41. Chapter 40
So Ulfraer was brought before the King and Court, and a long list of charges were read out against him, among them treason, insurrection and the murder of Aglarion and his garrison. He stood defiantly and acknowledged them all, and then in a clear voice and eyes firmly fixed on Berthedir listed in turn the crimes committed at Greenhow in the King's name, before he was drowned out by the resulting uproar. When silence fell once again on the hall the King, now obviously frail, stood stiffly, pronounced the expected sentence of death, and commanded that it be carried out without further delay. According to Daeron, who witnessed all, Ulfraer shook off the guards who made to seize him and walked freely to meet his fate out in the great courtyard. A large crowd had been permitted to enter there to witness his execution, and they watched him strip to the waist in the icy air, throw his head back and yell his people's battlecry, before kneeling quickly to await the axe. It fell without delay and a great groan went up from the assembled throng. They could perhaps sense that that swing carried a greater weight than the ending of a single man's life.
In High Burgh news was slow to reach us, but when tidings of Ulfraer's execution finally came up the valley the mood of many of the townspeople turned from fear to anger, and in the streets patrols were attacked and two soldiers killed. Belegon's response was typically swift and merciless. Several culprits, guilty or not, were seized and executed in the main square. I was forced to stand at his side and read out the proclamations of guilt and sentence of death on the prisoners in the Hill tongue for the benefit of the onlooking crowd. I can still remember the faces of the frightened youths as they were taken to the axe, and their pitiful pleas for mercy before their lives were snuffed out. In my darkest moments I began to wonder if death would be preferable to the life I was being forced to lead now, for I knew I shared a part in what took place there whether I willed it or not.
Belegon's retribution had the desired effect, for a while at least, and my life in High Burgh returned to its previous miserable pattern. The winter snows had arrived in earnest too, and the road up the valley became blocked for weeks at a time. As we had feared supplies ran low on a regular basis, and we got short rations and went hungry even in the great hall. Food was requisitioned in the town, but there was a limit to what could be obtained, and this caused further bad feeling amongst the people. Yet again I was called upon to be Belegon's mouthpiece as we turned up in force at the house of yet another poor baker or cheesewright and emptied their storeroom. Men were also went to nearby villages and farms in the hills to see what they could find, and they rarely returned empty handed. Just after Yule the weather eased for a little while and supplies began to get through again. Berthedir also returned from Lastbridge and resumed command of the garrison.
He did not return in good humour, disappointed by what he saw as an insufficient response from the people and the king to his great victory, and he made sure we knew it.
Things were getting worse with my fellow soldiers too, Beleg and his men saw which way the wind blew with Glordir and I and were becoming openly insolent in my presence. Glordir revelled in this, and one evening when we had sat down on benches in the hall to eat a poor and paltry meal of thin stew in wooden bowls he contrived to knock mine off the table and into my lap, with the customary smirk on his pretty face. The men around us laughed, and I finally snapped, smashing Glordir's face into his bowl and breaking his nose. He was not as strong or cunning as I, having led the privileged life of a young nobleman at court, and all he dared do in response was order his men to arrest me. Steel was drawn, and I bore none at the time, so fortunately was unable to put up any kind of fight. My hands were pinned behind my back and I was frogmarched to Belegon's quarters.
He did not appreciated the disturbance, but when he saw Glordir's bloody face and me pinioned by his men something approaching delight flickered across his face. He accepted Glordir's version of events without question and I was taken down to what served as a dungeon there, a dark stinking cellar where I spent a long miserable night in the company of several wretches in far worse predicaments than I. One of them was a young soldier from Bearcliffe who, driven half mad by what he had seen and done at Greenhow had tried to run away. Unfortunately the snow had made it easy to follow and capture him, and now he sat in the dark sobbing and pleading to nobody in particular knowing that he would die in the morning. I attempted to speak to him and soothe him but he was too far gone, and I had to give up. The guards came for him at first light, and he fought and screamed like a mad thing, so they beat him until he became quiet and then dragged him out semi conscious to meet his fate. I had seen countless men face death and die on the battlefield, but this was a singular horror to me, to end in such a cold and brutal manner.
