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Corrandion, Corridane
I am JT, Ringer, nutjob, and archer, in that order. I like animated films, epic films, book films, movie music, folk music, and the occasional random other thing. I make friends by accident and like it that way...

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20 August 2015

The Price of a Throne: Chapter 29

Chapter 29

Early the following day Valun had word sent out that all the nobles who had come for the festivities of his coronation should attend him in the great hall at the breakfast hour. When all were assembled before him, he spoke. Servants went among the nobles offering light refreshments as he made the speech.
“My good men, I know that you all wish to return to your own halls, and I will let you go, I assure you. But first I have some last words for you all. Those of you who live far from here may depart before midday if you wish, but I hope that you will join me in closing our celebration with a proper royal hunt. I doubt not that we shall find a hart worthy of our chase, if they have not all been driven away by the invaders. I will hold nothing against those who wish to travel, but tell me, how many will ride with me after midday has pas passed?”
He paused as several nobles called out in response. “Aye, I will go.”
“That is good news, and I hope you shall all enjoy it as much as I shall enjoy your company. Now, is the king’s champion here?”
Conan, who had taken a seat at one of the lower tables among the other men of his own title, rose while the others remained seated. “I have been called by that title. I am here.”
Valun, who was at his usual seat on the dais at the end of the hall, replied “Then come up, man. I have something which concerns you.”
Conan put down his cup and got up off the bench he had been seated on and approached the king. He stood silently, waiting for Valun to make his announcement.
Valun quickly produced a scroll tied and sealed with the new seal which had been made for him in the days before his coronation. Standing at his table, an action which prompted all the nobles present to rise in turn, the king made an announcement which had only been decided more firmly by Conan’s victory in the tournament. Breaking the seal, he read the proclamation aloud.
“Let it be known from this day forward until the day he dies, that Conan, son of Eric, the Trondale, known as Baron of Wycliff, shall hereafter bear the titles of Captain of the Capitol Guard, King’s Guard, and keeper of the king’s keys. Signed and given by the hand of the king on this day in the first year of our reign, Valun III Hightower.”
The rest of the present nobles gave Conan a polite, but not especially vigorous, round of applause at the conclusion of the announcement. In the midst of the noise, Valun passed to Conan the royal decree and a large ring of keys, which Conan deftly slipped onto his belt before turning to reclaim his spot at the table he had left, where he resumed his meal as if nothing unusual had happened.
Valun continued to speak to the room at large. “I know well that many of you suffered great loss during the spy’s reign over our land. I say to you now that the treasury is open to you, if money will restore some of what you have lost. I cannot give out as much as you may like, for if I did I would have none to use when it was needed. But I hope that a thousand Coreals a man may be enough to assure that I mean well.”
There was a silence. A thousand a man, even limited to those who were in the room and claimed lordship over some land, was a substantial sum. The silence was broken by one baron who called out “Are you sure, my lord, that the royal treasury has that much to give?”
“I give you my word that it does. You should know better than I, for you lived under the spy while I did not. Even so, it did not take me long to discover how much he took from you so that you might live.”
“I believe you, my lord. No man would turn down a thousand Coreals in any case. We thank you for this gift.”
“When you return to your homes,” Valun said, making the last announcement he intended for that morning, “I expect each of you to send back some of your men-at-arms, who shall become the first garrison of the Capitol guard. Tell them those who prove worthy shall be named King’s Guards, and will be known as the best in the land.”
Another noble called out a question which had many of the other nobles nodding in support of him. “But what of all those Naiberns who turned to you? Are they to be trusted as Royal guards?”
“As to that, I will tell you what I told the common man on the street who put the same question to me. Most of them surrendered to me and joined our men long before the war of the restoration was finished, yet not one of them revolted or made any attempt to kill me or any of the nobles with me. I trust them as well as I trust any of you, but I assure you they shall not fill the ranks of the Capitol Guards. They shall be ordered to the ranks of the Royal army, alongside all your men-at-arms when I call upon them. Is this satisfactory to you?”
“We shall obey the royal command.”
“That is the last of the announcements I wished to make to you this fine morning. To those who travel home, I wish you a swift and happy journey there. To those who ride with me in the hunt, I will see you at the first hour past midday. But for now, farewell to you all.” Raising his cup, Valun stood once more and waited until all there had done likewise. Then he made the traditional toast they were all expecting. “To all good men, brave, strong and wise, may the One watch over their days and grant them peace.”
The whole party of nobles than answered in unison. “Aye. So say we all.”
The traditional toast in honor of those not present was the signal to those who were that they could depart. Each of them saluted Valun as he passed, whether that man intended to stay for the hunt or depart as quickly as he was able. Valun allowed each of them to pass out the doors, except Conan. Conan he called to his side.
“I hope, Conan that this will prove that I hold no ill will toward you for your outburst before our games.”
“I had given no thought to that, my lord, since I spoke to my mother. You have not also had conference with her, by chance?”
“I have not. What would bring that question to your mind?”
“She has counselled me that I should keep a close watch over you, lest a threat come from an unexpected quarter.”
“Then you may both be satisfied, for that is exactly what your new duties require you to do. You are not, I hope, referring to the matter of John of Ronaiera?”
“I have not sought him out, for I prefer that he should be far from us. I have heeded your commands and done nothing to harm him yet.”
“Let your hand be restrained until he explains himself to us. I wish to hear him out before you take off his head.”
“If that is what he came to do, he will not warn you of it.”
“That is why you shall be watching, if you are so determined to think ill of him. For myself I will believe that he does not mean us harm.”
With these words the conversation was broken off and the two went separate ways. Conan left the hall, while Valun watched him go before leaving the room himself to make his way to the stables, to see that his horse was prepared for the hunt ahead.

