Three more strenuous days passed before the lords reached the camp of the refugees. In the last hours they were guided by the sound of difficult work being done, which they were not long in seeing the result of. In the passage of time, Dunstan, as the king’s regent, had taken it upon himself to start the building of the city that was to be Gaimaron in exile. The work the lords approached was some of the last that remained to be done.
As the nobles looked down upon the emerging city from their hilltop, they could see no sign of any commander; Dunstan was laboring alongside the men, knowing they would work the harder for the respect. Every man who had not been injured in some way was still working on some aspect of the arrangement which had not been yet finished. Some were laying out roadstones, others fortifying the grass roofs of buildings already completed. Only two men were not working who could, and those two were stationed toward the south, to alert the workers to a possible advance by the unvanquished enemy who had driven them away. Neither of them paid any notice to the direction from which the lords had come.
After admiring the hardihood of the workers for some moments, the lords spurred their horses down into the dell which was fast becoming a strong town. The road workers were the first to notice them, as they clattered down the cobblestones which had been laid only a few days before. As they passed, the workers rose in deference, but, unsure what to say, they said nothing.
When they had drawn level with the road workers, they stopped almost as one. Miran, raising his voice for a greater effect, asked “Where is the man they call Sir Dunstan?”
The man pointed mutely toward the last house which was still being built. Out from the mass around it had come a man who was distinguished only by the fact that he was smaller than many of those around him. Making a move to clean his hands a little before he spoke, he asked “Who calls for the presence of the king’s regent? I am a soldier of Gairbairia, empowered by the king, Railon called the Traveler, to act in his stead. My name is Dunstan Ralfson. My men call me the wraith. I ask what you want of me!”
By this time, every man was looking now at the lords, then at Dunstan. John and Valun exchanged wondering glances and then turned back toward Dunstan, who blinked once. After a suitable pause, Miran pronounced in his most regal tone “Dunstan Ralfson, strong sword of the desert kingdom, and honorable king’s regent, you are relieved of that duty. For the king has come among you again.” Here he paused. At a gesture, the closest worker stepped close enough to take the horse’s reins. Releasing the ropes, Miran reached behind himself and drew his unstrung longbow forward. Setting the open end on the ground, he slid down, then took a moment to steady himself with a palm to his steed’s flank. When he was ready, he stepped forward four paces in front of the horse. Resuming his regal tone, he announced “For I am the king, named by my uncle Railon as the long-suffering, called king by him before he died, first-born of Torlan, sent away by him before I knew why because, it seems, I could not walk. I forgive my father for his weakness. You see that I walk.” Beyond the solemnity of the moment, these short statements by the young, crippled, king in exile carried imponderable weight behind them. Without a word in response, the whole mass of men there, in all their various stages of filth from their hard labor, bowed their knees as one.
Miran, hobbling slowly, and leaning heavily on his strong bow, which he had formed so stiffly for that sole purpose, made his way toward Dunstan. A mere foot from the man he said again softly “The king has come among you.” and then “Go about your work. I shall not have a place greater than yours, but I shall take the one in center, and my banner shall be set in the ground before it, so that you will remember that I am king. In addition, you shall build a great hall, within which a hundred and more men may feast, and it shall have a great window, open toward the south, where our hearts lie. The door shall be toward the west, in honor to those who have aided us and to commemorate the late king Railon, who should be here but now lies in peace on the great isle of Miran. And in the east wall, of course, there shall be a great hearth to warm all those who come in. Only a smaller window shall there be to look toward our village here, for we will, before long years have passed, return to the desert and our true home. Our fathers made their lives out of it; are we weaker than they? We have been forced from our home, we have been driven to exile, but only in body. In our hearts, we are still sons of the desert, hardiest of men. Are we not?”
At these words a great cheer went up from the assembled mass. “Than it is settled” cried Miran “Build the hall as I have said, and count the months! In three years, we shall march back to our land, and with our sons, we shall build our home anew!”
