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Corrandion, Corridane
I am JT, Ringer, nutjob, and archer, in that order. I like animated films, epic films, book films, movie music, folk music, and the occasional random other thing. I make friends by accident and like it that way...

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22 January 2015

Price of a Throne, Chapter 14

Chapter 14

        In the ten years which had passed since he had been first brought to the Ronair city of Taronga, Valun Hightower had grown both physically and mentally. At twenty-five years of age he was taller than most men by as many as four to five inches. In his time with the old smith, he had also grown proficient in both the native language and the skill of the smith. But he was no longer with the same man who had first taken him on.
        The old smith had died suddenly four years ago, and his widow then decided to take the invitation extended by her brother, who was himself a prosperous artisan in the capital. At this time she had restored to Valun his freedom, but with no knowledge of the country and no idea of where his companions could be found, he decided to remain with the family until some news of his friends could be heard. Accordingly, he traveled to the capital and was taken on as an apprentice by the widow’s brother, who was a silversmith of renown who often served the nobility.
        Valun took great care to learn everything the skill required, and by the early months of the fourth year, he was turning out work which brought good prices, sometimes even from the nobles, who were accustomed to the work of the master of the shop. It so happened that in a middle month of that year, a great fair was held in the capital to celebrate the coming of age of the king’s successor, who had been a ward of the state until now. At a fair such as this, almost every tradesman in the great cities of the nation would strive to be represented in some way, and the sheer volume of people coming to the capital would bring the activity of the whole country grinding
 to a halt.
        The master craftsman, having experienced one great fair of the capital in his lifetime, was not eager at his age to immerse himself in the clamor and bustle again. Therefore, he sent Valun, as his most mature apprentice, to take up a spot in his stead. Valun took up the task with a light heart, for he had hope that this fair would answer his greatest question: that of how to find his friends and gain a chance to reclaim his own country.
        So Valun received permission from the master to set up the stall the night before the fair was opened, gathered what was required, and went out into the city, only to find that many men had already had the same idea. Fighting his way through this preliminary traffic, and the unseen cloud of odors, which was not subdued in the least despite the fact that dusk was coming on, Valun finally brought himself as close to the palace as he could within the limits allowed to the artisans and the constraints of other vendors who had set up before him.
        He erected the stall with the help of workers who were being employed by the palace expressly for the purpose of ensuring that the great fair ran smoothly. He had taken several pieces of the master’s work, and some that he had done himself, from the workshop, and these he now took from the cart. Not bothering to unwrap any of them now since dark was soon to come, he armed himself with a stout rod five feet long, took up the blanket he had brought, and shut himself inside the stall to watch, and perhaps sleep a little, through the night. The master had offered to hire men for the watching, but Valun, determined to see everything through to the end, had insisted upon doing it himself. As he took up his position, he checked again to make sure that the little bag which held the evidence of his birthright was still around his neck. Throughout the journey he had never removed it, for it held a copy of the seal of the Hightower family, and thus was his only way of proving that he had any connection to the Corridane royal family.
        Valun woke the next morning with ample time to prepare for the crowds. Carefully, he took down each piece, removed its rough wrapping, and gave it a quick polish to ensure that no blemishes were visible on it. As he finished with each one he restored to its place on the shelves that ran around the sides of the stall. While he did this he stole several glances out into the street to see if he might spot one of his companions.
        But this was even before the fair had been officially opened, and there was no one on the streets yet except for those going about normal business and the hired helpers patrolling the streets. But suddenly a great noise of bells and horns broke the tranquility of the setting; the gates were opening, and on this day, that marked the start of the festival and fair.
        It was not long before such a mass a people was in the street that Valun wondered that anyone was able to see anything, to say nothing of buying it and getting it away. And then, remembering his duty to the shop master, he began to call out in a loud voice, competing with those in the stalls nearby. “Fine silver! Fine silver! Plates! Cups! Candlesticks! Fine silver!” He went on like this until he was calling faster than he could restore his breath, but it did not matter, for by this time he had drawn a fair share of the crowd and could lower his voice to make the sales.
        The selling, and the haggling that came with it, went on for several minutes, but by the time his first crowd had dispersed to make room for another, several good pieces were gone from the shelves and the strongbox he kept close at hand had filled to a good level. However, his thoughts easily strayed from the business at hand and he often found himself looking into the crowd for a tall man with red hair or studying tradesmen who might prove to be Conan Trondale. For he did not know where his friends had been taken and held some hope that they might have gained access to this fair, as it seemed everyone else had. However, although he saw some red-headed men and more tall men, he spotted none who had both attributes together. He did see a few who could have been a match for Conan, but he had no way of confirming his hopes, for none of them came close enough to his stall, or answered his hopeful calls of his countryman’s name. So his business continued throughout the day, and he sold one or two pieces each time a group approached him.
        Finally, when the fair was closed for that day, not wanting to spend another night in the cold on the street, he paid one of the fair assistants to watch the stall, barred it, and took the strongbox back to the home of the master.
        The second day proceeded in much the same manner as the first had, except that the crowd seemed somewhat thinner and his business proceeded more slowly than it had before. He was thankful for this, because it gave him more time to watch the crowd for a sight of his friends. In the middle of the afternoon, as his hope was beginning to fail again, his vigilance was at last rewarded in part: He caught sight of a tall man, perhaps his own height, who did have red hair. Valun’s spirits improved at once, and though he had barely gotten his voice back from the exertion of the previous day, so overjoyed was he to see one who might prove to be his fellow Corridane that he began to call out his companion’s family name, hoping that it would carry through the crowd.
        Even as he watched, the man seemed to stop in his tracks, pause, and turn in the direction of Valun’s stall. Moments later, the man’s long strides had carried him to the silversmith’s stall and he was greeting the crown prince-cum-apprentice vendor, for it was Richard Longfurrow whom Valun had seen.
        “My lord! Whatever are you doing on the wrong side of a tradesman’s stall at the great fair? You should be on this side, with me!”
        Valun kept his voice low, admonishing his countryman. “Don’t go shouting out that I am your lord. I have not yet proclaimed myself. You are here to buy, and I to sell. Have you news of Conan, or the boy John who followed us?”
        “I hear and obey. How much do you want for those candlesticks up there?” Richard asked, lowering his tone to the usual level. “Some fortune, good or bad, has struck you all at once. i do indeed have news of both of them, some old and bad, some newer and not so bad. Which do you want first?”
        Taking down the items Richard had pointed out, Valun set them on the counter before him to complete their picture of a common transaction. “The old and bad. These will cost you 30 Rodines.”
