Early the following day Valun had word sent out that all the nobles who had come for the festivities of his coronation should attend him in the great hall at the breakfast hour. When all were assembled before him, he spoke. Servants went among the nobles offering light refreshments as he made the speech.
“My good men, I know that you all wish to return to your own halls, and I will let you go, I assure you. But first I have some last words for you all. Those of you who live far from here may depart before midday if you wish, but I hope that you will join me in closing our celebration with a proper royal hunt. I doubt not that we shall find a hart worthy of our chase, if they have not all been driven away by the invaders. I will hold nothing against those who wish to travel, but tell me, how many will ride with me after midday has pas passed?”
He paused as several nobles called out in response. “Aye, I will go.”
“That is good news, and I hope you shall all enjoy it as much as I shall enjoy your company. Now, is the king’s champion here?”
Conan, who had taken a seat at one of the lower tables among the other men of his own title, rose while the others remained seated. “I have been called by that title. I am here.”
Valun, who was at his usual seat on the dais at the end of the hall, replied “Then come up, man. I have something which concerns you.”
Conan put down his cup and got up off the bench he had been seated on and approached the king. He stood silently, waiting for Valun to make his announcement.
Valun quickly produced a scroll tied and sealed with the new seal which had been made for him in the days before his coronation. Standing at his table, an action which prompted all the nobles present to rise in turn, the king made an announcement which had only been decided more firmly by Conan’s victory in the tournament. Breaking the seal, he read the proclamation aloud.
“Let it be known from this day forward until the day he dies, that Conan, son of Eric, the Trondale, known as Baron of Wycliff, shall hereafter bear the titles of Captain of the Capitol Guard, King’s Guard, and keeper of the king’s keys. Signed and given by the hand of the king on this day in the first year of our reign, Valun III Hightower.”
The rest of the present nobles gave Conan a polite, but not especially vigorous, round of applause at the conclusion of the announcement. In the midst of the noise, Valun passed to Conan the royal decree and a large ring of keys, which Conan deftly slipped onto his belt before turning to reclaim his spot at the table he had left, where he resumed his meal as if nothing unusual had happened.
Valun continued to speak to the room at large. “I know well that many of you suffered great loss during the spy’s reign over our land. I say to you now that the treasury is open to you, if money will restore some of what you have lost. I cannot give out as much as you may like, for if I did I would have none to use when it was needed. But I hope that a thousand Coreals a man may be enough to assure that I mean well.”
There was a silence. A thousand a man, even limited to those who were in the room and claimed lordship over some land, was a substantial sum. The silence was broken by one baron who called out “Are you sure, my lord, that the royal treasury has that much to give?”
“I give you my word that it does. You should know better than I, for you lived under the spy while I did not. Even so, it did not take me long to discover how much he took from you so that you might live.”
“I believe you, my lord. No man would turn down a thousand Coreals in any case. We thank you for this gift.”
“When you return to your homes,” Valun said, making the last announcement he intended for that morning, “I expect each of you to send back some of your men-at-arms, who shall become the first garrison of the Capitol guard. Tell them those who prove worthy shall be named King’s Guards, and will be known as the best in the land.”
Another noble called out a question which had many of the other nobles nodding in support of him. “But what of all those Naiberns who turned to you? Are they to be trusted as Royal guards?”
“As to that, I will tell you what I told the common man on the street who put the same question to me. Most of them surrendered to me and joined our men long before the war of the restoration was finished, yet not one of them revolted or made any attempt to kill me or any of the nobles with me. I trust them as well as I trust any of you, but I assure you they shall not fill the ranks of the Capitol Guards. They shall be ordered to the ranks of the Royal army, alongside all your men-at-arms when I call upon them. Is this satisfactory to you?”
“We shall obey the royal command.”
“That is the last of the announcements I wished to make to you this fine morning. To those who travel home, I wish you a swift and happy journey there. To those who ride with me in the hunt, I will see you at the first hour past midday. But for now, farewell to you all.” Raising his cup, Valun stood once more and waited until all there had done likewise. Then he made the traditional toast they were all expecting. “To all good men, brave, strong and wise, may the One watch over their days and grant them peace.”
The whole party of nobles than answered in unison. “Aye. So say we all.”