Conan, on leaving the king’s presence, made straight for the large house close by the palace which had recently been given over to the use of him and his family. Acquiring a house for the family’s use had been one of the first things Conan had done on his return to the capitol with his family, because his mother had specifically requested it during the ride from their estate. They had used spare rooms in the palace only until this building was ready and had moved into it only that morning. The building was more prominent than it had ever been before, because Anne, over Conan’s objections, had additionally ordered pennants of the Trondale crest to be hung on the walls. Entering, he found all the members of his family together in the sitting room which looked out upon the street. He walked past them all without speaking and then turned back to face them as he leaned upon the hearth.
“The king has given me more than I think I can bear, mother.”
“Who could bear it if you cannot? Your father and the Longfurrow were the only two who rose in defense of the throne. You spent ten years in exile to be at his side, and bore trials as a boy that most men will never see. He has good reason to trust you above those who remained here. But tell me, what is this weight you cannot bear?
Conan saw that Anne and the boys, who had hardly noticed his entrance, were now listening intently to the dialogue, having stopped what they were doing to look at him. He straightened up and produced the royal decree, which he had been carrying in his wallet. He handed it to his mother, who read it as Anne and the boys leaned in.
“….Shall hereafter bear the titles of Captain of the Capitol Guard, King’s Guard, and Keeper of the king’s keys…Why, Conan, this is glorious news. He has given you the highest of positions. You command the respect of dukes and earls now. They will look to you to turn the tide when the danger is greatest. Did I not say the king trusts you more than any, except perhaps the Longfurrow-Richard is his name I think?”
“Yes, mother, but I do not believe I can live up to the honor he has given me. I have never wanted to lead men. I do not know how to rouse them to action. I do not believe I can draw men to follow me.”
“My son, I heard what the old men said to you, and what you said to them. You have bested the strongest knight in the kingdom in single combat, yet still you will not1 place yourself among the greatest of them. In that, my son, you have shown true greatness. Men will follow a man who holds a higher rank, but one who treats them with respect is truly their leader. There is no better way to gain their respect than to do as you have done. Never change, my son.”
“I will remember what you have said, mother.” Conan paused for a moment, then looked directly at Eric and John. “You two are still hanging about? That is enough. The king is restored and good men have freedom to do as they should. No man becomes a knight in a day. Say goodbye to mother, for you cannot return here.”
The boys protested this sudden announcement. “Mother! How can he say that we cannot come back? Tell him we won’t go!”
Evelyn again set down the sewing she had been working on when Conan had come inside. She faced the boys, who were now standing before her, released a deep sigh and impulsively wrapped one in a fervent embrace. She spoke softly.
“I am sorry, my boys, but he speaks the truth. You must both go, and it will be a long time before you can return to me. We have no household great enough that you could be trained properly in your own home. Conan is still among the youngest of the lords, and the king has now placed the greatest of responsibilities on him. He could not be your tutor even if we were home. He will take you to other good men, and with them you will grow into brave and wise knights. I will pray that this be so. May it be that you earn even some of the honor Conan now bears.”
She released the one she had been holding and nudged him in Anne’s direction, taking the other in his place while Conan watched silently. He could see that none of the four had been able to hold back all tears, and in fact, he found himself swallowing hard to hide such a response from them. The whole incident and its implications reminded him strongly of the day he had been sent away by his father. It had been Anne’s birthday, and he had not been allowed to bid her farewell then, for time had been precious. Because of this he made no move to enforce his earlier words for several minutes, letting the others wring as much satisfaction as they could from what little interaction remained to them for this time in their lives.
Finally, after a long wait, Conan spoke up. “We cannot wait forever. Come now, brothers.” He walked past everyone back to the door of the house, disregarding the apathy with which the others broke off their farewells. Opening the door, he ushered the boys out ahead of him and closed the door again without allowing himself another look back at the women.
Without offering them a word of explanation, he began to lead the boys through the streets of the city, ignoring the cries of “King’s champion! Hail, king’s champion!” He ignored all passersby in that moment, whether commoner or noble, with equal indifference. He walked without stopping, slowing his pace only slightly at repeated protests from the boys that he was walking too fast, until he reached the area of the plain by the south wall where the small tent city populated by noble travelers had appeared. Here he paused for only a moment to let the boys catch their breath and take stock of where he was. This determined, he increased his pace again until he reached a tent which had been set near the middle of the lines. Drawing his ax, he knocked with the end of the haft against the knight’s shield, which was still hung outside the tent. An attendant emerged, but stepped back inside immediately. A moment later, the earl of Salanfel answered the summons.
“Ah, it is you, Trondale, captain of the guard. What service can I do you?”
Conan prodded Eric and John to step forward. “I would ask you, as the good man you have proven to be, to take these boys into your household and raise them in the ways of a knight.”
The Darren studied the boys as he answered. “These boys rode in the king’s procession with you, holding your banner. I will hold it an honor to be entrusted with the brothers of the king’s champion.”
“I thank you. Do not let my favor with the king ease their load one bit, though. They must prove themselves, and I will not come to avenge them as I would my sister.” Seeing the expressions that had come onto the boy’s faces at this pronouncement, Conan paused and knelt on one knee before them both.
“I do not like this any more than you do, but as mother said, it must be done this way. I know that the earl is a good man who will treat you well. If you heed his words, I know that one day I will say ‘sir Eric and sir John are my brothers, and they are great men indeed.” Hefting his ax. He placed its length across their outstretched hands, holding it with one of his own as they each placed one of their own on top. Bringing his free hand forward, he covered theirs and said “Promise me it will be so.”
In firm and level tones they replied together “It will be so.” Then they did something he had not expected, and took their hands off the ax, instead each grasping at his broad shoulders. He gave them this moment in silence until they released him, at which time he stood and replaced his weapon in its place across his back.
Shaking the earl’s proffered hand, he said only “Farewell.” Turning away from there, he began to jog back toward the city, hopeful that none there had noticed the king’s champion struggling to hold his composure.
At the earliest opportunity, Conan went to those who had charge over the horses he had bought to bring his family back to the capital. He gave orders to them that two of the animals should be sent straightaway to the earl of Salanfel. When they asked him why, he said “The Earl has gained two attendants this day. They shall require mounts.”
From the stables he returned to the family’s home. Again standing before the hearth, he reported what he had done.
“I have given them over to the Earl of Salanfel. There is no need to fear for their safety.”
This time it was Anne who stopped what she was doing to answer the announcement. “You only met yesterday and spent the whole of the afternoon knocking each other about. Is that all it takes to gain your friendship?”
“He is not too proud to celebrate the man who has beaten him. Shall I tell him what you think of him?”
“And why would he care how I felt about the matter?”
“He also admitted to me that you caught his eye.”
“Well-I blame the king for that- everybody could see us up there. But yes, go tell the earl what I have said if you would like another round of knocking about. I would not give my hand to such an older man.”
“Very well” said Conan  “That matter is settled. I will return this evening. My duty calls.” Putting all his weight on his feet once more, Conan left the house and turned his steps back toward the palace.

At the time he had prescribed, Valun met several of the nobles who had chosen to accompany him on the hunt just outside the city gates. John had now reappeared and joined the party, which was a decision that Valun had no objection to, though he could see that Conan was watching the Ronair closely.
They were being led by two attendants of the Urstulan, who knew of a well-populated forest barely half an hour’s ride from the city. The keepers of the king’s kennels were also present, straining to keep several restless dogs under control. The whole party started off at a sudden signal from Valun and made the journey in good time, only to wait some minutes before they began to allow everyone to catch their breath.
Then, at a word from the king, the dogs were set loose, and the assembled knights began to ride in earnest after them. One of the attendants gave a loud blast on a horn, which set the dogs to howling and running even faster. Valun was still in the lead, with Conan riding beside him. John was near the front of the group, flanked closely by two others. The rest of the party was somewhat more spread out, and all had to ride with care to avoid the dense stands with low-hanging branches.
After several minutes of riding, one man called out “There! I see one!” The dogs, which seemed to have picked up the trail of this herd some distance back, began to bay and howl more loudly than ever as they closed in on the group of bucks, which had been grazing peacefully before the intrusion.
All the deer looked up in a body, and a fleeting moment later had all leapt away. The dogs, however, were hot on the trail and could not be held back, nor did it cross any man’s mind to attempt to do so. They were all there for the thrill of the hunt, and no man wished to turn back now. So they followed the single buck the dogs focused on, whooping and shouting in their excitement.
After some more time had passed, Valun finally caught up with the dogs, which had made their kill, only to find that he had outstripped everyone riding with him. He dismounted and approached his quarry, as regal in death as it had been in life, and knelt down beside it in silent reflection.
A moment later, however, the silence, which had not been disturbed since he arrived on the scene even by the dogs (which he now had complete mastery over once more) was shattered suddenly by another rider coming onto the scene. Looking around, Valun saw that it was John. He rose to greet him.
“Well, greetings, Prince John. I congratulate you. You have proved yourself a better rider than the best knights in my kingdom.”
Dismounting in turn, John said, perfectly composed “My teachers taught me well.”
“I would hope so, for their sakes. I heard you were raised by king Aldaron of Ronaiera himself.”
 Walking ever closer to Valun, John answered “That is true. I had to make it to him myself. Still I respected what you had done for me. I remember when you protected me from your cross companion. But now I have no more time to waste. This is a fine spot. A lord of the wood can lie with a lord of the land in peace.”
Then, before Valun had a chance to even speak, John had produced a long knife and stabbed him, saying as he did “I will grant you the dignity of seeing the face of your killer.”
Valun, doubled over by the shock of the first blow, felt himself struck two more times before he fell to the ground on his side. He began to feel light-headed, and struggled to keep his eyes open. He did not succeed at this, but before he failed completely he saw Conan come crashing into the scene, swinging his ax and bellowing like a furious bull. “Cowaaaard!” The last thing Valun saw was Conan taking John’s head off with one mighty swing.

