03 July 2011
Prologue, Part Two
Leaving the castle, Valun rode through the streets of the city, intending to reacquaint himself with the arrangement of the city. Though he had been nearly of age at the time of his exile, the intervening time had done much to his memories and seemed to have done likewise to the city. Where once families and livelihoods had thrived, there now stood derelict ruins. Entire blocks of the magnificent city were totally abandoned.
His voice heavy with the sadness of his people, Valun turned to Richard, who rode beside him. “What could have caused this? In my father’s day, everyone was content and the land prospered. And I, his heir, return to find this.”
“There is one answer I can think of, my lord, and you sent him away under pain of death this day.” Richard replied. His face was set in hard lines which seemed etched into his face. Grasping his sword, he added “How I wish you had let us slay him then. Your honor will be the bane of us one day.”
Stopping his horse, Valun dismounted. “Come down from your high horse, my friend. Furious as I was, I could not have killed him at a disadvantage simply because of that. You know well that I would never do that. However, I admit now that had I known what he had done to my people, I would have slain him there without another thought. I am a ruler, and I must think of my people. I would not have them believe that the son of the peacemaker is a ruthless killer.”
During the course of this speech, Richard had dismounted and now stood facing Valun on the ground. They stood about three feet apart. Removing his helm and laying it on his saddle, Richard replied “The people had not really discovered us yet. They would not have heard of this until much later, when they would gladly rejoice.”
“A true man does not change his ways because no one is there to see what he does.”
“I understand, my lord. Look, Robert approaches, with an old man.”
At Richard’s words, Valun turned to look at the approaching men. His friend and guard, Robert the Ram, was approaching. His hand was wrapped firmly around that of his companion, an ancient grandfather who looked as if he had been sitting in a corner collecting dust since the time of the Peacemaker, Valun’s father.
The old man was voicing what protest he could, though he was not otherwise trying to resist. “What help can I be to you now? Is it true that you think there’s still another band of the young men out of your grasp? And you think I’ll tell you where they are? I, never! You’re a yellow-bellied coward and I hope you feed the dogs with your death! Kill me now! Come and face me, you foul usurper!”
Valun stepped back and conferred with Richard inaudibly for a moment before raising his voice to speak to the others.
“Let him sit. Otherwise he may fall when he hears what I tell him.”
Without a word in reply, Robert lowered the old man until he was seated upon the porch of one of the ruined houses.
Valun spoke, keeping his voice soft, for he could see that the man was determined to die rather than reveal anything. “I ask nothing of you, my good man. Oh, it is true that I ask what has caused the decline of this my great city, but that is all.”
The old man repeated his words mockingly. “My good man? When was the last time you called us anything but scum? What caused the decline of this your faded city? Why, you did, of course, with your actions for the betterment of the nation, you called it. You killed all the old king’s men, those who didn’t go into hiding, and you know it. You a good king? I’ll believe that when I believe that the house of Valun is restored.”
“Then believe, man, for it has been done as you say.” said Valun majestically “Is there nothing I can do that shall convince you that I am, as I say, king Valun III of Corridane, returned?”
“Go out. Find the Peacemaker and bring him back so that all may see him. Bring him back so that I may hear that voice again, the voice of kings, proclaim once more that there is peace in the land.”
“It shall be done, for I would have all my subjects believe my words.” As an aside to Robert, Valun added “Was there no one else?”
Releasing his prisoner, Robert said “I asked for the oldest man around. He was brought to me. What would you have me do?”
Valun tossed a purse of money, which Robert caught deftly. “Take him to good lodgings and give him this, a present from the king he doubts.” Mounting his steed, he added “Where shall we go now?”
Richard also remounted. It was clear that he was nervous as he said “I fear to plague my lord overmuch, but if you would grace my hall of Longfurrow?”
“I would be glad to visit a good friend’s halls. We go. Robert, do you know the way to that estate?”
“I do, and I wish I had not been behindhand in offering the hospitality of Trondale Hall.”
Valun almost laughed. “I wish I was two men, so I might visit you both equally. But you, Robert, will know that I mean no dishonor to you. Go and do as I have said.”
“Thank you, my lord. Only I must ask that you excuse me from attending Richard’s hall, as I must go to make my own as fit for you as I may. I will ask John to send my message.”
“Very well. I shall come to you there, when you ask for me. Remember! In seven days’ time I shall have the falcon crown of Valun set upon me in the temple.”
