Valun rose from his position leaning on the shoulder of his father, mopping his face with only his forearm. As he did so, the antique prisoner who was all that remained of Valun II, the architect of the most lasting peace the lands had yet seen, croaked out “Is not Valnor with you? They took him away from me. I know not what has come of him.”
In response to this, the erstwhile prisoner of war whom Valun had taken as his guide across the country stepped forth and cast off his hood. “I am here, father. I was conscripted into the black forces and made to fight our subjects, which I shall everlastingly regret. In the end, my brother had me captured and brought to his tent. After a time, he guessed who I was, and we returned.”
This revelation took Valun completely aback. “Valnor! I had not thought…Surely, I guessed it, but it was beyond reason to think the man might be you! I saw no more than a desperate man, who with his desperation, intrigued me.” Without further words, there was another joyful reunion, now that the two brothers could recognize each other fully once more.
The business of reuniting completed, the rulers of Corridane turned to the business of escaping. Valun, as the recognized king, and the strongest of them, immediately took charge. “Father, have you strength left in your legs to make the journey up the stairs? We can do no more until you reach the landing. Did the guards leave food, and did you eat of it?”
“What could I do? It was the only stuff I had to keep myself alive until you came.”
“Then we must hope, and pray to the One that it was not poisoned. Man, run back up and do your utmost to open the passage. We must return to true air as quickly as we may.”
Nodding acknowledgement, the guardsman turned and could be heard pounding up the stairs. As he did so, Valun and the prince turned to lifting the old king off of the slat he lay on. Each taking an arm, they heaved. In one swift jerk, they had brought the old man up, for they were still strong, and he was greatly weakened by his long imprisonment. Immediately, they started up the stairway, taking each step as if it might trigger some hidden response.
When they had at last reached the landing, they found the guardsman leaning against the far wall, breathing heavily. “I am sorry, my lords. I could not shift it.”
Gently breaking his father’s hold on his shoulders and lowering down to rest, Valun replied “Three men came out. Perhaps it would take all three of us to release ourselves. Have you still strength for the task?”
Mopping his brow, the man replied “Enough to push, with my lords’ aid.” So the three men arrayed themselves against the wall, Valun in the center. Then they leaned all their weight against the block of stone, and suddenly felt that it was moving. It slid only a foot farther before it stopped, and then suddenly jerked forward.
As soon as the platform had come to a stop for a second time, leaving it extended several feet out into the room, the guard who had been on it leapt down to aid his comrades, who had evidently been pulling the rope, but now were now sitting awkwardly on the floor. “All is well” he said “But you will want to rise sooner than that.”
Then Valun emerged from behind the wall. “Behold your king.” The king’s guardsmen understood his manner well enough to know that he was probably not referring to himself, but they nevertheless saluted him abruptly. However, when he had helped the frail old man whom he had referred to down to the floor, the men positively abased themselves before the recent prisoner, so grateful were they that he was alive yet.
After a moment, the men rose and one said “My lord, permit me to speak for your whole people in saying that we have never forgotten you and wished always for your return. If we may, my companions and I will arrange what we can for that return.”
“Go as swiftly as you are able.” replied the elder king. “We will follow as swiftly as we may.”
While walking down the corridor at their own sedate pace, Valun took the opportunity to inquire into the truth of the circumstances he had waited so long to understand. “Why were you imprisoned at all? Did they claim even a false charge?”
Their father was still weak, so Valnor answered his brother. “They, meaning those officers who could be bought by the chancellor, claimed they had heard that father was bargaining with king Meltran to get me named the successor to the Brandian throne, for their king is childless. Not two days after we arrived, we were locked into the prison and Meltran and all the true-hearted officers were thrust out. It was not until you demanded our release that they placed us in the secret row.”
Nothing more was said until they reached the doors of the prison. There they found the three guardsmen holding the horses the party had arrived on. Whipping the cape off his back, Valun gave it to the guards to suspend between the spearshafts they had contrived to attach to the saddles of two of the beasts. One of these was Valun’s own steed, Ironheel, while the other had belonged to the dead guardsman and would now be taken by Valnor.
The stretcher having been arranged, the brothers brought their father over to it and let him lay down. When he straightened up again, Valun reminded the men “You must bring your comrade. It would be a violation of our duty to leave him unburied.” Pulling some coins out of his purse, Valun added “Valnor, ask those two men over there to do this for us.” Valnor having stepped aside and the guardsmen having reentered the building to retrieve their comrade and his effects, Valun was left alone with his father. “Father, is there any more that may be done for you now?”
Still sprawled upon the cloak, and with his eyes firmly closed, the old statesman replied “You must bind my eyes. I dare not yet look at the light of the sun.”
Tearing one of his sleeves and tying it over the peacemaker’s eyes, Valun said “But surely they did not leave you in complete darkness? There were torches on the stairway?”
“True daylight, my son, is greater than any torchlight, and so should not be taken lightly.”
“Why have we not started yet?”
“We are retrieving one of the men, who died in the attack.”
“How many came with you?”
“Only Valnor and the four of my sworn guard.”
“At least it was so few.”
“No, father, an army came with me.”
The answer made a child out of the tallest king the west had ever seen. “You should not have done so.” the father pronounced in his sternest tone.
“But father, I gave them leave to go back. They came for you!”
“I do not approve…but, I know, it has been done, and many men died. For me, you say. For them, I hope to see Corrandion again.”
By this time, Valnor had exhausted all words for the Brandians, and had returned to stand over the kings. “Father, I think Valun means to renounce the crown and return you to the throne, since you live.”
