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

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24 April 2015

The Price of a Throne: Chapter 23

Chapter 23

        The experience of the sailor turned to fact before the prince’s eyes, and they made landfall in the port of the city of Goman barely two days after they had fended off the attack of the other ship. The message which had been left for them at them of that encounter, one which promised eventual destruction and death to them all, had been at the forefront of the prince’s mind since the moment he had read it.
        Miran had wasted no time in inquiring whether the captain knew anything of the emperor who had been saluted at the end by way of a farewell from the mysterious enemy sailors. However, the captain had closed the discussion almost immediately with the statement that he was not the man to come to with such questions, which seemed to him best answered by those at the court, and therefore the prince should not waste his time asking the wrong people, whilst he was on his way with all speed to the right ones. Complying with the man’s bluntly worded request, Miran had installed himself near the fore of the ship, keeping as well as he could out of the way of the sailors as he silently watched the approach to the harbor.
        Almost before the ship the ship was properly tied to the docks, the captain of it was at Miran’s side again, offering assistance.
        “Now then, my lord, you’ll be wanting to get off this moment I suppose. Landsmen usually do.-“
        It seemed to Miran that the captain intended to take unnecessary time getting to his point, so the prince, whose desire to reach the next moment had become greater with every one that passed, simply cut him and got to the point himself. “I believe you were going to lead me to a man who can take me across the desert. Can you not?”
        “Ah yes, that.” The captain replied. Signaling to a crewman to retrieve the prince’s bow and arrows, and to another to make ropes ready, the man turned back to Miran and continued. “I said it before, so I shall do it. I know the man and I’ll take you to him myself in a moment.”
        The man was as good as his word, and it was truly only a short time later that Miran was once again equipped with his bow-staff and his bag and standing on firm ground again. In addition to the other things, he had taken with him the note which had been delivered by the enemy shaft, and which was now rolled and resting in the bag among his carving implements.
        There they were delayed several minutes, as the boat’s chief sent some of his men for a litter in which to convey the prince to their destination. Miran was at first insulted by the supposed implication that he could not keep up with the others, but the boatman was quick to assure that this was the least of their reasons. As they waited, he explained himself.
        “If we were to carry you to my uncle’s house, it would serve to convince him that you are a person of some importance, for remember, he does not know the prince by sight, and to come up to his gate as you are would not convince him you speak the truth. Secondly, by acting this way we can perhaps escape notice from curious people who would hinder us. For litters are an ordinary thing in this country. A bowman with a limp is not, my lord. And here it is now, so please get in.”
        The litter was not just a simple stretcher, as Miran had expected it might be, but included a tall frame from which long green curtains had been hung. Having one of the sides rolled up so that he would be able to see, he got into it and turned back to the boatman with a new question. “Would the man not believe you if you said the prince was among you? Does he think you a liar?”
        “I assure you, my lord, he does not. But he respects only two things; business and the throne. For you, he will do this for who you say you are. From me he wants only goods.”
        Without further delay, Miran consented that they should start, and the four crewmen raised him from the ground as the boat- master went ahead to serve as their guide. The watchman at the harbor gate gave them no trouble, and lowered his head in deference as Miran was carried through. Miran, however, took no notice of this, as he was thoroughly occupied with taking in the sights and sounds of the city which had appeared before him.
        The streets visible to him were lined with tightly packed mud- brick buildings of varying heights. The roof of each was flat, and Miran could see that shades had been set up atop several of them. In fact, almost every building also had a shade set up over the doorway, so that no more than two yards of space in the middle of the street was left uncovered. And the noise! Having subsisted in his hermit-like existence almost since he was born, Miran had grown up without an accurate idea of what a city of people would be like to experience. Moments after passing inside the harbor wall, the typical sounds of the city had begun, amplified as they were in his perception by his inexperience, to hit him from all directions. Falling onto his side, he released a cry of pain and tried to cover his ears.
        In a moment, his bearers had stopped short as the man guiding them moved alongside the prince. Miran shifted one hand to allow the man a word and said loudly in reply “There is more life here than I can yet bear. Wherever we are going, get me away from this!” Granting his guide but a moment to accept the order, Miran reached up and closed the curtain which he had earlier requested left open. His situation hardly eased by this action, he lay on his back, resting his head on his palms and trying to press his arms against his ears. Closing his eyes, he wished that he had remained on the island.
        As his charge began trying to isolate himself, the guide spoke quietly to the four carriers. “Come now, turn this way. Our charge would rather take the quietest way than the shortest.”
        The better part of the next hour had passed by the time Miran, who earlier succeeded in dozing off, was awakened by the sudden flash of light caused by his guide’s swift removal of the curtain shading him. The man explained himself without offering an apology. “My lord, we have reached my uncle’s door.”
Miran said nothing in reply immediately, but only threw his arm up to protect himself from the glare coming on him over the other man’s shoulder.
When he was ready to look up, he saw that they had already entered a courtyard bounded by high walls. Looking immediately for the doorway of the house, he saw a servant silently standing there, apparently awaiting orders. Wasting no time, Miran confronted the man.
        “Is your master at home?”
        The servant’s manner surprised the prince, as the man’s reply, delivered almost casually, was “And who am I to say that he is at home to?”
        At this answer, Miran and his guide spoke almost in unison.
        “I am the king’s son! Count yourself fortunate I will not tell your master of your manner here.”
        “Him you do not know, though he is as he says. But me you have seen more than once, sandal-scraper. Tell your master at once that we are waiting.”
