69. Chapter 68
We watched the approaching marchers until they disappeared from view below the town walls. The gates had been closed, but were not defended, so it was not long before the new arrivals had scaled the walls and were able to open them from within. Eventually they came into view on the street that led to the square below the gatehouse tower. The sergeants gave a signal for the bowmen stationed in the tower and along the battlements to knock arrows in readiness, but it was I who was to give the order to fire.
They continued marching, weapons sheathed, to well inside the range of our archers, and eventually halted below the gates. They were Hillmen by their garb and appearance, numbering at least sixty, with laden packhorses in their rear. Their leader, a large man wearing good gear stepped forward and called up to where we stood. "Hail men of Northford Keep, we are sent by order of the King and come in peace and friendship as loyal subjects of the King, to offer our aid and support in your lonely vigil here on the northern borders of our land. I am Daelric, brother to Brodir, Chieftain of High Burgh. Let your commander come forth that I may speak to him and show him our credentials". I stepped forward "I am he" I replied, but he looked surprised. "You seem young to be holding such a position, but so be it. Pray admit us. We wish to share a feast with you and your men, for the hunting has been good along our road, and we have deer and boar to roast".
I bridled a little at this, for it seemed too plain a trap to offer good eating to hungry men. "Why should I give you my trust? I know you not, whence you come or what your true purpose is and any orders you bear might easily be counterfeit. The last time some of us here faced the soldiery of High Burgh it was at sword and spear point, and we have no reason to love you or trust your word. Forgive our lack of hospitality on this cold evening, but if you wish to come within these walls you will do so unarmed and will all lay your weapons down at our gate. If you do not my archers will fell you where you stand. I gave a hand signal, and all along the battlement bows creaked as they were drawn. Daelric looked angry and surprised, but I gave him no chance to reply, stating bluntly "Drop your weapons or you will die". "You will regret this boy" he snarled in reply, drawing his sword taking a few paces toward the gate before throwing it down with a clang. He signalled to his men and they all began to follow suit. I called down to the men waiting in the courtyard below. "Open the gate, collect their weapons, search them and then admit them with whatever game they have brought for us to eat. It's been too long since we dined on roasted meat".
I descended to the yard and followed the men out through the gate where they proceeded to follow my orders to the letter, which much shouting and jostling. I found my way to Daelric, who was a head taller than I was and twice as broad. Once again he told me angrily that I would regret my impertinence, and he produced a scroll from within his cloak and handed it to me. I opened it, read it carefully, and had to admit to myself that the order telling me to cede control of the Keep to him looked genuine as far as it went, as did the seal that had closed it. However I neither dared believe that it was nor wished it to be true, and I told him he would remain unarmed and a guest so long as he wished until I received confirmation from my commander in Bearcliffe. "I know not why you came here, but you give every indication from your words and deeds that you speak the truth or something close to it. I give my word that we will not harm you if you give us no reason to. Your weapons will be returned to you if you choose to leave, or if these orders are confirmed, though I can scarce believe that will be the case." Even as I spoke the words I doubted them, for they were few in number and had both walked into the range of my archers with their weapons sheathed and then given them up with barely a murmur. It would be hard to comprehend but not inconceivable that some kind of deal had been struck between Lastbridge and High Burgh regarding the manning of the Keep, and if so then I was guilty of a major act of discourtesy and insubordination. However I was a soldier, with orders, and until those orders changed beyond all doubt I had no choice but to act as I had.
That night we dined well, roasting the appropriated meats on fires in the courtyard with the Hillmen gathered opposite under the walls. It was the best meal most of us had eaten for quite some time as I did not normally dare send men out hunting in small groups. When they did go out, to collect firewood for example, they did so in numbers which made successful hunting quite impossible. Afterwards I gave the new arrivals one of the dormitories in the East Hall and set a watch on it.
The following morning I wrote a letter to Lord Turchon and sent men southward with it and they returned four days later. I immediately had a sinking feeling about the contents of the scroll they bore as soon as it was handed to me, and I opened it and read it immediately. My worst fears had been confirmed and I barked out an order to my lieutenant who had been waiting nearby to gather all the men who could be spared to the Great Hall immediately.
They greeted the news that the party of Hillmen were to have their weapons returned to them and that their commander, Lord Daelric would now assume command of all within the Keep in a stunned silence. However orders were orders and I told them that however difficult we found them we had to obey, and needed to show the interlopers the meaning of good order and discipline, for were we not one of the best and most experienced companies in the army of Rhudaur? I got a murmur of approval for that one, and another one for promising that I would make sure they did not go short because of the new arivals. From that day forward things went quite a lot better for me with my own men, for it is surprising what a galvanising effect the introduction of a common rival or enemy can have. I bridled silently at the use of the word Lord in the wording of the scroll, for no such honour existed amongst the Hillmen, and the man I faced was no more than the brother of an upstart thane.
However I knew what had to be done, and I set off at once with a party of men to retrieve the confiscated weaponry and return it to its rightful owners, and cede control to them. The Hillmen, sensing that something was in the offing had gathered in the yard, and I walked out to face my humiliation. Daelric, thinking I did not understand him quietly spat a curse in my direction as I walked over to meet him, but his expression suggested he already knew what I was about to tell him. I stopped and saluted. "Lord Daelric, I have confirmation of the orders you bore from Bearcliffe which instruct me to not only to admit you and your men to the Keep, but also acknowledge you as our new commander. I am sure you will understand why I did not do so at first at my own behest, but we live in troubled times. My men and I are at your service". I did my best to keep my tone neutral and flat but I am not sure I was completely successful in doing so, for I could happily have drawn my sword there and then and wiped the triumphant grin from his face. He laughed, and called out to his men in hill tongue than the little westerman had seen sense and that they were now in charge of the castle. He brushed me aside and strode forward towards the great hall, his men following close behind, shouting and laughing and some of them taunting us.
In hindsight that was the moment that nigh on twenty years of fighting, loss and sacrifice in defence of the north came to an end. We were finally defeated not by some last great assault of the enemy, but by the complacency, expediency and wishful thinking of those who ruled over us in Lastbridge.
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