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.
When they had come down from the hills and could see the city of Berunthia only a few miles away, they were met by a squad of soldiers carrying shields on their arms coming from the other direction. The shields bore the device of a guardhouse tower built atop a hill, which was backed by a red field.
The two parties each slackened their pace as they drew near each other and stopped short as the captain of the men of the city called out “Who comes to the city? Are you Corridanes or not?”
Valun had by now recognized the device on the shields as that of his clan, the Hightowers, who had been dukes of Berunthia for generations past. “Stand down. I am Valun, crown prince, and a Hightower on both sides. The boys are my companions. The men are the garrison of the hill-fort.”
When Valun had announced himself, the guards from the city saluted in a body and parted their ranks so that the company could pass through. Once the boys had done so, the Hightower men-at-arms fell in behind them, while the garrison of the fort stopped and turned back towards their post.
At Valun’s request, the soldiers took them directly to the Duke’s residence, which was situated in the center of the city. It took some time to reach the gates of the ducal villa, but once approached, these were easily opened at a word from the captain of the guard.
“The prince has come to visit his kinsman, Tyrone of Berunthia.”
As quickly as the gates were opened, the companions passed through them, while the men-at-arms remained outside the gate by the command of their captain. Valun and his companions dismounted in the courtyard, allowing house grooms to take the animals away for their own refreshment. Meanwhile, the boys were ushered into the house by the steward, who had appeared in response to the call by the gatekeepers. The steward then brought them into the great hall, where they were asked to wait until Duke Tyrone could come to them.
Duke Tyrone himself came on the scene a short time later. The duke, Valun’s uncle, was a singularly unimposing man who never would have risen to any position of prominence without the help of the lineage he had been born into. His black hair was brushed back to reveal a high forehead, and he had, possibly for the occasion of the royal visit, even though he was of the of the royal blood himself, donned a robe of gold thread. His personality was one of willing sympathy to friends, yet if crossed he was quick to do everything in his power against the perpetrator. He greeted the boys with astonishment.
“What can the prince want with me? I hope he has heard no ill news of my tenure here?”
Valun stepped forward, as his companions remained respectfully silent and motionless. “I have heard nothing of you that was good or ill, uncle. It seems that news is travelling slowly in these days of trouble. If that is the case, it is the fault of the false councillor who recently took my place and exiled me for deigning to dispute his position.”
“Is that so? Have you come for help, then? I will call all our men and send them to storm the castle as soon as you give the word.”
No, uncle, I can not ask you to do that. Our enemy is gaining more men by the day. It would be a needless slaughter. I have come to ask you to aid in my departure, so that I may return another day to restore the balance of our country.”
“If that is your word as ruler, it shall be done, though I would rather have fought. A boat shall be manned tomorrow.”
As the duke left the room, presumably to see to the preparations for having a boat made ready as quickly as he said that it would be, Valun was confronted by his two companions of the road.
Richard strode forward. “You know, you heard from us, that our fathers were speaking of rebellion in your name, and yet you tell your own family that resistance is futile? What do you mean?”
Conan simply crossed his arms and said, so softly that Valun almost failed to catch it, “They will die. And who will be there to aid them? I should not have gone away.”
Valun, taken aback by his companion’s anger, was slow to defend himself. “But you, both of you, told me that your fathers had laid commands on you to ride with me. Your fathers are men who command men. they themselves know best what they intend to do. Is it not better for all of us that we should take ship and save ourselves to fight another day, than to throw ourselves against strong men and die with our lives ahead of us? I do not trust myself, at such an age, to command the council of men like your father, but I am the son of the king and a Hightower, so in the absence of my father I am doubly bound to direct the council of those who share my name. To them I may speak my mind and spare no words.”
Neither Richard or Conan made any answer to this speech. They each separated from the others and pointedly looked away from Valun himself, who began to feel oppressed by the silence his self-expression had brought upon him. Fortunately, Duke Tyrone returned before the situation could deteriorate any further.
“Come, boys, food has been prepared for you on the smaller room. I expect you shall enjoy it. I ask that you at least make an effort to do so, since you intend to depart soon. I do not want you to leave your country with a bad taste in your mouths.”
This statement dispelled the air of hostility which had filled the room in the duke’s absence. The boys thanked him in turn and followed him into a separate room, where a small table had been laid with all the arrangements necessary for a hearty meal.
As they ate together, the coldness between them evaporated. Spurred on Richard and his garrulous attitude, they soon found themselves making jokes at each other’s expense as freely as if there had never been a chill. The duke ate with them for a short time, but left before they had finished to ensure that the preparations for their departure could be finished in good time.
When the duke returned, the boys took it as their cue to rise from the table and follow him to another part of the castle, where he gave them each more supplies of their own to take along into their exile. As he passed them each their own, he said “Keep these in memory, but use them well. I do not expect that I shall see anything return with you, even if I live long enough to see you bring yourselves back. Keep the sun and the wind at your back, and get your own food and drink when you can. There is no knowing where this Keltran will stop, so keep your heads down in the strange lands.”
As they took in the duke’s advice, the boys had been examining the contents of the sacks given them, in which they had each found a pair of leather gloves and sheathed dagger of the best Corridane workmanship. All the articles were embellished with the sign of the watchtower.
Speaking for Conan and John, Richard accepted the gifts as if their value was greater than his words could describe. “Thank you, sir. I will, as I trust my companions will, keep these things safe as a mark of the respect which the house of the king seems to deem us worthy.”
Valun then said “For myself I will keep it as I sign that I shall return and make things right again.”
Duke Tyrone placed a hand on his nephew’s shoulder. “If it is a sign, it is a small one indeed. But high words can make a clod of soil something to die for, if only because that is where you want to raise the hall your children will enjoy. Let me offer you good speed on your journey, and now let the servants take you to your rooms. You shall depart from Corridane early tomorrow, if you are still determined to do so.”