        Without so much as a word of apology to either the prince or the master’s kin, the servant disappeared within the house, looking visibly displeased at the necessity of actually doing something at this time.
        While they awaited the master’s appearance, Miran and his guide stepped into the shade of the doorway which the disagreeable servant had vacated. A few words from the boat-master sent the crewmen who had been bearing the litter back from whence they came, Leaving Miran and the boat-master alone in the courtyard.
        Several anxious moments had passed before a different servant emerged from the depths of the building. This man was perfectly civil, saying simply “If you will follow me, my lords, my master is waiting to see you.”
        “Well that is nice of him.” replied the boat-master “And will he rid himself of that other fellow who was guarding the door when we arrived? If I was rich I would more highly of myself than to have such an insult watch my door.”
        “The master will do as he wishes. Come along, please. You are keeping him waiting.” The servant turned on his heel and began to walk deeper into the house. The boat-man, however, could not resist the urge to get in the last word.
        “And if he knew the man on his doorstep is the heir to the throne, he would be out here to serve us himself. Now take us to him.”
        The merchant’s house was a minor maze of rooms, and Miran and his guide were led through several different ones, all richly furnished, before coming to a doorway which opened onto a covered walkway like those in cloisters, which in turn surrounded a vibrant garden in which the master and his family could be seen enjoying the relative mildness of the space in which they sat. The merchant was deep in a thick book, and took no notice of the arrival of his nephew or the prince until the servant had announced them.
        “Master, may I present to you your brother’s son, Ledarren. Also a man with him, who calls himself the son of the king.”
        Looking up only when the introductions had been made, the merchant snapped his book shut and handed it over to the servant. “Take this to my room.” Turning his face toward his guests, he said “You, my boy, know as well as I do how you deal with me. Come to me with something I can sell, or I will not allow you to stay five more minutes under my roof. As for this man, I know not his face or his name. Who am I to believe that he is the man he calls himself?”
        “Well, my uncle, do you believe the word of the lady whom you take in your charge to the capital every month? You know she is of the royal blood. This man, as she surely must have told you once at least, is her brother whom the king desired hidden. He now desires to return to his home with all speed. Knowing that you had charge of his sister, I brought him to you at once. Will you do as he asks or will you incur the wrath of the king?”
        Only now rising from his seat, the merchant answered his nephew as if he had been insulted. “You and your crew of wharf-rats have the same charge that I take on, do you not? Of course I know the lady comes from the palace. As for her brother, only you and I have the honor of her confidence concerning him, and that you also know. If this man is the same, he will get home. You, however, will leave my presence now.”
        “And it is gladly that I do so.” Retorted the sailor, as he turned on his heel. Offering Miran a salute, he strode out without once looking back at his uncle.
        Left alone, Miran faced his host with a sigh. “If you require proof that I am indeed the prince, I am unable to give you any. Your nephew assured me that you would take me at my word on the strength of your respect for my father. Is this true?”
        Signaling that a servant should bring them refreshments, the merchant replied “There are no other noblewomen hiring my caravan every month, and neither have I ever set eyes on you before. She has honored me with the knowledge of her purpose, and because of that I knew that the prince would be coming to me before this month had passed. I see her face in you also, and so I have full confidence that you are the prince. As such, my lord, my caravans are at your service.”
        By this time, a servant had come alongside them, carrying two chilled drinks on a platter. The nobles each took one, and carrying them, began to walk in the large garden, side by side.
        “Have you had, sir, any news of my father or my mother? Whether they are in health or not?”
        “I cannot say yea or no, my lord. News cannot travel more than one or two days faster between here and Gaimaron than my own caravan can, and that takes six or seven days if all goes well.”
        “But still your news is less stale than mine. Your nephew’s boat came out to me only once in a month, and I did not always care to speak to him. In fact, we did not. I spoke only to my sister, and she did not always come herself.”
        “I understand you all too well, my lord. My nephew has never learned respect. As for my lady Miranda, to visit you took a month of her life in the travel alone. She could not come to you often without arousing confusion in the palace.”
        “When last I heard, my lord, the king and queen were both still in the world. Come, give me the honor of your presence at my table. I will send word to my drivers that you have come and wish to depart at first light tomorrow.”
        “As you wish. If I knew anyone else in the city at all, I would be slow to reject your offer, knowing of your good standing in the eyes of the eyes of my sister.”


        Railon dismounted from his horse and mopped his brow with his free left arm, as he held the animal’s reins with the other. Steady on his feet, he simply stood and gazed at the great walls of his brother Torlan’s capital, Gaimaron, a sprawling metropolis which had grown up alongside the river Ishbana in the days of their forefathers deep in the past. Twenty years had passed since he had departed for parts unknown through these same great gates, and Railon thought that he could finally afford to return to his own people now, for surely the mad warlord who had hunted him in years past had by now forgotten that he still lived.
        His idleness before the gate was not due exclusively to the hopes and memories which had again risen to mind at the sight of a wall long unseen. The gates had not yet opened for the day, and Railon was in the midst of a line of people who had come toward the city for their own purposes from all directions. Dressed as he was in plain traveler’s garb, he was confident that he would not be recognized by any common man unless he were to introduce himself. Only a few days ago, he had passed through the city of Trevlendair, where he had been surprised to see his brother’s banner flying from the roof of the governor’s villa.
