The recapture of Corridane from the control of the Naibern forces had been grueling, and heart-wrenching. Valun and his two friends had taken those men who could come with them, including large numbers of Naiberns newly willing to call themselves Corridanes and fight for the Hightower, all over the country, attacking all the Naiberns who could be found. Across the south, up through the middle land and back across the north they marched. They met many enemies, but never a force large enough in one place to do them serious damage.
One day, about a month into the campaign, as the troops rested outside a northern village which had just been retaken from the invaders, Valun called Richard and Conan to his side.
“My friends,” he said “We have crossed and re-crossed the country, and vanquished all we found. It is time now that I should enter my capital again, and I want you both at my side, to recognize the part you have played in this victory.”
Richard, who was always ready to speak before Conan, answered almost immediately. “My lord, I understand that you wish to give us great honor in doing this, but I must beg leave to be excused until I am ready to enter the capital as the lord of Longfurrow. This will not be until I have seen my land and my home again. I have fought by your side as long as there was fighting to be done. Grant now that I may leave to see my home, now at my first chance.”
Conan, standing beside Richard, then spoke. “Sire, I will not repeat Richard’s speech, for he has said what I would have said had I spoken first.”
Valun was moved by his friends’ words. In truth, being caught up in the campaign to retake the homeland, he had lost sight of the fact that neither of them had actually had time to visit his own ancestral land again. He rose from his chair and held out his hand to each in turn. “Forgive me, my friends. I had truly forgotten that your paths home do not follow mine. Go, both of you, with all speed, and come to me in the capital only when you are ready.”
Each grasping the king’s wrist in turn, Richard and Conan both replied “Thank you, we will come to see you crowned before the week is out.” Saluting, they left the king’s shelter together.
Valun followed them out but did not attempt to walk in step with them. Instead he simply stood and watched as each took a horse, and with a wave of farewell as they turned in his direction, rode off in the separate direction which would take them to their ancestral lands. Once his two friends had departed, Valun called to a servant, saying “Tell the captains of the men I wish to ride to the capital as soon as the army can be ready.”
The man walked off to deliver the message, and Valun turned back toward the small house he had been using as a headquarters instead of a tent. The house was not in the best condition, but in that it was similar to many places Valun had passed throughout the campaign. The country in general had taken on a dilapidated appearance, and many of the towns had been less fully inhabited than appeared right to the king. It was so with the people also. Valun hoped that the fighting men had escaped to the cities or the wilderness, and would now begin to reappear since he had finally reappeared himself, for there were a precious few men of fighting age in the towns. There had been numerous boys and old men aplenty, but few left of the right age to be the sons of the elders. In fact, the house he was using was an example of this. It was kept by an old couple who said their son had left years ago, saying something about fighting back. He had not returned, and now they did the best they could in their little space for themselves and their son’s wife and their little granddaughter, who were all they had in the world now.
Having heard this story almost the moment he entered the house, Valun had promptly gifted them several gold pieces, which caused them to call down blessings upon him with every second sentence they spoke. Valun had not been expecting such profuse thanks, and had become so nervous that he only remembered at the last instant that he could not refuse to join them at their table. Recalling this, he allowed himself a grin of self-deprecation. A fine example that would have made.
The owners of the house had been working in their small garden while Valun spoke with his friends, but they had come back inside by the time Valun passed the threshold again himself. He wasted no time taking his leave.
“I am leaving now, but I wish you all the peace and happiness you deserve, which is much, if I have seen anything of the country. Farewell.”
The commoners did not speak to him. They only stood together on the threshold and watched as he walked away toward the camp, from which the servant was coming back to him with news that the men would prepare with all speed.
As the campaign had ended in the northern part of the country, Conan had the shorter of the two journeys from the village in which Valun was now breaking camp. Even so, he had had to pass one night in the open, and then ride on throughout the morning before he reached the land he recognized as being attached directly to his family manor. Along with prodigious strength, Conan’s other great asset was his nearly perfect memory, which he had displayed several times during the campaign to drive out the occupiers, when his friends had been confused by the change of scene. Thus his memories allowed him to know that he was home, even without the benefit of anything marking the boundary.
However, memory is no true replacement for reality, and so he discovered, as he rode farther within the borders of his first homeland, that it did nothing to lessen the pain he felt at what he saw, or more precisely did not see, when he arrived at the spot where his father’s house had once stood.
Nothing was left of Trondale hall, the great house that had been built by his grandfather as a young man. Not a beam or a stone was visible anywhere. Green grass covered the whole expanse. Choking back a cry, Conan dismounted so quickly he nearly fell from the horse. Hurrying to the spot where memories told him the great door had stood, he tore at the grass, desperate to find any remnant of the home he had been raised in.
When his fingers had nearly disappeared into the earth, Conan felt them strike against something that was more than soft earth. Exploring carefully along its edge and steadily working it free, he found when he brought it to light that he had uncovered an old sword, its blade broken off to a jagged edge about halfway up its length. After a pause of but a moment, he realized what he probably held, and sticking the blade straight back down into the earth, he rested his head upon it as he remained on one knee where he had stopped.
Speaking in haunted tones to the grass beneath, he said “They came. They came here, and my father is dead.” Before he had time to rise from his position, a shadow fell over him and a new voice spoke.
“Leave our land, desecrator, or I swear I shall kill you as you are. That you have in your hand I will take.”
Conan did not stop to listen to this ultimatum. Rising in a moment, he spun around, swinging the broken sword as if it were the axe he was wont to carry. The blow would surely have struck the girl dead if she had not in the same moment struck out with a long knife, the meeting of which sent such a shock through Conan’s wrists that his ancient weapon was sent spinning away, to land a yard or more to the left of Conan and his antagonist.
Empty-handed, Conan stared in disbelief at the young woman standing before him, as she held her long knife ready to threaten him again. Her long auburn hair moved freely, and her dress was that of a common maid. In the tone of one prepared to force obedience, she said “Now, leave this place. There is no room for your kind here.”
