When Meltran heard that Valun wished him to join in the evening meal in Valun’s tent, he was not surprised. “On the contrary,” he told David, who stood waiting to carry his reply, “I had been expecting your king to ask about his father at some time during this day. No doubt he will ask me to speak once I am in his tent, with none but you in attendance. I will come in one hour.”
With only the least necessary acknowledgement of the statement, for he was a man of few words when he had no questions to ask, David turned his steed and rode back toward the encampment of the Corridanes. Once there, he informed Valun of Meltran’s cheerful acceptance, and his hint that he could most likely answer the Corridane monarch’s most nagging question.
Immediately upon hearing this, Valun sent David away to order that the cooks double the amount they had sent Valun each night to this point, with the explanation that Valun’s counterpart was be his guest at the meal.
The allotted hour had scarcely passed before Meltran came riding into the Corridane camp. Valun rode to meet him, conducting him straight to his own tent, where they dismounted and gave their horses to David to stable. The two kings immediately entered Valun’s tent and seated themselves on the ground, there being no cushions, and chairs a waste of space on the march. A short time later, a man brought in the meat, and they were soon too busy eating with relish to say anything at all to one another for several minutes. When they had finally paused, Meltran put down his piece and said “I expect that you have been anxious to hear news of your father.”
Putting down the piece he had just raised, Valun replied “Of course. Else I would not have invaded your country.”
“Then I expect I shall have to tell you the whole story from the beginning.” Meltran answered. “But before I start, I must quench my thirst.”
Rising and putting his head out of the tent, Valun called to David. “The lord Meltran must quench his thirst. Bring us some from my stores and then see that no man disturbs us.”
After David had brought the drinks, and Meltran had taken a long draught, he finally began.
The man came running forward. Approaching the king’s throne, he made a low bow, straightened up a moment later, and announced “My lord, there is an old man outside the gates. He has a young boy with him. He is demanding an audience with you.”
“Let them in. I have been expecting them.” Meltran replied, glaring down at his chancellor, who remained standing where he was. Feeling the king’s eyes upon him, the man turned sharply and strode straight back out of the audience hall.
After giving orders that food for three men should be brought in to him, Meltran dismissed his attendants and remained, waiting silently for his visitor.
Nearly half an hour had passed before the guests made an appearance. One, a tall man who had seen as many as forty summers, and probably more, whose hair was just beginning the transition from its original dark brown to the gray of old age, and was clad in a large dark brown traveling cloak over a tunic of thick green material, was leading a boy by the hand toward Meltran’s throne.
The boy being led was clad in the same material that his father wore, the only difference being that the boy’s tunic was also brown. The boy was scarcely twelve years of age, but looked older than his years. His hair, which was the same color as his father’s had been, was cut short.
With admirable dignity, the man led the boy straight up to the foot of the throne upon which Meltran was seated awaiting them. When they had come within two feet of the king, the visitors paused. Remaining upright, the older man finally broke the silence which had hung over the room since his sudden appearance. “Hail, Meltran, lord of Brandia! May you reign longer than your father! I have come upon the usual business, which we may speak freely of later. But at this moment, I have a boon to ask of you.”
“Whatever it may be, it shall be granted with all possible speed. I know how great a friend you were to my father, peace be upon him.”
“I ask that you accept this boy, who is my second son, Valnor, into your court as a page, so that he may aspire to a high place in your court, but not to the throne, which is your own.”
“That is easily done. But why do you wish him to grow up away from his own country?”
“I do this because I do not wish my sons to fall out and war with each other over the throne when I am gone. Valnor understands why this is done.”
“Then he understands what he must do?”
“Come forward, boy.” Meltran said to Valnor when he heard this.
Valnor came forward, albeit slightly nervous now that the time had finally come. As he made the final few steps to the throne, he glanced back at his father, who only smiled back in a yes-I see-you- and –you’re- doing- fine sort of way. Seeing this, Valnor took heart and immediately began to walk in a more confident manner. When the Brandian king asked him solemnly if he promised to serve him faithfully throughout his life, and lay down his life if he must at his lord’s command, he answered “I do solemnly promise that I shall do whatsoever my lord commands.” In a firm tone which belied the hesitation he had felt a moment before.
