49. Chapter 48
I was taken up to the Lord's chambers, where I had not been since my days as a castle rat, and shown into the same room where Angon had spoken with me when I was newly orphaned. It brought many memories back, not all of them pleasant. However it turned out Mileth still served as housekeeper there and she remembered me and greeted me as warmly as ever when we met in the corridor, her face a little more lined and her hair now streaked with silver but with her familiar smile undimmed. The room itself was little changed, the table still heaped with scrolls and the familiar view of the vale beyond the leaded panes of the windows, but now Berenion occupied it, along with another familiar face who greeted me with an enthusiasm which was returned in full. It none other than Captain Arahael, unrecognised hero of the first Battle of the Ford, and though our paths had crossed often enough during the time before the march to High Burgh, this was the first time in a long time that we had had occasion to speak to one another. I was a little surprised by his presence there, for he and Nordir had been bitterly at odds and only his prowess and standing among the Northford soldiery had kept him in his position, but it soon became clear that whatever mistrust and dislike of the southern Lord and his captains he had harboured no longer extended to Berenion. This gave me further cause to admire the new Lord and his evident wisdom and leadership qualities. I was to be attached to his company, which was a cause of great satisfaction to me, but would also be available to assist the Lord in such matters as he saw fit from time to time.
After our very cordial discussions were concluded I was re-equipped and rearmed and introduced to the other men of rank who commanded the three companies presently housed in the Keep. I had served alongside many of them already, and a few of them as Castle Rats too. I was received warmly in the main, but Bor kept his own counsel and I did not press the point with him. We were billeted in the West Tower, near the Lord's apartments and close to the men, and it was usual for each man with the rank of Lieutenant or above to be given his own chamber. Now that the size of the garrison had been greatly reduced there was plenty of space, and I did find myself with my own room for the first time since my childhood. It was no bigger than the cell I had just vacated and not greatly better furnished but I still took delight in arranging my few possessions and stowing my gear before crossing to the main hall for the evening meal with the men. Again I was cordially received and reacquainted with many familiar faces, though it seemed strangely quiet now compared to the constant hustle and bustle I had grown up with and become accustomed to there.
Afterwards I made my excuses and withdrew early for the night, weary from all the excitement and novelty after my long confinement. I was in my room, sittng by the window watching the moon rise over the Ettenmoors and mulling all the days events over in my mind when there was a knock at the door. Surprised, I rose and opened it, and my surprise increased when I found Bor standing there. Unsure what to do, I followed the usual form and invited him in, slightly concerned at what might follow. In the event I needn't have worried, for he told me that he wanted to speak to me and continued, saying that now we were to serve Arahael together that there would be no room for personal differences between us. He said he had come to make peace and hoped I would be of the same mind. I agreed unreservedly, and he apologised for soiling my bed and beating me, and I apologised for knocking his front teeth out and marring his looks. Then we both laughed and embraced and were staunch friends from that day forward. I did not know if Arahael himself had prompted the change of heart but I took the gift at face value.
So began my new career as a Northford soldier, and though it was hard and the rations were never quite enough I was content and threw myself into the work I was given, which to begin with was mainly concerned with Berenion's retrenchments. What remained of the settlement and fortifications on the north bank of the ford had been abandoned, and any useful materials recovered and brought back over the bridge. Then with a heavy heart and a full realisation as to the significance of their actions the bridge itself, which had stood there in one form or another since the early days of the Kingdom and provided easy passage to all the domains north of the river, was dismantled. At the same time work had begun on a defensive wall along the full length of the shallows. It was to include a gate and barbican flanked by two solid towers, for it might still be necessary to send men across the river from time to time. The raw material for this work was provided by the ford itself and the boulder fields exposed at low water. It was this work that I joined and it was arduous, but we made rapid progress, and by midsummer the section including the gate protecting the most likely point of attack where the bridge had stood was nigh on complete. I questioned and learned much from the masons regarding the building of walls and towers at this time and proved adept at organising the men, thinking this might prove to be an avenue I could pursue if peace ever came.
Progress was helped by the fact that the enemy troubled us little that year, or the one after, for the King of Angmar once again turned his attention elsewhere and Cardolan felt the full force of his wrath, though we knew little of it at the time. However we did find ourselves taxed by a new enemy at our backs, for whilst the rebel Hillmen did not come openly against us in battle they began to attack our supply trains more frequently on the South Road and occasionally our woodcutting parties too, so we spent a large part of our time on escort duty, though I never had cause to go further south than Bearcliffe.
The decline of the town of Northford continued during this period despite the lull in hostilities, and many streets now fell silent, the houses closed up and empty, especially in the upper town. The townsfolk, most often those with some means or a trade chose to make the short journey south to the fortified enclave around Bearcliffe, or made the longer journey to Lastbridge. The fear of yet another hungry winter and living with the constant threat of further attacks from the north drove those who saw the prospect of a better life in the south away, and the more that left, the more followed. I often walked the now silent streets below the keep and visited the ruins of my old home. They had never been built on, and a tangle of brambles and a thicket of birch trees grew there now amongst the heaps of sad blackened stones. Closer to the walls Fodric's former home also lay abandoned, waiting for better times, and his relocation to Lastbridge thwarted for the moment any further hopes of my being revenged on him. I did feel compelled to break into the place again, but found nothing of any interest this time.
In keeping with the lull in hostilities the winter of 1331 was relatively mild, and the snows came later and thawed earlier and were not as deep as in previous years. As a result the road stayed open on all but a few days and we did not go hungry, and for a while life in the north was not so bad. The respite continued, and my life became one of well worn routine, for the most part free of peril, living a hard but satisfactory amongst good friends and I was happy. It is in our nature to quickly forget how bad things were previously, and some began to openly speak of peace, the rebuilding of the Plank Bridge and the resettling of the lands around Northford. However Lord Berenion remained vigilant, for he guessed correctly that this was merely a calm before the storm that was to come.
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