The moment he had avenged his king, Conan leapt down from his steed in one quick motion as the main party of nobles finally began to arrive on the scene. They all stopped, shocked at the sight that greeted them. Conan had drawn his knife and was now cutting Valun’s long cape loose from his back. He did not rise, only turning his head to shout in desperation and anger at the stunned men.
“Move yourselves! We may still save the king! Move! Quickly now!” Even as he shouted at the others, he had turned Valun on his back and begun to tie the cape tightly around the king’s body.
All at once, the rest of the hunting party regained their faculties and all dismounted at once. The quickest among them promptly began binding one’s own riding cape between two hunting spears. Another cape and more spears were given up to strengthen the makeshift stretcher. At the same time two men came over to assist Conan in lifting the king’s body onto the stretcher.
        While they did this, the best riders gave up their reins to provide materiel which would tie the stretcher to the reins of Conan’s horse, for as King’s Guard, it was his prerogative to return the body of the king to the city. Even while this was being done, the remaining nobles, who had yet been able to contribute nothing, turned back and rode ahead in an attempt to provide as clear and wide a path as possible for Conan’s passage.
        When all this was finally done and Valun was secured as well as could be achieved behind Conan’s horse, Conan finally took a moment to determine if Valun had already died on them all. He sighed as felt Valun’s breath on his hand and the king’s pulse still beating. Mounting, he called out “The king lives! Ride with all speed!”
        One of the men there answered “What of this other man?”
        Conan snapped in response “He was a spy and deserves no burial. Let the beasts eat him if they will. Let us go!”
        Without further delay, the whole party started off at a trot, as Conan brought up the rear at a pace not much slower than theirs. The trampling of all the great horses, their riders now packed as closely together as they could risk in order to better prepare the ground for the king’s stretcher, was heard to startle birds and beasts that could be heard responding or moving farther away from a considerable distance.
        As he rode, Conan, following duke Mason, who had taken that position as the king’s official heir, divided his attention between the dead stag which someone had tied to Mason’s horse, and the body he was pulling along, which he hoped against hope would survive the journey and walk again.
        The hunters emerged from the forest faster than they had gone into it, and actually seemed to increase their pace now that the way was open before them. However, once they were clear of the woods, Conan first shouted for a pause and leapt down from his horse. Kneeling at Valun’s side, he called for fresh coverings and water. Having done what he could with these articles, he called triumphantly to the assembled group “The king lives!”
        Conan remounted again in a moment, calling for the ride to start once more. With a general cry of “Valunreyas!” All the nobles resumed their frantic ride for the life of their new king. As they drew close to the city, those who were carrying hunting horns began to sound them to draw the attention of the gatekeepers, while others joined in with cries of “Make way for the king! Make way for the king!”
        Fortunately their cries were heeded and they were all able to charge into the city without slowing their pace. There were many people on the streets at the time, and all who saw them pass first started back in shock, and then dropped to one knee as Conan passed by. In a very short time the crowd of nobles began to shrink as the streets of the city became too narrow to accommodate so many horsemen. Mere minutes had passed by the time Conan and Mason were riding alone through the streets closest to the palace. When they finally arrived there, the palace guards barely managed to open the gates before they had both ridden through. As the two nobles dismounted, the palace guards reacted as had everyone who had witnessed their passage.
        They had been shouting for help since they crossed the threshold of the city, so almost no time had passed since their dismounting when the king was surrounded by healers doing what they could.
        As the two nobles stood by silently observing, one of the healers approached them. ”Thank the One you brought him back as quickly as you did. He lives. I think he may be saved.”
        Looking at each other as if unsure which had the greater right to respond to this, Conan and the Hightower answered together “We will tell the people.”
        That evening, all the nobles who had stayed for the hunt assembled in the great hall by request of Conan and the Hightower. They all used the long tables they had used only that morning in eating together. The king’s dais was left empty. In fact, the table itself had been moved away, and Valun had been laid at the base of the steps up to his seat, which had been left there unaccompanied.
        Conan placed himself near the center of the group, deferring to the Hightower the place at the end of the table. After a few moments of silence in respect to the king, Duke Mason rose and spoke.
        “I have good news for you all. The healers have told me and the king’s guard that a chance remains that he will live, thanks to our speed in bringing him back here. However, it shall surely be some time before he is able to take his place again. For as long as that time lasts, there must be someone who can speak for him. I would ask that you give me that power.”
        One of the others spoke up then in Conan’s defense. “Why should we not choose the Trondale over you? It was he who ensured that the king returned at all, while you froze with the rest of us. His duty is here, while yours truly lies elsewhere.”
        Still standing, Duke Mason replied to his antagonist. “As you wish. Let it be put to a vote. All those who wish me to be the king’s regent?”
        To Conan’s great surprise, the number of those who stood was only half of those present, excluding himself and the Hightower. After the count, there was hardly a need for the remaining number to stand in Conan’s support. This they did anyway, to prove that the room was so divided.
        His mother’s words clear in his mind, Conan stood and spoke on his own behalf. “I thank you for the willingness you have shown to treat me as your king-But I refuse the position. The duke is our king’s heir until the prince Valnor is brought back alive by the Longfurrow. I will serve Duke Mason as my king until Valunreyas is recovered. I hope those who have chosen me will respect my decision.”
        As he took his seat once more Mason said “I thank you for your decision, Sir Conan. It would have been a bitter battle had you not done as you have. We do not need a battle in the king’s hall when there is one waiting outside it. It is time we dealt with the Faldons and those who would follow them. Now, if you would join me, men-To all good men brave, strong and wise, may the One watch over their days and grant them peace.”

        Raising their cups as one, the whole party turned toward Valun and gave the response. “Aye, so say we all.”