“By your leave, my lord.” Without elaborating, Robert took the old man and departed from the others.
At Robert’s departure, Richard took the lead as he and Valun rode through the city and out through the eastern gate toward Richard’s ancestral hall of Longfurrow, which was situated nearly a day’s ride away. They rode in silence. Richard was evidently worried by the thought of what he might find at home; Valun, seeing this, did not trouble him with trivial speech. After some time, they came upon what seemed to be a tall stake set firmly into the earth. They studied it for some time; Richard looking more closely than Valun.
A minute passed in silence, while Richard, dismounted, studied the post, and Valun remained seated upon his horse. Straightening up to full height, Richard stepped across to Valun and announced “My lord, on the other side of that post lies the estate of my ancestors. It falls upon me to welcome you, which I do with all my heart.”
Valun took a long look out at the green, half-wild, fields before him, which nature had clearly reclaimed some years ago. Hearing the sigh behind Richard’s words, he struggled not to show one himself as he replied “I accept your offer, and I hope likewise that all my house may find like hospitality on your estate.”
Mounting and spurring his horse, Richard replied “If it came to that, it would be a dark day indeed for our country. If you will allow me, lord, it would be better if I were to continue from here alone. I shall return for you in good time.”
“Do what you must, my friend. I can see that you are suffering.”
Saluting his king, Richard rode forward alone.
He rode slowly, worried at what he might find, as Valun had guessed. As he rode, he sang an old song which his father had taught him years ago. He had a fine tenor voice which carried well.
“The time will come
when you will know
that what is old
must go it’s way
What is new
must take it’s place
and gain the praise
that once was theirs
But one command
above all others
you must obey
honor the old as kings
for they know the way”
Richard’s song had carried him in sight of his home, Longfurrow hall. His fears were made manifest. The hall that had hosted many an extravagant feast in Valun II’s time (for the Longfurrow ancestors had been immensely rich) had fallen into ruin. Moss was growing on the walls, both inside and out. A part of the roof had fallen in years ago, and what was left was now home to many small birds, who flitted in and out unhindered. Most of the windows seemed to have been shattered by vandals; the glass of several was strewn over much of the floor of the great hall, which Richard now entered, marveling that so much of the building had remained standing and taking it as a testament to the architectural mastery of a Longfurrow lost in the mists of time.
Inside, Richard called a few names of his family, not expecting to get any answer, but doing it almost instinctively. Crossing the hall, he mounted the dais to the spot where his father’s chair had once stood, where it was his right to sit in his time. Standing on that spot, looking out over his ruined inheritance, overcame Richard’s last defenses. He began to weep.
As Richard and Valun approached Longfurrow hall, Robert made his way to his own family estate, which was close by the coast. His ride was not as long as that of the others’, but it did nothing to lessen the agony of seeing what he found there, or rather, what he did not find there. Being more retentive than Richard, Robert did not need a sign-post to tell him that he had come home. However, when he arrived at the spot where Trondale Hall had once stood, he did not find even one sign that there had ever been a building on the site. Grass had grown wildly, so much so that it was tangled and hard to walk through without stumbling.
Desperate to find something which might provide some relief, even if it were only a burnt, rotten stick which crumbled to ash as soon as he touched it, Robert dismounted and began to walk through the ant’s jungle which had once been his home. Several feet within the space, he trod on something which, even after all the intervening years, did not feel like earth alone.
Lowering himself onto one knee, Robert reached down into the tangled roots and, after some digging to uncover it, found what he had stepped on. It was the rusted hilt of a broadsword. A rusted and jagged blade three inches long extended from it. Placing both hands on the hilt, Robert leaned his head forward until his forehead was resting on the end. He remained in that position for several seconds.
And he might have stayed there for several minutes, and possibly even fallen asleep there, if not for the shadow that moved over him after those few seconds. Having seen it, he leapt to his feet, brandishing the broken sword as if it were newly made. It was a strong, swift, stroke which would have slain the newcomer if they had not just as quickly flung up a dagger, which clashed against the old sword and knocked it aside, just enough that the sword passed closely over their head.
Robert recovered quickly from the block, and soon brought his blade back for another strike. It was only as he did this that he got a real look at his adversary. At the sight, he froze.
