King Valun of Corridane sat astride his black charger, several feet ahead of his guards and his aide, and still farther ahead of his army, silently contemplating the tall mountain range he had resolved to bring them across to invade the land of Brandia in the name of justice.
After he had been sitting alone for several minutes longer, he heard his aide, David, attempting to ride up beside him silently. “What is it, man? I told you to let me be.”
“Well,” David replied “It is that your army is growing restless, and they wish to know whether you intend to remain here on your own side of the mountains until snow begins to fall on us down here. For surely you know that when that happens, it means the pass is blocked.”
“That is true. At this time, we may be fortunate if we do not have to fight our way through the drifts before facing the forces of Brandia.”
“I take it that I may tell them we are moving on?”
“Yes. Send my guards after me. I ride ahead. Now.” Without further speech, the men spurred their horses in opposite directions; David back toward the waiting army, and his King forward, in the direction that the maps had shown him to be the way to the pass.
Valun had been riding for nearly twenty minutes before he reached the foot of the trail that led through the mountains.
Once found, it was easy to see, as it was the only path which led through the mountains, and as such was frequently crossed by caravans of traders coming and going between Carribeasa and the cities of Brandia. Each time a caravan had crossed, the trail had become clearer and smoother. It was wide enough that three men could ride side by side without fear of plunging over the precipice which lay on the right side. On the left side, the ever-dangerous mountains loomed imposingly over travelers.
When Valun had reached the foot of the trail, he paused, waiting for his guard to catch up, as he could see that they were riding hard to get into position to do their duty. A few minutes later, when the Valkyries had succeeded in making up the distance which had separated them from their ward, one of them spoke, saying “My Lord, if we are to protect you, we would prefer to be close enough to do so, rather than being forced to chase you all over two countries.”
“I understand you. I will not fail to give you due warning after this day.”
“The spokesman replied “You have our gratitude, my King. We shall fall in now.” Without further ado, the three lancers took positions in front of their king, as the two archers flanked him and the five swordsmen fell in behind, joined by David.
Once they had arranged themselves in the manner described, the king and his party set off along the path, as the army followed nearly twenty yards behind.
Looking back over his shoulder at the king, the spokesman of the guards said “I have ridden the path before, though that was many years ago. We must always be alert for rockslides down the mountains.”
“Have you ever seen one for yourself?”
“Yes. They do not occur often, though. If one were to happen today, we could only hope that it does not last long, else half your army may be stranded on their own side of the mountains, only after having gone through the agony of watching whole ranks in front of them perish.”
“I am sure they will work their way through it. The men have proved many times that they will follow me as far as I wish to go.”
“Count yourself fortunate. Not many leaders inspire the loyalty the men of Corridane have shown you, with the exception of the people of Carribeasa, of course”
“They will rejoin my cause soon enough. Richard will convince them to do so.”
“What makes you so sure, Sire?”
“I can be harsh when I must. Be silent now, or you will find that yourself.”
Hours went by, the only sound being the sound of the horses’ hooves knocking against the hard stone path. It had been early morning when they had begun. It was now closing in on midday.
Glancing up at the sky, Valun broke the silence, saying “Do you remember? How long does it take to reach the other end of this path?”
Looking at the sky in his turn, the spokesman replied “I do not remember clearly, but I can safely say that we will not reach the end this day.”
“Then how do you suggest that we make our preparations to rest after nightfall?”
“That is a simple matter. All those who ride, including ourselves, must hobble our steeds first. Then, every man is expected to lay down on the ground and remain motionless for the good of all, especially those whose place in the line dictates that they must sleep on the edge of the path.”
“I take it that there are no special procedures, then?”
“None. If you would rather not sleep on the ground, you can sleep in your saddle.”
“Very well. David! Ride back and inquire as to the progress of the force!”
“Yes, your Majesty.” David replied, stopping his horse and waiting until the rest of the party was several feet ahead before turning his horse in the narrow space and riding back toward the army. When he met them nearly ten minutes later, he was greeted cheerfully, the many friends he had made calling out to him
“No danger, is there?”