        The quiet of the early morning was broken suddenly by the sound of great horns, blown by men stationed in the towers which housed them to watch for any that might toward the city for good or ill. Just as suddenly, in the same moment the gates began to open and the line of people waiting outside assembled themselves to pass through. Railon made no attempt to move any faster than those behind him required, determined to enjoy his return as much as he could. As he was in no great hurry, he simply meandered through the streets observing the life of the city with a curious eye. His brother had turned out a wise king, it seemed. Everywhere Railon looked, there was peace and prosperity, and nary an empty building to be seen.
        When two hours had passed since his entrance into the city, Railon began to feel hungry. Fortunately, he found himself within yards of a busy tavern when this feeling came upon him, so, tying his horse to the post in front of the building, he made his way inside, passing several old men enjoying pipes and small talk in the quiet shade of the awning. At this early hour, there was hardly anyone in the place, and Railon was soon refreshing himself with some of the best Gairadane fare he had ever tasted outside the palace itself. On finishing, he took two coins from his bag, set his mug over them so that they were hidden, and walked away. This behavior had been the custom in Gairadane since he had been a young boy, and he cared not whether it had changed; it would be his way.
        Having eaten, Railon emerged from the tavern newly resolved to go straight to the palace and meet his brother, for he had twenty years of stories which he no longer wished to keep to himself a moment longer than he felt necessary. There was no need to ask anyone he passed to remind him where the palace stood, for the gilded roof on it stood yards above the surrounding buildings, making it clearly visible to all those walking the streets.
        Railon rode slowly until he came to the gate, which stood open. He could not, however, pass through, because the portcullis had not been raised. This was remedied in short order though, as the two men whose task it was to do this began as soon as they became aware of his presence. As they worked, one called out “Who are you, and what business do you have with the palace, traveler?”
        Still astride his horse, Railon answered “You, my friend, have good eyes in your head. I am a traveler indeed. Are you old enough to remember the lord Railon? For I am that man, who left for distant places long ago.”
        “Aye, my lord. I remember you, who used to spend more time in the taverns than here in the palace. It may be a good thing yet that you did, for the king is not well.”
        “The king is not well? Then waste no more of my time. I must see him with all speed!” The moment the barrier had been raised high enough for him to pass through, Railon rode in dismounted, making straight for the doors without another word to the guards, and leaving his horse there for them to attend to. Opening the doors for himself, he soon found himself face to face with a young woman in a dress of pale gold. Seeing immediately that she was no serving-maid, unless Torlan had fallen into such extravagance as that, he stopped and saluted her.
        “My lady, I have not seen you before. Froom whence have you come to grace these halls?’
        “Neither have I ever seen you before, sir, so I would know the same of you. For my part I come from nowhere but these halls alone. I am the princess Miranda. I wait not for you, but for my brother, who I hope will come soon.”
        “Ah, you are the princess, Miranda? And you have a brother? I also come from here, though I left before you had come into the world. I am your father’s brother Railon. I hope he has spoken of me before. The guards say he is not well. Perhaps my arrival will help in his recovery.”
        Signaling to a servant, Miranda replied “Yes, my lord uncle Railon. It is true. My father and my mother both are ill, and I know why. He has spoken of you to me, though little but to ask if you had come. He will be glad to see you. This servant will lead you, if you like. I will stay to watch for my brother.”
        “Very well, fair and noble niece. I take my leave of you to attend at your father’s side. Be well.” Thus departing Miranda, Railon followed the servant, though he knew the halls of this palace as if he had trod them only yesterday. When at last they had come to the king’s room, the servant stopped and knocked, announcing the visitor.
        “Sire, a man who calls himself your brother Railon has come.”
        The voice of an old and tired man answered from within. “My brother, is he? There was only one. Send him in here.”
        At this, the servant pushed open the door of the room, and Railon entered. He found Torlan, not lying abed as he had expected, but standing and looking out of the west-most window of his room. He turned at Railon’s entrance, setting on the sill a masterfully carved representation of a mounted warrior and leaving it as if it was something he had no wish to share.
        Railon approached his brother with measured steps, giving no sign that he had seen the carving. “Hail, my brother. I know well that I have been away longer than is wise, but I have returned, to travel no more, and I am happy to see that you are yet alive to meet me.”
        “Alive I am still, my brother, but perhaps not for long now. Only one thing is keeping me on my legs, and that is a last sight of my son whom I sent away like a coward. If I could have his forgiveness for that, I would pass on in peace.”
        Moving to set a hand on Torlan’s shoulder, Railon said “Then there is hope for you yet, I say. I met your daughter in the hall when I arrived. She spoke of waiting for your son.”
        As he spoke, Torlan began to make his way past Railon to reach the bed in the center of the room. Noting this, Railon gave him a shoulder to lean on as he walked. “My daughter, Miranda? She saved me from death many times in the years that have passed. She has been the light in these dark days of my queen and I. But I fear she has lost her taste for dying elders and quiet halls. Many times I have called for her and she was not to be found.”
        Helping his brother settle himself on the bed, Railon answered “Do not despair, Torlan my brother. I have no doubt that your desert flower thinks always of easing your days. I think you will know this soon. And now, if I may give my respects to the queen?”
        “I do not think you could. She wants none but her own maids about her in this state, not till she feels her last day has come. Send your words by Miranda if you must. Surely she visits her mother, even if she leaves her father to fade alone. Bring me that carving I left by the window. You should see it before we part.”
