Return of the Prince

When your father sends you on a journey to fulfil an impossible task, a point must come when you have to return home and face him.

When your father is also the King of a land of warriors, who is liable to use his sword freely, and you are the runt of the family, your future prospects are even more fragile...

Return of the Prince

a Tale of Anmar

by Penny Lane


Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2017 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.


There was an almost audible release of breath as the Grani passed through the gap known as Hel's Gate and the coast beyond the distant headland opened up. Torulf, standing at the bow, glanced back to see shoulders release the tension which had gripped everyone including himself.

This was the most dangerous passage known to the seafarers of Einnland and it had cost the Kingdom a number of ships of varying kinds. Hel's Nose, the headland, stood out from the forbidding coast where the Palumaks shouldered their way into the Shan Ocean. Worse, reefs extended for many vika out to sea, with only a single gap, the Gate, being considered safe to pass through.

It was not usually possible to pass far to the east to go round the end of the reefs since the prevailing winds were south-westerly and a north-bound ship could not haul sail around far enough to tack away from the coast, while those returning south could do little better.

Above Hel's Nose the forbidding cliffs trended roughly north-south, but below the headland the land swung away south-westward. Anders Gylfisson needed no orders to lean on the steering oar and swing the ship to follow the coast. A half day's easy sailing, with the wind now behind them, would see them back at Jotlheim.

Torulf turned to face the crew, most of whom were not at their oars but had been watching their passage through the gate.

"We have done it! Friends, by tonight we shall be feasting in my father's hall."

There was a certain amount of cheering but many of the crew looked concerned.

"Highness, are you sure of that? Your father bade you return only with your sister but you will not."

"Letters were sent with the other ship explaining why not, Jordi. Eriana is far away and no threat to Einnland." He grinned suddenly. "That my father knows about. Let there be no mention of navies with steel ships that do not need the wind to travel the oceans. I doubt any will believe much of what we have to tell them but there is no reason we have to take chances, is there?"

His expression sobered. "No, I do not think my father will be furious with me for that reason, but our meeting will of course be a difficult one. There are many in that hall who will not like the way I have changed - that any of us have changed."

"Aye." There were many muttered agreements along the length of the ship.

"And will you follow me to my father's hall?" The question was a challenge no man could refuse.

This time the answer was a roar. "Aye!"

Torulf showed his teeth. "Very well. Let us agree what should happen and what should not happen. We have been away many months and much may have changed, so we must plan carefully."

* * *

The Grani shortened sail to ease her way through the fleet of fishing boats clustered some vika from the shore. Cheers rose from many when they saw the royal colors streaming from the masthead while others gave her a wide berth. Most of these small craft would return to the harbor before nightfall, as they would normally, but on this occasion they would all want to hear the story of Torulf's voyage to distant and fabled lands - and to see how his father received him.

Traditionally the ships of Einnland had been launched from the beach, but in recent times - two centuries ago - a stone breakwater had been constructed at great cost and effort to provide some shelter to the growing fishing fleet. This stuck out from the beach and then angled south to protect against the prevailing winds.

The Grani headed for the end of the breakwater, which Torulf now saw was lined with people who had heard of their impending arrival. He was not surprised to find that the sheltered side of the breakwater was crowded with moored craft, with no room for a ship the size of the Grani. Torulf turned to the crew.

"They want us to do this the hard way, lads. Head for the beach. We'll show them!"

In moments the oars were deployed and the men all pulled with a will, while the sailors rapidly and carefully lowered the yard, making sure not to foul the crew with the sail as they did so. By the time they reached the breakers the sail had been lashed tightly to the yard out of the way and the yard stowed lengthwise along the center of the ship.

"Hold... Hold... Hold... Now! Row as if demons were after you!"

With a crunch the ship pushed itself up the gravel beach. Those in the bow jumped off and took ropes to pull the ship further away from the tide-line; no easy feat when it was heavily loaded. Soon every man on board had joined those on the beach and the Grani was finally safe from the breakers.

By that time they were surrounded by a large crowd, mostly silent as they watched the ship being secured. Once the immediate action looked as if it had finished a grizzled man stepped forward.

"Torulf."

Anders Gylfisson shouldered his way forward to confront the man.

"That would be Your Highness, Bent Trollbane. Show some respect to your next King."

The man flushed and, after a pause, bowed his head before finally getting down on one knee. Slowly the rest of the crowd followed suit and Torulf let out a silent breath of relief. He hadn't even been sure that he wouldn't have been forced to fight his way off the beach.