16 August 2015

The Price of a Throne: Chapter 28

Chapter 28

        Railon went back to the small hostel in which he had spent his first night back in Gaimaron each day throughout the following week. He felt that he needed to adjust to the life he had newly resolved to live inside the city, but was not yet prepared to take up the role he had been born into of the spare prince, waiting until the time came to guide the ways of his nephew while being officially left behind himself. However, he knew that this day had to be different: This was the day he expected to actually get a sight of the nephew he had never seen.
        Taking up the bundle of things he had brought from his travels, which was filled with gifts from friends made and left behind, and some other things he had picked up himself to recall the adventures to recall the adventures they had been associated with, Railon left the room and descended the steps to the ground level of the establishment. There he met the owner of the building, to whom he gave two gold pieces for the day, just as he done each day, and continuing outside as the man thanked him profusely for his generosity.
        Once he had returned to the open air, which in truth he had always preferred to the complacent organization of the great city, Railon felt again as if he had been revived from a long sleep, ready to see the world with new eyes. To this end he resolved to make his way to the main square and observe the life of the market which had been a fixture there when he had first departed. He walked openly in the street and left hanging his traveler’s hood, confident that he would not be recognized and enjoying this knowledge.
        He had never harbored any desire to be a leader of men, or be recognized everywhere he walked. This was, in fact, one of the things which had prompted him to leave the castle one day without warning, pilfering the kitchen and leaving nothing but a note which had said only “I will return someday. Do not set a watch for me, though, lest they die before I return.” Smiling at this memory, he walked straight into the center of the square, paying no heed to who or what was moving around him.
        He quickly saw the error in this, however, as he found himself nearly leaping aside to escape being trampled by a caravan which had just come in. Railon gave little thought to the caravan as a whole, for he had seen many trader’s trains in his travels and they all looked similar enough to one another as to make no difference except in whose pockets the money was going into. But rarely had a trader’s caravan ever brought a passenger along for the ride. As he watched from the edge of the road, the man who seemed to be the leader of the caravan got down from his mount and walked to the side of the passenger. This passenger was wearing a dun-colored robe, and had his hood pulled over his face, so that Railon was unable to get a good look at him.
        The passenger dismounted without aid but stumbled when he hit the ground, which was of no consequence because the driver caught him and set him right as soon as it happened and gave into his hands a stout staff. Along with this exchange, Railon heard a few words pass between the two men.
        “Are you right, sir? I am sorry for the walk you must make, but the king does not allow our trains to draw closer to the palace than this.”
        “This is acceptable. I will manage if I must.”
        “Are you certain you would not prefer that the men carry you there?”
        “You have done enough, good man. I have had enough of letting other men use my legs for me.”
        “Very well, sir. I will make sure that your things are sent after you.”
        “Thank you.”
        During this exchange, the other drivers had unloaded the camels. Some had begun to display the goods while others had taken the task of removing the animals themselves to an area better suited to them. Railon saw that through all this, two men stood by idle. Railon guessed that they were waiting to escort the train’s passenger on the final part of his journey.
            A moment later his intuition was proved correct as the caravan driver turned away and the two men who had been waiting in the background came up on either side of the passenger and he went off with them. Railon decided that he could determine what part this figure played in his future at a later time. For the time being he had a greater desire to more fully explore the city.
            Acting on this desire, he turned away from the central square and began to cross one of the nearby bridges over the river. On the other side of it, he found himself exploring a city, which, though of passable quality, could not be compared with the side he had crossed from.
            Stopping a man who crossed his path after he walked in several streets and seen nary a man about, Railon asked of him “What has happened? This part of the city is dead.”
             The man stood a few feet off from him and answered “That is exactly it, sir, and I must beg you to return to the other side of the city as quickly as you can. On peril of your life, enter no houses. Did you not notice that no one was coming from this side when you crossed? I am a healer and must do what I can, but the whole city on this side has been closed by order of the princess for two months now.”
            “The princess gave this order? What of the king?”
            “The king, we were told, is ill himself. The lady is acting for him.”
            “But what has happened that this must be done?”
            “This part of the city is suffering from plague. There is no telling how many have fallen to it, so none but healers may cross the bridges until he streets are cleansed.”
            “May the One save us all! I have returned at the darkest hour. Do what you can, brave man. I will comply with your order.”
            Wasting no breath on further speech with the man, Railon almost ran through the empty streets of the city until he had returned to the edge of the river, where he stripped off his tunic and swam across instead of using the brdge. When he came up, he could not avoid bemused looks from several people who passed by. For the most part these people had the courtesy to remain silent, but one man leaning on a wall in a corner saw no reason to let the sight pass unnoticed.
            “What cave have you been living in, man? No one is supposed to cross the river! There’s plague, and you’ve brought it over here! Go back, before you kill us all!”
            Seeing no gain in confronting a common drunkard, Railon left the area, feeling accusing looks from all who had heard the man’s shouts but paying them no heed. As he drew closer to the castle he heard voices take up a cry of “Guards! Guards!” Hearing this only made him walk the faster.
            The skills he had honed with long practice travel and fighting in open lands served him well over the last stretches of ground he had to cross, despite his lack of a tunic making him highly conspicuous in the streets. No one was trailing him when he finally made it back to the gates of the palace courtyard. Here he stopped and called urgently for the castle guards.
            “Men! Let me in, quickly now! If you do not I will climb the walls! I must get in!”
            The guards, who fortunately happened to be the same two who had been on duty when he had first arrived in the city, made haste to let him pass, recognizing his face. But one of them could not resist a question.
            “Why, my lord, what has happened to you?”
            “I cannot speak now!”
        Wary of guards from the city arriving and making a scene, he did not slow his pace until he had made it inside the gates of the palace itself. The moment he had stepped inside, however, he stopped and hailed a servant.
        “You there, bring me something from the king’s wardrobe. That will have to do.”
        “Can you not see? I am his brother. I travel light. Now hold your tongue and go.”
        As the servant left to do as he said, Railon stepped aside and leaned against one of the stone pillars jutting out from the wall, which made an ideal place to watch people pass while going unnoticed. However, there was nobody in the hall to see. He was alone in a hall empty save for the loom the princess had been using when he first arrived at the castle a week ago.