“You have raised a brave boy, my lord Valun, and I shall see that he gets enough to keep him busy here.” Meltran remarked, making an about-face from the recent solemnities by breaking into laughter. “Yes, you have raised a fine boy! He will go far in my court, I assure you.”
The time was much later. Meltran was once more seated in his audience hall, but the visitors had long since gone.
Suddenly, a guard who had been stationed outside the doors stepped inside long enough to announce “The lord Damerson, Sire. He wishes to speak with you.”
“Let him in.”
A moment later, the guard disappeared around the door once more, being soon replaced by the lord Damerson, who was none other than Meltran’s chancellor. Without any ceremony whatsoever, he ran across the room, bounded upon the dais, and stood beside the king.
“What is the meaning of this outrage?!” cried Meltran, shocked at the man’s presumption.
“It means only this.” The chancellor replied in a menacing tone, drawing a knife which he had kept hidden until this moment. “It means that I have noted what you mean to do for that foreign page. You are favoring him, meaning to name him your successor over us, who are not his people. But your plans are foiled.”
As Meltran was about to cry out to the guards, Damerson quickly added “Neither are your guards as loyal as you would wish. Opening one’s money-bag in the right places can do wonders. All the fools who remained loyal to you are waiting in the courtyard; archers are menacing them still. I order you to join them now!”
“What of the old king of Corridane and his son? If you kill them, it will bring war down upon your head.”
“That question is settled. They have disappeared. Their deaths will be blamed upon the bandits of Waldon forest. To you I am merciful. You and your followers are henceforth exiled, but will be slain on sight if you do not leave my country within three days. But beware, I have outsmarted you once more. If you attempt to take the pass through the mountains to Corridane, and raise them up against me, you will die before you reach the pass. It is watched. Now go!”
“I was threatened with certain death if I defied him, as he had a knife in his hand and the guards at his call, and I was weaponless and, being in my own audience hall, saw no need for armor. So I left. My favorite steed, which would suffer no other man to mount him, was brought out, I mounted, and led my loyal followers out through the main gate, menaced by archers the whole time. Once outside the city, my followers and I rode hard for several days to reach Waldon forest. We succeeded in surprising the outlaw band at their merrymaking, and soon caused them to join my men, which they did quite willingly when they heard what my erstwhile chancellor had accused them of. We have been living there ever since my exile, waiting for you to take action to aid your family.”
Startled, Valun cried “You-!”
“Yes, I did” Meltran replied, downing another draft of wine. “I intercepted your messenger, wrote a reply within a day, and sent him back. I chose my words carefully to be sure that you would be insulted and invade. I also knew that you would not have received any answer at all if your messenger had reached his destination.”
“But what have you seen that makes you so sure that the new ruler is mustering against me?” cried Valun, who was suddenly worried that he had acted too soon after all. “If you intercepted my messenger, the man ruling your country now never received my message. They will not come out to face me, and I shall have wasted the fortitude and loyalty of my countrymen.”
“That score was settled also. If you had not spoken so suddenly, I may have explained before now. When I had intercepted your message, I did not fail to think of the consequences of the failure of a declaration of war to reach the intended opponent; or at least, occurrences which are unintended consequences to honorable men, of which I am sure you are one. No sooner had I read your message than I bade one of my men write a message to the man now styling himself king of this land. In short, it read ‘Any man who would keep an old man locked up in a dungeon for his own political gain, as you have, deserves death, or at the least, an even deeper dungeon somewhere far from his own country. That is my belief, and I and my men are coming to see that it is done.’ Have no fear! He has raised an army to oppose you. I have seen it myself.”
“And now,” Valun said, rising from his seat. “If your story is complete, it is dark enough outside that we may make our way down the cliffs in safety. The moon has obliged us by being nearly full. We must go. My men have darkened their weapons and wear cloaks. What of yours?”
“My men” replied Meltran, rising in his turn and becoming solemn once more. Crossing to the entrance of the tent, where Valun stood looking out into the darkness, he continued “have done the same, and must lead yours, for they know the path.”
