53. Chapter 52
I still shudder when I look back and consider how dreadful our situation was in the days that followed, though after a short while we strangely ceased to be as hungry, and the hunger was replaced by a great lassitude and for a while an unaccustomed clarity of thought. Once things were ordered in the tower I began to spend a good part of my days with Berenion, who was now abed and no longer able to rise. Mileth still served him there, though she too looked aged and shrunken by her ordeal, and she did what she could to ease his suffering. I feared his wound was turning bad, but he was made of stern stuff and remained lucid nonetheless. We spoke long of his home and life, and on many other diverse subjects and I grew to know him better, and him me, and my admiration and love for him grew as the days passed and he began to fade. He too was the finest of men, learned, cultured and compassionate, and I wished with all my heart that he could have been born in better times free of hardship and suffering.
On the afternoon of the thirteenth day of the siege, another day of welcome rain, horns sounded in the enemy camp and there was suddenly a great deal of activity down in the town. It was not at first clear what the cause was, but the following morning a host appeared on the south road, and we knew our prayers for help had been answered, our besiegers now found themselves besieged in turn. A great cry went up along the walls, a horn was sounded, and the Keep was suddenly roused as the news spread like a wildfire. I descended the tower and set off for Berenion's apartments, where I knew the others would be gathering to decide our next move. I had strapped my sword belt back on, for it had seemed an unnecessarily heavy burden whilst it served no purpose but that had changed and I had regained some of my former strength.
Berenion was not in the chamber when I arrived, and he did not rise to join us. Instead Arahael took command of the gathering, and though he did not outrank any there his leadership was accepted without question. The walls of the town were low, and the gates weak, for they had not been intended to keep out an army. It was clear that Lastbridge had been emptied and a great force had been sent north in relief, and the enemy would now be hard pressed to mount a defence. Arahael, haggard and drawn as he was, proposed that once the attack began that we should organise a sally with all who could still fight and bear down on the enemy from the rear. There was general assent, for we were grown weary of our incarceration, and I for one had decided I would prefer to die with a sword in my hand than slowly starve to death in the corner of a tower. We were sent out with orders to gather volunteers only for the foray, for our hunger had weakened us and would greatly increase our peril fighting against our well fed and well rested foe. In the event there was no shortage of men willing to join the sally in the tower or anywhere else in the Keep and in the event about seven or eight hundred men had crowded into the courtyard by late afternoon. However the lookouts reported no sign of an impending attack, and the mood of tense anticipation soon turned to disappointment. When it became clear that there would be no fighting that day Arahael announced a stand down and there was a general murmur of dismay and some men threw their weapons down in anger. I felt sympathy for them, for we had waited a long time for this day, and it is not easy to prepare yourself for battle and all that may mean only to find that it is not going to happen and all must be repeated the following day.
That following day dawned bright with the promise of heat like so many others that summer. I remember looking out from the top of the tower and seeing the remnants of the night mists burning off over the river, and the distant mountain peaks clear and stark against the morning sky. Already there was activity in the camps beyond the walls, and it was clear that matters would now be settled. I was surprised by the size of the host that had come north to deliver us, for they must have numbered at least eight thousand, and such numbers had not been raised since my father's day. I thought to myself that perhaps some hope remained after all. I was shaken from my reverie by my brothers stirring and rising to their feet behind me, and we armed and armoured ourselves and descended to receive a ration of water from the well. Today we were allowed all we wished to drink, in hope that it would see us delivered from the siege, and I myself drank until I could hold no more, as did most of my fellows. Afterwards we formed up in the crowded yard, and the captains held a brief conference. Arahael once again took charge and it was agreed that half of our force would engage whatever part of the enemy's strength had been left encircling the Keep, whilst the remainder would descend through the ruins of the town and attempt to break the defence of the East Gate where the enemy defence most likely to be at its lightest. It appeared from the disposition of the relief force that their attack might come there too if they could flank the town via the ford, and if we could take the gate and open it to admit them then it was likely the siege could be ended very quickly.
After a wait of no more than an hour, we heard the familiar blare of many friendly horns down below, and knew that the assault had commenced. The beams and bolts were drawn slowly back from the battered keep gates and they were drawn back. With a ragged yell we burst out into the stinking corpse strewn street beyond, volleys of arrows whistling overhead from the walls above, and crashed into the enemy lines. Half starved though we were we fought with fury and they soon began to fall back, for they had not left a great strength to guard us and we soon began to overpower them. A cry went up and those of us who had orders to head for the gate broke off and began to descend through the town, dispersing as planned amongst the narrow streets and alleyways so that we might attack the gate from several directions at once.
