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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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23 March 2012

Chapter XXXVII

Chapter XXXIX

Railon removed his blade from the body of his foe, and having nothing better to hand, tore a strip off the man’s tunic with which to clean his blade. Sheathing his sword, he went to Dunstan, who still lay on the floor where he had been struck down.

Knowing that more men were probably on their way to the castle at that moment, Railon did not mince his words. “Are you dying?”

“It is not likely, my lord, but possible.”

“Let us see you rise.” Railon extended his free hand to his knight, who took it in a viselike grip, and, with a protracted groan, raised himself to his feet.

Moving to dust himself off, Dunstan remarked “Well, my lord, am I dying?”

“You certainly are not, to my eyes. The time for jesting is spent now. How are we to complete our task? We have still to determine how we are to remove ourselves, and the late king, out of the castle.”
Dunstan moved over to a corpse and prodded it with his recovered blade. “Would you not say, my lord, that this man and I are of a size?”

Railon saw the plan in a moment. “I would say that.”

Reaching down to remove his greaves, Dunstan replied “Then, if you help me, my lord, we have little time to spare.”

There was little speech between the men in the time it took them to remove Dunstan’s armor and replace it with that of the fallen Naibern captain. When the task was finished, Dunstan looked back at his own gear wistfully. “This Naibern’s stuff is heavier than I had hoped. And now, my lord, the king’s winding sheet would serve us better. And I would count it an honor if Torlan the Magnificent were laid to rest in the armor made for me.”

“I would not have you do such a thing as that!”

“We have taken the first step already, my lord. We must be injured, so we should have bandages. We can not get past their lines in our own stuff unless we have been captured. You have been slain, I wounded. This man captured us and is taking us to the chief for the prize they have surely laid on our heads.”
“Can you talk like them?” Railon asked, worried that two wrong words might get them killed.

“That they will not regard. There are so many men in their force, if there are a few Gairbairns in their ranks, it would not surprise me.”

“Traitors! We will deal with them later! Come!” Railon suddenly started off up the stairs.

Dunstan, who was still adjusting to the greater weight of the Naibern’s armor, followed more slowly. As he reached the ground floor, he perceived the sound of men raising the portcullis again; it must have split the log supporting it and reached the ground  once more. Gathering his strength to rush forward, Dunstan called “They are at the gates! We have no time!” When he reached the room, he nearly had to catch a hold of the doorframe to stop himself from passing it. He hurried in.

“What’s this? The greatest warrior in the land running from the foe?”

The reply was given as to a student. “It is not running from an enemy, my lord. It is saving your life.” Dunstan snatched up the winding sheet and tore off a piece, which he proceeded to wind around his forehead.  He placed another bandage on Railon’s left arm and finished with one around Railon’s right knee. Then he stood back.

Railon then moved to the head of the bed upon which lay the body of Torlan. Grasping it under the shoulders, Railon lifted the body off as Dunstan took the legs. In one smooth movement they lifted the body upon their shoulders and started off.

But they were too late. They were confronted on the stairs by several armed Naiberns who had drawn their blades.

Adopting a superior tone, Dunstan said “Why do you stop us? Will you not let a dead man rest in peace? I at least will give him that much. These two gave me a hard battle. They are my captives by right and I will not have any man taking my prize from me!”

“We do not come for your bounty, dog of a desert rat. Only for your foolish king’s  head.” The Naibern pointed with his sword, directly at Railon.

 It was clear that they had seen through the ruse immediately. Evidently, Railon’s challenge at the gate burned these men still. Dunstan quickly lowered his burden to the floor, without taking his eyes off his enemy. “You who are here will not see his head on a spike, if you would.” Drawing his blade, he knocked his foe’s sword aside and killed him. “Keep coming, my lord. I will hold the way.”

Having regained a great part of his strength, it was a small matter for Dunstan to fight his way down the stairs past the ten men who had come to capture them. At the bottom of the stairs, he leaned on his sword and said “What I would like to know, my lord, is how it happens that these men recognized us in a moment, but those others did not?”

Treading carefully under the weight of his predecessor, Railon replied “At that time, we were in darkness. We are in the light of the torches here. The leader of this party must have clashed with me on the wall. And it seems my words travelled swiftly through their camp. Still, he could chosen a better phrase. ‘Dog of a desert rat?’ he added with a laugh.

There was no more to say. What plans they could devise were laid, and they now had little enough time left to put those into practice before they would be discovered as they crossed the line. Upon reaching the underground room, they found that most of the torches had finally burned themselves out; in order that they could complete their task properly, Railon had to send himself to fetch more from the room where they were held.

Having replaced all the torches in the course of a few minutes, they set to work placing Dunstan’s armor on the body of Torlan. Setting a table upright, they laid Torlan upon it. Dunstan provided the support as railon went about placing the knight’s armor on the late king. The gear did not fit perfectly, because Torlan, whose length measured six feet and three inches, was several inches longer and broader than Dunstan was. Nevertheless, the two men secured the armor as well as was possible. Having done so, they fashioned a litter by tying a man’s traveling cloak to the spears two of the Naiberns had been carrying, lifted their burden once more and made for the door Dunstan had found some time ago during the worst of the fighting.