“Very well.” Beckoning David over to his side, Valun added “Fetch our mounts, and rouse the men quietly. No shouts or trumpet-calls.”
“Aye, my lord.” was David’s whole reply before he disappeared to do as Valun had commanded.
In a surprisingly short time, David had brought both the kings’ mounts around to their tent and left to rouse the army before they had mounted properly.
Riding slowly in the darkness, Valun and Meltran could hear the sounds of the men moving into place quietly, seemingly without orders. Observing this, Meltran turned to Valun and remarked “Your man only makes me wish all the more that my own chancellor had not rebelled against me. Your man does everything well and without question. Kings would give many things to command an army of such men.”
“I am one of those. It was a happy chance that this man is in my court, or I would not have been able to do many of the things I have done.”
Meltran did not reply, and so the two kings rode in silence for a while, hearing the inevitable, though muffled, sounds of Valun’s army being marshaled into position.
When the men had been silent for several minutes, Valun heard a man approaching him cautiously. A moment later, David’s voice came out of the darkness near at hand. “Every man is in his position, Sire.”
“Very well. We shall proceed, then. The lord Meltran’s men must be found to lead us down the cliffs.”
Meltran replied on his own account, saying “I have no doubt I will find them at the edge of the cliffs. How shall I inform you of our movement?”
“The moon shines. The light it affords us should be enough for a runner to see by. Send two men to me when you are ready to depart, and we will follow you.”
“Very well. They will not be long.” Meltran replied, turning his horse and riding off in the direction of his own camp.
Valun and David continued in their original direction, speaking softly between themselves. “I admire your speed in forming the men up, my man.”
“The men are ever ready to do all that you would command, my lord.”
Struggling to keep a straight face, Valun replied “Really? I am glad to hear that it is so. But my heart tells me that one very popular aide is behind this unwavering devotion. Tell me, what is it that you say to the men which allows me to retain their loyalty?”
“Nothing, my lord. I hardly ever speak.”
“Come now! Silence never earned a man’s loyalty! What do you say?”
“If you really must know, when we were still traveling through the pass and you sent me back to see that the men were still following, I told them then that you were not allowing them a rest because you considered them stronger than normal men. I have only reminded them of that.”
Valun laughed. “Well, I see that I owe you more already than I had ever wished to owe to any man! What would satisfy you? To be the governor of Carribeasa when our adventure has reached it’s end? Name what you will. It will not be held from you.”
“I have no wish except that my lord should remain beloved by his people till the end of his days.”
“And if your wish is fulfilled, it will be due largely to your own exertions! Do not be offended if I offer you a position of power after all!”
“I do not wish to lead. I wish to follow.”
“And a fine job you do of that. Now you may follow me to the front of our force, if you please.”
“I please, indeed.” David replied. At this, both men broke into laughter, but cut themselves off in a moment, remembering that they were attempting to move down the cliffs silently.
Hardly five minutes later, Valun and his aide had positioned themselves at the front of the force. They were met there by two Brandians, who had been waiting for them for several minutes.
Before Valun could speak, one of the Brandians had come to the point. “King Meltran has moved on by this time. Now that you have arrived, it is time for you and your men to follow us.”
“Very well, then. Lead us.” Valun replied to this. Glancing at his king, David could see by the light of the moon, which shone down upon them unobstructed, that Valun had taken on a grim expression. He had set his jaw and was staring into the shadows as if he thought he could actually see men moving ahead of them.
The Brandian guides rode about six feet ahead of Valun and his guards, followed by David at the immediate head of the army of Corridane, marching slowly.
After several minutes of carefully calculated movement, they finally reached the top of the path. Here, everyone halted for a short time to make sure that there were no stragglers. When the ranks had become settled once more, they continued their march at a slow walk. Remembering that were archers stationed on the sides of the path, every man was careful not to make a sound.
It seemed an eternity before the last rank reached the ground at the bottom of the cliffs, but the well-disciplined troops actually completed the passage in short time. The moment David rode to the front to report that the last rank had passed unharmed, they started again, making for a ring of large fires which the guides judged to be nigh on a thousand yards farther ahead and to their right.
