The Naibern general marched up the palace stairs, each step pounding the stone like a sculptor’s mallet. His armor was dented and stained, and he now wore a huge scar across his jaw that made the simple act of opening his mouth a painful chore. He knew people were watching his ascent, gaping at his appearance. He did not care. One hour, and it would no longer matter. He deserved it, he thought, for was he not Kalveston, first-born of a great house? The general who had destroyed a great fleet, and put down a rebellion in the wild lands? Where he had walked, none now dared to speak his name. They would gawk. They were docile animals, waiting for a real man to make something of them.
His salute to the palace guard was automatic, a mere symbol of emotion and respect which did not exist. The man could have collapsed at his feet and he would have stepped over and passed on. He waited for the guard to push the door open and announce his presence. They had to see that everything was done naturally.
The throne room was small, with doors leading out from the sidewalls and two behind the throne itself. It was a place to trap one’s enemies. Though it was just after high noon outside, Kalveston found himself staring in the darkness, waiting for his vision to return. When he was able, he looked toward the king, who was seated with a guard at each side. These guards were specially picked men from the deep south. They were dark-skinned, tall and held long spears. Looking on either side of them, he noted with pride that the war banners he had captured were displayed prominently.
The king, an aging scion of a wealthy house which had simply been more fortunate than Kalveston’s own ancestors, spoke first.
“To the victorious general, greetings! I hope your wound is not too much?”
“It is not, my king. I hastened here to assure you that the danger is not over.”
“How can that be? Your reports proclaimed the invasion crushed!”
“It is because the danger to you is closer to the throne than you realize.” The general gestured brusquely to the two guards. “It is done. Take him away.” The guards seized the king and forced him out of the seat, hauling him toward a side door. Only to have Kalveston stop them short.
“Wait. I wish this fortunate clown to hear what I say before he departs. Our people have grown complacent, too easily satisfied. I will help them return to greatness, remember the glory of conquest! When I die, Naibern will be the world, and the world Naibern.”
Eighteen months later, Corridane
Richard paused in his single-minded destruction of the wood before him and wiped his brow. From the corner of his eye, he had seen his father running, toward him. Sir Roland Longfurrow never ran. Walked quickly, yes, but never ran.
Richard met his father halfway.
“Father, you startled me. Tell me what is troubling you so that might be of aid."
“My son, there are soldiers, foreign soldiers, abroad in the land. That means you must flee.”
“No! Flee while my family is in danger? Would that not shame me before others?”
“My son, you asked me just now how you could aid me. I tell you you must ride. I have spoken to men who say the king’s chief advisor is commanding these intruders. If that is true, it is my duty to fight for the king’s honor. As it is yours to guard the prince. Go, do as I say, and return someday to avenge what may come of this. Come now, there is yet time to prepare properly.”
Resigning himself to the task before him, Richard slid his sword home with a sigh of impatience. Then the two Longfurrow men walked back toward the hall slowly, as if neither of them was unduly disturbed by anything they had learned.
“I do not understand, father. Is our good king unable to stop these invaders?”
Roland Longfurrow did not stop, but spoke as he walked. “You have hit upon it in one, my son. Our king is unable to do anything to stop their invasion, because he has disappeared, and no one knows now where he is. Thus it falls to those who are loyal to the good king to take up his cause.”
Suddenly, Roland began walking even faster, so that Richard, even with his longer strides, was barely able to keep pace over the short distance. “But then why are you sending me away? You know I am good with a sword.”
“Yes, and what else have you skill in, if I might ask?”
Richard heard this, but was determined to press his point. “I know you intend to fight. I would fight, as long as I had life in me I would.”
Roland pushed opened the door with one hand and they stepped inside. Clasping both Richard’s broad shoulders in his large hands, Roland said “That, my son, is why I must order you to take my swiftest steed and ride far from here as soon as you can get yourself away. Though you may take your leave of the others first.”
Richard nodded and broke away from his father’s grip, intending to go in search of the others of his family. He scarcely heeded his father’s call that they were waiting in the great hall, and then stopped for a moment when he heard the door close once more. But in a moment he had taken control of his feet again, and soon found himself pushing open the second set of doors which opened into the great hall and standing in the presence of his family.
Richard stood for a moment and faced each of those present in turn. His two sisters were there, seated on simple wooden chairs, on each side of their mother, who sat in the center, in her usual seat on the dais. His four brothers: fifteen-year-old Dalton, twelve-year-old Raymond, and the six-year-old twins James and William, were all there as well. His mother spoke first.