Drawing his blade with his free hand, Dunstan, who was in the front to afford the pair better protection, broke the lock and knocked the door aside. The door opened outward to reveal a short stairway that took them back up to the surface. To their dismay, it was no longer dark outside the castle. The sun had risen whilst they worked, and it was now nearly an hour after sunrise, bright enough that anyone who knew their faces would not fail to spot them as they moved across the lines.

“If I must, I will slay anyone who speaks, my lord. Have I your sanction?”

“Only if nothing less will keep us from capture. The first man you slay will reveal you as a traitor to the colors you wear.”

“I hear and obey, king Railon.” Laying his sword beside the late king’s feet, Dunstan raised his end of the litter and started up the stairs.

On the surface, they found that the enormous force of their foes was busy breaking camp. Astonished at the sudden turn of events, the gairbairn lords took advantage of their good fortune and crossed the camp staring at their feet, hoping no one would notice them amid the confusion of packing up. The sun was getting hot, and beginning to make Dunstan sweat under the Naiberns’ heavier armor. He hoped more than ever that no one would stop them.

Railon and Dunstan continued to watch the sand slide by under their feet. One quick glance forward told Dunstan they were nearly at the rear of the camp and free to make their way to the river to rejoin their men. Without warning, one pair of feet deliberately stepped into their path. Dunstan had just enough time to slip to a stop before the man spoke. He heard Railon grunt in frustration as they both steadied themselves.

“Explain yourself, man. Why is a soldier of the emperor out of line and moving with two prisoners toward the back of the line? Emperor’s soldiers are not gravediggers. let the dog bury his own dead.” He made as if to break the litter and knock Torlan to the ground.

Dunstan, who stood less than six feet and so found himself looking up at this insolent captain as he had many another man, stood his ground. “You will not touch these men! They are my prisoners, and I will claim their head-price, dead or alive, as I will!”

The Naibern captain laughed loudly and called out to men on the sidelines “You hear that? Those are his prisoners, there! It is clear that either of them could have pounded our friend into the ground, and he says he captured them? Were they sleeping on guard, my friend?”

It made Dunstan’ s blood boil to hear this man calling him ‘my friend’ in the condescending tone he was using. In the midst of the Naiberns’ laughter, Dunstan called out “I want to see him plead for his life before I send him after the other one. I captured them by strength of arms! Do you want proof of it?”

“It will be proof enough if you fight the man to the death right here before us.” The Naibern still did not move. A large group had begun to coalesce around them; Dunstan knew it was not long before someone recognized them and they were slain.

Lowering the litter and raising his blade, Dunstan took two steps toward Railon and then abruptly turned back. Slamming the hilt of his sword into the captain’s ribs, Dunstan waited for the man to double up and then swung his powerful left arm into the foe’s jaw. In a flash, his sword was sheathed, the litter was raised, and the Gairbairns were off.

By the time the two men rejoined their men on the banks of the great river which ran hard by the city, they wished only for a long drink. They had been running harder than ever since breaking out of the Naibern ranks, and now both were beginning to feel the effects of being up and about so long before dawn. Barely acknowledging the cries of joy from their men, Railon and Dunstan set down their burden with the least decorum necessary, tore off the helms they had been wearing all that morning, and hurried off to the river to drink. They did not drop the helms, instead dipping them into the water and emptying them as if they were goblets dipped in an open cask.

Railon, who had endured less mental and physical strain over the course of the ordeal, rose first and spoke to the assembled men.

“My people! What I have to say now concerns not you and me alone, but also your sons, and their sons, and all the ages that will follow after us! It has come into my mind that we would better serve ourselves were we to move off this land to make our home in some other country. I know what you would say. This is our land, the land of our fathers. This is the land that long ages ago our forefathers came into, determined to sustain themselves and their sons. And it has! It has served them well, so well that their sons built the largest city anyone has ever seen! I know. I have been to other cities.”         Having said this, Railon paused to asses whether the men had taken that statement as the flattery of the national pride he had meant it to be. Some men were laughing with close comrades, while others were beginning to look sour. Those were the ones who knew the speech for what it was and did not appreciate what was still to come. Finally, one spoke.

“I respect you, my lord, for none can deny that you have done great things, but I for one would prefer to hear exactly what you mean. You want us to desert our land. Is that not your purpose?”

A tomblike hush fell over the ranks. A man of the ranks had dared to speak sharply to the king? The men, steeped in the tradition of unapproachable majesty, expected that the man would be disciplined quite severely, and every one dreaded the thought of being called upon to do the deed. What they most certainly did not expect then occurred.

After a moment, Railon called out “That man who had the courage to tell his king to explain himself clearly, step forward!”

There was a slight commotion as a man pushed his way through to the front from the fourth line, where he had been standing when he chastised the king. He took a step forward, but then began to worry and thought about going back. But there was no escape.

Railon waved the man forward. He was a strong man, but carrying a little more weight than was good for a man of his stature; he was not above the usual height of the people of the land. What could be seen of his blond hair was cropped close to the tips of his disproportionally small ears, while his eyes were blue, his nose was of the type termed Roman, and his jaw was formed in the manner referred to as “square”. When the man we have just described had come close enough to his king, Railon bid him stop and speak.

“What is your name?”

Bowing, the man answered “Harold Raynoldson, my lord. My father was a blacksmith, my mother was a true daughter of the desert, my sisters have left for Trepalenmar, and my brothers have already been killed. One of them charged with the late king.”

