71. Chapter 70
Two days later we formed up under the baleful watch of the Hillmen who had gathered to witness our departure, and at my command marched out of the Keep for the very last time. Winter still held sway under a leaden sky, the old cobbled streets were covered in slush and the remnants of the snow contrasted brightly with the blackened rubble of the ruins as we marched through them. Here and there bramble bushes and as yet leafless saplings broke the sad monotony of the ruins, and as we descended towards the gate I remembered the places we passed as they had once been, and all the memories that had marked them for me. The men were silent, for this had always been home to most of them too, and for all the relief that our virtual incarceration in the Keep had ended I think we all realised that it was unlikely that any of us would ever return there.
I called a halt on the road below the burial ground, and allowed any who wished to say a final farewell to their loved ones there to do so. Most of the men took the opportunity, and I joined them. I had not visited the place for a long time, it was grown wild and unkempt just like the ruins of the town, and I felt a little pang of remorse as I stood quietly by the engraved marker stone that indicated where the mortal remains of my mother, grandmother and little Lathra lay. Fifteen years had now passed since I had lost them, and the memory of them felt like something from another lifetime, but it was still raw enough for me to shed a last few tears for them and repeat myunfulfilled vow of vengeance. Then, conscious of the need to reach the old staging post by nightfall, I drew myself up, called on the men to return to the road and we resumed our march.
On every journey down the valley I would out of habit look across the river up Rushwater Vale as we passed, and think of what was and what could have been, and this time was no exception. I noted the Brightwater too, and thought once again of Idhrethil and Angon, but my mood was too dark to be troubled for long. We made good time the rest of that day, but it was almost dark by the time we reached the ruins of the old way station and made camp. I posted a watch, and took my turn after midnight under a bright moon and countless stars, with the still air sharp with chill and the earth turned hard as iron. I never really minded sentry duty on nights like that, though it was necessary to keep moving to stay warm, and away from the distractions and duties of daytime I had time to think. I did not know why we had been withdrawn to Lastbridge, but I feared matters in the Kingdom might be coming to a head. We had not had any direct news from Bearcliffe for a long time, and had only heard what the Hillmen wished to tell us, which could not be relied on. I had hoped to speak with the errand rider who had brought our orders, to gain some idea of what had passed, but he had fled south again as soon as his duty had been discharged. It was clear that the idea of being alone in a keep full of Hillmen had made him fearful, and why not, for we had not long since been in open war with them.
The sun was setting the following evening by the time we came to the earthwork and watch tower that marked the northern boundary of the Bearcliffe enclave. A long winter of relative inactivity and better than usual eating had taken its toll on the men and we had increasingly struggled to maintain a good marching pace as the day had gone on. This concerned me, and I was determined to do something about it once we got to Lastbridge. However we were expected and the gate was opened to admit us without hesitation. I spoke to the sergeant in command and he told me that arrangements had been made to billet us at the Keep that night, news which was welcomed by the men, too used to having to camp in the open air when they passed through Bearcliffe. The hovels and hungry folk I had seen outside the town walls on my previous visit the year before seemed to have multiplied and spread, and the deepening darkness along the road was punctuated by a thousand smoky fires, and occasional shouted curses in both the common and hill tongue came our way as we passed through.
The town gates had been closed for the night by the time we arrived but were reopened for us after a short delay, and we entered and made our way slowly up the steep hill to the Keep below the lowering crag. The streets were surprisingly empty for the time of night, and I saw none abroad as we passed apart from a small group of soldiers, which made me wonder if a curfew had been enforced. The Keep was crowded to bursting with soldiers, and a hive of activity just as I remembered the one in Northford had been in my youth, and it appeared that some of the local men were also preparing to march south. We were shown to our billet, which ended up being somewhat too crowded for comfort and served a scanty meal which raised much comment amongst the men. I however did not partake of it, for a messenger came asking for me by name and passed on an invitation from my old friend Norchon to join him in his quarters. I had not seen him for a very long time and accepted with enthusiasm, for I knew I could rely on him to give me reliable news and honest opinion on how matters lay, both of which I lacked.
I found him looking tired and careworn, but his dry wit was still very much intact and he remarked immediately that it looked like I had indeed drawn a longer straw than he when I was sent to while out my days in idleness in the peaceful north. We laughed and embraced warmly and he offered me some food, which I was grateful for my conscience's sake was little better than the fare the men had received. I told him I was hungry for news as well as my supper and begged him to tell me all he knew of what had passed in recent times while I ate, which he was happy to do.
Things had continued to worsen in the rest of Rhudaur and rumour held that the king was dying and that Barachon now effectively ruled in his stead. If it were not for the renewed loyalty and generosity of the Hillmen there would have been widespread starvation during the winter, but even so the numbers of the impoverished and destitute grew ever greater, and there was frequent unrest and disorder as a result, particularly in Bearcliffe and Lastbridge, but few other places had been immune. The kingdom had run out of coin, could not pay its debts and fewer and fewer of its subjects could still afford to pay their tithes and taxes. His conclusion was that ruin beckoned unless something could be done, and done quickly. He did not think Lastbridge trusted Chieftain Brodir, but now had little choice but to accept his aid and his professions of loyalty. The handing over of the garrison in Northford was only one example of this, and Norchon agreed wholeheartedly with me that the outcome of this act was a potential disaster, and a terrible betrayal.
He was however just as mystified as I by the sudden order to relocate men to Lastbridge, which made no sense in the current situation. It was not just the Northford Company that was marching south, for we were to be joined the following day by four of the seven Bearcliffe Companies including his own. He feared that it would leave his garrison dangerously undermanned if there was any more trouble. This was news to me indeed, and I remarked sourly that nigh on one thousand men should have been marching north, not south at this moment in time. For if our suspicions were indeed correct and the Hillmen played us false, and worse still were now actually in league with Angmar, then handing defence of the ford over to them would now mean that men and supplies would be able to travel to the Shaws by the shortest and most direct route rather than having to cross the Ettenmoors and ford the Hoarwell high up its vale in the foothills of the Misty Mountains. I shuddered at the thought and prayed that it was not the case.
I did not tarry with him long, I was weary from the unaccustomed marching and we would both have to rise early the following morning. Norchon's news had been worse than I could possibly have imagined and once again I was filled with despair as to what might lie ahead. I remembered Angon's words regarding the burden the young such as I would have to face and thought how wise his words had been on that score. But I was also glad that he was now at peace and did not live to see them come true, and knew that fate could easily lie in store for me too. I was now twenty four years old and had already cheated death by narrow margins many times, and it might be too much to expect my luck to hold for much longer.
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