In a voice that belied the tension between the two, Conan replied “No room for my kind? And who are my kind to you, sister?”
Still holding the point of her blade out toward Conan, the girl answered “You dare call me sister? Those vile southerners who have overrun this place like rats in a cellar. Those are your people, and you be quick to join them. I’ve heard word that our king has come again and your people defeated. Go on. Get off our land. Your path lies that way.” She concluded, pointing with her free arm in the direction Conan had indeed come from.
Noticing that his horse had begun to stray, Conan replied in a sterner tone. “Listen to me, Anne! Did not our parents ever tell you that your brother Conan was sent away so that he might survive and avenge what has happened? I am Conan! Your brother that you lost! And if the truth of my words and my knowledge are not enough to you, ask me, ask me now, what sign did Conan carve into the doorframe before he left? If our mother has ever reminded you of me, she told you that, that only Conan would know that. Ask me, please.”
In the course of Conan’s speech, Anne, for it was indeed her, on whose ninth birthday Conan had ridden away, and who was now fully nineteen years of age, finally relaxed enough to sheathe her blade and stand silently as Conan spoke. When he had finished, she took her turn, speaking with civility she had not yet shown. “You have your wish, sir. What was this sign you speak of?”
“The sign was this. I carved the first letter of my own name into the wood of the doorframe. I had not the time or space for more. I would prove it to you, but you see what has become of our house.”
This brought tears to Anne’s eyes, as she leapt forward to embrace him, exclaiming “Oh Conan, It’s you after all. That was the answer my mother wanted. She said no man but Conan would have answered the question. I am so glad you’ve returned! Mother and the children too. We’ve been so worried for you.”
She said all this while leaning against Conan and embracing him tightly. Conan, who prided himself on his ability to conceal his feelings and did not like such intimacy, returned the gesture gingerly. A moment after she stopped speaking, Anne broke away from Conan and went to retrieve the broken blade he had brought out of the ground. Picking it up, she brought it to him and offered it back. “I suppose you have a right to this after all, brother, for if it is not our father’s own blade than it is the spoils of battle.” Finally noticing the broad-bladed axe that hung from his belt, she added “But I see you don’t use a sword anyway. Thank the One you didn’t draw that thing, or you would have killed your own sister.”
Conan took the old blade and they walked off together to retrieve Conan’s horse. When they had reached it, Anne pulled herself aboard in a moment, before Conan was able to offer his aid. As she rode off, she called to him. “Come now, we must look after the goat and the sheep. Then we may see the others.”
Conan dutifully followed on foot as Anne directed the horse toward the southern side of the land and disappeared below a rise. When he had reached the place where she had stopped, he found her patiently herding one goat and four sheep into a group with a stick she seemed to have picked up from the ground. As he approached, she remarked “This is all of them, and they are all together now. We have had more, but when they began to go missing, we could do nothing about it. Help me get them to their shelter over yonder.” As she pointed with the stick, Conan saw that, some distance closer to the coast, a small hut had been erected, which for some reason was roofed with grass.
Picking up a stick of his own and grasping the reins of his horse, Conan followed his sister’s practiced lead, and the whole group of people and livestock crossed the distance to the shelter in minutes. When the smaller animals had been locked up, Anne remounted the horse and announced “Now we can return to mother and the others. We may even meet them on our way, since I have been away longer than it usually takes me to gather our little herd.” By this time she had started the horse and they were moving back the way they had come at an easy walk. “We shall have to leave your horse up here, though. We live at the bottom of the cliffs now, and the steps are too steep for any animal.”
Accordingly, when Anne said they had reached the steps, they tied the horse to the nearest tree and proceeded to make their way down the steps which had been cut into the cliffs long ago so that those who lived on the land above might be able to enjoy the water below. Conan was about halfway down before he caught sight of a small house that had been built just where the firm ground began. Smoke was emanating from the hole in the roof and there was a small garden visible on the landward side of the building, in which two young boys could be seen working.
A short time later, Conan and Anne had reached flat ground and Conan heard his sister calling to the boys.
“Eric! John! Come here. Your brother Conan has returned. Keep him out here a moment while I go in to mother.”
The two boys dropped their tools with unbecoming speed, and came to the summons at a pace just short of a run. Conan could hear them voicing several thoughts in rapid succession. “Well Anne, now you’ve come back since the work’s nearly done…”
“Our brother, really? That man is?”
“Well he must be, musn’t he? She wouldn’t be happy to bring him down here if he wasn’t.”
“Really? Conan? The one mother said father sent off to have adventures? I wish I could have gone too. Then everyone would be so glad to see me that they’d forget about the kettle and the goat.”
Anne had apparently heard this last remark clearly as she walked off toward the little house. With a joyous laugh, she called back “No, Eric, I don’t think we would, even were you to return the hero of a hundred battles.” With this she entered the house and Conan was left outside with his two brothers, who, when he left home, had not yet been able to walk.
Having lost his chance to bond and grow with his brothers, and having seen almost no one younger than himself in his whole time in Ronaiera, Conan found himself ill at ease standing alone with the young boys and not willing to speak. Fortunately, they broke the silence for him. One of them, he guessed it was Eric, soon noticed his chosen weapon.
“Can you really use this? It looks awfully big.”
Drawing the axe. Conan stepped back, demonstrated a few strokes, and slotted the thing home again. Then he said “Yes, I can. I find that it suits me. Like everything else, you must work at it or the skill will fail you when you need it.”
“Have you been in battles?”
“Many. I have been fighting at the king’s side all over the country. But I will speak no more of that. Come, show me what your work is.”
“Alright” one of the boys replied while staring at Conan’s axe. “But we are nearly done for today.”
“All the better. Just tell me when I have done enough.” Conan strode off toward the garden, as the two boys trailed behind him, marveling at this new revelation.