        Railon spoke no word in reply. He simply crossed the room twice, carrying back the carving he had seen Torlan holding when he had first entered. Torlan took it from him and displayed it as if Railon had not already gotten a close look. “This is my son to me. Nothing more than a block of wood he has carved to look like any man on a horse. There are many more, and not all riders, but this one is the one I have kept with me to remind me of him. The rest remain with my wife and daughter.”
        “It is fine work. It shows his will, and that he has skill he may yet use. It is a good symbol of a son worthy of your name.”
        Speaking in sadness rather than anger, Torlan answered “I would have you go now, brother. Your words have done me more ill than good.”
        Knowing what it was that Torlan was referring to, Railon respected his wishes and departed the room in silence, giving a military salute to the ailing king as he did so. From the king’s room, he went straight back to the hall where he had first met Miranda. Approaching her where she sat before a small loom which had not been there when first he came, he said “Your father says that your mother will see not see me, but that you may be able to visit her in my stead. If you would convey my respects and good wishes to my lady the queen, I feel that I must go back out into the city. You have great strength to live as you do here. I bid you good day. I shall return on the morrow to see whether your father is any the better for my having come back.”
        “Farewell, uncle. Each passing day brings health and cheer closer to these halls. It shall not be long before all is well again.”
        “I know that you mean you have sent for your brother to return here. But now you must pray that you have not left it too late to do the good you wish.”
        “I know it well, and I pray with all my heart that I have not. Peace be on you till you return.”
        “I wish the same to you.” With these words, Railon departed the palace the palace to find lodging for the night in some inn nearby. He gave little thought to the quality of it, for his mind was burdened with the pain his family had been bearing through all the years he had been away. As he lay down on the straw bedding in the poor man’s hostel he had chosen without care, he murmured to himself “I should have returned for them. This is my place, here and now.”

08 April 2015

The Price of a Throne: Chapter 22

Chapter 22

A week and more had passed since the day of Valun’s return, but it was only now that he felt the time was right to celebrate the restoration with the ceremony he felt it deserved. In fact, preparations had begun early on the first morning after that of the exiles’ arrival. On that day Valun had sent riders out to proclaim the news throughout the land that all who could were called to the capital to join in the celebration. Large numbers of troops were also set to the task of making the city itself presentable, and in the course of this they discovered evidence of great stores of provisions, enough to sustain untold numbers. There were many caches spread throughout the city, and Valun was shown each one personally to attest to the truth of the finders’ claims. On each one he set four guards, with strict orders that as little as possible would be used from these supplies until they were to be passed out among the people.
Even as all this was happening, a small part of the former life and activity of the city began to return to it. People walked the streets in peace, forgoing the improvised arms and strength in numbers they had adopted during the reign of the Naibern patrols. Those artisans who had remained reopened their shops and began selling openly once more. Once more there was talk and laughter in the streets, all the more since the discoveries of the food caches.
The morning following the removal of Keltran, Conan had borrowed four horses from their Ronair masters and taken them north, to return the next day with his family in tow. They had made a through exploration of what was left of the city, and marveled at the sights, both those damaged and those which remained intact. This done, Conan considered this part of his present duty complete, and had returned to the king’s side, leaving Anne and his mother alone in charge of Eric and John to do as they wished. As most of the Trondale wealth had been lost during the occupation, Valun was funding their purchases, since the royal treasury seemed to be one of the few things which had not grown smaller in that time. One of these purchases, the only thing Conan felt that he must have, was a new shield, with a new crest on it to represent both the present and the future.
Richard and his surviving brother James had passed the days in much the same manner. However, their days involved considerably more weapons training, since James was at an age when such training should have already been far advanced. Richard, too, had ordered a new shield made for him, and one also for James, along with a good blade. Their crest was to remain the same, for Richard fervently desired that all possible steps should be taken to enshrine the memory of the Longfurrow sacrifice. Richard was also paying for everything himself. The Longfurrow holdings had been measurably larger than those of the Trondales, enabling the two surviving manor lords to still able to reap some benefit from them. Richard had also found a Ronair swordsmaster to train James, for such a man would have no inclination to cut the boy any slack, nor any reason to give in to complaints. Therefore, Richard too was free to return to the king’s side, and the lords had often been seen going about the city together in close conference.
Valun himself had spent nearly every waking hour tending to the administration of the city and the rebuilding of the country. Those times that he felt able to do so, however, he stole away to a forge deep in the city which none but three servants knew could still be worked. There he worked in silence to forge for himself both a new shield and a new crown, for the talent and skill he had discovered in metalworking arts had not left him, and he felt within himself that to forge new symbols of his rise with his own hand was only a small step in a true return toward what had been.
Having driven himself hard at all hours of the day and night, Valun felt at last as the tenth day of his restoration dawned, that his work was complete and that he was ready to be formally installed as the king. Therefore, when the servants came to tend to him that morning, he sent them away again immediately, ordering that they should fetch the Longfurrow and the Trondale to his side with all speed. When the servants had departed on this mission, he looked again to his work.
The shield was made in the tri-cornered style, and large enough to provide cover slightly below the level of his belt. On it he had embossed both the family crest of the tower on one side and on the other his own more elaborate personal crest, which displayed a smith’s anvil, on the horn of which both a circlet crown and a chain were hung. Below the anvil he had inscribed, in the old script, “Strength, Wisdom, Justice.” The crown he had made from silver in his own treasury. The band was forged to the width of three fingers placed together, and on one side he had placed three spires, of which the middle one was slightly taller than those on either side. He spun it once around his hand to test its weight and smoothness, and having done so, he pronounced it good and moved to replace it upon the stand on which he had kept it in the course of the work. This action took his eyes off the door of the building. Immediately he sought out his sword, which he had laid close to hand, ready for the first sudden sound from the outside.
