Valun and the men who were with him had been riding for several days when they finally caught a sight of the Brandian capital. There journey had been unusually long and winding, because, although the black Brandians had dispersed at the cliffs, bands of them still roamed the countryside, making their own way back to their homes.
As they paused over the city, their guide spoke to Valun again, saying “I know where the old man is held, but I do not know the path to it. I was led forth blind.”
“Then how are we to go about the rescue? We can not simply ride up to a man and ask him where the old prisoner is held. How can you know where it is if you do not know how to reach it?”
“Are you willing to follow me as you look for him. If you wish, you may have my head at the first sign of a trap.”
“There is a reason why I have men with me. I have no heirs and no other family that I have seen, though you might perhaps answer the riddle.”
“Then we ride, and we search until we find him.”
“I would not speak differently.”
At a signal, the six riders moved off toward the city spread out before them. Just as Gaimaron was, paradoxically, the largest of the capital, so was Bernola the smallest. However, its unimpressive area was made up for by the tall spires which dotted the buildings there were; it seemed that nearly every building there was adorned with a towering iron spike.
As they approached the main gate of the city, they were confronted by two men carrying halberds sitting on opposite sides of the opening. The Corridanes attempted to keep themselves inconspicuous, but, it seemed, the red of their homeland was too unusual to let pass. The guards rose and crossed their staffs, blocking all traffic in and out.
“Who are you? What do you want in the city?”
Wishing that he had some way to cover his face, Valun answered “We are travelers from the south, nothing more. There are many other good men here, whom you are disturbing in their law-abiding peace.” He said this with perfect truth, for already a line of people had formed behind the guards, who could not see them.
“Those who abide by the king’s laws can wait. It is you we are interested in, because you refuse to let us know who you are.”
“On this day, do you know where the king is?”
“Our king marched out days ago with a glorious martial array that would stun your disrespectful eyes, man, and had you seen it you would not deign to lift them for days after.”
“At this moment, your king is fleeing back to this city with what little remnant of your “glorious array” that he can gather. He was met in battle and soundly defeated by the forces of Valun, king of Corridane, come to right the wrongs done to his house, and that of Meltran, true and rightful king of Brandia!” Valun, who had had enough of waiting on the guards, dismounted while speaking and drew his sword, severing the blades of the halberds and walking through the gates. “Come, Ironheel, we go to find our master.” At the word, Valun’s steed followed him into the city, without showing any apprehension.
The two justifiably outraged guardsmen turned back to deal with Valun by force, but were brushed back by the four Valkyries, who immediately surrounded their king as he was remounting. The man whom Valun had taken as his guide followed after the Corridanes without incident.
The crowd of citizens seemed less inclined to pass through the gate than to gawk at the party that had just come through. For the most part, they were silent, but after a moment one called out “You never did answer the question! What right have you to come breaking and entering on the gates of our city?”
“As much right as a man has to get answers he has wanted for nearly a year. Perhaps if I give you my name, you can answer mine. I am Valun of Corridane. I have come seeking my father and my brother; both are held captive somewhere in your country. Know you of them?”
“If you are who you claim to be, why did you not come with great fanfare of trumpets to make yourself and your designs known?” inquired a second man, who stood closer to the Corridanes.
“Because I did not wish to be attacked more than I already have. I would have come in peace if I could, but your false king brought battle against me. Does any here remember Meltran, lord of Brandia? For he is alive and coming to reclaim his people.”
This solemn announcement was met with blank stares. It was apparent that none of these men remembered the old king. Deciding that it could do no harm to ask, Valun added “Is there a man here who remembers the arrival of king Valun the Peacemaker and his son?”
The same confused looks. The disarmed gatekeepers struggled against those holding them back and cried “Take him! He’s no more than a low traitor who ran!”
Secure in his circle of guards, Valun rose in his saddle and cried out in desperation “Does any man know where the prisoners are kept?!”
A small man who had to this point been supporting a cart full of harvesting implements then ran in front of the Corridanes, waved his arms over his head and said “If you’ll follow me, your lordship, I just came past the evil place; if you’re here to do something about it, I’ll gladly lead you back there this once.” He turned and started off down the street that lay open before them.
As the red-coated warriors rode down the street, keeping their steeds in step to retain their formation, the curious citizens began to follow them, hoping to discover how the strange incident of the foreign king and the capital prison would resolve itself.
The path toward the prison was fairly straightforward, as the king who had built it, a particularly harsh man, had placed it there as a warning to those who might stray outside the bounds of his laws.
At the entrance to the prison, Valun and his guards arranged themselves in a line before the building, while the one on Valun’s immediate left, acting as herald, called out “All servants of the usurper are to yield themselves up to the authority of king Meltran of Brandia and Valun III of Corridane, his ally. Those who make themselves known now will be shown mercy.”
A hidden sentry then replied “No man here answers to dead kings, or foreign ones either. All those kept in here are just prisoners of the king, and anyone who says otherwise shall be attacked!”
Valun produced his own shield as his guards raised theirs and surrounded him in response to the threat. “I shall not say this again!” I come in the name of the king of Brandia, and in the name of Valun II, and I demand that you open your gates and release the prisoners forthwith! If you do not answer, we shall force our way in and put every man to the sword.”
