39. Chapter 38
Snow was falling meaningfully the following morning and we hastened to rise and prepare for the next march. High Burgh was little more than half a day's march distant now, so it was likely that we would see battle again that day. Daeron had been uncharacteristically quiet, and I did not press him to speak, feeling as wretched as I did, but the preparations for the march gave me something to occupy myself with and once again I toured the company making sure all was in order. A few wisps of smoke still rose from the ruins of the farmhouse, but the snow had the upper hand now, and the old farmer and his wife were rapidly becoming little more than snow covered humps, unrecognisable for what they were.
We formed up in the ankle deep snow, hoods pulled up over our helms and cloaks dusted white, and began the final leg of our march on High Burgh. The thickly falling snow obscured the country around us and all I could see of it were nearby trees and boulders looming out of the grey fog. The enemy could have come upon us unseen at any time, and we fully expected them to do so, but once again they made no move. The hours passed and the snow began to deepen, though our path, some way down the column, was well trodden enough by the time we reached it. I was weary in body and mind, and uncomfortable, as one of my boots was leaking and my cloak was soaked through, heavy and cold. The thought of yet another battle filled me with dread and foreboding, the events of the last two days had sapped all my resolve and I did not know how well I would be able to fight feeling as I did, now there was no irrepressible Túon to josh with us and raise our spirits, and I felt a pang of sadness when I thought of him. At least he had died before the massacre took place and had never known of it, and in some ways it was a mercy, for he of all men would not have been able to keep his counsel on such matters.
My gloomy reverie was interrupted by another halt. The snow looked to be easing and I was able to better make out our surroundings. The valley had narrowed right in, and the White River thundered in yet another rapid below us, whilst tall dark pines towered above on the rocky heights which framed the sky. It was a wild place, and felt a long way from comfort or safety. However in reality it was not so different to the Northern Marches, and indeed bordered them if you were able to navigate the complicated fretwork of steep forested gorges that riddled the heart of the great upland. Word came down the line that High Burgh was now reckoned to be only a league distant and that we must be ready. Once again having a task to thrown myself into was a boon to my spirits and I went down the line speaking to the men, seeing that all was in order and encouraging them as best I could. Those who could eat now took a small meal before the march resumed, but I had no appetite this time. By the time the signal came to form up and resume the march the snow had almost stopped and the grey sky was brightening. At least we would now be able to see our foe coming at us, I thought glumly to myself.
The trees thinned, the valley widened again and we after we had crossed a stout wooden bridge over a tributary to the main flood we found ourselves once again in populated country, though the inhabitants were nowhere to be seen. The valley was dotted with farms and a large inn and associated outbuildings stood by the side of the road, built in the local style of timber, cob and thatch. Perhaps my Hillman blood was speaking to me then but I thought the whole snowy scene homely and rather lovely and regretted coming there in hostility. Inevitably another halt was called, Edwenion's men went quickly to work and fire was soon spreading hungrily through the thatch of the inn's roof. I groaned inwardly once again at the wanton and pointless destruction and wondered how many weary travellers from Bearcliffe would curse us at the lost of the hostelry when peace returned. Daeron, who had been marching with me the whole time said nothing, and indeed he had not spoken more than a dozen words to me all morning, his natural ebullience had deserted him and he had a haunted look in his eye. We resumed our march, the fierce fire soon at our backs, and it was not long before High Burgh itself came into view around the next bend, horns sounded in the distance as our foe came into view and battle order was sounded.
High Burgh was a large place, larger than I had expected and at least the equal of Northford. The old town and Great Hall sat elevated above the meeting of two valleys on a jutting shoulder of land, and were ringed by a substantial earthwork and palisade wall. But the town had grown over time and spilled beyond this and down onto the plain where a second and newer defensive barrier encircled it. In front of this the host of the Hillmen stood guard, ready for battle. It was hard to tell given the lack of elevation but the host we now faced appeared much diminished compared to the one we had met two days since, and our numbers were equally matched. Our host spread out into the fields either side of the road but we remained where we were, in the centre once again as ordained by Berthedir. Once again the archers and one of the Lastbridge companies fell in behind us. I assisted Daeron in forming our lines and then we took our places shoulder to shoulder in the front rank. When all was done he gave me a glance that spoke volumes and I nodded my grateful acknowledgement of his wordless but welcome gesture of solidarity.
Berthedir came down the front of his host on his great horse to rally us, telling us that victory was within our grasp and that Aglarion's murder would be avenged. I could not help noticing that his previously magnificent mount was now ribby and lame, but he paid it no heed. Once he was done a desultory cheer went up from the men and he spurred the horse into a halting trot and took himself off round to the rear. The horn sounded again and we set off in a slow march, holding formation, but as yet our foe had not responded in kind, and stood their ground in silence. The reason soon became clear, for a group standing in front of their main host were holding a white flag of parley aloft. A halt was sounded and cries of "way, way" were heard behind us as Berthedir, still mounted, came through our ranks followed by his two principal captains and a squad of men as a guard. They halted within our earshot and waited for the other party to come forward.
Their leader was sort, strongly muscled and from his appearance I judged him to be around fifty years old. He was clearly a man of high rank from the way the rest of his party deferred to him and from his dress and arms, which were clearly of good quality and well made. He came up in front of Berthedir's horse and bowed, and spoke to him loudly in a good but heavily accented common tongue. "Hail, Lord of Lastbridge. I, Ulfraer son of Ulfur, Chieftain of the Hill Folk will speak for my people. No more need die today, for I will offer you a bargain. Spare my people and we will lay down our arms and I will hand myself over to you as your prisoner and face the judgement of our King. Swear an oath in front of your men and mine that no more of my people will come to harm and nothing more of theirs will be destroyed and we shall walk side by side into the town and you shall be a guest under my roof this night. What say you?" Berthedir looked nonplussed for a moment, as if he could not take in what he was hearing, but then gathered himself and replied. "We will accept your offer, but be assured that we will reply to any treachery with the full force of our armed might". With that he leapt from his horse, dropped to his knees and swore in a clear voice that should the Chieftain be true to his word then there would be no further retribution against the person or estate of the Hillmen. As he rose to his feet Ulfraer unbuckled his sword belt, let it fall into the snow and came forward, giving himself up into captivity. At a sign from one of those who had come forward with him the host of the Hillmen began to break and came forward in groups, throwing their weapons onto rapidly growing heaps in front of us and turning back towards the town.
I wondered at the bravery of a man who would give himself up to inevitable death to save his people, and whether any such could still be found in Lastbridge. But Ulfraer was no fool to throw his life away lightly, for he had spared his people further suffering at Berthedir's hand, and even as we formed up to follow him into High Burgh his son, Ulfred and the best men of their host were fleeing east towards a secret stronghold in the foothills of the Misty Mountains. No orc would trouble them there now.