        When he had finally reached the capital, the city he should by rights have spent his life in to that point, Miran felt not joy, not anger, but only relief. What he felt in the moment of dismounting from the animal that had carried him across the desert was the relief of one who has been carrying a great load and was now finally allowed to set it down and relax his weary limbs. He had thought that he would be excited by the prospect of his homecoming, but this evidently was not to be.
        His conversation with the caravan driver had gone the way that it had, with no specific mention of his true identity, because he had requested that no one, if possible, should discover his true identity until his father chose to reveal that he had survived. He had taken no notice of anyone he had passed while he walked to the palace flanked by the two strong men Railon had noticed. He had not revealed his name to the gate guards either: his guards had spoken for him, saying only “The king sent for this man.” With these words, they had left him to pass through the gate unaided and alone.     
        The merchant of Goman who had given him passage on this caravan had also ensured that he was provided with a proper walking staff before his departure across the desert, and this he was now putting to good use. One servant approached him and asked if he wanted to remove the cloak, but he brushed the man off, saying “No, no. I can still bear it.”
        At this rejection the servant instead turned and opened the doors for him. Nodding his appreciation of the action, Miran stepped properly inside his home.
        He was met there immediately by Miranda, who had brought her weaving out into the hall several days ago out of a desire to be present at precisely this moment, the first time her brother set foot inside the palace he never should have been taken from. Hardly had he realized she was present before he was wrapped in an enthusiastic embrace.
        “I’m so glad you’re here. Mother have been dying to see you. I only hope that it is not too late now. You at least look no worse for having come across the desert.”
        When she had released him, Miran answered “And you look none the worse for spending your days in these dark halls.”
        “Oh I am sure they shall be bright again now that you have finally come home. Come, we cannot keep mother and father waiting any longer.”
        Having no memory of the place, Miran accepted his sister’s guidance and support as they made their way through the halls and up the steps, with the added assistance of a servant who had met them on the stairs. When they had drawn close to the chamber Torlan had shut himself into months ago, and which he had continued to use since then, Miranda took her leave.
        “I must go to take the news to mother. Perhaps she will send for you if she believes me. I think you must speak with father alone.”
        “I too think that would be wise. I would like to speak more when next we meet.”
        “That we will, brother, do not doubt it.”
        With these words they parted. Miranda continued farther down the hall while Miran and the attendant drew alongside the king’s door and knocked. Miran stood in silence as the servant announced him.
        “My lord, a man has come to see you.”
        “He may enter. I cannot believe that he could have news that would bring me lower than this.”
        The attendant did not reply in words to this. His only response was to push the door open and stand aside, still holding it ajar, to allow Miran to pass through. Miran heard the door close slowly behind him as he stepped into the room and the attendant respectfully remained outside. Taking three steps farther in, Miran stopped and finally swept his traveling hood down onto his neck. He stood as straight as he could and waited quietly for a moment, studying the broad back of the old man who stood facing out the window set in the opposite wall. It was only then that he drew attention to his own presence, saying “I’ve come home, father.”
        The old man turned and looked back at him. There was another heavy silence. This time the older man spoke first, remaining rooted to the spot by the wall where he stood. “If I am your father, you are my son, Miran. Can you forgive me what I have done to you?”
        “I have, father. Else I would not be here before you, I think. My sister persuaded me I should come home. She said you were near death.”
        “If you have forgiven my folly, than I say that you are the better man. I have wished that you could walk in these halls for many years past, yet could not bring myself to face your righteous anger at my failure. I have been no true father to you.”
        “The man who admits his fault is truly no worse than he who forgives him that fault, I think. I have come not to hear you ask for my forgiveness, but to live the life I should have had if you had never done as you did.”
        Torlan crossed the room and wrapped his hobbled son in an embrace given with fully as much joy as the one Miran had received from Miranda in the hall. Breaking out of it, he spoke again, his voice breaking with relief.
        “You shall have that, my son, and as much more as I can give you. I think now we shall be allowed to see your mother.” Passing by Miran, Torlan opened the door to the chamber.
        Miran turned and followed his father out of the room, only for both to be met by the servant Railon had sent ahead.
        “My lord, your brother requires one of your tunics.”
        “What could he have done to the one he had? He could not have grown that much in these past days. It is no matter, he may have it, of course, and send him word also that we dine in the great hall today.”
        “It will be done, my lord.” With this, the servant left them to follow the orders he had been successively given, while the king and his son turned in the direction of the chamber the queen had taken for herself, which was still the same room where the king and queen had taken their rest when their children were young.
        Before they reached the door they were met by Miranda coming from the other side. She seemed overjoyed to see them. “Miran! Father! You have come too? How long have I dreamed of this day. My mother has risen. I think she shall call for you in a moment. I shall go now to let word of this news be spread.”
        “This is all your doing, my daughter? You braved the desert and the lake to bring Miran back to us?”
        “I am sorry I did not tell you, father, but I have done it many times. I promised to mother that I would. Miran would never have known he was needed had I not gone for him.”
        “I think you speak truly, daughter. Now go do as you wished to, for truly this is a day for a festival here in the city.”
        “Thank you, father.” With these words, Miranda swept away down the passage, while the men continued to draw closer to the queen’s chamber, awaiting the word that she would see them.
        This was not long in coming. They had advanced but six feet down the passage when a maid stepped out of the chamber and began to approach them, only to stop short when she became aware of close they already were. Giving a quick curtsey, she said “My lord, my lady wishes to see you now.”
        “Thank you, miss. You may go if you like. Go attend the princess in the lower halls.”
        “As you say, my lord.” The maid quickly left the men’s presence, while they continued until they reached the door from which she had emerged. Torlan knocked, and they waited.
        The door was soon opened by another maid, who stepped aside to let them pass. The queen was waiting to receive them in the center of the room. She was seated facing the door, two maids standing behind the chair awaiting the first word of command. The queen had put on a dress of pale gold, one she had not worn in years, which was complimented perfectly by her silver hair, which had turned fully to that shade not long after Miranda had come of age. She seemed to be looking at them both, but it was clear who she had really wanted to see.
        “Come here, my son. Come closer and let me give you all the love I have been saving for this day that you should have had before.”
        Heeding her words, Miran moved forward, leaning on his staff but still moving nearly as fast as most men could. The queen rose from her chair when he drew close and gave him the third smothering embrace he had endured that day. She leaned over him as she did this, and he took the opportunity to whisper to her “Hold nothing against father for my sake. I have forgiven him.”
        Just as quietly, she answered “Thank you, my son.” Releasing Miran and allowing him to step aside, she walked up to Torlan where he had stood silent through the last few moments. “You have finally brought him home? I think I can now live again. Thank you, Torlan.”
        “Do not thank me. It was not my doing. Our daughter has saved us all this day.”
        “I wonder why she did not tell me this? I shall thank her when we meet again. But now, both of you, walk with me. It has been too long since I last walked by the river, but now I will do so happily, for we have come together again.”

        When Miranda had descended to the lower halls, she was soon met by Railon, who, now wearing the tunic the servant had brought him (which being made for Torlan, made Railon look much smaller than he was) had been waiting since he arrived in the hall steps but steps from Miranda’s loom.
        He made his presence known while she was giving her weaving over to the maid Torlan had sent after her to be moved back to its usual place in her own chamber. She was startled when he spoke.
        “Oh, my uncle. I did not know you had come.”
        “I was content that you should not know. I saw your brother arrive in the city this morning.”
        “Why did you not make yourself known to him? I know he would be happy to meet you.”
        “He was but crawling, and you were not yet in the world, when I departed from here. He does not know me yet, and he would perhaps not believe my words if I had approached him in the street in the garb of a traveler. It is better this way, I am sure. However, now I have a more pressing matter to discuss with you.”
        Another maid approached them both and spoke to Miranda, departing again at the princess’s response. After this interruption had passed, Miranda turned back to Railon and asked of him “What could you have to speak of to me, rather than my father or mother?”
        Putting a palm on the wall and leaning his weight against it, Railon answered “I met a man in the city who said that you have closed half of it in your father’s name. He said there was plague and it has been this way for two months. Is nothing being done for the people? Are they all being left to die?”
        Miranda appeared shocked at the implications of what Railon was saying. His words drew a gasp, after which she covered her mouth as if to stop the escape of another. “Oh! May the One forgive me for this! I had forgotten the people in my joy at my brother’s return. Yes, no- oh uncle, it is true, and I have been trying to look after them. Some time ago, six families were found to have died of plague. The day the healers came to me, I gave the order that no one was to cross the river for fear of bringing the sickness with them. Every week, cartloads of food are driven across the bridges and the people are called out to get it. The drivers are allowed to return, as they touch nothing on that side. But many of the healers have crossed and are now doing what they can for the people, while waiting to give up their lives to the sickness themselves. I could not let my father be told lest he die of grief before Miran returned.”
        Railon moved closer and embraced Miranda in sympathy as he spoke. “I am sorry you had to do this, my niece. You have borne so much pain for our family for so long. The waiting is finally over, and we shall never be parted again except by death, but what of all those people who were not ill when first you gave the order? Nothing can be done for them now. They cannot do as we have done.”
        He could feel Miranda sobbing as he continued to hold her, saying nothing as she released her disappointment in herself. “The one forgive me, I have failed my people. I have failed my people. What am I to do?”
        Breaking the embrace, Railon used the excess materiel of his brother’s sleeve to wipe the tears from Miranda’s face. “Come now, you cannot let your mother and father see you like this. You have been their rock for too long. I will bear this weight for you, and we will not speak of it to them until I have done what I can. Go back to the others now, and I will try to resolve this. If there are people left who eat the food you have been sending, perhaps some can be saved.”
        “Thank you, uncle.” Giving Railon another short-lived embrace, Miranda turned back toward the stairs, while Railon turned back to the main doors to venture into the city once more.
        In the courtyard, he found the castle guards who watched the gate arguing with a group of citizens and city guards through the lowered portcullis gate. One man shouted angrily at the sight of him, which caused everyone to stop and look.
        “There he is! That’s the man! He swam the river from the plague side. He’s sure to be the death of us all unless something is done.”
        The guards on the inside of the castle looked confused when the saw who was meant. “Not him, surely. That man is the king’s brother, and has not been in the city since some of you were but boys. He would do nothing so foolish as you say he has.”
            Seeing that he would have to start with his own person in setting things right, Railon came alongside the guards by the gate and spoke. “You all speak the truth. I have not been in the city for twenty years past, so I did not know of the plague, since I saw no notices. Were they all torn down? I did cross the bridge, but I touched nothing and passed no threshold, which I have heard from the princess herself, who gave the order, is enough to return. Else I would have given myself up to banishment. I swam the river in hopes of cleansing myself of any hint of the sickness. But indeed something must be done, and I will begin to do it this day.”
        “What is to be done?” asked everyone there, now hanging on his words like studious pupils.
        “The people must be evacuated and the city burned and rebuilt. Save for this, no one will dare to cross the bridges anymore.”
        “Do you speak in the name of the king?”
        “I speak in my own name, and that of the princess Miranda who closed the bridge. Brave men must be sent across the bridge to call out those who still live. Open the gates on that side and let them out. Then that part of the city must be burned.”
        “If this is the word of the palace.”
        “I say to you again: that it is. Let no time be wasted. Now let me pass so that I may see it done.”
        The guards then raised the gate and Railon passed through, taking the lead of the party who had come to arrest him. They walked all over the clean part of the city, relaying the orders Railon had pronounced at the gate. After some hours had passed, they found six men willing to risk an agonizing death to the plague in order to do as the prince regent had ordered. Railon saw them off at the end of the bridge.
“May the One save you for what you do today.”
With the beginnings of a curious crowd who came to find out what was happening, Railon stood at the end of the bridge through the remainder of the afternoon, listening for the cries of the riders. Those who listened with him could hear calls of “By order of the palace, any who can still walk must leave the city by the west gate. Go! Go!”
In the distance, the sound of the small gates of the west wall opening could be heard by the crowd. However, they were unable to see just how many were able to follow the order to leave, as there were many paths that could be taken that were not visible to those on the bridges.
While the riders had been conveying his previous orders, a large patrol of guards approached Railon and he gave them different orders. “Make torches and fires. As many as you can carry among you and more. This night the dead city must burn.” Others he ordered to stand watch against the chance of the fire carrying across the river, and still others he told off to block the bridges after the guards had passed with anything close to hand. He ordered also that the soldiers, when they returned, were to be told to swim across. In this manner he eventually made use of everyone who had come to find out for themselves what was being done. It was only as the day began to darken that he turned back to the palace, having seen the first flames catch on the roofs of the dead city.

