64. Chapter 63
It was not long before the rain began to fall in earnest on our column, and it darkened my mood further. I was however soon shaken from my introspection by the sight of the many poor wretches we passed travelling the road southward, clutching small bundles of possessions and still looking half starved and desperate. For these were the remnants of the people of Northford who had survived the siege with us, now hoping against hope to find some food and shelter in Lastbridge. When we halted for the night a small group asked if they could join us, and we shared our rations with them. It seemed the Prince's promise to help them all had rung hollow, for supplies in the camp had run low in a matter of days and the main body of the army hastily decamped and retreated south as a result. The townsfolk were left to fend for themselves and follow as best they could. The soldiers who travelled with them did show them kindness where they could, and provided them with protection until they reached Bearcliffe, but the streets there were already crowded with fugitives from earlier troubles and there was little help to be found. As a result most had no choice but to continue on the road southward, though many were barely fit to travel and still half starved. I gave them most of the coin that remained in my scrip, and they thanked me with tears in their eyes, but when they learned who I was and where I was headed they regarded me with a mixture of pity and sympathy, despite their own desperate straits.
Things were indeed bad when we got to Bearcliffe, and my companions were forced to make a way through the crowded streets for the wains, for hungry crowds gathered around them pleading for aid, and some desperate souls even tried to clamber onto them and attempt to take what they carried. Needless to say they were beaten back with spear butts and thrown down without pity or ceremony, and when I saw what was happening I was angered and sickened by the sight. I could bear to watch no longer and pushed my way into the crowd, going back the way we had come for a short way until the street grew quieter. I wondered if the soldiers would have been so rough if they had been from Northford or Bearcliffe, and could happily have struck them down, but after I while I calmed down and considered wearily that once again they had little choice but to do as they were bid. Only a few years since, though it could have been a lifetime, I had been a young soldier full of ideas about honour and service and deplored the way of some of the veterans talked about their commanders, the king, and soldiering in general. Now, even though I was not yet of any age myself I knew that they had mostly been right, and I did not like it.
I climbed the narrow streets and back alleys up to the Keep, made myself known there and was greeted warmly by the captain on duty, who was himself freshly returned from the north. He informed me that I had missed a supply train going north by a day, and that he knew of nobody else that would be going north for at least a week. Conversely he expected that there would be further arrivals heading his way, so the road would not be empty by any means and I was at liberty to continue my journey alone, or remain as his guest until the next string of wains went north. I thanked him for his kind offer, but told him that I would be taking the first option, for I had no desire to remain in that place with its crowded streets full of desperation. I passed a pleasant enough evening with him and his fellows, many of whom I knew well, hearing the latest news and discussing what might happen next. Before he had left for the south the Prince had decreed that Northbridge town would be abandoned, since it now lay in ruins and the cost of defending it both in men and coin were grown too great to justify. The remaining townsfolk were ordered to relocate to the enclave round Bearcliffe or further south, and a small garrison would remain stationed at the Keep, to watch over the ford and vale under the command of Lord Arahael. There was however general bemusement as to what exactly he would be expected to do if ten thousand northmen arrived on the north bank of the river, or how he might send warning southward if the road were cut off. I was treated sympathetically, like the poor wretches I had met on the road my fellows clearly regarded me with a measure of pity on account of what might lie ahead for us all.
The events in the town and my preoccupation with what I had learned the previous evening had kept the Lady from my thoughts to some degree, but once I had set out again early the following morning I once again found myself thinking of little else and was haunted by a longing to be with her once again. I played over every detail of the time we had spent together two days since, and found myself pitched between elation and despair as I thought of one detail or another, of how she had clasped my hand, or how I should have had more courage and taken her in my arms and declared my feelings for her. For even if rebuffed, what did I stand to lose? It would have been of no consequence given my situation, and yet on the other hand it would have meant everything to know of her favour during the lonely watches that lay ahead in that grim Keep overlooking the ruins of the town where I was born and grew up. My heart ached and there was no surcease.
