Two days later, Richard reached the main gates of the capital city of Ronaiera, Varaskel. On the far side of the drawbridge, he dismounted and led his steed forward. When the gatekeepers blocked his path, he said “I come with tidings from Valun of Corridane, and with words for Railon of Gairbairia, who is said to be residing here. My message is urgent. I must pass. I am an emissary.”
“The lord of Gairbairia resides in the castle as a guest of king Elmbran. It is hoped that your tidings are good.” So saying, the guards let Richard pass without further incident.
Word spread swiftly that a tall rider in red from across the great river had come to speak to the king. Many rumors reached the gates of the palace, but none were correct. No one seemed willing to accept that the rider was simply a man who wanted answers to certain questions from the men who could best answer them.
At the guard’s order, Richard dismounted before the gate of the castle, yielding up his steed to a boy who came forward to take it away. As Richard approached them, the guards questioned him in the same manner as those who watched the city wall.
“Who do you say you are, and from whence do you come?”
“I am Richard mac Roland, lord of Longfurrow in the land of Corridane. I come seeking answers to questions that my lord wishes to hear.”
“Were you sent by your king?”
“No. I was sent by myself.”
“Then how do you know what are you required to discover?”
“That is a matter best left within the confidence my king places in me. The questions and the answers concern the seats of the kings, not the misplaced concern of the men who stand outside the walls.”
“You dare to speak so? Those placed before the gates are trusted to know what passes between them, else there is no passage!” Rising from their seats, the watchmen stood before the closed gate. By this time a curious crowd had begun to build up behind Richard, eager to know what the haughty stranger might want from the king himself.
Richard was unmoved. “Know you of the man called Railon the traveler, king of Gairbairia? I also bring word from his servant, the knight Dunstan, who, though he can not come himself, is desirous to know his lord’s mind concerning certain cumbersome decisions. If I may not pass, send a herald to inquire for me whether the kings will receive Richard mac Roland, knight of Corridane and herald of king Valun III of Corridane and the knight Dunstan of Gairbairia!”
“The lord Railon is known to be here. We will request your audience.” replied the humbled and seemingly contrite guards. Straightaway, they sent a page to the throne to deliver Richard’s message.
While standing by the gate, impatiently awaiting the return of the messenger, Richard became aware of the murmuring of the crowd. They seemed convinced that Valun had returned, had sent his champion to accept the redress of some grievance. Richard, knowing that the populace was striking close to the mark, refused to reply to the rumors, though he could not comprehend how people could be so quick to decide there was strife between the thrones. After a space of mere minutes which felt an hour, the boy returned, with the message that his majesty recalled the name of the messenger, and that both the kings now waited to receive him.
Following obediently after the messenger, Richard was soon shown into a long hall which had been cleared of the long tables which usually filled it. Lighted torches illuminated the whole room, for what windows there were were narrow, and most were colored. There was a fireplace set in the center of each wall not containing the door. Directly opposite the doors, over the great fireplace behind the dais, hung the banner of the kingdom, a coasting eagle on a sky-blue field. To the left of this banner, which had been the emblem of the king Ronairera, and so was never removed, hung the banner of the house of the current king, Elmbran. He displayed a dove on a red field, above a wide golden stripe, which was above an armored hand grasping an upright sword on a blue field.
Having taken all these details in, Richard turned his gaze upon the people waiting to speak to him, who were in their turn studying the formidable warrior, who with his long, fiery, hair, imposing stature, and evident air of command, had just come in. Of the parties studying the Corridane general, the kings decided that they had hard questions ahead, the prince became apprehensive, but remained hopeful. And the Princess tried to avoid showing any reaction at all.
One look at the dais told Richard exactly who was who. The two kings sat in solid oak chairs in the center of the space. Railon was on Elmbran’s left, and on the Ronaieran’s right sat prince John, arrayed in royal finery. On Railon’s left sat his brother-daughter, the mysterious princess who had, willingly or not, a hand in the trouble which had brought the Corridane noble to the hall of the Ronaierian monarch. Such a confluence of the nations had not occurred in many a year, perhaps not since the three nephews of the king Indrik had divided the known world between themselves to preclude family quarrels.