The three guardsmen returned from their quest in time to hear the peacemaker pronounce “I refuse. My time has passed, and I name Valun III, my son, true king of the Corridanes until he dies. Will you Valun, wear the Aquilla Rona in honor, justice, and humility, as I strived to do?”
Valun found himself struggling not to weep again as he answered “I accept, and I will strive to do as you have asked. Will you forgive the invasion, father?”
“I forgive it. Never has a son shown such devotion to his father, that I have heard tell of. I name you Valun, invito rex, mac dilis.” With that, Valun II, conditor diu pacem, passed into sleep.
The guardsmen balanced the body on the spare horse, along with his blade and shield, and started the horses down the streets as softly as they could go. The two Brandians Valnor had paid followed silently after the royal party. They had no interest in the proceedings which had passed, but they had been paid, and so they followed.
They buried the guardsman under a tree about one hundred yards beyond the walls of Bernola. When this duty had been done, the Corridanes mounted their horses and started off down the road which would lead back to the edge of the great canyon. The Brandian undertakers left without speaking. The royal brothers rode at a walk to avoid jostling their father, who still slept peacefully. The three guardsmen rode on their flanks to warn of surprise attacks by rouge bands of Damerson’s troops. Thus did a whole day pass until the sun set.
In the afternoon of the second day out, they encountered a band of outlaws in the middle of the road, who had Meltran at their head. Halting his own party with a gesture, Meltran greeted the Corridanes. “Hail, Valun, king of the Corridanes.” In this manner he at once acknowledged both the old and the young man. Continuing, he said “Who is this you have got with you? I know you had a prisoner. I did not know prisoners were held in such high regard by their captors. Why, to see this, I might have myself captured!” At this statement the king and his whole band laughed heartily.
“Honorable king of the Brandians” Valun answered “My prisoner proved to be my own brother, and my father is alive, so our house is happily reunited. I am now the true king of the Corridanes in fact as well as name, and because of my hesitation, my father has named me invito rex, the reluctant king. If you make haste, you can replace yourself on your throne before the forces of your enemy return.”
“I thank you for your help, but I know that. I have been keeping close watch on him since he fled. Your own men turned back toward your home the moment you rode off.”
“That, too, is good news. I will not hold you any longer, as I wish to bring my father back to his own people as quickly as I may.”
“Then go, but for one thing. This road leads to the edge of the great canyon, but the path across it is hard to find. Eldarn! See the kings across the canyon, and then hasten back to me at Bernola! I will wish for your presence there when I am crowned again.”
Saluting, Eldarn detached himself from Meltran’s band and took his place at the head of the Corridanes.
At the parting, Meltran informed the Corridanes “The great canyon is at least three days in front of you. Perhaps more if you continue at no more than a walk. In any case, you can not hope to reach your capital in less than two weeks.”
Finally taking their leave of the Brandian, the Corridanes continued on their path, led by Eldarn, for several days, until they reached the edge of the great canyon, where the decisive and only battle had been fought. Here they paused for a time, for the Peacemaker wished to commemorate the deaths of so many fine men who had come for his sake. At each mound, of which there were hundreds, he stopped and said quietly “May the One accept your sacrifice.” as steadily as if he had said it only once. When he had finished visiting every mound, he turned to his sons, who stood beside him on either side, and said “This meeting has replenished my strength, but I still fear that I have lost too much. Let us hasten back so that I may greet my people that still live.”
Accepting the weight his father laid upon him, Valun asked “You do not think the faster speed will tire you overmuch?”
“No, my son. As I am now, I believe I will be allowed to see Corrandion again, at least. Beyond that, however, my time runs short. I am an old man, made older by the Brandian’s barbarous cruelty. May he live to repent, though he will not if Meltran has any say in the matter.” Allowing himself a dry laugh, the old man continued in silence.
They then turned back, and returned to the horses, which Eldarn had been watching for them. As soon as they regained their seats, they started off again, still following Eldarn, who had consented to guide them through the forest before at last taking his leave of the Corridanes. As there were only five horses this time, rather than thousands of men on foot, the journey passed much faster than it had the previous time. At the far edge of the forest, Eldarn parted from them, and before long had disappeared into the trees.
Now the Corridanes set their horses into a trot, determined to reach the foothills of the mountains before night fell. As they rode, the stretcher carrying the old king began to creak under the strain of the swifter motion. A whole hour passed before anything came of it, at the end of which both the staffs broke with loud snaps, leaving its passenger clinging tightly to Valun’s saddle. Checking his speed for one brief moment, Valun pulled his father up behind him. “Hold tightly” he whispered “Now we shall ride.”
Valun then gave his horse its head, and in response it sped off toward the open road ahead of the leading guardsman. The thrill of the speed came as a surprise to both riders, even though they had both been expecting it. Their reaction to the stimulation was to laugh. Long, loud laughter such as had not been heard anywhere since the menace of Kalveston’s hordes had descended upon the land.
It began as a response to the stimulation of the horse’s speed, but it soon changed course, to become a replacement for all the words both men had previously wished to say to each other, in a feeble attempt to reclaim the lost years. All the apprehension, all the questions, all was washed away in this one wave of the uncontrolled mirth of the father and son. They were together, they were both alive, and they were speeding home as fast as the horse could bear them. Crowned heads or no, they would have been perfectly happy as they were.
And so we shall once again leave the Corridanes, three hours ride from the foothills of the mountains, three days ride from home, and yet perfectly satisfied.