Railon clapped him on the shoulder. “Having met you, I wish that I had been able to speak to your brothers also. What possessed you to speak to me as you did?”

Refusing to be ashamed of his presumption, Harold stared straight back at the king as he replied “Even here where there are no bushes to beat about, my lord, I am much happier with a man who talks the straight path, no matter whether he be lower than me or in your own place. So leave off your flattery and tell us what you are really saying. Do I have leave to return now?”

Railon could not contain his laughter at the man’s audacity. “Yes, you certainly do, and you also have leave to tell your comrades that for the courage he has shown in the  face of a noble, who considered himself a straight speaker until this day, Harold Raynoldson, when all is said and done, will be sought out by king Railon himself and  richly rewarded!-- I intend to move Gairbairia to Ronaiera. I passed through that country on my way home. I am sure there is ample space for a few thousand more men to settle there. I am also sure that the king will not be much put out by our removal thence, but to be sure, I shall ride ahead and get his decree myself. I place the burden of authority upon my general, lord Dunstan. He speaks for me.”  Sheathing his sword and raising his own shield again, Railon began walking away downstream past the ranks of the men without further ado.

Some men tried to offer him packs of supplies, but he waved them off. “I am a traveller. Such as I know how to live off the land. May the sand ever blow in your enemies’ path!”