Breaking the silence for the first time in nearly an hour, one of the guides told Valun “Those fires mark our lord’s camp. He told us where to seek him. But we must yet go warily, for we yet know not whether our enemies are nearby.”
“Why do you speak falsely? That their archers are watching us here is proof enough that they are nearby. We must take care that we do in truth go to your own camp instead of theirs.”
“Very well, we will ride ahead and prove that we ride to our own camp.”
At Valun’s insistence, the guides rode forward without another word. As soon as they were out of sight, which did not take more than a few moments, David rode up alongside his king and began “My lord, do you-“
Valun cut him short. I know what you say, Sir David. You would say ‘what if these men are spies, and are now returning to their own men to attack us?’, and for that reason, I order you to return to the men and tell them that we will make camp here, but that they must hold themselves ready to defend themselves at all times.”
Stunned, David had barely listened to the serious orders. “Sir-Sir…”
“And why not? Now do what I have ordered. Tell the men they may make camp and hold themselves ready to repel an attack.”
“But King Meltran and his men? We were to join them!”
“They are all skilled archers. If they have made their way past the enemy force and camped in another place, they will be a much greater aid to our cause from the enemy’s flank.”
Having no answer for this reasoning, David left without replying to comply with his king’s earlier orders. When he had returned to the army’s position, he approached the closest man and said “Pass the word. We are ordered to make camp here, and stand ready for an attack.”
The man he had spoken to replied “Then we will not make camp. If we were setting up camp, we would have no time to defend ourselves if the enemy attacked. I suggest you dismount and make the best of your position. We will be roused early on the morrow.”
Heeding the advice, David swiftly dismounted and, hobbling his horse, lay down beside it. Once on the ground, he found that he was far more exhausted than he had thought himself to be, and swiftly fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Strange as it may seem in light of the impending battle, there were few who did not share David’s peaceful sleep. One of those few was the rightful lord of Brandia, Meltran himself. Unable to compose himself to sleep, he rose from his place and began walking toward the edge of the camp. There, he met the sentry and spoke with him.
“Does any sign of the Corridanes’ coming reach your ears, Dranulf?”
“None, my lord. Those fires you can see before us do not aid me to see their approach if they are coming after all.”
“Aye, I see the fires. You are sure they mark the camp of our enemies rather than our friends? When did they spring up?”
“Not long after I had begun my watch, and my watch is the second tonight. I am sure it marks the camp of our foes, for the Corridanes, being our allies, would doubtless consider our camp their own.”
This answer disconcerted Meltran, who began muttering under his breath. “Spies…spies… mayhap that is why he will not come to find us… fears a trap, as I gave no detailed directions and lit no fires. Moreover, he has seen that my men cannot endure close combat. He means to have us remain on the flank and ply our skill from an unprotected side.” To Dranulf he said “Do not expect the Corridanes to approach, but keep your eyes on the foe’s camp yonder. If you wish, send a silent man out toward their camp to determine their plans. Do not hesitate to rouse the men if they seem to be massing for an attack.” Then he turned away to return to his place, speaking to himself once more. “Folly. It was folly, and other men must pay for it….”
Acting swiftly on his lord’s words, Dranulf left his post for a moment to rouse and speak with his successor.
“You, Eldarn, are you a swift, silent, tracker?”
“None better in this band, though I say so myself.” replied Eldarn, raising himself up on his elbows to look more closely at his companion. “Your watch has not yet passed. “Why do you rouse me now?”
“The king desires a silent tracker to enter our enemies’ camp and discover their plans. I thought of you promptly. Will you go?”
“If the king desires it, of course I will go. I will remain there until I die or until your watch has expired.”
With an attempt at a laugh, Dranulf replied “Don’t die. Then we would have no information and fewer men. Now if you will go, you had best go now.”
“Then goodbye.” Replied Eldarn, who was standing by this time. He put his hand out toward the other man, and Dranulf clasped it hard, slapping him hard on the back with his free hand.
“If you are caught, take a few with you. Our uncle would be proud of you for this.”
“If you think so, leave the telling of the tale to me!” Eldarn cried in a parting shot as he began to jog toward the ring of fires some five hundred yards ahead in the direction of moonrise.
