68. Chapter 67
I returned north without delay, still seething at the way Barachon had dealt with me in the matter of Angon's burial, and the way he had spoken of him even in death as one who had failed, when I knew the truth of the matter was quite different. A feeling of disillusion and betrayal gnawed at me, for this was all of a piece with what had happened during the campaign against the Hillmen. What and who were we fighting and dying for? I asked myself. I had spent my whole adult life so far as a soldier, but if it was the likes of Barachon that I toiled to serve and defend then perhaps my labour was all in vain and my loyalty had been misplaced. Again I now understood fully why the bitter old timers I had disliked so much in my younger days had spoken the way they had and I also felt anger towards Idhrethil, for she of all people should have been at the burial. But again doubts crept in, perhaps she had not heard the news in time, or had been prevented from attending.
I was welcomed back to Northford Keep with surprise and many questions by Arahael, for this time he had not expected me to tarry nearly so long as I had in Lastbridge. However when he learned what had delayed me there I was instantly absolved of any fault, for I was the first to carry the news of it northward. My sorrow, and also my anger were both shared in equal measure, and later that evening Arahael gathered the men in the Great Hall and told them too, for many had served under Angon and had loved him well. We remembered him, and stood in silence in his memory, and then Arahael said the words of departure for him on his native soil, so in spirit at least his dying wish was observed.
The remainder of that year passed quietly, and still Angmar did not come, so our life of fretful idleness continued. However as winter approached and the weather turned colder I noticed that Arahael had developed a persistent cough, and one that worsened over time rather than clearing up of its own accord. It was soon the case that he would be overcome and doubled up in pain if a fit took him in the midst of a conversation, but old fighter that he was he insisted on making light of it. I could see the ailment was serious and beginning to wear him down, so I went to him and implored him to travel south to seek help, but he would not hear of it. "It is nothing, and will soon pass" he said grimacing, "and if it is something, then so be it. I will not go south like Angon did and die alone, friendless and forgotten in an unfamiliar place. I will remain here, for better or worse, where I have always belonged. I have looked death in the face too often these last few years to fear him any more, and if my time is come then I would rather die in my cot surrounded by friends than be skewered and trampled on some muddy battlefield". His words shocked me, for I realised then that things must have been far worse than I had realised, and tears sprang to my eyes. But he admonished me for them, saying that this was not the time, and nor was he yet done.
But his time came all too soon, and his body, already lean and battered by a life of constant privation and hardship finally gave out to the illness two weeks before Yule. He passed away in his room, surrounded by friends as he had wished, but it was long and full of distress, and we could do little to ease it at last. It fell to me once again to oversee the burial of one I had loved dearly, and now the world seemed a dark and unrelenting place. All those I had loved and looked to for guidance and protection were gone, and I would now have to make my own way without them. I acted as decisively as I could, sending a messenger south with the news of Arahael's passing, and requesting further orders, and then we made our way through the deep winter snow to the burial ground on the hillside above the South Road and gave him a send off that he would have been proud of.
The men, as shocked and saddened as I was by the sudden death of a much loved and admired captain, were compliant enough to begin with where I was concerned, but I soon had to make it clear that I would brook no insubordination or dissent from them by meting our harsh punishments to two miscreants in particular who chose to challenge my authority. Indeed I had no choice but to draw a blade on one of them when things went too far.
My actions appeared to have had the desired effect and life settled back into its normal routine, and if I was not loved by the men at least they knew I would not be gainsaid or shown any disrespect, openly at any rate. The new year was nearly two months old by the time a messenger was able to bring word from Lastbridge, along with some much needed supplies. The message was short and to the point, for it turned out that Arahael would effectively be the last Lord of Northford and henceforth the garrison in the Keep would fall under the command of and report to the Lord Of Bearcliffe instead. We were ordered to remain in post continue our duties until further notice.
I understood only too well what this meant, and it was the news I had expected. There was no instruction to report to my new master, a large man with a sharp manner named Turchon, and I had no doubt he had troubles enough of his own to deal with without adding ours to them. It seemed we watched and guarded the northern borders of the realm in name only now, and the task was no longer deemed important enough to send anyone of rank or stature northward to oversee it. Later that evening, there was a murmur of discontent from the men when I read the order out to them in the great hall, for it was clear they also understood its import.
So we remained at our posts, watching over the silent ruins and empty vale as another year passed, and still our enemy made no move. However in time the men did grow to trust me, for I always did my best to act justly and did not insist on ceremony with them where it served no purpose. Since no further directives came north from our new master with the increasingly erratic supply trains I took it upon myself to grant the men leave, a few dozen at a time, and those who wished to visit Bearcliffe for a week or two were free to do so. Unfortunately not all those who I had allowed south returned, for some of them took the opportunity to desert. Those who did come back brought tales of disturbances and unrest and many rumours about the king dying and the growing strength and influence of the new chieftain in High Burgh.
I became exasperated with the situation and eventually made the journey myself, wishing to attempt to discuss the supply issues and I left one of my most trusted lieutenants in command in my stead. When I arrived there the streets of Bearcliffe were crowded and there were soldiers everywhere. While there had not been any repeat of the previous year's disorder it was clearly felt that a repetition was likely. The previously well ordered fields of the enclave close to the town walls were now littered with hastily thrown up hovels, and no trees remained within a wide area. The haggard inhabitants of these dwellings stared balefully from their doorways as I passed, both common folk and hillmen amongst them judging from appearances.
I found little welcome at the Keep, and was left waiting in an anteroom without refreshment for most of the day until Turchon finally deigned to see me. I was admitted to his chambers and found him looking harassed and perspiring freely, and his greeting was at best perfunctory. He did not seem interested in receiving a report from me on our current situation, so I got straight to the point about the difficulties we were having with supplies. His response was curt and angry, that we were nothing more than a burden to him and that he had enough difficulties keeping his own companies fed and supplied. The town was becoming increasingly disordered, and he suspected agents from the Shaws were fomenting discontent, despite the fine words pledging loyalty from the new chieftain. I looked at his fat jowly face with its bulging eyes and felt contempt, and anger, and replied with enough insolence to have myself reduced to the ranks yet again. I asked him if he thought the defence of our realm against Angmar was a burden, reminding him that it was a fight that had cost him his own son, and I asked him if he wished to cast that sacrifice aside because he found it too much of a burden. Abandon the watch on the Ford, and the Northmen of Angmar would be able to march unhindered all the way down the Hoarwell Valley to his door. Was that too great a burden? He predictably reacted with fury, ordering me from the chamber and threatening dire consequences for my insubordination, but in the event none were forthcoming, and the situation with our supplies did improve a little afterwards. I returned north disconsolate and feeling hopeless.
The first snows of winter were lying thinly on the ground when our uneventful watch finally ended. It was a cold bright afternoon with a keen wind blowing off the moors and the sentries on the wall saw men approaching and raised the alarm. I had been in the armoury, taking stock of our supplies in that gloomy hall when I heard the horns sounding and immediately went up to the battlements to see what had been sighted. The men, on hearing the alarm immediately fell into the drills we had practised over and over again for such an eventuality, withdrawing into the Keep, closing the gates and assuming their designated positions, something that I noted with some quiet satisfaction. I reached the wall myself, heard the sentry's report, and looked out to judge the number and disposition of the enemy. To my surprise however, it was not the expected great host from Angmar massed on the north bank of the river that I beheld but a small marching company approaching down the old road from the east.