Valun woke the next morning to sunlight coming so sharply through the window that he could see the dust motes hanging in the air. He relaxed in the bed for some minutes, fascinated by the fact of seeing the light appear and make an insubstantial bar across the room. He was just beginning to settle down to the prospect of gaining yet more sleep when the door was rudely thrown open to reveal Richard standing in the breach, helm on head and sword belted at his side, like some vengeful hero of old.
Conan stood at Richard’s side, and John had found a place underneath the Longfurrow’s outstretched right arm, which that boy was using to prevent the door from swinging back on him and his friends from the shock of the blow. “Up, my lord Prince, and take the reins of the day! We were told by your kinsman that it would be an early start, and yet we find you lying abed as you cared nothing for our trouble.”
Shocked to full awareness by this abrupt start to the day, Valun threw back the covers and leapt from the bed sufficiently prepared at once, having rested in the same clothes he had worn into the villa. It was then the work of few moments for him to replace his riding boots upon his legs and his belt and sword around his waist. “I stand ready, my friends. I understand that we are to leave?”
Conan’s tone was frosty. “We should have done so already. The duke’s men have come to him once already to ask when or if we were ever going to start.”
“What is the time now?”
“Four hours after sunrise. The boatmen came for us when the the third had passed. We did not think you would have such need for rest.”
“Well, You have got me up now. Come along then.”
On the ground floor of the house, they met the duke, who showed great relief at the sight of his four guests prepared to depart.
“You had best get yourself down to the dock straightway. My men are impatient to start.”
“Thank you for keeping us under your roof, sir. There is nothing keeping us here and we will be off now, by your leave.”
“You have that without asking. Godspeed be with you and your minds and arms in your exile.”
With that, the boys took their leave. They found their horses prepared and waiting in the courtyard, and all of them mounted without wasting words. Just before they rode through the open gate, duke Tyrone came to his door with some bags in his hands. “You left these. They were just found in your rooms.”
Stopping short, Valun, John, and Conan wheeled about and took their parting gifts from the duke. Richard, who was already wearing the contents of his own sack, waited for them alongside the gate.
When they finally managed to get out of the duke’s villa, they were picked up in moments by men-at-arms who had been standing nearby all night. They were then guided straight to the correct vessel, where they were left to themselves.
Fortunately, there was a man on the lookout for them who lost no time in alerting his fellows, so that the boys were aboard the vessel not ten minutes after they had arrived at it. The boys then saw to their horses security for themselves, and after this was done, went about securing berths for themselves. However, they could find none, as the ship was not intended to hold more than its full complement of men at any point in its normal operation. Having discovered this, Valun subsequently gained an audience with the captain.
“My companions and I have no berths. What is to be done about it?”
Looking up from the inventory of cargo which had been handed to him but a minute prior to Valun’s entrance, the captain said “Nothing can or will be done about it. You were taken on short notice as a favor, onto a vessel that does not have the space for you. We can barely fit your horses. If you want to share their bedding, you may do that. Or you may sleep on the deck. It is all the same to me until I can get you off my boat, which I will do gladly. Name the moment. I have no more time for you. Go.”
Dismissed like a common menial, Valun left, steaming at the captain’s bluntness. When Richard approached, with anxiety evident on his face, Valun brushed him off and moved to the end of the boat. He sat there alone for some time before John approached, looking ready to run away at a sign of trouble. However, by this time Valun was indifferent to to the world. He hardly noticed as the boy came nearer, and offered the same small degree of attention to the words John was saying at him.
“Is it really that hard to give it up? Why should it matter so much that you have to ignore your friends? What is upsetting you, anyway?”
At this sharp question, Valun woke up and said “The man doesn’t care. He thinks we’re only so much baggage and he could care less what happens to us. But we’re nobles! We are not to be ignored, like that!”
“Oh, is that all it is? You live, and someone doesn’t care where, or for how long. There are people yet who don’t know your name. Are you going to hunt them down, shout it in their faces, and then slay them for the crime of not knowing you? I wanted to help, but there is no help in your case.” In one abrupt motion, John rose and moved away.