I moved at a quick march through the narrow ways, with perhaps sixty or seventy of my men at my back. It was a place I had known since childhood, but now it was terribly altered, for most of the buildings that had stood there for all the time I had known them were gone, replaced by burnt out shells and toppled walls, and an acrid stink of ash and burnt things. The horns of the enemy sounded in the town both below and above, and at one point where our alley met a wider street we came up against a company of orcs, seemingly heading uphill to bolster the force at the keep. A fight broke out, and hampered by the narrow way we found ourselves in difficulties until another group who had been descending another route parallel to ours discovered them and broke upon their rear, and the tide was quickly turned. I was aching and weary by this point, but when I saw who led our rescuers I could not but help smile, for it was none other than Sergeant Cenric, gaunt and cadaverous and looking more fearsome than ever. He too grinned when he saw me. "Come along Lordling" he quipped "let us not be late for the main battle". We resumed our journey together, uniting our strength with another group as we closed on the precinct.
As we had hoped the East Gate was not strongly defended, but it was still held by a sizeable force who thronged along the walls and spilled back into the streets that led up to it. It was these that we fell on first, and because we brought our strength to bear on them from many directions at once they could not truly judge our strength and were thrown into confusion. The fight was fierce nonetheless, and already tired and weak as I was it took everything I had to avoid being struck down and killed. However Arahael's plan worked well indeed for many of the defenders there were orcs already discomfited by the sunlight, and in the end it was not we who opened the gate, but our foe, who now encircled decided to try and run back the way they had come. The fight ended abruptly and a strange silence fell, for though we held the now open gate, as yet none came to make use of it, for the main part of the battle still raged elsewhere. I prayed that our sacrifice had not been in vain, for many of those who had sallied from the Keep with me now lay dead and those who still lived were now completely spent, as was I. We waited, listening to the sounds of battle ebb and flow, and then the men up on the battlement began to cry out. Those of us who still had the strength to do so roused ourselves and streamed out of the gate, and saw a column of men in red, under a red banner, marching our way, bearing hastily constructed siege ladders and a ram for the gate.
When they saw us in turn a roar went up and they dropped their siege materials and broke into a charge towards us. Our meeting was joyful, but they had pity in their eyes when they beheld us close to, and their day's work was far from done. They streamed past us through the gate, and having sent word back along the walls other companies soon began to follow. In the nick of time as it transpired, for the enemy had learned of what had happened at the East Gate and had sent reinforcements to try and retake it. However we played no further part in the battle that day ourselves, but tended to our wounded and dying until a supply cart was brought up and we were finally able to break our long fast, crowding eagerly round it. As we gratefully tore into small chunks of bread the quartermasters had cut up for us, telling us sternly that starving men must not eat too much too soon, a party of horsemen were seen approaching the gate. They were clearly of import, as men on foot they passed made way for them and did obeisance as they approached, and Arahael noting this called us to order. The hunk of bread was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten, and I could think of was that I wanted more, but like my fellows I reluctantly obeyed his call and we formed up as best we could, ragged and filthy. I stood at his side as the horsemen approached, and with a jolt knew one of them to be Lord Berthedir. The lead horseman who rode ahead of him was young, and clad in fine tooled armour like the rest of his party and I felt that I had seen his face somewhere before, but could not remember where. They halted before us, and another of their party who I did not know called out in a clear voice. "Brave men of Northford, you are in the presence of Prince Eldir of Rhudaur, to your knees". And to a man we did as we were bid.
The road was very busy, and I we passed numerous groups of impoverished looking folk trudging slowly southward, clutching their few possessions to them. I even fancied I recognised some of them, for most of them were stragglers from the north judging by their condition. We spoke to one group when we made camp later that evening, and it turned out the Prince's assurances that all would be succoured and cared for had turned out to be somewhat hollow. Supplies in the camp at Northford had run out after only two or three days, and aside of a few cloaks and blankets the survivors of the siege had then been left to fend for themselves, most choosing to go south with the many companies who were hastily leaving Northford, even before all had been set in order on the battlefield and in the town. Finishing that task would fall to the local men, despite the fact they had only just escaped battle and starvation, news which filled me with bitterness, for it was clear that we had not been stood down even after everything we had been through. I gave the travellers most of the coin that remained in my scrip and wished them well. They in turn wished me well, but when I made it known who I was and where I was going there was pity in their eyes despite their own desperate plight.
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