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.