Two streets beyond the alley where they had picked up the boy, Valun spotted a pair of soldiers harassing a shopkeeper. They were taking his wares as if the things were on their own table, and prodding the man with their blades when he made futile attempts to protect his livelihood. Valun pointed this out to Richard, who was riding on his right.
“You see those soldiers? They must be foreign. No Corridane would treat a man like that.”
“I see them, my lord. And I see no one else around to aid him, so we must do it. I am good with a blade.”
Straightening in his seat, Valun replied “I do not think we should try to fight them. They are men and we are but boys still. At a challenge from us they would laugh.”
At this point Robert rode up upon Valun’s left, having taken advantage of the widening road. “Let there be no dawdling about it, my lord. The good man is on the ground already. If no one else will, I take it upon myself.”
While the other three stayed behind and watched from the backs of their horses, Robert dismounted and marched the twenty yards to the sides of the unsuspecting soldiers. Without saying a word his companions could hear, Robert reached up, grasped an ear of each of the men, who seemed to have stopped to laugh at him, and swung their heads at each other so that they collided, causing the soldiers to sprawl upon the ground as if a door had fallen on each of them. Then Robert pulled the shaken shopkeeper up to his feet, said a few words which the others could not catch, and turned back toward his horse. As he mounted once more, he remarked tersely “My father told me once that I should always look out for happenings like that. He said “There’s a reason the One gave you a strong body. Use it.’ So I do. I suggest we move on before more of them than we can handle come looking for us.”
As they rode past, the shopkeeper came out again and waved to Robert, calling out “I’ll be safe, thank you sir. The king will hear about this business.”
Stopping his horse for a moment, Valun turned to the man and said “Your time would be better used for other things. The man who calls himself king will not bother himself with you.” Gesturing at the still-prone bodies, he added “They came on his orders. But there may soon be calls to take up arms against such treatment as you received. Do all you can to see that they are heeded. Good day.”
The shopkeeper, whose face had fallen when Valun spoke his name, only said “It is a command, my lord. May I live to see you return.”
Giving the old man a salute for his fortitude, Valun started his horse again and led his companions farther down the street. They did not stop until they found a tavern, where they halted to refresh themselves before they made the great journey which had opened up before them.
Tying their horses for themselves, the four boys entered the building expecting swift and obedient service. The building itself was inviting. The walls were built of strong wood, and a large fire was blazing in the hearth despite the fact that it was broad daylight outside. There were small groups of old friends sitting in odd corners, and no sign of rough men anywhere about. However, when they had made themselves known, men began to talk behind their backs.
Valun could not believe that he would see such insolence from men his father had ruled with the benevolence he had shown. In three strides, Valun and his companions had reached the nearest of the tables. When they stopped, Valun pounded the table a few times and then spoke.
“Men! You know who we are, or you would not behave like this. I wish to know why our appearance among you is such a disturbance, and I want to know that now.”
A bearded man in a far corner of the room answered him. “You should know, if you are the prince. There’s been word out for days now that the king’s own seal is on this regent’s rule. What’s more, some say the prince has signed the orders too. You say you are him, but I can’t be sure I believe you, because I’ve also heard that the prince rarely leaves the courtyard gate. No doubt the king has had plenty of fine entertainment come in to see him. Why, I wonder?” The man took a draught from his flagon, as if to lubricate his throat, and added “And, it’s been said that the prince, whether he’s you or not, is under sentence of exile for drawing a blade in the hall of audiences and threatening the king’s regent.”
While the man was talking, two others pointed at the three nobles as they spoke among themselves and then seemed to agree and went out.
Valun leaned on the table with his arms outstretched as he considered the man’s speech. When the man had finished, Valun rose to his full height, which promised to be high indeed, and answered as if he had been called before a judge.
“Man, you are informed indeed, and I can say only this: I promise you that neither the king nor the prince ever signed any order making this man king’s regent, for the king did not believe he would be away long enough to find the order necessary. As for the prince’s conduct, that is true enough. I wish I had smote him anyway, but had I done so I would have died in that room and you and your friends would never know whether it had happened or not. All I ask is a little food for travelers, a horse for our companion, and the knowledge that my people will wait for me until I return. Is that enough?”