There was no answer from the insolent sentry. Noting this, Valun pronounced “Remove the gates.” At the word, the Valkyries drew their swords and began to strike at the hinges of the gates. Several minutes passed before they withdrew the blades, having failed as yet to break through. They then attempted the easier but more uncertain path, sticking their blades through the crack in the gates and levering against the bar they found on the opposite side. While one man worked, the others held the shields above him to deter surprise attacks by hidden sentries.
Finally, when the third man was working the bar, it came loose and fell to the ground. The party outside clearly heard the thud of wood striking stone as this happened. A moment passed as the successful guard retrieved his shield, then the four guards spread out in an abbreviated wedge formation as he pushed the gates open.
Before the doors were completely open, there came from within the sound of a weapon being thrown. Suddenly, a long spear came into view, its point buried in the shield of the lead guardsman. The guard pulled the weapon free, hurled it back down the corridor, but then fell back, tending to his arm.
“Are you badly hurt?” Valun asked him.
“No, my lord. It is but a shock. My arm is singing right now.”
“If you can fight, rejoin your comrades. You know why we have come.”
“Yes, my lord.” Raising his sword, the man moved back into line, moving ahead more cautiously than the others.
Once the gates had been pushed wide, the four guardsmen charged down the corridor at the handful of men who had assembled to oppose them. In the fight that ensued, one of the Valkyries was slain, but the others were able to defeat the rest of the prison guards after some minutes. When the guards retreated to announce formally that the way was clear, Valun dismounted, indicated that their captive guide should come along, and started off. “Search every crack. Test every floor. We will not return to the outside without my father and my brother or their bones. I have endured much to see this done.”
The Valkyries moved quickly, snatching torches of the wall and beginning to jog down the passage, looking into every cell. Some were empty, but most were occupied by prisoners who had obviously been confined in the space for some time. The Valkyries forced open every occupied cell, gently ushering the shocked prisoners in the direction of the gate and guarding them in case of unmet guards.
As the guards worked thus, Valun followed close behind them, struggling to keep his impatience in check. At his command, the men pounded with spears on the floor of every cell, and in many places in the main passage, hunting for the signs of a cell hidden underneath the floor. However, all their efforts were fruitless; the cold stone still did not yield up the king.
The Corridanes had nearly reached the end of the passage, and were resting in one of the cells they had lately opened, when they were surprised by a grating sound which came from the wall they now faced, across the corridor within the opposite cell. As the Corridanes rose, still watching the origin of the sound, a large section of wall began to bulge outward, until it suddenly stopped of its own accord, suspended out over the floor of the empty cell.
“Not a sound.” Valun ordered, and then signaled that they should cross the hall into the other cell. Following his lead, the guards and the guide shuffled across with all speed they could muster and, not a moment too soon, flattened themselves against the sidewalls; Valun and the guide on one side, and the three Valkyries on the other.
In the next moment, three Brandians stepped out of the opening formed by the removed wall section, which was supported by an inconspicuous platform of oak wood, which was nevertheless extremely thick to support the very real stones which had been pushed out from the wall.
“That ought to do for the old man.”
“I don’t see that we’ll be coming back here.”
“I would never. Getting rid of an old man is so demoralizing.”
Without preliminaries, the Brandians began to push the wall section back into place, taking care to conceal a rope which was evidently used to open the secret passage to men on the outside.
The Corridanes had heard enough. Shouting his battle-cry, Valun set upon the three shocked guards. However, the Valkyries had jumped faster, so that Valun nearly crossed blades with his own guards before coming to his senses. Sheathing his swords he cried “The passage!” and leapt toward the secret opening, which was slowly but steadily closing once more. In a moment, Valun, the guide, and one of the guards had leapt upon the platform and were being carried toward the opposite wall of the hidden landing. As if the sudden shock had upset a delicate balance, the platform began to slide even faster, as the five men watched helplessly.
With a jerk, the platform stopped sliding. Valun and his companions felt their knees buckle under them and they fell on their faces on the platform. After recovering his breath, Valun discovered first that the passage had been lit with fresh torches and second that the wall behind them was closed. It seemed they were sealed within the wall.
Trusting that the men outside would search for the way to open the platform from there, Valun turned to the stairway which opened up beneath him. Without preamble, he started down the steps while his men snatched torches with which to light the way. The three men continued down the long, winding, stairway for several minutes, hearing no sound but their own feet thumping on each new step. At long last, they reached the bottom only to see another long passage open before them. More agitated than ever before now that he was so close to his goal, Valun began to run down the corridor, his companions struggling to keep pace.
“No! Bring not the light so close! Have you no respect for an old man? But then, there is no respect in this stinking hole. Only bring me Valun and I will be content.”
Abruptly stopping his sprint, Valun cried with all the excitement of a ten-year old child on Christmas Day, “Father, it is I! Your son Valun has come for you! I will bring you home, so that you may rule our people for all the long years that were taken from you!” Turning sharply, he drew his sword and dashed straight toward the cell wherefrom the ancient voice had come. In one blow, he severed the chain restraining the door, after which he wrenched the same wide open and hurried to kneel by the side of the old man, openly weeping with joy at having found the king alive. And it is there that we shall, for the moment, leave the past and future king of Corridane.