        “The old and bad news concerns the Trondale. He escaped from his masters once, years ago, seven years now. He was found and taken away bound. I know not where he can be found now. My master will pay 24. The newer and less bad news is that the king’s heir in whose honor this festival is given is that same boy John. He is now the crown prince of this place, and if he acknowledges any claims of friendship or protection, we have a right that he should see us released from our bonds.”
        “27 is my final offer. That is news I can make use of. What have you been doing with yourself, and do you know when this fair might end?”
        “I will take it. I have travelled the country, if you would believe. I am newly anointed bard to the house of DeLane, and I fear nothing short of a royal edict will get me my freedom, as much as I enjoy the position. The lord treats me very well, but still, I have been bought and sold, be it criminal or not, which it is. I have heard that this fair is to close tomorrow, and also that someone from the palace, be it a steward, John, or even the king himself, will deign to come down among the common people in the morning.”
        Taking Richard’s proffered money, Valun said “Thank you, my friend for all your news. If only a royal edict will set us free, then it is a royal edict I will get, and stamped with his seal.”
        Placing the candlesticks in a sack and drawing the strings together, Richard said in reply as he left “And many thanks to you also, my lord.”


        Richard Longfurrow had actually enjoyed much of what was supposed to be a sad and tedious exile. Surely he had had it much better than the two younger men he counted as friends whom he had made the journey with. Although in his heart he still longed to hear news of home, his outward behavior suggested that he had thrown himself into his appointed task with unmitigated zeal.
        In the course of the years he had learned as many old stories and songs as the old man had been able to teach him, in addition to learning the language of the Ronairs. The words of his mentor proved true, and for the first two years of his time there Richard found himself being trotted out as a novelty every time the master of the house received a visitor who had not seen him before. But eventually he was allowed to come and go as he wished, being accorded the same respect as his tutor.
        It was late in the third year of the exile when Richard saw Conan again. Richard had been strolling the grounds during a rare rest from his studies when he caught sight of a man running across the grounds many yards away, in the vicinity of the tower which housed Richard’s sleeping quarters. Instantly curious, Richard broke into a jog himself, eager to discover what the man was running from, or if he had urgent news for someone on this land.
        By the time Richard reached the area where he had seen the stranger, the man in question was leaning against the wall of the tower, standing in the shadows as if he did not want to be seen. Richard had almost passed him by before pausing and retracing his steps to draw close enough to speak comfortably. Then he realized who it was he was looking at.
        “Is it really you, Conan Trondale? Running like a hunted man?”
        “The answer to both of your questions is yes,” Conan replied “And I might say to you, it is Richard Longfurrow I see before me, living in the luxury he is accustomed to, and who might have a thought to the welfare of fellow travelers.”
        “Yes it is, but I do not have the authority to have you searched out and brought out of bondage, so do not blame me that I did not know you were working the land I can see from my room.”
        Conan straightened up and asked “From your room? Have you ever seen a man in those fields trying to work, even as another stood over him with a lash? It may have been me; some of the others are also treated that way. I tried to work peacefully, but I stood it one time too many. Finally i turned on the man and my resistance nearly killed him. He got two others and I scared them off. Finally they attacked me with dogs, but did not try to kill me. Perhaps they still think i am worth something. One of the dogs did bite me, but I was able to pick up the other. I am not proud of it, but the beast was attacking; I raised it up and threw it down hard. It was able to get up and leave, but I do not doubt it is badly injured.” As he was talking, Conan showed Richard a large bite mark which he hidden under a strip from his clothes. “By that time I had badly injured an overseer and a prime hunting dog. Nothing but their shock allowed me to get away at all.”
        At this point the howl of a dog on the scent interrupted Conan’s monologue. Both Corridanes started at the sound and Conan cried “I have wasted too much time. I have run for hours making a roundabout trail, but they will be here soon. Quick, get me hidden!”
        Richard did not waste another second to answer this. He hurried off in the direction of the nearest door as Conan followed closely behind. They burst through the door and ran on without shutting it behind themselves, Richard shouting urgently to all and sundry “Where is the lord DeLane? I must see the lord at once! And we want the healer, as quickly as he can come! Where are they! No, better to take this man straight to him. He is my friend and badly hurt. The lord DeLane, quickly!”
        One servant took Conan and hurried off to find the old healer. From another, Richard heard that the lord was in his chamber. He did not wait to hear if there was anything more, but promptly dashed off and bounded up the stairs in double-quick time, stopping himself just in time to knock loudly on the master’s chamber door without pounding.
        Given leave to enter, he did so, and standing just inside the door as he shut it carefully behind him, he spoke at a volume louder than the situation required, and announced “My lord, I beg a favor of you.”
        “What would you have? For you are already given great honor here.”
        Bowing to the lady of the lady of the house, who was busy weaving in another part of the room, as he passed, Richard moved closer to the lord and said “My lord, you might remember that when you brought me here I was with three companions. Two of them have passed out of my knowledge, but one was a field worker on the land of your neighbor to the east. He escaped from there this morning and is now with your healer, for he was badly treated and attacked when he resisted. The favor I ask is that he come under your protection. His enemies will be here any moment.”
        Reaching up as far as he could to pat Richard on the shoulder from his chair, the lord answered “My boy, I am sorry that I cannot grant this. To feud with my neighbors is the thing I least want, but that is what I will get if I do as you ask. You are not yet worth so much to me that I would risk safety and prosperity to fulfill your wishes. Go back to your friend before returning to your studies, for I am going to turn him over to them.”
        With a quick bow toward both the nobles again, Richard retreated from their chamber without replying to this. He was disappointed and angry at the response he had received, and was afraid lest his feelings spill out into insulting words.
        From the lord’s chamber, he went straight to the healer’s room, where he found the man doing what he could for Conan’s lash scars. The dog bite was now neatly bound up with a new cloth. At Richard’s entrance, Conan, who had been shirtless when he arrived, faced Richard as he pulled on a spare tunic provided for him and asked “Am I safe here?”      
        Richard shook his head. Feeling as if a great weight was hanging from his neck, he looked Conan in the eye and replied “He would rather have peace with his neighbors than give aid and safety to a beaten slave. He will give you up.”
        Conan exploded “Is he a coward? No man should make peace with one who treats servants as I was, even if they were sold and paid for, as we were!”
        “Perhaps that is why. He will not take a stand for our sakes, because he is not above buying them himself.”
