Three days later, Valun invito rex and his father looked upon their homeland once again. By this time, the elder king had removed the binding around his eyes, and so he was able to follow his son’s direction as the king asked “There is our home, father. Is it not beautiful?”
“Yes. At last I see my home, and yet I care not for it. It is the people I want to see, and the people are in the cities. Take the straight road to the capital, and do not tarry on the way.”
So it was that the party began the last leg of their journey, meeting the road where it came up to join the mountains, and from there riding as swiftly as they were able to reach Corrandion.
When they reached the edge of the city, they were astonished at being greeted by nothing more than vast piles of rubble. Nothing whatever had been done about the destruction of the walls since Richard had ridden away. Passing the remains of the gatehouse, which had straddled the road by which they had returned, they saw that vast swaths of the city itself had also been laid low.
“Who could have done this?” Valun thought aloud “It seems that Robert will have much to answer for.”
One of the guards rode up then, wishing to calm his lord’s mind if he could. “My lord, if I may say so, do not lay the blame too heavily on one man. The signs show that a vast army trampled this ground. Do not disregard that such destruction as we have seen could not have been accomplished simply by neglect.”
“I will see the man himself to hear what he would tell me. But now, as we are safe, go from us and spread out into the city, making known that the kings have returned and will see their people on the steps of the palace.”
Saluting, the guards separated, each taking a different road away from that which they had been on. As Valun and his father continued forward, they could hear the guards moving steadily further away, loudly proclaiming “The people shall come to the palace!” The kings, and the prince Valnor who had remained with them rode unhindered until they reached the gates of the palace.
Acting as herald, Valnor rode forward and cried “Open the gates for your king, Valun conditor diu pacem and his son, Valun mac dilis, wish to enter their hall!” A few moments passed before James Longfurrow, who had stationed himself in the gatehouse, projected his voice out toward them.
“Good day, my lords! I would be out to greet you sooner, but my companions are both dead drunk. Discipline has gone to the wind since my brother left. If you will pardon me, I will inform the Trondale of your safe return and fetch some water. I am terribly sorry for such a greeting.”
James’s greeting was made so apologetically that the royalty he spoke to could not resist laughing at the absurdity of it. Speaking for the kings once more, Valnor replied “It is nothing, boy. You need not scrape the floor. You need only do as you have said as fast as you may. Go on now.”
When James had received the reply, he leapt up and hurried away. Everything he had said to the king was true; in the past week since Richard’s abrupt departure, the men, none of whom had ever been soldiers, but simply men carrying weapons who were loyal to their commander. With no commander to impress them, no one cared for strict discipline anymore, and so they had fallen into carousing to celebrate what victory they could claim.
On his way out of the gatehouse, James stepped over his fellow “watchers” with a look of self-righteous indignation. Dislodging the wooden bar that shut the doors, he muttered “Could have done just as well without you men. We’ll see if you get any glory for this. No doubt when you’re up you’ll be calling the whole city.”
There was actually a trough of water and a bucket nearby, so it did not take him long to retrieve the restorative he needed and then to throw it over the sleeping figures. They came awake with predictable grunts of resentment. “Look here! What’d you do that for? We don’t need no boy to put us out o’ that! We hain’t got no clothes but these here!”
“So you’ve lost your uniform already? No memory of the sword and anvil haunts your sodden heads? Look outside and tell me what you see, if you can. In case you can’t, that’s the king and his father you’re holding beyond their own gates. I would rectify your mistake, but I must rouse the Trondale.” Dodging the blow that was aimed at him, he sped off toward the inner castle.
At that time, Robert Trondale was still lying in a bed which had been assembled for him in a room on the ground floor of the castle, since the healers had decided that he would recover faster if he expended less of his strength. There were two attendants with him day and night, even though, with the stubbornness he had built along with his rocklike strength, he had decided two days ago that he did not require them. So he compelled the attendants to serve more often as runners who would inform him of the developments beyond the walls of the room. On this day, however, he had been asleep until just a short time ago, and so had not thought to send either of the men for news. Quickly, he decided what he wanted and made it known. “Send for my family. All of them. I have matters I wish to settle.”
“It shall be done.” One of the men left the room so silently that Robert hardly noticed the departure.
It was then that the tranquility of the room was shattered by the arrival of James, who had hurried there at his utmost speed and seemed to have been energized by the effort, rather than otherwise. “Lord Trondale, the king is at the gates!”
“The king is at the gates? Did you see him? Is he well or injured, and is he alone?”
“Yes, sir, I saw him. He appears well, and there are two men with him. One is very old and the other is perhaps younger than the king himself, sir.”
Upon hearing the answers to his inquires, Robert’s impulse was to leap up and run to the gate, but a sharp pain froze him and caused the remaining attendant to move to his side and pressure him back down. He insisted on protesting vigorously at this, however, shouting “I can not remain here! The king has come home and I must be there to see him! James, run to the gate. You will have to speak for
me.” concluded the furious knight, relaxing
when he saw that he was unable to force his way out at that time.
Nodding, James ran straight back out toward the courtyard again, from whence he could hear that the great gates were finally opening. By the time he arrived, the kings had crossed the threshold and were standing in the middle of the courtyard, as if they had suddenly remembered something important. As he drew close, James could hear the king say to the others “pater, frater. Nos ad principium. Sint rata et convertimini ad finem dolore magna felicitas, si in nobis. Sic loquor tamquam regi et ita dicam potero.”