16 March 2012

Chapter XXXVI


Prince John, who had retained a short-lived tenure as a noble of favor in Corridane, which had lasted only until he had seen the Princess of Gairbairia, had not been home long, but was already causing people to wish him gone once more. He prowled the halls of his family’s ancestral castle with a sullen air, determined to find someone he could snap at to relieve his own stress. The reader may well be wondering what was causing him to act this way, in a situation that should have had a more cheering effect on his mood. The reason was the Princess.
John’s brother, the king Elmbran, a fair-minded man, had made no objection when   John had arrived at the castle some days before in the company of the Princess and her guards. He had only given orders that the Gairbairns should be housed in the castle as befitted their rank. This meant that John was required to give up his own chamber and move into that of a lesser man, which caused him to rage privately at his brother in addition to the animosity he was beginning to feel toward the Princess due to her refusal to answer him. Unable to find a satisfactory answer on his own, John resolved to speak with his brother again. Accordingly, he turned his steps toward the king’s chamber.
Upon reaching Elmbran’s chamber, John pushed the door open without knocking, causing the king to look up in surprise.
“Why, John! I did not expect to see you in here for a long time yet! No doubt this means you have good news?”
Snatching up a chair that stood nearby and seating himself on it, John asked “Why should I have good news?”
“Why?” Elmbran replied, laying down the quill he had been holding. “You only burst into my room without announcing yourself, which is not done unless one means to attack the occupant or has some great news to announce. May I congratulate you?”
“No. She has not agreed, if that is what you mean.” Finally taking notice of the letter on the king’s desk, John added “Who are you writing to?”
“Really, John. You are not yourself. You have not been since you arrived. Perhaps if I request that this Princess return to her homeland, you will be able to make yourself comfortable again. As to your question, I would not offer to reply unless it concerned you. This is a message to Valun, the king of Corridane that your party has arrived.”
“No! No! Do not even think of that! I beg you! Let me live in peace!”
If Elmbran had been disconcerted by his brother’s earlier behavior, it was nothing to what he felt now. “My brother! What can be ailing you, to make you speak so desperately?”
“Only that which you have said, my brother.” replied John, who had risen from the chair only to lower himself on one knee before the king. “Do not, I pray you, send any message to Corrandion. I have lost favor there, and when they hear of this, they will descend upon your land with revenge and war in their hearts. Also, I beg you, do not ask the Princess to leave, for if you do I will follow her or die. Moreover, you are mistaken. The Princess does not come from Corridane. She is from Gairbairia.”
“Then she will find it easier to return home than I had thought.”
“No! You can not send her home, just as you can not, to save yourself, send me back to Corridane. I visited her country soon after I ended my previous visit here. Her father the king advised me to escort her to Corrandion, with the intent that she should wed the king Valun. If she returns to her homeland alone, you will have offended her father, who will no doubt wish to avenge the slight he will perceive.”
“You drive me into a corner. It seems I can do nothing without bringing harm upon myself and others.”
Almost jerking himself upright, John said “Elmbran, you are a wise man. It would be unreasonable to think you do not see the path. Do nothing.” Setting his jaw firmly, he adopted the grim expression of one resigned to a fate he is sure will come, whatever he might do to avert it. Crossing to the door, he opened it, let himself out, and then shut the door in a manner which seemed meant to deny that he had ever been rash in his life.
Ordering that a horse be prepared, he left the castle in a darker mood than he had entered. Mounting in the courtyard, he called the kennel master to his side. When the man had arrived, he said “Release only Halstaff, Warrior, and Wolf today. I am in no mood to bear the howling of the whole pack. And bring me a new spear and bow. I go for dangerous game in the mountains this day.”
“Yes, my lord.” The servant turned and hurried around a corner to bring out the dogs John had named. A few moments later, a cacophony of disappointed howls started up as the rest of the pack voiced their objections at being left behind.
As John clenched the reins tightly in his hands, prepared to shout across the whole courtyard that someone must silence those dogs, the keeper came into sight carrying the weapons he had called for, and trailed by the three dogs.
Halstaff and Warrior were stocky, powerful, tanks of Mastiffs, while Wolf was a long and lean bloodhound. They were John’s favorite dogs, because the three of them had scored kills against everything John had brought them against, from foxes to bears, and had, of course, come out alive. They ran eagerly to his side, so excited that they seemed ready to pull down the horse so that John would be forced to come down to them.
Trying to deter them gently with the haft of the spear he now held in his hand, John spoke, almost laughing. “No, no! my boys! You must save your great strength for the hunt to come. I am not worthy prey for the likes of you. Come, we will go. Forward!”
The dogs seemed to understand what he had said, for they ceased their leaping about and instead ran forward, waiting for John to catch up with them.
“Yes, my boys! We go!” Gesturing at the gatekeeper with the spear, which he yet to put down, John urged his horse forward and through the gate.
As John rode down the central, cobblestone paved highway of Ronaiera, slowly to allow his fighting dogs to keep pace without tiring themselves, he felt his spirits rise to great heights they had not attained in the past ten years since he had lived here as a boy. True, he had been little short of a slave in the beginning, and had gotten into all sorts of trouble which only Valun’s influence and John’s strength had rescued him from, but within himself he had been happy. And now, here, he felt it again. At long last, he was truly home.
He passed several people, coming and going, who were so busy with themselves that they scarcely spared a glance at the prince riding by in practical finery with three dogs around him. The vast majority of the people were the usual outlying farmers and business travelers who always seemed to be on the road. John, knowing there was nothing unusual in the presence of so many of this sort of people, treated them as they did him.
There was one party, however, which caught his eye. Three men were walking close together, as if to ensure that they were not separated. This behavior in itself was not unusual among men carrying large amounts of money, but this party stood out because they were dressed in a manner John was very familiar with, having seen the style on the Princess’s guards for the past several days. In addition, their faces were entirely covered, save for their eyes. John thought no more of them after his initial shock, saying to himself “They are probably Gairbairian merchants sent here by their masters to bargain for what they can get. There is nothing the matter with them at all.”
A short time later, John turned off the main road to take a direct path toward the forest in which he meant to hunt. He called to the dogs to keep them closer to his side, adjusting his hold on the spear, which he now held across the saddle. They traveled uneventfully for several minutes, and they had actually reached the foothills of the mountain forest before John realized quite where they had gotten to.
He released the dogs, crying “Wolf, lead us well! Go deep! On, Halstaff! On, Warrior! We go for a prize today!” At the word of command, the dogs sped off as if they had been launched by coiled springs. John prodded his horse harder than was necessary in his eagerness to follow them, causing the horse to cry out in protest. Nevertheless, the beast obediently hurried off in pursuit of the hunters.
It was not long before Wolf hit upon a scent he knew well. He alerted the others with a long howl, speeding off into the underbrush on the track of the quarry. The forest was an ancient one, and had weathered a great storm only a short time ago. Many trees had come down, which made the trailing far more strenuous than it would otherwise have  been.
Wolf led them through winding trails for nigh on half an hour before stopping short and howling. It was clear to John that the trail did not extend farther, so he began to study the ground. He and the three dogs had come to a clearing which extended twenty feet in each direction. On one side there was a large outcrop of rock, under which a cave had been dug out to provide shelter to some animal.
It was not long before the animal in question came lumbering into view. The bear Wolf had tracked to its den was bigger than any John had hunted before. It’s length upright clearly reached eight feet. It was enormous, powerful, and made John question whether he actually wanted to attack it. But a moment later he remembered what he had come for. “Forward, Warrior! On, Halstaff!”
Giving out low growls of challenge, the two mastiffs leapt at the bear, seeking to lock their jaws onto it and bring it down.
Enraged, the beast rose upon its hind legs, shaking off the dogs, which fell hard to the ground. These dogs, though, were made of strong stock, and they shook off the falls in moments. In their new attack, they displayed new caution. The dogs, fearful of another fall, were slow to approach, even while John egged them on again.
Suddenly, as one leapt from the ground and locked it’s jaws upon one thick leg, the other bounded up to the top of the cave, and from this height leapt and sank it’s teeth into the beast’s neck, holding on with all it’s strength.
As such things often do, the bear only became all the more dangerous for it’s imminent demise. Giving out a blood-chilling roar, it shook the dog off it’s arm as if it were nothing more than a rag. The dog flew through the air until it collided with a tree a few yards away and died instantly. Rid of the dog’s weight, the bear lowered itself to the ground and charged John upon his horse.
Knowing the bear was about to die, and knowing also that he could not have outrun it anyway, John stood his ground, primarily because his horse, in it’s fright, had thrown him. In the fall, the spear John was carrying had broken. As he lay on his back, he had only a split-second to raise the blade before the massive jaws descended upon him.
John came to his senses some time later, and was surprised to find himself surrounded by the open maw of an enormous, dead, bear which had not died until he buried his spear in its heart.
Thrusting the monstrous head from him, John crawled from under it and went to the aid of his dogs, which were now hovering over the limp body of Halstaff, pushing it withe their noses, whimpering, and generally showing their distress at the fact that the fallen warrior had not risen with them.