A girl of nineteen stood before him. At full height, she came just short of Robert’s six feet. Her brown hair fell below her shoulders. Her dress was plain and serviceable, and she was obviously accustomed to field labor. Trying to sound fierce, she cried “Stand down or die! Fie upon you for a grave robber!”
Robert was shocked by this reception, having by this time recognized the girl as his sister Anne. Dropping the sword, he said “I stand down then. I, Robert Trondale, called by my friends the Rock, am simply glad to have found some of my family alive.”
Snatching up the sword, Anne laughed, her tone heavy with sarcasm. “Ha. Tell me another riddle, trickster. My brother Robert is long gone from us. We survive as best we may. What are you really here for? As for this, I will take it to grace our mantlepiece. You are not worthy of the rust on this blade. In the hands of my father it died just before he did. Get off, desecrator. You are standing on my father’s grave!”
Robert’s reaction had gone from one of insult to one of horrified shock as he listened to his sister’s grim speech. At the last statement, he actually jumped backwards a full two feet. Recovering, he said “Would my knowledge that I am now standing on the top step, and you are standing three feet within the doors, of the first and only Trondale Hall, suffice to convince you that I am Robert Trondale, your brother, whom our father sent away at the age of seventeen to accompany the crown prince Valun III in exile?”
“It does suffice! You did live here, and so you are my brother!” The girl leapt across the spot she had designated as her father’s grave and embraced Robert joyfully. “Come, come! You must come home! Trondale Hall amounts to peasant’s hut these days, but I am sure we can find room for you.” Slipping past Robert, Anne was soon mounted on his horse. “Let us see if a rock can roll as fast as a horse can trot!” She rode away laughing gaily.
As Richard prepared, having released his grief, to retrace his steps and inform his king that there could, after all, be no welcome at his hall, he heard a sound which startled him. Drawing his sword, he called out to the empty hall “Stand and face me in my hall! If it is you, my lord, I beseech you to stay away or I may slay you!”
Richard did not get the loud, insulted, response to his challenge which he had been waiting for. He was confident in his skill and would have leapt with blade drawn at any man who entered. But the only response to his challenge was a red-haired boy of about sixteen, who had the look of a hardened scavenger. He was wearing clothes that might have once rivaled the suit of any page in court, but which were coated with grime and nearly consisted of more patches than original suit.
The boy spoke as if he had been insulted. “Who are you to come in here, standing on my father’s chair and calling yourself master of this hall? If you want to be master of this ruin, you can take it, but only if you fight me for it, for I am the lord of Longfurrow now!” Drawing a knife, the boy advanced.
Sheathing his own blade, Richard said “Lord of Longfurrow? Than the old lord is dead?” Stepping down from the dais, he moved closer to the boy.
Still holding the knife ready, the boy snarled “Aye. Dead and buried these ten years past, or so I was told by my mother, who’s also dead. Now tell me who you are so that I, James, lord of Longfurrow, may know who I have slain!”
Richard was nearly pleading with the boy now. “James? My brother? The one who could hardly tell his father’s chalice from a gardening trowel?” With a laugh, Richard added “I spent two long days looking for it, and it was only by a lucky chance that I ever did find it. Do you know me now?”
“Perhaps I do.” James conceded, relaxing. “Follow me, if you will.” Turning away, James disappeared into the passageway he had come out of. Richard followed him obediently, wondering exactly what he would find at the end of it.
At the end of the passage, which Richard remembered as leading to the chamber he had shared with James and James’ twin, William, James stopped and said “Sir, this is where I live. What I eat is no business of yours, and what I have brought you here to see... is this.” Stepping into the room, he removed from the folds of Richard’s bed, which he had evidently commandeered, a wooden sword about three feet long, which had the Longfurrow crest of a lion pulling a plow and the motto ‘strong at work or war’ etched into it.
Retracing his steps, James explained “My mother told me before she died that this was made for me by my brother, and that I should keep it, and never allow to break or otherwise fail, in his memory. If you are really my brother, you know why it was made.”
“I made this for you because you always had your eyes on my own, and I could not risk a boy of six years of age wielding a sharper blade.”
“That is what I heard from my mother. Welcome back, Richard, lord of Longfurrow.”
Stepping back, Richard sized up James (who was clearly going to be above six feet before he finished growing, as he had already nearly reached Richard’s shoulder) nodded cheerfully, and said “What you eat is no business of mine, is it? You certainly seem to have done well for yourself. But bring out what victuals you can spare, for I have asked the king to dine with me here.”