A moment later he did indeed hear footsteps approaching. Setting down the crown, he whirled to face the door, snatching up the sword in the same motion and holding it point outward toward the door as Richard and Conan appeared in the opening together. Both were taken aback by the king’s apparent lack of confidence, and stepped back together. Richard, as was usual, spoke up first.
“What is the meaning of this, my lord? Surely you do not think we have been plotting against you in your absence?”
“I suspect this has something to do with the Naiberns they found hiding outside the city the day before.” Conan replied “Had you heard that news yet, Richard?”
“I did, but I thought it was only a rumor and nothing more.”
By this time Valun had relaxed and sheathed his sword again. “It was true, my friend. There were five of them and once caught they confessed that they intended to kill me. There may be still others who have not been discovered, and for that reason only three servants know I have been here every moment I could almost since we arrived. I told the servants to knock or call, so you see why I was ready to fight when you appeared. Where is the servant now?”
It was Conan who replied first this time. “He left us at the end of the road.”
“He should have come all the way with you. What can he be afraid of? But perhaps it is better if one of you do this yourself. Here, Conan, take this to the priest at the temple. That is the place for it till I come there later.” Placing the crown he had made in a sack of black velvet, Valun passed it over to the Trondale, who saluted and promptly left. Turning to Richard, Valun handed over his shield. “Take this to the castle and leave it with one of the servants. I need to go prepare myself for what is to come. Look for me at the north wall when you have done as I asked.”
“Very well, my lord, and if I should meet Conan on the way?”
“He may do as he likes until the fourth hour is called, for he is troubled more than you know, and may need the time alone to save himself. At the fourth hour the procession shall start from the gates. Be sure he knows that.”
Taking the king’s shield on his arm, and throwing over it the cover Valun also gave him, Richard saluted and left the king alone.
His work done at last, Valun doused the fire and gathered the few things which had accumulated in the course of the previous week. Piling the bit of debris in a heap, he used a small spade to place the pile in the fireplace and mx it into the ashes. This done, he replaced the spade, took up the cloak and the small dishes he had kept there and stepped outside, locking the building once more on his way out.
The distance between the king’s forge and the north wall was long and still only lightly traveled by those who had remained. Ever wary of his surroundings, Valun kept his hand loose on the grip of his sword, ready to defend himself from the first hint of an attack. His vigilance, however, was unwarranted at that time, and he reached the north wall having seen nothing unusual.
There were two sentries on that side of the wall, and both began to approach Valun as he appeared at the top of the steps. Noting their action, he signaled to them that they should return to their posts, and took up a position overlooking the road which Conan had ridden to retrieve his family, the same road Valun had watched his father take into the distance when the old king had departed ten years ago on what was meant to be a journey of weeks. His heart heavy with the memory, Valun kept his silence and simply stood staring into the distance, imagining himself riding out to greet his father returning at last.
His reverie was broken by a knock on the stone nearby and a cheerful greeting which announced the arrival of Richard, who had come in obedience to the king’s orders of nearly an hour ago.
“I have come, my lord. What am I to do for you up here?”
“I need to know what has become of my father and my brother, Richard.”
“Do you take me for an oracle, my lord? Who would be able to tell you that?”
“When he rode away, he meant to be back here within the month. That I know. There has not yet been so much as a rumor of his fate, or that of my brother Valnor, either.”
“You cannot dwell on it, my lord. It could drive you mad. You have other worries now. I too, desire to see my father return and say I have fulfilled my duty. Since they cannot, we must continue as best we can to live as they might have told us to.”
“I am not so out of my head that I do know that, my friend, but just as yours does, my father deserves more than to be put aside as nothing more than a memory. Whether he was slain by misfortune or malice, I must know the truth so as to take the right path. If he and my brother or their bones can be found, they should be brought back to rest in their own land. To do that, I need you to go in search of them. Perhaps you should take your brother along.”
“Why must it be me, my lord?”
“You and Conan are still the only men in the land that I trust fully. The whims of fate have granted Conan others whose safety he must be here to protect. You and your brother have no such restraints and may return the better for the time together. Therefore I charge you, as a true knight of my realm, to take this road in search of the old king and the prince, no later than next midday, and to continue the search until you find them or their bones.”
“If they were murdered, do you wish me to avenge them?”
“If it could be accomplished without long delay of your return, I leave it to you to decide. I want news of them and nothing more.”
“Very well, my lord. Your command is understood. If you will release me, I must tell my brother. The fourth hour is nigh.”
“Go then. We meet again at the gate.”
Valun remained where he stood for a few minutes more. When he felt ready, he signaled that one of the sentries should accompany him back to the castle. With the added vigilance of the guard, he felt less need to watch own back, and returned the way he had come the more swiftly for it.
On reaching the castle, he signaled to the nearest servant, and without breaking stride, continued on to his room. There he found his shield which Richard had already delivered, laid on the bed uncovered. Moving to a desk on the far side of the room, he retrieved a key, which he gave to the servant.
“Go down to the treasure room, and there you should find a chest with the king’s seal carved on it. Have one of the guards help you bring it back up here.”
