In Gairadane, in the capital Gaimaron, there was at that time a high festival in progress, for word had come from a swift rider that king Torlan was successful. His enemies had bowed before him, and the gates of the city of Alquon were his. Once taken, he had decreed that the city should be known by a new name to commemorate the event, and so it was called Trevlendair, the triumph of endurance. He and the men had remained there for two days to rest and replenish their supplies, but had then started back, and were, at the time of the message’s arrival, mere hours away.
It was now past midday, and the king’s daughter, Miranda, stood on the wall-top, watching for his return and knowing that there were others below who expected her to signal the first sign of the soldiers’ return. An attendant stood nearby holding a shade, and another stood on her other side, holding a pitcher and cup ready for the times when she felt the need to make use of them, but otherwise no one came within six feet of her person. They would not do so until she had sighted the king’s caravan.
Speaking to the attendant on her right, Miranda said “I have grown weary of this. Do you think my father will really come today?”
“Only the one and your father know, my lady. I will send for a seat.”
“No, do not do that, for I can see more if I stand, even though there is little more to see than the Ishbana.” Suddenly, a distant movement caught the princess’s eye. She pointed it out to her attendants, excitement lending urgency to her voice. “Look, there, where the river bends, is that not my father and his men returning?”
“It is, my lady. I see the banners too. They have taken a long path, for as you know, there are few good paths near the ford which so many can cross easily. Your father is riding at the front; show him you are watching.”
At the servant’s suggestion, Miranda first waved vigorously down at her father, who stopped in the middle of the ford and waved back as if he were a standard-bearer rallying men. Miranda then turned about and cried to the nearest sentry “Open the gates! My father has returned!”
The sentry immediately passed the message down to the people on the ground, and the happy commotion among the people at that level soon grew louder and even more confused, as people jostled each other roughly as they each tried to gain a prime position from which to watch the entrance of the victorious men. In addition to the general bustle, paths had to be cleared for the wardens who opened the gates and the little princess herself to come closest of all.
The wardens pulled the gates open without waiting, which was a fortunate decision, as the king was almost on the threshold. Even as the gates were opening, he led his parade of men through and into the city without allowing his animal to break its stride. But when he caught sight of his daughter, he stopped his horse before her seat and raised her up onto it before him, and only then did he continue down the path which led to the palace.
The line of men who entered behind the king were the hardiest the desert could produce, and their bearing as they marched through the throngs of their countrymen displayed that fact in all its glory. Their armor, such as it was, was dusty and dull from the journey, and their expressions were those of serious men who had seen much to be serious about. However, none of them was above relaxing this demeanor, as here and there men spotted loved ones or friends who cheered their particular return with unusual vigor, and waved back or even broke ranks to reunite themselves with those they most wanted to meet.
In the midst of these thousands of men wearing armor and marching proudly behind the Gairidane banner of the horse and the river, there were many who marched with tired steps and hangdog looks, and did not examine the crowd looking for those who looked for them. These were prisoners, men from the East who had defended their homes as well as they were able, only to fall to the superior might of king Torlan and his men. Their valor, the king had determined, merited a fair amount of respect, and so they were not bound together, nor were their goods spoiled. Only they themselves were taken from their homes, with the assurance that some would eventually be allowed to return to those who knew them.
The king rode with his daughter until they came to the palace, which was situated in the heart of the city. There they dismounted, acknowledging the waves of people who stood by, and went in.
As they crossed the courtyard, attendants came to wait upon them without call or signal being given. One took the king’s horse away to the stables, while at the same time a page took his helm and shield and went away with them. When these attendants had departed, Torlan and Miranda crossed the courtyard and entered the great hall, where more attendants were waiting to bring them refreshments. With a few words to send these on their way, the royalty took seats at the high table.
“Was it hard, father?”
“Was it terribly hard? The fighting, I mean.”
“Who told you there was any? I grant that some men died back there, but of real fighting there was little. The real hardship was to be away from my darling daughter and her mother for so long. How is your mother? Why has she not come down to welcome her victorious hero?”
“My mother is not well today, but she expects to better tomorrow.”
“You may tell her she may stay where she is as long as she likes. I am back, and I do not intend to leave again for some time. Has there been news of your uncle?”
Taking a portion of the food a servant was then offering, Miranda said “My uncle? Who is my uncle?”
Taking some of the same fare, Torlan laughed at the surprise in his daughter’s voice. “Ah, so I see he has not returned. My brother Railon left this city before your time. He has not been seen in these parts since. Thus he is making me very worried.”
“Why did he leave?”
“He would leave the castle as a boy. As a man he left the country. Perhaps he thought the sand was cooler somewhere else.” Setting down his cup, he rose from the table. “I must rest. Send word if anything happens.” With that, he left the room.
“I will, father.”
After Torlan had left, Miranda remained in the room alone. The moment she had eaten all she wanted, she had it cleared away and called for music. Two servants dutifully produced instruments rather like dulcimers and proceeded to play lively tunes on them while the princess skipped gaily about the huge room.
When at last this grew tiring, she sent the instruments away and went upstairs with the intention of visiting her parents. At the door, she had herself announced by the attendant who had been following close behind, and went in.
Her father had seated himself in a throne-like chair at one end of the large room. Her mother was still in the bed where Miranda had left her to take up the station on the wall. Going first to the queen, Miranda reported “I stayed out there the whole time, until father arrived, the way you asked me to.”
The queen reached out and stroked her daughter’s hair gently. “It was quite a task, and I am proud that my girl was up to it. It is a special task to wait for the return of the men on such an occasion.”
“What other occasions could there be for such waiting, in a country like this one?”
“More than you know, which you will learn when the time comes.”
Miranda climbed up and sat on the edge of the large bed. “Why must I not know now?”
“Because you are young, too young to trouble yourself with such things as when your husband will come to claim you.... There, I have said it. Run along now.”
Miranda obediently sprang down to the floor again, but she did not run far, as her father then called her over. “Come, my daughter.I did not allow myself enough time with you before, and I want you back before you run off.” Setting her on his knee, he asked “So, what has my girl done while I was away?”
“What can I tell you, father? I sang and played and waited on mother when she wanted me. I did not know I was supposed to do more than that.” She was facing the far wall as she spoke, studying a carved figure which had been set upon a little table near the window. As soon as Torlan had let her down, she ran over to it and brought it back to him. “What is this? I have looked at for a long time and I can not understand it.”
The carving she was holding had been intended to represent a soldier on horseback, but the workmanship was so poor that only by careful thought could a person decide exactly what it was: perhaps a centaur, perhaps a monster of legend, or perhaps a soldier, but it remained unclear.
As his attention was turned toward the thing, Torlan’s mood visibly changed from contentment to one of smoldering anger. “I will not speak of that now. Another time, perhaps, but not now. Take it back and leave it there.” Without warning, he thrust himself out of the chair and left the room.