        “I will go without a fight, for I wish to live, but wherever I go, I will resist my captors as I have done, with the silence of the dumb. Pray that I do not forget speech altogether. Thank you for your attempt.” With these words and a shake of the hand, Conan got up and went out. Richard followed and watched helplessly as Conan was taken by his pursuers, bound with strong ropes and hauled away, taking this treatment without a sound of protest. From that day, Richard was less cheerful in the presence of the lord of the manor, for the sight of him brought to mind that he had refused to help a beaten man.
In the first month of the year, seven of which had passed since the departure of Conan, Richard’s teacher had finally been laid to rest, leaving him to be the house’s master entertainer. Over the years he had travelled the country taking part in competitions with other professional entertainers, and had even won two or three of them. His low count of victories was no shame to him, for most of his rivals were old veterans and he had always preferred anyway to play for the sake of the performance. In contrast to this, as the years of the exile lengthened and he heard nothing of his friends, his enjoyment of playing to his home audience diminished until it was a struggle to be seeming to enjoy performing before the household of the DeLanes, for it was the sight of the master himself, who was of course always present, that fueled Richard’s coldness.
        It was a few months after the passing of his old teacher that news came to the DeLane manor that the great fair was soon to open in the capital. Richard immediately went to the lord and begged leave to be part of the retinue traveling with him when he went. To this the lord assented, and when the time came, Richard was mounted at the head of the lord’s retinue as they set off for the capital to attend the fair.
        They made good time, arriving at the capital on the first day of the festivities, soon after the gates had been opened. Another servant was assigned to Richard to ensure that he did not lose himself in the city, and the whole party was released to enjoy the fair at their leisure. Richard almost immediately asked to be directed toward the entertainment, and whiled away most of the first day there, enjoying others’ performances, and proudly contributing some he had learned. He learned there that he had gained a reputation which had preceded him, for many of his fellow performers had previously been his rivals on smaller stages.
        When he finally tired of this, he asked to be shown around without taking any particular path; because of this he saw much, but did not step into the street where Valun could be found. In the morning of the second day, the lord DeLane and his lady gained an audience with the king, and they allowed Richard to accompany them as their retainer.
        After the initial bow of homage to the king, Richard found that he quickly lost interest in the proceedings, for with such a crowd of people inside and out of the audience room, an audience amounted to nothing more than announcing oneself, and then standing about being looked at by others who were also standing about idle, unless the king addressed them or they were told to go. One thing, however, convinced Richard the time was not wasted. Because of all the fuss over his coming of age, it was deemed necessary to make the new heir visible to the people. Richard got a good long look at the young man standing beside the king on the dais and, after a few moments, recognized the face as the boy he had carried halfway across his homeland on the back of his horse. For the moment his name escaped Richard’s recollection, but the Longfurrow was prepared to swear that it was the same young waif turned man who had now been named prince of this whole country, apparently on a whim.
        As soon as he was released, Richard proceeded out into the vendor streets nearest the palace, where he was soon astonished to hear someone far off shouting out the name of “Longfurrow”. Slipping away while his guide was occupied, Richard followed the voice until he came to the origin of it, and was reunited all too briefly with Valun as they carried on the conversation already recorded, which ended with Richard paying for and taking the silver candlesticks. Richard then rejoined his guide, and they left to go to the place designated for their meeting with the rest of the DeLane retinue, where they happily discussed what they had seen and done over good beer and hearty food, which the master had given them an allowance for in advance.
        Richard was unable to rediscover Valun in the course of the third day, for although he suspected that the prince was at the same place he had been before, the extent of the festival was such that there was still much to see that he had not reached in the first two days, due to the several hours he had spent at the entertainment and in the audience with the king. In the end he saw much of what there was to see, even in parts of the city not totally given over to the festival. Caught up in the spirit of the day, he even bought two or three things, without giving thought to what he would do with them later. By the time the day had run its course, he was totally exhausted and thoroughly happy.
        Upon the party’s return to the DeLane manor, it seemed that Richard’s life would resume its normal course and nothing would come of Valun’s boast of getting a royal edict. But lo and behold, only the next day, a messenger in the royal livery arrived with a message for the lord of the manor. Richard, suspecting that it was probably the order procured by Valun concerning his release, was already close at hand when called for after the rider was received in the hall.
        The lord of the manor gave Richard the note when he arrived, saying “Can you forgive me for them, the years of bondage? When your time here began, I was thinking only of my own happiness. If the Conan Trondale mentioned in the king’s message is your friend, I would ask forgiveness of him too, if he was found. I can at least do what the king asks of me alone: I release you from my service, and I pledge twenty men-at-arms in fulfillment of the king’s order.” At this, the royal herald departed, as if he had only been waiting for lord DeLane to say in his presence that the order would be followed.
        Richard had not been completely attentive to the older man’s little speech, as he was much more interested in the contents of the letter, which ran as follows:

“Be it known to all that Valun III, noble in exile of the land of Corridane, has given proof to us and to our chief heralds and scribes that he is a member of the royal family of that country, and has laid claim on us, which claim we have accepted, that aid might come from us to reclaim his land and cleanse it of the usurpers and thieves from other lands who have been roaming there, making war upon his people, their happiness and prosperity without such declarations as are made between honorable parties. Therefore I call on all my chief nobles and vassals, that they should send some part of their garrison of knights and men-at-arms to our city of Forond, on the great river, there to cross and do battle with the craven invaders on behalf of the royal house of Corridane.
Be it also known that Valun III traveled in exile with two companions, by name Richard Longfurrow and Conan Trondale, who were taken, sold, and bought in defiance of our laws, and are therefore immediately released from whatever service they might be bound to fulfill. We trust that every effort will be made by our vassals to discover these two and send them free to our palace, where Valun of Corridane awaits them. Signed by our hand this day in the fifteenth year of our reign.”

        There it was. The royal order, signed and sealed, proclaiming his freedom. Richard had actually doubted, when he left Valun in the circumstances that he had, that the prince would really be able to get such an order from the king for some time, if he ever gained a chance at all. But he had found some way to do it, and it seemed to have happened almost as soon as Richard had left him; the proof was here in his hands already, and the royal messenger had of course traveled the same distance they had.
        Richard tried not to show how much this news excited him, lest he somehow offended the master of the house. But having read the king’s message, he folded it, gave it back, and immediately asked leave to go and prepare for departure. This received, he hurried off with a light step to gather what things were his.
