When next Valun rose from his bed, the day was already turning to afternoon. Allowing himself some moments to adjust to the setting, as his head still throbbed from the night’s feast, he rose gingerly, nearly falling to the floor as he reached for his boots. The noise of this movement brought an attendant to his side. Forgoing any further attempt to prepare himself properly, Valun simply watched the man work, as if the servant were actually dealing with someone else. When the servant allowed him to stand, Valun doused his face with water from a bowl the man had been carrying at his approach, and which he was now holding once more.
Having done this, Valun began to feel that he was properly alive. With a start, he began to remember everything that had happened the previous day: the escape of Keltran; his having ordered Richard to go in search of the old king; the absence of the lords of Carribeasa from his coronation feast, a slight for which he had declared them in rebellion against him, and greatest of all, the reason all these things had happened- he was home and he was king of the land.
As satisfying as this was to him, he did not allow himself more than a moment to enjoy it before he began to recall his duties and orders. The servant followed silently behind as Valun left his room. The king felt that it was his duty to see Richard off, after having ordered him to make another long journey for Valun’s benefit alone.
Pausing to speak to the attendant following him, he said “You, search out the lord Trondale, and if he is in the castle, tell him to attend me in the courtyard.”
Nodding understanding, the other man, who had left the water in the king’s room, hurried away in the opposite direction.
Passing several busy servants on his way, Valun walked without pause until he reached the great hall, where he found the Trondale, who was refreshing himself with a frugal meal which appeared to have been scavenged from the ruins of the previous night’s feast. At Valun’s entrance, Conan began to rise, but Valun, seeing no need to stand on ceremony between two friends alone, waved him back down.
“There is no need for that. As you were, my friend.” Calling to a servant who had approached, Valun added “Bring me something like that the lord Trondale has before him. More of it than he has, if you please.” As the servant made his way back toward the kitchen to comply with this order, Valun seated himself across the table from Conan and spoke as if he had just come in.
“Good day, Trondale. You recovered well from the feast, I trust?” As he spoke, Valun glanced quickly around the room before letting his eyes rest briefly on the man before him.
Laying down a slice of venison, Conan replied “It appears that I have recovered better than you did, my lord. I was able to rise in time to see Richard and his brother through the gate. They have left, as you ordered them to.”
“I did not speak of that to you.” Valun answered, taken aback.
“Perhaps, but Richard saw no reason why he should not explain his departure to me.”
By this time, Valun’s own meal had arrived, and as he began to make inroads upon it, he said “And now, I do have some news that you do not know.”
“You wish to tell me that our old acquaintance John has returned to throw himself on your mercy, I know that too, my lord. In fact, he was present here when I first entered. We recognized each other immediately. He disappeared at the sight of me. I know not where he is, neither do I wish to know.”
“So it was him. I thought as much when he arrived, but my head was so clouded with wine at the time I could not be sure if it was true. Though on my life, the words he spoke have gone out of my head.”
“Let them stay out then. No good will come of allowing him to stay under your roof, I feel it.”
“Come now, Conan, what makes you speak so of the man? When first we met him he was no more than a frightened boy.”
Pushing his plate and flagon away, Conan answered “Aye, but am I the only one who remembers what he said then? ‘He wants me to spy on men here’. We do not know who he was to watch, and it may very well have been you, or perhaps Richard. If that is so, we only aided his dark purposes by bringing him along. It may even be possible that he will still be able to accomplish the task he was brought to our country for. With your leave he will be arrested when we find him, and held under guard until he gives up his secrets.”
Valun, who had but little left on his own plate, decided he was finished and also pushed his food away. “No, Conan, to that I do not grant my leave. You want him arrested for something you say he said as a frightened boy ten years ago. In these days we have between us yet to really hear one word from him. That is no grounds to do him any harm. So far as we know, he is a visiting noble, not a street urchin, and we will treat him with respect until he attacks us, or you may discover how it feels to be placed in bonds. Is the king’s command understood?”
After a moment of tense silence, Conan pushed himself up from the table, breaching the rules of etiquette as he stood without leave in the presence of the king, who remained seated. “Your command is understood, my lord.” The bearish warrior replied through gritted teeth.
Letting another moment pass to emphasize the indiscretion Conan had just committed, Valun stood and said “I will let that pass as between two friends alone. But mind yourself, for I cannot do so again. If I am to rule with justice I must punish my nobles, yes even my friends, as I would all my subjects.”
“If you must lock me up, then it must be so, for that is justice. But do not throw my warning to the wind, is all I ask.” Clenching a fist around the haft of the ax he still carried in his belt, Conan left the hall, using one hand to let himself out through the great doors.
Valun had not moved as Conan left his presence. However, once the Trondale had disappeared through the doors, Valun, king of the Corridanes, became animated again. Looking quickly around the room once more, he signaled the nearest attendant.
