was clean and polished and I had bathed and been barbered. "Esteldir, son of Galdirion, Sergeant of the Watersmeet Company. I come bearing complaint against Fodric of Northford". His face grew grim at this. "I accuse him of theft and murder, either by his own hand or through the prompting of others, having set fire using lamp oil to the home of my grandmother Branniel, resulting in her death, the death of my mother Faelneth and the servant girl Lathra these seven years past. In proof of this I have learned that he has in his house a box that belonged to my mother containing our family's scrolls, titles and deeds, and…". I was cut short by a raised hand, and Nordir, all icy haughtiness began to slowly clap his hands in mock applause. "Esteldir son of Galdirion, Fodric warned me that you might come hither with such accusations, as a jealous son who opposed his impending union with your widowed mother. The box in question was given into his hands for safekeeping prior to her unfortunate untimely death, doubtless at the hands of the clumsy servant girl. A household of women living alone cannot guarantee their safety in these difficult times, so it was no doubt passed to him for safekeeping and he has kept it in memory of her. He very graciously wishes it to be known that if you wish to retrieve any of the articles it contains they are yours if you request it. He has also pleaded for clemency on your behalf, anticipating the gross nature of your accusation, and it is only this and your recent record of service in battle which have prevented you from receiving exemplary punishment for this, against such an upstanding personage. But rest assured, any further word from you on this matter, or any further harassment of Fodric will result in swift retribution. And you have still not explained how you came by the information regarding the box. You are dismissed". A fierce rage rose within me, as it had often done in the past, and it was all I could do not to sweep my sword from its scabbard and strike the man dead there and then, but I stood in silence for a few moments instead and gradually mastered myself, turned on my heels and marched from the hall.
Once outside, tears of rage at the maddening injustice of it all welled in my eyes and I walked through the streets of the upper town in a daze, hardly conscious of where I was. I knew now that the only justice I would ever gain would be that dealt from my own hand, and I swore I would have it, however long it might take. I inevitably found myself back at the ruins of my old home, and stood there for a long while contemplating the now snow dusted ruins, once again remembering what had been. Captain Daeron found me there, and without saying a word I turned to follow him and we made our way back to the camp.
The following day we left Northford. Snow was falling steadily from a slate grey sky as we formed up in marching order with our supply wains and left the camp, passing round the town walls and joining the caravan of wagons bound for Lastbridge outside the South Gate. Surprisingly little remained to indicate what had passed there a few weeks before save some bright new timbers in the gate, it was almost as if the whole thing had never happened. We were split into our squads and given groups of wagons to escort, mine were in the middle of the train and I allocated four of my men to each. We trudged alongside them, spears on our shoulders and shields on our arms, hooded against the downpour. The oxen steamed, and the drivers yelled and cracked their whips and we were off, at a steady enough pace to begin with. I moved up and down the column to begin with checking all was well and if any of my men questioned my youth or authority then they gave no sign of it when I spoke to them.
I settled into a steady march alongside the lead wagon in my section, heaped high with empty casks, the drivers hunched in their cloaks up on the bench. There was little need for watchfulness this early in the journey, so I spent my time observing mysurroundings. At first they were familiar, for I had come that way with Sergeant Cenric, and to bury my family before that. We passed the burial grounds, and again I thought on those resting there and swore vengeance on their behalf. After that the country on this side of the river was new to me, and the road followed the bank through hilly country dotted with farms, villages and the occasional great house. One of them must have been the home of my friend Aldarion, but I did not know which one. He had survived the campaign across the river and we had shared our tales over a flagon or two of good ale and drunk to the memory of our good friends Efred and Radulf, who had not been so fortunate. Unlike the lands east of Northford these were still relatively peaceful and well protected, as the river ran too deep and fast to cross easily by any means below the ford, and the Keep and town kept the threat from the north at bay.
We halted mid morning to feed and water the oxen and I took the opportunity to walk down to the river bank. It had stopped snowing and brightened a little but the bitter wind was promising more would be on its way later. I watched the sleek grey swirling waters rushing silently past me at a surprising fast pace, and shuddered at the thought of what might happen to anyone who fell into that flood. I looked across to the far bank and realised I knew the place. A strong torrent came down to join the river there, and a wide vale framed by high hills wound its way off into the distance beyond it. There was no stout stone bridge across this stream unlike the others before it and the faint trace of a road on the far bank disappeared round a bend and up into the valley. I knew I was looking again on Rushwater Vale, my ancestral home, and I remembered the sad journey we had made there many years before. Shouts from the road behind me as the train prepared to move off again brought my reverie to an abrupt end and I shook my head and turned to go.
As the day wore on the sky grew clearer and the land grew steeper and more rugged. Every now and again the road climbed away from the river into the hills to avoid thunderous rapids and deep gorges. I wondered at the mighty work that had gone into building such a road in the early days of the North Kingdom, in what would have been no more than a remote backwater at the time. Despite centuries of use and wear it was still in good repair for the most part, a testament to the skill of those who had built it. Eventually we halted as the light began to fade from the wintry sky and camped strung out along the road, lighting fires and bedding down under the wagons. I stood sentry on the first watch, and saw the stars come out over this quiet and remote part of our land, thinking how beautiful it was and worth fighting for.
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