The royal family had gone down to a branch of the river that passed outside the walls, where flowers grew and the air was clear. They walked together for some time, simply enjoying each other’s company. However, they had grown tired and turned back long before Railon had completed the mission he had taken upon himself. Being safely secluded from the noise and activity in the city, they were surprised when Railon walked into the hall, looking haggard and weary. Miranda, seeing the look he sent her way, quickly took control of the situation to draw attention away from what he had been doing, which he clearly had no desire to speak of.
“Rise, brother, and greet your uncle.”
When she spoke, musicians who had been playing stopped suddenly, and everyone turned to look at Railon. With a slight push which she hoped would go unnoticed by their parents, Miranda again prompted her brother to rise, while Railon stood back, watching the scene unfold. After a moment, Miran slowly rose, and walked as best he could till he was much closer to the older man.
“Who are you, sir? My sister wishes me to know.”
“I am your uncle. I have been traveling in far-off lands since you were too young to remember my name. I am Railon, younger brother to your father, and I saw you arrive in the square this day.”
“Welcome home, sir. I hope that you will remain with us now.”

“I say the same to you. You and I have spent far too long away from these halls, but now we have returned, I think nothing more shall call us away. Welcome home, young prince.” 

13 August 2015

The Price of a Throne: Chapter 27

Chapter 27

Valun had in fact ordered games and contests to be prepared in advance of his coronation. However, due to the general state of the nobles and the public after the unfettered revelry of the king’s feast, no one, save Conan and others like him who had been able to restrain themselves, could be considered fit to participate in any sort of competition the following day.
Therefore, Valun declined to announce the opening of the contests until the second morning had broken, at which time the nobles and their retinues repaired to the lists which had been prepared outside the north wall of the city, to make their preparations for a day of jousting and the tournament. Meanwhile, the attendants who were not immediately required mingled with the general public of the city to watch and compete in lesser sports.
Among these lesser sports, which were spread throughout the plain around the walls and continued until the jousting was announced, there could be found footraces, quarter-staff duels, wrestling and other contests of strength, and an archery competition. The archery contest drew the greatest crowd, including Valun himself, for whom a dais had been provided where he sat flanked by Evelyn on his right and Anne on the left, Conan was not present, having left the others earlier to prepare for participation in the tournament. When they had been seated, a silver medallion was presented to them as the prize to be given to the winner.
The other contests still continued while the archery progressed. As a winner was found for each event, they were led by royal guards to the king’s dais, where the Trondale ladies took it in turns to present each champion with a medallion of their own, of which Valun had earlier ordered several struck and given into their keeping with this intent.
The archery was thrilling, with many men there displaying uncanny skill at the hunter’s art. When it finally concluded, the victor was revealed to be an attendant of the Bristolans, which Valun noted with pride since that family were his relations on his mother’s side. When the man was brought before the dais, Valun rose as the man knelt before him. Holding out the medal and letting it fall around the man’s neck, Valun asked “What do they call you, man?”
 The man, who had kept his head bowed till now, answered “My name is Roger o’ Dale, my lord.”
“Roger o’ Dale, you have this day brought further honor to the name of the honored queen mother. Take that and this medal back to your home. I name you the King’s Archer, until a man can best you. Rise now.” As Roger o’ Dale rose, Valun took a step back and said “Throughout this day there have been many champions, and many, many, worthy challengers to their victories. Let us now give them their due.” With these words he began to slowly applaud, as Roger o’ Dale made his way through the crowd, smiling widely and thrusting a fist in the air. The king’s applause spread like fire down from the royal seats and among the common people and lasted several minutes, trailing off only when a herald’s horn became audible in the distance.
This was the announcement that the nobles’ own contest waited only on the presence of the king. In response, the crowd began to disperse toward the lists, as four royal guards made their way to the side of the king’s party, creating a buffer between them and the commoners which allowed them to move at their own leisurely pace. A short walk brought them to the grandstand alongside the lists, where their arrival was announced by fanfare as they took their seats. Then a herald presented the king with a silver circlet on a cushion, which he in turn presented to Anne.
The grandstand was considerably larger than the dais that had been provided at the archery contest. Not only was it three rows tall, but it was also covered with a great awning, and pennants displaying the king’s crest were hung from the top on all sides. The king’s party of course occupied the top row, and the remaining spaces were filled by those recognized as manor lords who were either too old or too young and untested to pit themselves against those in the prime years of their life, and their attendants.
Noticing that a herald was looking to him for orders, Valun said to him “Let the contest begin.”
Turning back, the herald blew a note on his horn and cried out for all to hear.
“Hear ye, hear ye! This tournament, given by the king Valun III here present, shall now commence. The jousting shall be with blunted lances only. Any who use sharp points shall forfeit the match and the whole contest. If a third pass must be made, the two shall dismount and fight until the victor is clear. Following the jousts, the two who have the most victories in the lists shall be captains for the melee, which shall continue until a champion is determined, by conquest or by the king’s decision. Let the first contenders come forth!”
The first two knights to come forth were named as Mason, duke of Berunthia, on the left, and a northern earl, Bryan of Lansfel, on the right. They both saluted the king and then shared a nod of courtesy before galloping down the lists. On that first pass, however, Bryan of Lansfel declined the strike, and Duke Mason pulled up and let him pass. At the end of the lists, now at the ends opposite those they had begun from, they turned and charged each other once more. This time they struck, and Bryan of Lansfel emerged victorious, as Mason’s lance shattered upon the Lansfel’s shield, while the other’s lance remained intact. Saluting each other from the ends of the lists, they returned to their pavilions to await another chance to ride.
The second match was between the Elderon, a baron who had come from outside Carribeasa, and the Urstalan, another baron whose land was near the border with Naibern on the coast below Corrandion. This time there was no free pass. Neither of the two wavered, and they struck at full gallop, only for both to break their lances against the other’s shield. At this, they turned back to their own pavilions to receive new lances and do it again. The second time, the Elderon succeeded in jolting the other loose from his saddle, and so was declared the victor in that match.
A third match came and went, with the victor succeeding in one pass and receiving especially energetic applause from the audience for having done something the previous contenders had not achieved. It was the fourth match, however, which drew the most excitement from the king’s row. It was in that match that Conan made his first appearance in the lists, removing his helm for his salute to the king’s seat and not replacing it till his opponent had appeared at the opposite end.
Conan’s counterpart in his first bout was a giant earl from the midlands, whose land lay close to that of the Longfurrows and the Aldaricks. After sharing the appropriate salutes, the two charged. Both their lances shattered, with neither giving any sign that they had been upset by the blow. Receiving fresh lances from their respective attendants, they broke those also, to the surprise and excitement of the audience. The knights dismounted and remained where they were, while attendants approached to remove their steeds and bring them their chosen weapons. Conan, to the surprise of no one who had seen him, wielded a double-bladed battleax, while his opponent flourished a sword longer than some men’s arms. They went at each other like two wild animals fighting for dominance of a pack, each giving and parrying tremendous blows which drew gasps from the crowd. After several minutes had passed and Anne had begged him several times to put an end to the fight before one killed the other or they both had to remove themselves from the contest, Valun gave a signal to the herald standing nearby, who immediately blew two blasts on his horn. The unexpected noise caused both men to stop suddenly, their weapons locked, as they had been several times already. As they turned to look toward the king’s seat, the herald called out “Remove your helms. The king wishes words with you.”
As both men complied with this order and turned to face him, Valun rose and said “You have both shown great strength, skill, and courage in this duel, but the lady asks that you retreat, so that you may both be able to appear before us again this day. Neither has lost nor won this contest.” At the conclusion of the king’s speech, the audience gave the two combatants hearty applause as they saluted the king, shook hands, and retreated to their own pavilions to await another chance to tilt against each other or another.
When they had cleared the lists, the jousts resumed, with many exciting matches between nobles from all over the country. The hours advanced, the shade grew longer, and several of the contestants, including Conan and the giant earl, came out multiple more times, though those two declined to face each other again. Finally, when the jousting had progressed until most of the competitors were down to their last lance or had simply declined to participate again, The heralds granted a few minutes of rest to everyone, during which time attendants prepared the field, before calling for the start of the melee combat.
When the rest period had expired, a herald blew one long note and then announced the captains for the melee which would decide the day’s champion.
“The captain for the west side, with three victories, one loss, and the king’s draw, is Conan, baron of Wycliff, the Trondale!” Valun heard Anne almost shriek with excitement as she cheered her brother along with himself and the rest of the audience. Conan made his reappearance in the midst of the cheering and saluted the king again. When the cheering for Conan had died down, the herald promptly announced the second captain.
