Due to the unusual size of the fleet, nearly a week had passed before the whole flotilla was assembled in the sea of Deren and ready to make the final approach to the city of Berunthia. By the duke’s order, they avoided the coast, as any chance sighting of them before landing could give the enemy the time needed to marshal his forces to defeat their counter-invasion. However, they maneuvered cautiously even in open water, for the duke knew that Naibern had its own outlet into the great sea farther south, and it was likely that if the country was really in a state of war with Corridane, ships had been brought up to blockade the harbor, and these would have to be destroyed completely or captured before the Ronairs could land.
When the fleet had been in the open waters of the sea for four days, the duke ordered landfall on one of the several islands scattered throughout the sea and there held a council with the young nobles in whose cause he was to fight. On a camp table brought from his ship, he displayed the best map he had, which, although not complete, was very accurate. Pointing to the island they stood on, which was marked, he drew an invisible line on the map toward the Corridane coast, which was not, in its entirety, marked out on the Ronairs’ map.
“This is the island we stand on. As you see, our mapmakers are uncertain of the distance from here to your own shore. They have, strangely, not even determined the location of the great city you call Berunthia. You must complete our map for us before we can safely approach the city.”
“That we will gladly do.” Valun replied, taking up a quill-like tool which had been provided. “When first we took ship from Berunthia to your coast up the river our path went thus. Did it not, Richard?” With the quill, he indicated over the map, while carefully avoiding the parchment, the direction he thought their original transport had taken, drawing backwards from a point somewhat north of the city of Forond, crossing the river, and following the unfinished line of the Corridane coast to a point slightly south of their current position.
When he had finished, Richard took the quill from him, objecting. “I must beg to disagree, my lord. A path that long would have taken longer in days than our journey did. I think the journey we made could have been accomplished in the time it took only from a point farther north, say, about here. You remember the men had to row against the river’s current, and we were out of the bounds of the sea in good time.” So saying, Richard in turn marked a spot north of their position, and laid the quill down.
The duke, seeing this, spoke again. “Well, now we have a new difficulty. We do not know that the map is true, nor do we know in which direction we will find the city. We must solve this problem before we move from here.”
Suddenly, Conan, who had to this point been hovering in the background as the others discussed the route, came to the table in between Richard and the duke, took up the quill, and made a mark which was practically directly west of the island. Returning the quill to its place, he announced “There, sir, is where you will find the city of Berunthia. The maps of my home are perhaps more complete than yours, and I remember many things well enough to know where I am going. But if Richard and the prince would like to see the truth for themselves, let them each take a ship to the spot they call Berunthia, and see what they find there. My lord the prince has lived in the capital all his life and had perhaps never seen his family’s city before the day we took ship, so he must be forgiven for not being certain of where it lies.”
This seemed to be enough for the duke. He rolled up the map and gave it to an attendant, while a second came and removed the table it had rested on. “I think we should accept Conan’s council. It is the straightest path, and he seems most sure of his veracity. Do you object?”
Richard had met Conan before their exile when the Trondales had been guests at a Longfurrow feast. Valun had never met him before the exile, but had come to some understanding of his behavior during the ride to Ronaiera and the tale of his hard time in that country. As a result, neither felt particularly offended by his blunt manner of pronouncing them both wrong, and therefore had no objections to offer. The subject being closed, the whole party returned to the flagship, where the duke gave orders that the boats were to proceed at half-speed due west.
At about the same time the next day, it being shortly after midday, the first sight of the walls and roofs of Berunthia was announced by the lookout of the duke’s ship. The duke immediately sent a new man up, which allowed the lookout on duty to come down and make his report.
“My lord, there are ships in the harbor. I cannot tell from here whether they are attacking the city, but there are many of them. I thought I saw a fire within the walls, but that is harder to be sure of than the ships, bright as it may be. We are nearly a day out beyond them, my lord.”
The duke answered slowly and solemnly. “It is as I feared. We shall have to fight them first. There is a chance, a small chance, that they still do not know we are here, as it may be that this city is the last redoubt of the prince Valun’s people, as he said it might be, and their foes are perhaps neglecting to watch for a relief after so long a time. But we must prepare as if they are preparing for us. Make the preparations for defense and see that all the men are well armed.”
Valun, who had been standing alongside the duke the whole time, said “Sir, many of your men are knights with their horses, are they not?”
“They are, as I told you before.”
“The horses are no help on the ships, and many of the knights and their steeds are separate from the others, are they not?”
“This also you know.” the duke answered testily “Say what you are getting at, young man.”
