72. Chapter 71
We arrived in Lastbridge two days later, weary and in sombre mood and made our way through the crowded streets to the Fortress. Here in the streets of our principal city it seemed there had been trouble, as small groups of soldiers stood guard on the square and in the vicinity of important buildings and some of those who were forced to stand aside for us as we marched were clearly resentful and hostile, though they did not voice their thoughts directly. It struck me how much the mood had changed even in the time since I had last been there, and was all of a piece with what Norchon had told me. Many of my men had never been as far south as this and Lastbridge was a wonder and a marvel to them, but I cautioned them to be on their guard if the opportunity came for them to spend any time off down in the town.
The Fortress was as crowded as I had ever seen it, and the great courtyard was filled with activity. Our companies were directed to one of the dormitory blocks, and being one of the few of our number to have been there before it fell to me to lead the circuitous way there. We reported to the duty captain, installed ourselves in one of the halls, and were brought an evening meal which compared poorly to the one that had disappointed us so much in Bearcliffe a few days previously. Nobody could tell us how long we would be there, so I told my men to assume that it would be a while, and to make themselves as comfortable as possible. As we settled down for our first night the thought crossed my mind that I ought to go to the citadel and ask after the Lady Idhrethil, but dismissed the thought as quickly as it come to mind. She was a married woman now, and it would have been most improper, regardless of the fact that she might have no desire to see me, or even remember who I was for that matter.
We had been there for five days, time I had spent exercising and drilling my men, when an order came for all captains and lieutenants to attend the great hall in the citadel that evening and to have the men ready to march early the following morning. A wildfire of speculation arose in the ranks as to what the possible meaning and destination of this could be, and for the life of me I could think of none, unless we were going to march on High Burgh again. I estimated that there must have been around five thousand gathered in the place, and from what I could tell they were all experienced companies, veterans of the campaigns in the Shaws and the north. I glimpsed Idrethil's husband Belegon at one point, and also reacquainted myself joyfully with Galunir of Watersmeet. Daeron was not with him, having remained to carry out his duties as Lord, but he brought glad tidings of him. He was a father again and had another on the way, and it sounded like life had truly blessed him. Some of the men Arahael had sent south with their families from Northford after the seige had come with him however, and also brought good report of how things had gone for them since. Though I looked for him Cenric was not amongst them and I learned that Daeron had appointed him as Master of Arms in his household at Watersmeet, a high honour especially for someone of Hillman stock.
I left the men readying things for our imminent departure in the dormitory hall and set off for the Citadel at the appointed hour with my lieutenant, a grizzled but loyal and reliable man named Laefric. Whilst we had done our best to make ourselves presentable we were still in our faded and worn battle dress, since we had no other. I noted immediately as we converged with the others at the gatehouse that most of them seemed to be in much better gear and was filled with dismay, but there was nothing to be done about it now. We filed in and followed the others to a part of the Citadel that I had not seen before, and assumed it must be close to the royal apartments and throne room. It was clear some effort had been gone to, for the place was lit by an uncommon number of torches, and was not nearly so dilapidated as some of the other parts I had visited. We walked up wide corridors hung with tapestries until I heard a hubbub of voices and could glimpse the flickering light of a great fire up ahead through a pair of wide doors. A herald was calling out the names of those who were entering, and when our turn came he announced us too, calling out "Captain Esteldir and Lieutenant Laefric of Northford Company" in a clear voice. I felt a small swell of pride at that, and hoped that any who were listening might take heed and wonder at our deeds and what we had lived through.
The hall made ours in Northford look like a hovel, and the roof, supported by mighty carved stone buttresses rose to an immense height which was almost lost in shadow. Up on a dais stood the high table where the King and his household were to be seated, and then below on the polished stone floor were row upon row of benches and tables set out for a feast. A trunk burned in the largest fireplace I had ever seen set in the midst of one long wall, it cast its uncertain light over the whole scene and its heat could be felt even at a distance. All around the walls were more tapestries, of immense size and great workmanship, depicting all manner of tales, but again I could see many were in an advanced state of decrepitude. We ourselves were shown to one of the benches at the rear of the hall, and settled down to survey the scene and partake of the ale that had been left on the table.
The table on the dais remained empty, and we soon ran out of ale, though no more seemed to be forthcoming. Finally the hubbub of chatter in the hall was interrupted by the herald striking his staff on the floor, and he called out to us to rise for the King. There was a sudden din of benches being dragged back and then silence fell. Behind me a further set of great doors groaned open, and Elion, King of Rhudaur entered slowly, supported on either arm by attendants. He had once clearly been a strong and handsome man, but it was all in ruins now, and his face was grey and lined and his eyes full of unmistakeable suffering. At his side walked his son the Prince who I knew, and behind his sister the Princess arm in arm with Lord Berthedir. I felt a surge of hatred when I beheld him, and another when the old spider Barachon entered after him supported on a stick. Then followed others who I did not know, and a surprisingly large number of them. However among the last was one I did recognise, and the sight of her again made me catch my breath. Lady Idrethil, her face grave and beautiful as ever and wearing a fine dress came in arm in arm with her detestable husband, who had gained a deal of weight since I had last seen him. She kept her eyes fixed to the front, but I thought she looked sad, and I felt a pang of affection and desire for her when I saw it.
The royal household made their way slowly to the dais and once they were all installed the old custom of facing the west was observed and then everyone was seated and the servants began to bring in the food, starting at the top table. The process was achingly slow, for their were too few serving, and the royal household had long finished eating by the time it was our turn. I was hungry, and had held high hopes for what we might be served at a royal feast, but I was to be sadly disappointed. It was clear that all the choice cuts of meat had been used up by the time they got to us, and all we got was bones and leftovers which were stone cold. One of the men seated on my left hand threw his down on the floor in disgust, but I had starved and knew better than to miss a meal the night before a march and I ate mine with as much grace as I could muster.
Shortly afterwards the staff rang once again on the floor and the herald prayed silence for Prince Eldir, who rose, bowed to his father and strode to the front of the dais. "Men of Rhudaur, hearken unto me. For too long have we suffered at the hands of others, but the tide shall now be turned, and indeed is already turning in our favour. For we have subdued the rebel Hillmen, and driven back the forces of the usurper in the north from our borders. Now peace reigns once more across our fair land, it is time to settle old scores, and take back what is rightfully ours. Here tonight, I see before me the finest, most experienced soldiers in the Kingdom, tempered in battle, fierce, loyal and brave, the finest sons of Rhudaur. We have long prepared our plans in secret and will strike fast, for victory will be ours before our enemy can prepare. The tale of our glorious victory and our renewed standing in the north kingdoms will live long in song and tale. Brothers, it is our time! Who is with me? Tomorrow we cross the river and take back Amon Sul!"
The place erupted, the men roaring their approval, beating the tables with their flagons, and the clamour continued for a good while. I sat quietly, unable to take in what I had heard, for whilst our realm held the possession of that ancient tower and the stone within it by Cardolan or Arthedain a great injustice, we had never been able to hold them for long and I knew from reading my history book how great the cost had always been in men. But Cardolan had been brought to its knees by the constant incursions from Angmar, so perhaps it would be an opportune moment, despite our own parlous state. Maybe possession of the seeing stone would mark a change in our fortunes? I could not bring myself to believe it however and could only see this adventure as an act of desperate insanity or delusion. To actually say so would have been dangerous but I could not bear to remain where I was and excused myself, saying I was in need of the privy. I left the hall through the doorway behind me and saw another opening on the far side of the antechamber which led onto a terrace. I walked out gratefully into the freezing night air and relative silence and tried to make sense of what I had just heard.
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