It was James’s turn to back away. He seemed ready to attack Richard as he spat “You invited that dog here? You, sir, are a disgrace to the name of Longfurrow! Did you not know that ‘man’ ordered my father slain and my house burnt! My father fought until he was dragged away in chains! The rest of my family was driven away from here, because of that king! And you dare to ask for his presence here? Be off! I, and not you, am the lord of Longfurrow, and so shall I remain!”
“James! The true king has returned! I was sent away to guard him! He has driven away the usurper and claimed his throne!”
“Prove that the king has come again! Prove that a Valun is upon the throne again! Else you have no claim on our land if I contest it!”
“I shall! He has come here, and you shall see!”
“He can not prove it to me even if I see him with my eyes! I do not remember seeing him or his father!”
“James! I, at least have proved myself to you! If you can not believe me, than who? How can it be proved to you if you will not take the word of the one who says he is a Valun, as you do not remember him by sight?”
Richard turned away from his vengeful brother and left as quickly as he could without appearing to hurry. He crossed the hall without stopping and found his horse grazing contentedly in the grass just outside. Taking up the reins, Richard led the horse to a nearby pond and allowed it a long drink before swinging himself aboard and starting the long ride back to where Valun was still waiting.
The better part of an hour later, Richard rejoined Valun close by the post at which they had separated. Richard reined his steed in sharply and addressed Valun apologetically. “I am afraid, my lord, that there can be no proper welcome in my hall.” He watched as Valun’s annoyance began to show in his face. “But, my lord, before I am disgraced, let me say that there can be no welcome in my hall because I have no hall.”
“You have no hall?”
“The usurper put it to the torch when he slew my father. I have one brother left alive, and he is convinced that you are the usurper. I... did not explain myself well.”
“He shall see my father’s letter. That is all I have.”
“As you wish, my lord.”
At about the time that Richard was meeting his brother James, John was meeting his sister on the site of their hall. It will be recalled that the Trondale heirs had since begun to run back to their house, which they soon reached.
Smiling widely as she slipped off Robert’s horse, Anne said “I wish we could surprise them, but we mustn’t do that. Mother might die of shock.” She hurried off through the small garden to the peasant’s hut in which the family obviously lived. Robert could see a thin spiral of smoke rising from the hole in the edge of the roof. He did not wait long before following his sister into the house.
As he entered, he took the scene in at a glance. There was his mother sitting in a rocking chair close by the fire, over which hung a pot which smelled like stew. There was Anne, standing over her mother and talking excitedly, evidently explaining. There were his two younger brothers, wrestling in the corner; Robert could see that they got along well. And there was his younger sister, playing quietly at the table with some simple dolls. She had not yet been born when he left. As she was closest, he approached her first. Sliding into a seat at the table, he spoke.
“Hello. What’s your name?”
“Won’t tell you. Mother said we could never tell our names.” She answered nonchalantly, as if this were simply a fact of life that the strange man had yet to understand.
“Well, what have you got there?”
“Well” explained the girl, proffering one of the nondescript dolls “This man’s tired of doing the chores, and wants to go to the tavern and talk, so he’s angry at his wife because she won’t do all the chores for him.”
Robert smiled widely and snorted with laughter as he took the doll. “So he wants to go to the tavern, does he? Instead of doing his chores like he should?”
“That’s right. But his wife doesn’t like that, so now she’s holding a frying pan and saying she’s going to make him do the chores.”
“All right then” said Robert, pushing the ‘angry man’ off to one side. “He’s gone off to do the chores now.”
“All right. And his wife has gone out too, because she wants to go to the market and buy lots of useless things.” the little girl added with a laugh.
Robert saw that Anne was coming toward him, so he rose from the table and went to meet her. “How is she?” They asked each other simultaneously, and then, in the next moment, they answered each other with “Very friendly” and “She doesn’t believe it”
Stepping over to the hearth, Robert said “Mother, look up. I am your son Robert, and I have come home.”
His mother spoke softly. “It can’t be. Robert was taken away years ago. But then, so was my husband, after he fought on the steps until his sword broke. Perhaps you are Robert, for I saw no sign that he had died.”