In the end, the young exiles passed their nights on the deck, wrapped in the cloaks they had brought from their homes. Valun’s worries about the lack of comfort on board were dispelled, as the natural rolling motion of the boat moving down the river worked as well as any sleeping-draught in bringing him to look upon that dark palette where thoughts and dreams are wont to play out before one’s eyes.
They had spent four nights on board before they came within sight of the village of Quage in Ronaiera. True to his word, the captain of the boat wasted no time in coming to shore only as long as it took Valun and his friends to disembark with their animals and baggage. As soon as they were safely off the boat, they found themselves watching helplessly as the vessel moved back into the river without a sign that anyone aboard it cared that some of the lights of Corridane’s future stood alone in a land unknown to them.
When the boat had nearly disappeared over the horizon, Valun turned to his friends with a sigh of resignation. “What shall we do with ourselves? We are lost here.”
Richard soon replied “Perhaps we should travel to the capital city and throw ourselves upon the mercy of the king. But I am ahead of myself. We shall have to find the capital before we do that, and none of us knows where it lies.”
Suddenly, John spoke up, startling the others with his confidence. “If you please to follow me, I know my way about here. My father is a traveler, and I have been this way with him many times already.”
Maintaining a respectful tone, Valun answered “So you know your way around, do you? Very well, you shall lead us. Where do we go from here?”
John, who had dismounted to walk about during the pause, remounted and turned his horse slowly toward the village visible in the distance. Speaking over his shoulder, he explained “First, we get to the town. Then we ride north on the road that will take us to the capital.”
As the Corridanes started off after their young companion, Valun was forced to pull up for a moment as Conan came alongside him and began to speak.
“Are you really ready to trust him? We don’t know him, but he knows this place, and he might very well be leading us to a trap.”
“Is it really so hard to believe a man is speaking the truth? He’s told me you frighten him. I for one am certain that he would not lead us into danger he thought we might escape from it, if that was really his plan. A boy so young would not devise such a threat from his own mind, since we have yet done nothing to harm him. Keep your thoughts in your mind, your hand on your sword, and watch for men, if you so desire.” With this, Valun spurred his horse forward to catch up with Richard, who had stayed close beside John. Conan slipped behind them all and so brought up the rear.
The village had no power to hold their interest, being nothing more than a collection of fishermen’s huts. They took what direction they could get from those who stood by, and were out of the town before the hour had run out.
At about mid-afternoon, Conan’s horse stumbled over a rock in the path and soon pulled up, unable to go on with Conan’s weight on its back. The others halted and stood by as the Trondale, relaxing his customary stoicism and allowing a genuine display of deep pity for the beast, removed the reins and saddle, Tying them together in such a way as to support them on his own shoulders, he hoisted this burden upon his back, grasped the horse’s mane with his right hand, and announced “I can go as fast as Stalthcat can manage for as long as you wish. If that must be done, I will do it myself.”
They travelled in this manner until twilight fell. As Valun watched, Conan, who had made the task his own early on in the journey, tended to the horses, showing more favoritism to his own steed than he had done up to that day. The task of arranging the campsite and the night’s fire was therefore left to Richard and John, who went about the usual tasks with the amiability that came naturally to the elder and, from the younger, was born of his acceptance of having been included in the party.
From his position on a rock at the edge of the declared border of the camp, Valun could see that Richard was treating John as he might a brother, and John, though still awkward, was enjoying such companionship and willingly accepting the bits of advice and jocularity which the Longfurrow was propelling in his direction.
While he was sitting there, reminded by the cheer of his companions of his own father and brother, and even his mother, who, though she had taken ill and died about a year after Valnor’s birth, he himself was old enough to remember, and being plunged into the dark abyss of misery by his own happy memories, was joined by Conan, who had, for the time, removed his burden. The older boy also appeared to be in a dark mood, but as that was the expression he was wont to wear, Valun decided to wait until he had explained himself.
After a moment of silence as they both watched the others sparking the fire, Conan released his breath in a sharp blow and spoke. “The fortunate ones. They are over there, moving, doing, and playing with rocks. The unfortunates sit here, perched together on top of one.”
Not taking his eyes off the others, Valun asked “In what way, Conan, are they fortunate, while we are not? We are together on this journey by choice and bear the same hardships.”