The king had recited this proclamation as if he were standing in the temple. Out of respect for the king’s evident reverence for the moment, James froze where he stood, but four feet from them, and resolved to be unknown until they saw him themselves. He did not wait long. Almost immediately after the speech, which James had failed to understand one word of, the oldest man acknowledged his presence.
“And who is it who has come from our house to greet us, and why is he the only one?”
James guessed immediately that the man was the king’s father and chided himself for not realizing this immediately. Composing his face to show no reaction whatever, he bowed and replied “My lord, I am James, of the house of Longfurrow, brother to the king’s great friend of that name. I am afraid the castle is empty, save for the lord Trondale, who lies injured, and an attendant healer. My two companions of the gatehouse appear more concerned with their sleep.”
“You speak well, but why are there so few men at present?”
James turned to the king, who had spoken, and answered “Because we of the city weathered a great attack not long after you departed, my lord. Those who remain were ordered to begin rebuilding what was destroyed.”
“How many survived?”
“Only one thousand, my lord. With them, there are one thousand prisoners from the enemy whom my brother pardoned in your name and offered homes. Sixty-five men are from the lord Trondale’s command.”
The king shook his head slowly, seeming astonished at the numbers. “So few left? It is truly a return to the beginning.” He sighed heavily, as if he were adjusting a heavy load on his shoulders.
Then the prince, who had not spoken since entering, reminded the king “All is not lost, my brother. The towns and villages were not touched. Send men to call the people out. Remember what you have said.”
“It shall surely be as you say. And now, I wish to speak with Robert Trondale alone.”
Seeing that the king had taken control of the situation, the others with him actually stepped away to allow him to depart. James turned to watch his passage, thinking to himself that perhaps the old king, who had cried for their approval on the steps of the temple, was already gone, swept away in the flood of his lost people.
Valun was taken aback by the dim light of Robert’s room. He stood in the doorway, unnoticed, for a full minute before he spotted the attendant’s seat and commandeered it. Then he waited until they noticed his presence.
As the attendant was looking the other way, Robert was the first to react. He surged upward, defying the attendant’s futile restraint, as he cried “Look to your lord, man!”
The attendant shuffled back, ashamed, as he bowed toward Valun and said “My lord. It is joyfully that I recognize your return to us. It has been too long.”
Valun dismissed the attendant with a simple gesture. “You may go. I intend to speak to the Trondale alone. Go and see to the care of my father.” Even in the poor light, Valun could tell that real happiness had shown itself at the mention of his father. Would that venerable king’s word be enough, in the end, to make the people, or even he himself, accept that he was now, indisputably, the king of the Corridanes? Pulling away from his self-induced torments, Valun moved closer to the soldier in the bed.
“Can you explain yourself?”
Reaching back to deal with an itch he could barely reach, Robert asked tonelessly “Explain myself concerning what, my lord? Inflicting grievous injuries on myself because it was the alternative to death at the hands of a Naibernese giant? I would think I deserve some honor. No other man has survived jumping from the top of the city walls, have they?”
“And you were the first because…”
“Richard found me. Please call my attendant back. My back torments me.”
“Perhaps you should do it yourself, and call on the Longfurrow boy, if your throat has not also been injured?”
Sensing a challenge, Robert drew in his breath and bellowed the suggested name so loudly he would have been heard halfway across the battle of the great canyon, had he been there.
As James hurried in, Valun inquired of his captain “Do you know that Richard is not present?”
“I knew that. He told me himself he was going to hunt John, who rushed out the rear gate after the fight began.”
“Did you not have only two thousand men when I left? What occurred, that this should change?” Valun continued, guessing the answer as he spoke.
“At the critical point, when my men had nearly lost the walls, the Longfurrow and his whole force arrived to break the enemies’ rear. I have not seen what became of the city, because I have not stepped out of the castle in days. I know only that Richard won the battle.”
“You will live?”
“Since I have survived to see you return, I know that is likely, but those healers still insist that I should not yet rise. I regret that I may not greet you properly.”
Striding over to the bedside and extending his arm, Valun took the proffered, unpliable, wrist in his hand, even as Robert took his. Grasping this living steel beam in his own appreciably strong grip, Valun stood for a moment, then said “You who leapt four times your length to meet death. You who inspired men to stand against a horde, you who are master of your fate, it seems. The kingdom salutes you.”
Valun had never known Robert to show a true reaction in his life. But this time, he was, however mightily he struggled against it. Nearly choking on the words, Robert Trondale, that immovable pillar, gasped out “My lord… That is all I wished for… The One knows that I did not go seeking fame… but I still wished that fame would come to me, seek me out, so that my father would know… and my house would have honor… Is it wrong to wish that one be known, when one does as I have? But I did not want to stand over other men. I only wished to know that men would mark my passing.”
“You, my friend, are a great man. Upon my word, when the time for your passing comes, the people will know you.”
They released each other’s wrists. The king left the room, feeling strangely lighthearted and trailed by James. Robert sank back into his bed, relieved at having said his piece at last and now content. He was soon soundly asleep.