With a salute, the servant took the key and left the room. However, not five minutes had passed before he returned at a run, alone. After taking a moment to steady himself, he reported with a cry “My lord, the prisoner Keltran is gone!”
“Gone? Truly? Did you look?” As he spoke, Valun checked instinctively for his sword, finding it at its place by his side, he added “Did you look yourself, or who told you? Come, I must see for myself.”
Without looking back, Valun left his room and, as he had done coming in, continued without a break until he had reached the lowest levels, where guarded doors gave access to food, drink, treasure, or prisoners. Giving passing acknowledgement of the men’s several salutes, he went straight up to those guarding the door to the cells. “Tell me what you just told this servant.”
One guard obediently spoke up, as the other began to take a great interest in the floor stones near his feet. “Well, my lord, me and him, we’ve been on this duty a few times now, and nothing ever got past us before. And we don’t just stand here, either, a few times we go down to check on the prisoners, just to see that they’re all alive. So, him, he goes down just a minute ago to look, and comes barging back up running scared, and says to me loud enough for all the others to hear, “The old one, the old one who was locked in alone, he’s vanished!’ Just then the house servant came down, and stopped, and without so much as a ‘good day’ went racing back again.”
At this point, the rest of the guards broke into a chorus of agreement with their fellow. “Aye, my lord, every word’s the truth.”
Turning to these others, Valun asked them “Have you all been on guard here with those men before? Have you ever known them to speak falsely?”
One gestured with his spear-haft toward the one guard who had not spoken on his own behalf. “Well, him, he tries to cheat at cards, sometimes. But we always catch him out, and then he plays straight. No, my lord, he couldn’t lie if he tried. It’s the truth he spoke.”
As the rest of the guards nodded solemnly, Valun said “Very well, I shall deal with this later. You, help me with the chest I shall point out.” Then he turned back to the house servant who had followed him down and remained silent throughout the lengthy interview. “You, bring my shield from my chamber, and then go with all speed to the main gate of the city. You shall find the lords Trondale and Longfurrow there waiting for me. Tell them what has happened. I shall follow soon enough.”
When the servant had left upon this errand, Valun entered the treasure room, followed by one of the guards. Several yards in, he came upon a great chest set into a special alcove which had the royal seal carved into it on all four sides. This the two men set on the floor, and Valun then opened it with the key he had taken back from the servant on the way out of his room. Inside, under a satin cover which Valun removed and set aside, they found various pieces of armor, as unblemished as if they had just been made and then locked up a moment later.
“This is the armor that was made for my father when he took up the crown. By the grace of the One, he never had cause to wear it. Since time has not allowed that I should have some made for myself, I shall wear his; I expect it will fit well enough for a few hours. Here, put it on.”
At this command, the guard laid aside his staff and took up the squire’s role, carefully placing and tightening each piece on the king. Valun refused the helm, as it clearly would not have fit on him in any event. However, the long cape which they discovered folded at the bottom of the chest he did don.
Thus arrayed in the finery of war, Valun left the treasure room and returned to the surface level of the castle, where he sent another servant to the stables to prepare a horse. As this was being done, Valun was left to himself for a few moments. Turning slowly, he took a long look at the bare walls of the great hall as if this was the first time he was seeing it. Then, with a start, as if he had just heard a sudden loud noise, he turned toward the kitchen and descended the stairs with quick steps. Letting himself in with an emphatic thrust to the door, he proclaimed his intent to the kitchen servants in attendance.
“Let there be a feast tonight! One such as you have not made since my father left, if any among you remember him, as best you can. Today is the day I am crowned king of the Corridanes on the steps of the temple! You have until an hour after sundown. I anticipate excellence.” With a swish of the cape, he was gone from the room, not even stopping to mark what effect this speech had had on the assembled attendants. On the doorstep of the castle he was met by the servant leading his horse. Adding the superfluous order to open the gates of the courtyard, he went out into the city.
Valun rode through the city by less-trodden ways until he came at last, some minutes past the marking of the fourth hour, to the main gate of the city. Here he found, as he had earlier requested of them, the Longfurrows and the Trondales assembled in waiting for him. They were all arrayed in the best finery which could be had on a week’s notice, as befitted the closest friends of the king on such a significant occasion. Richard, Conan, and James had also donned their shields across their backs and belted on their swords, just as Valun had done.
Richard, always the one to break the silence, greeted the king not as a noble in the presence of his liege lord and one who knew the honor of his position, but simply as one afforded the levity which arises between friends. “We have been here waiting since the hour was called, but where have you been, my lord? It is not fitting that a king should be late for his own ceremonies, however much his subjects may wait on their own to accommodate him.” As he spoke he handed over the king’s shield, which he had taken in charge from the servant.

Donning his shield as the other men had, Valun replied “I have no time for your jokes, Richard. It was a matter of great significance which detained me, of which you will hear in due time. I have come at last, so let us begin.”
At these words, the party settled into their prescribed positions. It was actually James who was riding at the head of the line in the position usually occupied by a herald. Behind him Valun followed closely, flanked to the right by Richard and Conan’s mother Evelyn to the left. Behind them Conan and Anne, trailed by Eric and John, had also taken flank positions, leaving the king alone in the center of a line three wide. As soon as they had started off, James began the cry which was expected of the one in his position in a coronation procession.
“One who claims the throne of Corridane, by bloodline and by conquest, has come for it. Are there no other claims?”