“Do you believe that, John? He actually likes to work!”
“Let’s watch and see how long he manages. If he likes work, I bet he would chop down a whole forest with that axe if no one told him to stop first.”
Conan let these statements hang. Crossing into the garden, he took up a hoe in each hand, and using them sometimes singly, and sometimes both at once, he had gone over the whole area properly in only a few minutes. By the time he was done, Anne had come out again and called to all of them to come in.
Leaning the tools against the wall of the house, Conan followed after the others, allowing them to cross the threshold first, while he stopped there for a moment to study the picture. His mother Evelyn was seated on a simple wooden chair, tending the pot of stew that was set under the hole in the roof. Between the fire and the door there was a utilitarian table with a handful of equally simple chairs surrounding it. On the far side of the building, on either side of the hearth, there were what appeared to be curtains hanging across other doorways. Taken altogether, it was a basic peasant’s home.
With a start, Conan realized that he had been standing on the threshold longer than was proper even for a guest. What brought him back to his senses was the sound of his mother’s voice and the sight of her rising from her seat to greet him.
“My boy! Anne said you had returned, but I was afraid to believe it true after so many years had passed without you. Come, we will talk outside.”
Moments later, Conan and his mother were walking side by side on the tideline, moving farther away from the little house with each step. Each held their silence for a time, and then Evelyn said “Do you remember, Conan, the day you left home? When you came and told me your father had sent you away, I said I expected to hear the whole story when you returned. Now is the time, my son. Do not lie.”
By this time they had come to an outcrop of large rocks situated about fifty yards beyond the house. Conan seated himself on one, facing out to the sea, while Evelyn took a seat on his left.
“It is a hard story, mother. Are you sure you want it all?”
“My son, I too have lived through a hard story. I do not need to ask if you would hear it all, for I know that you would. ”
“Very well, mother, you shall hear the whole truth, and nothing but that.” With this introduction, Conan began a retelling in his own way of everything which had happened to him during his time away from home, including a concise account of the whole campaign to retake the country by force.
But ten years could not pass in one hour, and so he still had much more to tell when he was interrupted by the arrival of John, who had come to bring them back for the evening meal. Whispering between themselves, Conan and his mother agreed to continue the tale the next day, as painful as it was to both of them. Conan entered the house determined not to show his siblings any sight of the pain he had just been reliving.
As they sat around the table taking that day’s soup, Evelyn spoke again to Conan. “Anne said you dug up an old blade near where our house stood. Show it to me.”
Conan, who had till now been carrying the thing stuck into the side of his belt opposite his axe, dutifully brought it out, passing it over the table hilt-foremost. Evelyn looked intently at it for a few moment but then announced in a tone of disappointment “I cannot say whether this is your father’s blade or not. But keep it as if it were. We shall have it made whole and keep it till it shall be borne by one of you boys. That much my Eric deserves.” None of her four children made any answer to this statement, but they all finished their meal in a more subdued manner, seeing that their mother was thinking of memories that were not pleasant.
The next day passed much the same as the previous one, except that Conan spent much more time walking with his mother as they related to each the stories of their last ten years. This time, they climbed the cliff steps and walked in the green grass and trees. After much had been said on either side, Evelyn suddenly drew Conan aside and asked him to stand where he had recovered the broken blade. As he stood over the spot she spoke again.
“I have never told the children, for it is best they do not think of what really happened. Your father did not die here, Conan. As I watched from hiding he held off six men until he lost his sword. Then they took him away bound, and I never saw him again. Do not leave me again, my son.”
“I wish I could promise that, mother, but I cannot. I have been called to the capital. I wish you and the others to come. It will be a triumph for all of us.”
“But we have no way of leaving here. There is only your own horse between us all.”
“I will ride ahead, and send back for you. You shall all be present at the king’s coronation, even if I have to beg him to delay it, for I think that was what my father fought and died for.”
“As you wish, my son. For such an occasion there is no delaying. Leave today.”
Richard rode for two full days before he came in sight of his ancestral manor. Having passed the farthest borders of his land sometime in the afternoon, he was able to see his manor on the horizon by early evening and actually reached the grounds only shortly before twilight. His first action, even before studying the state of the manor house, was to lead his horse to the pond he had enjoyed as a boy and leave it hobbled there. This done, he turned back to the house.
The house had clearly been put to the torch some years ago. What parts had remained standing were covered with moss and ivy. As Richard crossed what passed for the threshold, he saw that a considerable amount of debris had fallen into the great hall. Stepping carefully through it, he made his way to the dais of the high table, and once there, began to speak to the air.
“I wanted to stay, so much. To do anything I could to stop this. But you said I had to ride away. I would always do as you wished, but I return at last to this? This is too much to bear, father.” Then suddenly he began to sing quietly, as if trying in the moment to compose a ballad for the event.
“In the house of Longfurrow there was joy and bright light…A man who would rise for the good of all…The call came at last at the sight of a foe in the night, and the lord Roland rose to the greatest of falls…” He stopped suddenly as he heard a sudden noise from outside the room. Drawing his sword, he called out “Who enters my hall? Declare yourself or defend your life!”
The voice of a boy not yet fully grown answered in equally antagonistic tones. “It should be, who enters my hall, for I am the lord of Longfurrow now and I will fight any man who says otherwise!” This challenge was the introduction for a boy who could have easily been mistaken for any street liver of the cities. His hair was long and unkempt, his clothes ill-fitting and patched in all sorts of places, and his feet bare. But for all that, he advanced on Richard as if he meant to fight with the long knife he held in his left hand.
Richard held his sword out toward the boy point foremost. Watching for a sudden move, he cried “I command you to stop! This is my house. Burnt or no I’ll have no street boys taking it from me. Go back where you came from and leave my grief to me.”