For some time, the nobles watched as the men finally completed the last house of the town, which Miran then had the honor of naming Falnath Melanar, Hope and Memory. When this final formality was complete, the lords turned their steeds toward the capital, Varaskel. All who thought they could make the trip were invited to follow them, as their families still awaited them there. The rest would follow with Sir Dunstan as soon as they could.
The news of John’s leaving had surprised the people when it came, for he had been among them for no longer than a month, but had, in his actions, managed to endear himself to many of the people. Therefore, when a Gairbairian runner brought the news of the lords’ approach, people were lining the streets by the time the men in question had actually entered the city. Once again, Valun was relegated to the least of them as one of his companions came among their people again. He laughed a little to himself as he watched John accepting the people’s cheers. The man ahead of him was certainly not the serious, sharp-faced man he had known. Armed with a better understanding of what the man had gone through, the Corridane was happy to share in the joy which John now displayed.
It took them some time to reach the gate of the castle, but when they arrived they were admitted immediately. Dismounting, they gave their horses away to attending stable-boys, paused to steady themselves on the solid ground once more, and entered the hall. When a herald tried to announce them, John bade him be silenced, for he wished to introduce the others on his own.
They stood back while the attendant opened the door for them, and then strode in; John at the head and the others two steps behind him, Valun on the left and Miran on the right. A guard attending the king’s seat called out as they walked. “Who walks in the king’s hall unannounced?”
John answered as if the guard had no business being there at all. “Go and find your king. Tell him he is keeping his fellows waiting.”
The guard understood what this meant and soon disappeared through an obscured door in search of the king. At the sound of the voices, servants had appeared from nowhere. They were soon sent off again by John in search of food and drink. Meanwhile, the nobles seated themselves at the long table which every king’s hall seemed to have available.
Only a few additional minutes had passed before Elmbran entered the hall, close behind the provisions which had been found in the kitchen. As a show of courtesy, Valun and Miran rose when their host entered, but were soon seated once more. Swallowing his draught, John then rose and addressed his brother.
“To you, my esteemed brother, king of the land, I present two others. Valun III of Corridane, called invito rex and also mac dilis, and Miran of Gairbairia, called the long-suffering, whose people have just completed their home in exile on the land you so graciously gave them.”
John resumed his seat. Miran then rose and added “On behalf of my people, I offer many thanks for your hospitality.” By this time, he was done eating, so he did nothing more.
Then Elmbran answered. “Upon my word, I can not say what would have brought the lord Valun here. Miran I understand, but why Valun?”
Valun, who was finally satisfied, rose. “It is a personal matter, good host. You will discover in time what I have come for. Your kitchen and your cellar are excellent.” Without further ado, Valun stepped away from the table and stepped back outside, leaving the three men inside still wondering what his intentions were. It was Miran who broke the silence. “There is nothing waiting here for him. He is looking for my sister. It would be right to let him be for this time.”
Once outside, Valun had called for his horse once more. When the animal had been brought to him, he climbed aboard and they started off at a walk. Valun did not hazard a guess at exactly where he was making for. Instead, he let the horse have his head. Ironheel had come from the royal stables of John’s family and knew what he was about.
In this place where war had not come, there were many people going to and fro on the streets. Some greeted the foreign noble cheerfully, some merely bowed, and still there were others who simply stepped out of his path. Valun acknowledged every one with happy indifference.
In time, the horse’s nose led him to a tavern which evidently held a high reputation among all classes of society. Damp and shining laborers sat outside, rewarding themselves for their previous work. These men gave him a tired wave which he returned, disregarding ceremony.
Within the building, he found an eclectic mix of laborers, artisans, Ronairs and Gairbairns. Remembering his ten years in the country, he procured a seat for himself among the native people and slipped into their tongue with little thought. He did not speak himself, but merely listened to these men pour out hopes and fears as fast as they took in the brew they seemed to subsist on. Some that were there worried that the influx of Gairbairn refugees would be a hindrance to their own trade, but more open-minded individuals were assuring them nothing of the kind could happen; those in the city now were old men and families; the working men had stayed behind, invaded, they said, by a horde out of the south. Beside, there was rumor that the Gairbairns would be building themselves a new city to the south, by the grace of the king.