“You cannot order those ships carrying your cavalry to fight on the sea-They might be overrun and you would lose your best men to no purpose. If you will deign to take my advice, the ships carrying the knights and their animals must be sent off in a different direction. A day farther up the coast they should come ashore and so attack the enemy from both sides. If we are fortunate, one attack from all our forces will break the siege. But we must act now, for the city could be on the point of surrender already.”
“But tell me” replied the duke “Why should they travel yet another day? Your people are in peril.”
“That is because we shall be forced to travel either back to the island we have come from, or we shall have to waste precious time anyway taking the whole fleet along. It would be better to do this in safety on the island. With a whole day’s distance between them and the city, any scout who came across them would hardly be able to reveal them before they were on his heels.”
The duke nodded, gratified to find that the young noble had thought of all this, as the duke had privately intended to discover, by neglecting it whether he would. “It is a wise plan. Cause new orders to be sent to the ships. We will turn back to the island we have come from. There I will divide the force and do as you have suggested.” Then he turned to the crew of his own ship. “Prepare to turn back!”
In all, three days were lost in following the plan of Valun and the duke. One to turn back, the second to reorganize the divided force, replenish what supplies they could, and acquaint all the captains with the plan, and the third to return to their original position. This time, however, the Ronairs’ fleet was noticeably smaller, as several ships had started from the island in the more northerly direction called for by the plan of attack.
Valun, Richard, and Conan being the only men in the fleet with some idea of the ground the cavalry would have to cross, one, at least, of them had to go with that part of the force. However, they could not agree on who would be safest to send. The respect they had learned from their fathers for the royal house compelled Richard and Conan to insist that Valun could not afford to go. Conan refused to go by choice, claiming that he did not have it in him to lead men, but to fight well when led. Richard, in turn, asked not to go because he believed that the man to break the siege of the Hightower city should be the Hightower himself. However, he could not reconcile this with his belief that Valun would be at less risk of death if he stayed on board the ship. Faced with such indecision, they were forced to draw lots for the landing party, and the task fell to Richard. Accordingly, he had left them at the island, promising that he would be there to welcome them when they came with the rest of the force.
Actually, there was little chance that he would be able to do this, for before he left the duke had laid strict instructions on him, and the Ronair baron who would actually be leading the force, that the attack was to be opened simultaneously if possible. Conan, having looked again at the map, judged that, based on the estimate they now had that it would take two days to reach the harbor from the island, two days should be allowed for the cavalry ships to get into position, one of which the duke’s fleet would spend in moving into position. The duke’s portion of the fleet would then ride their anchors for two days, daring the enemy to open the harbor and fight them. This wait would allow the time for Richard’s ships to arrive at the landfall and fully disembark. If all went well and the Ronairs were not attacked, after two days of waiting they would move into the harbor, by which time it was hoped that the knights would be attacking the army undoubtedly maintaining the siege by land.
And so, after all that has been recorded had been done, Valun and Conan found themselves standing side by side on the deck of the duke’s flagship, standing off about a day’s sailing beyond the harbor of the resilient city.
Valun did not appreciate the heavy silence. To break it he turned to Conan and asked him “What is in your mind, now that we are so close? I feel we have accomplished something simply in getting this far.”
Conan did not stop honing the edges on his axe, which had two blades, but which he swung easily, as if it had none. “It is not for me to doubt your thoughts and dreams, my lord, so I will say nothing of them. I myself will not be satisfied until I see my home and family with my eyes, and have touched the oaken door my father made himself, and held the people in my arms to prove to myself that they live and are not spirits.”
“But what if you cannot do these things? Where then will you go, and what will you do?”
“If my family is killed and my home no more, I will live only to kill the invaders, and I will fight them until I die.”
Valun saw as he glanced over that Conan had taken on the dark look which he had before worn only when telling of his time as a field worker to the slave drivers, and his hand had closed firmly around the haft of his weapon. Valun turned his face back toward the distant harbor, not ready to let his friend know what he had seen.
Richard had been in high spirits when he left his two companions at the island, but he had since lost that feeling of excitement, for like his friends, he had begun to worry for his own safety and that of his family. This caused him to pace about the deck staring into the distance, as the other men on the ship watched without comment. Richard had at once renounced any semblance of a claim to the command of these men, being content with the prospect of giving a good account of himself in the coming battle.
Late in the second day, as the ships were beginning to approach land, Richard approached one man who was standing alone by the port rail and seemed only to be staring into space.
“If I might speak, sir, this is to be my first battle, and it does not feel right, even two days out and coming home.”