“You there! I require the duty rosters for the guards of the lower levels. They must all be accounted for, or may the One help them.” As another approached, Valun continued. “The lord John, who arrived this day, must be found. I desire words with him. Seek him out.” To a third, he said only “You shall attend me. Come.” This servant following closely and silently, Valun let himself out of his hall and into the courtyard. To an inquiry on the subject, he replied “I do not require a horse.” Accepting this answer, the guards standing by promptly opened the gates and the king stepped through into his city.
Taking a moment before he continued to survey his surroundings, Valun noticed with relief that there seemed to be but few people on the street nearest the castle. Though relieved, he also wondered at this, for it was a fine day to be out, with the nearest clouds gathering nearing the northern horizon. A glance toward the sun told him that it was indeed past midday; he silently vowed that he would never drink so much wine again.
It was only after he ventured many yards deeper into the city that he began to see groups of people talking openly in the streets. Examining them closely, yet discretely, as he passed, Valun saw no cause for suspicion of any of them. Not one to stand on ceremony when it could be avoided, Valun waited until one of those in whose line of sight he was approaching alerted the others to his presence.
“A moment, my friends-the king approaches.” These words prompted all nearby to turn toward Valun and go to their knees, saying as one “Hail Valun king!"
Valun immediately ordered them up. “No, men, there is no need for that. Save it for the great occasions. A simple salute would suffice. Now, I wish to know-of what were you speaking?”
“Many things, my lord, but chiefly of you and your return. Is the land really swept clean of the invaders?”
“In truth I cannot say that. I only discovered myself that some of them still lurk in the shadows. But all shall be done to find them and destroy them, be assured of that. If any of you are willing and able, present yourself to the Trondale, for I intend to appoint him high captain of the home guard.”
“Your words are heeded, my lord, but are we really to be protected by a crowd of renegade Naiberns? What is to stop them from turning on us and killing us all?”
“They swore themselves to me, and many of them have proven their honesty many times over. Some have been fighting under my banner and against their countrymen for the month past. At any time they could have turned on us and they have not. Is that not reason enough to trust them? As I said, join the home guard yourself if you think there are too many Naiberns in the ranks.” Disgusted with the stubbornness of the men, Valun decided to turn back and discover what had come of the orders he had given out as he left. This hardly took any time in the doing, which went far to improve the king’s mood. Almost as soon as he had crossed the threshold of the castle, a servant approached bearing a large scroll.
“This, my lord, is the duty roster of the lower guards, as you ordered.”
Taking it with one hand and breaking the seal, which he noted was that of his father, Valun answered “Good. Send to the guards’ lodge for a new shift of men. Those now below must be before me as soon as can be achieved.”
“As you wish, my lord.” Wasting no time, the man strode off.
His departure seemed to be a cue for the second servant to approach the king. Bearing nothing in his hands, the man simply came closer and announced “My lord, nearly all the servants went out in search of him, but the lord John could not be found.”
“Tell them to keep looking. I know there are too many lodgings in the city for a few men to check even some of them in the short time that has passed, but our meeting is urgent and could warn of serious danger to someone here.”
As he said this, the eight men who had been guarding rooms below assembled before him. Taking from a nearby servant the scroll of names, which he had put down, Valun unrolled it and began to ask each of the men their names in turn. As each man replied, he checked the list and nodded as he found that each of those before him was in fact listed. Sending these back to their lodge, he ordered that those who were to relieve them were also to be checked against the list, which order would not be relaxed until every man had been checked twice for assurance that he was who he called himself.
When John had first arrived back in Corrandion, he had resolved to himself that in some way he would do what he had come to do quickly, then claim his freedom and travel far away as swiftly as a horse could take him. However, on entering Valun’s hall and finding him desperately drunk at the center of what had most likely been his coronation feast, John found that this resolve failed him, and rather than do what he had come to do, he had simply made his little speech and departed hastily from the king’s presence.
Eating a light breakfast early the next morning, he had been genuinely frightened by the sight of Conan Trondale entering the hall before Valun, suspecting that the man, who clearly hated him, had somehow caught wind of the plan and meant to do him in before it could be fulfilled. Anxious to be as far as he could from the vengeful baron, whom but few people would have been able to stop in single combat, John had left his frugal meal behind and nearly ran out of the castle.
He had not yet reported to those who had brought him, for he knew that they would be furious at his failure whether he showed himself to them early or late, it mattered not to them. John had spent much of the day wandering aimlessly through the streets of the city, challenging himself at odd intervals to explain why he had been too weak to defy the order placed upon him.
“Is it not better to be alive?”
“Yes, but death from such a choice should be preferable to murdering a man, at the order of another, no less.”
“You say death is preferable, so why have you not slain yourself yet? To do so would leave no stain on your memory, and if your story was told, men would honor you.”
