67. Chapter 66
In the days and weeks that followed I did what I had always done after a reverse and threw myself into my work, devoting myself to my many duties and exhausting myself in the practice yard. It was small solace however, and I was still consumed by feelings of loss and regret. When at length I spoke to Arahael about what had happened he was surprisingly kind, and his words were wise and soothing. "Every one of us has at least one great love in his lifetime, be it requited or no, and maybe she was yours. I can see what you saw in her too, and you must not judge her too harshly in her choice of match, for consider that she did not perhaps have a great deal of choice in the matter. Angon said she was alone and without kin, a songbird in a wood full of crows". I saw the sadness in his eyes as he spoke, and something in the tone of his voice, and asked him if he had known such a love. "Indeed" he replied quielty, "like you I lost her to another many years ago, and the pain of that loss is still sharp, though I know that I will never see her again. This is my wife now" he said, patting the hilt at his side, "and mayhap it must become yours too". He fell silent, and we spoke no further on the matter.
Arahael was true to his word, and once matters had been set in order to his satisfaction released me from my duties and sent me on a superfluous errand to Lastbridge, telling me to tarry there as long as I saw fit. I greeted this news with gratitude, but without the delight and anticipation it would have engendered a few months before. For all that I was glad that I would get to see Angon again and have the chance to spend time with him remembering the old days and browsing the volumes in the library with him. So it was that I set off southward with the next supply train, and found things in Bearcliffe as bad as ever. Several buildings had been burned along the main thoroughfare and it was fortunate that the place avoided the same fate as Northford. A great crowd of hungry folk had attacked a bakery and an army storehouse there during the winter, and during the melee that ensued they had been set ablaze. Blood had been shed quelling the unrest, and there was still an uneasy atmosphere in the town. The guards at the North Gate advised me not to walk the streets or alleyways alone in my soldier's gear, especially after nightfall, and I assured them I had no intention of doing so. Instead reacquainted myself with my friend Captain Norchon at the Keep and spent another good evening in his company before resuming my journey south the following day. All his news seemed ill, however, and listening to him made me realise that our lot in Northford Keep might not be so bad after all, so long as none came to assail us from the north.
The rest of the journey was uneventful, and on reaching Lastbridge I made my way through the crowded streets and up the steep way that led to the gates of the Fortress. Though I had determined not to spend any more time thinking about Idhrethil, I could not help recalling with a pang that I had first seen her there, or that she most likely lay somewhere close by within those walls. I tried as best I could to dismiss her from my mind, and reported to the gatehouse, where I was once again admitted with courtesy. Afterwards I made my way directly to the citadel and again after a short wait a servant came to collect me, but instead of taking me to the library as I had expected given that the hour was not long past noon, he took me directly to Angon's apartments. He told me that he was unwell and not expected to live much longer. This was a further dagger to my heart, for we had had no news of this in the north, and I hoped that I had not come too late.
He lay abed, gaunt and aged beyond his years, his eyes full of suffering, but he smiled and roused himself when he saw me standing before him. "My son" he said, his voice high and querulous, "you have come to see me again, and I am glad. Sit with me awhile and tell me your tidings". I did as I was bid, but as I settled on a stool by the bed he was suddenly wracked with pain, and I clasped his claw like hand until the episode passed. "The leeches can do nothing for me, and my time is nearly done. Death will me a mercy for me now, and I do not fear it, for I have led a good life and lived into my dotage when so many others did not. If you can, take me back to the north and bury me with my fathers when I am gone, I would like to lie in the soil of the country I loved so much and devoted my life to".
Then I told him of all that had passed since our last meeting, and he in turn spoke of the comings and goings in Lastbridge, and how he had become ill soon after we had last parted. The subject inevitably came round to Idhrethil and the weddings and he looked sad. "That poor child, the time we spent together in the library was a boon to both of us, but her husband to be put a stop to it as soon as he learned of it. I do not think it is a happy match, nor do I think one she chose willingly. It is sad that you were not able to spend more time here and get to know her better, for you would have been far better suited, and I believe she thought well of you when you met. It would have made me happy to see the two young people I cared most for in the world together". I smiled and said nothing in reply, but Angon's words had reopened all the old wounds, and I felt the pain of loss keenly once again.
I remained with him for a further three and a half weeks, spending my days at his bedside reading to him from his favourite books and manuscripts and keeping him company while he was awake, and watching over him while he slept. Arahael had not given me any particular date by which to return, and I knew anyway that he would have spared me without hesitation for the particular duty I had taken on. Angon had no visitors apart from the servants who called regularly and brought us food, and the Leech who visited once a day to administer potions to ease his suffering. Towards the end he slept almost continuously, but the day he died he awoke and was calm and lucid, thanking me for all I had done and wishing me well, and receiving my thanks and love in turn. Afterwards he smiled, fell back to sleep and did not wake again. Later that evening he stirred a little, and was still, and I knew that his spirit had departed the world.
I called a servant and told him what had passed, and an hour or so later was surprised by the arrival of a deputation at the door, led by a tall man of great age and authority dressed in black with sharp features whose manner immediately put me in mind of one of the great spiders from the old tales. I guessed him to be someone of rank from the way the others who had come with him did obeisance to him, so thought it prudent to rise, bow and give him my name and rank. He looked surprised to find me there, and further surprised by my rank, but returned the courtesy naming himself as Barachon, Lord Steward of Rhudaur. I realised at once that I was in the presence of one of the most powerful men in the realm, a man I had heard so many takes of, but I was determined to hold my nerve nonetheless.
He took in the scene in the room and frowned, his eyes sharp and keen, belying his age. "So he is gone indeed, one who could never be faulted for his devotion to service, even if his practice of it was often misguided and led us to ruination in the north". I bridled silently at this but hoped my face had not betrayed my true feelings, and I spoke up, praying my voice would not betray me either. "In the North at least there are still some who would still mourn for him, and he asked me to lay him to rest in the earth of his home if I could. My Lord, please grant me permission and the means to fulfill his dying wishes".
Barachon's face darkened, and I felt as if he had read my private thoughts. "Nay, I deny your request. He died without title or priviledge, for they were stripped from him in life and he will not regain them in death. It was enough that he was given leave to see out his days here, comfortable, well provided for and free to do as he wished. Do not gainsay me further on this matter!" I had no difficulty understanding the menace in his voice. He turned to one of his attendants, saying "make arrangements for a simple burial tomorrow", gave me a token nod and swept back out of the room with his retinue in tow behind him.
Alone again I gave full vent to my rage and grief, and wept profusely until resignation and weariness finally overcame me. Then I set things in order there as best I could and I watched over Angon's body until dawn, thinking of him until I fell into a fitfull sleep.
The servants and the gravedigger came for him at sunrise and he was borne out of the Citadel and down into the town on a handcart. The burial grounds lay to the east of the town wall, beside the great road. It was a fine summer's day, the scented morning air full of the promise of heat to come, and filled with birdsong. I helped dig the grave and lay the body in the earth, then we paused awhile in case any others who might have got word of his passing wished to witness his burial. However none came, so I spoke about the man I had known, and about everything he had done for me, and then I said the words of departure for him Then we buried him in a place far from home where few if any would ever remember him. So passed Angon, Lord Of Northford and the Northern Marches, one of the wisest and most noble men I ever knew.
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