King Valun was up before dawn on the morning after the army’s ceremonial exit from the city. The interior of his tent was so dark that he could hardly tell if he was really awake for a short time after he had opened his eyes. When he had ascertained conclusively that he really was awake, he continued to lie silently for several minutes more, listening for the slight sounds that escaped David in his sleep. Good; he would be alone for the next hour at the least.
When he began to grow restless, Valun quietly slithered out of his bedroll and pushed himself up from the ground, stooping to avoid the low ceiling of his tent. Stepping lightly, and being especially careful not to rouse his servant, who was lying across the entrance to the tent, Valun stepped out into the dark morning.
Looking up, he could just see the faintest traces of the approaching dawn. Shuddering for a moment upon becoming aware of the slight chill that always accompanied the tedious predawn hours, Valun began to walk toward the edge of the camp. When he had passed the perimeter of the army’s campsite, Valun climbed a low hill that lay nearby and stood motionless at the summit, thinking about everything and nothing, if that is possible, simultaneously.
He stood, silently contemplating his hidden surroundings for a length of time which felt like only minutes but which was in reality hours. Valun did not manage to rouse himself from the trance-like stupor he had fallen into until the first light of dawn was to be seen over the horizon. At this sight, Valun roused himself and left his perch on the hilltop, turning back toward the camp.
He was challenged by the sentry, but brushed the man off and continued on to his tent. Along the way he caught sight of the earliest risers among the troops. Some were fitting on their armor, others were trying to polish their blades by the meager light of earliest dawn, and still others were striking lights and preparing to cook the meals for their groups. Satisfied with the on-going preparations of his army, Valun resumed his walk. Upon arriving back at his tent, Valun stopped to listen for the sounds of a sleeping man on the opposite side. Hearing none, He exclaimed loudly
“I expected that you would be awake by this time, David.”
The instant he had finished speaking, the tent flap opened wide and David came into sight. He had changed his outfit from one of the scarlet color of his king’s livery to one of dark green. Valun stared for a moment before asking
“Why are you not wearing the proper color?”
Looking up to notice that he was standing in the king’s way, (the king was standing in his path, more like) David stopped for a moment to collect himself and then replied
“You see, your Majesty, it is my opinion that red is far more noticeable in the country than is the green color that I have donned.”
“I can see your point, but I am still not happy with your presumption in abandoning my color. Find Sir Richard and send him to my tent, but first you must see about my breakfast.”
“Yes, My Lord.” Was all that David replied before continuing on his way.
Valun was quite surprised when David finally brought in his breakfast. David was gingerly holding out a large pot which was still issuing steam. He set it down on the ground before the king with a look of relief.
“Here, my lord. Someone decided to put a handful of oats on the fire and watch them cook. It smelled reasonably good when I found it, but if it doesn’t suit your taste, you can hardly blame me.”
Valun looked down at the solidifying mass before him in the pot. It was rather lumpy but still retained an acceptable smell. After another look at it, Valun looked up again and said
“Bring me a piece of wood a foot long.”
David promptly hurried out to get one. When he returned, Valun took the wood and bringing out a knife, proceeded to slice a hollow out of one end, and then cut off the ungainly and unnecessary half. Using this implement, he dug into the meal, which was still warm. The stuff lacked a distinctive flavor, but was reasonably filling, regardless.
Upon finishing all of it, Valun stood up and said
“I compliment the originator of this idea, and you must find my general now.”
David took the pot and left, while Valun found a seat for himself outside his tent.
He had been sitting there for some time before David returned with Sir Richard. At the approach of his servants, Valun rose and said
“Well, my good friend. I have called to you to attend me because I wish to know the state of our forces. I must know their numbers, their weapons and their morale.”
“Is that all, really? There will be seventy-five thousand men, just as you ordered, after we arrive at Carribeasa. The force consists of twenty-five thousand sword, pike, and mace carriers, twenty thousand cavalrymen, and five thousand archers. There is nothing to say on their morale at this point, for as yet nothing as actually occurred.”
“Did I really order seventy-five thousand men? I was unaware that the number was so large.”