“Your father has told me, Richard. You must go to make your way in the world as soon as you can. Therefore, I take my leave of you now. Go with a parent’s blessing.”
“Thank you, mother. But surely that is not all there is to be said?” Richard stepped forward then, embracing his mother and his sisters each in turn. His brothers he treated like men, grasping them each by the shoulders as his father had done to him and saying “I leave you in peace, my brother.” Winking at Dalton and forcing a grin, he added “Perhaps when I return you will beat me, eh? You will have to be a bigger man to do that, but that at least is something all the Longfurrow men can do.” James and Will were last of all. To them, Richard said “Our hope rests in you. Someday, you will take up our banner, and you will carry it to high praise. But before that time comes, being the youngest has its high points, I am sure.” Patting James on the shoulder as he rose, Richard stepped back again and adopted a formal tone.
“Madams, sirs, I take my leave of you, until you call me back. I wish to take nothing with me but a sword, which I have, food, which I can easily get, and a memory of your faces. But do not doubt that I will return.”
With a swish of the long cape he had taken to wearing, Richard, heir to the vast Longfurrow wealth, left his ancestral hall at the age of seventeen, convinced that he would make his mark on the world.
Later that day, on the northern coast of Corridane, a similar scene unfolded on the land of Eric Trondale, worthy knight of the realm.
Conan halted the plow for a moment, eager to find out what was transpiring on the other side of the field. His father, who had been overseeing the workers at plowing, had been hailed by and was speaking with a rider, whom Conan recognized as one of the men who worked the Trondale fields, who, it appeared, had been sent to the capital to hear what news there was.
The messenger had by now dismounted, but Conan could see that he was still speaking, while lord Trondale only listened and nodded. Finally, Conan’s father clapped the man on the back and sent him on his way. Conan prepared to begin his work again, guessing that no more would come of this development until the family sat in the great hall.
Almost at the moment that he had gotten the oxen moving again, Conan heard his father calling, and saw a fieldworker coming over to take the plow from him. Releasing his grip on the handles, he wiped his brow using a cloth he had tied around his head and walked to his father’s side at the edge of the field.
As soon as he had come close enough to hear, his father said “My son, a dark time is coming upon us. The palace has been overrun by treachery. No one knows where the king is at this time. People say soldiers in foreign gear are taking what they will. More of them are coming up the south road as I speak, perhaps. One thing is clear: we must fight them. This I cannot do however, because your brothers and sister are so young. I must stay until they come against me here.”
“Do you wish me to lead your men against the soldiers? I was not aware that you thought so highly of me, but I will do what you ask.”
Eric tried to laugh at the simplicity Conan was revealing. “Send you to lead my men? No, my boy. You are too young by years, and those men who will do as I ask are too few yet. What I tell you to do is something harder than risking your life because an old man refuses to risk his own. I am sure you would be up to that task if you were of age, but your task now is to leave. The prince Valun has been exiled, and my man says he heard that the Longfurrow has sent his boy to go with him. We cannot let two boys like them go riding off without a sturdy man along to keep them on the straight path, so I am sending you to find them, and stay at their sides through everything you meet. Ride with the prince and keep him alive. Do that, and in time, perhaps, you will return here, looking for home. I will fight my hardest to see that you find it, my boy. Now go, the horse is being prepared already.”
Conan was shocked at the news, and wanted to shout out that he would never leave, even if they tied him to the horse and made it run away he would still turn the animal toward his home and bring it back. But in a moment his senses returned, and he stood straight and took it like a man. Swallowing hard, he said “Thank you, sir.” and turned toward the manor.
Inside the house, he found his mother in the kitchen looking over the meal that was being prepared to celebrate the onset of his sister Anne’s ninth year. Afraid to darken her mood, Conan stopped in the doorway. He stayed there until the master cook noticed him and came over. “Why, young master Conan. What brings you in here now? I hope it was not the pastries, they’ve just come out, and they’re hot enough to mark your skin.”
“No, I’ve come to speak with my mother. Ask her to come to the door.”
“Yes, young master.”
Conan watched the cook seemed to slide across the floor to his mother’s side at the spit. After a moment, she came across to him alone. Signaling that they should step into the other room, Conan said “Father has ordered me to leave. He says I have no time to wait. There is no telling how long I shall be gone.”