Without any warning, five more of the foreign soldiers entered the tavern and laid hands on the four companions. One seemed to hesitate in deciding which of them was the most dangerous, and simply drew his blade and tried to point it at each of the four at once.
“That is enough, my boy. You come along with us now and get out of this city like a good little boy and we won’t hurt you. I will stick the first one who tries to get free.”
Valun saw that the others were looking to him for the signal to fight their captors. Robert and Richard looked ready to fight back the moment they received a signal, but the other boy just looked frightened, and Valun did not have the complete confidence in his own abilities which he could see in the faces of his older companions. He relaxed and was marched out of the building as quickly as the soldiers could make him, followed closely by the other soldiers holding Richard, Robert, and the smaller boy they had picked up.
They were allowed to mount their horses but were not allowed to manipulate their own reins. Instead, the fifth soldier, who had not sheathed his blade, took the reins of all three animals in his hands. The fourth boy was compelled to climb up behind Richard, because he had the largest horse. Arranged in this manner, they were shepherded down the street by the five soldiers, who walked on all sides of them.
As they approached the gate, Valun caught sight of people pausing in the street, who appeared to be trying to recognize at least of these boys dressed as young noblemen who were being led out of the city by force. However, the armed guards deterred anyone from calling out and most of them melted away after no more than a moment or two. Whenever he could catch the eye of a bystander, Valun would shout out “Teim ar son na siochana! Beidh me ar ais ar do sonas! (“I go for peace! I will return for happiness!)” In this way he hoped to conceal from the guards his intention to return, as he guessed that the old language of Corridane was not known in the place his guards had come from, but that some of his people knew what he was saying.
A few minutes later when they reached the main gate, they were led through without fanfare. Once outside, they were finally allowed to take control of their own mounts once more. The soldiers then returned to the confines of the city walls. and shut the gates hard.
The four boys then turned off to the side of the road and dismounted. They walked about and lay down on the grass for a few moments before returning to the business at hand. Having given little thought before that moment to the question of where they would go after they had been thrown from the city, Valun put the question to his companions.
Richard was the first to offer an answer. “We should take the eastern fork of this road, and cross the country in that direction. The road passes near my father’s land..”
Before Valun had a chance to answer this statement, Robert spoke up. “If that is your only reason, we should take the northern road past my father’s land, as it is less-traveled. We can cross the mountains and take up residence in Brandia. Is that not, my lord, where the king had intended to go himself?”
“How did you know? He did not tell anyone besides myself, I thought.”
“One of my father’s men on his way to the capital saw the king ride past one day, with no one but a boy at his side. He was going north.”
“Yes, that is true, but the king has not come back from there yet, though he meant to, so why would you believe that boys would make the passage safely? Do you know the path through the mountains?”
Robert stared at the ground. “I see, my lord. I surrender my ground. We should take the east road.” Looking up again, he noticed the other boy standing close by the horses, waiting for a decision to be made. Pointing at him, Robert said “Why is he with us? We have no space for hangers-on on this journey, and yet we have already taken one on who has not even told us his name yet! Tell me why we should not send him scurrying back to his little place, wherever it is!”
Valun and Richard both moved to restrain Robert, while the smaller boy slid behind one of the horses as if it would offer him some protection. Struggling to keep his own voice lower than Robert’s shouting, Valun said “That boy does not have a home to return to from here. Did you not hear what he said when we met him? I say it was my duty as the prince to tell him to come with us. He is under my protection.”
“What protection have you to offer him?”
“As much as I wish! And if you do not wish to shame yourself here you will let this matter die!”
Robert looked ready to push Valun aside, even though he was the prince. But Richard stepped between the two furious boys just in time. “Robert, let it go. You know you can not claim a victory here.”
“At the least that boy should come out and explain himself!”
Valun, for his part, had nearly cooled his head. “I grant that he will do that. You, over there! Come out and make yourself known. We can go no farther with one we do not know.”
“My name, Sirs? I am called John. If I tell you where I am from you will not believe me, but I am willing to go wherever you decide to go yourselves.” As he spoke, John had begun to move away from the animals, as if he thought that he could now consider himself included in the party rather than simply riding on the back of another’s animal.
Valun stood up. “Very well, John. We will take you at your word. See that you do not betray our trust, and we we are grown you will be richly rewarded for standing by our side in our trouble.” Turning to Richard, Valun added “We will have to see about finding John a horse of his own. Do you think there is one your stables could spare?”