"Rise, all of you. It is good to be back again among my fellow countrymen."

The watchers stood, wondering at the tone and attitude of the man who stood before them. Their Crown Prince had changed while he had been away and nobody knew what that might mean. Another man pushed past Trollbane, a younger man who Torulf recognized.

"Steffi. You have word from our father?"

"I do, brother. Our father knows of your arrival and would have you present yourself as soon as you can. He would discover what you have been doing these many months."

"I intend to come but first, I must see to my ship and crew. That is the honorable thing to do, especially after a voyage of many days."

A brief nod. "I will tell him so. Do not take long."

Steffi turned and departed. Anders came and spoke in low tones to Torulf.

"Much as we foresaw, Highness. Do you still want us to split the crew?"

The Prince nodded. "Yes. The way we planned. Enough to safeguard and the rest with me. The families of the men can wait until we know whether we are welcome here or not."

Anders turned and shouted commands to the men. Several remained on board but the rest gathered around Torulf.

"We march to my father's hall. Do not show any steel unless we are attacked. I do not want to give anyone the wrong idea. At some point in the future I intend to be King of these people and I do not need to antagonize them."

Those nearest in the crowd also heard his words and there was a muttering of approval. The watchers parted, leaving a route into the town towards the Great Hall of the King. Torulf led his men off the beach and along the street, the curious crowd following in their wake and growing with every building they passed.

The houses in this part of Jotlheim were old. Torulf knew that almost all of them were older than most buildings in Palarand city, most several hundred years older. Yet, he now knew that the walls of Palarand, both city and palace, were almost twice the age of the oldest building here. The Einnlanders had their own stories about the Romans and it was another confirmation that they had all come here from another world, the one that was now called Earth.

The buildings in Jotlheim, though, looked tired and shabby. He compared what they passed by with the buildings of Blackstone, another small town set up by the Romans, and knew that he would rather live in the bustling coal town at the edge of Palarand than in this worn out old place. How had his father let things come to this? When he became King - assuming he survived that long, of course - when he became King, there would be an immediate program of improvements.

Finally, the heavily carved building that had been his home since birth came into view. Torulf tried to compare it with Robanar's palace and failed. There was just no way to compare two structures with such different histories and uses. Both were appropriate residences for the country their King ruled - but Torulf knew what the difference was, and he knew which one he preferred.

Either side of the front door stood armed men but they offered no obstacle to Torulf and his crew. Indeed, one of them grinned and said, "Welcome home, Your Highness." Inside, there was a short corridor and two ante-chambers before they came to the Great Hall, the place where the work of governing Einnland happened and the place he had spent most of his life growing up.

There was a fire in the long pit which ran from just inside the doorway to just below the platform on which his father's table usually stood, but it was mostly embers today. Although the season was advancing towards winter it was still warm enough that a true fire need not be lit. The high table was not there but the throne was, and his father was sitting on it staring impassively at the proceedings. At either side the usual feasting tables had been set against the walls to make room for the expected throng who would come to see what father would do to son. Many of those who usually lived or worked here stood either side, watching the Prince as he entered the hall.

Torulf walked alongside the long pit to stand in front of his father while the others came into the hall and filled the further end. He got down on one knee and bent his head briefly before raising it and looking at his father.

"Father. As you can see, I have returned from the north, as I vowed to do."

Embrikt stared at him for a short while before flicking a hand up in a well-known gesture.

"Get up, Torulf. You took your time getting back. You vowed to return but Eriana is not with you."

"I did not vow to return with Eriana," Torulf said simply as he stood. "I vowed to return, you insisted that I could not return without her. We both know that was never going to happen. If the sea did not take her she would make a home for herself somewhere in the north, and that is exactly what has happened. You should have received letters from King Robanar about her."

The King considered. "I have had letters, yes. Some came by sea and others later by land, by a line of wagons led by a strange little man. Are all those in the north like him?"

Torulf grinned, surprising his father. "You mean Jaxen? By no means, Father. Do not be deceived by his size or looks, either. As I learned to my cost, size can be deceptive."

Embrikt sniffed. "You are little larger than he was, though I see more meat on your body now than when you left." He looked over the others, standing at the further end of the hall in a line. "Where is Vilken? Did he not return with you?"

"If you have had letters, Father, you very well know that he is dead. Robanar gave him a respectful funeral, according to their own practices."

