74. Chapter 73
We formed up and set off on the final leg of our march, and at least the marching itself helped to warm us. The land hereabouts was fairly flat and nondescript, for we had left more wooded lands further back along the road and now crossed a gently rolling landscape of scrubby grassland, thicket, and the occasional stand of larger trees. We crested a rise, and saw in the distance a line of hills that marched northward. On the summit of the southernmost, a finger rose stark against the bright blue morning sky. There it was at last, the ancient watchtower of Amon Sul, built in the early days of the North Kingdom to house one of the great seeing stones, and it was our destination. A murmur went up along the column as it came into view, there was an almost unconscious quickening of pace and I for one gripped my sword hilt a little tighter.
On the far side of the rise the road dropped steadily down into a wide vale and then climbed gradually back up the far side, steepening as it went. In the bottom a sluggish brook meandered between marshy banks and the road crossed it over a small single arched stone bridge. As we approached it I fancied there might be be the ruins of some long forgotten inn or farmstead beside it, but it was hard to tell for sure in the tangle of briars and birch trees that grew there. If so it must once have been a pleasant spot.
Suddenly out of nowhere in the still morning air a great horn sounded, and others replied, and I knew at once that they were not ours. Horns sounded down our own column in reply and the mounted vanguard quickly trotted their horses forward ahead of us and we followed, breaking into a jog to keep pace with them. Half the host were still yet to cross the bridge, and if we were about to engage an as yet unseen enemy we would need to make room for them quickly and form up on firmer ground. Eventually coming to a halt, we piled our packs and began to form up into battle order, though there had been no exact plans for this eventuality, and waited for our enemy to come into view. Galunir and the men of Lastbridge were on our left hand, and one of the Bearcliffe companies on our other. Prince Eldir began to ride up and down the lines as they were forming up, exhorting the men, but then he suddenly halted and fell silent.
Little by little a mighty host had begun to appear on the western rim of the vale above us, until they filled it from end to end, and even if they stood only a few deep I knew straight away that we were heavily outnumbered. I caught my breath in dismay and awe, for to my eye it looked like a host out of a tale of the elder days. In their centre fluttered the sable banner of Arthedain, and beside it the otherwise identical blue banner of Cardolan, for Rhudaur alone and our prideful first king had abandoned the proud device of the house of Isildur and replaced it with a comparatively rustic rampant black bear on a blood red field. Their companies of foot stood neatly formed up, and even at that distance I could see that even the foot soldiers wore plate and bore gilded shields. Worse still for us, on the left flank of the main host a great mass of horsemen, mounted knights under the banner of Arthedain milled and prepared to charge down onto us. When I saw these I knew we could not prevail and that the day was truly lost, and I knew real fear.
I mastered myself as best I could and turned to speak to my men, ignoring the frantic shouted orders coming from the Lord at my back. "Lads, we're up against it today and no mistaking. The only way we're going to have a chance of coming out of this in one piece is if we keep our nerve stick together. May the Valar show us mercy this day". I looked on their faces, tense, haunted and fearful, with love and sadness. We had been through so much together to come this far and it seemed unfair that we might die here today, so far from home. I was about to continue, but more horns sounded and the enemy host began their slow march down the far slope, and the massed horsemen on the flank began their first charge. There was to be no preliminary parley or bargaining today.
They crashed into our lines before they had fully formed up, and with at least a third or more of our strength still on the wrong side of the bridge and powerless to act, including most of our archers. I ordered my men to plant their spears and hold, and to their credit they did, and the horsemen that came our way in the first wave shied clear of us in favour of places in the line that were weaker and less organised, and they fell on our few horsemen with a vengeance. Wheeling away and sweeping back up the hill, their foot and archers who had been advancing in the meantime came to a halt within bowshot of us. I braced myself, for of all things in battle I had always feared arrow shot most of all, and then a storm was unleashed over us. I took a shaft right in the centre of my shield that narrowly missed my arm and almost unbalanced me, and all around me men who were bravely holding their positions were being struck and falling. I dropped my shield, badly shaken. Again and again they fired salvos towards us, taking a heavy toll and then the foot were advancing on us, shield to shield with spears levelled. Momentarily I admired their organisation and discipline, and thought how sad it was to be fighting such fine Dunedain soldiers, and then our lines met in a thunder of clashing steel and the screaming of dying men and all such thoughts were put aside.
Though we were weary and less well equipped than our foe, our companies did nonetheless give a good account of themselves that day, and for a while we held our ground even when the rest of our host had begun to falter and fall back. However when I saw on my left hand that the men of Cardolan had broken through our lines and were now advancing towards the bridge I decided that we had done what we could, and I screamed at my men to fall back. Worse still, the massed horsemen in the distance were wheeling around into our rear and I saw immediately that the greater part of our forces that were still in the field were now in real danger of being cut off. We retreated, fighting as we went, but it was not long before the orderly retreat turned into a headlong rout. We reached the marshy ground near the river and plunged into it laboriously before leaping into the icy waist deep water. Still we were pursued, and the archers continued to fire on us, arrows splashing down around us into the water and burying themselves up to the fletchings in the soft mud of the bank. We gained the far side, fewer in number, and clambered up it, chilled to the bone and gasping for breath. I was already desperately weary and as frightened as I had ever been in my life, though what remained of my Company followed me still and I mastered myself for their sake.
A quick glance told me the enemy had taken the bridge and poured across it, and they now went in pursuit of the largest remnant of our forces who were fleeing eastward back up the road. I could not tell for sure but it looked like a number of those who had fought on our left hand, including many Watersmeet men, had been encircled, and had laid down their weapons. I knew not at the time whether they had been spared or put to the sword. For our own part it seemed our immediate pursuit was at an end, for in those who we had faced had deemed their task well done and had chosen not to follow us into the water. We continued our flight, labouring now, in small groups, following the vale ever northward away from the road where the main part of the pursuit continued. The vale grew shallower, and to my relief its course swung round to the north east after a while, shielding us at last from the sight of our enemy. We found ourselves among thickets of trees, and eventually I called a halt to what had become little more than a stagger, and we fell to the ground and rested for a long while until the chill late afternoon air began to bite into our damp gear. Satisfied that we were no longer for the moment pursued, I took stock of those who were in the immediate vicinity, perhaps forty or fifty men at most, a mix of those I knew as my own and some from other companies. I roused them and gathered them together, and noted that none there bore the insignia of anything more than a sergeant, so took it upon myself to assume command. I told them that we would remain where we were for the night and strike out eastward in the morning. Even without with the risk of discovery if we had lit a fire, dry wood would have been in short supply after all the rain we had endured, so we spent another miserable and uncomfortable night, with our stomachs grumbling and dreaming of fire and a hot meals, but grateful that we still lived.