“There is nothing that should make it feel right, in truth, though you are defending your home, and men may take some pride in that. But in the end you are still killing men who have no feud with you or your house. If the news is true, it is even likely that many of them are here because they have been forced, and not because they enjoy destroying your home. A whole country of men who enjoy conquest for its own sake would have no time for life. So know that you are not alone, for there are many on both sides who feel as you do, but beware, because they will still try to kill you.”
It was about an hour later when the ships reached the shore. By this time night was coming on fast, and so it was deemed too difficult to begin the unloading process, which would be started at first light the next day. This was as it had been planned, and Richard marveled at Conan’s judgment of distance, which had told him that it would be so.
Since he was part of the troop, and many of the knights present had heard him perform at some time or place over the years, Richard’s prowess at performance was well known in the camp. As a result he was called on to perform several old poems and ballads at the campfires, to give them all a reminder of home, for there were but one or two more days left before many of them would die on a foreign field.
When at last he was allowed to rest, Richard found that he did not want to. Instead he wandered away toward the western edge of the camp, seated himself on a large rock which happened to be nearby, and stayed there silently, showing no reaction when sentries walked past only a few feet farther out. It was so close now, yet so far away still, and he might be killed before ever he saw it again...That was too much, not to be thought. Surely the Longfurrow clan had risen in arms when called and driven off the invaders?
But it seemed after all that they had not, or else Berunthia, the great city of the king’s house, would not be under siege. And yet they did not know that it was attacked; ships in the harbor and rumors of a fire were not a siege every time. However, the land had been left under a dangerous man, while vagabonds roamed unchecked. All would be answered when Richard and the men appeared the next day to do battle. If they had not come too late.
Richard was awakened by the light of dawn. He stared about in disbelief; he had slept through the night on a rock on the edge of camp. He stood up, and was stopped short by the stiffness of his legs. As he jerked himself upright, he covered his eyes against the glare of the sun, which had just come completely over the horizon. He then began to walk with unsteady steps toward the nearest campfire, where men were sharing out that day’s breakfast. As he collected his portion, he heard some good-natured greetings and ribbing directed at him over his choice of bedding. This brought him fully awake, and he was able to answer.
“Aye, I wanted to count the stars! One cannot do that well from inside a tent! I cannot understand how any of you managed to sleep the night; I heard snores loud enough to shake leaves off trees, only there are no trees about here. Did someone blow them all away?”
Having eaten, he retrieved his gear from the place where he had intended to spend the night, and went down to the shore to watch the unloading. Slings and pulleys as tall as two men had been rigged to bring the horses on shore, and the task had already begun. The ships were all working at once, and so for many yards up and down the coast all that could be heard were the shouts of workers, the creak of the cranes, and the cries of nervous animals unwilling to leave the ground for any length of time.
Richard then went to the commander of the men and asked him how long it would take to complete the task.
“It will be midday before all the men and horses are ready to leave this place, but when that time comes we will ride hard. Take one of the pack animals and go south, scout the ground you expect us to cross. There may be a gully or a forest you are not aware of between here and the city. Be back before dusk”
With a salute to the man, Richard went to carry out his orders. A steed was made available to him and he took off with it at a trot, going straight south. The first several miles of ground were easy going, and he had soon lost sight of the Ronairs’ camp. However, it was not long before he came to a pine forest, which extended a mile in either direction, too long to bother going around. Urging his horse, Richard confronted the forest head-on, determined to see how far it would go before letting him out at the other end.
He had crossed several miles when he finally emerged from the other end, only to find a stream blocking his path. Again he urged the animal forward, to probe the depth of the water, but a few steps later, he stopped and dismounted. Taking up a piece of driftwood lying near the bank, he moved out in front of the horse and poked the stick down into the stream. A full half of the length disappeared beneath the water, and Richard judged by this that the water level came up just above his knees. Difficult it would be, but perfectly safe to cross on horseback.
There was now just enough time left to him to make the whole journey again before sundown. Pulling himself aboard the horse, which he had found to be a very agreeable one which did not balk, he turned back toward the camp, disappointed that he had not had a sight of the city they were making for. The ride would be longer than they had hoped.
The day marked for the opening of the attack on the besieging forces had broken. It was clear and there was no sign of fog or rain anywhere on the horizon. Wary of the light of the sun, the duke ordered that the ships should proceed on oars and half sails, in case the breeze turned about and came to aid them. Valun and Conan both took places at the oars with the others, watching intently as their foes drew steadily closer.
