56. Chapter 55
It was dawn when we awoke to the urgent blaring of horns, and for an unpleasant moment I thought I was still under siege in the Keep, on the roof of the tower, and the day before had all been a wishful dream. The air had grown hot and still in the night, and dark clouds, heavy with the promise of rain and thunder had crept over the stars as we slept and blotted them out. By the time I had realised where I truly was and what had befallen me the whole camp was in uproar and men were hastily throwing on their gear and forming up. Daeron and Galunir had already gone, but Eryndir came striding past, buckling up his sword belt as he went and when he saw Arahael and I reaching for our own gear he shook his head and gestured for us to remain where we were. "This is not your fight today, remain at your ease. A force has indeed come south from Angmar, but I daresay that unless they are great in number then they have come too late and will not cross the ford to face us".
And so it proved, our sentries on the wall at the ford had sighted many men gathered in the pre dawn gloom on the far bank and had raised the alarm. But by the time the camp had mobilised and our host had formed up ready to face them they had melted away, no doubt unmanned by our far greater numbers. It was not long before the soldiers came back, disgruntled and disappointed at the false alarm. Some of the captains had pleaded to be allowed to cross the river and mount a pursuit, but they had been overruled, those in command knew time was of the essence, and the army's stay in the north could not be prolonged for what might turn out to be a vain pursuit, or worse still another trap.
Though still very early, there was now little hope of getting any more sleep, so we rose and joined the returning soldiers of the company in queuing up at the quartermaster's tent for our breakfast ration. I stood with Arahael, and some of our other men who had joined us, but spoke little, our mood reflecting the gloomy overcast above. I knew I was being asked to carry out a noble duty, and was honoured to have been asked to do so, but at that moment I did not want to leave them. We had been through so much together, and there was more to come, for once the dead had been buried the burden of clearing the keep and restoring it to some kind of order would surely fall on them as well. I promised myself that I would not tarry, but it would be a long journey to Berenion's family home in the hills above Elford. He had often spoken to me of the place during our long discussions together, and in my minds eye it was now the same as my family home in Rushwater Vale would have been. He knew I had spent a Yule with Daeron, and often jested that I should do the same with him now that he commanded me, but that would never happen now.
After we had eaten, and under a sky that was growing darker and more menacing by the hour I parted from my fellows with words of solidarity and hope and made my way to the Prince's encampment, where I was given a cloak and surcoat in better repair than those I currently wore, and taken to the covered wagon that bore Berenion's body. It lay well wrapped amongst the stores for the journey, and a guard of men from his local company stood close by, ready to commence their march home. I was received politely and fell in with the sergeant, another man I remembered well, and after we had set off we passed the early part of the march reminiscing about the fights we had been in together. But we had not gone far when my weakness began to tell on me, and I was forced to climb onto the wagon alongside the driver, for despite my mortification at this indignity my companions appeared sympathetic. Once again I found myself on a cart taking a body for burial, and as we passed the entrance to Rushwater Vale on the far bank later that morning I was reminded of that sunny day so many years before when we had taken my grandfather to be buried. So much had changed though, the body that lay behind me was only a source of sadness now, not fear, for I had seen death in all its guises. And I was strongly reminded of the kindness and nobility of Angon too at that moment, and my previous anger towards him subsided considerably. I thought I might try and see him again now if the opportunity presented itself when we passed through Lastbridge.
It began to rain at last, great fat drops splashing on the dry ground, but then stopped as abruptly as it had started, and the still, close air returned. I thought that there must be a huge thunderstorm on the way, and hoped that we could find shelter before it arrived. A little further down the road a fresh burial mound stood in the meadow off to the right towards the river. I remembered with a pang that Huron and a good few of his men had become cut off during the battle and been forced to flee down the South Road. It seemed that their journey had ended here, and I was forced to ponder once again on the small chances and misfortunes that made the difference between life and death. I had barely made it back to the relative safety of the gate myself, and could so very easily have ended up sharing their fate.
It was mid afternoon when the storm finally broke in earnest, and I was woken from my fitful sleep by a colossal clap of thunder. This was soon followed by more lightning and a tremendous downpour. It made the remainder of our journey that day a miserable affair, but it would have been as nothing compared to those I had left behind in Northford trying to dig pits and collect the bodies of the fallen would be enduring. There were also the townsfolk to consider, most of them out in the open with little more than the clothes they stood up in. I felt for their plight, for if Arahael's prediction was true and Northford was to be abandoned then many of them now faced a very uncertain future. It would be bad enough for those with family or relations to turn to further south, but those without would be trying to make their way in towns whose streets were already full of the hungry and destitute. Too many souls had already been displaced from their homes by the long war, lost their livelihoods or been badly wounded and paid off by the army. There had always been a few in every town for as long as I could remember, but now every time I had visited Bearcliffe there seemed to be more and more, and they were no longer obvious hard luck cases but ordinary everyday folk who had fled the fighting or been thrown off their holdings because they could no longer pay the ever increasing tithes and taxes to their masters, who in turn could not meet the ever increasing demands of their increasingly impoverished rulers.
I pondered on this sad state of affairs wrapped in my cloak and partially sheltered on the bench of the wain alongside the driver, watching the steam rise from the slick coats of the sturdy little horses pulling us. The men marching alongside were much less fortunate, and we were all very grateful when the rain finally gave way to watery sunshine a few hours later. We had made good time and had reached the relative safety of the ruined way station, for a supply train of wains with an escort travelling north were already setting up camp there when we arrived. I was relieved that there would be no need to take a turn on night watch now, and we exchanged news with our new neighbours, who had heard the result of the battle from despatch riders but were keen to hear about it greater detail. I helped the taciturn carter settle the horses and then made my excuses and retired for the night, falling into a deep asleep almost immediately.
The following day's journey passed uneventfully, and we reached Bearcliffe as the sun was dropping in the sky. The place bustled as usual, and as I had feared there seemed to be more ragged and hungry souls than ever lining the gutters, many of them pleading for coin. I felt guilty, as my scrip contained some of the unspent soldier's stipend that I had had the good fortune or lack of good sense to carry with me into battle. It would doubtless have turned into someone else's luck had I been killed, but there was certainly enough in it to keep a large family fed for a several days. Hardening my heart against them, I avoided their pleading eyes and reasoned that they had not been starved and narrowly avoided death as I had, so I had earned what I carried. Due to the nature of our errand we were permitted to spend the night in the Keep for a change, and I once again noted how similar a place it was to our own, although a little older and in a more dramatic setting. The climb up to it was just as steep for the cart though.
The rest of the journey to Lastbridge passed without incident, but we were constantly asked for new of the latest battle, and tell what we knew of the prowess of the Prince to those we met along the way. The reappearance of royal blood on a battlefield, and the raising of such a great host after so many years had clearly inspired much pride and admiration. I had hoped I might get the opportunity to spend an evening in Lastbridge, for obvious reasons, but in the event we arrived there at noon, and the men, keen to return to their homes and also to lay their Lord, whose remains were evidently and unavoidably in increasingly poor condition in the back of the wagon, to rest as soon as possible. So we entered under the mighty walls and made our way through the crush in the streets and squares, and I looked wistfully up at the vast sprawling fortress and citadel up on the crag as we passed along the road below. I wondered if Angon still lived and went about his business within those walls, and how I would truly feel if I were to meet him again. Then we passed out through the East Gate, and our journey continued into a part of the country I had never seen before.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.