Aldaron of Ronaiera was not one to be intimidated by a threat no longer visibly present. He had of course been surprised when the attackers had broken in through his window and held him captive, apparently in exchange for his ward and heir, the young man known only as John.
Aldaron had watched John’s rash attempt to rescue him with an air of bemusement coupled with genuine fear for his misguided rescuer’s life. However, all came to a head when he heard John reluctantly agree to some demand, which evidently had its beginning in some distant time and place the king of the Ronairs had never been made aware of before this day.
It was in fact only after John had been marched off under the guard of the attackers, those men having made it clear that an attempt to recover their prisoner would only result in his death, that Aldaron was able to take a moment to think on previous incidents which he now knew had led to this.
It had not been long since John had come to him to warn of a possible plot against one of them. At the time he had been dismissive of the idea, but now he could see that what John had said was true; there had been spies lying in wait to capture or to kill them, and they evidently intended to force John into something only the threat of death would convince him to agree to.
That was enough for the king. Threats or no threats, he would have the heads of these spies, and bring John back alive. He let the spies go peacefully to give the appearance that he had given in to the threats. However, by twilight of that day, five of the king’s best soldiers were hard on the trail of the abductors and their captive. Their orders were to keep themselves hidden, but within range of their targets, taking all care to avoid risking the prince’s life. They were to follow the spies until they had recovered the heir, but if that chance did not come, they were to follow until they had determined what the prince was to be made to do, and bring that news back to the king with all speed.
In the meantime, Aldaron took yet further action, calling an emergency meeting of his advisors and describing the situation to them.
“Men, a grave crisis is upon us. Early this day, spies attacked us suddenly. Their goal was to take the prince captive, and that they have achieved. They are being followed at this moment by the finest knights in the land. You may think this is the end of it, and if so, why did I call you here? I called because it has become clear to me that we must prepare once more for war.”
One of the advisors was particularly surprised by this decree, and could not stop himself from answering “But sire, the army you sent with the Corridanes has not returned.”
“We will have to reinforce them as well as we may in what time we have. Our enemies wanted only one man, so they are relying on surprise to fulfill their plot. They would not do it themselves; they want suspicion to fall elsewhere. The leader to whom they answer means my people to bear the punishment. Nothing one man can do will spark a war as swiftly and easily as the killing of their king. For their own ends, these dogs are driving Corridane to war against us.”
“If it is a design of an enemy, preparing for war is exactly what we should not do.”
“Do you think the Corridanes will do nothing if this plot succeeds? They will surely gear for war as swiftly as they may, but if we are fortunate, one of those who lived here in exile will ascend to the throne there. He will understand that our men come not to rule, but to help fight off the foes who are surely waiting only on the success of their spies’ plot. Spread the word. More men must be called up. Our time is fleeting.”
The soldiers Aldaron had sent to retrieve John from the grasp of his captors fulfilled their orders so exactly that nearly a week had passed before John became aware of their presence on the road, and this knowledge came only through a chance look back from an elevated position. However, the sight did not improve John’s mood, as the foreigners had made their camp in such a place expressly so that they might spot such things and prepare themselves.
In fact, it seemed to John that his captors’ caution knew no bounds. Two of them were watching him at all hours of the day and night while the others slept. When, without warning, none of the spies were on guard duty during the darkest hours of the night on the second day since his stolen glimpse of a group trailing the spies, John knew that they suspected as he had hoped, and had prepared to ambush the party whom they rightly suspected were the king’s men who had come to retrieve him.
It was not long after he had come to this realization that he heard sounds of someone approaching with light steps. The man, whom John could hardly see in the darkness, began without a word of introduction to cut John’s bonds with a blackened blade.
However, before the task was completed, John’s nerves got the better of him and he said under his breath “The spies are lying in ambush. Leave me and keep your life.”
“We have orders to bring you back. We cannot return without you, sir.”
“How many are you?”
“Five. The others are keeping watch.”
“Your numbers only equal our foes’-Now there is one left unwatched.”
Suddenly there came the sound of something whistling through the air, and the thud of a blade buried in a man. John found that he was forced to push the weight of the dead soldier off himself as a familiar voice reached his ears.
