note: the character formerly known as Robert has had his name changed to Conan
Valun and his companions rose early the following morning, ate a hearty breakfast, and left the establishment without further ado. They found their mounts to be well fed, well rested and willing enough to go out onto the road again. As the inn they had stopped at was only a short distance off the track to the main road south, they were neither heeded, nor impeded in their reaching it, by anyone else who was on the streets at at that early hour.
Outside the town, they passed several other travelers, who walked with their heads down and seemed to not to notice what went on around them, so long as it did not intrude upon the space visible to their eyes. Out of common courtesy, the companions avoided the paths of others rather than compelling the walkers to avoid their own path. In these instances they did not speak unless others greeted them, and at such times they kept their words brief and moved on briskly. By sundown that day they had not, in fact, reached Berunthis, but had succeeded, by Richard’s estimate, in finally passing out of the boundaries of the land his family controlled.
They rested for the night under the roof of an old barracks in the hills. At the time of its building it had sheltered as many as fifty men, however in the recent days of peace the garrison had been reduced by half. These men regularly patrolled the road between the village of Timberton and the city of Berunthia, on continuous watch against highwaymen rumored to be hiding in the hills through which the road passed.
“Welcome, lads, to the poor shelter afforded to us here at the fort. You are welcome for the company, but will be doubly so if you can give us news of the world outside.”
Valun’s cheer of the previous evening had been worn off by the day’s ride. Feeling unready to speak at the moment, he placed himself near the fire with his hood pulled over his face, allowing his companions the floor.
Speaking did not stop Robert from going through the motions of setting up a camp for himself and his companions. He was cooling down a pair of horses as he answered the question. “The news is all bad, and I say that with perfect truth. If things continue as they are, you will soon be in need of a full garrison here just to keep the road open.”
A man distributing the garrison’s provisions paused, his hand halfway to that of the man waiting for his ration. “Really? What could have happened to make you pronounce such doom? The has not been need of full garrison here since my father was captain, and that was fifty years ago.” Prodded to do so by the others, the man finished his task as he completed the question.
This time Richard answered, as he retrieved provisions from his own saddlebags. “My companion felt the need to knock two men senseless today. Perhaps he feels that he did them a wrong they didn’t deserve.”
“Well, did they do anything to him? Slight his family, perhaps? For that I would have killed a man.”
“No, they didn’t do anything against him. But they were Southerners. Causing trouble.”
“Southerners? What are Naiberns in our land? Have they not enough for themselves? I’ve heard Naibern is the biggest country between here and the sun... though I grant you the one who told me that cared more for his drink than the news he was giving.”
By this time Robert had completed the tasks he had assigned to himself. Taking a seat between Valun and Richard, he answered “The king has vanished. The king is exiled.”
This unembellished statement was met with a measure of shock which betrayed the length of time the men of the garrison had already spent in their secluded guardpost. Most just looked stunned. Some let their jaws drop and made faltering attempts at speech. Only one, the same one who had greeted them, could say “You don’t say?”
Valun looked up from his own rations at that moment long enough to say “He does say. I was there and saw it. There is nothing more to be said.” Rising from his place, Valun moved away to lean against the wall behind him and there await the onset of sleep and the morning.
However, his rest was interrupted by John, who had remained on the outskirts of the party the whole time. The younger boy now cautiously made his way to Valun’s side and spoke up, startling the prince.
“Will you help me? That other boy, the one you called Robert, doesn’t seem to like me much. I can’t tell why, though, I can’t do anything to him.”
Feeling a measure of sympathy arise from somewhere inside himself, Valun replied quietly “I can stop him. He’ll do as I say. Don’t worry.”
“Why’s he angry all the time, though?”
“I could guess, but I don’t know why and I would rather not ask him. There are things you let a man keep to himself unless he says it first.”
Valun could tell by the change in John’s tone that the younger boy had relaxed. He was, however, caught off his guard by John’s last question.
“Who are you? Are you Robert’s brother? Is that why he does what you tell him?”
“No, I’m not his brother. My name is Valun and I’m his king.”
In response to this statement, John made a small noise of surprise and moved back to where he had come from. Valun was too slow in his own response to have this startling reaction explained, but, being comfortable where he was, made no further attempt to solve the puzzle.
The next morning, when the boys had made their preparations to leave the fort and continue on their journey, the captain of the garrison announced that the guard would turn out to see them all the way to the gates of Berunthia, the nearest city, as he felt that he could not allow boys of such an age as Valun and John appeared to be fend for themselves in dangerous territory when there were numerous guards close to hand. Accordingly, when the companions were on the road again, they were surrounded by a score of armed footmen, despite the protests of Richard to the contrary.