How long must we go on?”
Stopping in front of them as they halted at the same time, David replied to each inquiry in turn. “There’s nothing but more rock up ahead, there’s no danger yet, unless rocks begin falling on the path, and the king does not plan to stop until sundown.”
“Does he remember that most of us are walking?’
“I am sure he does, but he seems to have forgotten that the men of Corridane are the same as other men in all things except their unconditional loyalty.”
Heartened by their king’s compliment, the men began clamoring to start once more. David obliged, turning his horse back in the direction of the king’s party to lead the men.
To keep their newly raised spirits high, the soldiers began a chant. The men in the rear would ask a question of the front ranks, and the front ranks would shout back, harder so the sound would carry.
“Whom do we follow?!”
“Our king Valun, an honorable man!”
“Where do we go?!”
“Where he leads us!”
“Where is that?!”
“Why do we go there?!” “To avenge a slight!”
“When shall we rest?!”
“When the king allows it!”
“Who are we?!”
“True Corridanes, ruled by a true king of Corridane!”
When the last response had reached the final ranks, David noticed that they had long since passed the spot at which he had left the king’s party. After a minute of silence, he announced “I must ride ahead to return to our king! Do not slow down!”
With that, he spurred his horse forward. After several more minutes of riding as hard as the path and the condition of his horse would allow, David resumed his place in Valun’s retinue. When he had settled in to the pace of the others, the king inquired “How are the men?”
“They are as fit and as loyal as ever. They wait for your command to take their rest.”
“Good. When I decide that we shall halt, you shall ride back and tell them so.”
“Very well, my Lord.”
“And now, we must be silent. I have been told that even noise can sometimes make rocks fall on these mountains.”
Soon after this, they halted only long enough to water their horses and stretch their own legs. Then, they were back in the saddle. Nothing was said during the pause; Valun had ordered the halt through signals. They continued riding, with similar pauses along the way, until the sun had begun to set behind mountains they had not yet passed through. Then, Valun finally spoke once more. “It is time to halt. David! Go tell the army.”
David promptly turned to ride back as the others began to dismount carefully and restrain their steeds.
When he had reached the main force once more, David called to them “When shall you halt?”
The now weary men, reminded of their earlier statements, called back “When the king allows it!”
“That time is now!” David answered “The king grants you rest!”
Without answering to this announcement, the men began to lay themselves down in the path, some sighing with relief after their day-long march, which was to be resumed again the next day.
David, listening to the sound of thousands of sleeping men together in a small area, was one of the last to drift off to sleep as the sky turned black.
Farther ahead, surrounded by his guards, king Valun lay partially wrapped in the long cloak he had been wearing throughout the day. As he lay there, staring up at the black sky and the many stars, his mind was troubled by many things. Was Robert able to keep order in the capital in his absence? Was John still safely locked away? How did the foreign Princess feel about the flurry of events she had come into the middle of, and partially caused herself, through John’s secret scheming? Who was John, after all? He had let slip that he was not the man Valun had thought him to be, but who was he? And Valun’s biggest question: why had the Brandians refused to return the royal father and the prince regent? Staring up at the half-moon which seemed to be hanging directly over his head, the troubled king of Corridane drifted off to sleep, last of all his men.
His troubles did not stop after he had fallen asleep, though. Almost as soon as he had closed his eyes, he began to dream. He dreamt that he heard a voice calling to him. When he answered, the voice continued
“By the time the moon has become full once more, you will have seen your brother again. You will not know him until he leads you to an old man who shall call you by your name as soon as you enter his door, and then you will recognize both of them. They shall both return to your land, but you will not be there. Before the year is out, you shall have paid the price of your throne!”
The voice echoed in Valun’s ears. Suddenly, he became very worried, and struggled to rouse himself. Then the noise became real. Opening his eyes suddenly, Valun held himself in his place, desperate that the rockslide would not turn out to be directly over his party. A moment later, large rocks began thundering down onto the path only two feet from the rear rank of swordsmen, close enough to rouse everyone around. The men who had been closest to the rocks began to shout to the others.