Richard sheathed his sword and rose to his feet. “I think so, my lord, but if it is acceptable to you, I would like to let my family alone. Any sign of our presence around my land is likely to bring a crowd of soldiers down on my father’s head before he has prepared for them. Moreover, just for myself, I would like to stay away only because they have lost me, not to mention an excellent horse, once already, and I do not wish to put them through the whole ordeal again. By no means will I sneak in like a thief to take a horse from my own father’s stable, or anyone else’s. If John will ride, Thunder will take him as far as I want him to. The boy is not so much of a burden as all that.”
Valun turned back to John. “Is this agreeable to you?”
John answered in a strongest voice he had used to that point. “If you see fit to do that, than I will not object unless I fall off on the road, my lord. Though I feel that I must tell you the whole arrangement is making me very curious.”
Robert, who was now standing at his mount’s side again, said “It will be some time before we are required to explain any of it to you. Follow along and you’ll make it through alive.”
They all remounted without saying anything more and started off. Rather than riding straight down the road, however, they rode across the countryside a mere yard from it, judging that if soldiers were after them to ensure that they had really departed, they would be looked for on the road and missed if they were off of it.
They traveled in a single file. Richard led throughout the day, as he was most familiar with the country they were crossing and approaching. Valun spent his time watching John’s back to be sure that the boy did not lose his grip and fall.
They stopped only twice in the whole day before the sun went down. When that time came, Richard suggested that they should halt.
“We are close by the border of my father’s land. We can stay the night here in safety as well as any other placed on the road.” Leading his horse a few feet farther, he tied it to a tree while John slid to the ground without help.
Valun could only sit and watch as first Richard, and then Robert, proceeded to strip their packs from their animals, spread out their bedrolls and don hooded cloaks. He was caught by surprise when Richard flung a cloak and a bedroll at him.
“There, my lord. My father placed more on my horse than I needed. It seems he guessed this would come to pass.”
“Yes, but he did not guess that we would have yet another along.” Valun in his turn flung the cloak at the unsuspecting John, but kept the bedroll for himself. In a short time, Robert got a fire started and they had all placed themselves around it and settled down to sleep, which they all greatly desired, having been worn down by the day’s ride.
As the next morning dawned, the road and the fields around them were completely free of people. Taking this as a good sign, they went about restarting the journey so slowly that nearly two hours had passed before they remounted. This time Valun claimed the head of the line, as none of them knew the road farther east any better than the others.
In the middle of the afternoon, after passing several other villages and many travelers hurrying in both directions, they rode into a village full of houses no bigger than three rooms. As they approached, they could see people working in fields which stretched for several hundred yards beyond the cottages. As they passed through the village itself, they attracted curious looks from all manner of people. Every type, from men standing on the edges of the fields to the rough-bearded man wearing rags in the gutter stared at them as if they had never seen such finely dressed people.
A little disconcerted by the looks, Valun led the party to what looked like the central square. There he turned to the people who had been interested enough to follow them through the streets and said “I shall give a good price to the first man who will sell me a horse able to travel.”
A brawny, sun-tanned, patriarch then stepped forward. “If you will take him, my lord, I have an old boy who can still make a pace, though you can not ask him to carry more than yourself. He may not be able to go through the day, either, but I do not know that, as I have not asked him to work for me for the year past. If you will come with me you can see him for yourself.”
Valun consented, and the three nobles, with John in tow, followed the man through the streets until they reached his humble cottage hard by the fields. From there he led them to a stable large enough to hold a score of animals. Several had put their heads out over the doors to their stalls. The man greeted each one as he passed them, but did not stop until he had come near the end of the line. He stopped in front of a quiet grey, patting the animal lightly in greeting.
“Here, old boy, you’re wanted for one last job. You be sure to behave for these lords, now.”
Opening the door, the man entered and took down an old but sound bridle from the wall and slipped it onto the beast. Then he led it out and gave the reins over to Valun. “His name is Thalden. He’ll go or stop at your word, but I’ve never bade him do anything else, for to me he was only a plowhorse.”
Valun opened his purse and tossed the man a few gold pieces. “He will be happy with us. We travel far, but we do not hurry. Here, John. This is your horse.”