The traditional toast in honor of those not present was the signal to those who were that they could depart. Each of them saluted Valun as he passed, whether that man intended to stay for the hunt or depart as quickly as he was able. Valun allowed each of them to pass out the doors, except Conan. Conan he called to his side.
“I hope, Conan that this will prove that I hold no ill will toward you for your outburst before our games.”
“I had given no thought to that, my lord, since I spoke to my mother. You have not also had conference with her, by chance?”
“I have not. What would bring that question to your mind?”
“She has counselled me that I should keep a close watch over you, lest a threat come from an unexpected quarter.”
“Then you may both be satisfied, for that is exactly what your new duties require you to do. You are not, I hope, referring to the matter of John of Ronaiera?”
“I have not sought him out, for I prefer that he should be far from us. I have heeded your commands and done nothing to harm him yet.”
“Let your hand be restrained until he explains himself to us. I wish to hear him out before you take off his head.”
“If that is what he came to do, he will not warn you of it.”
“That is why you shall be watching, if you are so determined to think ill of him. For myself I will believe that he does not mean us harm.”
With these words the conversation was broken off and the two went separate ways. Conan left the hall, while Valun watched him go before leaving the room himself to make his way to the stables, to see that his horse was prepared for the hunt ahead.
Conan, on leaving the king’s presence, made straight for the large house close by the palace which had recently been given over to the use of him and his family. Acquiring a house for the family’s use had been one of the first things Conan had done on his return to the capitol with his family, because his mother had specifically requested it during the ride from their estate. They had used spare rooms in the palace only until this building was ready and had moved into it only that morning. The building was more prominent than it had ever been before, because Anne, over Conan’s objections, had additionally ordered pennants of the Trondale crest to be hung on the walls. Entering, he found all the members of his family together in the sitting room which looked out upon the street. He walked past them all without speaking and then turned back to face them as he leaned upon the hearth.
“The king has given me more than I think I can bear, mother.”
“Who could bear it if you cannot? Your father and the Longfurrow were the only two who rose in defense of the throne. You spent ten years in exile to be at his side, and bore trials as a boy that most men will never see. He has good reason to trust you above those who remained here. But tell me, what is this weight you cannot bear?
Conan saw that Anne and the boys, who had hardly noticed his entrance, were now listening intently to the dialogue, having stopped what they were doing to look at him. He straightened up and produced the royal decree, which he had been carrying in his wallet. He handed it to his mother, who read it as Anne and the boys leaned in.
“….Shall hereafter bear the titles of Captain of the Capitol Guard, King’s Guard, and Keeper of the king’s keys…Why, Conan, this is glorious news. He has given you the highest of positions. You command the respect of dukes and earls now. They will look to you to turn the tide when the danger is greatest. Did I not say the king trusts you more than any, except perhaps the Longfurrow-Richard is his name I think?”
“Yes, mother, but I do not believe I can live up to the honor he has given me. I have never wanted to lead men. I do not know how to rouse them to action. I do not believe I can draw men to follow me.”
“My son, I heard what the old men said to you, and what you said to them. You have bested the strongest knight in the kingdom in single combat, yet still you will not1 place yourself among the greatest of them. In that, my son, you have shown true greatness. Men will follow a man who holds a higher rank, but one who treats them with respect is truly their leader. There is no better way to gain their respect than to do as you have done. Never change, my son.”
“I will remember what you have said, mother.” Conan paused for a moment, then looked directly at Eric and John. “You two are still hanging about? That is enough. The king is restored and good men have freedom to do as they should. No man becomes a knight in a day. Say goodbye to mother, for you cannot return here.”
The boys protested this sudden announcement. “Mother! How can he say that we cannot come back? Tell him we won’t go!”
Evelyn again set down the sewing she had been working on when Conan had come inside. She faced the boys, who were now standing before her, released a deep sigh and impulsively wrapped one in a fervent embrace. She spoke softly.
“I am sorry, my boys, but he speaks the truth. You must both go, and it will be a long time before you can return to me. We have no household great enough that you could be trained properly in your own home. Conan is still among the youngest of the lords, and the king has now placed the greatest of responsibilities on him. He could not be your tutor even if we were home. He will take you to other good men, and with them you will grow into brave and wise knights. I will pray that this be so. May it be that you earn even some of the honor Conan now bears.”
