51. Chapter 50
After halting close to the town walls, tending to our wounded and taking the opportunity to slake our thirsts what remained of Arahael and Huron's men set off for the Ford to render aid to what might remain of Berenion's forces there. Things were beginning to go ill for them, and the rampart had been breached in a number of places so our arrival was barely soon enough. Weary though I now was I led our company against a force of Northmen who had come over the eastern end of the wall. They proved a doughtier foe by far than the orcs, untroubled as they were by sunlight, but even so we eventually managed to drive them back the way they had come. More of our men came up along the top of the rampart and cut off their escape, pouring arrows into their backs as they stood and fought us. Here at least the outcome was inevitable, and some began to throw down their arms and sue for mercy. This time they were shown none.
Elsewhere things went ill, for the enemy had by sheer weight of numbers and at great cost managed to breach the barbican, and Berenion and Arahael found themselves fighting a furious rearguard action in front of the North Gate. The Silver Captain who commanded our foe there concentrated all his strength against them, and pressed them back to the walls, breaking their lines and eventually forcing them to close the gate. Many men ended up trapped outside and came running our way, and weary as we were we formed up once again to cover their retreat. It was an unequal fight, for the men we faced were fresh, well armed and apparently now battle hardened fighters, unlike those I had faced in the past. We too had no choice but to fall back, and what followed is now only a hazy memory filled with heat and pain, for to this day I do not know quite how I was able to get myself to the East Gate whole and alive, for we were totally overwhelmed.
In the event I was one of the last few who made it through before it was closed with a great thud and a crash, and I stood dazed for a moment in the cobbled street below the watchtower before falling to my knees, one of many exhausted soldiers there. A similar scene had also played out at the South Gate, although Huron and many of his men were cut off and chose instead to flee homeward down the South Road. The Northmen they were fighting made no great effort to pursue them, and at first they deemed this a stroke of good fortune. But later that evening as they rested near the road a force of Hillmen, who had been waiting on the road for any such as they escaping from the battle came upon them and put them to the sword. Only one man escaped the slaughter and made it back alive to the defences at Bearcliffe, carrying tidings of the terrible defeat and siege of Northford.
Berenion, although badly wounded had made it back through the gate, and remained in command of the garrison. Fearing the worst, he ordered that plans long and carefully considered for a dire eventuality such as the one we now faced be put into effect. The townsfolk who remained were withdrawn into the Keep, along with all the stores of food and water that could be brought with them. As night fell and the still sizeable orc host began to stream back down the vale from the east, all but a few guards, fleet of foot and hale, remained to watch on the gates. The rest of us had also crowded into the Keep, now too spent for any more fighting. Following a small meal I made my way to my chamber but found the corridor outside was now crowded with townsfolk, mainly women and children. Instead I went up to one of the high battlements overlooking the courtyard. Though the climb cost me dearly up here at least there was a cooling night breeze blowing down off the moors and it was almost pleasant to look out and see the moon rising over the darkening land. But for the watch fires of our enemy springing up around our walls it could have been a night like any other. I felt my weariness begin to overcome me, so I laid the cloak I had carried up with me down on the cool flags of the walkway where I was, making myself as comfortable as I could. Accustomed as I was to such hard bedding, it was not long before I was fast asleep.
I awoke, chilled and stiff around midnight. Down below in the distance horns blew and voices shrieked, and for a moment I did not know where I was, but it did not take me long to remember. Far below in the courtyard I heard the first of the guards who had run up through the town arriving from the East Gate to report that the orcs had launched an assault, and I realised with a start that Berenion did not purpose to answer it. They soon swarmed over the walls and opened the gate and poured into the town. The runners from the North and South Gates were not long in following the first, and the great gates of the Keep clanged shut behind them, men wrestling huge beams into place to secure them. A murmur of dismay went up from the crowd that had gathered down below, and it was soon answered by horns sounding down by the river. A horn of our own sounded suddenly bright and clear in the keep, and weary as we were those of us under arms knew it was another summons to action.
