33. Chapter 32
The weather, though still cold carried the promise of spring and we reached Bearcliffe under clear skies and bright sunshine. The land was still brown and flattened, and here and there remnants of the snow remained in shaded spots, but it would not be long before the green shoots of spring would show themselves and transform the scene. The town was bustling as it had been when we had last been there, and we were once again forced to camp outside the walls as there was no room for us in the Keep. Here we met Northford squads preparing to return North with another caravan of wagons, led by none other than my old mentor and adversary Sergeant Cenric. I had not seen him since we were assigned, and when I met him in the company of Daeron we greeted each other warmly, and with much lighthearted bantering. He declared me to be the dead spit of my father at eight and ten, and that by all accounts I had been his equal in battle too. I blushed but Daeron supported with the sentiment, and I told the grizzled old warrior that I took that as a great honour and wished him well. It was resolved that we would join forces on the way back north - there had been much trouble on the road since it had reopened, with large bands of orcs ranging through the high country well to the south of Northford and attacking the previously peaceful villages and traffic along the South Road. It was clear that the victories in the autumn had won us no respite this time, and I once again pondered Angon's gloomy words about the growing power of our enemy. Cenric had lost four men and a couple of wagons on the way south when they were waylaid in the dark near the old way station.
The second half of our journey was consequently much slower than the first, but fortunately just as uneventful, perhaps our unaccustomed numbers deterred any thought of attack. To my pleasure I discovered my old friend Aldarion was also amongst the Northford soldiery on the road, and I spent much of ithe march north in his company. He pointed out the house on the hillside where his family lived as we approached Northford, but told me gloomily that they had withdrawn to the town for now, as several of the farms on their lands had been attacked and burned, and it had been a hard winter. My heart sank, as I recognised how the tale might run, as it had many other times in this land. When we finally reached Northford it seemed smaller and more drab than I had remembered it, for I had seen greater and fairer towns on my travels. We entered the South Gate unremarked and without ceremony in the early afternoon of the sixth day after we had marched from Lastbridge, weary and travel stained. Daeron and Túon accompanied Cenric to the Keep and I took the rest of the men back to our camp on the East Meadow and set about re-establishing our settlement.
We were allowed a few days to rest and organise ourselves and then our duties resumed. Ironically my first task was to take my squad straight back down the road to Bearcliffe, a journey I was to repeat numerous times over the next few months. We were attacked several times, and at a cost, but I also managed to turn the tables on several occasions. Our foes were wont to attack us on the sections of the road where it climbed away from the river into the hills, and I was fortunate enough to second guess them on several occasions and take some of my men into the hills and come down by surprise onto their rear as they prepared to attack us. We made them pay dearly when we could, and I was glad I had drilled my men so well, for it gave us a great advantage in that situation. The numerous visits to Bearcliffe allowed me to get to know the place better, and being at something of a crossroads in the Kingdom there was always plenty of gossip to be overheard in the taverns. In this matter I had the advantage over my fellows, as I could understand the Hill Tongue and they could not, and the sound of their southern accents often fooled the speakers into thinking none of us could understand what they were saying, which loosened their tongues as much as the ale.