At this the assembled throngs of the common people, their mood greatly improved by the fact of Keltran’s deposition and the announcements which had been made concerning the hidden caches of provisions, broke into cheers and applause, and cries of “No, let him pass!” Then, suddenly the cheering began to fade into echoes, as the procession passed and the people began to take note of the crests which Richard and the Trondales carried. As has been explained, Conan had replaced his father’s crest with a new one of his own, through a desire to forget the devastation the first now symbolized. However, in respect to his parents, he had ordered two pennants made with the old image on them, which Eric and John now carried, their expressions suitably solemn as they kept pace behind their elders.
In moments, the deathly silence began to be replaced by murmurs and doffed caps from those who had not till this moment believed the event required such behavior. Realizing what was happening, Valun turned toward Richard and said in an undertone. “He is a legend already, my friend. The dead are being honored more than the living, and it is not my father they are remembering.”
“Thank you, my lord, though I understood that myself. I know this is meant to be your honor, but this day will be fresh in my memory as long as I live.”
“So it shall also in my house.” Said Conan, who the others could tell was struggling to keep his voice at his usual tone of blunt confidence. A deferential silence fell among the party after this admission, in which the only acknowledgement was that Anne took one hand off her reins and held it out to her long-suffering brother. Conan reciprocated the gesture, and the two rode thus for several moments through the respectful silence broken only by James’s occasional repetitions of the ritualistic announcement of the king’s arrival.
Without a murmur of warning from the deafening silence, a voice cried from the throng “Longfurrow! Trondale! Valunreyas!” Then another voice took up the cry, and another, as the new sentiment spread infectiously through the people until everyone was chanting the names in unison. Moved by the new display of respect for himself and his companions from people who had suffered so much themselves, Valun allowed himself a glance toward the others to gauge their reactions. James had already begun to wave emphatically, sword in hand, at the first repetition of the chant. Richard and Conan were more subdued in their acknowledgement, though both had thrust a hand in the air, a pose they still had not relaxed. Though the recipients eventually grew tired of physically acknowledging the cries. The chant was carried through the crowd like a ship on the waves until the king’s party at last reached the steps of the temple, where the shouted cries faded once more into the deathly silence.
The temple, which was at least as big as Valun’s castle, had been built even more central to the city. It had been built of white marble in ages past, and the steps leading up to the doors were as wide as the building itself. The great doors themselves had been carved by artisans long dead. High above the doors there was a single large aperture in the shape of a great arch. But none of these details were of great interest to the people there now. Instead, that interest and respect was commanded by the old man in white robes, who, flanked by four young men in grey robes, was leaning on a tall staff directly in front of those great doors. Setting the example followed in a wave by the crowd, Valun and his party dismounted all at once and fell to their knees on the first step up to the temple.
When the new silence had had a moment to grow complete, the old man spoke up, in a voice stronger than most there had expected to hear, and which he projected to carry far back into the crowd. “By the grace of the One, there shall be this day in Corridane a new king to lead the people, who shall hold himself bound to follow all the laws given to him and us by the One and our king’s own ancestors. Those whom he has named to proclaim his right to you all shall now come forward and say their piece.”
This was the cue for Richard and Evelyn alone to stand and climb until they stood one step below the landing, where they turned back toward the people. In accordance with the ritual, Evelyn spoke up first.
“I, Evelyn of Trondale, speak for the queen, who was taken by the One long ago. Valun III is her true loyal son, who has been raised on the right path and never willingly strayed from it in his life. It is time he took up the burden his father left him.” As her speech ended, Evelyn fell silent and Richard spoke in turn.
“I am Richard of Longfurrow. Let there be no doubt of what I say, for I say it here on the temple steps, where no lie can be spoken, lest the words bring doom upon the speaker. Valun III is a man of unquenchable honor who will fight for what is right until his last breath passes and the One takes him. Never has he done harm without cause to any man, woman, child, or dumb beast. He gives the One, his father, his mother, his friends, and his subjects all the respect they deserve. He knows what is expected of him and is here ready for it. Let him rise and take on the crown.”
When Richard’s speech was ended, he and Evelyn descended together and resumed the positions they had left. As they did this, the priest signaled to his acolytes that they should open the great doors. This task took several moments, but when it was completed and the grey-robed men had also returned to their positions, the priest called upon Valun himself at last.
“You who are called Valun III, son of the last true king, rise and stand before me.”
In silent obedience, Valun rose and climbed to the same level the others had stood at before. He remained there, facing the priest who still stood above him, and waiting till the ritual should require him to answer.
Still projecting his voice so that all might hear his words, the priest continued his speech. “Valun III, those who speak for your family, and those who speak for your friends, have stood here and proclaimed your honor and willingness to carry the crown of this country with all due honor, dignity, and justice. What is in your heart? Speak now for all your life if you will not take this on.”
This was the final definitive moment. Valun’s response would shape his actions and his respectability to others for the rest of his days. Only once had a prince of Corridane gone through the whole ceremony only to reveal at the last that he was not willing to take on the crown. Burdened by their shame, that family had long ago disappeared beyond the borders of the country for all time. Despite the fact he had never had any intention of doing anything like that, the knowledge of this contributed greatly to Valun’s gravity at the pivotal moment. With a small pause which some might have thought was merely meant to emphasize the response, he answered, as firmly as he had ever spoken before.
“My heart is true. I take on myself the weight of crown and country, only for the good of the people and to the honor of the One. I shall bear this burden till the One takes me, in accordance with all that is right and just.”