“We are all alive. Do not worry yourself, my Lord!”
“What time of the night do you think it is?”
Valun heard David’s voice answer. “Look for yourself. The sky is just beginning to lighten in the east. It will soon be daylight.”
As David was speaking, Valun had turned around slowly, peering up the mountainside at the area he believed the rocks had come from. What he saw were the figures of four men, running away in the same direction that Valun and his party were going.
“Brandians! They have been ordered to kill me in the pass!” Nudging one of the archers by his side, Valun asked “Could you lay them low?” “No man could hit his target in conditions such as these, but, being ordered, I shall try.” The Archer whispered back. Without another word, he carefully strung his bow, fit an arrow to it, drew back, aimed, and fired. It brought satisfaction to all the Corridanes to hear the cry of despair from one of their attackers.
“Surely you are not a man! You are something better!” Valun cried in surprise.
“Do not be amazed. I am no more than an expert with the bow, else the general would not have chosen me to join the Valkyries.”
One of the swordsmen spoke up. “Those men must have a sanctuary farther along the trail. It is safe to judge that we are no more than a day from the end of our journey.”
“Well, they shall trouble us no more. We will start as soon as we can easily see the path. David, return to the army and stay with them until you have led them through the pass.”
As David rose and left, Valun and his guards prepared to continue toward the other end of the pass.
“One last order, David! The men are to maintain strict silence. No noise and hard marching. We must reach the end as quickly as we can!”
After the incident at sunrise, the Corridanes quickly resumed their travels, holding themselves to strict silence. They rode throughout the morning, with only a few short rests until midday, when they afforded themselves a longer rest. When the sun had reached the position marking one hour after midday, they began again.
After their rest at midday, they did not halt as often as they had in the morning. Their journey remained uneventful for several hours, until late in the afternoon, when twilight was coming on, they reached a sharp bend in the path. When the whole party had made their way around it, the spokesman of the guards broke the silence to alert his king to danger. “Your Majesty! Look! Those silhouettes on either side of the path! They are watchtowers! The Brandians must have built them to greet us, for they were not there when I last passed this way!”
“Our friends of the morning no doubt sallied forth from those towers. You had best raise your shields.” The king had not spoken a moment too soon. A split second after he had given the order, an arrow flew out from the shadow of the mountain and struck the small shield of one of the lancers riding on the flanks. Valun turned to his two archers, but they preempted him. “No, Your Majesty. We may seem capable of making impossible shots, but a shot to hit a man protected by one of those towers is ten times harder than the one you saw this morning. Not even we can be expected to try it.”
“Then I presume that this is a task for those who are best suited for work on foot. You archers must go along with them, or they will be dead men walking as soon as the men in the towers sight them.”
“You expect us to capture the towers? We have no way of knowing how large the garrison is!”
“Are you objecting to a royal order? Go now! Fall back, so you may climb the mountainside without being seen by our enemies! That must be the Brandian flag at the top of that tower on the right. We will be watching to see it come down. Before then we will not move forward. Waste no more time!”
Knowing it was futile to continue arguing with their king, the swordsmen and the archers dismounted and dropped back around the curve in the path, where, with their weapons slung over their backs, they began their attempt to scale the mountainside. It was as hard as it appeared to be; nearly twenty minutes had passed before the last of the raiders had reached the level of the secret path, nearly twenty feet above their heads.
Once they had all reached the secret path, Valun’s guards immediately began following it back toward the towers they had been ordered to take. The trail turned out to be longer than the path they had left, and it was almost fully dark before they reached the base of the first tower, moving from cover to cover quickly and quietly to avoid detection by their enemies. The darkness had actually become complete by the time that all the men were standing with their backs to the wall of the tower, but they could still see well enough by virtue of the large fires which the Brandians had kindled at the top of the stone towers. Aided by the glare of the bonfire, the Corridanes sidled along the wall until they found the door. They searched for a way to force it silently, but found none, as the hinges lay on the inside of the tower. “Very well” one man whispered “We must knock, and explain ourselves after we have taken the towers. You two had best string your bows and go before us.”
