31. Chapter 30
After our visit to the tower we left the fortress and made our way down the steep road into the town. Daeron was as good as his word and showed me the sights, and there was much to see in the bustling streets, ancient halls and great houses, markets, squares and statues. I had never seen the like and truly felt like the cousin from the country, but I could not help noticing that many of the buildings were in a poor state of repair and even in the better parts of town there were buildings standing forlorn and empty. The inns along the East road and around the great square were far from empty however, but before we repaired there we visited the old bridge. It crossed the river in three wide spans and the river rushed and hissed against the two great stone piers in the middle of the writhing slate grey flood. The roadway over it was wide enough for two wains to pass without difficulty and the cobbles were worn and polished from age and use. The stonework of the parapets was of a craftsmanship that I had never seen before, smooth and almost seamless, and if men had built it then the skills needed to do such work have long been forgotten in our day. The fact was that nobody knew how old the bridge was or who had built it, but the trouble that was caused with the elves in particular when the Kings of Rhudaur tried to levy a toll for the crossing suggested it was older even than the North Kingdom. I ran my hand appreciatively over the smooth stonework of the parapet and then followed Daeron to the far bank. Here the road climbed away and the town continued for a short distance but it was much quieter here and there were quite a few empty and half derelict buildings in the lanes leading off the main road. It was not long before we reached the West Gate, which was guarded in earnest, but kept open during the hours of daylight. Beyond it the road wound its way into the distance through an empty landscape that had once perhaps been farmland but had been reclaimed by the wild.
We greeted the bored looking guards, and exchanged news with them, they had had word of the battle at the ford and the routing of Angmar, and the column of prisoners had passed through not long since. I noted that here the tale was simply that Nordir had faced and vanquished his foe, with no mention of any desperate defence against all odds or fortuitous last minute return to relieve a siege. Daeron acknowledged we had been in the battle and gave some account of his deeds in it, before telling them to my dismay and embarrassment that I had felled a Silver Captain in single combat. They looked at me with new found respect, but I quickly changed the subject and asked them whether there were many travellers on the road now. Not many was the reply, but a company of grey folk had arrived that very morning and were now resting up at the Black Bear. He indicated a large run down looking Inn just behind us near the gatehouse, which being quiet and out of the way was apparently popular with Elves and Dwarves as they passed through on their increasingly infrequent journeys along the East Road. Daeron looked interested in this news, and after we had wished the guards well he set of purposefully towards the Inn. "Have you ever seen the fair folk?" he asked me. "If they are in the common rooms then we will greet them politely and then leave them in peace and drink some good ale there. We do not want them to think that all of us in this Kingdom are low folk with no manners, who knows there may come a day when we may wish for their aid, though they would have little cause to lend it". He seemed suddenly filled with boyish excitement, and I thought again how young he looked.
The common rooms were very large and almost completely empty and it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the gloom after the snow dusted brightness outside, but seated on some benches near a fire burning in the chimney were about a dozen or so grey clad figures. As we approached some of them turned to look at us, but they did not look friendly and eyed us with suspicion. I was struck immediately by their otherness, they had fair faces but it was the eyes that caught my attention, full of intelligence and immense knowledge. I felt at once like a lumbering oaf in their company, and regretted Daeron's impertinence. He however drew close to the table, bowed and gave the traditional formal greeting in perfect Sindarin and I followed suit a little awkwardly. The faintest look of surprise crossed one or two of their faces, but none replied, save one, who after a moment's pause stood and returned the greeting in a musical voice, before resuming his seat and continuing the conversation with his companion as if nothing had happened. Our audience was clearly at an end and I was relieved to follow Daeron to the servery where an ageing but still handsome woman called Geleth who obviously knew him served us some flagons of ale that certainly lived up to the billing he had given it. She bemoaned the lack of visitors to her inn in those difficult times, but said she was grateful for the generosity of her guests, who she called her 'special folk'. They often paid her more than she asked for, especially the elves, and it meant she was able to keep the place going for she was yet another war widow with no husband to keep her. Her visitors kept themselves to themselves though, she told us, though the dwarves would sometimes strike up a conversation, especially after a few flagons of ale. The two, elf and dwarf, never mixed though, and she always made sure the rooms they took were well separated when both were boarding there at the same time. We listened with interest, and drank some more of her superb ale, and Daeron quizzed her enthusiastically, but eventually she had to leave us to attend to her chores. We bade her good day and left the inn without further troubling her guests, who paid us no heed in any case. I had heard that they lived to immeasurable age, and indeed did not die, and wondered if we must be little more than mayflies to them, a thought which made me uneasy. However any such feelings were soon dispelled at the next inn we called at after crossing back over the bridge and entering the main square, and found it bustling and full of soldiers, including Túon who greeted us loudly and called for more ale. My memories of the rest of that day are sketchy at best, but we somehow found our way back to the cold hall where we had been billeted.
We arose before dawn, and I felt very ill, much to Túon's amusement. During the night the dark clouds we had seen massing in the north the day before had blown southward and when we formed up ready to begin our march in the great courtyard at daybreak it was already snowing heavily. This made the march even more wearisome for me, and I pulled my hood right over my head and saw little more than the snowy ground my feet crossed for much of the time. By noon both men and the accompanying pack animals were up to their knees, and to further add to my misery my boots had sprung a leak and filled with icy water. How we were managing to follow the road I knew not, but it I knew these men must have marched down it many times. Daeron called a halt, and we rested, and I took a moment to look more closely at my surroundings through the steady fall of snow. The river, wider than ever but still grey and muscular ran implacably on to our right, and four leagues or so from the city walls we were back in the wild. From what I could see of it the land looked less steep, low wooded hills disappearing off into the grey murk. We ate a quick meal of hard bread and dried meat and set off again. Freed of the encumbrance of the wains, Daeron had planned to march his men to the next way station in a single day, but the snow had made this impossible. It continued to fall all afternoon and by the time the light began to fade it was thigh deep and we were well short of our target, and a miserable night camped out without a fire followed. Despite the hardship the mood amongst the men was jovial, the enemy had never ranged south of the East Road and in a few days time they would be back home with their families.
So it proved. The next day the wind had changed and a milder breeze had sprung up from the west, driving the clouds back and leaving a watery sun in the sky, and a thaw of sorts began to set in. We began to make better progress and after halting briefly at the way station, a well tended place with a large inn and farmhouse, continued on and managed to make the next town as night fell. It was a small place but neat and lively, and we camped outside the walls. The local Lord had barrels of ale and firewood brought out to us on a wagon and we toasted his health enthusiastically. I could not help noticing as we passed through the following day that there were a number of what I took at first to be children amongst the folk there, but their faces were those of fully grown men and women. I questioned my men about this curious fact and they told me that these were the small folk, who called themselves Stoors, who lived along the river and came in to town to trade and purchase goods. Nobody knew where they had come from but they had lived in this part of Rhudaur for many generations, quietly minding their own business, and as a result nobody took much notice of them either. I did remember then that my grandfather had mentioned them once or twice, and I thought to myself that world was indeed filled with many wonders and curiosities.
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