The road was quieter than I expected and the only others I met coming in the other direction were one of the last Bearcliffe companies to return south. They reported the road to be quiet, but urged caution. The men looked weary and dispirited, and I guessed that they had been left behind to help with the grim work of burying the dead. It was noon when I met them on the road and I did not see another soul until that evening, but it was clear even from a distance that a large number of people were gathered at the old way station and that not all of them were soldiers. As I approached, sentries who I recognised as being from among my own men challenged me, and then greeted me enthusiastically.They told me that they were mostly men with families who had been living in Northford, and when the Prince had given his edict that the town was to be abandoned it had put Arahael in a difficult position. For those men would either have had to send their loved ones away south to who knew where, or if they had stayed in the town in defiance of orders then it would have meant more mouths to feed, and great peril if the enemy returned. Before he had left for the south, Daeron had also foreseen this and had spoken with his old friend on the matter and now the men and their families were travelling south to Watersmeet. The signed decree they bore declared that they had been transferred to the Watersmeet Company and a the end of their journey they would be given homes and land to settle. Hope of a new and better life waited for them in the south. I realised from the size of the column that this amounted to a considerable sacrifice on Arahael's part, for the garrison at Northford Keep would now be a very small one indeed, barely larger than a single company, and he might well incur the wrath of his Commanders in Lastbridge for his actions if they discovered what he had done.
I spent a cold but otherwise tranquil night in their company, and was able to tell them much about the road south and what they would find at the end of it. To my surprise I found my old friend Cenric amongst them, sat by the spluttering fire beside a handsome blonde haired woman, for I had not known he had a wife in the town. It turned out that she was the widow of one of his old friends, lost a few years before patrolling in the vales, and they had grown close since that time having nobody else to call their own. I wished him well, and hoped our paths would cross again in happier times. He thanked me, and returned my good wishes, but his face was grim. "I am a son of the Shaws, but have given my whole life to fighting for the King and the people of the north. Now the King wages war on my kin, and has let the north fall into ruin and abandoned it. I wish you all the good fortune in the world, young Lordling, but I no longer know who or what I fight for. Given the chance I would cast aside my gear and set to farming a small plot with my lovely Eiris here, perhaps young Daeron will see to it for me. But I wish you well with all my heart, for you are every bit the man your father was now, and he was the best I have known", He rose and we embraced strongly, and there were a few tears on both our parts for all the long years of hardship and suffering we had shared. It did not seem possible there would now be a Keep without Cenric in it.
It was raining hard again in the morning, and I left my companions with a heavy heart full of foreboding, which for a little while it drove out all thought of the Lady Idhrethil. But not for long, and once again the familiar pattern of debate, elation and doubt preoccupied me as I trod my path through the familiar landscape of rain soaked forest and crag. I met no other on the road that day, or any trouble, and made good time, arriving wet and cold among the scattered ruins of the hinterland south of the town later on in the afternoon. Out of habit, as I always did, I cast a wistful glance across the river into the entrance to Rushwater Vale as I passed, but now my attention was also drawn towards the confluence of the Brightwater, marking the end of the vale where the woman who had captured my heart had once lived as a child. She too was now the mistress of ruins, and it was something that bound us together.
I confess I wept a little when the ruins of Northford came into view, stark against the slate grey sky, with the walls of the Keep standing naked above what had once been a thriving town. I wept a little more too when I passed the great fresh mounds of earth alongside the road where too many good men lay, thrown into the pits together without ceremony, but by the time I reached the town gate and was challenged by the sentries I had mastered myself and was once again their captain. They came down from the wall and opened the gate for me and greeted me warmly, and I them, and then after a brief discussion and exchange of news I made my way up through the dreary ruins to the Keep. Despite the rain that continued to fall there was still a strong stench of burnt wood and damp ash hanging over the place, a choking smell that I knew only too well from the time I had spent by the burnt out ruins of my family home as a child. It was a stench I had learned to hate.
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