The boy stopped. “Who are you to say this grieves you? What can you know of it? My house is burnt and my family slain. I have one brother alive, so far as I know, even though it has been ten years since he walked in this hall. I ask you once more before I slay you. What is your name?”
“My name is Richard Longfurrow, eldest son of Roland and Lana. Does that answer your challenge, boy?!”
“You know his name, and those of our father and mother. That does not prove to me that my brother Richard stands before me. Tell me something no stranger would learn from him!”
“As you wish. William was left-handed and Marie played the harp. Very well. I am missing it already.”
“I believe you now. Those are things Richard would not have told a man when he entered a room. I suppose I must welcome you back, brother.”
Richard finally sheathed his sword again, as if he had just remembered that it was drawn. “Well, that is a fine welcome from a boy who said he was going to kill me before asking who I was. You must tell me what you remember of how you came to be the only survivor.” Finding he needed rest, Richard seated himself on the top step of the dusty and cracked dais. James, the only other survivor of the family, took a spot beside him. They both looked silently out through the ruined gateway before James spoke.
“After you left, life was much the same, except that father rode away often and did not tell us children why. Then in the third year he told us that he meant to fight the invaders. He had been trying since you left to get the support of his vassals and family. Not all of them would do it, but in the third year most agreed that something had to be done. Father invited all those who would go with him to a feast here in this hall two days before they went off to battle, Mother told me the hall had never been so full, bright, and merry since she married father, when our grandfathers both invited all their greatest friends and vassals. They sang all the songs of the old heroes, louder as the night went on. It seemed to me they drank half the cellar and ate most of the larder. Dawn broke only two hours after they had stopped. None could return home as they were. A hundred fell asleep at the tables and were still there at dawn. Those who could stand slept on the grass. Mother and I and the others poured what seemed half the pond on those who were at table in the morning. Tiring as it was, I wish more had made it back so that we might have to do it all again.”
Richard’s vision began to blur as he imagined the scene James had described. “I wish more than ever now that I had been there, Perhaps I could have added to it myself. I am a great minstrel, now.”
“Well then make a song about our story. A real one, not some ditty like the one you tried to tie together just before I found you.”
“Go on, tell me the rest. I know it must be hard for you, but I have waited long enough to know the truth.”
“As I said, father waited through one more day, and on the second day after the great feast he rode away prepared for battle, taking many of the household men-at-arms, yet leaving some to guard us. That was the last we saw of him. Some days later a few of the soldiers returned. Most of them were injured, but they had marched through the night so that we might hear their news. They said all was lost. The enemy’s numbers had been more than was hoped, and our father and many others had been taken prisoner, as they fought to the last. Those few men stayed and joined our guards and Saul prepared for battle as the man of the house. They came the next day. We could see them from two miles off. There were thirty of them and they carried torches. Saul led the men in defense out there on the lawn we see from here. The men held them off for some time, and at one time it looked as if our men might win and save the manor. But there were too many and they did get their torches onto the roof. There was nothing for it but to run or be burned alive. The others went together in one direction, and, losing my head for a moment, I ran another. It saved my life, or else the Naiberns did not how many of us there were, for by mere chance I was not discovered. I did not dare move from my place for hours after the Naiberns had left. When I finally moved, I went first to see if any of the others had survived. I found them all together, left where they had fallen slain. I do not know how long I stayed there and wept for them. The next day a few more survivors from the battle arrived. They buried the others for me and took me to the nearest manor, where I lived until this year came on. In my time there I learned hunting and trapping so that I could live at home once more. In secret the men of the place repaired one room for my use. Since then I have lived here alone but for visits from servants of that manor. When you arrived, I was sitting among the graves as I often do. And that, my brother, is the full tale of the fall of our house.”
“Sad as it is, it is worthy of a song, and it will have one, James. Take me to the graves.”
They both rose and walked off together through the doorway James had entered by. Even knowing that it had been burnt, Richard was dismayed by the extent of the destruction. A whole corridor no longer existed, and most of the rest was unusable. He followed James outside through a space which had not been open to the weather at the time of his leaving.
James stopped about fifty yards beyond what remained of the manor, where a few stones which looked carefully kept clear of grass marked the resting place of all the rest of Richard’s family excepting Sir Roland, who had surely died an unworthy death in the vicinity of the capital.
The names were etched in jagged, unrefined letters on each stone, and Richard wondered as he looked at them how hard James had worked to complete the heart-wrenching task. He kept this comment in his own mind, however, for there was no proper way to put it to his brother.
Richard stopped at each in turn, dropping to one knee and bowing his head as he wept silently for each one, cut down barbarically by men bent on senseless destruction. When he stopped before each one, he rose again and turned to James.
“For the sake of the others, we must stay here, raise the manor again, and live here to the end of our days. It has cost us too much to leave. It will not be long before we can start. As I have come back, so has the king. Soon he will take back his city and the invaders will be driven out. Then we can start again.”
“Very well, brother, but until then what shall we do?”
“We shall leave now and meet the king at the capital. We shall ride by turns. Come, there is nothing keeping us here.”
At Richard’s words they left the graves and returned to the pond, where Richard had left his horse, which had by now had much to eat and drink and more rest. As Richard removed the hobble, James pulled himself aboard the animal and they started off without another minute of delay.
Valun and the men who were with him arrived at the walls of the city three days after they had started out, as the day was nearing twilight. Valun gave the order for the men as he went before the gates with a herald carrying his banner. Valun spoke for himself, repeating the speech he had made before the harbor gate of Berunthia.
No answer came from the walls. Rather than dispute his claim to his face, it seemed the people of the city had decided to simply ignore it as if it were not worth thinking about, which was worse than a false denial. After waiting for several minutes, Valun realized what had been done and rode away furious at such insolence.
Ordering that companies should be sent out to watch all the walls, and that he should be told be told straightaway if anything happened, Valun retired to his tent to decide his next move. By the time he emerged, night had fallen and fires had been lit in several places throughout the camp. As he approached the nearest, two figures rose from their positions and moved to meet him. In another moment the figures proved to be Richard and a younger, shorter, man. Richard made the introductions.
