The cliffs rose up then. Before long, the valley below echoed with the battle-cries of the Corridane archers, whom David had left on the heights in anticipation of that which in fact occurred: that Damerson in his hubris would order his men to pursue the retreating Corridanes along the cliffs into what thus proved to be a trap. The Corridanes on the heights made short work of the men hard by the cliffs, then turned their superior range on the main body of Damerson’s reserves, some yards back from the battle. These men, knowing they were helpless against the hail of arrows coming against them, did the only thing they could and fled the scene.
Observing this from his hillock some yards to the side of the battle, Valun found himself more inclined to pity his enemies than to congratulate David for winning the battle in such a manner. He said as much to Meltran, who still stood beside him.
Privately reveling in the defeat of the man who had thrust him out of his palace at knifepoint some ten years past, Meltran, understandably, grew impatient with anyone who showed the slightest sign of sympathy for the man or his works.
“Would you rather stand here and order thousands more of your men to die simply because your men do not have a commander who takes the advantages he sees? You are too scrupulous by half, Valun Evenhand! You have won the battle, so it is your duty to celebrate the fact with the men who have actually done the fighting, whether you think it right or not!... But doubtless, you would have words with your hard-won prisoner first.”
As the reader will have guessed, these words heralded the arrival of the man Valun had ordered captured, and the two guards who were the last to survive the chase through the thick of the battle. Meltran produced a rope, and the two guards tied the man’s hands and forced him to his knees three feet from the kings.
The prisoner was a young man, no older than Valun himself. His brown hair hung in limp but wildly separated strands about his neck. His bushy brows were set in a perpetual glare, and his green eyes bored into the kings as if he would burn them with his will.
Valun said “Who are you and from whence do you come? I would know more about you, and I do not often speak so.”
The prisoner made no answer, but remained there, a new rock upon that ground that knew so few, thought there were cliffs so near.
Then Meltran spoke: “Speak! Were you convinced or conscripted by that vile fiend Damerson? Speak, or your head may serve to answer for his!”
Valun would not stand to hear that from another. Asserting his own authority, he reminded the Brandian that the man was his prisoner, captured by his men. “I will not have a man so threatened before my face. To my knowledge, he has yet to do wrong which may be judged against him. He must speak.”
But still the man refused to speak even one word.
Silence reigned around the group for several seconds. When it became apparent that the prisoner did not mean to speak at that time, Valun said “Place him in my tent, to wait until I come again. Untie his hands and bring him what he wills, but do not let him escape.”
As the guards propelled the prisoner past the kings in order to place him in the tent, the prisoner, who had resolutely refused to look up until that moment, cast one swift glance up at Valun, who on his part did not indicate in any way whether he had understood the message.
Mounting his horse, which had been kept close by for the duration of the combat, Valun said “I go now as you have said, to celebrate their victory with my men. No doubt your own men wish that you would join them.”
Though Valun had been some way off from the battle, still the size of the armies had been such that Valun’s steed had to pick its path carefully, even as many of the Corridane survivors moved through the ranks carrying away those who remained alive. When Valun had nearly crossed over to the cliffs, he finally discovered David, doing as his men were, and stumbling under the weight of a man who had lost an arm. Both of them noticed their king’s arrival and acknowledged him.
“We are laying those who may still live behind the lines, my lord.”
“Very well. I will visit them. Having done that, I will want an explanation from you. Deliver this man to those who are able to care for him, and do nothing else until I have spoken to you.”
The soldier David was still carrying across his back remarked “Ah, the privilege of kings. To stand back and watch your men die, and then do nothing more than glare at the ones who are living. Did he want you to die too?”
The man’s nonchalant manner grated on David. “No. He wanted me alive. But not here where he can see me. He didn’t want you here either.” Shrugging to adjust the man’s weight, David trudged on.
Valun, meanwhile, had ridden ahead to meet those men who had already been brought off the field. Though he had been prepared for a huge number of casualties, the sheer size of the actual number still astonished him. Reining his horse in several feet short of the lines, he dismounted and handed the animal over to a man who had noticed his presence.