"How did he die?"

Torulf shrugged. "There was a fight, I was not there. Vilken tried to be clever but he was outsmarted by his opponent, so I was told." He added, "If he had lived, he would have been called to account by the laws of Palarand. Before that fight, he had killed one of... His Majesty's men, and not in a fair fight."

Embrikt stared at Torulf. "That was not what I heard." He stroked his beard. "That can wait. Go and clean yourself up, Torulf. That goes for your men, too. Some of them have not seen their families for many months. There will be a feast... a small feast, to welcome you all home, just after sunset." He added, "Then I will find out exactly what happened in Palarand."

* * *

Torulf stared around his room. By the Gods, it was good to be back! Here were familiar hangings, his lute, various weapons, clothing hung on pegs or folded on shelves, thick furs to warm him during the coming winter... he sighed and sat in his chair, leaning forward to begin unlacing his boots. A man came hastily through the door, bending down immediately to his feet.

"Highness! Let me do that for you."

"Galli! No, stand you up, I will do it this time." Torulf looked at the man and smiled. "I have been dressing and undressing myself for months, I think I can manage today."

Galli came uncertainly to his feet, standing with his hands clasped together, waiting.

"How have things been in the hall while I was away? Come, I need to know what people are saying."

"Highness? I should not say, it is not my place."

Torulf regarded the thin, middle-aged man. "You know that Ragvald will not be returning, do you? He has found another employer," he smiled at the memory, "who will make much better use of his talents that I was ever capable of. So I am looking for someone to replace him and I immediately thought of you."

Galli was shocked. "Highness, you cannot do that! I am just one of your father's thralls!"

"Actually, you are sworn to me, as it happens. Most think that you are sworn to my father but I know differently and I can bring forward those who would bear witness. So, tell me about the hall."

"Your father seemed calmer while you were away, Highness. Whether it was the absence of your sister or your own absence -" The man stopped, horrified by what he was about to suggest.

Torulf smiled. "Continue. I know what I was before I left, I knew what people thought of me. I will tell you now that I am not the person who sailed away in Spring. You have no need to fear me, Galli."

Galli gulped. "Highness - the letters, the letters that came from the place you went, I think your father accepts that your sister will never return. If the truth were known, I think he is pleased that he will see her no more."

"There, you see? You're even using your own judgment! Just what I wanted to hear. Now what about the others? My brothers, for instance?"

"Germund is - Germund. He is his usual self, Highness." Galli gave him a sidelong glance. "He could be trouble."

"We'll see," Torulf said, noncommittally. "What about the others?"

"Unhappy that Germund would become King, I think."

"What! My father has disowned me?"

Galli began waving his hands. "No, Highness, no! It is just that you spent so long away nobody was sure if you were ever coming back. If you did not, then..." He spread his hands and shrugged.

Torulf nodded. "Fair enough. The Kingdom must have an heir and Germund was next, I understand. However, here I am home again." He grinned at Galli. "No need for Germund to get himself all excited, is there?"

He shucked off the second boot and stood, searching for slippers.

"Is there water ready to bathe? I have been at sea five days."

"Certainly, Highness. Once your ship was sighted your father ordered the boilers lit."

"Humph. I bet he didn't do it for my benefit."

"Probably not, Highness. What will you wear this evening?"

"Let me bathe first and then I'll have to come back here and find out what still fits. You noticed I'm a little bigger?"

"I had done, Highness, but I wasn't sure whether that was a good thing or not."

Torulf smiled again. "It is a good thing, Galli, it is. Trust me, this is all solid muscle now."

* * *

Torulf felt clean and fresh, attired in a favorite tunic, trousers and soft ankle boots of the kind most wore around the King's Hall. The cloth of the tunic and trousers was fine enough, if one was a Prince, but he had now sampled other fabrics and this was another change he would try to introduce once he was able to.

He unwrapped a small waxed cloth package that had come with him from Palarand, examining the enclosed item carefully and making sure that it was clean, dry and undamaged. Loosening the laces at the neck of his tunic, he slipped the item inside and allowed it to slide down until it was stopped by his belt. It was thin enough not to be noticed, though it might cause problems if he were to be manhandled.

Another decision then, whether to wear a sword. His knife would be expected, no man could eat a meal without having a knife to hand, after all, but perhaps this time it would be safer not to do anything to make his father suspicious. Let them think he was no different than the man would had departed, all those months ago!

"Have I forgotten anything?"