“You see as well as I that are happy. Are you? Do you think I am?”
“No. But the others are making the best of it, while we sit here stewing our pots of misery, wasting away over what we had. Do you want to know the reason why they are happy?”
“If you intend to say “it’s because they decided to be friends” I want no part of it. I have disliked John since we met and I have seen nothing to turn my mind. If Richard wants to make friends with mysteries, let him. But I believe nothing good will come of a street urchin who says he’s been stolen and won’t tell us where his home is. Moreover, he admits that he knows this country, and yet still refuses to tell us where he is going or why he is still with us.”
Reaching down to deal with an itch he felt at his left knee, Valun answered diplomatically “There is perhaps something in that. While we were resting in the fort back in Corridane, he asked me who I was. When I told him I was Valun, the prince, he fled, as if he thought he would catch his death of me. John is afraid of us both, and also afraid to leave us or tell us everything. He has my pity and I thank Richard for being a friend to him. How is your horse?”
“Stalthat survived. It may be nothing more than a stone in his hoof, or he may be lame. I can not see tonight, so I will discover the truth at first light. I will miss that animal. He was one of my father’s best, and my favorite since I could first ride. If I lose him I do not think I shall be happy again until the time I stand once more in my father’s hall. It was the day of my sister’s ninth year. I shall search for something rare to make amends when I return”
By this time Richard and John had a fire well established. Richard was now urging them to come nearer while John grilled the fish they had bought in their only pause that day. As Valun and Conan approached, Richard laughed and said “Not planning to leave us, are you? We’re just two helpless boys. If you two leave us we’ll be lost.”
“Not lost,” Conan answered under his breath “Didn't that one say he knows this country?”
“Come now, my rock of misery. I must have you about or I would forget to be sad. The air, the trees, the birds, the water, all free and easy. They lighten my heart and carry it to heights unknown. And then I look upon your face and I plunge under the earth, where you would live if you could. Have some fish.” With this last remark, Richard removed a portion from their dinner and tossed it at Conan, who caught it and thrust it in his mouth before it could burn his hand. Then he gasped.
“Ach! Bones! Be more careful or you’ll kill me, and then you can be happy all your days.” Hands on knees, Conan drew several long breaths and then took a seat.
“Alas! If your iron throat can’t take it, we’re all dead.” Spreading his full length on the grass, Richard sighed. “I shall tell you a tale.” With this warning he proceeded to relate to them a tale which had been told to their grandfathers. It was one that had been known to Valun and Conan since they were young, and it was one of those that was still recited long into the future, yet at that time they thought they had never heard it told better.
Early the next day, Valun was brought out his dreams by sharp cries from Conan. Shocked at what he was hearing, he leapt up, looking about in a haze of confusion to discover the situation. Seeing nothing, he hurried to Conan’s side to inquire.
Conan was standing in the midst of the area he had cleared for the horses, looking sour, as was his wont. The only thing that seemed out of place was that were no horses. “Taken! They haven’t run off on their own. The ropes are gone too. Ironheel, Thunder, and the other are completely gone. The only one left is Stalthcat, left behind because he still won’t carry anyone. I’ve looked - it was just a stone. He tried to follow Richard, but I refused to let him risk his neck.”
Richard and John, whose absence Valun had failed to notice when he had first risen, now arrived on the scene, jogging at an easy pace. Richard stopped short at sight of them, then trod lightly around behind their backs until he was standing to the left of the others. Removing his Corridane gloves, he announced “We followed the tracks as far as they went. There’s a creek down below the rise. The bandits have taken the wise course and driven our animals straight down the center, for there are no tracks on either side for some distance around.”
Valun turned on Richard, determined to know everything. “But you did find them before you returned?”
Pulling the gloves back on, Richard answered “I did not, but I am ready to lead you down to the spot and begin again if you so desire. It is your decision we wait for: to go down and hunt for the animals till we discover them, and perhaps die, or to continue down the road, with little better chance of succeeding in our venture.”
With hardly a pause, Valun at once opened his own sack, which he had placed on his belt, pulled on the gloves, attached the dagger to his belt, and said “We shall take the road. We should go quickly, before our hidden foes have more time to regret leaving us out of their power.”