The oars were not stowed until midday had come and gone, and they were several miles closer to the enemy fleet. The breeze finally came to aid them, but instead of allowing his fleet to charge with the wind, the duke ordered that they hold back, and revealed a part of his plan he had not told the Corridanes.
“Unleash the fire-ship! Before we lose the wind and it comes down on us!”
At his command, one of the ships in the vanguard of the fleet, the crew of which had been divided between the rest before they left the island, and had been left with a skeleton crew of strong swimmers, broke away from the others under full sail as if the crew were deserting for the other side. When it had gotten clear, flames suddenly appeared all over the ship, and the valiant crew could be seen against the light of their fire, leaping over the sides and striking out hard for the ships of their companions, who stood ready to throw them ropes to come aboard.
With the full power of the wind behind it, the fire-ship, completely empty as it was, rushed down among the fleet in the harbor faster than Valun believed possible. As the manned fleet followed at a slower pace, the fire-ship reached its target, colliding with two ships anchored close together. Both were soon on fire, as flames sprang to life in the sails and raced down the masts and across the spars. Still the fire-ship drifted.
It was not long before the Ronair fleet was within bowshot range of the target ships, and the word was passed that all archers were to fire, duck, and fire once more, while everyone else stayed under cover. Accordingly, a rain of arrows sprang from the duke’s fleet soon after the order was received. There was a pause, followed by the second volley as the ships drew ever closer. There had been a return volley against the Ronairs’ shots, but it had been unorganized and weak. Evidently, the ships were either devoid of archers, or the sudden appearance of a fire-ship leading an enemy fleet had thrown the besiegers’ ships into complete disarray.
Another minute passed, and then Valun heard the thump of one ship striking another. This sound signaled the charge of the footmen from their cover, and they dashed out in a mass, shouting wildly. Caught up in the excitement, Valun and Conan drew their weapons and ran right in the midst of the pack, shouting their war cries with the best of them.
Valun struck wildly at the first man to come within his reach, but his blade was turned aside, and he might have been slain right there had he not been saved by the more focused stroke Conan’s axe. The Trondale accompanied the blow with a sharp cry.
“Stay by my side and keep your blade close! There’s fighting to do yet and I can’t save your neck as well as mine!”
Heeding Conan’s words, Valun came up alongside his friend’s left shoulder and swung about to cover his back. In this way they moved together through the ship, both continuing to shout their warcries as long as they could.
Their first battle actually only lasted a few minutes, and soon they were both standing less than a yard from the far rail of the ship they had boarded, both bruised, battered and cleaning their weapons. They stood aside and watched the older warriors take command of the prisoners as they awaited the order to begin the fight again. This command was not long in coming, and still being full of the energy of youth, they almost leapt forward to the next attack.
This second fight was longer and much worse, as the defenders had finally had some time to prepare for the assault. However, Valun, Conan, and the Ronairs, spurred on by the pressing need to break the siege of the city, fought with such ferocity that many of the defenders quailed and surrendered before them, even as others fought harder than ever to save their lives.
It was not long after this second battle was completed that word came to the duke that his forces had finally secured a resounding victory. Straightaway orders were given for the division of the troops; some to guard the prisoners and see that they did not rise again, others to take the injured and the dead to a place better suited for their rest, while all those who were unharmed and still had strength to fight were ordered to stand ready, for they would try to take the city by way of the harbor gates.
Once Valun had come ashore, with Conan still at his side and a host of their allies spread out behind him, a herald brought to him a standard he had ordered made before he left Varaskel. At his command, the herald stood by and held it aloft as the banner unfurled to display the sign of the guard-tower, accompanied by the royal sign of the two watchful falcons, both perched on the same branch but facing in opposite directions. The herald then spoke, projecting his voice so that it reached the wall.
“If this city is under siege and still held by its people, let those among you who are able, open the gates for the rightful prince Valun, who has finally returned to take back his throne. If you are of the enemy, let this stand as a challenge that we will put forth all the strength we have, until we take the city or we die.”
After this proclamation, the would-be saviors of the country were forced to wait, as the tension mounted, for some answer to their words. Some began to pace about in the little space allowed them, while others began to grumble among themselves that they should begin the assault without waiting to see who held the city. It began to seem as if Valun or Duke Randall would have to say something soon to keep the soldiers content.
At that point, finally, they received a response from the inhabitants of the city. As Valun and the men looked up at the walls, a man who was still young, but looked visibly older than his years, appeared above the parapet of the walls. His voice was weaker than his audience had hoped, but his youth, which was hidden by his poor condition, still enabled him to make himself heard.
“I see the banner of the kings unfurled before the city. Let him who claims the right stand forth.”