Galli looked him over. "I don't think so, Highness. Your sword perhaps, but I can understand why you might leave that behind, especially tonight. What about a torc or a brooch, perhaps?"

The Prince shook his head. "I think not this time, Galli, but thank you for suggesting them. Remember, I am still on trial. If I live long enough to sleep tonight then I will start dressing again in the way expected of Einnland's heir."

Galli looked at Torulf. "Highness, you are a different man than the one who set out all those months ago."

He nodded. "I know, but they do not - yet. And..." he grimaced, "I have yet to face my father. All my preparation could be for nothing."

"How did this happen, Highness?"

The Prince smiled then. "A small girl taught me what was really important, Galli. She has married their Prince and she will become Palarand's next Queen. I have learned much from her and those who surround her."

"A girl, Highness? Do they marry so young there?"

Torulf shrugged. "A young woman, perhaps. About three or four years younger than me. If we come through this evening unscathed, Galli, you shall hear her tale, for it contains many wonders."

By the time Torulf had reached the Great Hall the preparations were complete. Most of those who mattered were there, along with many who did not matter but thought they did. There was a table in front of the King's throne now, with chairs set either side of the throne for the honored guests. Embrikt sat brooding on his throne with an empty seat to his right and two seats to his left occupied by Germund and Steffi. Along either side of the fire pit the tables had been positioned, with benches on the outer sides for the less important guests to sit on. No-one would sit with their backs close to the fire. All were men, women not being considered important enough for the occasion. As yet the tables were bare, no food or drink had yet been set out.

He stood in the entrance beside one of the doorkeepers, who pulled a brass horn from his belt and blew a short blast. The chatter in the hall stopped and everyone turned to watch him enter. Torulf strode alongside the fire pit until he reached the same position he had previously, getting down on one knee and nodding his head to his father.

"So. Any reason I should not just run you through right now?"

"I can think of several, Father," Torulf replied calmly as he stood, although inside he was not calm at all. He had never, ever, talked back to his father in this way in his life. "For one, you would be cutting off the riches which trade with Palarand and the other Great Valley states will bring. Kill me and they would never do business with a man who had murdered his own son."

Embrikt's lip curled. "Why would I need trade with those soft people? We have managed up till now without."

Torulf snorted. "What, my father turning away an opportunity to collect more gold? Now I know you are joking. If whatever Jaxen brought was not enough to convince you, then we have samples with us which certainly will."

His father regarded him thoughtfully. "I was interested by some of the things that were brought by those wagons. However, trade flows both ways. What could we offer? I doubt they have a shortage of fish in those far off lands."

There were shouts of laughter from the side benches.

"Trade is a subject for another day, Father. I will just say that there may be more riches here than you realize and the Valley people will pay good gold for some of them."

"Very well. Your next reason?"

"My what? Oh, for staying alive? You will discover that I am not the man who sailed away. I have learned much in those far lands which will make our lives safer, easier and more comfortable. Those lands have formed a great Federation and it will be the job of the King of Einnland to converse sensibly with them and make them our friends and allies. I have spent much time with Palarand's next King and we understand each other well." He turned to make an aside. "I doubt Germund even remembers the way to the beach these days."

There was more laughter from the benches, laughter which broke off as Germund lumbered to his feet and headed for Torulf.

"Know the way to the beach?" his half-brother grumbled loudly into the silence. "I've thrown back bigger fish than you!" He sneered, "You may look all clean and tidy but you're not a real man, you never were. Why, even now you're only half the man I am!"

Germund reached Torulf and without any further preamble threw a massive punch at his head, which would certainly have killed him had it connected. Torulf, of course, merely ducked under the blow, swung and grabbed Germund's tunic, yanking the larger man off his feet and over Torulf's back - straight into the fire pit.

Germund gave a howl of pain and hastily scrambled out of the embers, brushing the hot ash off his clothes. This put him the other side of the fire pit but Torulf knew that wouldn't be much impediment. It would not, after all, be the first time such a fight had taken place in the Great Hall. He started to draw his sword and then realized that Torulf was not wearing one. With a curse he unbuckled his sword belt and tossed it under the nearest table before jumping the fire pit to attack Torulf again.

Germund closed with Torulf, this time with both hands wide to envelop him in a crushing bear hug. Torulf took two rapid steps towards him and drop-kicked him in the belly before rolling away, narrowly avoiding the fire pit himself. Germund gasped and folded over to fall on the floor, his hands holding his stomach.