His mother’s expression instantly changed from curiosity into shock. “But why? And it’s Anne’s birthday, too. What shall I tell her when she asks why you did not come to the feast?”
“Tell her I have had to travel far to find something I wished to bring her today. After the feast, of course, you can tell her as soon as you like that it was father who sent me away.”
“Then I shall do that. I expect to hear the full story when you return, however.”
Conan allowed her to embrace him as he said “I think you will know the full story before I return. But I will be sure to tell the tale anyway, if you wish. I must go now.”
As they stepped apart, he added “I can buy food on my way. Farewell.”
He crossed the great hall without looking back, but at the door he took a knife he was wont to carry and scarred the doorframe with it, marking the wood with the first letter of his name. Behind him, he heard his mother demand to know what he was doing. He answered “If, when I come back, I have changed much, ask me who made the mark on the door just here. No one but you and I know it is there, and it will not be easily seen. By that sign you will know your son has truly returned.” Sheathing his blade, he pushed one of the thick oaken doors aside with one open hand and stepped outside.
Close by the main doors, a servant was waiting with a strong horse, which, Conan noted, had already been loaded with sundry gear. While the man held it in silence, Conan climbed aboard the animal and gave it a slap on the neck. To the servant he said “Farewell. I hope I may see you when I return from where I am going.” To the horse he said “Forward, Bardon. We have far to go and little time to get there.”
And so, at the age of sixteen, Conan Trondale left his home by the shores of Corridane, taking nothing with him except that which his father had ordered should be put upon the horse.
Valun was stunned by the news the servant had brought him. His father was out on a journey, not dead. And yet, only weeks after Valun had watched his father pass the city gates, this man, who had been called his councilor and who had promised to obey the son as the father, had turned his coat out and declared himself to be king.
Valun sat before the large window in his chamber, which looked out on the north country, and thought “Come back now, my father. Your country has greater need of you now than any time before. What can be keeping you from us?”
Then suddenly, as he sat there, a resolve formed in his mind.
Crossing to the door, he took down a sword which was hanging there and belted it on. From a hook on the wall nearby he took down a long red cape and put it on. Deeming himself ready to make his case, he opened the door.
To his great surprise, there were guards standing on either side of the doorway. Failing to conceal his shock, he snapped “Is this the way the prince of Corridane is treated now? Are you here to protect me or to guard against me?”
They gave no reply, and while he was waiting to hear how they would explain themselves, he noticed that they were not wearing the gear of Corridanes, nor did they resemble the men he had been accustomed to seeing about the castle.
Upon seeing that his dignity had been stripped from him so far as to deny him an escort of his own countrymen, Valun strode off glowering, without even considering the fact that the presence of foreign soldiers was a clear sign that the usurper Keltran himself was a foreign invader. As he stormed off, Valun could hear the guards marching at his back. “Let them come,” he thought “When I take back my place the first thing I will do is to have them march back to their homeland, with blades on their backs to remind them of the path. This I promise.” He thought that they might stop at the end of the hall and wait there for him to return, but they continued to follow him all the way down the stairs and through the corridors until he reached the doors of the hall of audiences, where the stone throne of the Corridane kings was placed, and where he was sure to find Keltran the spy enjoying the power he had now officially claimed.
As he expected, Valun found the man sitting on the throne itself, insolently eating the midday meal from a table which had been brought before the seat of power at his command. Keltran did not look up when Valun entered, so the prince was forced to announce himself.
“You will face the prince, man, and you will remove yourself from that seat, that is disgraced by your presence in it.”
Keltran looked up slowly, as if he thought it pained his eyes to let them rest on the boy who stood before him. Throwing the meat he was holding in the direction of a hound lying a few feet away, he said “And are you the only one who demands this, or by a miracle have you assembled an army outside the doors to come to your rescue if I do not jump to my feet at this moment? You had better call them, because you see that I am not moving.” Pointing at a soldier standing near the main doors, he added “You. Look outside and tell me if there is a mob there demanding that I take myself away.”
The guard dutifully looked out, turned back, and said “There is no mob, my lord. Only your own guards watching the courtyard gate.”
Keltran laughed and said “There you have it. The people must enjoy my rule, since they have not yet come to protest in your favor.”
“Have you issued the bulletins calling yourself king? The first I heard of this was only this morning.”