It seemed things went ill in the Shaws, and there was much discontent amongst the Hillmen. Their Chieftain was said to be a virtual prisoner in his own halls and Lord Aglarion, who held the garrison for the King in High Burgh was a grim and implacable man. Furthermore the traders who brought their wares down the valley of the White River to Bearcliffe complained vehemently about the size of the taxes imposed upon them by the Lord of the town, and the rough treatment they received at the hands of the King's soldiers manning the local garrison. These were mostly southerners from Lastbridge or beyond, who were fond of describing them as hill swine or troll kin. Coming from a region where most people had the Hill blood running through their veins to a greater or lesser extent this was something new and disturbing to me, though I had detected hints of it on my previous journey into the south. In the south Dundedain blood ran a little truer, and was more often diluted with that of Plainsmen rather than Hill folk, so it was easy to see how such feelings could arise or be provoked. Naturally I took no side and both in this matter, and was able to defuse situations where blows were about to be struck on more than one occasion by surprising the antagonists and speaking with them in their own tongue. Elsewhere in the Kingdom things went ill too, the Carters brought many tales of discontent north with them, of a King too quick to raise his taxes and too slow to pay his debts. As a result merchants and craftsmen struggled to make a living, journeymen could not find enough work and many common folk had gone hungry in the south as well as the north over the winter. They also grumbled much about their masters, Fodric amongst them, who grew ever wealthier whilst their work became more and more dangerous. I smiled grimly to myself whenever I heard this sort of talk, and hoped that one day one of them would lose patience and buy my revenge for me. But it did not happen, and I was even forced to act as escort for him on one of our journeys. As sergeant in command I had to speak with him on a regular basis to discuss the disposition of my men and plan the journey. It was all icy formality between us, and he wisely kept his hulking bodyguards close to him the whole time. Unfortunately no orcs attacked us, though for once I fervently hoped they might, and give me an opportunity to finish him myself if they did not.
The summer that year was unusually wet and cold, and farmers began to fear for their crops. It also made the guard duty on the road particularly miserable and both my men and I were grateful when we were eventually reassigned to the defence of Northford. Our gratitude however proved to be premature as we simply exchanged the misery of trudging along the road day after day in the pouring rain, with the same thing in the wild hills and forests, along with a much greater degree of peril. This was proper soldiering, hunting the orc bands who came in ever greater numbers from the north, and although no scout like my father had been I had perhaps inherited a little of his talent. We went out in groups of three or four squads, sixty to eighty men under the command of a Lieutenant with archers and scouts, and played a deadly game of cat and mouse, using ambush, diversions and bait to bring our enemy to bay. Their losses must have outstripped ours ten to one at times, but they apparently had little or no effect on their ability to wage war on us whilst we felt the loss of each man keenly. I can still remember the faces of many of those who fell under my command at that time as clear as day, though I have forgotten most of their names.
I soon grew to know the lands all around Northford very well, each sad ruined village or great house, every vale and crag and old road half reclaimed by the forest. I visited Rushwater Vale several times, and fought there too. The first time was the evening following a battle in the forest, and as we marched downhill through the trees they thinned a little and we came upon some tumbled ruined stonework, where a halt was called for the night. As I stood there amongst the stones I was overcome with the feeling that I had been in that place before, and it was not long before one of the Northford Sergeants, a heavy set man called Rogir who had been marching with us came over to me and asked me in a kindly tone if I had realised where I was. I did then, and nodded to him in acknowledgement. Once I had seen to my duties I found my way to the family burial ground and stood silently for a while in front of my grandfather's tomb marker, thinking of him and all those who had gone before him who lay in the earth around us and offering a small prayer to them to lend me strength in my hour of need. I spent that night at least inside the walls of my ancient home, though they were laid low and open to the sky, and slept soundly despite myself, so perhaps my prayers did receive some small answer.
So as a dismal summer faded into autumn, it became clear that Nordir's plan to turn the tide from the north with his reinforcements had failed. It was not as if Angmar had actually sent an army against us again, and yet we were still hard pressed at every turn. To make matters worse the trickle of townsfolk heading away down the South Road never to return, which had begun with the battle of the ford had continued all through the summer, and a noticeable number of houses in the town now lay empty and silent. I was weary of fighting by this time and secretly hoped that I might once again go south for Yule with the rest of the company and have another spell of genuine respite from it all, and so it might have been had not one of the King's messengers come riding up the South Road with the news that High Burgh had risen in revolt, and that the garrison there had been sacked. Nordir was commanded to send at least two companies down to Bearcliffe at once to meet up there with the main force from Lastbridge. Even Nordir was wise enough not to send a Northford Company full of men from the Shaws against their own kin, so the duty fell to Daeron and Berenion.
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