“The captain for the east side, with four victories and the king’s draw, is Robert, earl of Salanfel, the Darron!” His record having been announced, no one was the least bit surprised to see the giant Conan had fought in his first match emerge immediately from his pavilion to hearty applause and cheers from the assembled crowd. As the Darron gave his salute to the king, the rest of the nobles who had participated and were still able to compete rode into the field, assembling behind their captain depending on which side they had come in from.
When all the participants had assembled, the heralds walked between the parties and made a space in the center as wide as the height of two men, which no man was to cross until the order had been given. On their respective sides of this space, the combatants arranged themselves in neat squares, with the captains riding front and center. All told, there were twenty men to a side, but this was not the full complement of nobles who had come to participate. Several more had been unhorsed or even injured in the jousts and had declined to ride in the melee. However, several of these worthy knights could be seen watching the contest from chairs which had been brought from their pavilions, loudly cheering one side or the other, depending on which side of the lists they were seated on.
After a moment had been allowed to grant the knights time to be sure of their weapons and their footing, Valun gave the signal that the combat should begin.
Accordingly, the heralds blew one long blast on their horns and cried in unison. “Strength, will, and courage win the day! Strike no foul blows, and may the best man take the victory!”
With a resounding cheer from the audience, the battle began. Each side charged at the other full tilt, with each man singling out a man he would try to unseat. Conan and Robert Darron avoided each other at the first clash, taking on lesser foes in clear attempts to tip the balance in favor of their own side, rather than engage immediately in the titanic struggle, which few people doubted, after the jousts, would eventually come anyway to decide the ultimate victor of the day.
The first to fall was the Elderon, on Conan’s side, struck down by a blow from the Darron. As attendants ran into the midst of the fight to return him to his tent, Conan evened the score by unseating the Selden, a southern earl who had very nearly unseated Conan earlier. Then the Aldarick fell, and the Urstalan, and more besides. After this flurry of victories, which were met equally by cheers and gasps, there was a lull in the casualties, though not in the combat.
After some minutes, the Relton, who had been fighting on Conan’s side, was knocked down. Valun joined in the cheers, as he had been doing for each and every victor throughout the day. However, secretly within his mind he was beginning to worry for Conan’s side, as the Relton was the fourth man the Darron himself had struck down, and the balance was distinctly in favor of the Darron’s side.
However, the next moment, as Valun turned away to give orders to an attendant, he heard wild cheers break out suddenly from the crowd. Turning back to the fight, he saw his own cousin the Hightower, Mason of Berunthia, unseat the Darron’s right-hand man, and follow this up with another quick conquest. Valun turned to Evelyn and asked “What has happened?”
Not breaking off her applause, Conan’s mother answered “The Hightower has just unseated four men in succession. No man has done that yet.”
Her words prompted Valun to watch the subsequent battle more closely. In the ensuing minutes more men on both sides were unseated, and the field was reduced down to Conan, Duke Mason, and two others on one side, and Robert Darren and six others on the opposing side. As Valun watched, everyone paused for a moment. The remaining knights seemed to be sizing each other up and enjoying the moment before the final clash which would leave some of them on the ground, being dragged out by their attendants, having failed in the chance to take the crown of the day.
Without any warning, the eleven knights remaining on the field all started up at once, charging at each other in full gallop. Swinging his ax above his head, Conan unseated one of the Darron’s men using the flat of his blade, and blocked another’s stroke against him with the backswing. Duke Mason and the two other knights each unseated a man before the latter two were unseated themselves, leaving Conan and the king’s cousin alone against the might of the Darron and the two men remaining on his side.
Pressing their advantage, the Darron and his men, one of whom was Bryan of Lansfel, charged hard at the king’s favorites without warning. In the face of the charge, the Hightower, who had been right alongside Conan, pulled back and turned his horse so that he was back-to-back with Conan as the Lansfel and the other rushed by. Following this, the Hightower seized his chance and steered his horse into a corner, where he sat facing the field. Raising his visor, he yelled out “Who will face me? I’ll take both of you on!” He closed it again amidst admiring cheers from the audience at this display of bravado.
Meanwhile, Conan had finally engaged the Darren in the duel they had both been avoiding throughout the afternoon. However, the two were no longer mounted, by choice. Whilst the Hightower had been drawing off the others, Conan had quickly dismounted and sent his steed away. According to the rules of engagement, this meant the Darron could no longer attack Conan unless he also was dismounted. This he did, as he and everyone knew both that three on one with one spare opponent was unmanly, and that Conan had already proven himself the Darron’s worthiest opponent. And so the two rivals began sparring on foot near the center while the Hightower held off the other two riders in the northwest corner of the field. Suddenly the Hightower inspired a round of cheers with a series of movements in which he parried both his opponent’s weapons at once, kicked his horse, and rode between the two, pushing Bryan of Lansfel, who was on his sword arm, off his saddle in the process. As the Lansfel was taken away by his servants, the crowd’s attention turned back to the captain’s duel. This time, both having spent so much strength in the course of the day, neither stood as firm as they had in their first duel during the jousts, and both found themselves giving ground when the other landed a good blow. Then the crowd grew excited again as the Hightower and his remaining opponent, in an astonishing turn of events, managed somehow to unseat each other while fighting with swords.
        Leaning down to speak to one of the older knights, Valun asked him “Have you ever seen that happen before?”
         His elder answered with a smile “Aye, my lord. If two men in a tournament agree not to go on, and cut each other’s saddles, then it can be done. I did it myself in my day. Your father the old king was also known to do it.”
        Leaning back in his chair, Valun digested this surprising piece of information while refocusing his attention on the last remaining combat, the duel of the champions. That duel, as slow as it was compared to the earlier one, was still quite a sight. At one time the two had locked their free hands together as well as their weapons, and each seemed to be trying to pull the other closer. However, they soon broke this off as it did not seem to be giving either of them an advantage. Upon breaking apart, they each stepped back and began swinging their blades once more. It was then, finally, that a chance came for one to win the duel and the crown.
        The Darren swung at Conan’s legs, but Conan, seeing this, displayed agility which drew gasps from the crowd, pulling his legs up over the sweep of the blade and at the same time manipulating his ax so as to catch the other’s sword in the space between the ax-blades and the haft. Succeeding in this, he twisted the ax haft within his grip at a great speed which broke his rival’s iron grip and sent the sword spinning away to land in the grass a yard or more away.
        The moment this became apparent, wild cheers began to ring out from the crowd, the loudest that had been given all day. Valun and the ladies did not join in the cheering, but simply all rose at once and stood applauding both victor and vanquished until the applause died away at the call of a herald’s horn.
        Then the herald, as was his duty, unnecessarily followed his horn-blasts with the announcement already clear to everybody. “The final champion of the king’s tournament, by the disarming of his last opponent, is Conan, the Trondale, Baron of Wycliff!” The general applause resumed at a much reduced volume as the heralds cleared the way for Conan to mount the steps.
        As custom dictated, he knelt on the last step below the king, head bowed to receive his prize. Without missing a step, his sister, who Valun could see was struggling to remain composed, approached Conan with the crown and said “Rise, noble sir, champion of this day’s combat. For you have proved so worthy.” With these words, she placed the circlet crown on Conan’s uncovered head.
        Valun almost missed Conan’s reply, which the new champion had not raised his head to say, because he had not expected Conan to say anything.
        “Must I wear this thing for long?”
        Valun grinned as he heard the ladies stifling laughter. Then Evelyn spoke what he had been thinking himself.
“Well of course you must, my boy, fifty men have been bashing each other about over the thing all this day. It would a slight to them if you did not take pride in your victory.”
“If I must…”
Deciding it was time to set things right again, Valun broke in with the solemn words that closed the tournament. “Rise, King’s Champion. We will expect you at our table tonight.”
This was Conan’s cue that he was free to leave the king’s presence for that time, and he wasted no further time in taking it. The common people gave him space, but those of the nobles who had watched the entire event from the grandstand did not restrain themselves in their congratulations.
“That, my boy, may have been the finest tournament this country has seen in ages of kings.” Said one.
Another remarked “Never have I seen such endurance in the trial. Robert of Salanfel has long been the mightiest knight in the country, and only the most skilled hope to bring him down.”
To this, Valun heard Conan reply “I am not among them. I would thank you not to place me in their company yet.” With these words, he left the confines of the grandstand to make his way back to his own pavilion.
Valun and the ladies remained where they were until the champion had left the field. Only then did Valun indicate to the attendants that they wished to leave, at which time the guards came up and the heralds blew a blast on their horns and cried
“The day of festival and tournament is ended! Make way for the king!” Flanked by guards, the royal party began then to make their way through the crowd and back toward the castle, as the present nobles began to fall in behind them according to age and rank.

