The men Valun had left behind at the capital had not been idle. The three avengers met daily before Valnor, determining what they would have to do to reach the enemy and what they would do then.
On the last day, they had all convened at the hall for the last time before riding off. Richard stood over a map which he had requisitioned from the archives. “His capital lies far off our roads. It will take us two weeks or more to reach him where he is.”
Railon stood, ready to speak. “What if we do not find him there?”
“Then we will get out of that place as soon as we are able. We are not risking everything to rid the land of Naibern wall sentries.”
John raised a hand to point at the island positioned in the middle of the great lake. “We should meet there. If we must, we may enlist the help of the prince Miran.”
“He is a cripple.” Railon objected. “How could he help us in this?”
John laughed at Railon’s indignation. “I daresay he would like a chance to prove you mistaken on that score. He lives alone. Surely he must be able to work.”
They all settled down again as servants brought them hot food. Valnor, seated across the hall in the regent’s chair, dined alone.
Over the venison, Richard pronounced “We ought to have ridden long before this, ye lords. How shall we go about it? Shall we degrade ourselves or not?”
The other two nodded in acceptance of the plan. “It is settled, because we will have to fight to the death anyway. But we are some of the great blades of the lands.”
“It is settled.” Richard agreed. “And when we are dead, we shall walk to the coast, where the Carribeasans will be looking for us. So you see we can not fail to escape.”
This statement made all three men laugh quietly into their beer. When they were able to speak again, Richard added “Mark my words, I did send for a boat from the city to rescue us when our mission is done.”
Railon let his tankard fall without minding it. “I mark your words. Shall we ride? Time grows short.”
Rising to acknowledge Valnor, Richard then hailed another servant. “The lords’ steeds, and mine, quickly! We have business in the south!” Still standing, Richard concluded “We may yet rest awhile. They will inform us when our mounts are at the door.”
Only a quarter of an hour had passed since this statement that it was announced that the horses were furnished and prepared for the journey. The lords then departed the hall and rejoined their faithful steeds. Richard rode a great red which he had brought from Ronaieria. Railon rode a smaller gray he had found in the wilds to the east, and John was riding a feisty brown he had claimed from his brother’s stables.
They trotted out toward the remainder of the south wall, where three men stood watch to warn of another attack. Richard hailed them as he went by “Tell the king we have gone to avenge our families. We will hasten back to feast at his side again! Long live the king! Valunaria!”
The guards saluted and repeated the battle-cry, adding “The One grant you victory and peace, lords! We watch for your return!”
Richard, John, and Railon then found the road which led toward the south border and settled into a smooth trot that would not be broken for hours. They spoke little, for everything had been said on the previous ride from Ronaiera. They rode long by day and rested by night, for not even Richard knew the road, as his land was many miles to the north and east of it. After a week of nothing more than perfunctory acknowledgement of the others’ presence, they began to relate the legends of their homelands around the campfire, and by day both Richard and Railon would spar often with John, who admitted that he was not possessed of great skill with the sword.
By the end of the week they were deep in unknown Naibern territory, so that they rode more slowly and were always on the lookout for individuals or pairs that they could capture and pressure into bringing them to the capital safely. They had checked and brought with them old trading maps that marked the location of the Naibern capital as being somewhat nearer Railon’s side of the great lake.
After some time riding straight through the wild, they came across a road which was obviously heavily used. In the distance behind them it appeared to be an extension of the road they had followed out of Corridane, which they now knew to have been built in their tracks by soldiers Damrod had ordered to his side to “keep order”.
Another three days passed before they reached the city, but when they did, they knew what they were looking at. They approached the walls cautiously, watching for the sentries they expected to see there out of habit. Throwing their cloaks tightly about them, stood some two hundred yards away from the walls, trying to watch the sentries pass.
Railon took charge, being the most experienced. “Now, how are we going to do this? We have no bows and no way of scaling those walls.”
John was studying the gates, trying to decide whether they would be simple to force through or not. “We are not here to follow all the rules. We should move up after dark and break the gate.”
“And have every man in the city on us in a moment?” scoffed Richard “I say we simply hail the guard and give him the password.”
His companions turned to him, astonished. “Hail the guard and give him the password? Are you suddenly desperate to die?”
“Well, I am going to try it. See what happens. Think who we are dealing with; an emperor who clearly thinks the rest of us can not live on our own. Remember Goman and Berunthia.”
Clapping his helmet firmly on his head and gripping his blade with renewed urgency, Richard moved out into the open, every muscle tensed in preparation to leap out of the way of a missile. When he had walked twenty yards he stopped and shouted “Halloo! Guard yonder!”
In the distance, a head appeared between two ramparts. “Man down there! Tell the password or I’ll skewer you with this arrow where you stand!”
“Hail Kalveston! One world, one Naibern!” Richard promptly dove to the side as the others called “He’s gone.”
Springing to his feet once more, Richard replied “Than we shall have to move swiftly, if we want to reach our goal!” At the same moment, all three knights broke into a run. At the wall, they leaned against it, facing outwards with blades drawn. Then they held their breath until they heard the sound of the doors beginning to open.