In response, Valun stepped forward, while Conan and the rest stood still to give him place. Valun announced himself, for in cases such as this one it was no one else’s right to speak for him. “I am Valun, of the Hightowers! Son of the true king, descended in true line from Valun the great, and brother-son to the duke of this city, Tyrone by name. Does he still live to answer?”
The spokesman of the city replied. “I accept your claim, for you carry the right banner, and the right name, and you know also the name of the right ruler of this city. Or so it was when the prince when into exile. Duke Tyrone is dead, and his son keeps the city now. I implore you, if you have food to spare, bring it in as quickly as you can. The sick and the old have been dying for days already.”
At this announcement, visible anxiety broke out in the ranks of the Ronairs. They had, in fact, come later than they had hoped; almost too late. In the space of another week the enemy would have taken the city and the hope of Valun’s restoration would have been lost. At once duke Randall sent men back to every ship still afloat, to see if some of the stores of food still remained unspoiled, and ordered that all which could be found should be distributed first to the Corridanes of the city, and of his own men none should eat yet but those injured who might yet live.
Even while the duke was giving these orders, the man of the city had left his place, and the harbor-gates of the city had been pulled open to admit the rescuers.
Even as the men of the ships fought in the harbor, and afterwards endured the ceremony of Valun’s recognition, and only then were able to take their rest, the knights of Ronaiera with Richard rode through the day to take their part in the rescue. They had broken camp at the crack of dawn, perhaps even before then, and had covered the miles of plains in good time. Then they came to the pine forest and were forced to reform into two columns, which stretched for several hundred yards, in order to come through the trees in good order. The ships drew steadily closer as the knights began to enter the forest. And Richard grew more anxious for the welfare of his friends with every minute of delay.
To compound their delay, the riders in the vanguard had to pull up sharply to avoid running down a man in forester’s gear who had suddenly appeared before them in the path. This man called out in a loud voice, as if trying to sound like a giant rather than simply a good-sized man.
“Stand fast, you enemies of the king! Or my men and I will drop as many of you as we can before you slay us all, and a hard time you will have of it! We are few, but to a man we will stand to defend our home and honor! You stand challenged!”
Richard, who had been riding at the head of the line with the commander of the knights, dismounted and walked toward the man, displaying his hands in token of peace.
“You would kill a noble of the realm, and all these chivalrous and valiant knights who stand ready to fight a war that is not their own? I, Richard Longfurrow, stand before you, a duke of Corridane unless my father Roland lives, and I ride to the aid of the crown prince Valun, who is even now moving to take back the city of Berunthia. He needs our aid and you delay us. Who are you?”
Happiness sprang into the unnamed archer’s eyes, and came forth suddenly in his words. “Richard of Longfurrow? This gladdens my heart. My companions and I are bondsmen who have so far escaped death, some of the Longfurrow and some of the Hightower, who still holds the city you named. We escaped the siege of the city and the defeat of your father’s rebellion, to fight on until the king returned or we died. We will now gladly go with you back to the field.”
Remounting, Richard answered. “Do so, but before we ride answer me my questions: You say my father’s rebellion failed. What became of him? And how much farther must we ride to reach our goal? Furthermore, why did you not stop me when I passed through here only yesterday”
“Sir Roland called forth his vassals and relations, and they rose against the usurper’s mercenaries in the third year of your absence. On the field before the gates of Corrandion they were defeated, and Sir Roland himself was taken a prisoner. It was he himself who told us before the battle that if all was lost, but men could still save themselves, they should run and no shame would be held against them. We do not know if he is still alive in the dungeons or slain. For your second question, if you will believe it, the city lies just beyond the horizon, and the way is clear for you and the knights until you reach the lines of the enemy. Lastly, we did not stop you then because we were not here then. This forest is larger than you may think, and one man is easily missed.”
“Signal your men to come along, for we will need you. We will go now with all speed as soon as you get out of our path.”
“I do so gladly” replied the archer. As he moved, he gave a cry to his companions who had till then been hidden. “Hallooo! The Longfurrow is here and we go to battle once and for all! Come now and fulfill your oaths of fealty, so that no man over his ale and in his ignorance will ever call you a coward who ran from the field!” Even as he made this speech, numerous men appeared on either side of the lines of knights. When all had come forth, their spokesman turned again to Richard. “We are hale and fit for the fight to come, and long practice has given us the speed to match horses at a trot on the ground we will cross. Let us be off.”