By the time Conan had reached his pavilion and had come into the care of his attendants, who were not his own men but a pair who had been lent to him by one of the nobles on his side, he was lurching about and needed their assistance to reach the chair without crashing to the ground. Once he was firmly placed in it, though, the attendants immediately began to divest him of the armor, while he merely sat and watched the operation unfold.
In the midst of their work, there was a knock on the post outside on which Conan’s shield was hung. His throat parched by the harsh exercise, Conan forced himself to call out in response “Enter.”
As the attendants helped Conan rise to his feet and gave him a bowl of water to drink from, he saw his rival for that day, Robert of Salenfel, enter the tent, ducking his head to fit himself into the opening. Straightening himself again, he spoke.
“Greetings. I have come to give you my congratulations, if you will take it, for your victory today.”
“I will take them gladly. More gladly than I wear this champion’s crown, even though it was given by the king, and bestowed on me by my own sister.”
“The lady who was with the king is your sister? She is a sight to bring light to men’s eyes, if you will bear my saying so. You are fortunate indeed, to have such favor with the king.”
“Yes, he is giving us great favor, but I have no doubt that he would do as much for you had your house made the sacrifices of mine. The king has not yet told me of any desire to make my sister his queen. And be careful how you look toward her, for she is barely of age, and you have learned something of what a threat I can be.”
“I will take your words to heart-and that indeed- No man has bested me in trials of strength for many years, and I am but rarely unseated by the best knights in the land. You are a worthy successor to my title. You, young baron, can rightfully claim to be the strongest noble in the kingdom, and few men will dare to challenge your reign.”
By now being fully divested of his scuffed and battered armor, which the attendants had already removed to begin the process of renewing it, Conan finished his drink and said “I thank you for the compliment, good sir. I would speak falsely if I said I never thought there was a chance that I would fall to you. At the king’s right hand in the fight to reclaim the kingdom, I fought many strong men, but none were a match for you. Join me in attending the king’s feast.”
“That I will gladly do.”
So saying, the two departed from Conan’s tent and began to make their way, through a wave of cheers for both of them, up to the castle. When they had set foot inside and the herald had announced “Robert, Earl of Salanfel” and “Conan, Baron of Wycliff” All the nobles there present stood once more and again gave them both a round of applause. In the midst of this noise they shook hands and then separated, each going to the place assigned to him.
When at last Conan had reached the high table, and taken his place at the king’s right side, above even the king’s own family, Valun opened the feast and another night of much food and good fellowship began. After some minutes, Conan saw that Valun was leaning to his side and asked “What would you say, my lord?”
Valun answered calmly “I would ask where John of Ronaiera is, for I believe he should be here with us, yet I have not seen him this day.”
“I have done nothing against him, my lord, and I know not where he can be found. Please let us not allow his absence to spoil our good cheer.”
“I will take your advice for this night. I sent for him some time ago, however. Surely he must have been found were he in the city.”


John sat on a small bed in a chamber situated high up one of the towers of the castle. He had gone up to that room while everyone was watching the tournament. The window into it did not look toward the north, so he had missed the whole event, but that did not bother him. He found that little bothered him anymore. He groaned as he tried to straighten his back to walk around the small space and keep his limbs from going numb. The pain still hurt like knives, however, and he was forced to fall back after managing two steps. He no longer feared death, only pain. Death, in fact, had been easy, he thought. It had taken but little to give it to the king’s messenger, who had found him as he approached the castle earlier. The Naiberns had disposed of the body. His task was to wait for a chance. He began to softly sing a tragic ballad as he continued to sharpen a long knife.