“Leave no stain? To slay oneself is a coward’s way out of such a fix as this.”
“Well then, go to your masters, draw your blade and fight them till you die. Then you shall have an honorable victory.”
“But I have no wish to die.”
“You have no choice, man. If you try and fail, you will die. If you succeed, you will be hunted and killed like an animal. If you turn on your masters, you will die. If by some chance, you escape any of these fates, you will hate yourself forevermore for having done the thing, or even if you defy your masters and escape, they will hunt you themselves, and your days will be spent watching your back, eating and drinking nothing you have not obtained yourself. What is it to be?”
Finding as twilight drew near that his feet had drawn him near again to the rundown house on a nearly empty street which his handlers had made their base of operations, John looked over his sword once more. He had come without thought to the end of the road. It was time to determine his own fate. Hardly a moment passed before he had done just that, and with a fist clenched around the hilt of his blade, he strode into the den of spies. He felt tense as a tight rope, but still managed to make no movement that might betray his decision to the others.
He found the four of them sitting around table in the lower room, sharing out a great mass of stuff which they had presumably stolen from the great caches discovered just before they had arrived.
One of the men noticed John as he entered and asked “What do you want? Has all gone according to our plan?”
In reply, John drew his sword, so quickly it nearly sliced through his belt, and cried “I…want…my honor!” Taking advantage of his foes’ surprise, he killed the man seated closest to his reach before the group had risen properly. However that was all he could do before the other three were on him, pushing him back against the wall with outstretched blades.
“We are not to kill you. That is the emperor’s order, for his plan requires a man like you. But we are free to do anything we deem necessary, so long as you survive. Thank your fortune we cannot choose anything conspicuous.” As one had been making this speech, the remaining two had torn off John’s tunic and marched him back to the table, where they forced him lie stretched out, his face pressed hard against the solid oak table.
Richard, despite having enjoyed the great feast fully as much as the king himself, had kept the presence of mind to ensure that he would be able to comply with Valun’s order and depart before midday. Accordingly, he had left the table even before Conan, leaving orders that he was to be roused an hour before midday, and two horses saddled and ready to leave. He took it upon himself to rouse James, who had enjoyed himself too much and was one of those who had simply been laid out on the floor of the hall.
Stepping carefully around several other slumbering nobles, Richard leaned over his brother, shook him awake, and said “How are we to ever forget this, my brother? A man of the Longfurrows does not drink himself under the table. He is made of stronger stuff than that. Come now, get up. The king commands us to ride.”
Rising up on one elbow, James answered haltingly and as if he were speaking into a well. “Richard? I…only did the same…as you did. Blame the king…for ordering the strong stuff…”
Grasping his brother by the collar and dragging him to his feet, Richard replied “Well perhaps he would agree with you on that score. The servants tell me the king of the Corridanes has not risen yet himself. Yet that does not absolve us of our duty to him. We are to ride before the hour is out-You there! Water for the noble here!”
When the water had been brought, Richard first splashed some in his brother’s face before allowing him to drink the rest. “Remember, my brother, a soaking has always been the best remedy for drunkenness.”
At this moment another voice broke in. “In truth, the best remedy is not to drink the stuff at all.”
Turning to greet the newcomer, Richard answered “Well, Conan! We both know you drank four goblets of the same stuff we all had, and it was strong. Must have been aging since the old king left, before that, most likely.”
“It was three on my part, though you had five. What has you hurrying off like this? There is much to be done yet.”
“That I know. The king has commanded us to ride in search of his father and his brother, and bring them home or avenge them, as we must. And now, I have spent all the time I can spare here. Assure the king that I have complied with his command.” With this lofty farewell, Richard, still holding James by the collar of his tunic, marched out of the hall and into the courtyard as Conan stood for but a moment and watched.
The moment he had stayed long enough to properly witness the Longfurrows’ departure from the castle, Conan decided that there was a question concerning his father’s fate to which only Keltran could give the answer. Having done this, he would return to his family. There were also questions he wished answered which he still had not put to his sister or his brothers, having spent nearly all his time looking after more pressing matters alongside his mother or the king. Thus resolved, he turned and strode out of the great hall, toward the door to the lower levels.
Acknowledging the salutes, which he had not yet expected to receive, of the guards on duty Conan ordered that the prison chamber be unlocked. As a guard followed with a torch which was kept ready outside the door, he made his way through the nearly empty dungeon until he came to the one at the far end, wherein he had personally locked the spy Keltran. As the guard stood by, Conan froze, astonished at the revelation that the cell was empty.
“What has happened here?”
“Have you not heard, my lord? The prisoner held here escaped just before the coronation.”
“The king did not feel it was necessary that I know.” With these words, Conan began to make a thorough inspection of the cell. Only a few minutes had passed before he ended it, having discovered no concealed signs of an escape. “He did not do this alone. There are more spies among us.”