        Later, when this was done, he made a tour of the manor and the nearby grounds, saying farewell to everyone who had been friendly to him during his time there. His farewells to the lord and lady of the house he made last of all. “Goodbye, sir, and madam.  My own captivity could here scarcely be called that, as I have been happy for nearly all my time under your roof and at your board. Of the matter of the captivity of my friend the Trondale named in the king’s letter, I long bore anger against you for it, but I would have you believe, now that we both have our freedom, that all is forgiven. I will remember my time here with a light heart, but now I must go. I wish you both long life and happiness.” With a last salute, he left their presence. Wasting no more time, he mounted and rode off.


        Conan lived silently, enduring the antagonism of the overseers, and never once catching a sight of the master of the house. After the first week, he had been allowed to move into a larger building which housed several workers at once, where he relaxed his rule of silence enough to greet the others in Corridane. But being simple field workers, they were ignorant of his tongue; unable to make any friends, he resumed his silence and poured his heart into the work allocated to him, trying whenever he could to take over the work of his older coworkers. The overseers, however, did not appreciate this gesture, and often lashed both Conan and the other man with their ox-hide whips when they caught him at it. Not knowing if these men might eventually decide leaving him alive was too much trouble, or whether he would ever be released by some means from his bondage, Conan was left no option but to return to compliance with their pitiless collective will.
        His life continued in this manner into the third year of his captivity, during which time little changed except that the overseers began to find reasons to use the whip on Conan even when he was simply doing his own share of the work without taking up anyone else’s load. Throughout the years, he had actively avoided learning anything of the local language, and so he did not know exactly what these cruel men were shouting at his back as they whipped him, but knowing that was irrelevant; whips hurt every man the same way, and he had taken enough.
        Releasing the plow he had been driving, Conan turned and faced his abuser. Though he had not hoped for it, it actually gave him some satisfaction that the particular man he was facing now had been the very first man he met from this household. So he stood, ready to fight back at last.
        The overseer, in the manner of men in his mold, seemed to quail and step back at the sight of the powerful young man turning to face him. But then, seeming to remember that he held a whip, and the supposed authority, against an unarmed field worker, he stood still and raised the painful length again; a slap in the face with such a tool was just what a bold slave like this needed to leave him with a broken spirit.
        The whip snapped. Conan saw it and stood his ground. As the thing came close to his face he raised his arm reflexively to block it, allowing himself nothing more than a slight wince as the whip wrapped three times around his broad arm and the end of the length stung him again near the elbow. Then, with a quick jerk of his arm, he yanked the whole thing clear of his enemy’s grip. The older man was now genuinely scared and began backing away again, calling for help as Conan advanced on him. Even as he spotted two more foremen coming swiftly across the fields to their comrade’s aid, Conan overtook his enemy, and in a move he would have thought beneath his dignity had he kept a clear head, wrapped the awful ox-hide like a rope around the man’s neck.
        Only a moment later, however, the two reinforcements had arrived, and being armed with daggers, they forced Conan to release his hold and swiftly removed the suffocating symbol of their cruelty. But then they did no more. Even armed with blades, they were too frightened by Conan’s vast brute strength to take him on, even together. They ran off, as Conan stood over his victim, striving to master his rage and form a semblance of a plan of escape. The two who had fled soon came back, each with a dog at their heels, which they set upon Conan as if he were prey. One dog got its jaws around his left arm, which alone of all his trials and pain, made him cry out in anger, but he was able to catch hold of the other by the scruff of the neck. In another move he would not ordinarily have allowed himself, he summoned a last surge of strength, which came even though the other dog was still holding by its teeth to his left arm, making the bite even worse. He lifted the second dog with both hands to the height of his chest and threw it down. The animal rose whimpering and scurried away. This sight caused the two stunned foremen to finally flee, taking their slowly recovering colleague along. At a great cost to his fingers, Conan was left to pry the last assailant loose with his bare hands, at which he eventually succeeded. Having done this, he ran with all the speed he could muster in a completely different direction than the one he intended taking, that being the one which led toward the tower he had seen on his first day and many times after.
        Under the nearest cover he could find, he tore a strip from his tunic and bound the bite as best he could. Then pulling his tunic completely off, he ran with it in another direction until he came across a stream. Flinging the clothing with all his strength into the bushes away from himself, he stepped into the stream and began to walk in it in the direction he thought would eventually bring him within sight of the tower. By this time, he was traveling north. The tower he was making for lay to the west of the manor he was trying to escape, which was now to the west and some way south of him.
        After an arduous journey he reached the land he was making for, where to his great surprise he found Richard. What transpired from that point until a short time later when he accepted recapture has already been told, but it bears saying here that he was more grateful for Richard’s action on his behalf than he was willing to show; To go running to his master to beg a promise of Conan’s safety, as he rightly guessed Richard had done, was a more serious thing than he had first hoped the easygoing Longfurrow would do. Clearly he was made of sterner stuff than Conan had first suspected, and the young Trondale found as he was dragged away by his captors that he held Richard in higher esteem than he had to that point.
        When his pursuers had finally taken him, before the doors of the DeLane house, and had, in vicious irony, bound him with several whips tied together in place of true ropes, they dragged him back on the end of a line, and instead of making him work anymore they thrust him into a shed, still bound, and left him, for all appearances to die.
        But this was not so, and even though they were cruel men, he was grateful that they had not in fact left him to perish slowly in the dark. But he was by no means free. Several men armed with crude lances forced some food and drink down his throat, and then prodded him into a cart, which was driven off the manor land and continued on for several miles as morning passed into afternoon. Near the end of the journey, the mountains in the north of the country were not terribly far off. The cart drew to a stop in the foothills and he was made to get out and his partially loosened bonds were at last cut completely. He saw then that he had been brought to a quarry, where many other men were already laboring heavily. In a short time he was approached by a man who seemed to be the foreman of the place, who thrust a pick into his hands and indicated that he should go down and begin work.
        During his time in the quarry, Conan kept to himself, and the other workers, wary of his brooding silence, allowed him to. His days passed in this way for several more years, as his strength and his silent glare of anger toward everyone in Ronaiera grew even greater and more fearsome.
        At long last the day came when the king’s decree concerning the revelation of Valun and the captivity and royal release of his two companions, was delivered even to that quarry, on the chance that one of those named might be in bondage at that site. The foreman, being a loyal citizen and not especially hard on his workers, dutifully posted the copy of the decree in a place visible to anyone who cared to come and look at it. Not caring and having no way of knowing anything that might be on the mind of the king of this place, Conan stayed away all alone, as was his wont, while the other workers, who were all Ronairs, though being for the most part criminals sentenced to their state, crowded around to read the notice. Suddenly, a few of them began to point at Conan, while others, treating it gently, took down the royal message and brought it to him. As the men now began to crowd around him, Conan almost broke his self-imposed silence to shout that they should go away, whether they understood his meaning or not. However, he was preempted when those holding the decree thrust it at him, urging him to take it and read. At this he finally did break his silence in the presence of Ronairs, faced with a problem strength alone could not overcome.