Valun had been angry with David when he left that noble squire, but when he saw for himself the long lines of David’s men who had given their future well-being in his service, the king of the Corridanes decided then that he had never understood the true meaning of faith and loyalty.
The men had been ordered to turn back, return to their homes, and forget the man now standing before them until he had proven himself worthy of their allegiance. Now, thousands of them were dead, and several thousand more were permanently handicapped. Why? Because they had decided to follow the man who wore the crown rather than the commands he had spoken.
Moving forward, Valun began to move down the lines, commending each of those still awake in turn for their loyalty and the courage they had undoubtedly shone in the combat. Several rows along, Valun met Meltran, who, with his men, was utilizing the healing skills they had learned during years of forest exile to the aid of the injured men.
Looking up from the knot he was tying on the binding of a man’s arm, Meltran told Valun “There is a man of your ranks walking the lines. He wishes to speak with you as soon as he may. He is on his way over here now.”
Looking in the direction Meltran was indicating, Valun saw a man moving toward him, who increased his pace when he saw that the king had noticed him. The man was of average build; nothing distinguished him from many of the men lying on the ground except the short cape he wore, which was fastened around his neck with a plain bronze chain. With a start, Valun realized that David had also been wearing a cape like that one; Richard must have given orders on his own authority that commanders were to be designated in such a manner.
The strange captain had soon reached Valun and was now on one knee before him, proffering his blade hilt foremost.
“My lord, it is my honor to swear my loyalty to your house. Will you accept it?”
Caught off his guard by the man’s swift action, Valun hesitated. “Are you truly the captain of those men who came from Carribeasa?”
“I am, sire. Do you believe what I say?”
“I heard from one of my guards that the men of Carribeasa had come over the mountains. I believe your words and accept your allegiance. Rise.”
Not wanting to disrespect the wounded by holding a long conversation while standing over them, Valun indicated that the two should move away, past the end of the line.
“Now tell me how this comes about. But four days ago I left you under siege within your own city, though it grieved me to behave in such a manner toward my own people. And now I meet you on a battlefield outside our own borders, pledging your loyalty to me for all time.”
Stopping in his tracks, the captain replied “I know full well, my lord, about the delegation that met you outside the walls, and also that they spurned your commands and basely shot at you as you turned away. What you do not know is that those men did not represent the people of the city. They represented the men who ruled the city, who called themselves the Council, nothing more.”
“How did it come about that they ruled at all? For Damrod was a brutal ruler.”
“He ruled like that because the people loved the old king, and most men consented to execution or imprisonment rather than enforcing his rule over their countrymen. He was forced to bring in bands of Naiberns to enforce his authority. But many of the men who were not forced into outlawry, imprisoned, or slain, made their way to my city, which is far enough away from the southern border that we were dealt with last. In the time that we were afforded, the Council, which at that time was still loyal to your father, renounced Damrod and declared the city free from him, with a decree that none should even speak the name of the man who wore the crown. Damrod sent several armies against us, but none so big as the one you yourself did; we were able to beat them off. In time, the council’s loyalty became perverted; they became loyal to themselves alone, feasting while we starved. Sir Richard’s siege was the last straw. A band of men stormed the council chamber, slew the council like sacrifices, and cast them from the walls. As soon as we were able, we marched to your aid.”
Preparing to go back toward his tent, Valun said “Thank you. Do what you can for your men. I have a prisoner with whom I wish to speak alone; you may have seen my guards pursuing him. It is now two hours past midday. When two more hours have passed, I will be free.”
As Valun was on his way to back toward his tent, he heard the sound of someone hurrying to catch up with him. Turning around abruptly with his hand on his sword-hilt, fearful of being caught unawares, he saw that it was only David coming to report to him.
“The next time this occurs, you are to call out so that I may not take you for an assassin. Walk with me. I have no wish to pause outside my own tent.”
