48. Chapter 47
I arrived in the same anteroom where I had sat with quarrelsome merchants before I had vainly attempted to put my plaint to Nordir regarding the matter of my mother's murder. This time it was empty save for my escort and I and it was not long before the adjutant came for us and ushered us in to the main hall.
The Lord Of Northford and the Northern Marches sat in his carved chair on a small dais at the far end of the hall, which was gloomy and draped with many dusty and half rotted old tapestries, and I was brought up before him and dropped to my knees. But it was not Nordir who sat there as I had expected, but Berenion, and though his face was impassive, his eyes were curious and he had a good look at me as I knelt there. Hope surged in my breast, for perhaps I would get a fair hearing after now, for surely I was due for some good fortune after all my recent reverses? However the tone of his voice was severe when he spoke, and my newly rekindled hope quickly faded. "Esteldir, son of Galdirion, of Northford, you are charged with desertion, which is a most serious transgression and punishable by death. What say you in your defence?"
I looked him in the eye and decided to tell him the whole tale, including my disgrace in High Burgh, though I did not name the family who had saved me as my kin, for even to my own ears this sounded fantastical and would undermine the credibility of the rest of my story. It was a risk, for though I hoped him well disposed to me through our service together he was widely known to be an inflexible and pedantic man. When I was done, with a protestation that I had come back to Northford to resume my service, not to flee from it, and would not let him down if I was given the opportunity, he sat in silence for a few minutes pondering what he had heard. He drummed his fingers briefly on the arm of the chair and stood up, looming to an impressive height above me where I knelt. "This is indeed a tale with many twists and turns, but it makes no sense to desert an army in one place and flee back to it in another, and I know your previous service to have been exemplary. I will therefore write to Lord Berthedir in High Burgh to seek corroboration of your tale, and should I receive it then you will be free to resume your service here. If I do not then the sentence is death, and until then you will remain a prisoner in this fortress. Take him back to the dungeons". I was hoisted to my feet and marched back the way I had come, greatly relieved at the unexpected turn of events, for I had reason to hope again, even if my fate now rested in Berthedir's hands again.
Later on I had settled down to my long watch in the dark when I heard voices and the sound of footsteps approaching outside, and then the unexpected grinding of the key turning in the lock. Then the room was filled with dazzling light and when my eyes were able to adjust I found myself face to face with the Lord of Northford once again. He dismissed the gaoler, set the candle on the floor and sat down beside me on the bunk, appraising his surroundings critically for a moment before surprising me even further by clapping me on the shoulder and declaring that it was good to see me again. "Have no fear as to your future, for I am sorely in need of men such as you here, and whatever the reply from High Burgh I will find a way to extricate you from the bind you have found yourself in. I am sure you must understand that form must be followed in the meantime, but I will make sure you have proper rations, light and perhaps a book or two to read if that is of interest and will help you pass the days more easily". I was shocked and grateful beyond words, and told him so, considering his handsome ascetic features as we spoke. "How came you to be Lord here? And where is Daeron?" I asked, hoping I was not being impertinent, but he took no offence and seemed almost eager to share his news with me.
"After the Chieftain was executed a meeting of the King's High Council was convened, during which the King asserted himself and overturned many of Barachon's designs. Nordir's mission in the North was deemed to have failed, and since his health was also in decline he was relieved of his duties. The King sought to appoint his own man to replace him and it was decided that I, knowing well the issues we face here and being seen as an honest career soldier, would be a suitable replacement. So here I am, Lord of a draughty keep and a ruined land, whose people are flying south in ever greater numbers. The King's exchequer could no longer afford to pay for the upkeep of the southern companies here, so they have been sent home, and Daeron with them, for news also reached us that his father was dying. My orders are to hold as best I can with what I have at my disposal. There will be no more patrolling north of the river, the Plank Bridge has been broken and the south bank of the Ford fortified. We will no longer spend the lives of our men fighting an unnumbered foe beyond our immediate walls, for I now only have what remains of the northern companies at my disposal and no more, around six hundred only. Since news of what transpired in Greenhow reached these parts many of those that hailed from the Shaws have deserted and returned home, weakening us further. So I am afraid I do not bring you good tidings, or the hope of an easy task once you leave these four walls and enter my service. However I will restore you to the rank that Daeron gave you of Lieutenant, for Bor and the others are good men and doughty fighters but they lack your subtlety and quick wits".
He continued. "Elsewhere, as you are already aware Berthedir holds High Burgh but little more in the Hillmen's domain, but it is yet a prize for they still need to trade with Bearcliffe to make a living, and Bearcliffe and the rest of the country need the fruits of that trade too. But whenever he steps beyond his front door the Chieftain's son and his rebels bloody ouris nose in no uncertain fashion, as you yourself found out. It is said that none have ever taken the Shaws by force, and none ever will. Even our forefathers in the morning of the North Kingdom did not attempt the deed, but rather bought the friendship and loyalty of the Hillmen through trade and the giving of gifts. Without that friendship and loyalty now the Kingdom of Rhudaur is hamstrung, our people divided in their loyalties, our armies deprived of men and the royal coffers ever shorter of coin from lost levies and taxation. Some speak of attempting a reconciliation with the other Dunedain Kingdoms before it is too late, a few even mutter in dark corners of the King Of Angmar, and how those who saw him throw down our current King in battle long ago say he was a peerless and puissant Numenorean warrior worthy of allegiance. Though why such as he would deign to consort with orcs I know not, unless he is the descendant of Black Numenoreans and therefore wholly evil. But I fear our own King cannot and will not act decisively to stem our tide of troubles, for he ails, and is also hindered at every turn by the schemes and intrigues in his court. So I do not know what will happen, we can only play our own parts as well as we can and see how the tale ends."
We talked for a little while longer and then he rose and bid me a good night, leaving me with his candle. The following day my rations were noticeably better and the gaoler more respectful. I was given more candles and a Castle Rat came to the dungeon burdened with a heavy tome, which turned out to be a History of Rhudaur, presumably from the small library in the Lord's apartments. It had been a while since I had read anything more than a set of orders or a despatch so it was an effort at first, but I was soon whiling away the long tedious hours of my captivity lost amongst ancient tales of great deeds, long forgotten alliances and feuds, and there was much of interest regarding the Northern Marches. I also spent time exercising as best I could, for I was still weak following my brush with death in the snow. My arms in particular were given plenty to do, for if I timed my leap correctly it was possible to seize the bars on the window opening and pull myself up for a view of the outside world. It faced eastward, and over the next few weeks I was able to watch for a few minutes at a time as the snow receded on the distant uplands and summits of the misty mountains, Hoarwell Vale slowly greening again as Spring began to take a firm hold.
Six weeks after my initial return to Northford Berenion received a reply to his enquiry as to my fate from High Burgh, which stated that I was presumed lost after an ambush on the White River had wiped out my company. By this time I had read and re read the History and had become something of an authority on its contents, and it was bitter sweet to read of the prosperity and industry of Northford and the surrounding areas, for the book had been completed in my Grandfather's youth. I had decided, if fate ever permitted it, to continue the tale and bring it up to date. I was finally released on a warm sunny morning with small white clouds scudding across a blue sky on a breeze that smelt of the forest and green things, and despite everything I had been through I could not but help be filled with renewed optimism, for I was truly back where I belonged.
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