Wishing to quell the fears, Valun then spoke in support of the more favorable party. “It is true. I have seen the place. The Gairbairn men built it with their own hands, and they have come to claim their fathers, and their mothers, and all their children and take them back to the place they have built. Their king too I have seen. He is a cripple, but carries a great bow and speaks well. It would not be wise to anger him. You should give them welcome: they protected your homes as well as they protected their own.”
The blusterers took aim at that. “But they did not protect their homes. That is why they are here on our land! What use have we for hangers-on and weak men?”
“You can not be made to understand what men like these know. You would not last a week among them.” Leaving his opponents spluttering, Valun crossed the hall into the midst of the old men, most of whom were obviously Gairbairns. Stepping near the one who seemed most awake, he spoke loudly so the man would be sure to understand.
“I have a message for the lady. Will you bring me to her?”
The old man started at the voice. “But why should you want to speak to her? Who are you?”
“Who I am you will discover in time. I wish only to ask for her aid in those I wish to heal.”
“Well than, I suppose you’re all right. I’ll come too. I’ve had enough of it here.” Before the man could reach the small purse he carried, Valun had retrieved his own and slapped two coins on the table. The old man squinted at the coins. “Why, that is too much. Those are the largest coins I’ve seen in an age.”
“It is no matter. I only ask that you come along with me.”
In response, the old man rose and gestured that Valun should follow him. Outside the door, Valun started for his horse, but his guide stopped him. “You will not need it, sir. The streets of my people are close by enough to be no matter to your young legs.” Obediently, Valun followed.
In only a few minutes, they were met by Ronair men who had been ordered by the king to stand guard against the more unscrupulous men of the city. At a few words, the two passed into the refuggees’ sector without a challenge. The path the old man followed meandered through several turns. At each of these the guide stopped to ask his direction from a countryman who was nearby. At last they spotted the Princess emerging from a small house near the end of a street. The guide hailed her and she stopped, allowing them to come within a few feet.
“My lady, this man has asked to find you. He did not tell me why. Do you wish me to stay nearby?”
“No, Trajan. You may return to your family. I have heard that your son is one who survived.”
Trajan’s face lit up. “Thank you, my lady.” Bowing deeply, he hurried away.
“Now you, whoever you might be, speak your message, and be quick about it.”
“If I might have your pardon, lady, it is not a message one is easily quick about. It would be an honor to accompany you in your rounds.”
“Perhaps you may, it depends on what you intend me to hear.”
“First, I came here in the company of a man who says he is your brother, called king by your uncle, who died in an attack on the emperor who drove you to this place.”
Before he finished, he could see that the news had a great effect on her. When he finished, she turned and hurried back into the last house she had entered. She returned shortly and explained “Now my mother will have peace, but most of all if I go and bring Miran to her before the morrow.”
“May I walk with you, than?”
“I have no objection to a man who has brought such happy news.”
They began walking, making a sharp turn to the right which led to yet another street full of Gairbairn tenants. Now that the time had come to actually say what was on his mind, Valun realized that it was probably the hardest thing he would do in his life.
“Do you remember, seven years ago now I think it was, the great fair your father held to commemorate some event, that you would recall better than I…”
“Yes, it was a celebration of his tenure, I think.”
“There was a quiet lad there, close by the palace, who worked in silver. It was said that he had been directly by the king of Ronaiera. The Princess took many of the things he had made, just as his king had before.”
“Who told you all this? Did you find him later?” The Princess asked, puzzled. Then, as she looked into the Corridane’s eyes, she seemed to see something there. “But wait a moment. Does everything have to be a puzzle to me? You are that silversmith, that boy who announced so proudly that you had sold to kings. You were strong then. Are you not still?”