Crossing to the cell in which he had placed the band of Naibern soldiers caught planning Valun’s assassination, he ordered the door opened and, this done, stood in the space as he snapped at the prisoners.
“The other prisoner, your leader, has escaped our justice. How did this happen?”
“You think we know?” a voice answered from the corner. “And if we did, what reason do you have to think we would tell you?”
“If you do not, I will order your food cut off. I do not lie.”
“You do that, you’ll be ending our misery faster. It makes no difference in this hellhole.”
However, at this point another of the prisoners, audibly less confident than the first, answered “I remember…it was two guards…and a lady I heard. Said one of you nobles had ordered his release.”
Seeing no need to stay any longer, Conan stepped out without a word and began to make his way back above ground as the guard closed the cell door behind him. On his way out he did not even acknowledge the salutes of the guards, but simply continued without even turning his gaze. At the entrance to the lower level, he decided that he needed food and drink, which would perhaps calm his nerves before he attempted to confront the king with what he had learned.
It was not long after he had begun to eat that Valun himself entered. At the conclusion of the conversation which has already been recorded, after storming out on the king as he had, Conan went straight to the guards’ lodge, which was in the courtyard. Entering without warning, he shouted “Which of you let that dog Keltran go? On whose orders?”
After a moment of stifling silence, two guards, one in the midst of a game of dice, the other lying on his bunk, timidly raised their hands. “It was us, sir. The lady told us the Longfurrow had ordered it.”
“Fools! He himself said he would never order that. Roses still have thorns, men. You two show yourselves to the king. I give you two hours to find some courage.”
As he left the guards’ lodge, Conan thought that he could not recall any time he had been angrier, excepting perhaps his battle with the slave-drivers in Ronaiera. He could not confront Richard, for the man was miles away by now. He could not approach the king, for more indiscretions could find him in chains for days. He could not even find and destroy Keltran.
Entering the great hall once more, he found that Valun also had left. From there he went straight up to the room which his mother had taken. Knocking on the door and receiving her welcome, he opened the door for himself, he entered and waited. A maid was present when he entered, but his mother, likely in response to the look on his face, sent the woman away so that they would be alone. When the maid had closed the door, Evelyn spoke to her son.
“My son, something terrible has befallen us. You cannot conceal that from me, so I must know what it is.”
“Mother, I am here to tell you that, and to ask what I should do. The spy who killed my father has escaped, and I have heard that Richard Longfurrow may have some fault in that. Now yet another spy has come among us. I know him for what he is, but the king will not believe me. I will be punished if any harm befalls the man.”
“What would you have me tell you, my son? You cannot seek vengeance on your friends as well as your enemies. Has Richard ever spoken a false word before?”
“I cannot yet accuse him of such baseness.”
“Then you will not. Forget not that the one of whom you speak also killed Richard’s family. A friend would be glad for him that he has one left to watch over.”
“And what of the new threat, mother?”
“It is your place to protect the king, not to anger him. Stay close by, and never relax your vigilance against this threat. Whether your watchfulness is warranted or not, the king will someday be thankful for it. Now go attend him.”
Saluting his mother as he left her room, Conan made his way in silence back to the great hall, where he found Valun in the midst of verifying the roll of storeroom guards. Conan hung back, standing and listening as Valun checked the veracity of the last of the men before him and gave the order as he handed the scroll back to a waiting servant.
“Every man on that list is to be checked twice, so that we may be sure that they are all really present.”
It was only after the servant had stepped away that Valun looked toward Conan and noted his presence. “Do you wish to speak, Trondale?”
“I do, my lord. There is no need to doubt these men’s’ honesty anymore. The ones you are looking for confessed to me. I myself wish that the Longfurrow were here in the hall so that I might question him on this matter.”
“Aha! So Richard is also a spy in your eyes? How long must this go on, man? Is there no one you will not accuse of such baseness? Am I to be accused of failing, because I did not allow you to throw Keltran from the battlements? Do you not recall the day the Longfurrow begged for your safety? Is that the act of a man who would do as you suspect, depriving us of the great triumph we achieved? Is that the act of a man who fought for us until he could not stand, and would have died to aid us? Say no more of this, else you may find yourself asking his forgiveness when he returns.”
Giving Valun a cursory salute, Conan replied “Understood, my lord. May I ask-How old was the roll of the guards?”
“My father’s seal was still on it, else I would have dismissed the lot as choices of Keltran. As it was unbroken, I had to believe them all. To guard the royal provisions and treasure, to say nothing of the royal enemies, is a position of the utmost trust, and by decree of the Altair king Darren, it is their legacy to their sons until their line runs out. It would be wrong of me to change such a rule without grave reason, which I have not yet been given.”
Hearing the rebuke in Valun’s last words, Conan saluted the king again and turned away, barely restraining himself from striking the stone of the doorframe.