With the cloak draped over my shoulders I descended stiffly down the many steps and stairways, often pausing to allow groups of bleary eyed archers and others running errands to pass by in the other direction. I knew the Great Hall had been given over to townsfolk and our wounded, so I made my way to Berenion's apartments instead through the throng. My surmise was correct, and I was shown to his crowded study where the surviving captains and lieutenants had gathered. As I entered the dimly lit room there was a murmur of greeting and I searched the faces counting who was still there. More than I had hoped, for sure, but there were some that I could not find, including Bor. At the centre of the room Berenion stood, leaning on the table, with his head and shield arm bandaged. He looked even more austere than normal, pale and drawn, and I recognised the look of a man in pain and at the end of his strength.
He acknowledged me with a nod and began to speak. "I believe all of us that remain and can still fight are here now, so I will begin. Yesterday we suffered defeat for the first time against an enemy that has grown mightily in strength and skill since we last faced them in open battle eight years ago. I am honoured to have fought alongside such brave men as you are, but I was not willing to spend your lives fruitlessly trying to defend the town walls when we had no hope of success. Northford is lost, the enemy are pouring through the gates and will doubtless soon be at our walls, and I grieve bitterly for it. However this ancient Keep is a different matter, our walls and gate are high and strong, we have the numbers to defend it and with careful husbandry have provisions enough to last a month at a pinch even with the townsfolk crowded here. At sunset I despatched scouts into the forest to attempt the journey south to bring word of the siege to Bearcliffe and Lastbridge. We must hope that they reach Bearcliffe and that Lastbridge will send a force north to relieve us before we starve". He then set about organising our defences. The courtyard was to be emptied of any remaining townsfolk, but any willing to fetch and carry to the walls could remain. Skilled archers would man the arrowslits in the gatehouse tower and in the lower walls, and any who could lay hands on a bow and wield it could fire down on the enemy from the upper battlements and towers. Though a good store of arrows had been laid in at the armoury each must be made to count. Three companies, or what remained of them, would stand in the courtyard ready to defend any breach of the gate and the remainder would be tasked with keeping the archers supplied, whilst others would bring up any heavy objects that could be cast down on attackers such as cobbles from the courtyard up onto the battlements in readiness for any assault on the gate. Arahael's company were given the west wall and gatehouse, and then business was concluded, with Berenion wishing us well for what lay ahead.
I left the apartments with Arahael, and we set about finding our men in the crowded chaos of the halls and passageways, both of us now weary beyond words. We split up and when I had done what I could wound my way to the gatehouse tower and clambered slowly up the steep staircases and landings until I was on the roof. Many of our men were already there, and archers were preparing in the lower galleries and on the wall. I paused for a moment to regain my breath and allow the screaming muscles in my limbs to quieten, then made my way over to the battlement. Overhead a bright full moon was rising over the shaws behind us and casting long shadows. The night air was still warm but a pleasant breeze blew at this height, and on any other night it would have been a joy to stand up here and look out, as indeed I had done many times previously. The town was laid out below, and as I looked out one of the sergeants came and stood next to me. I knew the man well and clapped him companionably on the shoulder. He shook his head in dismay. "See, they are in the town now, down in the lower market. Curse the filth!" As he spoke fire and sparks leapt up among the rooftops in that vicinity, and it was not long before many other fires were also lit and took hold. Unhindered, and with many old buildings clustered close together there could only be one outcome, and as we watched horror struck the many fires now burning grew and spread and joined together. It was not long before we were completely surrounded by a wall of immense leaping flame and roiling smoke and the moonlit night was replaced by a nightmarish orange daylight. I had never seen a fire so huge or fierce, even in the forest, and the flames were like something living, writhing and curling and strangely beautiful in their majesty. The tremendous heat could be felt intensely even as high up as we were, and the sound was something indescribable, an insatiable hungry roar. The changeable breeze periodically wafted the smoke our way and it made our eyes sting and choked us and a fine rain of sparks and ash began to fall all around us. Soon even the familiar buildings in the streets around the Keep that I had known all my life began to succumb to the flames. I could not bear to watch any longer, and slumped down against the rough stonework of the parapet and wept, for I knew in my heart what was now being destroyed would never return.
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