Crouching between them, John put an arm around each dog’s neck. As they turned their puzzled looks toward him and licked him anxiously, he said “I’m sorry, my boys. He can’t come with us. Nothing I can do will make him get up either. Perhaps I can bring him home. I must do what we came for first, though.” Crossing over to the dead bear, he pulled a long hunting knife from his belt and proceeded to remove the hide, head included, from the bones and meat it had encased. The hide removed, he called his dogs. “Here. Wolf, Warrior. Eat your fill. We must hasten back soon.”
Five minutes later, during which time the sound of enthusiastic chewing had not stopped once, John spoke again. He had by now smoothed the hide to the best of his ability, slung it over himself like a coat supported only by its hood, and slung the dead dog across his shoulders. “Leave off! Wolf, lead us home again! We have a long way to go!”
At the sound of John’s voice, the two dogs left their feast and obediently turned homeward. The return journey, on foot while carrying the weight of a bearskin on his head, and a dog on his shoulders, was much harder and more strenuous than the original trek. John struggled to cross barriers which his horse had leapt over easily. Nigh on three quarters of the hour since the kill had passed when the prince and his dogs finally emerged from the forest. After a short pause to recover his breath, John turned his steps toward the highway and broke into a trot. His pace was quick and steady, for this time he was alone on the road.
At the gate of the city, he was stopped. John had almost passed through before the guard belatedly swung his weapon down to block the way. “Just a moment... sir...what would you be doing in the city?”
The guards quavering voice annoyed John. Shrugging off the bearskin, he said, emphasizing his superiority over the other “I am the prince John, whom you let past not three hours ago! Do you take me for a mountain hermit? My business is my own.”
“Of course, sir. It was always so.”
John stalked past the man without replying.
Throwing the skin back over himself, John hurried on, making for the castle. People got out of his way as he approached. It would be difficult to fault some of them for showing fear as they did so. Even while carrying a dead dog back from the forest, John had not discarded the broken spear he had slain the bear with, instead thrusting it into his belt.
As he closed in on the palace, John spotted two of the men he had seen on the road earlier. They were leaning against a wall, doing nothing. The third one was nowhere to be seen, but John assumed he was nearby. Stopping, John barked “What are you men doing?”
At his cry, one of the foreigners turned toward him and began talking faster than seemed necessary. John listened, but soon realized that he could make nothing of the other’s speech, save that the man was violently agitated. When he indicated as much, the speaker, who had evidently misunderstood the signal, charged toward him with anger on his face. He was stopped only by a growl from John’s living mastiff. Catching sight of the dog, the man backed away in fear.
Frustrated at the waste of his time, John turned and continued on his way. He arrived at the castle a short time later. He was met by the kennel-master, to whom he transferred all three dogs. “Be sure to treat them well. They have gone through more today than they have in a very long time.”
“Permit me to say, I can see that, my lord.”
“Give Warrior space to grieve. He and Halstaff were littermates and he is reacting already. Do not step too close to him.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Wolf. Warrior. Follow.” Gesturing toward the warden, John turned away. Then, as an afterthought, he turned back to the warden and thrust the broken spear toward him. “Mark the spot with this. It is useless, and that beast deserves to be remembered. Has my horse returned?”
“Yes, my lord. At his return alone, we feared you might be lost.”
“Well, you see that I am alive.” John replied in a toneless voice that conveyed a desire to be ignored.
The warden, understanding his intent, turned away without replying.
As he moved up the stairs to the higher part of the castle, wherein were situated the various bedchambers of those courtiers who held such favor as to be guests of the king, John asked himself “What am I doing? Why, you are bringing what you call a gift to that Princess you consider your all. Why do I think that? Yes, that is a good question. Why do you believe that? Because I believe that I love her. Even when you know she will not have you? Yes, I believe it or I would not be acting this way! Is it possible that you simply want such a lady as your queen? By the One, do not ask me to wish my brother’s death! I know you have a heart. I question whether your heart is leading you correctly. Isn’t it? Isn’t that the question? If you really wish her to accept you in return, you must show the best you can be. Do not try to force her to see you acting so, either. And...? You will be a better man, and you may even find that your heart is calling you down a different path. But different paths are uncertain! So are all. Even the one a man follows is uncertain beyond what he is doing now.”
At the conclusion of this dialogue within himself, John found that his feet had taken him to the door of the Princess’s room. Shrugging off the bearskin, he let it drop in front of the confused guards, spread it out neatly, as if it were simply a doormat, and turned away.
It was not long after his return, while he was alone in his own chamber reading a tale he had sent for, that he was surprised by a loud knock on his chamber door. Shutting the book, he looked up just in time to see the Princess, flanked by two of her men, who were carrying the bearskin John had worked so hard to get.
He nearly dropped the book in his haste to rise, but was stopped short by the icy tones of the Princess. “It is no matter to me whether you sit or stand in your own chamber.”
At a signal, the men threw down the skin, which landed at John’s feet. The head, and its fearsome open jaws, were pointed toward him. “My men told me what you have done. You mean this as a trothplight, do you not?”
Steeling himself for what was to come, John straightened his back and replied firmly “Yes, my lady. It was. What is the matter with it?”
“There is nothing the matter with it. There is something the matter with you. If this thing is as you say, then I reject and spurn it and you. From this moment, I ask that you keep your distance from me and my men. You may eventually win back my trust, but do not look for my friendship.” With that, she turned and left the room, having the door closed behind her.
John collapsed and sprawled upon the skin, defeated. For some time he lay there, trying not to mourn the loss of something he had never actually gained. Suddenly, the questions his own hidden self-doubt, which had surfaced through the anxiety he had felt at the possibility of the present occurrence, returned to him. At this,  he leapt up, saying to himself. “My brother the king is wise. He will help me, if I have speech with him.”
So saying, he left his chamber and made his way by a circuitous route to the door of his brother’s chamber. Remembering Elmbran’s earlier words, he stopped and knocked, expecting to be invited in immediately.
What he heard in response to his knock was a harsh cry in a language he could not understand. But though he did not understand the words, he did recognize the voice that spoke them; it was surely one of the strange men he had seen on his way to the castle. Fearing for Elmbran’s safety, John called out “I shall break the door down if I do not hear the king’s voice now!”
There was sharp speech from the foreigner, after which, to John’s equal consternation and relief, Elmbran called out “Do not enter, I pray you! They have three blades on my neck for your entrance!”
“Then I am entering all the swifter!” John shouted back, pulling his hunting knife from his belt. “Why do they threaten you?”
“I can not tell. Send the Princess’ guards. Perhaps they speak the same tongue.”
“They do, but I can not get near them now. I will explain if I ever can.”
As he walked away in preparation to throw himself at the door, John heard Elmbran call after him. “I charge you, do not enter! Your entrance is my death!”
John paid no heed to his brother’s warning. He was determined to enter, because he had the hubris to believe that because he was attempting it for the benefit of another, he would succeed flawlessly.
Lining himself up directly across the corridor from the chamber door, John allowed himself one deep breath and charged. He was across in seconds. Lowering himself, he put forth all his strength against the lock---- and stumbled inside as the unlocked door swung wide before him. The first to recover from the shock of his entrance, shaken though he was, John hurried over and thrust aside the intruders who had pinned Elmbran against the north wall. Turning, he faced them.
“Get yourselves away from here or I shall slay you!” he said, brandishing his long hunting knife.
The men paid him no heed. They advanced in turn, brandishing broad-bladed cutlasses.
John did not wait for the men to surround him. Hurrying forward, he came within the range of two mens’ blades as the third moved behind him. At the last possible moment, John dove to the floor. As he did so, the three blades clashed above him. Turning on his back, he slashed at one of the mens’ calves with his knife, causing that man to fall to the floor. Snatching his enemy’s blade, John leapt up to face the other two.
Lashing out with his long legs, John knocked one man hard to the side. Elmbran then caught the man by the arms and wrenched the cutlass from him, throwing it out the window.
John exchanged blows with the last man several times as he backed his enemy against the wall. John clearly had the upper hand and was bringing all his strength to bear on the man’s guard, when suddenly the man thrust back at him and spun away. The sudden application and removal of strong resistance caused John to carom forward into the wall, jarring his shoulder and loosing his grip on the sword. In a moment, the enemy was charging at him from behind as he leaned against the wall. At a word of warning from Elmbran, John quickly adjusted his hold on his hunting knife, turned, and threw it at his onrushing foe. Going over to the dead man, John took the cutlass from the corpse. Retrieving the one he had taken earlier, he moved to stan over the other two.
“These men won’t kill me. I’ll explain why later, but you’ll have to bring the guards yourself. We deserve an explanation, do we not?”
“I am already suspicious that it involves the royal house of Corridane.” So saying, Elmbran left to fetch the guards.
It was not long before Elmbran returned with two guards in tow. When they saw John, they glared and moved to their blades. In response, John moved to exit the room. “You will have to tell me what they say when their task here has passed. I am under orders to avoid them.” He jumped out of the way as the Princess swept into the room after her men.
She raised her hand to stop the forthcoming noble complaint from Elmbran. “You would not understand my mens’ speech. I am prepared to watch anything they may feel compelled to do.”
John closed the door, unnoticed by the others. 