        “I cannot read this! Is there a man here who speaks a word of my tongue?” To his amazement, there were two such men in that group, who raised their hands to identify themselves to him. Conan did not stop to wonder how a quarry worker had managed to pick up any Corridane, but promptly thrust the paper at the closer one of the two. “Here! Tell me what it says as best you can!”
        The reading was painfully tedious for Conan, as the man, who was evidently not confident in his Corridane, sometimes had to fish for the word in the stranger’s language which matched the one written. But when the reading, in the course of which time had seemed to stop altogether, was finally complete and Conan knew that Valun had somehow gained a royal declaration of instant freedom for all three of them, not to mention armed support of their safe return and restoration, he began to shout for joy, startling the men around him as he let out everything he had been holding inside for the past ten years: The happiness of home, the anger of persecution, and the despair at the possibility that the thing which had now happened would never come. Still shouting, he said to those who spoke his tongue “Please, go tell the foreman that I am the Conan Trondale named in your king’s message, and by royal command I require transport to your capital as quickly as it can be arranged.”
        The two men accordingly set off in the direction of the foreman’s hut not far from where they stood. A short time later, he came out with them, congratulated Conan on the fact of his release, and promptly gave up the use of the nearest transportation around: an ox-cart normally used to carry away refined blocks. After feeling an initial deflation of his joy, Conan realized that, of course, this was a remote quarry, and such a place had never required anything faster before. His attitude returning to its normal balance, he followed the foreman to the location of the cart, where a driver stood waiting. (Prisoners might have attempted to escape if they or the foreman ever drove off on the cart alone, so a driver was kept on duty.) After a few words of explanation, Conan got up alongside the driver, who got the animals to start, thus beginning Conan’s long journey to the capital, at which he arrived several days after Richard.

10 January 2015

The Price of a Throne: Chapter 13

Chapter 13

        When Railon awoke he did not, at first, know where he was or why he had fallen asleep at all. The sand was bright with sunlight, causing him to blink several times as he tried to get accustomed to the glare. Slowly he came to realize that he was bound to a spear pole lodged in the sand, within sight of the oasis pond. There were palm trees growing by the waterside, but the shadows they cast did not reach the spot where he was tied. Staring at the trees through blurred vision, he guessed, judging by the length and direction of the shadows, (for his face was not turned toward the sun) that it was before noon. Having established this, he immediately began wonder why he was not dead. As he cared less for his own freedom than for that of any man who resisted the ruthless empire-builder in the south, he had in fact forgotten that he himself was personally being hunted by the man’s soldiers.
        As he gradually became more fully awake and was able to take better notice of his surroundings, he confirmed his first projection of the time and began to look around, wondering if anyone had been told off to guard him. By twisting his neck around as far as the bonds would allow, he was able to catch sight of a man sitting a short distance away with a cloak over his shoulders and spear in hand. As his voice grated painfully on his own ears, Railon mustered the effort to call to the guard.
        “You over there! Go tell your chief his prisoner’s awake. Maybe he’ll have the decency to see that I don’t die today.”
        With evident bad grace, the Naibern soldier rose from his position and disappeared beyond Railon’s field of vision. Moments later, Railon heard the sound of heavy boots coming up behind him. Suddenly, his head knocked hard against the pole he was tied to as the Naibern, whom he still could not yet see, slapped him by way of greeting. His skull pounding from the contact, Railon gingerly brought his face forward again, hoping only that the man had enough decency to end the beating with that blow, for the moment at least.
        In the intervening seconds, the Naibern captain had come around to a position where he would be visible to his prisoner. He was clean-shaven, tanned, wearing a short-sleeved tunic of a dark shade (Railon could not decide if it was meant to be blue or green) a broad belt, dark leggings and the heavy boots. His brown hair was drawn back in what would be called a mullet, and a long sword was belted at his side. He spoke sharply to Railon as soon as the Gairbairn had had a moment to breathe.
        Although Railon was a great traveler, he did not immediately recognize the dialect his interrogator was using, in part because he was still dazed. However, with bound hands he could not make this clear to his enemy, and so he only sat dumbly staring as the man tried again.
        This time Railon was able to understand, as his head had cleared, and he replied “That I wouldn’t tell you.  Am I the only one you captured?”
        “I would say that it will go hard for you, but I have not yet decided if you are going to live to the sunset. The Emperor has placed a price on your head. He did not say it had to be on your shoulders when he next saw your face. The men you led are all dead and buried behind our camp. You cannot accuse us of barbarity now, can you?”
        “I would say staking a man in the sun without food, shade, or water was barbaric enough, but then I would die, wouldn’t I?” Railon’s last words were forced out with a gasp, as his throat was too dry now to say any more. At a signal from the captain, a soldier took a water bucket down to the pond and filled it. Coming back, he threw most of it in Railon’s face before pouring the rest into his open mouth.
        “Perhaps the Emperor will find a use for you, if you can stay alive till we come to him. Have you roused the natives to resist us or was that paltry force all you could muster?”
        “...Told them you were coming. Taljun only gave me the score you killed...”
        “They are easy marks then, the Emperor will be pleased at that. I believe I will keep you alive. Your head would have begun to rot by the time we rejoined the Emperor’s legions.”
        “Then you were not sent to invade this country?”
        “As brilliant a general as they say you are, and you thought that? We were sent only to gauge the strength here, and to hunt for you. And that has been long and hard. How could fourscore riders capture a country?”
        “Perhaps I could do it, if you let me try.”
        The Naibern snorted loudly at this absurd suggestion, which had been delivered with the gravity due to a serious proposition. “And how could you do that, if you wish to make yourself sound even more foolish?”
        “Having scouted the position before, one attacks from all sides silently in the dark. Capture the general or the ruler. He will usually be fearful enough for his own safety that he will order his men to stand down. Then you are in control.”
        “And what is the defense against such tactics?” the Naibern general asked, now half-believing that this Gairbairn could accomplish such a thing if he tried.
        “The only defense is proper vigilance. With the gift of unreliable watchmen, a score of men could achieve such a thing before anyone could draw their blades, provided there was a spy on the inside. It nearly worked several times against your own emperor, a failing for which he would most likely blame you and your comrades. If only he had less men we would have done it.”