When Eldarn had come within one hundred yards of the enemy camp, he slowed to a stop and began to use all of his considerable skill as a tracker with the aim of entering unnoticed. He waited for several minutes, lying flat upon the ground, to determine whether a sentry had been stationed outside the ring of fires. His senses and skill telling him no one had or was going to pass; he swiftly rose from his position and began once more to approach the closest blaze.
From a distance of fifty yards, he could hear the voices of the men sitting around the watch-fire nearest to him, but could not yet make out what they were saying. As he approached even closer, it became clearer to him. It was the best he could have hoped for. They seemed to be discussing the occurrences of the recent days.
“Relman and Salium returned nigh on half an hour ago. They brought bad news.”
“What could that be?”
“The Corridanes have invaded. Their force is large; so large that our men could not make out the true size. They seem to have captured the watchtowers at the end of the pass. Relman, who escaped only because he appears to have insisted that he must carry the news to us here, claims that both towers were captured by only seven men. That proves two things: that Relman is a coward, and the Corridanes are dangerous foes.”
“Whether those claims be true or no, there is a claim which would startle you, brought by Salium, rather than the ‘coward’.”
“And what could startle me?”
“The old king Meltran has returned. Salium spotted him riding in the midst of his band of followers.”
“Meltran! The old king! He and all his followers were exiled, not to return on pain of death! I saw them leave, all riding away so proudly as if they still had the power!”
“So my news has startled you, after all. It’s quite obvious that they never left, and now they have come out of hiding because they expect these invaders to do the heavy work in clearing our leader from their path. But I have never heard that fifty thousand men quailed at the prospect of combat with an unknown number of enemies.”
While the first speaker was still groping for an answer to this, Eldarn rose and strode into the view of the fire casually, as if he was one of their companions coming to bring fresh news. Crouching down near the fire in the space between the two men, he turned toward the one who had spoken last and said “Do not take such an insult from him, man! He is insulting you and all your comrades in one blow! Besides, darkness makes it hard for even the best scouts to count the enemy’s numbers properly. The Corridanes could have a much larger force, or they may have, in their pride, deployed a vastly smaller number than our own. But of course that question can not be answered until the sun has risen. Have you knowledge of the general’s plan?”
“Do I have knowledge of the general’s plans? No! I am just a sentry. When was there ever a need to tell a man what he is expected to do?” the soldier replied in a tone laden with sarcasm.
“If you can not tell me, where can I find out that information for myself?”
“You could go to the general, but if you’re only in the rank and file, as we are, you won’t get an audience, much less be told what the plan is.”
“I’ll try anyway. I must know.” Eldarn answered, rising and hurrying away before the soldier could grow suspicious of his plans.
As he walked through the camp, he noticed several similar camps, where small groups of men clustered around firepits were smoking their blades. Several men called out to him, inquiring what his business, but he ignored them, continuing on his way without slackening his pace. After several minutes of silent walking, he spotted a large tent which had been erected in the center of the camp and could only be the general’s. Slowing to a crawl, he crept ever closer to the side of the tent.
It seemed that luck was with him this night, for, without detection, he reached the side of the tent, and from there could easily hear the raised voices of the men inside. At least one appeared to be holding a torch, for he could see the silhouettes of the men against the side of the tent as they spoke.
“What do you say, Salium? Shall we try an attack tonight?”
“You ask for my opinion, my lord? I say that it would be better not to risk it. The Corridane king is alert and will have his men prepared. When I pointed out our camp, speaking as if I were one of the old king Meltran’s followers…”
“Meltran?! Has he come back? I exiled him and all his followers years ago!”
A different voice now made itself heard. Eldarn presumed it was the voice of the other spy, Relman. “Oh yes, my lord, he has returned! I saw him myself, in the midst of his band of useless followers, holding his head high as if he thought he was already king again!”
“Why did you not follow my orders, then? I ordered that he was to be slain if he showed his face in my country again!”
“I would have done the deed, my lord, except that we would not have succeeded in our attempt, for his followers were clustered around him too tightly for us to squeeze in more closely than we did.”