“I am, afraid, my lady, that I am not, any more. During that time my country was ravaged, my father imprisoned, the hope of my people lost. When you saw me in my castle, I had barely begun to try to heal the people. I have not healed. I have made peace, but healed I have not. My father that I worked so hard to save was killed before my eyes. My greatest friend has gone on the same path. I need a strong lady to help me in my path. I desire that it be you. Will you do this?”
“Surely there is some girl of your own country willing to be your queen?”
“They would all hide from me and say it was humility.”
“Nevertheless, I think you should consider what you ask more heavily.”
“That I will do, if you will in turn consider me.”
“You may speak of this again tomorrow. Now give me peace.”
“Farewell, good lady.” With a flourish, Valun turned away, making for the tavern beside which he had left his horse. His hurried step and long stride brought him to the place in a few short minutes. Upon arrival, he was pleased to find that his horse had been tended to and was waiting for him.
Feeling ready to trade cheers with any man on the street, Valun entered the tavern again, ready to consume large amounts of hot food once more even though he had recently eaten at the castle. In the doorway, he held up a hand until the proprietor caught his eye. “Meat and ale!” he announced over the heads of the other guests.
Quite suddenly, as he looked down, Valun caught sight of John seated in a corner by himself, his back to the common fire. Making his way through, Valun appropriated the bench across from the prince and attempted to get him speaking.
“Well, hello, lord prince. Why do you find yourself here?”
John took a draught from the beer he had ordered earlier and snappishly replied “Going where I wish. That’s why? What prompted you to be condescending to me, the ranking crown prince in this land?”
“Mere companionship. Nothing more.”
John rose from the table. “Well, I would thank you to keep your companionship to yourself. When I want it, then I will ask it of you.”
Valun, who was still waiting for the sustenance he had requested, watched the prince depart, puzzled and hurt that the man would not speak to him. But then the meat arrived, and he abandoned all pretences in order to fully enjoy it. He promptly decided that it was excellent and that he would commend the place to the king when next they met.
As it happened, John’s irritableness did in fact arise from Valun’s presence at the place, and the reason for it was that he intended to ask the Princess for her hand himself. Thus, he was furious with himself for having goaded Valun into making the journey for himself, when otherwise, he, John, could have asked and awaited the decision without any other interference. After a pause to release the tension he had allowed to build up inside, he continued on foot in the direction of the Gairbairns’ quarter.
He approached the guard and told the man he was carrying a message for the lady. The guard knew his face, and so he passed through without comment. He did not any particular direction, but turned at crossroads only when he felt he had gone far enough. After some time, he looked up only to see that the lady herself was approaching him from the other end of the street. He stopped and she continued to approach.
He had not often seen her so cheerful. “Well, lady, what brings this lightness to your being?”
“My brother. I have just told my mother, what I heard from the Corridane, that my brother lives and is present at the court.”
Hearing this, John’s bitterness toward Valun rose to the fore again. “I was there with him. The Corridane was not. Had I known that you were unaware of your brother’s arrival, I would have told you first.”
“As it happens, you did not. But come with me anyway. You would not have searched me out without an excellent reason, or were you simply lost?”
John turned alongside her so that he was now walking on her left. “I was not lost. Now that I know this, I am not sure I intend to tell you what I came for.”
She laughed. “Let me see if I can guess; Are my men troubling yours in any way?”
She laughed. “Let me see if I can guess; Are my men troubling yours in any way?”
“Have you quarreled with my brother, and so you wish me to come out on your side? That I can not do.”
“Then have you come to ask when we will roll up our tents and get out of your sight?” She was still smiling. It began to tell on him.
“I’ve come to you to ask for your hand.”
“Oh, certainly! I’ve known you would since we landed in Corridane. For a mysterious man, you don’t hide very well at all.”
The revelation that his secret heart had been no secret at all astonished John no end. “As you knew that I would, and I now have said it openly, it is as good as said, and I await your answer. I want you to know that I wish only to cheer you, because to do so would be supreme happiness to me.”
At the end of this pronunciation, the Princess turned away and hurried ahead of him. John, however, stood where he was, afraid that he had produced precisely the wrong reaction. He decided to find his way back to the tavern, wait there for a time, and, if he could, make his peace with the Corridane monarch, who might still be there.