She released the one she had been holding and nudged him in Anne’s direction, taking the other in his place while Conan watched silently. He could see that none of the four had been able to hold back all tears, and in fact, he found himself swallowing hard to hide such a response from them. The whole incident and its implications reminded him strongly of the day he had been sent away by his father. It had been Anne’s birthday, and he had not been allowed to bid her farewell then, for time had been precious. Because of this he made no move to enforce his earlier words for several minutes, letting the others wring as much satisfaction as they could from what little interaction remained to them for this time in their lives.
Finally, after a long wait, Conan spoke up. “We cannot wait forever. Come now, brothers.” He walked past everyone back to the door of the house, disregarding the apathy with which the others broke off their farewells. Opening the door, he ushered the boys out ahead of him and closed the door again without allowing himself another look back at the women.
Without offering them a word of explanation, he began to lead the boys through the streets of the city, ignoring the cries of “King’s champion! Hail, king’s champion!” He ignored all passersby in that moment, whether commoner or noble, with equal indifference. He walked without stopping, slowing his pace only slightly at repeated protests from the boys that he was walking too fast, until he reached the area of the plain by the south wall where the small tent city populated by noble travelers had appeared. Here he paused for only a moment to let the boys catch their breath and take stock of where he was. This determined, he increased his pace again until he reached a tent which had been set near the middle of the lines. Drawing his ax, he knocked with the end of the haft against the knight’s shield, which was still hung outside the tent. An attendant emerged, but stepped back inside immediately. A moment later, the earl of Salanfel answered the summons.
“Ah, it is you, Trondale, captain of the guard. What service can I do you?”
Conan prodded Eric and John to step forward. “I would ask you, as the good man you have proven to be, to take these boys into your household and raise them in the ways of a knight.”
The Darren studied the boys as he answered. “These boys rode in the king’s procession with you, holding your banner. I will hold it an honor to be entrusted with the brothers of the king’s champion.”
“I thank you. Do not let my favor with the king ease their load one bit, though. They must prove themselves, and I will not come to avenge them as I would my sister.” Seeing the expressions that had come onto the boy’s faces at this pronouncement, Conan paused and knelt on one knee before them both.
“I do not like this any more than you do, but as mother said, it must be done this way. I know that the earl is a good man who will treat you well. If you heed his words, I know that one day I will say ‘sir Eric and sir John are my brothers, and they are great men indeed.” Hefting his ax. He placed its length across their outstretched hands, holding it with one of his own as they each placed one of their own on top. Bringing his free hand forward, he covered theirs and said “Promise me it will be so.”
In firm and level tones they replied together “It will be so.” Then they did something he had not expected, and took their hands off the ax, instead each grasping at his broad shoulders. He gave them this moment in silence until they released him, at which time he stood and replaced his weapon in its place across his back.
Shaking the earl’s proffered hand, he said only “Farewell.” Turning away from there, he began to jog back toward the city, hopeful that none there had noticed the king’s champion struggling to hold his composure.
At the earliest opportunity, Conan went to those who had charge over the horses he had bought to bring his family back to the capital. He gave orders to them that two of the animals should be sent straightaway to the earl of Salanfel. When they asked him why, he said “The Earl has gained two attendants this day. They shall require mounts.”
From the stables he returned to the family’s home. Again standing before the hearth, he reported what he had done.
“I have given them over to the Earl of Salanfel. There is no need to fear for their safety.”
This time it was Anne who stopped what she was doing to answer the announcement. “You only met yesterday and spent the whole of the afternoon knocking each other about. Is that all it takes to gain your friendship?”
“He is not too proud to celebrate the man who has beaten him. Shall I tell him what you think of him?”
“And why would he care how I felt about the matter?”
“He also admitted to me that you caught his eye.”
“Well-I blame the king for that- everybody could see us up there. But yes, go tell the earl what I have said if you would like another round of knocking about. I would not give my hand to such an older man.”
“Very well” said Conan “That matter is settled. I will return this evening. My duty calls.” Putting all his weight on his feet once more, Conan left the house and turned his steps back toward the palace.
At the time he had prescribed, Valun met several of the nobles who had chosen to accompany him on the hunt just outside the city gates. John had now reappeared and joined the party, which was a decision that Valun had no objection to, though he could see that Conan was watching the Ronair closely.