At this moment, the priest gestured that one of the acolytes should enter the temple and bring out from it the crown Valun had made for himself. As this was being done, the priest recited the last lines required of him. “By mother and friend named worthy in life, by father through death given this chance, and accepted by the One through your own life. Valun III, I name you king of the Corridanes! Lead this land to peace and prosperity!”
In the midst of the speech the crown had been brought. Without pausing in the recitation, the priest took it without turning away from the audience. At his own last words, he placed it on Valun and signaled the new king to rise.
At the signal from the priest, Valun stood, remaining below the priest in due respect to the power he represented. As Valun watched, the whole crowd, including the nobles, all of whom had till that moment been looking up at him, lowered their heads in deference. Then Valun spoke naturally again.
“Rise, my people! There shall now be days of joy and festival. Food has been found which shall help us regain our old strength, and some part of it shall be given out today. There shall be a feast to celebrate all that we have done and survived, and to honor those who died to restore us here. I release you now to do as you will, in good fellowship and honor!”
        Descending the steps, Valun made directly for Richard and pulled him aside from the others. “Come. The matter of which I spoke earlier this day must now be dealt with, whilst we can do it in secret.” Valun gave no further words of explanation. The Longfurrow kept pace without inquiring further into the matter.
        Together they entered the castle and turned toward the lower stairs having spoken only Valun’s last command between them. It was only when they were upon the stairs themselves that Valun explained what it was about.
        “Keltran has escaped our justice. No one seems to know when, either.”
        “Well, what do you want of me, my lord? Am I to go chasing after him, too? I hope not, for that is too much to ask of two men by themselves.”
        “No. I am not saying that. I simply mean to ask that which I had neglected before. When you got the lady out of my room when we arrived, what did you tell her? You did not chance to tell her she could come down here and visit him, did you?”
        “That is what I said. It was the only thing she would accept. I did not think she had it in her to do what you are accusing her of. But, my lord, should you not be looking for the guards who were there when it happened?”
        “Are you trying to absolve yourself to blame others? I thought better of you than that, Richard. The guards shall be called for. Send for the lady herself to appear before us also. If she does not, then we shall know they were truly in league. As for you, this remains between us, for I have no desire to lower your standing among the men. But keep this in your memory lest you someday be played false to worse harm.”
        “Your concern is duly noted, my lord, but whether the recreant lady and her friends the guards appear before us or not, There is nothing to be done about this problem if we do not know when it came to pass. So I suggest that we put it aside and return to the people in the daylight.”
        To this Valun readily assented, and so the two men lost no time in their return to the courtyard. Emerging into the city, they went separate ways, each going to a different place where provisions were being shared out, to watch both the soldiers and the people for signs of trouble. This occupied both them and many others for the greater part of the day until dusk was beginning to fall. At that time, Valun caused word to be spread that the feast was to begin, and that the common people were invited to use some part of their provisions to build fires and feast throughout the city as long as they wished, as the nobles would be doing in the king’s hall.
        As the coronation feast was about to begin, Valun rose from his seat at the high table, and in short order every man present did likewise. Raising his goblet, he began to call a roll of nobles in acknowledgement of their presence.
        “My lord Bristolan, my uncle through my honored mother, is he here?” A man seated at one end of the high table raised his drink in acknowledgment and replied.
        “Aye, and happy to be so.”
        As each name was called, the noble whose name it was indicated his presence and acknowledged the king. Valun continued to call a roll. However, many of the names were answered by unusually young men, or nothing but a solemn silence, which Valun would acknowledge by raising his drink and reciting “Peace and honor forever be upon his (or that) name.” Finally, he reached the last name. “Faldon. Is the lord of Carribeasa, our great city, with us this night?”
        There was no reply, and the silence immediately began to grow stifling. Valun saw that, rather than looking to the king to recite the acknowledgement of a death, many of the present nobles, particularly those who lived in the vicinity of that city and held the Faldon to be their liege lord under the king, began shooting worried looks at each other. After a long pause, Valun finally announced “The Faldons of Carribeasa choose to dispute our rightful claim. The matter shall be dealt with. Let none go to their side, for the king’s justice can be harsh. To all those who have come, and to the new lords of Longfurrow and Trondale who stand among you now, my friends Richard and Conan, I say it is time we honor the past, and raise our hopes for the future, in the best way. Eat, drink, and be merry!”
        Accompanied by a chorus of acceptance and thanks, the first toast was drunk, after which the whole party finally took their seats once more as the servants began to bring out the feast. The coronation feast lasted deep into the night, and in fact some, the king among them, were still carrying on when the next dawn broke. Those who had not held out had been discretely placed underneath the tables by pairs of strong servers watching in the shadows till they were needed. Valun and those remaining were just about to finally lower their goblets for the final time and take to their quarters to sleep the day away when the great doors opened without warning. Staring through blurred vision, Valun remained seated as he asked slowly “Who enters my hall at this hour?”
        The man answered, giving no sign that anything was unusual about his timing or the setting. “I am John of Ronaiera, and I have news of great import.” Then there was a pause, as if John was only just taking in his surroundings. “But my news can wait for a better time.”

        Staggering slightly as he rose, Valun answered. “Welcome, John, to my land and hall. You were a friend to us. Yes, I am afraid your news must wait. Eat and drink. For now, I must go. We will speak tomorrow.” With the assistance of two servants who had already helped Richard and Conan away, the king finally departed his feast.