“The king’s best men? Ha! They’re not to be feared. One ran, but the rest died here. You’ll not see your home again. Now come on.” Yanking roughly, the man pulled John along as he struggled to stay upright on the strange terrain. After a moment he realized that they were heading like moths straight for a dim light some yards away. When John and his handler came within the light’s range, they found one of the spies holding a lantern, standing alongside his companions and their animals.
Replacing John’s nearly-cut bonds with new rope they had brought along, the men forced him aboard one of the horses. Having done this they mounted their own animals and began to put distance between themselves and the campsite, at which they had evidently not intended to stay any longer regardless of any rescue attempt by the king’s men. Thereafter, John’s captors traveled after dark as a rule, preferring to remain hidden during the daylight hours. John suspected that this change was due to an awareness that they were drawing closer to the cities on the bank of the great river.
In the course of the third night of riding, they spotted a mass of campfires in the distance. John and his handlers were all equally surprised by this development, but the men decided against finding out what had caused this unusual development, as their plans relied on utmost secrecy until the time came to reveal themselves. So they rode around the edge of the sprawling camp, at a significant distance from it to ensure that no one noticed the noise of their passing. It was the consensus among the foreigners that even this precaution was probably unwarranted, as the inhabitants of the camp did not know of them and would see no reason to post sentries in their own land.
Despite this, when they had nearly passed and left the camp behind, a voice broke the silence of the night, challenging them.
“Who passes? You cannot deny that there are several of you, as I have heard too many horses in my day to guess wrong. What business do you have riding by unmarked paths in the dark of night?”
One of the men rode behind John and pressed a blade against his body. Knowing what he had to do to keep his life, John replied to the unseen guard.
“What business does a king’s man have waylaying travelers? It is no business of yours where we go or how we get there. If men wish to travel through the night that is no cause to question them. We mean no harm.”
The guard answered, his voice heavy with indignation. “Is that so? We had word from a king’s man that spies have taken the prince and mean to do him harm. We have been ordered out to keep watch and catch them on their way.”
For a fleeting moment, the thought of calling out and alerting this vigilant guard to the truth of the matter crossed John’s mind. This was swiftly followed by the realization that this was but one sentry, who could do nothing in the dark against three or four men at once. Moreover, it was quite clear by their actions that such a decision would ensure that the spies killed him the moment he had done what they wanted. Harboring a hope that his actions might earn him a longer life, John kept his thoughts unspoken, speaking only to say “May we pass?”
The guard replied promptly. “Perhaps. That decision is best left to others, I think.” The next sound John heard break the silence was the clear call of a warning horn. Then he fell forward as his steed was violently compelled to a trot. As his captors began to ride off, John heard the watchman continuing to sound his alarm. The party continued to ride at a dangerous pace for some time, until the lights of the army’s camp had disappeared in the distance. When they finally halted, as the light of dawn gave shape to their surroundings, the leader of the party turned on one of his men.
“Damn you! Why did you let your man get away?! Did you have him? Are you a spy set to foil the emperor’s plans? That was an army camp, and no doubt they have had packs of men riding this way since the warning got out.”
The one who had been accused drew his sword. “I’ll not stand and be called a spy among my own people. I can prove myself a better man than you, if you’re man enough to take it from me. You’re a fool anyway, Tyron, dragging off the royal heir of the country in broad daylight like you told us to, and not killing the old king either. Why didn’t we? It would have been simple enough.”
John did not fail to notice that Tyron was giving signals to the others as he replied. “We did as the emperor commanded we should, and we shall be rewarded for it. You, unfortunately, seem to think that you have a better plan. We’ll leave you here to figure out what the emperor should have ordered us to do. When you find the answer, you’re free to speak again.” At the conclusion of this speech, Tyron simply winked at the others, who killed the dissenter before he was aware of their intentions, letting the body lay where it fell while they remounted and continued the journey, dragging John along behind them, as they had done all across the countryside.
In the Ronair army camp bustle and bedlam erupted at the sound of the sentry’s horn. Almost immediately, men began to disassemble the camp in preparation for travel. Several men ran straight to the commander’s tent, all to give the same message- that a warning had been sounded, and what was to be done about it?
The knight who had escaped the ambush earlier was being housed in the commander’s tent and had been the instigator of the command to set sentries in the first place, so the commander knew exactly what the horn-call signified. Therefore his first order was that the sentries should be recalled, to determine which of them had spotted the prince passing through. Affirming that the camp should be broken with all speed, he ordered that a group of riders should go ahead, back the way they had come, for if the word was true the prince was being taken out of the country.