09 March 2012

Chapter XXXV

Chapter XXXVII

"Ah, Kalveston. It is so pleasant of you to come visit your 'old and feeble' guardian once again. One would have thought you had forgotten me, putting one away in this dark cave as you did." The man sitting on the floor of the dark room Kalveston had just entered laughed heartily at his own insolence. Age sat heavily upon his brow, but it was clear that his mind was as strong as ever. "But then, can one blame you? You are the Emperor, supreme head of an empire whose borders encompass five countries and more and know no bounds. Can you be blamed for shutting up the ancient relic which put you there in some dark corner?"

Kalveston snatched a torch from a bracket outside the door, placing it in another inside the room. The sudden introduction of light caused the old man to throw up his arms and shrink away into a corner. "Enough! Ah, I see that we may now speak properly."

"No! I can not speak in such bright light! Put it away, or you will get no answers from me!"

Standing in the center of the sparsely furnished room, holding the torch above his head, Kalveston said haughtily "If you were ten years younger and I were only a general once more, I might give your words more weight. It is unfortunate for you, than, that I am, as you have said, the Emperor, and no half-dead creature of darkness will deign to urge his will upon me! Speak now, for my patience ebbs swiftly!"

Uncovering his face, the old man spoke reluctantly. "You are the empire. You have everything. What could you possibly want from me, your old and broken tool!"

"I want the knowledge! Tell me everything!"

