65. Chapter 64
I arrived at the Keep, grateful that the charnel outside the walls had been cleared away. Once again those on the gate were pleased to see me and entered within the familiar towering grey walls that had been home for most of my life. The place was empty and quiet, and much of the dirt and debri that had been present when I had last been there had again been cleared away. The rain pattered down onto a courtyard that was now in a rough and ruinous state, with large areas of cobbles having been pulled up to be used as weapons. I guessed correctly that one of the duties that would fall to us in the weeks and months ahead would be to repair them.
I made my way through the silent passageways and deserted stairways until I reached the lord's apartments. Nobody stood guard there now, so I rapped on the door and went in, and found a typically haggard looking Arahael sat at is table reading a scroll. He leapt to his feet with a look of pleasure on his face and coming round the table to where I stood embraced me warmly. "Esteldir my good friend" he said smiling "you are a sight for weary eyes. Yet I did not look to see you returned for some time yet, you should have tarried in Lastbridge awhile, for you as much as any man here deserved some rest!" I thought he deserved it far more than I but did not say so, for his words were like a knife in the heart to me, so sharp I could not speak for a moment. I could have tarried there - and would have given anything to have been able to do so, for I might have had the chance learn more of the lady and she of me, and I would have been able to learn for sure whether my affection for her was returned at all. "Are you well?" asked Arahael, with a look of sudden concern on his face. "Yes, quite" I replied, smiling sadly. "I would gladly have remained there a few days, but thought you would need me back here as soon as possible, for there is much to do. How fare you?" He laughed "I divine that some pretty young thing has stolen your heart, and I am sorry I we did not speak clearly on the matter before you left. I am well, as well as may be. The Prince and most of the army left us as soon as they decently could, but the men of Bearcliffe remained here and rendered us great aid. Most of what needed to be done has now been done though a good deal of it was hard to endure. Tell me, how went things with Lord Berenion's return to Elford? I thank you for the service you did him there".
I related the sad tale in all its detail, and after hearing it he shook his head. "I agree with the Captain, you did nothing wrong in this case. I am glad for all our sakes that he was a just and upright man, or the pretty little thing you left behind in Lastbridge would have been left forlorn and I would have been robbed of my right hand. Though it has to be said that we are not Lord and Captain of much here now, for we guard a ruin and we have barely enough men to call a company left to man this Keep. We remain here so the King can still claim his writ runs this far up the Hoarwell, and we can do no more that watch. For when the enemy returns we will not have the means to hinder him and it is likely that we will soon be bested one way or another. The men we have here now are those with the least to lose, youngsters like you or greybeards with no kin or wife. You no doubt you met Cenric and the others on the road, when the Prince ordained that Northford Town be abandoned I could not in all conscience ask them to remain here on this fruitless watch and send their families away south, so Daeron came to my aid in the matter. No doubt Barachon will rant and fume when he hears I have sent half my strength away south to tend sheep and grow oats between the rivers with their wives, but I care little". He laughed drily and I joined him.
It was time for the evening meal, so we descended to the great hall and I was reunited with the rest of my men. There were many glad reunions, but just as many sad tidings regarding men who had once supped with us there in the hall. Those who remained were some of the most experienced and battle hardened soldiers in the whole of the Kingdom, and I felt a little surge of pride at the thought that I now commanded them. I swore to myself that I would always do them justice, whatever awaited us.
After the meal I made my way back through the now pitch dark to what had previously been my room. Miraculously, although somewhat disordered it was still more or less as I had left it. I set my candle down on the window ledge and spent a while returning the place to some semblance of order. When all was done I sat by the window and looked out on a view that would once have been punctuated by the faint light of lanterns and torches in the town below, but now the dark was complete and unbroken. My thoughts inevitably returned to Idhrethil, and once again I relived the pang of anguish I felt when I learned that I could have remained longer in Lastbridge. If only she could be here in this room, I thought to myself, what quiet pleasure we could take in each other's company, and how happy would she be to be back in the land of her birth? And yet this was an old draughty Keep set among ruins in a cold and empty land. The place she longed for no longer existed, and what was I to her? We had spent a pleasant evening together, but I would soon be forgotten. My thoughts ran their familiar course until I was too weary to continue, and I snuffed out the candle and threw myself down the bed and let sleep take me.
It did not take me long for me to become accustomed to my new role, and it was something of a solace to be able to throw myself into it. It took me a little while to become accustomed to the idea that it was I who was expected to make decisions and decide what orders to give, rather than simply passing them on which had usually been the case for me as a lieutenant. However I soon grew in confidence and after a little while found that I rather enjoyed it. The men responded well to me on the whole, for I perhaps now I had a name and reputation of my own in a small way after my various deeds, and my tender years were not so important any more. My diligent work meant Arahael had more time to deal with the many petty duties that came with the rank of Lord, and keeping the men well drilled and busy was an antidote to the long hours of boredom and inactivity. The courtyard was soon repaired, and we sent foraging parties out through the town looking through the ruins for any useful items, of which there were a surprising quantity, for despite their ferocity the fires had not managed to consume everything. Every now and again we would go south into the hills in numbers to cut wood and hunt what we could, for winter was on its way and we needed to build up our stores. Every two or three weeks a supply column would wind its way up from Bearcliffe, and we would receive fresh supplies, messages and ordinances from Lastbridge and the latest gossip, and this became the rhythm of our new life. As ever after a big defeat the enemy had gone quiet, but we remained south of the river and I did not allow our watch to falter.
I still thought of Idrethil constantly, and secretly hoped that one day one of the message scrolls that came north with our supplies would be to me from her, but it was never the case. Even after the first snows came I would still go up to the roof of the gatehouse tower at sunset and look south and think of her, wondering what she was doing and whether she ever spared a thought for me. I hoped beyond hope that Arahael would find cause to send me southward for a spell, but that did not happen. In any event I had made myself too useful to him, and no call came, for as he had foreseen it was almost as if Lastbridge had forgotten us.
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