Richard, who had made similar preparations, said “Thus says the king. We walk, on the road. John, lead us straight, and stop for no churls, high-born or not!”
After some effort to purge the signs of their camp from the glen, the companions made for the road, which was not more than twenty yards from that last camp. However, before they reached the path, the others had to stop and watch as Conan conferred with his horse for a moment, leaning close to its head as if discussing secrets with it. Hardly a minute later, Conan announced the decision.
“Stalthcat shall go free. Are not our own legs enough to take us there? Would we move faster with one hobbled horse? I think not.” Having said this, he patted the horse on the neck and said to it “Run free, until you run no more.” Then, while the companions watched, the horse turned in the opposite direction and soon disappeared.
When they first began walking down the path, the collective spirit of the party was one of relieved disappointment. However, it soon turned to general merriment as Richard began to sing an old comic song, performed each of the voices perfectly, and thereby put stitches in the sides of all of his companions, even the dour Conan. Their cheer lent new vigor to their step, and before long, they were striding smoothly along to the beat of a well-worn chant with a simple melody, which even John was able to pick up quickly enough to join in.
They passed an hour in such a manner, and then paused by the side of a brook which had its bed close by from the road. They resolved to spend some time there, as the spot had an aura of release about it which they had not felt in some time, and all wanted to feel again before subjecting themselves to the ordeal of making their own lives, which as yet none of them had endured.
After the passage of some time, Valun, who had removed his boots the better to recover the strength to walk, caught sight of a sudden movement through the open field in the distance. The cloaked figure was much closer before Valun was able to determine that it was a man attempting to remain hidden from his sight while gaining ground on him at the same time. Not bothering to pull on the boots, yet snatching them up as he rose, Valun called to his friends, alerting them to the imminent danger.
Conan, who had been dozing, and Richard, who had been watching the road, hurried to Valun’s side to discover the reason for themselves. In a moment, Richard had spotted the man and drawn his blade.
“Say the word, my lord. Shall we slay him or take him alive?”
“You think you can? I would rather we discovered his intention concerning us first. Keep the knives close at hand, he may think we are unarmed. Where is John?”
Displaying surprise at the suggestion of cautious tactics, Richard answered “John? He went back onto the road but moments ago. He said he had heard something and did not want to bring us to undue trouble.”
They both fell silent as Conan said “No good will come of this. Look, we three have been sighted. Be on the watch now.”
Valun then took charge again because the others looked to him in respect to his rank. “Fall back and spread apart once more. Perhaps our man will decide we have lost sight of him.”
“A wise move, my lord. I think we will win this game yet. However, I would put your boots on.” Richard backed away.
“I can not. He may spring upon me on the ground. Then what shall I do?”
“That, my lord, is why a soldier draws his boots on standing up. Come back to this tree here.”
Taking the advice, Valun took his boots in his hand once more, treading lightly over the damp grass, and moved back toward the broad tree alongside which Richard had taken up his station. However, before he had crossed the few yards between himself and the tree in question, he heard Conan call out “Move faster, my lord, for he is almost upon you!”
At the shock of the cry Valun froze, and then did the first thing that came to mind: he spun about and hurled a riding boot at the oncoming attacker, narrowly missing Conan, who was closing in on the man himself.
The attacker was able to dodge the impromptu missile, but not the oncoming boy, who dove underneath the distraction and took his quarry by the legs, thus reversing the parties’ fortunes.
As Richard and the still bootless prince came alongside and watched, Conan drew his Corridane knife and growled in his captive’s face, demanding information.
The hunter-turned-captive was clean-shaven, small and wiry, yet bore several scars which attested fluently to his mastery of the rough life he had taken. Without flinching at the blade which nearly touched his face, he lifted an arm, pulled back the sleeve, and showed the boys a brand mark still visible in the flesh.
“You see that, boys? I’ve been caught doing this before, by ones with more power than you have. They burned my arm and it didn’t scare me off. They caught me again, locked me up, said I’d live if I swore to honor the king’s laws forever after, and not go stealing on the roads no more. I escaped, didn’t promise nothin’, joined up with my friends again. I must be getting old, to be caught by the likes of you. Never had a trade. Robbin’s all I know. And I like it, cause robbin’ a man and watchin’ him beg for a nag to get home on is more enjoyment than most men deserve. I’d have had you all too, but my friends are late. You can kill me now, if you’re man enough.”