“But why should I tell you? Or the people either? When a man is king, he does not have to tell the man in the gutter to honor him.”
“I know there is no mob at the gates only because you have not told them yet to call you king. Anything that you send from here has my name on it, does it not? If you ever tell them, you will have a force to reckon with beyond your control.”
“I know it will be beyond my control. That is why I sent for so many soldiers only days after your father left. You are finally understanding, my boy.” Laughing again, he drank deeply from the goblet before him.
Valun could stand it no longer. Drawing his sword, he swung hard at the table before Keltran, knocking it to the floor and spilling some of the food and drink on the man. In an instant, Keltran’s expression changed from one of humor to fury. He leapt up shouting.
“Are you trying to challenge me, boy? If that is what you intend, I will draw now and squash you like an insect. Do you want that?”
“I have come for a fight and nothing else. If I cannot have my birthright, I will before I go, make certain that your face is more hideous than it is now, and you will never step out of this palace for fear that the people will be horrified and beat you.”
“A boast worthy of a champion, but not a boy king. What would your father say to you?”
“He would say that it was rash, but he would forgive me when peace was restored.”
“Then, because you wish to die in battle here, I grant you your life instead, so that you may live out your days in with the pain of the knowledge that you could do nothing to stop my destruction of your honor and your father’s legacy. And that, I think, is a fate far worse than a quick death. Guards, come! I declare this boy banished! He has dared to question my place and threaten my life. Therefore he shall depart from here forevermore, and my heirs will be the new house of Corridane.”
“Snake! Lying dog!” With this cry took up his sword and charged forward.
However, at that moment, guards came from within the room and from outside it, took him by the arms, and took him out of the hall and into the courtyard by force. As they did so, he heard Keltran cry “He may have a horse, so that he may depart the faster, but be sure it is not the best of them!”
Thus did the prince Valun depart from his hall, at the age of fifteen years.
John struggled to get away from the man, who held him by the shoulder in an alley. The man was still talking, but John had stopped listening some minutes ago. He did not understand why the man thought it was so important that he do things in a certain way. If one accomplished his goal, did it really matter how he had gone about doing it?
Finally wriggling free of his captor’s grasp, John said “No! Why should I? Take me back to my father!”
“Ah, but your father is many leagues away, boy, and you would never get all that way back to him with no one to help you. So you must do as I say. I will pay you well for it.”
“But what if I will not take your blood-money?” John replied, backing away in the direction of the street which looked wider.
The man smirked and laughed at the same moment. “If you don’t, you will die poor and far from your home.”
“No! I won’t! I’ll work my way back by the honest path, no matter what I have to do!” John shouted back, even as doubts rose in his mind that he would actually follow through with this statement. He had shunned work whenever he could and knew it. As he looked over his shoulder to determine how many yards he would have to run to reach the street, he caught a fleeting sight of three boys in fine clothes riding down the path toward the city gate. Knowing he would get a beating if he was slower than he hoped, he began sprinting down the path toward them, with the man hard on his heels.
“Wait! Help me!” In a few moments, when he was nearly to the end of the path, he saw the three boys come back in his direction and stop their mounts short. Unable to slow down in time, he ran straight into the side of the large bay being ridden by a tall boy with red hair. Fortunately, the boy seemed to know how to ride, and handily kept his steed under control as John struck it. Pushing himself away. John looked up at the rider and stammered “I’m sorry... Will you help me? Are you...powerful enough?”
By this time, the man chasing him had arrived at the end of the street himself. “My boy, you will come with me. There is no need to disturb these lords’ sons.”
Then John heard one of the other boys speak up. “It is no disturbance to us. We were passing this way and heard his cries. We wish to know the reason, so he should speak instead of you.”
“My lord,” John answered hurriedly, as if he had only a few moments to speak before he disappeared forever, “He is not related to me at all. I have been stolen. He wants me to spy on men here, but I only want to go home.”
“He’s not your father and you want to go home.” The same boy answered. “That is reason enough for us to take you. We are powerful in this land. Under our protection, nobody will dare to compel you to do anything. Come with us. It does not matter where you come from.”
When the boy had finished, he and his two friends got their horses turned back in the direction they had just come from and rode away at a walk, while John, grateful for the protection, and the anonymity which had been offered, jogged along beside the third boy, leaving the old man who had brought him there fuming in the dust of the alley.