50. Chapter 49
Small parties of scouts had continued to cross the river and range through the northern vales and up onto the moors, and for a long while they reported little sign of the enemy. In the spring of 1335 however this changed, bands of orcs were sighted once again, and two scouting parties did not return and were presumed lost. Berenion immediately withdrew all his men back across the river and sent word to Bearcliffe asking for reinforcements, for he surmised correctly that the lull in hostilities was over. The previous autumn a few poor souls had fetched up at the West Gate in Lastbridge bringing tales of war and devastation in Cardolan with them. Afterwards further rumours, perhaps brought by Elven and Dwarfish travellers along the East Road from Bree began to circulate that Tharbad, weary of sending soldiers north who did not return and fearful of the future had seceded from the Kingdom, declaring themselves vassals under the protection of Gondor and leaving the northern part of their land to fight on alone. Having further weakened another of his foes it seemed clear that the King Of Angmar was ready to turn his attention toward us once again.
In the Shaws, Ulfred's rebellion grew bolder, and he began to raid along the road from Bearcliffe to High Burgh, disrupting trade and stealing supplies, something he had previously deemed too perilous. As a result Berenion's plea for reinforcements found itself competing against Berthedir's, and as a result only six more companies, around twelve hundred men, came north to our aid just before midsummer. They were mostly Bearcliffe men, some of whom had previously served with us, and they were led by Huron, son of the lord of that town. Berenion cursed his luck, and prayed that his defences, long since readied, would be sufficient.
It had rained little in the spring and the summer brought long weeks of hot sunny days, which in other times would have been very welcome but filled us with foreboding as we watched the river diminish and braid into a hundred streams across the boulder fields of the ford. If the enemy came now, the lack of a bridge would not hinder them.
And come they did, a week after midsummer on yet another bright sunny morning, announcing themselves with a blaring of horns and trumpets. They came along the old road out of the vales marching in massed ranks and good order with their banners sporting the ghostly tower of Carn Dum. To the east an answering blare of trumpets of a different, more discordant tone came in reply, and there on that road was another host, of orcs this time, and we found ourselves caught in the jaws of a pincer.
I was drilling the men of our company in the courtyard with Bor when we heard the enemy announcing their arrival, and a counter signal was sounded over the town from one of the watchtowers. The Keep was suddenly alive with activity, as large numbers of men rushed hither and thither readying themselves for battle. We ordered our own soldiers to join the preparations and await further orders, and made our way quickly to the Great Hall to hear Berenion's orders. Plans had already been put into place for our disposition in the event of a surprise attack on the Ford, and we had practised them well, but the unexpected arrival of the second host on the wrong side of the river had changed everything.
This looked to be something of a masterstroke on the enemy's part, as failing to hold the East Meadows would render the new defences on the Ford useless as the ramparts did not communicate with the town walls and could therefore be easily flanked. Berenion, who looked and sounded surprisingly calm despite the circumstances therefore ordered Arahael and Huron to take the majority of the men to the East Gate and engage the orc host. The rampart on the Ford would be manned with far fewer soldiers than had originally been hoped as a result, and Berenion himself would command there. If the day went ill then we should not hesitate to fall back to the town walls, for we were greatly outnumbered and could not afford to spend the lives of our men lightly. I too felt surprisingly calm in those familiar surroundings, surrounded by my friends, and as we stood there I studied their faces around me in all their wonderful variety. I thought how much I cared for every one of them, and with a familiar pang wondered how many would be dead by nightfall. Berenion finished his speech by exhorting us to do our duty to the utmost of our strength, reminding us that the fate of the North, and by extension the rest of the Kingdom now lay in our hands. I gripped my sword and shouted my approval and defiance with the others and then we turned and set off as one to leave, and a purposeful silence fell on the hall. As we passed through the arch and descended the steps I wondered whether it would be the last time I would see that place, but I mastered the sudden pang of fear that followed calmly as I had done many times before, and caught up with Arahael just as we entered the chaos of the courtyard. It was not long before the chaos in the courtyard subsided to be replaced by order and very soon the serried ranks of our various companies marched out of the Keep and down the steep narrow streets of the town. Rather than the North Gate as originally planned, it was to the East that most of us now went. We arrived there and passed out onto the East Meadows along the old road and into the ruins of the camp, fanning out towards the river to try and forestall any rapid advance by the enemy.
However my spirits did sink a little when I beheld our foe. Arrayed on the far side of the old camp the orc host had paused and look to be preparing for the fight, for I could see figures milling to and fro amongst their massed ranks, perhaps carrying orders and sending messages to the captains in just the same way we did. We estimated their number at around three thousand, and we stood at less than half of that number, since many men had also been left to man the gates and town walls. I busied myself with our own preparations and was given command of the left flank by the river, which at that point still ran strongly within its banks, even if the level was lower than normal. We would not be flanked from that direction at least. Eventually all was prepared and we waited in the hot sun, uncomfortable in our battle gear, and an uneasy silence fell on the field. In the distance to our rear trumpets sounded, and we assumed that the advance across the ford had begun, but as yet the orc host that faced us made no move, waiting silently and largely immobile now. The wait continued, and a germ of suspicion began to grow in my mind as sweat dripped into my eyes from under my helm and gathered under my leather breastplate. It had long been rumoured that orcs hated direct sunlight, for they had almost always chosen to fight us under the cover of the forest, in poor weather or at night for that matter, and perhaps the very thing which had weakened the flow of the river and opened the ford to the enemy was now hindering them from fighting. If so we should surely take advantage, and the captains must be made aware of the possibility.
I left the sergeant in command and went to look for Arahael, and found him by the road, deep in conversation with Huron and his captains. He saluted and greeted me warmly. "Hail Esteldir. It seems our foe are reluctant to engage us under this bright sun. We are debating whether we should take the fight to them in that case, so what say you?" I replied without hesitation. "I have fought them often, but always in the shade of the forest, clouded skies or under cover of darkness. I agree that we should strike whilst they are discomfited, though they outnumber us threefold". He smiled and clapped me on the shoulder. "Wise words, let it be so. Either we wait here and allow them to engage us on their terms, or we take the battle to them, though the hope of an outright victory is slight".
I returned to my section emboldened, and relayed the order along the line as I went. The horns sounded the command to advance in good order and we set off toward the enemy. When the gap between the hosts closed to a bowshot our archers began to loose volleys towards the foe, and though they replied, it was less robust than we could possibly have hoped, and far more fell in their lines than ours. Still they did not charge us, but began to form into defensive walls as we closed on them, hoods pulled over their heads. Closer and closer we came and eventually a shriek went up from their host and they charged us, and we in turn charged them. Two waves crashed together in a cacophony of clashing steel and screaming. Hindered by their cloaks and hoods, and fatally distracted when relieved of them, the orc host did not stand for long despite their greater numbers, and ignoring the urgings of their captains began to turn and run, streaming back up the valley towards the shade of the forest. They had a good distance to run, and very many of them did not reach the shade they desired so much, for we were filled with battle rage and cut them down like wheat. Eventually we halted, overcome by the heat of the day and weariness, and watched the remainder disappear into the distance. Some of our number wished to continue, and would have done so, but Arahael saw the danger of allowing his forces to over extend themselves and a withdrawal was sounded. We formed up and marched back towards the town, over ground strewn with dead orcs, bloodied and weary, but the day was not yet won, and our troubles were only just beginning.
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