75. Chapter 74
I slept fitfully, and during the moments when I was awake and shivering in the cold my thoughts were all of Idhrethil and I wanted to see her again more than anything in the world. We were a very long way from home, with no supplies and several of the men carrying wounds, but the memory of her pleading for me to return filled me with determination and purpose. I knew I must regain Lastbridge, for everything I lived for waited for me there.
The sun rose over a frosted landscape shrouded in mist, and it would have been a fine late winter morning in any other circumstances, but here there was no comfort to be found in it. I roused the men, whose numbers had been swelled by other stragglers before dark and since sunrise, asked them to gather to me and told them what I purposed. We would head westward through the trackless waste for two or three days and then when the land began to grow steeper we would turn south and aim to rejoin the road somewhere near Halfway Hill if it proved safe to do so. I told them I did not hold them and they were free to leave and make their own way if they saw fit, but I would do my utmost to bring all safely home if they remained with me, hale or halt. There was a general murmur of approval and we set off. We made painfully slow progress the first day, and as the sun was setting in the west the distant line of hills and the tower standing in defiant isolation were still visible in the distance. During my service in the forests of the north I had learnt by necessity how to live off the land, but we were too numerous and ill equipped to have any hope of hunting game, and it was a poor season for finding things that grew. We did however manage to gather some nuts and roots as we went, but they were thin pickings and poor eating and there were not enough to go round. I and any of the others who knew what to look for did keep our eyes open as we went, for hunger gnawed at us constantly.
We spent another freezing night without a fire, and another day trudging slowly through the bleak empty landscape. The road could occasionally be glimpsed to the south when we were on higher ground, and once or twice I fancied I could see figures moving eastward along it, but whether they were our own men or the enemy I could not tell. When I looked at the exhausted ragged men clustered together around me in the small wood we had chosen as cover for the night it made me wonder what had happened to all the rest of the men in my company. I could not contemplate the idea that they had all been slain during the battle and retreat, for if it was the case then I would truly have betrayed my promise to them by insisting on standing and fighting for too long.
The third day's march began like the previous two, under a frost and blue skies, but by mid morning it had clouded over and the rain began to fall again. One of the men died in the night, perhaps from cold and exhaustion, and knowing we had not the tools or strength to offer him a proper burial I instead instructed the men to cut sod and cover him with that instead. I said the words of departure for him, but nobody present knew him or his name and history. That set the mood for the day for we all knew we stood a good chance of sharing the same fate and the rain only added to our misery and discomfort. I thought we might have walked far enough that day to be close to Halfway Hill, but I could see now sign of it as yet. Nonetheless I decided that we should hazard an approach to the road, for the country we were now travelling was becoming increasingly difficult and I was conscious that our progress had slowed to a crawl. We reached the it late on in the afternoon, much later than I had hoped or expected, and it was empty. There was no sign of Halfway Hill either, and though there was no reason to think we would gain anything from reaching the place it had still gained significance in my mind as somewhere men had once lived in this trackless wilderness and where there was the possibility we might find others. We were however a little heartened by the easier progress the road afforded, but nightfall saw us still short of our destination and the rain continued to fall steadily, once again frustrating any hope of building a decent fire.
We had still not reached Halfway Hill by the afternoon of the fourth day, and the realisation of how little ground we had covered filled me with dismay and a growing icy fear in the pit of my stomach, for as the name suggested there had once been a way station there to serve those travelling between Lastbridge and Amon Sul. Lastbridge was still at least seventeen or more leagues distant, and I was gripped by a growing realisation that we might not last the journey unless we could find some supplies. About an hour later we spied something on the road ahead, and as we approached we saw it was one of the wains that had brought our supplies westward, abandoned in the road. Any hopes that it still carried anything of use to us were soon dashed, as it proved to be completely empty, but the horses that had drawn it were still in the traces, and made a heartbreaking sight. One was clearly dead, but its partner, dragged down and trapped still lived, its coat matted and its flank heaving with every breath. It nickered weakly as I approached and seemed to regard me with large pleading eyes, and at first my thoughts were of freeing the poor thing. But then I realised that these poor, ill used creatures meant that we would see Lastbridge again, and I reluctantly drew my dirk from its sheath at my waist.
I ordered men into the trees to collect firewood, and along with others who knew how to dress game we set about butchering the horses. It had stopped raining, and before long we had enough wood gathered to build a goodly fire, which after some effort had been expended eventually burned well in a clearing near the road. We could only hope that the enemy had chosen not to pursue the main body of our host this far east and that it would not attract unwelcome attention, but there was nothing to be done about it. The haunches of meat we had cut were put on rough spits, and soon the air was filled with the delicious scent of roasting meat. Everyone got their share eventually, and after all the meat had been cooked and though there was only enough for each man to receive a small portion it was enough to warm us and raise our spirits.
We had not kept a watch, but suddenly there were more men on the road on the edge of the firelight. There were shouts of alarm, and swords were drawn, but it soon became evident that these were more stragglers from our own side. There were Bearcliffe men and some from Greenwood, about a dozen all told and some of them were in a bad way. They had seen our fire and hoped that it had been lit by men from Rhudaur, and so it had proved. We shared what little remained with them, but even the worst offcuts were gratefully received and devoured.
We moved off again at first light, and made comparatively good time now we were on the road, reaching the ruins at Halfway Hill by mid morning. They were deserted, but there were signs that a large number of men had passed that way a day or two earlier. We did not linger, for the weather was turning again, and though it seemed unlikely that the enemy were abroad we could not count on it, and we were still a long way out in the wild lands. If the old tales were true there would be no hiding from the seeing stone in the tower either, and perhaps we were watched from afar, just as it seemed our march westward had been considering the welcome that had awaited us.
We were hungry and close to exhaustion again two days later when we were accosted on the road, but fortunately it was our own men who challenged us, men sent out from Lastbridge to watch the road for any stragglers. Our arrival there was welcomed joyfully, but it was a joy tempered with great sadness. The sergeant told us that they had all but given up hope of seeing any more men return from the battle after Lord Berthedir had passed through with what remained of the army four days previously. He had barely two thousand men with him, which meant that upward of three thousand of our best were dead, made prisoners or lost in the wild, and worse still Prince Eldir was numbered amongst them. We were all filled with dismay at this news and once again I cursed the pride and folly that had led us to embark upon this reckless adventure. I feared for what it might now mean for the Kingdom, shorn of an heir and with the army greatly weakened but for now we were safe and there were more pressing matters to attend to first.
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