As the king’s letter said, Valun had already moved into the palace as a guest, to await the arrival of his two companions. The first thing he had done upon obtaining the king’s acceptance of his claim was to return to the house of the artisan he had lived with and the family of the smith. He returned the strongbox to the keeping of the shop-master, thanking him for his trust in a simple apprentice. Then he gathered the things he had acquired during his time with the family, gave some to the smith’s children, and took the few things left to him in a sack to the palace.
At the palace he was met by a steward, who, recognizing him, took him up to a room which had been designated for his use.
Valun spent the long days waiting for news of his friends in ceaseless efforts to find anything that was known about the state of Corridane in the past ten years, for he was anxious what had become of the hinted-at plans of rebellion against Keltran, and whether he would therefore require the assistance the Ronaieran king had promised him. He could not find much, but what he could find was bad; none had heard any news out of Corridane for several years. There were rumors of refugees living on the west coast, but Valun no longer had the time to go to look for them, because he did not know how soon his friends would be found, and knew they were expecting to see him when they arrived.
Valun had been living the palace for nearly two weeks by the time Richard arrived, trotting straight into the palace courtyard on a great bay horse and shouting “Where is the king of Corridane! We have waited too long to see our people, and hear our own tongue spoken in the streets!” The commotion drew Valun out with the stewards, and the two greeted each other warmly. Then Richard asked “Where is Conan? Has he been found?” Valun did not know and his silence betrayed it. For a moment they both fell silent, worried that perhaps their fellow exile had died somewhere, with no one he called friend at his side. Then Richard broke the silence again. “We worry too soon, my lord, for I will say now that, Conan had survived much already when last we met.”
Unwilling to remain somber long in the presence of the garrulous Longfurrow, Valun put a hand on the other’s shoulder and said “Come now, I am sure something can be found to refresh the great companion of the honored guest.”
As they walked toward the door of the palace itself, Richard replied “Why thank you, my lord. I need it. Would you believe, I have traveled the country in every direction, but I had never been to the capital before the great fair?”
“It is a hard task, but I believe you, for I had never once heard your name spoken. Surely a great minstrel such as you would have some measure of fame?”
“However it happened, it is of no consequence now. Perhaps my old master does not like the king. Let us hope John will prove a better one. Have you seen John about lately?”
“I have, but he does not seem to want to see me. He will not meet my eyes when we pass.”
As they neared the kitchens Richard said “Perhaps he will see me. He seemed to like me while we travelled. You go in first, my lord, they know you here.”
Soon it began to feel as if Richard belonged in the palace as much as any of the servants, and the only sign that they had really been separated was the fact that they each had years of stories to tell the others. Valun also told Richard of the disturbing rumors of Corridane refugees.
“Well” said Richard upon hearing this “We ought to go and find them, if they are really there, for they have lived the history we are going back to correct, and could tell us what we are getting into. However, finding them would spend days we cannot afford to spare anymore. I only desire the more to see my family again.”
“As do I,” Valun answered “For it was their departure that seems to have begun the whole disaster.”
One day in the third week since the king’s decree, the two friends were standing together on the wall of the castle, watching for signs of a rider coming through the city toward their position. They had not seen any unusual person or thing that day, and it was coming onto the middle of the afternoon. As they were beginning to descend into the castle for their midday meal, they were met by a servant coming up who stopped when he saw them.
“My lords, if you would come with me, there is a man outside the gates. He has not left and the servants do not understand his speech. It was suggested that I find you.”
This was an intriguing development. The two Corridanes looked at each other as if they were privy to some great secret.
“Conan, do you think? How do you suppose he got into the city if the guards don’t understand him?”
“How many men are there in this place who don’t speak the language? If we learned anything of him, he opened the doors for himself.”
Following the man down through the castle to the gate of the courtyard, they called to the guards to open the gates, walking as they did. Passing through, they met the man on the other side as if he had truly been one of their greatest friends, and not simply a fellow traveler with the same motives at heart.
“Conan! What brings you back, out of the deep dark ages of old men?”
“We know your life was hard, and we are glad that you have survived them to come home with us. We cannot leave you waiting any longer. Come, we must feast! And forgive the guards. They are not expected to learn our language.”
Conan had finally made it to the capital, after riding for three days in an oxcart to the nearest man who could spare a horse. The horse, however, had been old and slow, almost as slow as the ox- cart, so after three more days Conan had decided that he could do better for himself by walking. He asked directions from people by drawing signs which indicated he was looking for the king. When he finally arrived at the gates of the city, he waited until a group had gathered and passed through behind them. From there it was a simple matter to find his way to the palace. Now he was hungry and weary, and frustrated by such lengthy greetings.
“Well, I am sure I will be grateful tomorrow when I have had some food and sleep. I have been walking for a week and cannot stand here, so will you lords please take me where I can get some?”
Even as they beckoned two servants who were nearby, Valun and Richard turned to each other and said “Yes, this is Conan, isn’t it?” As Conan came frowning behind, they all returned to the courtyard.