My own appointment with justice came later that day when I was released from my stinking prison and sent to face Berthedir and Belegon. Glordir, with a nose swollen like a potato marring his good looks, Beleg, and some of the other men were in the chamber too. It did not look good for me. "Esteldir of Northford, there is plaint that you struck a fellow officer without provocation, what say you?" intoned Berthedir coldly. I recognised this tone from the night when he had been challenenged by Berenion and Daeron at Greenhow, and knew I was doomed. I stood up straight and looked him in the eye and replied. "That I did, and would gladly again. But not without provocation. It takes many forms, but there are none here who would take my part or speak in my defence on the matter. Serve your justice on me as you will". He looked slightly surprised at this but continued. "Very well. Your guilt is clear, and you shall be punished. You have shown yourself to be incapable of conduct befitting your rank, which was clearly to granted you in haste and error. Since you came into my service you have shown little inclination or willingness for the duties assigned to you, and I have grave doubts as to where your true loyalties lie. I therefore strip you of all rank and privileges. Some of Tharon's men march north tomorrow to teach a pig village that dared to defy our foraging parties yesterday a lesson, and I expect to hear that you played your full part in their punishment. If I do not then I fear I will have to conclude that you are indeed a traitor and turncoat and deal with you accordingly. Return him to the dungeon to think further on his folly".
I was marched back to the dark stinking hole in a much better frame of mind than any of my tormentors could have imagined, for a while at least until the doubts came crowding back to gnaw at me. I would be free of Belegon and my miserable existence in the Great Hall, and it would be good to put my gear back on and return to the life I knew best, the hard but simple existence of the foot soldier. But I knew not what manner of man this Tharon was, or whether I would be able to prove my 'loyalty' sufficiently to save my neck. At least there was the outside chance of a quick clean death in the wild, something I found surprisingly attractive at that particular moment in time. My prison was much quieter without the poor wretch who had been executed that morning, and after a while I slept surprisingly well, so much so that the guards had to wake me with a kick to the ribs. I followed them stiffly out to an ante room where my gear had been brought down and left for me, noting that my pack had been rifled and several useful items removed. However I cared little about this and was glad to put my tunic, breastplate, cloak and sword belt back on again. I swung my pack and shield over my shoulder and followed my erstwhile captors to the entrance of the hall and out into a courtyard where men were gathering. The sun shone down on the scene from a deep blue sky, painting everything a dazzling white, and it was still bitterly cold. The guard led me to a group of soldiers who were stood deep in discussion. They parted as he approached and I found myself in front of a captain, who I took to be Tharon. He was surprisingly aged in appearance, with a heavily wrinkled face and large bags under his eyes which gave him a rather hangdog expression. I guessed he must have been close to the end of his service, for in that time men were not expected to fight past their sixtieth year. "Another one for me have you?" he asked the guard, who saluted. "What did you do then?" It was clear that I was not the first wrongdoer to be sent to his company. "Esteldir of Northford reporting for duty" I replied in the expected fashion. "Reduced to the ranks for striking a fellow officer". He looked bored "You must have hit him hard then. Good. One for you Sergeant Bardir". He turned away apparently bored and paid me no further attention. I decided I rather liked him. A tough grizzled looking man with a scarred face and missing teeth gestured to me to follow him, he spoke little and I made no effort to strike up a conversation with him either. I joined my new squad, mostly men from Lastbridge and the surrounding area without ceremony and after receiving my rations and a cursory inspection which fell way below any standard I would have expected myself we formed up and marched down through the snow covered streets of the town. After passing out through the lower gate we turned right to cross the river via a stout timber bridge and hugged the north bank of the White River along a well beaten track through the snow. For a while it was actually rather pleasant and I quite enjoyed the novelty of being out in the countryside and on the march again, listening to the steady crunch of boots on the snow, the creak of leather and watching our breaths steaming in the sunshine.
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