Rolling off the man and sheathing his blade, Conan stood up and remarked “I’ve worked hard on my father’s farm all my life. If you’ll wrestle me I’ll show what a man can do if he leaves good men alone.”
The man did not rise immediately, so Richard prodded him with his sword. “Wrestle Conan or die. He might let you go, but I prefer to get rid of you quickly.”
The bandit lost no more time in rising from the ground. As he strode to the line Conan had marked, Valun observed he proved to match Conan’s height, yet seemed to be allowing a great advantage in raw strength. However, he showed no qualms in toeing the line, even inviting Conan to take the first hold.
Even as Conan lunged for the grip, Richard, who appeared to have seen something the others had not, shouted “It’s a trap!” Conan stumbled as he missed his first hold, which the man had easily avoided as it came. Breaking his fall with his hands, Conan promptly rolled over on his back so that his opponent’s feet were now underneath him.
The man was clearly taken aback by such a move, occupied as he was with the motions of drawing a blade and preparing to attack Conan with it where he lay. However, Conan had his face upward again in time to catch the glint of the light on the blade, and with a lightning motion of his own he grasped the man’s descending arm in his own grip, pulled himself upright with the help of his startled opponent’s own resistance, and was ready once more.
This time, the combatants fell to circling around each other, never relaxing their gaze one toward the other. Suddenly, Conan drew the Corridane knife given to him by the duke and took it firmly in his hand. When the bandit attacked a moment later, Conan blocked his strike and grabbed the knife hand. The bandit then boxed Conan’s ear with his free hand, which caused the boy to stumble back, releasing the man. The man pressed his advantage and lunged again. But again Conan caught the man’s wrist, bending his foe’s arm backward so that Conan’s own blade rested perilously close to the other’s face. In response to this, the bandit punched Conan on his right eye, causing him to again fall back in pain. This time the man sprang forward to finish the combat, but Richard came between the two duelists just as quickly, menacing the man with the point of his long sword and forcing him away.
Richard’s action allowed Conan time to shake off his injury for the moment, and the Trondale lost no time in coming around beside his enemy, lifting him from the ground, and throwing him down without pausing to speak. When Conan next attempted this maneuver, the bandit sliced into his left arm. But, appearing not to notice the injury, Conan pulled his opponent from the ground by an arm, and immediately boxed him down again, so hard that the man rolled over until he lay sprawled in the creek and did not immediately move.
Having thus conquered his enemy, Conan took steps to recover from the injuries he had suffered in the course of the fight. Going down to the brook a few yards off from the man, he splashed the water all over his face and arm, washing them clean. Having done this, he moved to stand over his opponent and sliced strips from the man’s cloak, explaining it away as “...the spoils of battle. In the end, I defeated him myself.” Then, plucking some of such sweet-smelling herbs as he found nearby, he soaked them on the bandages and bound the whole over the cut and the eye which had been hurt.
While Conan was thus occupied, Valun took the opportunity afforded by the cessation of battle, and retrieved the boot which he had thrown away to such little effect. As he pulled it on and made to turn about, he heard a voice which warned him and his companions. “You are our prisoners. To move is to die.” Afraid of bringing more danger down upon his friends, Valun did not move and hoped that his friends had also heeded the warning. Presently the voice inquired “Where’s Talthair? Has he lost the trail?”
Valun then heard Richard answer haughtily “Your friend arrived early and met a fight he could not win. If you have our companion, the boy John, bring him out or I will fight you all.”
“All of us? It seems we have a hero back from the dead, friends. Shall we take him back to our hall and honor him with a great feast? Bring the boy out and he will say whether we have his friend or not.”
A moment later, Valun, who still had his back toward the scene, heard John pouring out an apology at Richard. “I heard them coming but I didn’t want to trouble you so I went to see who they were and they saw me. I ran then, but they ran me down and made me say where I had come from.” Then John was silenced and no further speech was heard until all the companions were bound together, with their hands bound separately before them, and marching down the road.