However, as fervently as they wished it, they could not move any faster than they had up to that point. Still more time was lost when they finally came out of the woods and upon the stream, for even though it was safe and easy to cross, still the long line of knights on horseback had not all reached the other side until nearly another hour had passed. By this time, it was midday, and Duke Randall was preparing to release the fire-ship.
Once the stream was crossed, the baron commanding the knights gave the order that they should proceed in a battle line. This also took a little time. There were fully two thousand knights present there, and a battle line left them only two ranks deep. The hundred bowmen who still held themselves bound to fight for Richard and Valun spread out in a line in front of the lines of knights. Still farther ahead, Richard and the baron were alone, save for the banner-bearer holding aloft the flag of Ronaiera.
The baron then turned his mount around to speak to his men. “I will make no great speech here. We here ride now straight on, some to death, but all of us to lasting fame, glory, and honor. Stout hearts and strong arms, a song will be made of what we have done and will do, and perhaps our friend Richard here will compose it for the feast celebrating our victory. But hark, I have made a speech where I said none was needed. Let no more time be lost. Forward!”
With this word, the whole crowd broke into a trot, eager to join battle as they had come all that long way to do. They had only three miles before them, and they were crossing the whole expanse like a great wave from the ocean. Only ten minutes had passed when they finally came over the horizon and saw the enemy spread out before them.
The host of the Naiberns, for that they were, was spread throughout the miles open before the city, and seemed to be simply sitting and waiting for something to happen. There was no apparent sign that they were prepared for the force of cavalry now standing ready to charge down upon them. The baron gave final orders.
“Bowmen, take that high ground to the west. Give your best to ensure none go back that way, for they may bring their friends, or at least warn them of us. Knights! No quarter, and we have no time for prisoners! Charge!”
The archers scrambled to get out of the way as the assembled knights again started a trot, which quickly escalated into a full gallop, carrying the long line of noble horsemen straight into the camp of the astonished enemy. As he had been from the start, Richard was in the vanguard of the charge, and so was one of the first to come face to face with the enemy.
The Naiberns were milling about uncontrollably, while officers here and there were attempting to rally them against the charge. Richard saw as he slashed at them with his long sword that those still some distance from the attacking knights were beginning to have some success. This could not be allowed. If a proper defense was given time to form, the knights would be decimated with no proper support.
“We should have waited and attacked at night...” thought Richard, and began to wave his sword violently above his head to attract the attention of any allies who would see. Not daring to turn his back on the Naiberns, he shouted from where he sat. “Halt! Halt now, or we all might die! Halt now!”
To his great relief, those nearest heard his cries and paused in their destruction of the camp. Seeing this, more of the knights still living also paused, until the whole troop was waiting on his word. Even as he rode to meet them, the baron met him halfway.
“Why did you call a halt! We might have swept them away!”
“Perhaps in the first strides, sir, but not as they are now. Strong captains have rallied the men beyond our range, and we should not risk an open charge. Please, send a man to call in those archers. They are our last hope to win this battle.”
Heeding this advice, the baron sent a man out to bring back the archers from under cover. And it was not a moment too soon, for by now the Naiberns had regrouped completely, and they were beginning to form up as if to turn the fight back upon the Ronairs. Even as all this happened before the main gates, Valun and Conan were fighting for their lives in their second battle. The ships had not yet been captured.
Then suddenly a great noise rose up, the sound of many voices. The Naiberns were charging to overwhelm the knights. Richard and the men with him steadied their steeds and formed a line, preparing to charge back in their turn and overrun the footmen nearing them by sheer weight before they gained time to reform a proper defensive line. And then the tide turned again, for dozens of arrows flew suddenly into the ranks of the Naiberns, staggering their charge. Again the arrows appeared, and men began to pause and wonder at this fact, even as their fellows kept up the charge around them, confident in their great numbers.
At the moment when some of the Naiberns began to break their loose ranks and turn toward the direction the shafts were coming from, the baron seized his chance and once more sounded the charge, leading his knights straight on the foe. From there the tide again turned completely and finally. Though great in numbers, the Naibern troops had been camped before the city for more than a year by this time, with no battles to keep them in fighting trim. Their sudden charge showed that their discipline had not survived intact, either. As the Ronairs came hurtling down on them again, many broke and ran from the field. Even though most were cut down by the archers before they got far, there were too many to catch them all.
When the baron saw that he and his men had routed the Naiberns completely, and were now masters of the field, he called on his men to stop by shouts and horn-calls. “We have won the field! Now come and tend to your fellows who lie hurt. Then we may have time for fame and gladness.”