On the instant, they sprang out from the wall and ran straight toward the widening opening. There were six armed men opening the gate, with two standing as lookouts. Richard and Railon charged the lookouts first and knocked them to the ground, slain. Then Railon went to John’s aid while Richard attacked three on his own. Knocking one aside with a shoulder, he caught a blade on his own and released one hand from his hilt to grab the sword wrist of the third, holding the man’s arm in the air while he fought the other. By this time, the third man was up again and was attacking Richard’s free arm. In the cramped quarters, the blows were not strong, so Richard simply released the arm he held and ducked out of the way, point forward into the man in front. While that one died, the others grew tangled with each other. Though they disengaged quickly, Railon arrived then from the other side to finish them off.
The three invaders reconvened in the center of the space, cleaning their blades with strips from their enemies’ jerkins.
“We should not have to do that again.”
“But we shall have to if we are to defeat the emperor. No doubt he has huge numbers at his call.” Railon remarked, pausing to bind a wound he had received in the fight.
“The one to reach him gains a fine cask of wine and the seat of honor. Do you accept?”
The three men shook hands and then began jogging off down the nearest street, side by side. The people they met seemed horrified by their appearance, scurrying away as if they hoped they would not be spotted, but the three northmen did not slow their pace to discover the reason. Their whole intent was to reach the castle.
They could tell that they would soon reach the castle when they began meeting bands of guards with increasing frequency. These patrols were always larger than their own group, so even as the invaders greater skill always won out in the end, the great numbers they faced soon began to draw more northern blood than could be spared. The champions left the corpses behind in the streets, always more lightly dressed than they had been in life.
They finally rested in a deserted doorway off a side street and refreshed themselves with the provisions which had been issued to their late antagonists. All three had scavenged heavy Naibern shields at some time or another, but only Railon had kept his. Consequently, he was wearing fewer scraps than the others.
Richard flexed a sore knee that had developed in the course of the brutal street fighting. “How many more of these ghostmen must we push through? They go down so easily, but there are two many of them! We will not live out the day like this!”
John unwrapped an arm to examine its progress. “That, coming from the man who spent his life carrying a sword, like you did, is much in the way of defeat.”
From his position astride the doorway, where he was watching the street, Railon said “We are too recognizable now. Every man in the city knows we have each killed twenty of the emperor’s troops. We will not escape. I say we rest right here and push on tomorrow. They know we are headed for the castle. They know we are dangerous. I think they will fall back to defend the gates. When we do not come to meet them, they will doubt.”
The younger two were not in a condition to argue the point, so they all went off to find spots in the house to sleep across the doorways.
They rose early the following morning and met before venturing out to reassess their prospects. Not one had lost any sleep to the hard wood floors, as their previous exertion had rendered them incapable of remaining conscious long enough to notice anything.
Their blades sharpened, they left the shelter, Railon and his heavy shield taking the lead. With a glance, they were able to determine their path by spotting the towers of the castle. In marked contrast to the hard fighting of the previous day, they met no one on the streets.
“Perhaps their emperor has ordered them not to face us.”
“Perhaps he has laid some trap. I do not like this silence. They say it is always most quiet before the storm.”
“A mass of men like those we have left in our wake, a storm?”
“You must be silent. A loose tongue can get you slain faster than an arrow.”
John, sufficiently chided, fell silent. They had now passed through three streets and expected to come under attack at any moment. However, nothing happened until they had come up right upon the palace steps. There they were met by at least a score of heavily armed Naiberns.
The northmen were not at all surprised by the positioning of so many enemies. What astonished them was that, upon the sight of them, every one of the defenders hurried inside. The door closed behind them.
At that, the self-styled avengers huddled together on the steps which had just been vacated.
“It is a trap. Most certainly it is a trap. So many together ought to have attacked us.”
“But we are beholden to the memories to go on. Would you fail your brother? Your father? I myself have a whole family to avenge. I must go in.”
“I must go with you. Our honor would be stained if we did not go in. If we die, we die in honor. If we live, we are the greatest heroes of the age. Does Gairbairia stand with us?”
“I never dreamed my days would end in such a fashion, but I will stand with you, for if we fail now, this emperor will besiege us and sack our cities until none our left who can claim to be free of him. Gairbairia stands with you.”
As the three knights locked blades in solidarity, Richard remarked “To the death be it. You know he will shut the doors behind us. Our people will never find our remains. May they live in peace till the end.”
Swords drawn, they put their shoulders to the door and shoved. They were met by a solitary man in ceremonial gear. He wore no armor, but held a drawn blade in his right hand. His scar stood out vibrantly as he said “Yes. I know. You’ve come to kill me. Which of you is man enough to try me first, or are you deciding to break all the rules and go as one? You should. You might actually succeed that way. Be quick. I do not wait for lower men like you to make up your own minds. I do that for you.”
Shocked by the man’s coolness, the companions stood rooted in place, wavering.
“You have not chosen. I, Kalveston, master of men, victor of a score of battles before you were grown. I who choose my destiny and choose to command the world, declare you dead men.”