“That would not be the best decision. Rather, we should best draw our knives. We know that the rest of you would be unable to use your weapons well until we have reached the top of the stairs.”
“True,” replied the swordsman nearest the door “but we must not waste our time in avoiding petty insults.” With that, he left the wall, retreated about ten steps, and threw himself against the door. The door creaked audibly. “Tis a stiff one, but this time shall do it.” After his second attempt, the door fell flat inside the tower, and the man instantly stood aside for the archers with their knives to go up the stairs in advance.
The archers charged up the steps, prepared to strike the first man they met. When they had gotten about halfway up the winding stairs, they were met by two Brandians who had obviously been rushing down to meet them. The Corridanes dispatched their opponents swiftly and continued up the steps, all without a sound.
All seven of the Corridane raiders reached the level on which the sentries stood without further interference. When they had reached that point, though, they met a party as large as their own, though their opponents, who had considered themselves safe behind the walls, were ill-equipped for the contest, all being archers.
Before the Brandians had completely recovered from their shock, the swordsmen of Corridane had rushed forward. As the archers were unprepared for close combat, the swordsmen, protected by their shields, made short work of them.
The moment the fight was concluded, the two archers ran to the edge of the platform, took aim, and fired at their counterparts occupying the second tower. Ducking to avoid shots from their enemies, the archers remarked to the swordsmen “It is your choice. You may make your way down to the ground to finish those men, or you may take cover and wait for us to finish them ourselves. We warn you, though, if you attack them, we will be unable to aid you this time.”
After a moment, one of the swordsmen replied “We shall remain. This task is for you.” Everyone threw themselves flat as several more arrows flew into the area. Loading and drawing in seconds, the pair from Corridane returned their fire. As they took aim and fired, one remarked to the other “They are well disciplined. They seem to die without a sound. How are we to know when we have finished all of them?”
“If that is the case,” replied the second “We must not stop until they do not return our fire.”
“They may think of that themselves, and stop only to act as if they have all died, to catch us unawares.”
“Then, we shall send the swordsmen.”
Following this dialogue, no one spoke for nearly half an hour, by which time they noticed that arrows had stopped flying in at them. Then the first archer spoke once more. “It is time. Make sure of them all. Then shout to us. We will finish the task.”
Silently, the swordsmen filed out of the tower. Ten minutes later, the archers heard the swordsmen shouting at them from the top of the other tower. “All is finished!” Hearing this, one of the archers drew an arrow he had prepared, put it into the fire, which the others had kept alive during the battle, and fired it up at the area in which he judged the Brandian flag to be hanging on the roof of the tower. A moment later, the flag caught fire, being engulfed in an instant and flaring up as well as any beacon. “That will draw the king’s attention. It being so dark, he will take that as his signal.”
The archer had judged correctly. As soon as the flag had caught fire, Valun and the lancers had noticed it and let out a great cheer. “The towers are taken! We shall cross in safety! Valunaaaria!”
As it was too dark to continue, Valun and his lancers dismounted to take their rest, after Valun had decided that they would wait the next morning until the army had caught up with them. Relieved by the quick resolution to the sudden threat, Valun and his men drifted off to sleep swiftly and silently, sleeping soundly until morning.
The next morning, David was up with the sun, shouting to the ranks of the soldiers. “We could very well reach the end of the pass today, and then I’m sure the king will grant you the rest you need!”
By the time he had stopped shouting, the ranks were upright and ready to move. A moment later, the whole force had begun to march. As they were nearly five hundred yards behind the king, nearly half an hour had passed before David, who was staying close to the men, sighted the king. “The men are ready and waiting, Sire.”
“Good. There are watchtowers at the end of the path, but they are held by my men.” With that, Valun and the lancers mounted and began riding toward the towers which marked the end of the pass.
After the army had been marching for nearly one thousand yards, Valun finally left the path and was the first to set foot in the land of Brandia. After the last rank of men had left the trail, the Valkyries who had taken the towers rejoined the king in their proper positions. When everyone had finally reached the end of the pass, Valun announced that they would go no farther that day