As the knights began to ride about the field looking to recover those who were unhorsed, wounded or not, Richard instead rode to the side of his vassal, the archer who had first accosted him in the forest.
“Again a thing puzzles me,” he said to the man as they both began to join in the task of the knights. “And it seems to me that you would know the answer to this question also; where are their siege engines? For no great mass of troops would plan to come and sit before a city without devices with which to take it all the sooner.”
The bowman replied. “My fellows and I often came by night to harry the troops from our refuge in the forest yonder. At times we found the chance to set fire to their engines, and we succeeded. Were it not for us, the city would have been taken before you arrived.”
Richard replied with wonder. “I think the city, and in truth, the whole of the country, owes you more than we can pay. But now for my part I repay you in what little way I can. You and such of your companions who are my vassals, if any of you were before serfs, I here declare you free men, and in token of our gratitude, if some portion of my wealth is left to me, or as soon as it is in part restored, some of it shall go to the keeping of you and your companions, and the heirs of you all, until our line is ended.”
Even as they walked, the archer stopped suddenly and bowed before Richard, saying ‘My lord, I know this is a great honor, and we shall never let it be forgotten, were my line to last hundreds upon hundreds of years. For I was a serf and a bondsman, and now I am free, and need not fear for the welfare of my family.”
Richard and his sworn man made no more high speeches, but increased their pace in searching the field. Between them and the horse Richard had ridden, they were able to bring back five men from the battlefield back to the company of their comrades who had congregated before the gate of the city. Those that were dead when found, they left lying for that time, except to put a sword in the man’s hands and lay his shield over him in the age-old manner.
Having done this, Richard returned to the side of the baron, who was standing like a sentinel, as if awaiting a signal from some place or man. He turned to Richard and said “I think we have waited long enough. Since all our living men are now gathered again, it is time we met those we have fought for.’ Signaling to his standard-bearer, who had survived the fight but slightly wounded, he said “Call on them to open to us.”
The man accordingly cried as loud as he was able. “Open the gates to us, by request of Richard, duke of Longfurrow of this realm!”
Almost immediately, a man appeared above the walls and called down to them, his voice heavy with exasperation. “Richard! If you had left us a minute more we would have had the gates open before you knocked! When did Valun give you leave to call yourself duke? You’ve not done more than me! Less really, you long-caped minstrel! If there is food in those tents bring it! There’s a city in here and more than a few hungry troops as well!” Having made this speech, he disappeared.
By this time, the gates had been thrown wide, and Richard and the others who could walk paraded in holding the horses’ reins for those more seriously hurt. The last ranks of walkers marched in backwards, guarding against a sudden rush by hidden enemies. But none appeared, and everyone living got inside without hindrance. Richard immediately went to seek out Valun and Conan, whom he soon found standing side by side.
“Well, it seems I have lost, for you stand here to greet me. What was the wager and where shall I send it?”
Valun turned toward him, a somber look upon his face, “It is no time for jokes now, Richard. There is much yet to do here before ever we can laugh from simple joy again, or even begin to cleanse our land and discover what has become of our people. The people of the city are starving, and the food we have will not last long in feeding them all. Even my father’s brother, Duke Tyrone, has died of the hunger, as he refused to eat better than the people of the city could, and it sapped his strength to the end. So says his son Mason, now duke of Berunthia, who is tending the people as we speak.”
Richard, his spirits dampened considerably by this news, became serious and answered “We have had a battle ourselves and now many of the knights are injured so that they must join the ranks of those lying under the care of others. I fear that we do not have enough men to take the fight to our enemies. Is this not so?’
Valun replied. “Perhaps we might do it at some time in the future, if ever we are able to feed and heal the people of Berunthia first, for there are many soldiers here in the city who are vassals of myself or my cousin, who escaped to this place. There are also men from the southern fiefs, and some of them are ruled by the Bristolans, who are my mother’s family. With them, our strength is at least as much as it was when we sailed and perhaps even more. But first we must feed the people. How shall we do that?”
According to his wont, Conan had again taken the time to think over the problem silently, and having done so he spoke up. “Ask the prisoners when the next supply ships are due. They have little to lose by thwarting us now. Surely if they have been here for some time, they have been getting supplies from somewhere, and it is not likely to be Corridane itself anymore, so long have they been here.”
Valun grew more cheerful at once. “That, my friend, is the answer to our trouble. They have not had time to warn their friends of our coming. If we bide our time, we will have our enemies feeding our people. It will be enough to start with.”