At Valun’s request they were fitted out and left Varaskel early the next morning, alone but for a guide. They camped close by the road each night, taking watches by turns as they each told their stories of the past ten years again. Conan had slept through the evening of their reunification, and so they had not had time to hear his story, or to tell him their own. Their ten years of separation provided them with ample materiel, and they reached the city of Forond after a little more than a week having barely had time to tell everything they had to say.
Forond was the metropolis on the banks of the great river, which, like other cities in other countries had grown to its size by virtue of the prosperity brought by its access to trade with all the countries on the river, and even with other countries beyond the coast. When Valun and his friends arrived, they found the city abuzz with the arrival of large numbers of soldiers. These were, of course, the men who had been pledged by the lords who had fulfilled the king’s command. The troops had arrived sooner because they had marched straight from their point of origin to the destination without detouring to the capital.
Valun and his friends crossed paths with several companies of men as they made their way through the city. Some looked older and hardened, while others looked like they had only recently come of age. Valun watched them go by with great solemnity, as he said to his friends “So many men. This I did not hope for. There is nothing that can be done to repay them for this.”
Conan answered “The king’s message said you asked for aid. The enemy has been in our country since we left it, no doubt growing stronger every year. Did you think it would take no more than a small band to drive them out again?”
“I do not know what I thought then, but it is much too late now.” Then Valun turned to the guide and requested that they be taken to the lord of the city.
The guide accordingly led them to the castle, where they were announced to the gate simply as the Corridane nobles, come to see the duke. They had to wait outside while a servant went to ask if they would be seen, but after a short time he came back and let them in. Their horses were taken from them and they were led into a grand hall lined with fine tapestries, where servants brought them refreshments to ease their wait.
They had not been alone long when the duke came into see them. They paused and bowed as he entered, but he indicated that they should continue eating while he spoke, if they so wished.
“Welcome, young lords” he said “I am Randall, duke of Forond and nephew of the king. My uncle has asked that I take command of the forces he has ordered to my city on your behalf.”
“Thank you, sir” replied Valun as the spokesman of his party. “We are honored by the incalculable gift your uncle has made in aid to us. Do you know yet for certain how many men have been sent to you? It is our great misfortune that we do not know the number of our foes, or even whether any of our cities still hold out against them.”
“My uncle understands your plight, and although he cannot order his people to provide as many men as they would for the defense of their own land, still they have sent great numbers. Perhaps your young age and long exile here has stirred up their pity, for they have sent footmen and archers numbering in the thousands, and many knights have also come. The city is scarcely able to maintain them all, so we must depart without wasting time. Nearly half the city is on the docks building enough ships to carry the army. In the meantime you are my guests. I will send for you the moment we are ready to depart.”
Another week passed before Duke Randall sent for them with the news that the army was ready to depart. After they had come on board, he met them in the cabin of his ship and asked “Where do you think we should land this force?”
Without hesitation, Valun answered “On our coast of the sea of Deren, My family rules the city of Berunthia. They will have held out longest, and are our best hope.”
Then Richard made his suggestion. “Perhaps we should land some of the men on the north coast. With a force large enough it would also divide our enemies, so they cannot reinforce their positions.”
Duke Randall stopped them then. “These are both good suggestions, but we cannot choose between them unless we know the strength of our foes. We have only some five thousand men, and that must be enough to sweep them all away. If the enemy really comes from Naibern, marching from the south will cut their lines. There, also, lies the last strong place that might still be friendly to us. It is my decision that we will enter the sea of Deren and land in Berunthia. From there we will sweep across the land as quickly as we may.”
The young Corridane heirs accepted this decision without protest. The duke was the leader of the army and knew what he could do with them. They were only along for the journey and hoping they would survive the battles.
All three had been given new weapons before they left the palace, and they were still enjoying the renewed novelty of the experience, as if they were boys again. Valun and Richard carried the typical broadsword, while Conan had surprised them both by deciding instead to carry an axe, with a haft long enough to swing against most other weapons, but short enough to carry in his belt. Seeing that the question at hand was closed, they left the duke’s cabin and went out onto the deck, where they began to practice with the weapons as idle Ronair soldiers stood by. Some got into the spirit of the thing by calling out encouragement to those sparring, and some even shouted wagers back and forth in jesting tones. Spurred on by the audience, the duelists raised the intensity of their show combat, while still trying to keep from injuring the other. But it could not go on like this, and after a few short minutes Valun’s sword grazed Conan’s arm, and both felt fortunate that it had not been worse. This incident ended the sparring, as both stowed their weapons and Conan went to have his wound bound properly.
When he returned to the others, Richard said “After this we should only practice with a veteran who will take us. Otherwise, we might do each other serious harm, as clearly we have not regained the skill it takes to fight at that pace yet. But that skill we must get back as quickly as we may, or we will die in the first battle.” The others took his advice, and in the following days they each spent much time in a day sparring with some veteran who would spare them his time, though they did not duel among themselves again.