“My lord, allow me to present my brother James. We have only just arrived.”
“I ordered that I should be told. What is the meaning of this?”
“My lord, let it pass this once, as a friend. The man I asked said you had been alone for some hours and did not know that you wished to be told. As it is, we would have arrived here alongside your messenger. As I said, I present my brother.” Here he nudged James, who had not spoken, conspicuously with an elbow.
James seemed to come awake with a shock. A moment later he answered in a tone devoid of emotion. “My lord, may I give you joy of your restoration. I hope you are well.”
Richard nudged his brother again. “He may be, but an answer like that shows that you are probably not. Go now and get some sleep-if he may leave, sir?”
“By all means, let him go.”
“Thank you sir.” James took this as his cue to wander off, presumably to claim a spot near the fire. At a pointed look from Richard, Valun gestured that they should go inside. Once they were inside Valun’s tent Richard spoke again.
“There is no good news for me, my lord, save that James remains alive. My father and many of his men died on this very field in battle or cruelly in the dungeons. My house was burnt and my family cut down as they fled the fire. James himself said it was mere chance that he is alive. The Longfurrow name is a shadow of what it once was.”
Valun rose from his seat and held out his hand toward Richard. “You have got it wrong, Richard. The wealth may be a shadow. The name and the honor, those are greater now than ever before. Do not confuse the two. It takes a great man to go into battle for the sake of another, and my house shall remember it forever. He shall have a monument when we are restored.”
Richard took the king’s hand and asked quietly “If I may go, sir?”
“Go, and good fortune be with you from here.”
Conan arrived in the camp early the next morning. He too spoke with the king alone, telling all that he had learned in the past days. To this he added his desire to send for his family, a wish that Valun granted without hesitation, saying only “Then we must find some way to enter the city ourselves before they arrive, for the ladies will not find anything in this camp. Nor shall your brothers, for you tell me they are still young. What would you do?”
“My lord, I cannot say. I had never entered the capital before the day we left it.”
Valun went silent for a few moments, giving some thought to this problem. Then he spoke again with a laugh. “I have it. Send for Richard and five more men. Send to the Naiberns for gear. This will work, I am sure of it. They made no answer to my challenge. It is doubtful they have posted a full guard.”
Conan made no answer simply exiting the tent. The better part of an hour later, Conan, Richard, and five picked Naiberns were assembled in Valun’s tent with him. Full armor which would fit on Valun and Richard had not been found, so they would go as they were, covered by long traveling cloaks. The others would all be wearing Naibern armor, however, until the party had reached the walls, they too would be wearing cloaks, which they would remove inside the city.
In the middle of the afternoon, Valun led the party by a meandering path to a smaller gate in the north side of the wall. A quick thrust jarred the bar loose and they heard it fall. After waiting a few moments for a reaction from inside, they tried to push it open, but it did not move. At a sign from Valun, Conan brought his strength and his axe forward. After striking once with the blade to weaken it, he pounded the door with the end of the axe and all his strength. Without warning, the door stood ajar, as a second bar revealed itself, split by Conan’s assault on it. Richard looked back at with a grin.
“Now that is a mighty feat. I would not get it in two blows. Or perhaps I would, but I will never know.”
Valun, who felt that this was the wrong time for joking, hissed at Richard under his breath. “We’ve no time for laughing now, Richard. We have not yet won our throw.”
Now that they were within the walls, Valun ordered Conan and the Naiberns to reveal themselves. “You shall take us straight to the castle, and do not stop. You are taking prisoners to the king.” At the receipt of these last instructions, which Valun had nearly whispered, as if he thought someone was nearby already, the little raiding party moved off toward the castle, which could be seen from some distance away over the roofs of the city.
For some time there was no direct path straight toward the castle, and Valun and his men walked warily, prepared to meet a Naibern patrol at every turn. However, they had good fortune all through the city; all the Naibern patrols they saw passed some distance off from them, and none seemed to mark their passing. Finally, as they were traversing the last few remaining streets before reaching the castle gate, a patrol came upon them suddenly, and for a moment it seemed all was lost. In fact that might easily have been the case if not for Valun’s brilliant stroke of having brought with him true Naiberns wearing true Naibern insignia. The men who had promised to follow Valun rose to the occasion, and after a minute of earnest conversation in the language of Naibern, whilst Valun and the two Corridane nobles watched anxiously for the approach of more soldiers, which would surely have revealed their plan, the raiders were able to move forward again as the patrol that had stopped them moved away on their rounds.
Having covered the last few yards, Valun and his men stood before the gatehouse of the castle, thwarted. The gate was closed and locked. Valun spoke for the first time since they had begun to cross the city.
“I must confess this is something I did not think of as we entered. It seems our enemy is more wary of us than I hoped. How shall we pass the gate?”
As Valun observed his treacherous gatehouse, his back turned to his friends, he heard them speak out and not help matters at all.
“Have Conan break the door. The wall-gate was simple enough, was it not?”
Richard! If I hear any such thing from you again I shall break your head. Do not test me.”
Growing serious once more, Richard then suggested “Perhaps they will open for a password.”
Hearing this, Valun answered “True enough, but our men surely do not know it, and neither do we know that there is anybody to answer the summons until they do answer.”
Conan then added his own sensible suggestion. “If we were to surprise and capture a patrol, perhaps we could get the password from them.”
Moving back toward the spot where Conan and the others were gathered, Valun replied “Perhaps that would work, but we have not a moment more to lose. If they had the courage to hold their tongues we would be caught. Our men are still waiting for us beyond the walls. I fear a rope will have to do. Richard, go back to camp with all speed and bring back more men and all the rope you can lay hands on without delay.”