He turned and began to walk off as the others, momentarily startled, strove to catch up despite the throngs of soldiers and city-people in the streets who had come out now that the siege was lifted. Valun led his companions almost to the other edge of the city, as he made for the warehouses near the harbor where some of the officers of the Naibern ships were being held to wait for his decision concerning them. Valun reached one of these before he stopped to offer any explanation to his friends.
“Our friend the duke Randall had many of the Naibern officers moved into the city under guard after we gained entrance, and he has been holding them as hostages for the conduct of their men. This is one of their prisons.” He knocked on the door and said to the man on watch “The prince has questions for the prisoners.” At this the warden gave them entrance without asking questions, and discreetly retired to a far corner of the room; close enough to give aid, yet far enough away to avoid listening in on the nobles.
Several Naiberns were gathered along the far wall of the room in various attitudes which bespoke dejection and general gloom. Between them and the Corridanes, some men from the Ronair army stood guard. Valun came alongside the guards and spoke to the prisoners.
“You have made war against me and my people, and for that I may do what I wish to those who are my prisoners. I will not kill you, for I believe that many of you did not wish to fight, but you will stay locked up for as long as I think fit. If you try to escape, I am sure these men are permitted to kill you then. Now, I want answers to my questions. I will speak to the highest commander here.”
At the news that they were in no danger of execution, and that the Corridane had left open the possibility that they would be released in the future, the prisoners seemed to come to life again, and many began to look at each other in confusion, though others all began to look toward one of those at a far end of the line. The man stood up and said “I am only a ship captain, but it seems that most here think me the high commander. Therefore I will speak. What are your questions?”
“I wish to know how long your siege lasted, and when you got your supplies.”
“We had been anchored there for nearly two years now. Supplies come often enough. I will not say how often, for I know that is what you want to hear. This battle you have won with stealth, but you have not the men to win back everything. You will not defeat the full might of the emperor.”
Valun stepped back and indicated that his friends should go back outside with him. When they had done this, he spoke again, grasping his sword-hilt as if he was unsure what to do with his hands.
“My friends, what shall we do? We cannot move from this city until the people are fed. We have no time to find more food, and it is doubtful that there is much left to us outside the city in any case. What do you say?”
It was Conan who spoke first. “My lord, it is not true that we cannot leave. In fact it might be a better thing if we took many of the soldiers and left, for everyone who stays must eat, and the injured need it more than the fit men. It would be best to move as swiftly as we may, and by good fortune we may catch our foes by surprise again and so overpower them.”
“I see that is sound advice and something we might do. What would you say, Richard?”
Richard, who had installed himself against the wall in the relaxed manner of one who did not care who or what passed him by, pushed off and uncrossed his arms, moving to stand by Conan’s side. “My lord, much of Conan’s advice is the same I would have given myself. I would add that the spokesman inside is perhaps wiser than we hoped. I can see that he knows the answer you seek, but he hopes you will give him a price for it if he waits long enough. After all, he is not the one who is responsible for the people. I also add this: In my mind it would do no harm to return to them and offer them a life as your subjects if they join us. Many of them are still fit to fight.”
“Thank you, my friends. I will do as you have said. Richard, it falls to you to go to duke Randall and tell him of our plan, for his men are still the strongest of our force. Conan, seek out my cousin the duke Mason and ask him how many of the Corridanes he can spare me. There will be no need to hunt me down with his reply, for I will return to his citadel when I leave here.” When these instructions were given, Richard and Conan departed together to complete their assigned tasks. Not bothering to watch them go, Valun immediately turned and reentered the warehouse they had previously exited.
He wasted no time, going before the prisoners and making his offer. “It has been suggested to me that it would be wise to offer any who will take it a home here in my country. To those who join me, I am asking that you fight your fellow invaders. If you survive you will be free to make your home anywhere in my borders where space can be found. If you refuse this offer it will be many days before you go free again.”
This offer and ultimatum caused consternation among the prisoners. Some moved, while others stayed as they were. One man broke the silence, making his speech in the king’s own language. “If these others are of a like mind, we will take your offer and give you our loyalty. I have no home left in the south, and this is true of many others also. It would be better that we did not live here as invaders.”
“Then I grant you your freedom. Seek out Richard Longfurrow and tell him what I have said, for it was he who suggested this to me. When you have found him you may return here to free all the men who will follow you. My only command is that you will carry no weapons until you are assembled under my banner. You may go.” Having said this, Valun stood by and watched as all the Naiberns who agreed with the spokesman formed a line and marched out, unhindered by the Ronairs guarding the rest and saluting Valun as they passed. When the last of them had gone before him, Valun passed through the door again himself and turned his steps toward the ducal fortress.