“If I may speak so freely, my Lord, I did not fail to read a part of the archives before you decided to leave on this mission. In them I discovered that seventy-five thousand was the number called by all previous conscriptions. Having discovered this, and knowing that you had ordered a draft, I called that number to arms.”
“It appears that previous kings were under threat of invasion when those drafts occurred. As we are the invader rather than the defender this time, I request that you pass the word that twenty thousand men may return to their homes.”
Sir Richard was startled by this order, and it showed on his face. “I am sorry, my Lord. The king may ride at the head of the ranks, but all decisions of war fall on the shoulders of his General, if he has one. It is my opinion that we should not send any man home for two reasons. First, if we send anyone home before we have engaged the enemy, it will spark envy among the ranks. Secondly, we are as yet unaware of the size of the force which will be brought against us, a fact which would force any good General to keep every man he has on the lines.”
“I understand you, my friend. Authority appears to make me narrow-minded and domineering. Would you not say so if I ordered you to tell me what you thought of me?”
“I am afraid that I would say that, Your Majesty.” Valun began to laugh at this reluctant admission from his General. “I thank you for telling me, for now I know. I do not want to hear any of my titles coming out of your mouth again. To you, I am just Valun, as I have always been.”
“Yes…Valun. I will give the order to strike the tents now.”
Reaching out to grab one of the poles which held up his own tent, Valun replied
“It is high time for that, my friend. My servant and I will handle mine.”
“Of course! Have I not just said so? I can do what I please, and I can make everyone else do it too! Now go!”
Recovering his composure, Richard replied
“Yes my- friend, Valun. I shall.”
As Richard strode away, Valun and David began to disassemble the tent which they had shared. They did not speak between themselves; nor was there any unnecessary noise to be heard anywhere throughout the general camp. In the silence, the work of breaking camp was completed within fifteen minutes of the conclusion of Valun’s meeting with Richard. As they were loading the tent on to their pack-horse, Richard returned and announced “Camp is broken and the troops are formed up to wait for the word of command-Valun.”
As he climbed aboard his black charger, Valun answered “Excellent, my friend. Now just mount your own horse, and we shall open the adventure. Am I right?”
“I can not say otherwise, my friend.”
“I knew that you would say that, but I must have my fun. We shall go now.”
Valun waited while an attendant brought Richard’s brown charger alongside. Richard mounted, and the pair rode off, leaving David, whom they had forgotten for the moment, to follow on foot.
When they reached the head of the force, Richard assumed his official role once more. “Present the King’s standard!” At least five scarlet sword and anvil banners caught the wind, streaming out behind their carriers. “The Guard shall assume its position!” Three cavalrymen, two archers, and five swordsmen stepped forward. For greater ease of travel, all were mounted. “You men shall guard your king against all threats. Even in the midst of a battle, you will remain close to give your life to save his. You are the Valkyries. Do you accept this pledge?”
Drawing their weapons, the guards replied in unison “Our lives are forfeit to our king. We, the chosen few, shall never allow our lord to fall in battle if we survive to fight. For Valun!”
After the final cry, Valun held up his hand for silence. At the signal, all noise stopped abruptly. “My countrymen! I have told you many times already what I expect of you, but only permit me to say it once more, and it is said. We are marching to find my royal father and return him to the country he longs to see. We are marching to punish the insolence of those holding him captive, along with my younger brother, who is my heir should I fall in battle. That said, any man who wishes, let it be known now, and he shall be given leave to return to his home.” Valun paused, expecting that several men would come forward for leave to turn back. It was a testament to their loyalty that not a single man stepped forward to accept his offer. Then he continued. “I must say, I am surprised that no man wishes to turn back. The offer does not stand. Turn back now, or you shall continue on to Brandia and die if you must.” No one moved. Turning his back on the troops, Valun shouted “Then our path is forward!” Valun immediately put spurs to his horse and rode off at the head of the force as the Valkyries spread out behind him. Behind them came Richard and David, riding side by side ten feet in front of the army of fifty thousand men in ranks one thousand deep thundering along at the back