It was too late. They had remained standing and talking in one place too long. A patrol, perhaps the same one which had earlier let them pass, had spotted them. Where they now stood, still outside the castle, and appearing to be loitering about waiting for something, it was too easily evident that they meant to get inside the castle but did not know how to do so.
Valun was the first to notice the charging patrol. Drawing his own sword, he shouted to the others and prepared for the joining of battle. The Naibern patrol, a party which was barely less than Valun’s, had been charging on them silently so as to gain some measure of surprise over their foes. Because of this, Valun and his men barely had time to draw their weapons before the six Naiberns were upon them.
No quarter was given on either side, and a few precious moments, time enough for a second patrol to have heard the noise in the eerily quiet city and changed course to come running to their comrades’ aid, had passed before some of Valun’s Naiberns fell slain just as Conan and Richard overpowered their opponents and beat them down. The count now stood at seven, including two wounded but still standing, to four of the Naibern patrol. And then something truly unexpected happened.
Without warning, the doors of two of the nearest houses were flung open and several men carrying knives in their hands ran toward the Naiberns, with no regard for their status as enemy or ally. Only a sharp call from Valun stopped them from suddenly murdering all the Naiberns on either side
“Men of Corridane! Put up your weapons and do no killing here! All these men are under my protection at this moment.”
The commoners stopped short, knives perilously close to the necks of several of those wearing the hated device, a number which included Conan, as he was wearing Naibern gear according to Valun’s previous order. One of them spoke, his tone betraying the eagerness with which he and his friends had anticipated this revenge now forestalled at the very brink of its beginning.
“What right do you have to stop us? None, really. And give us a good reason to listen or in a moment, we’ll do you in too. If you knew the half of what we’ve lived, you’d join us like that. So who are you before we kill you?”
At this Richard spoke up. “Things have gotten very bad indeed, my lord. My own brother made much the same challenge to me before I convinced him otherwise.” Directing his words toward the commoners, Richard asked “Do any of you recall the burning of Longfurrow?”
There was a pause. “Aye there’s myself, and Tim over there, and Halen over there by that Naibern hulk yonder. We remember, and weren’t we all here when they made us watch as they quartered old sir Longfurrow in the square. And him alive through it all till the end, too. They say he was thrown in the sea, and not even in a sack, neither.”
Although by this time Valun had long suspected that his friends’ fathers had been put to awful deaths, he was still shocked when he heard it told straight out. But before he could speak another word, Conan took his own turn.
“Do you remember anything of the burning of Trondale?”
“I do, for one, but why should you ask? It was your lot that did the thing.”
Here Valun broke in again. “Though I am glad that we can now put some of our grief to rest, we have no time to stand out here. Soon another patrol shall come and we shall have to fight again.”
“Well alright” the old man replied. “But I’ll have none of those villains in my house if I can hold them off.” He indicated the Naiberns with a sweeping gesture.
“Very well, they shall stand guard.” Turning to his soldiers, Valun added “Disarm the Naiberns.” At once the Naiberns who had promised to follow Valun carried out the order, taking the weapons of the hostile patrol. “Now you are safe. These men have sworn themselves to me.”
A moment passed in which the commoners seemed to be attempting to comprehend the situation. Then the spokesman shrugged and said “Come along then, or we’ll catch our death of a patrol.”
A short time later, Valun, Richard, and Conan were inside the nearest house in conference with the townsmen, while Valun’s Naiberns stood guard outside, holding blades over their countrymen to deter any calls for help. When they were all settled, Valun put his question to their hosts.
“What we need now is a way inside the castle. Once we get inside, we can begin to heal the people of this tragedy. When does the gate of the castle open?”
One of the men sitting in a corner of the room replied curtly. “The gate hasn’t opened in years now. The patrols live in houses all over the city, and there’s none here now who can force them out.”
“That may have been so, but I have finally returned. I have an army outside the walls. We have defeated all the others. Only these patrols remain.”
“Then why do you not just bring your army in and have them fight?”
“I must hold the castle first. If we do not hold the castle, our enemies can fall back into it. We would have to destroy it to reach them. How do we enter the castle?”
“There is no other way through that wall. Are you daft, or are you a spy?”
“Silence! I am neither daft nor a spy, I am the king. Having lived ten years in exile I had simply forgotten a few minor points of knowledge. Do you have ropes?”
“No, we do not have ropes. It is a struggle to keep food in these days.”
“Very well. Richard, as I said. Bring back plenty of rope, and hooks. Four ought to do it. We shall wait here for your return.”
Not saying a word, Richard rose, saluted, and went out. Valun and the other men were forced to spend an anxious hour waiting for him to safely cross the city, find the ropes and grapnels, and return again. His return was not as quiet as they had hoped it would be. As the hour since his departure passed, he came dashing in shouting, closely followed by four Corridanes carrying the desired ropes. All had their blades drawn, some of which were stained.
“The door Conan broke! They have found it and the secret is out! Two patrols are close on our heels, and they have blown horns for more. Speed is our weapon now!” Even as he spoke, Richard was taking further action, distributing the swords taken from the captured patrol to the common men sitting around the room. As the approach of the Naibern patrols grew louder, Richard shouted out the door to the friendly men standing guard. “Prove our trust! Fight for the king!” As the seven guards hurried off to meet the patrols in battle, Richard spoke to the Corridanes, both knights and commoners. “Stand ready to come to their aid. They are outnumbered, but they may confuse our foes for a moment. I will go with you. My lord, I suggest that you and Conan make haste to scale the walls while we fight. If you do not make it across now, all shall be lost. There is no returning if we lose here.” With a final salute, Richard led all the Corridane fighters out into the street, leaving Valun and Conan alone with their precious ropes. Conan immediately snatched up two of them.