John slid down from Richard’s mount and climbed aboard the new animal with help from the farmer. As soon as he was firmly in the saddle, Valun indicated that they should resume the journey. They rode through the town down the main road, returning the waves of the people as they went.
On their way through the village, they were compelled to don their hoods to ward off the rain that had begun to fall. In just a few moments, however, it had become such a downpour that they had to take the next step and get shelter in the inn nearest the gate.
The place was homelike and clearly well-to-do. Valun and his companions took seats close to the fire and called for hot cider. It was some time before the drinks were ready, which allowed the travelers ample time to make themselves comfortable without aid from anything that could be provided. Nevertheless, when the cider finally came they took it cheerfully, and immediately proceeded to pour it down as if they had been parched. However, the exuberance of their drinking was soon surpassed by their regret of having done it so eagerly, due to their stinging tongues and throats, which left them breathing heavily.
As they began to suffer the consequences, the innkeeper came out from behind the bar with a large pitcher, from which he poured them large portions of what soon proved to be plain cold water. When they had drunk it all, he asked them “Who are you young bucks, where are you from, and where are you going?”
Richard, who had been first to recover, answered. “Perhaps we won’t tell you, and then where will you be? After all, you didn’t tell us to be careful.” Richard leaned forward and rested his face on the table as Robert continued the reply, followed by the other two.
“We’re making for Berunthia. We mean to travel.”
“I’m not really with them. They picked me up. I’d have had it worse otherwise. Don’t know what they’re running from.”
“Yes, we’re running. No we won’t tell you because they might make you help them. We are well-known and would rather not be pursued. All that you can do for us, like giving us food without asking questions, will be amply repaid in time.”
“In time? Are you boys too proud, or are you to poor, to repay a man so he can make his living?”
Richard reached into his wallet and dropped some large coins on the table with a sigh. “There, man. That will keep you in provision for some time, if I know anything of the value of money. Moreover, it might help you change your mind about helping us.”
The innkeeper had snapped up the gold with hawklike alacrity. He bit them one by one, then stowed them away, rubbing his jaw with his free hand. “Aye, it will at that. Let it never be said that old Bill at The Traveler’s Rest was a miser with his bargains. What do you want?”
“How far to Berunthia?”
“Only a day or so down the path, if you please, your honor.”
“We want food for three days on all our horses and a good rest.”
“You’ll get that too, my lords.”
“Very well. Give us your biggest room.”
At a sign from “old Bill,” the boys followed him upstairs into a large room with one bed and space for the four of them to spread out on the floor. They gave the host their cloaks to hang over the hearth below and then lay down for a well-deserved sheltered rest. Valun took the bed by mutual deference of the others, Richard lay across the doorway, and the other two lay themselves out the way they best liked to do so.
Valun and the others lay quietly for several minutes before Robert reminded them of the food they still wanted. “Why are we up here already? Does anyone think this is going to draw anyone off the track? I’m for supper.”
Stimulated by Robert’s action, the others joined him, and they all trooped out and into the common room. Going first to the fire to determine the progress of the heat on their cloaks, they took a table in the corner where no one could sneak up on them and called for food. When it came, they ate ravenously, albeit with a good show of the decorum they had learned in their own halls.
Valun was completely satisfied after the hearty meal, and supported in large part by all the rest he had accumulated, he called loudly for the innkeeper himself. When the man stood before them, the young prince spoke seriously, as if the man was standing before him in his own audience hall.
“Not so long ago you asked us who we are. I think I am ready for you to know. We are young nobles, fleeing to save our lives from the chaos moving across the country now, so we can not stay long. We will take our leave soon, and so I charge you, after we have left, to make sure that the people know that the house of Valun does not forget aid or hindrance, and will return to wreak its vengeance and offer its graditude in due time.”
“The house of Valun is departing? How do you know this, and who will restore the peace that you say we have lost, my young lord?”
“Perhaps the Longfurrows, perhaps the Trondales, perhaps another unknown to us. I know of what I speak because the house of Valun stands before you now. Recall my words to all who wonder.” With that, Valun led the way in rising from the table, breaking a way through the small group of patrons who had become curious at the high tones coming from the far wall, and ascended the stairs to the room they had taken for the night.