"Everything about what? There is nothing I have not told you already!"

Bending down to bring the flame closer to the other man, Kalveston growled "I want you to tell me everything you know of what is, what is to come, and how to make my people follow me."

"What messages could I have heard that you have not? How could I tell better than the next man what is to come? You rule by fear. You are suited to that manner of government, surely?"

"Yes, but I want to learn the other way, the way you know."

"The way of love?"

"If that is what you call it."

"That you will never learn. You might as well replace me back upon the throne and spread the word the old kings have returned from the dead." The old man laughed insolently, but still raised his arms swiftly as if to protect himself.

"What you speak of I will never do. I am the emperor!"

"Emperors who never leave their castles still find death in unexpected places."

"Why do I listen to a raving madman?" Turning sharply about, Kalveston left the room, carrying the torch with him.

02 March 2012

Chapter XXXIV

Chapter XXXVI

Having slept only fitfully, that is, not at all, Valun, loath to spend anymore time than necessary in a tent, emerged at dawn only to find that Meltran had roused his followers long since. Seeing him, several men moved forward to strike Valun’s tent for him. As they did so, Meltran approached to speak with him.

“Did you sleep well?”

“One could say that, but it would be a lie.”

“Your defeat still riles your conscience?”


“Then my advice to you is to go back where you came from, and take your tent with you.” Stepping back, Meltran struggled to suppress a grin at Valun’s horrified expression.

“Go back I where I came from? With a tent on my back? Me?!”

“Of course. It’s your tent. I sent for it from your men before you ordered them to leave, knowing how important the completion of your quest would be to you.” Unable to hold it back any longer, Meltran broke into laughter, saying “Come now. Admit that you will never finish this quest until you stop feeling that the whole world is against you.”

“What-How- Why do you say that of me?”

“I see it. Your eyes betray you. Your eyes are always moving, looking out for danger that isn’t here because you are worried that someone is trying to finish you.”

Pausing for a moment, Valun realized that this was true. It had become a habit. Instead of looking directly and steadily at Meltran, he was constantly trying to look beyond the Brandian lord in every direction possible without turning.

“You have a special servant, even on the march. You have a force of men who have sworn to protect every step you take. Why would you do this if you truly trusted those who deserve your trust? If you do not soon learn to trust your people, you will lose their trust, begin to hate them for it, and soon become the sort of cruel ruler you truly fear becoming. Stop and look at me!” Meltran shouted these last words angrily, causing everyone, including Valun, to stare straight at him. A moment later, to the surprise of all present, Valun simply keeled over on his back, falling with a thud on the soft grass.

Moving closer, Meltran saw that the Corridane’s eyes had taken on a glazed look. Reaching down toward one of Valun’s hands, the Brandian saw it twitch to avoid him. Turning away, he called to his men “The lord Valun is alive, but in a trance. We can not move yet. Raise the tent once more and place him within it.” Gesturing over his shoulder at the band of men riding toward the camp, he added “And someone assure those men that no harm not of his own making has come to their ward.” To himself, he added “If his enemies could see him now. All they have to do is shout at him.”

Some time later, Valun, who had hardly noticed his surroundings after going into shock, and had fallen into a deep sleep almost immediately after coming out of it, awoke to find himself, as we know, in his tent. He lay still for a few moments, trying to recollect why he found himself there once more. He knew he had risen earlier. Had a whole day passed, from dawn to dusk, already? Still unsure, he rose and stepped outside to discover the truth.

As he stood there, squinting in the bright sunlight, a man approached him, stopping a few feet away. Valun received another surprise; the man was quite obviously a Corridane.

“Are you well, my lord?”

“Do I look unwell?-What are you doing here, anyway? I sent you home.”

“No, but some Brandians told me-“

“Never mind what any Brandians told you, why are you here?!”

“I, and my comrades, are here, my lord, by order of your aide, and because we wish to fulfill our oath. We swore to be more willing than any other of your subjects to give our lives in your defense. We can not stay true to our word out of your sight.”

“But the army? Are the rest of them still going home, as I ordered them?”

:”I regret to say they are not. You see, yesterday, after we had once more reached the top of the cliffs, we soon fell in with thousands of new men, who were eager to prove their loyalty.”

“Prove their loyalty? Was not Sir Richard at their head?”

“No, my lord. These men came from Carribeasa. Since meeting them, your man has turned them back this way in your name. He appears to think that you still wish to win the battle.”

“I am not here to fight battles. I am here to find two men, dead or alive.”

Meltran, who had been standing at a little distance from the two Corridanes while listening to them speak, now came forward and spoke. “Valun! Have you forgotten what you wrote in the letter that was meant for my palace? You wrote then that a failure to return your people to you would be considered a declaration of war. There is no denying it. You do want to fight battles. You wished to then, and you still wish to. Go! Call for your horse and your armor, and spend your wrath on those who have insulted us both! They are still there! Perhaps, if you are fortunate, you may even capture someone who knows the answer you are seeking. Go! Where there are strength and wisdom, justice will prevail. Where there is one without the other, all is lost. You have the strength once more. Go find the wisdom!” With that, Meltran turned away, not deigning to even acknowledge anyone else’s presence.

