47. Chapter 46
I walked all night until the moon began to drop behind the hills and my road became too uncertain to continue safely, and then settled down under the trees to wait for day. Few if any lived in the lands I was travelling through now, but there was always the risk I might cross paths with a party of hunters and further north there might be orcs to contend with too, so I would have to be on my guard. I had been well briefed by Aelfwine regarding the route back to Northford, which would take me about two days, and I had carefully memorised it. In the event I did not have any difficulty identifying the landmarks he had described to me and finding my way back to Hoarwell Vale. The land all around was still brown and snow flattened and the leafed trees were bare, and every now and again I would reach a crest and see the looming bulk of the Ettenmoors to the north and the mountains beyond them still clothed in white. The weather was dull and dreary but a mild wind blew from the south and the music of water was everywhere, and though I was filled with uncertainty about the welcome I might find in Northford my spirits inevitably rose a little at the thought of returning home.
They rose further when I realised that I was now crossing country I had previously patrolled through, and I picked up my pace. The waters that rushed down below me in this valley emptied into the Hoarwell, all I had to do was follow them and with any luck I would reach Northford sometime after noon. I was soon passing through thickets where trees had been cleared for firewood and knew I must be close to the old road , but before I reached it I heard voices and halted, straining to hear what tongue they spoke in and how many of them there might be. I was reassured when I was able to make out some phrases in the common speech and began to walk forward towards where the speakers lay, hands on my head and with my red surcoat clearly visible so any sentry who spotted me would not mistake whose side I fought on. It was not long before I was noticed, there was a cry of "halt" and a commotion as men who had been eating and resting reached for their weapons. A few moment later I was surrounded by a squad of gaunt looking men in garb that matched my own. I did not know them or their sergeant, and he eyed me suspiciously and demanded to know who I was and what I was doing there. "My name is Esteldir" I replied. "Of the Ninth Lastbridge Company commanded by Tharon. We were attacked by rebels in the High Shaws who greatly outnumbered us, and I must have been one of only a few who escaped with their lives. I was saved from the snows by villagers who took pity on me and have only just been able to resume my road northward". He looked unconvinced, suspicious of my appearance and manner of speech and his eyes fell on my satchel and missing sword belt. "Where's your sword soldier? We'd better let the Lieutenant deal with this one. Maeglin and Arthunir, take him over there and make sure he doesn't run off, I think we have a deserter on our hands". He scowled and signalled to the two men, who fell in on either side of me and walked me forwards through the clearing and onto the road where several parties of woodcutters were resting by their carts. I thought to myself that things had not begun nearly as well as I had hoped.
The Lieutenant was a big man with a broken nose and missing front teeth who looked familiar, and it took a few moments to register where I had seen him before. "Lieutenant Bor" one of the escorts said "Sergeant asked us to bring this man to you. He came out of the trees plain as you like not ten minutes since while we were eating our lunch. Says he's come off the Shaws". "Bloody deserter no doubt…". The words died on his lips as it dawned on him who stood before him, and a look that didn't bode well for me spread across his face. "Well, if it isn't our bloody Lordling come back to us, run away from his southern friends and reduced to the ranks from the look of it too. I don't think they're going to be too impressed either, you'd better have a bloody good tale to tell if you're going to save that precious hide of yours". I took this as a cue to repeat my story, but before I could begin he punched me hard in the stomach without warning, and I fell gasping to my knees with the wind knocked out of me. "Search him, bind his hands and put him on one of the carts and whatever you do don't let him run off or I'll have your guts".
It took me a while to recover and I spent the rest of the afternoon sat up on the front of a woodcutter's cart with my hands tied behind my back watching them working. My new guards emptied my satchel and greedily proceeded to eat the rations that Haelwen had packed so carefully for me. I felt angry and disappointed and not a little worried for now I had repeated it my tale did ring a little hollow even to my own ears. What then would the Lord of Northford who bore me no love and would pass judgement on me make of it? It was a bitter thing indeed to seemingly find my neck under threat wherever I went.
Eventually the sun began to sink into the west and the carts and their escort moved off again down the bumpy track back towards Northford. We passed the spot where I had been in my first fight, and where poor Radulf lay, and I thought how long ago that day now seemed, and how many hardships I had suffered since. Perhaps he had been the lucky one after all. The woodcutter driving the cart kept his own counsel and my guards had clearly decided to accept Bor's verdict on me too, so I spent a lonely journey being buffeted by every bump and hole in the track with my hands tied uncomfortably behind my back. As we approached Northford I noticed that even the farms close to the town appeared to have been abandoned, and the camp on the eastern meadows stood empty and decrepit. When we reached the east gate and I was unceremoniously dragged off the cart and proceed on foot. I thought the streets were quieter than I remembered them too. It all added to the growing sense of disorientation and unease that was beginning to gnaw at me, for this was very different to the homescoming I had hoped for. If there were no friends to speak for me here now then I was doomed.
None paid me any heed as I walked up the familiar streets towards the Keep, still bound and with my head bowed. When we arrived at the gatehouse there was a brief discussion and the gaoler was sent for. I did not recognise any of the men there, and if any chanced to recognise me then they did not admit to it. Eventually the gaoler turned up, looking exactly as I had imagined he might, and I followed him down familiar passageways to the dungeons. They were more or less the only place in the keep that I had never been, and as castle rats we used to tell each other terrifying tales about the things that happened there as we lay in the dark in our attic waiting for sleep. I could not help but feel a twinge of the old fear as the outer door was unlocked and swung back with a groan in the flickering torchlight, but in the event my cell was a big improvement on the one I had found myself in High Burgh in almost all respects. For a start I had it to myself , there was a small high window which looked out over the town and admitted a modest amount of daylight, and the straw on the floor appeared to have been changed within living memory. A hard bunk and a slop bucket completed the furnishings, and to someone who had spent many nights out in the open in the wilderness in all weathers it was perfectly sufficient. My hands were untied and I settled down on the bunk and rested, settling my thoughts as best I could, eventually dozing off. I was woken a few hours later by the sound of the door hatch being opened, and torchlight flooded into my cell, sending shadows dancing wildly up the walls. The Gaoler had brought me a modest meal, which I hate hungrily. When I was done I passed the bowl and cup back through to him and the hatch which closed again, plunging me back into inky darkness., but for now it did not trouble me, for I had much to think about.
I remained there for two nights and the best part two days before I was sent for, and my incarceration was beginning to irk me by the time the door was opened and a sergeant came in with two men and ordered me to get up on my feet and prepare myself as best I could for my hearing with the Lord of the Keep. I did what I could with my dirty battle stained clothes and we set off up through the Keep, hands bound once again, to the great hall to hear my fate. I found myself trembling, as we strode along the corridors, for I feared the likely fate I knew awaited me there.
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.