Sensing no need to show deference to anyone, Richard simply stopped at the foot of the steps and said “To the present majesties, I would like to say that I rather believed this meeting would be held on level ground, as I come a messenger of a king myself.”
Elmbran replied “It is the duty of a guest, emissary or no, to accept that which his host gives, without complaint.” A snap of the king’s fingers brought a chair for the guest, and he continued “To what must we ascribe your presence in my hall?”
Gesturing at John and the Princess, Richard answered sharply “I am afraid, your lordship, that the matter concerns…them.”
“They are here because they are aware that the matter concerns them. They are perfectly capable of hearing the…complaints which you, or as you say, your king, insists on bringing before me. Where is your king that he is unable to bring the matter himself?”
“In Brandia, retrieving his old father.”
“Perhaps you should tell us why there is any strife at all between the crowns of Ronaiera and Corridane.” Elmbran’s stern expression did not lighten. In fact, it darkened again, while John began to let his apprehension show. The Gairbairians, not being party to the question, were unmoved.
Richard had by this time seated himself in the tall chair brought to him. “The tale is long, and your guest is hungry. May he not eat and drink?”
Elmbran appeared mortified that anyone would enter his court hungry. “Bring food for all.” he snapped at the guards. “And now, sir knight, say your piece quickly or be thrust from the hall. I will stand no more insolence.”
Rising again, Richard cried “John, do you deny that you kept this from us the whole time! Arrayed in finery like you are, and to see you beside the lord Elmbran as you are, one sees that you are no more a Corridane than you are a peasent! My eyes see before them a base deceiver and a traitor!”
Railon leapt up. “Sir knight, calm yourself and say what you have come to say. As yet you have said nothing but that the prince John is a liar, a claim for which has right to draw his blade against you. Speak your piece.” Having said his own piece, Railon resumed his seat.
Overcome with the tension, John stammered out “Richard, I did not remain there of my own will. If your life, or your family’s was at stake over the matter, would you not find a way into my brother’s court, or the lord Railon’s, or anyone else’s? I was threatened. I wished to remain alive.”
“To do what? What were you ordered to do? Will you condescend to answer that?”
“At kinifepoint, they made me swear to do what I could to subvert your king and cast him down, perhaps even to kill him! And I hate it! Even if you refuse to believe me, I will say that regret that oath from the depths of my heart, that if I could find the perpetrators, I would execute them myself! I hate it! For I had become friends with you and the lord Valun. At that age, all those miles away from my oppressors, I hoped I would have peace. But when I came of age, I remembered.”
Surprised by this confession, Richard asked, civilly “Why did they make you say this? Who were these men? You tell me, and so help me we will hunt them together.”
“They were men of Naibern. They wanted your king gone because it was there that the sword of Kalveston would strike hardest.”
“Who is this Kalveston?”
“Evidently the ruler of the hordes which have ravaged both our lands.” interjected Railon.
Richard indicated that he desired to leave, but Elmbran stopped him. “I know you would say that you should rather be back where you came from. But what use is it? By your presence here, you show that either you have beaten off the attack, or else it has yet to come. Whichever is true, it remains that you are too far away to do anything about a second attack, if it is in the air at all.”
“But I have no further purpose here. It is no longer a question of whether your brother stole my lord’s promised queen, a circumstance I still do not understand myself, but a question of how long my lord will live before some fanatic fulfills his oath. For surely they were prepared lest your brother failed?”
“I do not remember.” John replied. “I would like to return to my chambers.”
“And what will you do there, stab yourself? And leave us to find you later and wail over the end of our line? You must stay.”
“Ye lords” Richard cut in “Our path is clear. All of us here assembled have dire grievances against the crown to the South. We must, with all speed, march on Naibern.”