They were being led by two attendants of the Urstulan, who knew of a well-populated forest barely half an hour’s ride from the city. The keepers of the king’s kennels were also present, straining to keep several restless dogs under control. The whole party started off at a sudden signal from Valun and made the journey in good time, only to wait some minutes before they began to allow everyone to catch their breath.
Then, at a word from the king, the dogs were set loose, and the assembled knights began to ride in earnest after them. One of the attendants gave a loud blast on a horn, which set the dogs to howling and running even faster. Valun was still in the lead, with Conan riding beside him. John was near the front of the group, flanked closely by two others. The rest of the party was somewhat more spread out, and all had to ride with care to avoid the dense stands with low-hanging branches.
After several minutes of riding, one man called out “There! I see one!” The dogs, which seemed to have picked up the trail of this herd some distance back, began to bay and howl more loudly than ever as they closed in on the group of bucks, which had been grazing peacefully before the intrusion.
All the deer looked up in a body, and a fleeting moment later had all leapt away. The dogs, however, were hot on the trail and could not be held back, nor did it cross any man’s mind to attempt to do so. They were all there for the thrill of the hunt, and no man wished to turn back now. So they followed the single buck the dogs focused on, whooping and shouting in their excitement.
After some more time had passed, Valun finally caught up with the dogs, which had made their kill, only to find that he had outstripped everyone riding with him. He dismounted and approached his quarry, as regal in death as it had been in life, and knelt down beside it in silent reflection.
A moment later, however, the silence, which had not been disturbed since he arrived on the scene even by the dogs (which he now had complete mastery over once more) was shattered suddenly by another rider coming onto the scene. Looking around, Valun saw that it was John. He rose to greet him.
“Well, greetings, Prince John. I congratulate you. You have proved yourself a better rider than the best knights in my kingdom.”
Dismounting in turn, John said, perfectly composed “My teachers taught me well.”
“I would hope so, for their sakes. I heard you were raised by king Aldaron of Ronaiera himself.”
Walking ever closer to Valun, John answered “That is true. I had to make it to him myself. Still I respected what you had done for me. I remember when you protected me from your cross companion. But now I have no more time to waste. This is a fine spot. A lord of the wood can lie with a lord of the land in peace.”
Then, before Valun had a chance to even speak, John had produced a long knife and stabbed him, saying as he did “I will grant you the dignity of seeing the face of your killer.”
Valun, doubled over by the shock of the first blow, felt himself struck two more times before he fell to the ground on his side. He began to feel light-headed, and struggled to keep his eyes open. He did not succeed at this, but before he failed completely he saw Conan come crashing into the scene, swinging his ax and bellowing like a furious bull. “Cowaaaard!” The last thing Valun saw was Conan taking John’s head off with one mighty swing.
The moment he had avenged his king, Conan leapt down from his steed in one quick motion as the main party of nobles finally began to arrive on the scene. They all stopped, shocked at the sight that greeted them. Conan had drawn his knife and was now cutting Valun’s long cape loose from his back. He did not rise, only turning his head to shout in desperation and anger at the stunned men.
“Move yourselves! We may still save the king! Move! Quickly now!” Even as he shouted at the others, he had turned Valun on his back and begun to tie the cape tightly around the king’s body.
All at once, the rest of the hunting party regained their faculties and all dismounted at once. The quickest among them promptly began binding one’s own riding cape between two hunting spears. Another cape and more spears were given up to strengthen the makeshift stretcher. At the same time two men came over to assist Conan in lifting the king’s body onto the stretcher.
While they did this, the best riders gave up their reins to provide materiel which would tie the stretcher to the reins of Conan’s horse, for as King’s Guard, it was his prerogative to return the body of the king to the city. Even while this was being done, the remaining nobles, who had yet been able to contribute nothing, turned back and rode ahead in an attempt to provide as clear and wide a path as possible for Conan’s passage.
When all this was finally done and Valun was secured as well as could be achieved behind Conan’s horse, Conan finally took a moment to determine if Valun had already died on them all. He sighed as felt Valun’s breath on his hand and the king’s pulse still beating. Mounting, he called out “The king lives! Ride with all speed!”
One of the men there answered “What of this other man?”