When they reached the tent and entered it, they found the prisoner seated on the ground, his legs crossed, eating a piece of salt pork which was nearly as large as his hand. He did not look up when his captors entered, but continued to tear ravenously at the meat he held. Valun allowed him to carry on in this manner for a long moment, seating himself on a small folding stool which David had brought him for the purpose. When the meat had nearly disappeared, Valun spoke up.
“Now, it is time again for me to ask: Who are you, and from whence do you come?”
Having finished, the prisoner rose to his feet before Valun and replied “I do not know.”
“How is it that you do not know? Every man knows his own name and the country of his birth.”
“I tell you I know not who I am. Neither can I tell you how many years of life I have lost. For I lived within a prison until they took me from there, put a sword in my hand, and bid us march.”
David, who had taken a position directly behind Valun’s seat, leaned in and whispered “He speaks like a Corridane.”
Under his breath, Valun asked “In voice or words?”
“Can you be king of the Corridanes and not know the answer to that? You are jesting, my lord.”
The prisoner had been watching them intently during this exchange. Seeing that it was concluded, he stepped forward and said “It seems that your servant is aware of something about me that I myself am not. I would be cheered if you would tell me.”
Rising in his turn, Valun found that he was looking down upon the man by necessity. Retaining a straight face, he said “My man says you speak like one of my people. Like a Corridane. If it is true that you are young and that you spent ten years in a prison, than you never lost the voice you were born with, and I know of two men whose name might also be yours: William Longfurrow and Prince Valnor of Corridane.”
The silence inside the tent was almost tangible. Each man was waiting for one of the others to break it. Agitated horses and injured men could be clearly heard, even though they were some hundreds of yards away. Finally, Valun broke the silence again.
“David, bring us some more food and drink. I will be spending a long time with this man.”
As David brought in a small table, another seat, and a plate of food, Valun turned to the man whom he no longer considered his prisoner and said “I will tell you what I know, which is that I am the king of the Corridanes and that you seem to be a Corridane who was imprisoned by the ruler of the Brandians. As you do not know why you were so treated, it is likely that any charge they brought against you was false. I also know now that my brother the prince Valnor was imprisoned by the Brandians ten years ago. Do you remember an old man who was perhaps in your cell with you?”
It seemed that Valun’s speech had jogged the man’s memory. He sprang up from his seat crying “Yes! The old man still lived when I left him only weeks ago. In the past, he spoke more readily, but recently he has spoken little more than these few words: “Bring me Valun and I will be content.”
Now Valun leapt to his feet in his turn. “David! My horse and one other! We must be swift as the wind. You may warn the Valkyries, but no one else! Command my men; I ride alone!” With that, he turned back to the other man, grasping his shoulders and nearly shaking him. “Tell me my father is well! I have come through stone and steel only to see him back alive!”
“He was alive when I was taken from him. I know nothing more.”
At that moment, David rushed inside. “My lord, your captain craves words with you before you ride! He has other news, and sues for pardon that he did not speak of it sooner!”
“I will listen in the saddle. You are my lieutenant. Why will he not speak to you? Come.” All three men hurried out of the tent to find a large black horse and an equally large bay standing nearby champing at their bits. As Valun and his companion mounted, the captain from Carribeasa ran forward.
“My lord, your Sir Richard did not come because he heard news that your capital was attacked. The news that alerted him to this was a sighting of a man of your court fleeing to the river in the company of a lady and her guards. This seemed to worry Sir Richard greatly, so I thought one should tell you.”
“I can not go back there and go where I am going all at once! That which I am doing is the more pressing matter. Obey this man David as myself. I will return when I have succeeded!” Putting spurs to his horse, he rode off up the valley, in the direction which the fleeing Brandian forces had taken. The four Valkyries who still lived sprang out of hiding and followed him.
David turned to the captain. “Gather the men. We will return home. Our task is done.”
“Is my message of no use at all, then?”
“Is it of no use to the king. But Sir Richard may consent to go in his stead.”
“Very well. And now what of the injured men?”
“I will ask the lord Meltran to see to them and send them home when they are healed. You are dismissed.” The two men then went separate ways, prompted by the same trust.