“Come, my lord! Richard has never spoken truer words. This is our hope.” With this, the two hurried out. The sound of the fighting carried through the air from some yards distant. Neither man made any remark on this though. When they reached the courtyard wall moments later, Valun drew his sword and stood guard as Conan cast both ropes in quick succession. Then, at a word from him, they started up, one upon each, resting their feet on the wall itself as they climbed. Suddenly, as they came within a man’s height of the top, a man appeared and began sawing at Valun’s rope. In less time than it takes to tell, Conan, standing horizontally against the wall, had drawn his axe and thrown it, killing the guard. Without a pause, he began to climb even faster.
Valun, however, was severely slowed, as he did not wish to risk the speed he needed, lest the rope part the faster and he fell to his death. But a moment later he saw that Conan must have had the same thought, for barely had the axe struck home before Conan was standing atop the wall, reeling in Valun’s own rope as he held it below the cut.
In the moment’s pause as Conan retrieved and wiped his axe. Valun said “Do not think I will ever forget that.”
“Keep your fame and honor if you like. I think that’s the fourth time I’ve saved your life already. In the old stories you would have already promised me half the kingdom. Eternal gratitude is little against that, but I will continue doing my duty, prize or no prize. Now let’s find this snake Keltran.” However, before they continued, Conan took two careful swings at the ropes they had used and watched as they fell to the ground. “Now we only have to watch for guards inside the castle. And those seem few enough. It seems they thought no enemy would ever get as far as the wall, let alone over it.”
Upon reaching the ground, they first attacked the gate house and found it empty. Only then did they go up to the gate, remove the bars, both as large as stout logs, and together thrust the gate open with all their strength. Having done this, they shouted to their friends in the hope that someone might hear and come running.
After a few moments of this Conan stopped. “The gate was likely loud enough, and they shall come in a moment if they still live. We cannot waste more time.”
“Then follow me, around to the scullery door. It is least likely to be watched.”
Without another word both men hurried around to the spot where Valun knew the kitchen entrance could be found. On the way they came suddenly upon two Naiberns who did not have time to react before the Corridanes had knocked them unconscious and left them lying. Levering open the specified door, rather than smashing it in, in the space of minutes made quicker by their haste, the two Corridanes found themselves in the kitchens of the captured castle, surprising a crowd of cooks working with food undoubtedly collected over the resistance of the suffering townspeople.
Drawing his axe, Conan went among them speaking in a low, sinister which Valun had thought he would never hear from the man. “You all keep your thoughts in your heads where they belong. If anyone so much as whispers that we are here, I’ll kill him. I’ve waited long enough to reach home, and I’ll not be killed in the king’s kitchen. Where is that double-crossing coward, your leader?” He pointed with the axe toward a servant who was just about to take some food out. “You, where is he?”
“Just out there in the hall, sir.” The servant replied, his voice quavering.
“Good” said Valun, speaking for the first time. “I will take it.” Crossing the room, he took the serving dish from the terrified servant and strode out into the great hall with it. He found to his relief that the room had not changed much since his departure, save that the banners which had been hanging then were gone now, probably burned, Valun thought. They had been replaced by several black banners all bearing a device of a flaming cartwheel. Being careful to make no audible remark on this, Valun strode across the room with the tray to stand before his enemy, who as before was sitting in the high throne as he ate. This was a great insult to Valun, for his father had never eaten from the great chair. Always he had it put aside as if it were worthy of reverence.
Valun set down the tray he had carried in, and stepped back, Keltran took the food and drink without decorum, hardly seeming to notice Valun standing but a few feet away. Finally, after a long draught of Valun’s wine, he paused and saw Valun himself standing there.
“Get along! I’m sure there’s more work for you to do around here!”
Valun drew his sword. “Yes, in that you are right. There is much that I must do in this place to make it right once more, as well as I can, and that starts with getting rid of you. If you are wearing a sword, draw and I will fight you now, as I wished to do ten years ago when it would have been my death. It will not be my death this time. If you cannot fight, you had best get out of my seat before the Trondale decides to come in and do it without formalities.”
Keltran pushed aside the small table and rose from the throne. ”You’ve come back, have you? They told me the spy would have killed you by now. And I believed them. It was folly to choose a boy. You see these banners? These are the emperor’s banners, and I rule this place for him. You haven’t saved your country by getting me out this seat, not by a month of battle you haven’t.”
Rather than reply to this gloating speech Valun looked back over his shoulder and called out “Conan, get in here. The snake is talking too much.” At the summons, Conan emerged from the kitchen, strode across the hall to the side of Keltran, who had been struck dumb by Valun’s nonchalant disregard of his speech, and quickly and easily struck a blow on the Naibern’s jaw which caused him to immediately go limp. A moment later Conan was holding the senseless man by the collar.
With a gesture, Valun signaled that Conan was to bring their prisoner along. They went out through the main doors, receiving many a startled look from castle guards, who seemed to be coming out of the woodwork now, when Valun had the upper hand. None made any move to stop the Corridanes once they realized that it was their leader Conan was carrying on his shoulder like a sack of meal. In the silence of the morning, the Corridanes mounted to the top of the wall, and only then Conan set the still unconscious Keltran down.
Looking out over the city, Valun saw that a few people had come out into the streets, traveling in packs of four or more. Raising his voice, he called down to them. “Look you, men of Corridane! The usurper is cast down! Here he is in our grasp!” By this time, some of the people had stopped to see what the shouting was about. Keltran, who had begun to come around, made no attempt to escape from the Corridanes. He seemed still to be trying to make out where he was. Valun continued. “The king requires you now. You must go and seek out Richard of Longfurrow, and bring him back here if he still lives. Some of you open the gates of the city and bring my news to the army waiting outside. The age of the Naibern is ended!”
The conclusion of Valun’s speech was greeted with scattered cheers and the subsequent scattering of his little audience. With a sigh, he prepared to go down into the castle again. “It shall be done again when all the Naiberns have been driven out and everyone who can is here to see it. Then we may begin to heal our country.”