By this time, the rest of Valun’s army had caught up with their fellow. Anticipating Valun’s wants, they had brought his horse and armor along with them. In a short time, Valun was fully armed and mounted upon his horse once more. He snatched at the reins. “Well? We are not here to remain in the background and watch the slaughter like judges! Come now!” Urging his mount forward, Valun rode to meet his returning men. The men lessened their speed at his approach. Furious, he called to them “No! There is no time for stopping now! See, they are waiting! Charge with me now, and let no man falter in his step! Onward, Corridanes!”

Turning his horse, Valun galloped far ahead of his men, his sword raised as if he were carrying a banner rather than a blade. His great speed gave his falcon headpiece, the wings of which were outstretched, the appearance of launching away altogether. The Valkyries, who had been caught unawares by their lord’s sudden charge, galloped anxiously after him, as he had made himself a mark to every Brandian bow. In fact, only moments before they could reach him, a hail of arrows were unleashed. Most missed, but one came so close that it would have killed the bird, which was torn clean off of the king’s helm to land several feet in the rear.

A moment later, Valun laid low the man who had slain the emblem of his house. The battle was joined once more.

This second clash of the two armies proved to be even more chaotic and brutal than the first had been. Valun, refusing pleas from his men to fall back for his own safety, plunged recklessly into the midst of the Brandian forces. After a few tense moments, however, the Valkyries were able to push their way through to his side and surround their lord.

Breathing heavily, Valun leaned forward, grateful that his charger was still able to hold it’s own head up, unlike it’s master.

Perceiving the death-cry of a Valkyrie swordsman as he fell to the ground slain, Valun looked up. For a moment that seemed to last an age, he stared at the man standing not six feet away. In the next instant, he cried to the archers standing on either side "Stay your hands! You others, capture that man alive and bring him to me! Alive, I say! You may die if you do not!"

Wasting no time, three of the swordsmen and one lancer charged off into the melee.

Turning to those who remained, Valun said "Come. We will await their return close by the lord Meltran's camp." Accordingly, Valun and his four remaining men turned and fought their way back to the outskirts of the battle, and from there made their way to a small rise not far from the camp of Meltran and his followers. At the word, the men planted one of Valun's standards at the highest point, so that all would see it, to take heart or lose it, as their loyalty dictated.

After a few moments of silence, as the air rang with the sounds of clashing metal, battle-cries, and death agonies, Valun turned to his companions once more and said "I desire to know whether my commanders also remain alive. I am afraid I must order that you go in search of them. But do not let them leave their men!"

The two remaining horsemen saluted and galloped off. Now, for the first time that day, Valun was able to observe the battle, the vast majority of which had been some distance from him. It took careful combing of the frenzied scene before he was finally able to spot one of his own banners; evidently several of the standard bearers had already fallen. Valun felt sure that where he had found one, he would soon spot the others, and his confidence was not in vain. In a few moments, he had spotted two more scarlet banners. His attention was soon brought back to the first he had spotted, though, as it had suddenly begun to sway wildly from side to side. Someone clearly meant to attract everyone else's attention. Seeing this, Valun optimistically decided that one of his commanders was signaling his survival. The king became doubly sure of this when the banner farthest from him began to behave in the same manner, and then abruptly stopped after a few moments.

Valun, satisfied at the nature of the signal, indicated to his remaining two guards that they should do the same. This done, he said "One of you make your way to the lord Meltran's position and ask that he return here with you."

Without waiting for further speech from his king, one of the men, who had noted the Brandians' position earlier, sprinted off.

It was not long before Meltran himself appeared beside Valun on the crest of the hill, having easily outdistanced the messenger. A few more moments passed in silence, which Meltran broke. "Ah, I have not run so swiftly since I was but a page. I was told you desire speech with me?"

"Yes. In deference to the wisdom that comes with age, as you asked me to do, I ask you what you see and what you would do."

"I see a desperate battle of desperate men. I say that if I commanded the army which is on the field now, I would order a retreat of the left flank, which is closest to the cliffs. And now I would ask you something: where are your archers?"

"Truth be told, I do not know."

"Folly! Folly! Pull your men back! Pull them back, I say!"

"Every man, or the left flank only as you said before?"

There was a pause. "The flank only. I see your man's plan now. Cruel it would seem, but it may very well end the battle. You may move to order your men to fall back, but if you do not do it soon, your commander will order the move of his own accord."

A pause. "Ah, I see what you mean. It is the only thing to do. We will wait. My man is clearly deserving of more credit than I give him."

Pointing toward the banner farthest from the lords, Meltran recalled Valun's attention to it. "Look. Away on the left flank. Your man has made his move. He pulls his men back. It is a dignified retreat, still. Clearly strategic only. I wonder that Damerson does not see it. Your man hopes for a stream of foes, whom, you see, he will push against the rocks if all goes well."

The commander in question, David, was not at liberty to elaborate on his plans himself, being in the midst of the battle, but it was as if Meltran had read his mind. Close by the center of the line, alongside the standard, he rallied his men.

"Hold the line! Let there be no break now, at the point of all! Every man of you gave your word to follow the sword and anvil! Those that step back now forfeit themselves to judgment! Hold the line, for your own glory, for the glory of your land, and the glory of your name forever more! Your sons will say 'My father fought at the cliffs' and ever hold their heads higher for the fact! Stand now! They come!"

Damerson's hesitation had broken; he had given the word to broach the attack with new vengeance.