The Princess, meanwhile, made her way toward the palace, where she hoped to find her brother and an answer to her troubles. Sure enough, upon entering the hall, she found a man she recognized as her brother deep in talk with their host. She did not heed what they were speaking about; she only cried out towards them in greeting.
At the voice from the doorway, both kings looked up. When Miran recognized who it was that had entered, he rose from his seat and made his way across the floor toward her, while she did likewise to make the task easier upon him.
They embraced for a moment at pure joy for having found each other in the world again. Then they stood back from each other and asked together “What brings you here?”
With the support of his sister, Miran began to move back to the seat he had occupied. As they walked, he said simply “I came in search of you.”
When he was seated, she answered “And I came in search of you and an answer.”
“What sort of answer? You have been here far longer than I have. You must know all the answers the people want.”
“This day both the prince and the Corridane have asked me for my hand. I never expected such a thing to really come to pass, and it has torn me. What am I to do?”
“This day both the prince and the Corridane have asked me for my hand. I never expected such a thing to really come to pass, and it has torn me. What am I to do?”
Miran almost laughed in the face of his sister’s distraction. “What to do when two nobles ask you that question is simple to the mind of a man; choose one, or give them both reasons why they’re not worthy of you. But for now I say to you go and shut yourself in a room and think about where your path lies. You would not want to be down here if either of them comes back for an answer any time soon.”
The Princess merely nodded and departed upstairs. As he watched her go, Miran remarked “It is almost as if men enjoy springing traps on themselves. But very well, if they did not the world would be orderly. What say you?”
“I am in agreement.” replied Elmbran, who had been a spectator to the whole scene. “Think you I should call my brother off?”
“No, lord host, for this is not our battle. Your brother and the Corridane must accept the resolution as peacefully as we must simply watch it unfold.”
Privately, both lords guessed that the suitors would not take long to return. They were not disappointed, as they arrived together. They had been talking the whole way, and once they entered, each of the four men asked the other two who had just appeared “You know the whole story, do you not?”
As a caution to the others, Miran remarked “I do not think this is something that can be decided in only hours. We must have patience.”
In correlation of her brother’s words, the Princess did not announce her decision after one day, two, or even seven. Ten days passed before she made peace with the life that lay before her. On that day, when she appeared before them in the hall, the men rose as if they had been shocked. One or two of them attempted to speak, but a gesture silenced them.
“I shall go with the Corridane, for he has shown great strength.” Now she addressed herself to Valun directly. “When I came before you it was by john’s request, not yours, I knew. When you saw me I knew that you had not expected it and did not know what you should say, except that you were going out on a quest to find your father. In these past days I have thought of many things, and finally I remembered that encounter, and how it proved that you know where your heart lay. It was not for your sake, or mine, that you did this, but that of your people, and especially your father. I admired that, and so I say that you may take my hand, and we shall go and rebuild your country.”
There was silence for a long minute. Then Valun said “It is an honor, my lady. I thank you for the long thought you have put into it.” Turning to John, who stood beside him, he said “I will speak no more of this. It is done. I believe you, too, will let it lie. You shall be welcome in our hall.”
When these solemn declarations had been made, Elmbran spoke. “You should remain one more night at least. We will feast all who shall come here, in mutual honor to all our lands for the destruction of the evil which hung over us.”
Everyone present accepted this statement enthusiastically. Orders were given that the kitchens prepare an enormous meal, and word was sent out to the people that they should select who among them would be the representatives. It was also ordered that men of Gairbairia should claim as many seats as the hosts would.
The day passed, and as the news spread, people began to celebrate joyfully, although only few of them actually knew or really cared why this had been suggested from the palace itself. In the meantime, Valun paid the Gairbairian queen mother a visit, and she accepted that he had been accepted by her daughter.
And in time, dusk came, and the people gathered, and the feasting in the hall and the holiday in the city continued long into the night. Everyone ate, everyone drank, and no one could move the next morning.