With a glance, Robert saw by Anne’s expression that she had never been told that their father had been taken alive. He stepped over to catch her as she nearly fainted. “Believe me, mother, for I speak the truth. I am your son, Robert Trondale Eric’s son. I have returned, and with me came the true king, the prince Valun III.”
Robert’s speech had startled the two boys, and they were now standing and gaping at him, stunned. They spoke in unison. “Robert? The one who got stolen away? You’re him? Really?”
Robert admonished himself for not having realized by now that his siblings, for some reason best explained by his dead father, had never been told that he had been ordered to leave. Stepping over to the boys, he said “Yes, I am really Robert. I grew strong like this from spending years as a slave in a deep mine. Not many of us survived. Don’t you two have jobs in the city?”
“Yes. But the master closed the shop for a holiday.”
“Someone said it was the day of the king’s homecoming.”
“It is true. The king returned yesterday. But he does not wish a holiday for a week now, when he is crowned.”
“I know what you would say, and I think I know who started that rumor. John, a boy who came with us, though I objected. he is already spreading trouble, it seems. Are the chores done? No? Than come with me and we shall finish them. Times will be better now, with a true king on the throne!” With that, he strode out the door.
Darkness had fallen over the Longfurrow estate. James had built a fire close beside the ruined manor, and he, Richard, and Valun now sat encircling it. The horses were picketed nearby. Valun sat quietly and watched the two brothers as they spoke between themselves, seeming not to notice that the king was in their company.
“Can you tell me what happened to cause this?”
“This being no house and family to come home to?”
“Exactly. What happened?”
“Well...I was only seven years old that day, remember, but I remember it very well. It was our birthday.”
Valun cut in, surprised. “You and your brother share that date?” he asked, facing Richard.
Richard explained. “No, my lord, my brother refers to his twin William, who, it seems, is dead.”
“No, Richard. William is not dead. At least, he was alive when he left about two years ago. Said he would make his fortune somewhere else.”
“But the rest? Is no one else alive? Tell the story.”
“Our mother had taken William and me to the city the previous day. There was a fair going on and we were allowed to choose whatever we wished for as our present, so long as wasn’t a blade. We stayed in the city through the night, for mother wanted to visit a friend.”
“What did we find when we returned? That is both the easiest and the hardest part to tell. We found nearly everything, and at the same time, nothing. Someone had set a fire within the manor, and it was still high and hot when we arrived. We had seen that from beyond the boundary post. Mother hoped it was only a terrible accident, and hurried us forward. What we found when we got there does not bear the telling. It suffices to say that everyone was dead. It is a salve to our honor to know that our sisters were alongside Saul among those slain. It was apparent that several of the peasants had come to father’s aid, but there was no sign of him, though we looked everywhere. The few remaining peasants put out the fire for us, but when it was extinguished, mother dismissed them, for they feared for their lives. How we missed father on the way back here, or why the soldiers came after they let us live in peace for a year, will never be known.”
“How did you live?”
“Our friends smuggled things out to us when they were able. William and I taught ourselves to hunt.”
“Do you know” asked Valun “why so many men your brother’s age are gone?”
“Reprisals.” James answered, as if it was clear “I was told that there was a revolt when father was taken, and another not long after, when lord Trondale met the same fate. Though he got off easily compared to us. The Trondale family escaped.”
Richard and Valun stared at each other. Richard whispered “Lightly indeed. His family was not put to the sword.”
Though he was overcome by the tragedy of James’ story, Valun tried to remain calm and reasonable in his tone and words. “Richard, my friend, do not turn against Robert. Is it his fault that your father was wealthier, and so posed a greater threat? Is it his fault that perhaps his house was not attacked by night?”
Richard had no reply to this. He turned back to James. “Is there any more?”
“There is no more.” James answered, rising. “If my lord is ready to retire?”
By way of assent, Valun rose. The three made their way into the bedchamber James had previously shown Richard. James made a show of humility and demanded that Valun take the bed, while he and Richard made do on the floor, wrapped in blankets, as they were too long for the beds the twins had once used. To make Valun relax, James explained “Once every year, on the day of the attack, what friends remember me come by night and help in rebuilding this room so that I have some place to live. Rebuilding or destroying the whole house must wait for times of peace.”
From his position across the doorway, Richard called out “We shall have our house, for with the king comes peace.”
Valun agreed, under his breath so that the Longfurrows would not contradict him, for he was thinking of his own father. “As you have said, my friend. With the king comes peace...”