30. Chapter 29
It had clouded over in the night and had started to snow again by the time we set off the following morning. We had now joined with the wagon train which had halted our further progress the night before. It was also being escorted by soldiers being sent home from the North, though these had a shorter journey to Lastbridge. We entered the town and made our way slowly through the already crowded streets full of people, wains and beasts of burden heading to the markets. I noticed that many of them spoke my mother's Hill Tongue rather than the common speech and were dressed in the style of the Shaws. Bearcliffe owed its prosperity to its being the place where the Hillmen of High Burgh traded their goods with the rest of the Kingdom, for the road between the two that came down the valley of the White River was the only easy route in and out of the forested highlands to the east.
Eventually after a lot of stopping and starting we cleared the town's south gate and trudged slowly through a landscape that was only partly visible at times in the downpour, the wagons following black ruts on the white road as we trudged, hoods up, in the ever deepening snow. I thought it was going to be a very long and wearisome day but eventually the snow ceased and the sky lightened a little. Just like the valley to the north of Bearcliffe this was a land of small farms and neat villages straggling along the road and riverside in a valley flanked by steep cliffs and forested heights. At a narrowing we came to another earth bank and gateway, beyond which the land emptied and became wilder. The river no longer fought its way through any rocky defiles here, its course was swift and smooth and flanked by wide snow covered meadows. By the time we stopped for the night the heights had receded and the land either side of the river had softened to low rounded hills. We did pass through a couple of abandoned villages, with some ruins that looked like they had recently been put to the torch, but by orc from across the river or brigand Hillmen it was not possible to say. The following day passed in much the same fashion, with a halt for lunch near another old way station, this one populated, in good order and surrounded by villages and farms. We passed other wagon trains heading north and their escorts reported no trouble for us on the road ahead.
So on the sixth day out of Northford I finally set eyes on Lastbridge, the ancient capital of Rhudaur. The land had steepened again, and so had the number of farms and villages scattered along the road. In the distance I could see a great pall of smoke rising high into the wintry air, and wondered at the number of fires that could make such a plume as it grew nearer and larger. Then, as we crested a rise above the river the city came into view. I caught my breath, for it was as impressive as I had hoped, Northford was no more than a country village in comparison. Steep walls and guard towers enclosed a sea of grey stone tiled roofs and spires dusted with the first snows of winter, and above rose a great crag on which stood a mighty fortress. The river bisected the city, and there in the distance on the wide fast moving waters was the famous three spanned bridge of immeasurable age and peerless workmanship that had given the city its name. And yet, great as it was in my eyes, I would learn in time that Lastbridge was as yet nothing compared to the glory of Fornost, chief city of Arthedain, or indeed Tharbad of Cardolan in those days.
It was late afternoon when we made the city gates alongside the river and entered the walls and parted with our charges with little ceremony or affection. We formed up as best we could into a marching company with our packs and arms and made our way along the wide road, parting the crowds as we went. I looked in wonder at the sights around me, everything seemed to be on a greater scale than I was familiar with from home, the road was wide and many of the buildings large and magnificent and covered in carved decorations. As daylight began to fade torches and lanterns were lit, which added to the impression for me. We finally came to a square where the road south met that heading east, where a market was being shut up for the day. To the right there was an ancient watchtower and a gate guarding the bridge, but we turned left and marched east for a short while, eventually turning left off another wide square under the looming battlements of the fortress, its snow topped towers flying red pennants decorated with the black bear.
The road began to steepen and the crowds diminished, other than some other small groups of soldiers perhaps ending their day of guard duty. The main gate was approached up a natural ravine which climbed towards the centre of the fortress and was flanked on both sides by battlements. This meant that anyone storming the place by that route would have faced arrows and missiles raining down on them from above on both sides every step of the way, long before they ever made the gate. We marched up this road under a darkening sky and entered a vast dimily lit cobbled courtyard through a fine arched gateway. Even in the twilight however it was clear to see that many parts of the place were in something of a state of disrepair, and after crossing the square and passing through many dark and dreary passageways and courtyards we finally found ourselves in our billet for the night. It was a great echoing high vaulted hall, which might have had a better purpose than a dormitory at some point in the past, but it was now lined with pallets and a desultory fire burned in the fireplace at one end. As we were weary of sleeping under the stars in the snow this place was all we could wish for, though the cold and foul tasting stew and weak beer we were served as an evening meal left a lot to be desired.
The following day we were granted a rest and given leave to spend our time as we wished. Daeron had again offered to spend the day with me and show me the sights, which I was very grateful for and looked forward to, feeling favoured by his friendship and attention. After breakfast we set off through the maze of halls, passageways and courtyards, which I could never have navigated by myself without becoming hopelessly lost. I was in awe of the place, even if daylight confirmed how dilapidated most of it was. It seemed to have been built on too large a scale, and I wondered how many men it would take to defend it and whether it had ever been fully manned. We soon found ourselves in the great courtyard again, where pageants and parades were held, and walked over the slippery cobbles towards the high grey walls of what I took at first to be the inner keep, but turned out to be the King's citadel and halls. It was in somewhat better repair than the rest of the fortress and the massive gates, thrown open, were framed by grim grey towers and snow dusted walls. Guards in livery stood sentry there, silent and unmoving, and I hoped for their sake that they were well dressed against the bitter cold. I peered through the gate from a distance, but could not discern much, and we turned and made our way towards the main gate and the road back down to the town.
The sentries there saluted Daeron as he approached and he exchanged friendly words with them and then we entered one of the towers and started to climb a long winding stair, the treads of which were worn by the endless passage of boots. Occasionally we would reach a landing and then continue and I could see at intervals through small windows that let in a little wintry light as we climbed past that we were gaining considerable height above the courtyard. After what felt like a very long time we eventually emerged through a low metal studded door set in the wall into a pillared chamber under a vaulted timber roof with great open arches that faced each point of the compass. I realised that we must be at the very top of the tower and the view from up there took my breath away, notwithstanding the icy wind tugging at my cloak. We looked west first, and Daeron described what lay in front of us. Far below the road back down the ravine dropped away towards the town, which spread out below us like a scholar's map. I could glimpse the river here and there through the gaps in the sea of snow covered roofs, and the line of the city walls. Beyond the land rose gently in a series of wooded ridges and the road west, running more or less straight here, quickly disappeared from sight. Unlike the those we had travelled in recent days this one was conspicuously empty. My pulse quickened at the thought of what lay that way, the lost lands of Western Rhudaur where my uncle had fought and died and beyond them the tower and Cardolan and eventually further still the legendary elvish havens my grandfather had spoken of, and the sea. Next we looked North, back the way we had come, and the vale of the Hoarwell, dotted with villages and farms on the right bank at least, wound away into the distance. In the northern sky great piles of ominous dark clouds threatened more snow. I wondered aloud if there was some sorcery in them, as they seemed so dark and menacing to me, but Daeron laughed lightly and dismissed this idea. Eastward lay the rest of the fortress and beyond the road ran along a line of craggy hills and here more villages and farms dotted the landscape. Beyond though, and to the north the land grew steeper and more densely forested and I knew this marked the borderlands of the Shaws, the land of my mother's people. Far beyond, at the edge of sight the high white tops of the misty mountains blended into the wintry sky, and I knew that somewhere below them in that direction lay the house of the Halfelven in a hidden valley that my grandfather had also told me tales of. Southward, the river wound away through lower wooded country, and the road with it, and I knew we would be marching that way tomorrow. Daeron stood looking thoughfully in that direction for a long while and then he turned away and we retraced our steps down the long stair.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.