        The Naibern captain could not immediately find the words with which to respond to such a candidly negative appraisal of the legions of the Emperor Kalveston, who, with them, had probably already swept all the lands in the south under his banner of the flaming wheel of doom. But here was a man, a prisoner, boldly claiming that he had nearly held Kalveston at knifepoint several times already. The Emperor would be glad to hear of this, but it would surely mean an awful death for him and all the other officers of the legions. The Emperor’s attitude toward failure was well-known. But he himself would be the one credited with capturing this insolent mercenary, and had the Emperor not said that the man to bring him back would become second in command and be showered with riches? But if the prisoner spoke it would be the death of him. But perhaps it would also be the death of the prisoner...
        Eventually, the man’s ambition won over his fear, and he ordered that Railon should be unbound, and fed and watered enough to travel.
        When the ropes had fallen from his wrists, Railon stood up and brought his arms back before him again, slowly swinging them back and forth to relieve the stiffness and help restore the feeling from his shoulders to his fingers. As he stood within arm’s length of the spear-pole he had been bound to, two soldiers brought him a small portion of traveling rations and a proper water-skin. He ate and drank gratefully, without acknowledging the presence of the Naiberns, who left while he was thus occupied, taking the upended spear with them. Railon noticed this with disappointment.
        “That’s unfortunate. I could have done some damage if they had forgotten it still had a blade. But the captain would probably decide to kill me here for a rash move like that. Perhaps I can make my escape on the move.” Still standing, and holding the food in one hand and the water in the other, he silently watched his captors breaking camp.
        The striking of the camp was done quickly, even more so because several tents had been ruined by Railon’s attack and were simply left where they had fallen. When this task had been completed, the Naibern captain returned with two more men, one of whom was holding a long length of rope. At a signal, Railon’s wrists were again bound together and the remaining length of rope was tied to one wrist of one of the soldiers, so that they would know immediately if the Gairbairn made any attempt to escape en route to the emperor’s camp. Having done this, the soldiers maneuvered him roughly towards the area where their animals had been grouped together. After the previous night’s battle, there were several unburdened mounts available; Railon was forced up onto one which appeared to be meant for baggage rather than a rider. The soldier whose wrist was bound to those of Railon climbed aboard one of the animals close at hand without saying a word to the prisoner.
        In all this time, no one had said a word to Railon, which in itself did not concern him much, since he had not expected better as a prisoner. Yet he was curious to know just how long he would be riding in such a manner, so he called out a question to the captain to this effect.
        The answer was delivered in the same derisive manner as the captain’s earlier statements had been. “Wait and see. Perhaps your ride will be shorter than ours if you make a nuisance of yourself on the way. But surely one as old and wise as you do not need to be told that.” The captain laughed at his own cruel jest and rode away out of earshot.
        Now more than ever did Railon wish he had turned back toward his own country. It was all very well to be traveling in the south upon knight-errantry of his own will, and to slow the pace of the empire-building of a man who was beginning to think himself the lord of life and death. But Railon had never once anticipated that he might be captured and also left alive, to be brought before the face of the man he had so long defied, who was liable to order him killed the moment the news of the capture reached him. Therefore, Railon decided, it would be best to set his mind to contriving his escape, as soon as could be accomplished.
        However, no opportunity to loose his bonds presented itself to Railon between the day of his capture and the day he was brought to Kalveston’s camp, fully ten days afterward. Having arrived, he was barely given time to relish the change in posture and regain his legs before he was hurried off in the direction of Kalveston’s tent, an oversized mass situated in the center of the horde like a fortress over a trade route.
        Railon noted that as he passed, he was being stared at by many of the soldiers he passed. No one said anything he could hear, but it seemed to him that there was a mixture of both satisfaction and disappointment at his capture. He could not think why men of this horde would be disappointed at his capture, unless those who watched him thus had been men who followed him, now doomed to destroy their own lands in the service of the conqueror. This Railon did not think likely, for when he had departed not a man in his command had yet been taken alive by the emperor’s forces. One other reason came to mind then; the idea that his enemies had, in grudging respect for his prowess against them, begun to attribute to him levels of size and ferocity that far outmatched their opinion of the abilities of the real man now being marched past them. But not a man reacted any further, and Railon was still left to face the ruthless emperor alone.
        As they approached the warlord’s tent, another soldier standing guard over the entrance hastily thrust aside the flap, looked in, and announced “Lord, a patrol approaches with a prisoner.” Then the man removed himself from the space more quickly than he had entered it, as Kalveston’s voice called out that he should do so, and to send the prisoner in posthaste.
        Railon noticed that the captain who had captured him was allowing a smug look to come over his face at these words. There was no doubt that the man was sure of what he would get the moment he made his announcement. Railon was not so sure, and was racking his brains for a way which would allow him a stay of his own execution. A few steps and a stray thought later he was thrust through the opening of Kalveston’s tent at the sharp end of a spear, his wrists still bound, only just loosely enough that he still had hands.
        As he was forced to his knees before the warlord, Railon stole one look at the contents of the shelter, as much as one quick turn of the head would allow. The tent itself was made of fine silk, dyed grey inside and out. Kalveston’s armor was on display in a far corner of the room, and his flag was displayed across the wall which faced the tent opening. There was a cot, a map table, and two or three chairs in the space. A guard stood, conspicuously silent, in the slight shadows alongside the armor. There was no sign of food on the table; evidently Kalveston had been resting when they arrived. Since it was now mid-morning, Railon knew this meant that the warlord had been waiting on his arrival and had no intention of moving the army until his prisoner’s fate had been decided.
        Railon let his head hang limply, calculating that this posture would allow him to escape Kalveston’s notice for the moment and have a few more seconds to think of a possible plan. Soon he heard the warlord’s voice from above, addressing the troop captain who had come in behind him. “Who are you, and who is this prisoner?” The Naibern warlord was using the tone of one who has resigned himself to the task of dealing with men of simple minds.
        “I am Reynault, sir, of the far west coast of your empire. I trust I have pleased you with this prisoner.” The captain did not sound proud; he only sounded hopeful, as if he was suddenly much less confident that he would receive what he wanted. Perhaps he had come at a bad time.
        “I don’t care where you’re from, man! Your name, and the name of this prisoner, are enough, before I decide that you are wasting my time.”
        Railon felt himself kicked, none too lightly, either. Reynault spoke again. “Sire, the prisoner calls himself Railon. He claims that he led the rebels and could have killed you many times.”
