54. Chapter 53
Once the walls had been breached the fate of the army of Angmar in Northford was sealed, and though they fought stoutly they were soon surrounded and overwhelmed. The West Gate was also taken by storm and the battle soon became a one sided slaughter. None of the Northmen trapped within the walls lived to carry the tale back across the Ford. Berthedir and his ilk had shown little mercy to their own countrymen, so there was no reason to expect our foe to fare any better, however the idea of putting to death men who had surrendered and laid down their arms still made me feel uneasy, whoever they might be.
For our own part we could have no complaint. The Prince greeted us with courtesy and bid us rise and be at our ease. He praised us for our courage and fortitude and ordered that men should be sent to the Keep to render aid to those who remained there, notably Lord Berenion, so that they might be brought out of the town to the camp on the South Road to be fed and have their hurts tended to. He moved on into the carnage and ruined remains of the town surrounded by his retinue and we were left to make our way back around the walls to the camp. It was another fine summer's day, and I was already feeling the benefit of having eaten something wholesome at long last, and though I was deathly weary I felt glad to be alive. Signs of the aftermath of the battle were everywhere, but I had seen so much death now that it made little impression on me, even when we reached the North Gate and saw the corpses of the Northmen lying thick as autumn leaves within where they had made their last stand.
The day was hot and I was filthy, and as we passed the broken gate in the defensive rampart at the ford I was suddenly filled with an urge to strike out across the jumble of boulders, gravel banks and narrow channels and bathe in the cold clean water of the river again like I had so often done as a child. I made my excuses to my fellows, but when they heard what I proposed to do many declared that they wished to join me, and soon a number of us were striking out through the cold clean water towards the deeper channels in the centre of the riverbed. It seemed I was not the only one who had been so minded for we passed many other hot and weary soldiers who were bathing or cleaning their gear on the shingle banks, and there was room enough for all . We finally came over a bank to a channel that was at least chest deep and I stopped, slowly stripped off all my gear and clothing and strode gratefully into the cold deep water and felt the strong push of the current. The initial shock of it took my breath away, but once I was in the water experienced a great feeling of wellbeing, the woes of the wide world around me disappeared for a moment and it was as if I was a young boy again, playing at being a fish. I pushed against the current as best I could so that I should not be taken too far downstream and surfaced spluttering and gasping happily as my fellows leapt and splashed in the water all around. Then I caught sight of the the ruins on the far bank on the one hand, and the greater and more grotesque ruins of Northford proper on the other where I had been used to seeing the town whole, and the momentary spell was broken. I was also becoming excessively chilled, most likely as a result of my hunger and weakness, and quickly made my way back out of the water and onto the shingle bank and lay on the warm stones in the heat of the sun. We were all pitifully thin, all ribs and angles, and I wondered how we had managed to fight a battle in such a poor state.
After a little while the initial joy of having escaped the siege and still being alive was overtaken by thoughts of all those who had not been so fortunate, and the need to make our way to the camp to obtain more food. I, like many of my fellows had taken advantage of the situation after bathing and washed my gear and undergarments as best I could in the river, leaving them to dry on the rocks in the sun. We dressed quickly and began to make our way back across the ford and joined the tide of men streaming back along the walls towards the camp on the South Road. It was a vast settlement, larger than any I had seen before, and it was hard to believe that it had only been there since the day before. Men came and went in great numbers, and the air was thick with the smoke of cooking fires, shouted orders and curses, and here and there the cries of wounded and dying men. When we got to the road we found large numbers of townsfolk who had come down from the Keep queuing patiently to receive small rations of bread and ladles of broth from a couple of wains that had been commandeered for the purpose. We joined them, full of pity for what they had endured, and the uncertain future they now faced with their homes in ruins. The Prince however had been as good as his word so far, and after receiving their first meal they were instructed to disperse themselves through the camp, where the various companies would provide them with further food and drink and whatever other help they could arrange. After receiving our own portions with gratitude we made our way down the road through the throng, seeking the Prince's camp and hoping we might get some news of Berenion there. In the event a soldier in Lastbridge livery accosted Arahael, and asked him if he was Captain of the Garrison, or if not if he knew where that man might be found. When he confirmed that he was indeed he that was sought he was informed that the Prince wished to speak to him, and we parted.
As we continued along the road the crowds began to thin a little, and suddenly I saw a face I recognised among the many. My heart leapt, for I could not be mistaken, though he looked a little older and more grizzled than I remembered him. It was none other than Galunir Of Watersmeet, who had been in my squad and who I had promoted to sergeant during the march on High Burgh. He saw us, and halted with a look of concern and sympathy on his face, though it was clear he did not recognise me personally. "You must be Northford Lads, in fact I think I fought alongside some of you when we were posted up here. The Watersmeet camp is just up ahead on the right of the road by the side of the old barn, if you're looking for some food and somewhere to rest up you will be made most welcome there". We thanked him, and he made to continue on his errand, but I caught his eye and spoke to him. "Galunir, good to see you again my friend. Do you not know me?" He looked nonplussed, and as well he might, for I was half starved and bearded, but a look of surprise, then disbelief and finally joy crossed his face. "Esteldir? This cannot be! We heard you had fallen in the Shaws, and yet here you stand before me under the sun, albeit somewhat worse for wear. Amongst all the sorrows of battle this is a piece of good news I did not expect!" And with that we embraced warmly, and parted with promises that he would soon return and we would share our stories over a good meal and some ale. Much cheered we made our way into the camp of the Watersmeet Company, and found our welcome every bit as warm as he had promised it would be.
About an hour later I was sat in the sun with the surviving members of my old squad exchanging news and reminiscing when Galunir returned from his errand, accompanied by Arahael and none other than Daeron. They were solemn, but a smile broke out across Daeron's face when he saw me, and I rose and we embraced strongly. He too looked older and less boyish than when I had last seen him, and was now clad in good plate, but the smile was still the same. "Not all news today is grim, for this is a joy unlooked for! I could scarce take in what Galunir was telling me, but I see that it is true and that you do indeed still walk among us. A great joy indeed, for it is good to see you again my friend". He placed his hand on my shoulder and a became solemn again. " I regret that I must be the bearer of ill news however. I regret that Lord Berenion did not live to see the siege lifted. He lies with honour in the Prince's camp, and will be taken home to be buried with his forefathers. It was a privilege to have served alongside him, for he was the very best of men". His voice tailed off and I shook my head sadly. "I feared as much, for I spent much time with him ere the end, and weakened by hunger and exhaustion his wound had turned bad. He fell into a an uneasy slumber from which he could not be woken two days since, and I hoped beyond hope that we could get him to a leech in time once the siege had been lifted, but it was not to be. I will miss him, for he was much more than a captain and lord to me in the end, and I owe him much". I had seen so much death, but this single loss cut me deeply, and tears began to roll unheeded down my cheeks. We went quietly through the camp to Daeron's tent, each of us thinking of the good friend we had lost.
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