Conan snapped in response “He was a spy and deserves no burial. Let the beasts eat him if they will. Let us go!”
Without further delay, the whole party started off at a trot, as Conan brought up the rear at a pace not much slower than theirs. The trampling of all the great horses, their riders now packed as closely together as they could risk in order to better prepare the ground for the king’s stretcher, was heard to startle birds and beasts that could be heard responding or moving farther away from a considerable distance.
As he rode, Conan, following duke Mason, who had taken that position as the king’s official heir, divided his attention between the dead stag which someone had tied to Mason’s horse, and the body he was pulling along, which he hoped against hope would survive the journey and walk again.
The hunters emerged from the forest faster than they had gone into it, and actually seemed to increase their pace now that the way was open before them. However, once they were clear of the woods, Conan first shouted for a pause and leapt down from his horse. Kneeling at Valun’s side, he called for fresh coverings and water. Having done what he could with these articles, he called triumphantly to the assembled group “The king lives!”
Conan remounted again in a moment, calling for the ride to start once more. With a general cry of “Valunreyas!” All the nobles resumed their frantic ride for the life of their new king. As they drew close to the city, those who were carrying hunting horns began to sound them to draw the attention of the gatekeepers, while others joined in with cries of “Make way for the king! Make way for the king!”
Fortunately their cries were heeded and they were all able to charge into the city without slowing their pace. There were many people on the streets at the time, and all who saw them pass first started back in shock, and then dropped to one knee as Conan passed by. In a very short time the crowd of nobles began to shrink as the streets of the city became too narrow to accommodate so many horsemen. Mere minutes had passed by the time Conan and Mason were riding alone through the streets closest to the palace. When they finally arrived there, the palace guards barely managed to open the gates before they had both ridden through. As the two nobles dismounted, the palace guards reacted as had everyone who had witnessed their passage.
They had been shouting for help since they crossed the threshold of the city, so almost no time had passed since their dismounting when the king was surrounded by healers doing what they could.
As the two nobles stood by silently observing, one of the healers approached them. ”Thank the One you brought him back as quickly as you did. He lives. I think he may be saved.”
Looking at each other as if unsure which had the greater right to respond to this, Conan and the Hightower answered together “We will tell the people.”
That evening, all the nobles who had stayed for the hunt assembled in the great hall by request of Conan and the Hightower. They all used the long tables they had used only that morning in eating together. The king’s dais was left empty. In fact, the table itself had been moved away, and Valun had been laid at the base of the steps up to his seat, which had been left there unaccompanied.
Conan placed himself near the center of the group, deferring to the Hightower the place at the end of the table. After a few moments of silence in respect to the king, Duke Mason rose and spoke.
“I have good news for you all. The healers have told me and the king’s guard that a chance remains that he will live, thanks to our speed in bringing him back here. However, it shall surely be some time before he is able to take his place again. For as long as that time lasts, there must be someone who can speak for him. I would ask that you give me that power.”
One of the others spoke up then in Conan’s defense. “Why should we not choose the Trondale over you? It was he who ensured that the king returned at all, while you froze with the rest of us. His duty is here, while yours truly lies elsewhere.”
Still standing, Duke Mason replied to his antagonist. “As you wish. Let it be put to a vote. All those who wish me to be the king’s regent?”
To Conan’s great surprise, the number of those who stood was only half of those present, excluding himself and the Hightower. After the count, there was hardly a need for the remaining number to stand in Conan’s support. This they did anyway, to prove that the room was so divided.
His mother’s words clear in his mind, Conan stood and spoke on his own behalf. “I thank you for the willingness you have shown to treat me as your king-But I refuse the position. The duke is our king’s heir until the prince Valnor is brought back alive by the Longfurrow. I will serve Duke Mason as my king until Valunreyas is recovered. I hope those who have chosen me will respect my decision.”
As he took his seat once more Mason said “I thank you for your decision, Sir Conan. It would have been a bitter battle had you not done as you have. We do not need a battle in the king’s hall when there is one waiting outside it. It is time we dealt with the Faldons and those who would follow them. Now, if you would join me, men-To all good men brave, strong and wise, may the One watch over their days and grant them peace.”
Raising their cups as one, the whole party turned toward Valun and gave the response. “Aye, so say we all.”