“My lord, will you let me finish! As I was saying… Hold! I see a man outside this tent, where none are permitted to be! We must catch him, quickly!”
“At this last cry, Eldarn remembered that the light worked both ways; if he had been able to see them on the inside, they would be able to catch sight of him on the outside if he moved too close. And he had done just that.
A moment before Salium had finished speaking, Eldarn began to run at his utmost speed, sped onward by the cries of “Spy, spy!” which were growing gradually louder as more men joined the chase and gave the call to warn their comrades nearby. As many of the soldiers were carrying torches which they had lit swiftly from their communal campfires, it took all of Eldarn’s speed to stay out of the range of the growing circle of light pursuing him.
He ran, ducking and weaving, doubling back, stopping in his tracks and dropping to the ground while the outraged enemies ran past him, for what felt like hours. After several minutes of exhausting evasive maneuvers, he was finally surrounded only feet from a fire at the edge of the camp. Before he realized it, he had almost run straight into the arms of two especially large soldiers, who, having been seated beside the fire, had simply stood up and turned around, and were now barring his only path of escape. Desperate, he did the only thing left open to him; with a tremendous effort, he avoided their outstretched arms and leapt upon their broad shoulders, launching himself off into space directly over the fire. He landed on his feet and continued to run before the shock of the landing could cause him to fall.
Nearly an hour later, Eldarn staggered back into camp, only saved from falling from exhaustion for the fourth time by the timely arrival and support of Dranulf, who had remained on watch throughout the night to wait for him. As Dranulf laid him gently down on the soft grass and passed him a skin full of water, Eldarn finally managed to croak “I must see the king. I have valuable information!”
“You must calm yourself. You’re not in a fit state to move from here, and you won’t be for a long while. Tell me the message that I must take to the king.”
Eldarn bristled at this preemptive statement by his friend, and immediately cried No! I heard it! I would not be in this state at all if I had not had to run for my life from half the foe’s army! I will not speak if I may not speak to the king directly!”
“Very well. I will bring the king here, then.” Dranulf replied sharply, turning and striding off into the darkness. As soon as he had passed out of Eldarn’s sight, he accelerated his pace and began to run through the camp, not slowing down until he had reached the king’s place of rest. “My lord! Our scout has returned and he has news for you! I would have brought the message, but that he refused to speak unless you came yourself!”
“I will come. We must know what he has learned. Bring me to him now.”
At this, Dranulf turned, saying nothing but “Yes, my lord.” in answer to his king’s words. After several more minutes of walking back in the direction which Dranulf had come from, they finally arrived at the place where Eldarn was still lying prostrate on the ground. When he saw them approach, he called out to them.
“Hail, King Meltran! I have news, and we may thank our fortunes that the news is not half so dire as it could have been! Our foes’ leader in the field is your own chancellor, Damerson! His own speech told me so. He seems to have grown wiser since he exiled us, for he asked the advice of his spies. Yes, his spies! Those two men who were so eager to lead the Corridanes down to this valley! They thought to convince the king Valun that he followed them to our camp, there to set upon them in ambush! But the Corridane king seems to have seen through them, for their ruse did not succeed, and the more level-headed of the pair advised against attacking the Corridanes, as he believed they would be prepared for just such an event. But what is worse for you and all of us, my lord, they recognized you, and now know that we have come out to reclaim our country! We are all marked men! None who is captured will be spared!”
“Then we must take care to mark them first in the battle tomorrow, and may every shaft lay an adherent of that devious villain Damerson low! If only I myself could nock the shaft which laid him low, I would be content!” the Brandian monarch cried, saying all this in a cheerful tone in an attempt to revive his man’s low spirits. The attempt appeared to succeed.
“Oh, my lord!” Eldarn cried in a euphoric tone. “If only you could have seen my last great leap, you would have said “There goes a true Brandian, worthy to be my kin.”
“You are my kin. Surely you have not forgotten that your father was my younger brother? And whatever Damerson may have believed, you were never in danger of having your throne taken from you by Valnor! Now, you must be at peace. I expect you to return to your duty in a short time, though.”
“Yes, my lord.” Eldarn answered in a level tone, as Meltran rose and left