29. Chapter 28
We were two more days getting to Bearcliffe, and the journey passed uneventfully. During the first we passed the ruins of an inn and way station, one of those that had been established every seven leagues along the high roads for the use of travellers and the King's messengers in the old days. Some had grown into villages or even towns over time, but this one had either fallen into disrepair through neglect or been attacked and abandoned at some time in the past. It would once have been a welcome sight but now it looked sad and dreary and we did not tarry there.
We met wagon trains coming in the other direction, and several patrols, as the southern part of the road had been the scene of numerous attacks both by orcs who had crossed the river and bands of brigand Hillmen reiving from the cover of the forests. As we went south the land grew steeper still, and tall cliffs and crags towered over us. At one point the road left the river for the best part of half a days march and wound slowly through the hills whilst all the while the very air shook with the thunder of water on our right hand. Here, the river, already much greater than the one I knew at home fell steeply through a number of deep gorges, and the immense power of the tumbling water was truly a wonder to behold.
On the afternoon of the third day, with the river once again running swift and smooth alongside the road we came to a rampart and small fortification at a narrowing where a great crag threw a shoulder down towards the river, and passing slowly under a gateway entered the province of Bearcliffe. The vale beyond widened between tall cliffs and tree clad heights and a couple of leagues off we could see the town, standing below another great crag topped with a distinctive boulder. It did not look much like a bear to me, or anyone else for that matter, and it is not clear whether the name of the town was derived from it or simply from the abundance of black bears that once roamed in those parts and whose likeness now adorned our surcoats.
It was the first time I had seen another town in our realm, and everything was at once familiar and very different. For a start there were no empty or ruined farms, and even under a dusting of the first snows of winter everything had an air of order and prosperity about it, at odds with what I had become used to. It was the same as we approached the town, and the road was very busy and became busier still when we got to the junction where a bridge spanned the White River and the High Burgh road joined. It was market day on the morrow and all the traders and buyers seemed to be arriving at once. Our wagon train came up behind another which had already halted for the day so we were had no choice but to stop too, and after a meal and strict instructions to return before the town gates closed we were stood down and free to spend our evening as we wished. I dismissed my squad, cleaned myself up as best I could and went to find Daeron, who had invited me to dine at what he had described as the best inn in Bearcliffe. I found him, along with Túon and some others at the head of the train and we greeted each other warmly and then set off at once through the chilly evening down the road towards the town.
I felt happy and excited to be in such company, free for a change from any immediate peril and at leisure to enjoy myself. The town itself was just like the land around it, bustling and prosperous and apparently little touched by war or any evident hardship. Like Northford it was built on a hill, so the streets wound upwards in much the same way, but unlike Northford the Keep sheltered under the great crag, and its looming bulk was ever present above us in the darkening sky. The inn was on a quiet torchlit street in the upper town and it was clear Daeron was already known there. It was quiet, spacious and very clean with a low beamed ceiling and a large fireplace, not at all like the inns I was used to frequenting. We were shown to a table and served excellent fruity ale and delicious roasted meats, the likes of which I had not tasted since my childhood. I feared the bill would be beyond my means as this was clearly an establishment for those of quality and means, but Daeron, sensing my discomfort soon set my mind at rest on that score.
We passed a pleasant evening, and I felt warm and comfortable and happy to be in such good company. But then the door opened and I heard a familiar voice which took me a moment or two to place complaining about his journey from Lastbridge, and my contentment immediately evaporated. By some cruel trick of fate or chance it was none other than Fodric himself who walked in, flanked by two large Hillmen whose reason for employment was clear enough, and a couple of weasely looking men dressed in good cloaks who were apparently engaged in discussing some transaction or other with him. He did not notice me at first, so I was able to observe him for some time. His success and elevation in the world had hardened his manner, and there was no trace of the former hesitancy he had sometimes displayed, especially when dealing with my mother. Everything about him spoke of wealth and success, he was finely dressed and his demeanour was of one who expected to be obeyed. I cursed the coincidence that had brought him to the same inn as me on the same night in a strange town, but then my mind raced at the thought that I might find the means to exact my revenge on him, for his henchmen held no fears for me, I had slaughtered their kind by the dozen not a few weeks since. I began to formulate a plan, involving sneaking away from my group and deliberately getting myself shut into the town after the gates closed and my heart began to pound at the thought. But then I realised, like a drenching in icy water, that his death in Bearcliffe two days after I had made gross accusations against him to the Lord of Northford, and while I was known to be in the same place could only lead to one conclusion. I realised that vengeance would have to wait yet again.
As if prompted by my thoughts about him he suddenly made as if to notice me and called my name, sounding pleased to discover me there, of all people in all such places. There was however an implied question as to what a common soldier such as myself might be doing in such an establishment. I replied courteously and Daeron, who presented himself to my surprise as son of the Lord Of Watersmeet, explained that he was taking the opportunity to dine with some of his best men after a long and difficult campaign in the North. Fodric thanked the good Captain gracefully for performing that valiant service and then told his companions that I myself had almost become his son, as he had been betrothed to my beautiful widowed mother before her tragic and untimely death. Sensing my patience with this charade would soon run out if the discussion continued in this vein Daeron made his excuses regarding the late hour and signalled to us all that it was time to leave. As we rose and reclaimed our cloaks I caught Fodric's eye and for a moment there was no veneer of civility at all in the glance that was returned, only pure hatred. I decided it might be wise to avoid walking alone down quiet streets at night once I got back to Northford, and this with him yet to discover that I had been to Nordir and spoken to him about the contents of a chest in his house.
After the warmth and comfort of the inn the frosty night air was like a slap in the face, but I was glad to get outside. Daeron threw a protective arm around my shoulder. "So that was he then? A loathsome creature, give me half a chance and I'd stick a knife in his guts myself". Túon and the others agreed and we laughed and I felt comforted and thanked them. "Son of the Lord Of Watersmeet?" I asked Daeron in turn, surprised at the way he had styled himself. He laughed. "I stretched the truth somewhat there" he said, "my great grandfather was such, but men like this Fodric are impressed by fancy titles and are apt to mind their manners in what they believe to be better company".
I was grateful to have such a good friend and commander taking my part, not to mention those around me, and I decided to put Fodric out of my mind for now and try and enjoy the adventure of the journey south. But that was easier said than done and I lay sleepless and shivering in my blankets under the wagon with my mind racing for a time before sleep eventually took me.