        Suddenly Kalveston’s feet moved out of Railon’s vision. Then he heard the warlord’s voice again, more sharply than before. “Fool, a claim like that does not make me afraid of a man, it tells me I have fools as captains! If he could have killed me, why hasn’t he? Clearly I am the better man, yet you believe him! I would have you killed, but I like to watch the spectacle, and I haven’t the time to watch a worm writhe on the ground. Guard, take him away!” Scarcely a moan was heard from the shocked Reynault as he was dragged away by the guard who had been watching.
        The Naibern’s lower legs returned to Railon’s field of vision and he heard the man say “Get up. Or collapse and lie there like a dog if you prefer to. I’ll not have anyone aid you.” Hearing this, Railon began the process of rising. Owing to his bound hands, it was more difficult than it should have been, but eventually, after two unsuccessful attempts, the Gairbairn was standing upright before the Naibern, who was now seated in one of the chairs. Railon made no move to take a seat himself, even though his legs were aching horribly after his ordeal.
        “I caught your pitiful army not long ago and crushed them utterly. I hope that disappoints you. Did you think they would really survive?”
        “Word always passes somehow. Soon you will meet another army. And they will fight.”
        “Farmers and tradesmen? Ha. Why do they continue to fight me? Everywhere I go, they fight. Most men would have learnt sense by now. I don’t care if they keep their miserable lives. But they fight me. You were their general for a time-tell me why those men fought.”
        “Because most men do not believe in being destroyed without a struggle. If you had devised a way to take control without the use of armed might, perhaps no one would have noticed until you worsened their lot. But some men have to prove that they are the strongest...”
        Calling for a guard to bring him food and drink, Kalveston said “I am ahead of you still. I am no stranger to other methods, for I had been planning this entire venture since i became the chief general of my homeland, protecting fat and lazy lords who did not know a gauntlet from a greave. I sent forth men loyal to me, all to subvert the North in various ways. And even were you to escape, you would be no help to your people, for my men have been long in the north and cannot be told from the loyal men until they strike the fatal blows.” Draining the drink which the guard had just brought, he gestured carelessly with the other hand. “It amuses me to watch your hopes die so quickly. Perhaps you thought you could mask your feelings? Worry no more, for soon you will have no more worries. Take him away, and bind him with that captain who brought him here. Before sundown one will die. It will be fine entertainment.”
        At the command, Railon was grabbed firmly by the guard and marched out of the imperial tent. One hundred yards further along, they came to a small circular open space in the center of which had been set several tall poles for the restraint of prisoners. At a glance, Railon noticed that the erstwhile captain Reynault was bound to another post several feet removed from the one Railon himself was being led toward. When they had come within range of the post, the guard removed the rope from one of Railon’s wrists, while at the same time keeping a tight hold on that same hand as he pulled the rope around the pole and quickly rebound the hand he had held, so that Railon’s jaw was pressed against the pole and he had his back toward the warlord’s tent and was secured in a prime position to be whipped. Railon counted himself fortunate that they did nothing more to him and that his face was turned toward his fellow prisoner so that he could, if he dared, talk to the other man and perhaps devise a way of escape. But for the present, he would be silent, for he needed what little rest he could gain.
        He remained silent for several hours, but then, hoping that the men on guard nearby would not notice, he spoke in the tone of a secret conspirator, trying to get the attention of his fellow prisoner. “Reynault...Reynault...If you will hear what I would say, take heart. We are both doomed to die before dusk. If we were to work together we may yet escape this doom. What say you?”
        Reynault, who was tied in much the same way as Railon, answered him after a pause. “Only this morning we were sworn enemies, and now we are to live or die together? I shall have to take the hope you offer, for no man has ever regained the emperor’s favor from here. Still, we have to know the manner of our death before we can hope to help each other out of it...A guard approaches!”
        Both men instantly fell silent as a guard carrying a water jug and two small pieces of bread came within earshot of their secretive tones. The man stopped first at Reynault’s position and poured the water over the prisoner, seeming unconcerned as to whether he was able to drink all of it. Then he took a biscuit from his other hand and shoved it at the prisoner until Reynault had it between his teeth and was struggling mightily to chew it without the support of his hands. Railon knew he would get the same treatment, and that there was nothing he could do except to clench his jaw in preparation to hold the biscuit tightly.
        When both prisoners had received what food and water they could get, the guard stepped away and spoke. “Savor it. I think that’s all you get for a while. If you’re lucky you may get another drink before your death comes.”
        Having forced down as much as he had been able to keep in his grip, Railon asked “Do you know, how we are to die?”
        “I don’t, but I’ve heard that it will be before sundown. When the emperor comes out, then you will know. Pray to your god, if you have one.” With that, the guard left.
        It was, in fact, not long after this episode that Kalveston emerged from his tent to a burst of fanfare and proceeded directly to the prisoner’s clearing. He stopped only a few from them and announced their impending doom to the waiting horde. “One of these men is the fearsome rebel Railon, the northern mercenary. Some of you may have begun to think he was actually dangerous. Such an attitude can be dangerous to yourself, and as proof of that, there stands a man who was once a captain among you; Reynault of the west, who was so foolish as to admit to his emperor that he believed the empty boasting of a wanted rebel. For that they will both die, as a lesson to those who would doubt me.”
        When his name was mentioned, Reynault had begun to struggle, and at the accusation, he cried out “I never said I believed him! I’m not ready to die!” Then a guard struck him with the haft of a spear and he went silent. Kalveston finished his speech.
        “They will both take 30 lashes, and when that is done they will be cut loose to fight to the death with swords. The survivor might join my ranks or try to escape if he dares, but where would he go?” The last statement was greeted with a smattering of forced laughter from those nearby. Kalveston stepped back and signaled that two soldiers holding whips should step forward.
        Railon braced himself as best he could, but the shock and pain was like nothing he had ever felt before, because there was nothing that compared to it. At the first blow, he was unable to hold back a moan of despair and shock. However, he was determined that nothing more would be gotten out of him for his enemies’ satisfaction. Before the next blow landed, he filled his lungs and emptied them again more slowly. Having regained some measure of self-control, he took the rest of the blows without any audible reaction. By the time the count had reached twenty-five he had passed out under malnourishment and pain.
        Only a few minutes later, he was revived by a trickle of water from a ladle being held over him, and at the same time he felt the bonds on his wrists finally loosen and fall off. “Oh that time has come...” he thought. He was so dazed and hurt that he could barely think. Staggering away from the whipping post, he slowly looked around through eyes nearly blinded by pain. It was evening, and tent shadows had nearly spread their welcome shade over the entire area near the prisoners’ clearing. Now there was a full ring of guards surrounding the impromptu arena, armed with spears and shields. Kalveston was seated inside the ring so as to have a clear view, but the rest of the horde was being held behind the guards.
