Valun rode for some time toward the north coast, where he knew Robert’s land was situated. Since he had ordered no one to come with him, he was in perfect solitude until he saw the smoke arising from the cottage the Trondales had lived in since the aftermath of the second rebellion against Damrod.
As soon as he caught sight of the smoke, Valun dismounted and began walking toward the house in no great hurry. He knew the owners could not have arrived very much sooner than he would himself, and he wanted to allow them time of their own. Several yards from the house, while he thought he was still obscured from the vision of the occupants, he removed the crown which had become a fixture on his head and stowed it in the pack he had brought with him. He also removed the saddle and the bridle from his steed and threw them to the ground. Then he patted the charger on the back, saying “Go rest yourself, but come when I call.” The horse immediately trotted off.
Valun then continued toward the house, but as the door opened, it became apparent that someone in the house had become aware of his arrival. He saw that Robert’s mother had come to the door and was waiting there for him to approach.
“You are welcome, my lord, but why do you come out to our house alone?”
“In truth, honorable lady, I was asked by your son himself, and I have come to find myself. May I enter?”
When he had voiced this question, the lady and the whole entourage of children behind her moved aside to allow him passage. But they were not silent. He was beset on all sides by questions of their own.
“Will Robert return soon?”
“Have you really come to stay with us?”
“What will happen now?”
Simply to allow himself more space, Valun moved past them all toward the back wall of the building, ducking his head as he did so, for he was of a height to touch the rafters with his crown. “I am afraid I can not answer you well. I wish to say only this now; tell me what is to be done and I will see it done.”
“But is it not your place to act thus for us?”
“I will do it. I have come to learn something. I know not what yet, but before I return to my seat I will know. Is this enough?”
“It seems you really intend to be at our call, my lord. Perhaps you will explain yourself later. For the time, there is an ax leaning on the back wall.”
On his way outside, Valun replied “I understand.”
Alone in their house, the Trondale’s children asked their mother “What is to be done?”
“Nothing is to be done, my children. Act as if your brother has come home again. That is what he wishes from us.”
“But we can not just do that! We can not forget who he is!”
The lady moved to sit at the table while her family gathered around. The muffled sound of a wood-cutter’s work could be heard in the pause. “It is true, children. I saw it in his eyes while he was here in the house. The king feels a great pain within himself. He wants us to help him move past it. That I see. Do not trouble him overmuch and do what he asks of you, even if he wants you to go back to the city for something. Now, boys, go see to his horse. Anne and I must prepare the food.”
The children acquiesced quietly and went about the appointed tasks. The youngest followed the boys outside to visit the great beast.
Only a few minutes more had passed before Valun returned carrying a large armload of stout logs. “Will this be enough?” The women did not answer him. They only waved toward a pile in the corner which was considerably diminished from its usual size. Valun deposited his load and stepped away slowly, savoring the enticing smell of the concoction in the stewpot. All at once, they suddenly jumped in surprise at the sound of the younger children laughing excitedly. The three grown people hurried to the door just in time to see the two boys fly past on the back of the horse, with their sister sprinting behind them.
The mother reasserted herself at once. “Boys! You must get down and come in now! I told to see to that beast, not dash around like madmen on its back!”
Valun, when he was able to relax the grin on his face, called to the horse “Come to!” This order caused the animal to slow itself gradually and walk toward Valun, its head lowered. The king stroked the horse softly on its snout as he chuckled “Good man, Iron, we can not resist the colts, though, can we? Are you tired?” The horse nickered appreciatively into its master’s arm as he continued rubbing it while the boys slid down. “Well then, if you boys won’t do it for me, I’ll settle my horse down myself, but I want you to come and watch. Someday, you will have your own chargers, and we can not have you running them ragged without knowing how to deal with the consequences.”
The boys glanced at their mother for approval, and, receiving it, hurried off after the horse.
After some time, the horse had been put away, the harvest had begun, and the two boys had been sent out again to bring the cows home. Valun, enjoying the liberty he was working under, joined them simply for the walk.