As if on cue, all the doors sprang open, emitting numbers of soldiers greater than that which had retreated inside. There was no time for another word. The wounded northern warriors were hard pressed for their lives the moment the soldiers appeared.
While the battle went on, Kalveston stood as a spectator for a few minutes, but then, seeing that the “dead men” were not falling under the great odds, disappeared through a side door.
The three men went on hacking at and skewering at the Naiberns for such a time that it felt like the whole world had been consolidated into a wall of malevolent animated statues. In very little time, moments had stretched into the proverbial hours. On a whim, Richard shouted his battlecry, just to prove that he was alive. The calls of Ronaiera and Gairbairia soon followed, telling Richard that his companions had understood his meaning. In the small room, the warcries reverberated off the walls, pounding in their ears.
Richard decided to push his way toward John, knowing that the younger man could not match the skill of himself and the desert king, and could have already received a mortal wound. The Corridane pushed his way to the prince’s side by strength alone, and was relieved to find that the Ronair had managed to place his back to the wall, though he was already bleeding.
“How much longer can you fight?”
“Are you jesting? Until I die! Until you die! Until Kalveston dies! No more speech until we are drinking his wine!”
Placing himself alongside John, Richard replied “Agreed!”
Not long afterwards, the world began to change. John and Richard both, much to their dismay, were using captured Naibern blades, those of their fathers having snapped on the attack of some Naibern plate. Suddenly, a new sound came into the fray; that of arrows in flight. The knights glanced at each other but did not speak. At once, they swept up heavy shields which lay nearby alongside their dead owners, even though they had given up on the cumbersome gear when they had far more strength to spare.
But to their astonishment, the arrows they heard did not fall anywhere nearby. They came but infrequently and then seemed to land in the backs of the attacking Naiberns. Several more minutes passed and the darts persisted in downing their enemies. Finally, there were so few of the Naiberns left that Richard and John were able to push forward and eliminate all but three of the defenders. When this was done, they sagged to the floor, watching in astonishment as three arrows appeared from nowhere in quick succession to slay their would-be killers.
With the last of the Naiberns dead, Richard and John were finally able to catch sight once more of Railon the traveler, king of Gairbairia, who lay dying in the field.
The two survivors dragged themselves to his side when he called their names. Tired as they were, they spoke loudly to him.
“It is over. We have won.”
“If you must go, rest in peace, brother lord. You have done a great deed here. We can not count how many we have sent before you.”
“Than I have done it. I have avenged my brother, my people. What of the emperor?”
“We did not see him.”
“I must go. I must go to the island, see my brother-son, and call him king. It is right.”
At these words, a cloaked figure carrying a bow and an empty quiver, who appeared to be hunched forward and wore boots of soft skin, hobbled forward. The hood was thrown back to reveal a young man already scarred with years of endurance.
“Uncle! Do not pass on yet! I am here! I have done what I could but it seems I came too late. For that I grieve. Speak, uncle!”
Railon was too weak by now to care how his nephew the prince came to be there at his side. He simply lifted his hand and said with his last breath “Rise Miran the long-suffering.” His arm fell and he died. Miran closed the eyes and then rose to go.
“I am sorry I can not help you further, but I am defenceless and must return to hiding. May the One keep you.”
Almost as soon as Miran had disappeared, Kalveston returned through his own door. He still was not wearing armor.
“Young fools. So you managed to kill them all? But you lost one. The “Traveler”, I see. He gave me months of trouble in the East. If he wasn’t so determined to kill me I would have gotten him to join me. He has gotten his pay.” While he spoke, Richard had risen again, calling on stores of strength he had not known existed. “Are you ready to die too?” Kalveston scoffed. “Well then, on guard.”
John sat and watched as a duel between two masters began.
After a two minutes, Kalveston began talking again. “I saw your father die.”
“He probably spat in your face.”
“Come now, do you think I would parade myself before a dead man? There is no glory in a death, except my own.”
“I knew it was you who ordered my house burnt.”
“Your father did not have the sense of a mule. He could not see that all resistance is futile. Kalveston rules all. Kalveston outlasts all. All returns to him.”
Richard did not answer this and the duel continued. After some minutes of furious blows, Richard’s weak leg buckled, causing to fall to one knee. In response, Kalveston dropped his own weapon and grabbed Richard’s wrists, slowly turning the blade until the Corridane was forced to stab himself.
When Richard was beyond hope, Kalveston released his grip and remarked “Your father died the same way. Everyone who angers Kalveston does.”
Though he felt his life failing, Richard saw a last chance to finish his task. Snatching up Kalveston’s blade, which the emperor had neglected to kick aside, he dug the point in his enemy and cried “John! Help me!” John immediately leapt up and hurried over, snatching the wrists of the shocked emperor and wrapped them around the hilt. Thus the two knights finished Kalveston, who commanded his own destiny.
“Die I will, but you shall go with me. I take pride in dying as my father did. Long live invito rex! Long peace to the people of Naibern!” With these words, Richard collapsed and died. John finished the grisly task and then found himself waiting in room of death for Miran to return.