Once the commander had taken control of the operation, the striking of the camp was completed without further confusion. The only break in the action came when the recalled watchmen arrived to make their reports, at which time many of those nearest the commander deliberately paused in their work to hear what passed between the men. Three of them of course reported nothing, but the last, the one who had been stationed on the south side of the camp, reported that it was he who had sounded the alarm and repeated for the benefit of the commander and all those within earshot the conversation which had passed between himself and the fugitives.
“I would guess that they had four or five horses, though I heard only one voice speak.”
The surviving knight of the tracking party, who had emerged from the tent to stand at the commander’s side, answered the watchman. “Your guess is not far off the mark. When I set out with those others the king chose to send, we were told there were five, and so five of us were sent. I would rather have stayed and died honorably with my companions, save that someone was needed to put others on the watch, lest their plan succeed despite the sacrifice. I have faith in the same provenance that led me to you will grant that all our enemies will soon be caught.”
By this time the movement of the army waited only on the word of the commander. Being notified of this, he mounted a horse which had been brought to his side. As the others who had been standing nearby did likewise, he called to the assembled troops.
“It seems we must turn back to Corridane. There are spies among us, and we know not yet what their designs may be, save that they mean harm to good men, and for this knight that is enough. If the king is correct in what he told his guard here among us, a danger yet greater than that we have seen is threatening us all, to fall first on Corridane. We have seen what trouble they have had, and they will be lost if no one rises to their side. The fight is not finished until the last foe is dead. Brave men, strong men, men of honor all of you, we must once more fight far from home, so that we may ourselves have some to return to. Return with me to Corridane and join the brothers we left behind in undying fame and honor! We fight there for our land, our sons, our future!”
The commander’s speech was met with resounding cheers from the entire host. The uproar forced him to wait longer than he had hoped to finally give out the order every man knew was coming.
“Fall in line! March!”
The Naibern infiltrators, for they had, indeed, come from Naibern, and had in fact been sent north long before the events now transpiring had been suspected or planned for by any but the emperor Kalveston himself and those few who had been privileged to carry out some part of the grand plan, were disappointed that they had not gotten clean away. However, those who remained saw no reason to fret over the possibility of being caught by the enemy, simply because they did not regard such an event as a true possibility.
They had ridden so hard and far during the night that they were many miles ahead of the quickest of the army riders by the time those men were prepared to set out, and held a still greater lead on the main body, even had their commander not stopped to rally the troops to the task before them. The day had just broken when the Naiberns and their prisoner entered a coastal settlement not more than half a day’s ride from the city of Forond. Once again forcing John to be their spokesman, as none of them had ever bothered to learn more than rudimentary Ronair and still spoke with their native accents, which but few, if any of the Ronair elite had even heard, and would instantly put a new acquaintance on their guard.
The men of the village being fishermen and coastal traders, their boats were their lifelines. Because of this fact, the Naiberns were compelled to produce a much larger sum of money than John had ever imagined them to be carrying. Due to the awkward and difficult process of silent bargaining as mediated by John, and the large payout and confirmation which the final agreement entailed, the Naiberns had lost an hour or more of their lead on the army from the time of their arrival to the moment the deal was closed and they were in possession of a boat.
John had half-expected still more accomplices to emerge from hiding once this part of the plan was completed, for he thought surely the Naiberns were not expecting the four of them who were left, even without counting John, to be able to take the boat across the river quickly and easily. However, no assistance appeared, and the spies wasted no time going aboard the boat and preparing to leave. Without pausing to explain themselves to John, they all dismounted and unloaded the animals of all that was left of their provisions. The provisions they stowed on the boat. The horses they turned loose, not caring who or what the animals encountered in the future.
Knowing what was expected of him, John dismounted quickly and marched silently onto the boat and sat leaning against a rail, waiting for the departure, which, due to the Naiberns quick preparation, was not long in coming. He watched the departure with a blank expression, not watching so much as he was staring at the space before him while his captors untied the boat and shoved off.
As he watched the time pass him by, John could hear only one thought in his head. “You have failed. Who would call you a true man if they knew this? You have failed.”