The cows were finally discovered about two hundred yards east from the cottage, on the opposite side of a rise which hid the house from the location of the manor. When Valun strayed too far to one side, one of the boys called out “Be careful, sir. Mother wouldn’t like it if you trod on the house.”
Valun stepped lightly in the opposite direction, back toward the track the boys were following. “That is your house?”
The one who had spoken to him slowed his pace to answer more easily. “Yes, sir. When we were young mother would remind us where the walls stood and told us never to walk there to honor our father.”
“Why? What became of your father?”
In the nonchalant way of a child several years his junior, the boy replied “He died.”
Valun resolved not to bring the subject before the family before it was thrust upon him again.
Two weeks passed, while Valun labored alongside his hosts, before anything had occurred that sparked his curiousity. One night, as they sat around the table eating in contented silence, Valun turned his gaze toward the fire that was the sole source of light in the room. As he watched the flames eat through the logs, and listened to its crackling, his eye was drawn to something he had failed to notice in all the days before. Leaping from the table so quickly he knocked his head against the rafters, Valun stepped over to examine the object. As he reached out to grasp it, he heard Anne cry out to stop him. “Please, leave it be. That is my father’s sword, and we would have it remain there until my brother comes to claim it himself.”
Valun let his hand fall and stepped back, moving aside so that he did not obstruct the fire. “Tell me the story.”
Robert’s mother seemed to sit straighter at this request. “Very well, but I can not speak to you back there.” Valun therefore returned to his seat as the lady continued “The boys have not heard the true story. It is too much, which has been waiting too long for the light.”
“I could not speak of it before, my children. But now, you shall hear the truth: Your father was murdered. Soldiers of the usurper came to take him away from us, why I don’t know. He slew some of them at the doors, but finally his sword broke and they beat him down until he knelt on his own doorstep while they chained him like a slave. Then, they left. One of our men followed to see what they would do, and told me later that he was executed in the square and his body later thrown into the sea. That is the truth.”
“Why did they do this?” Valun found as he said this that he was gripping the table as hard as he had ever held anything in his life. As he released his grip, the lady replied.
“Because your father knighted him and gave him this land. He called on his followers to destroy the enemy with him, but they were no match for the professional soldiers the usurper had brought up from the south. The Trondale’s rebellion, as the Longfurrow’s before, was crushed utterly and every man who had taken up arms was killed. It was, of course, the sons of these men whom you took north to fight your own battles. They may have followed you then, to complete what their fathers failed in, but what they want in their hearts is proof that the usurper and those who commanded him, if they live, are dead.”
Valun leapt up from his seat, shocking the others, ducking his head, he was out into the darkness in four long strides. “None of you is to follow him, children. We must allow him time. The pain I spoke of has returned to the fore. When next you see the king, he will be a changed man, I know it.”
When Valun had left the house behind him, he immediately turned toward the path which led down to the shore, which he had retreated to several times in the course of his time there. Digging his feet firmly into the damp sand at the edge of the tide, he yelled “Is this the meaning? Is this the answer I have been searching for? To leave, to step down, even to die? I am the king! Who is to do this if I do not?” Lowering his arms and his voice, the king fell on one knee, speaking to the surf. “It is so. As the people are my arm, so it falls to me to be their voice. When I am called to be the arm, so must they be the voice. To wield both is to be a tyrant. It is the price of a throne, and to cleanse the debt I must ride again.” This time, when he rose to his full height once more, his step was lighter than he had felt it to be in many a year. Finally he was free to dream, to laugh, to trust. Thus he rose toward the house and turned straight for the shed where his horse had been stabled. Speaking to the animal in soothing tones, he replaced the gear upon its back, led it out from the shed, pulled himself aboard, and with a cry, bounded off on the path to the capital.
Lady Evelyn and Anne, who had been sitting near the door awaiting the king’s return, smiled broadly at each other and stifled laughter at the shouting they heard as he rode away. Finally, the mother was able to say “We have all succeeded. He knows himself, is at peace. May the One help him spread it over the land.”