Conan pulled the still-dazed Keltran upright. “Little often serves well enough my lord. Festivals will not solve all our problems yet. What shall we do with this?”
“Him? Put him in the dungeons. He can sit down there and wonder if he is to meet the same end as your father did.” Valun saw with a glance that this suggestion made Keltran very worried indeed. “But I am a better man than that, so there is hope for him, but that is where he is going now. You may have to ask a servant to show you the way. I am going up to my room.”
However, the trouble Valun had thought to escape from was still one step ahead. When he came to his room, he found a woman there calmly brushing her hair as she sat before a mirror, which had not been there when he left. Valun was forced to announce his presence.
“I know not who you are and I care not where you come from, but I must ask you to leave this castle.”
“Why? And who are you to say such a thing anyway?”
“Have you ever heard of the prince Valun? He and I are the same. I am master of this castle, and Keltran is in the dungeons until I release him. To you, however, I give free passage where you will, so long as you leave this day.”
“And what if I wish to stay?”
“Then you will live in the city, but you will leave this castle with all speed. That is my order.”
“How can I? You have put my man in prison. I will not go.”
Valun sighed and turned away. He felt this was a battle he could not fight now. Without another word to the lady, he made his way back to the main halls, hoping to hear news of Richard. He met Conan in the main hall. Conan was alone and holding a flagon. There was another on the table, which he passed to the king.
“I put Keltran in the dungeons, as you ordered, He refuses to speak, as if we had anything more to learn from him. I drew this off for Richard, for I know he will want some as soon as he returns, but as you see he has not showed himself yet. Did you find anything?”
“I did. There is a woman in my room who insists that she will not leave if we have Keltran in the dungeons-Did you hear what I heard?”
“I did. It sounded like a call to open the gate.”
Both men leapt up from the table, nearly spilling the drinks as they put the flagons down with undue force. Almost neck-and-neck, they hurried out to the courtyard, where between them they soon had the door pulled open.
Five men were standing there, all of them injured. After a moment, the captain spoke up.
“We’re still dying, my lord, and we refuse to stop until we can have a bite to eat and a moment to bind our wounds.”
Valun had been stunned by the sight of so few survivors, and not least by the sight of severe injuries to Richard, whom he had for some reason been confident would either die or survive unscathed. Awakened by Richard’s irreverent description of the survivors’ condition, he spoke up to greet them.
“Welcome, welcome to my hall, and I honor you. My heart grows light at the sight of you, and I greatly desire to know the whole story. But you must eat and rest first.” Having said this, Valun offered his shoulder for one of the soldiers to lean on, and Conan did the same on the other side. Richard and the remaining two linked their arms with the others so that they were all supporting each other as they hobbled toward the castle.
As the party reentered the hall, Valun shouted toward the kitchens for more mead, and bandages. Setting their charges down gingerly, the two healthy Corridanes looked about for something that would begin to serve to help the survivors. It took them only a moment to jump at the chance to tear down the black banners which had lately been hanging between the several windows. Conan turned toward the kitchen to steal a knife with which to shred the things, while Valun turned back toward his men.
Richard had evidently taken the opportunity to steal the flagons already on the table, which were still nearly full, and had charged himself to make sure they were passed around evenly. When they were empty, he pushed them back toward the king. “Thank you, my lord. And how can we repay you for such generosity, if I may ask?”
“By drinking more when it comes, and telling me how you got in such a state. I was past the day of believing Richard Longfurrow would return from a battle alive and yet nearly dead.”
“Ha! Forgive my laughter, my lord, but no man deserves such a reputation, as I have just proved. Mind you, though, it took two of them at once to mark me, and my enemies, as they say, are dead.”
“Did they not outnumber you? How did you survive?”
“Outnumber us they did, sire, and we escaped only by the greatest of fortune. The five of us were backed against the wall in some alley, barely holding our own, when our ears began to ring with blasts of trumpets. The men and I were weak enough by then that we could barely stand, and all slid to the ground. But the Naiberns ignored us, and dashed off to fight the army which had finally arrived, I suppose. We sat, and rested, and blessed those trumpets to the heavens, and then began to walk. And that, my lord, is our story. Now what of yours?”
By this time, the new flagons and the bandages had finally come. Each man took one as servants began to go about binding up the several injuries of Richard and his companions. Conan had also returned, and it was he who answered Richard’s question.
“Our story is not much to tell. We climbed the wall, I killed the only guard in sight, and came in through the kitchen. Not half an hour ago I left that foul Keltran in a dungeon cell.”
Carefully flexing his injured arm, Richard replied, his tone betraying his wish to have been there himself. “Well, you certainly had the easier task. Was there any trouble, at all?”
“Yes,” answered Conan “Perhaps there is some that you could help us with…There is a lady in the king’s room who has refused to leave. Perhaps you can succeed at that.” Suddenly, Conan paused, as if just realizing the situation. “Forgive me, my lord. I ought to have let you speak for yourself.”
“There was no harm in it this time, good Trondale. I would have said much the same myself. Now, Richard, are you up to it?”
Richard drank down the last of his flagon with one long swallow. Setting it down, he replied “We shall see what will come of this, my lord. Why is she up there at all?”
“I believe she thinks Keltran loves her. At least she seems to think as much of him, so she has refused to depart the castle because we have him in the dungeons.”
“I see…We cannot say we will release him, because that we won’t. We cannot force her, for that is worse than trickery. The only thing to do is to discover what else she wants besides his freedom, and give it up if we can.”
“Food may well be enough.” Said Conan in reply. “She has not come down yet. No doubt once moved she will see the wisdom of a different course.”
“I care not how it is done,” said Valun “So long as it is done with courtesy.”
“It is below me to have it done differently, sire. No matter, I go to do as you command.” With that, Richard rose from the table, all jocularity removed from his expression. As he left, Valun turned back to Conan with a new command.
“Come with me, Conan. There is much else that needs our attention outside.”