        At a word of command, two soldiers advanced from either side of the ring and thrust swords into the hands of the prisoners. By this time Railon’s head had cleared as much as his ordeal would allow, and suddenly a desperate plan of escape came into his mind.
        But his next thought was preempted by his enemy. The Naibern’s sharp command to begin the fight broke upon Railon’s ears like the toll of a bell. Obediently, Railon and the doomed Naibern captain advanced on each other and traded half-hearted blows, each trying to save some energy for future life. Soon, it became apparent to the hostile horde that neither prisoner felt inclined to strike a death-blow, and the crowd began to voice its displeasure. This was what Railon had been waiting for, and he took the opportunity to press close to his opponent and say a few words under cover of the noise.
        “He who wins will also die. Together we might escape. Emperor thinks himself safe. He is their spirit, and sits unguarded. Are you with me?” When Reynault nodded in agreement, Railon added “force me back toward him, and we will make our move. Then cover my back.” With this he broke away as if beaten off, while Reynault followed, seeming to press his advantage. Even while selling a desperate defense of his life to the audience, Railon was willingly giving ground, and the fighters drew closer to the emperor’s chair at a measured pace, with Railon offering a few missteps as proof that he was overpowered.
        But when the two fighters had finally drawn within steps of Kalveston’s chair, they finally revealed their true plan. With a final thrust, Railon was propelled over the last few feet, whereupon he grabbed Kalveston by the collar while menacing him with the sword he still held. As he did this, Reynault turned in the other direction to guard his back. In as loud a voice as he could muster, Railon proclaimed their demands while glaring into the expressionless eyes of the warlord.
        “We want our freedom, and the means to keep it! If one man so much as lifts his weapon off the ground, I will behead the invincible emperor! You don’t want that, for you will then be nothing more than a crowd of smaller armies.” Railon paused for breath. This speech was draining all his will to stand. “My companion here can tell you; your emperor promised riches and power second only to his own for the man who captured me! When this was done and the proof brought back, what did this man do? He sentenced your captain to death on the first excuse! There are men among you loyal to Reynault of the west, if they haven’t all been killed. Will you save your captain!”
        Kalveston himself had not actually shown any visible reaction to the imminent threat to his life, and had allowed Railon his speech without so much as a word. But now he spoke, even as the sword hung inches from his head. “Who do you follow? An emaciated rebel or the emperor of the land? Slay all those who make a move to help these two. It is no matter to me that they threaten my life, for I know that they have not the strength to do it. Kill them!”
        There was no immediate response to the warlord’s command. It seemed that each soldier in that vast horde was thinking over the words of the prisoners and the cold command of the emperor, and deciding in their own mind which beliefs they felt more loyalty to. On one hand, they were following a man who took no counsel and executed them for deviating from his plan, whose death would splinter them against one another by his own design. On the other, he was still their commander, but he had ordered them to kill their comrades if any helped the prisoners. The emperor Kalveston was leading them to great power, but it only now became apparent to many of them that he did not care how many died to consolidate the power of one man.
        In the silence, Reynault whispered to Railon “I can’t take more of this. If they don’t move in a moment I will die. Only the chance of freedom is sustaining me.’
        “I feel the same. Stand strong. I suspect your men will join you, but only if you still live.”
        Some men had come to a decision they could accept. Suddenly a commotion started up deep in the ranks of the horde as men of conflicting loyalties chose to obey the conflicting orders and began to fight each other. The combat spread like fire through the ranks, until even the spearmen guarding the clearing were fighting among themselves and against others they had been holding back. One of the guards took advantage of the confusion to disregard Railon’s warning and threaten him as he stood over Kalveston, who was smirking at him now. Without a word Railon gave them both a warning, breaking the skin of the emperor’s neck with the sword he held. this wiped away the smirk and caused the guard to step back.
        Finally, when the prisoners felt they had been drained completely of their strength and were about to fall on the ground and die, several soldiers broke through the ranks, leading mounts and calling for their captain. They brought the steeds alongside the two prisoners, who had not moved for several minutes, and helped them climb aboard the animals.
        “We will keep you alive until you break out of the camp. After that I cannot say that any will be alive to aid you further.”
        “May you be kept alive for the choice you have made today. Point me to the nearest edge. Your captain and I will find our way to my home from there.” Jerking his mount alert, Railon called back to Kalveston “And ill fortune follow you, murderer. When this ends you will have to kill a hundred more of your own men to make the rest follow you anywhere.”
        Kalveston could only sit and take this last insult, for he could do nothing about it. His army was destroying itself, partially by his own doing, and his prisoners were riding away alive and guarded. As he sat and glared he vowed that the insolent Railon would be found and made to die a horrible death.
         By the time Railon and Reynault broke out of the camp on the east side, dusk had come and the abrupt desert change from heat to cold had come with it. Fortunately, Reynault’s men had also provided them with a pack animal to carry several more days of supplies. Railon did not want to think of the trials those men had gone through to procure three animals and supplies, and then bring them all both directions as they had done. He felt that, had any survived, he would have owed them a debt that nothing short of saving their lives in return could repay. But the last of them had died at the edge of camp, just as Railon and their captain had broken through. Then those two had ridden on for a short time to gain some distance, stopping only when it began to get truly dark.
        On dismounting, Railon and Reynault, who during their ride had both regained just enough strength to save themselves, first opened the supplies and each took a little water and a little food. This done, they advanced to a fire and a shelter. Finally, they sat by the fire and cleaned each other’s backs.
        When this grisly task was done, they both felt considerable relief, but they were far from fully healed, for they had both been bleeding slowly all evening, and had begun to feel dazed and light-headed the moment they had first escaped the ranks of the hostile horde. They drew lots for the first watch and it fell to Railon. As Reynault went inside the shelter, Railon seated himself with his back to the fire, facing in the direction they had come from. To keep himself awake through the dark silence he fell to thinking about his home and family. In truth it was a desert scarcely more hospitable then this one, being but the northern part of it, but it was now the one and only place he wanted to see. But he could not go home for a long time yet, for a warlord such as Kalveston would not allow an insult such as Railon’s had been, even were it merited, to pass unchallenged. As surely as the sun would rise in the morning, Kalveston would send men on their trail as soon as he had regained control of them. And knowing that, Railon could take no chances. He would have to wander far and long before turning his steps toward home again.