Standing, Torulf faced his father. "If you want me to kill him, I will. I would rather not have a death tonight, though, as this is supposed to be a welcoming feast."

Embrikt had been startled by the unexpected turn of events but stared evenly back at his eldest son. "Let him be. Is this something you learned in the north?"

"It is, Father."

"There has long been bad blood between you. If you want to resolve it, do it elsewhere, not in my feasting hall. Germund, do you hear?"

Germund staggered to his feet and turned to face his father. "I do, Father."

"And it seems you'd better learn some manners around Torulf, too. Tonight he has made you look a fool. Make certain that he does not make you a dead fool elsewhere."

The response was sullen. "I will, Father."

"Go and sit down, Germund. If I learn that Torulf has died I will come looking for you - with a naked blade. Do you understand me?"

Germund got down on one knee. "Father, I obey. Torulf will not be harmed by me."

Embrikt stared at him impassively. "Or by anyone sent by you, or with your blessing?"

"Or by anyone else, Father. It seems that Torulf has much to teach us, though it pains me to admit it."

"Good." Embrikt pointed at the tables on the far side of the fire pit. "Go." It seemed that Germund would not have a seat at the top table tonight.

Torulf spoke quietly into the silence which followed. "A point, Father. If I am killed, my death will be learned about soon enough in the Great Valley. Do you accept this?"

Embrikt nodded. "Of course. Such news will travel, however isolated Einnland is. What of it?"

"When Eriana learns of my death, she will set sail from the Sirrel with a great fleet of ships, which will come here and completely obliterate Einnland. Every building will be burned, every man killed, all the women and children sold into slavery." That was stretching several points but nobody here knew that. "Our ships will be burned and the fields salted. My sister values my life in a way that, it seems, people here do not."

That produced a dead silence in the hall. The threat to their very existence, should anything happen to Torulf, was completely unexpected.

Embrikt was furious. "You dare threaten me?"

"I do not, Father. You are King, I will take whatever judgment you care to make. My sister, however, has sworn to King Robanar. She is high in the military of Palarand and has access to people and resources you cannot possibly have dreamed of."

Embrikt spat. "Eriana? She could not even command her own maids! You tell me now she commands a fleet?"

"Like myself," Torulf said evenly, "Eriana has grown up. She now wields a sword I cannot even lift and has already taken part in great battles, along with those who sailed with her in the Visund. Which, I remind you, she commanded through a voyage that sank three of your own ships."

Germund shouted, "It will take more than a big sword swung by a maiden to conquer Einnland."

Torulf gave him a fierce smile. "Yes, it will, and I can show you how. Would you like me to tell you how Vilken died?"

From his throne Embrikt objected, "You told me you were not there!"

"And I was not, Father. Vilken's death was not kept secret, it could not be. Eriana killed him."

"What!"

"Robanar's letters did not explain?"

"Only that he had been killed in some kind of fight, different than what you told me earlier." Embrikt leaned forward. "Tell me, now."

"I will have to give you some background. Lady Garia, the girl who would marry Robanar's son Keren, lived in the palace with the royal family."

"Why?"

"That is a really long story, father, and not to the point. The point is, the wedding was of course a state occasion and many rulers from along the Great Valley were invited. I saw maybe twenty or so. So many came that Lady Garia was forced to move out of the palace to a house she owned in the city."

Embrikt nodded and flicked a hand. "Yes, I understand how that might be. A maiden should not sleep under the same roof as her husband-to-be before the hand-fasting, our custom is the same. So?"

"Eriana also left the palace to stay with Lady Garia during the festivities, which included their Solstice celebration and some other marriages and meetings. The night before the royal wedding, Vilken left the palace with four men, somehow evading the patrols set about the palace walls to protect the visiting rulers. The thinking is that he would believe everyone so distracted by the wedding the next day that he could capture Eriana in the confusion. He somehow found the house where she was staying -"

"Somehow?"

"Father, their capital city is huge. There are many, many streets and many hundreds of buildings."

"Impossible!"

Torulf merely stared at his father until the old man relaxed.

"An argument for another time." Another flick of the fingers.

The Prince continued, "Vilken would have had to find out where to go, without raising suspicion, something he apparently managed. So, once at the house, he left the men to wait outside and climbed the walls and over the roof to gain entry."

Embrikt nodded. "A talented man, Vilken, which was why I sent him. Go on."

"Father, most nobles in Palarand have their own household warriors, much as we do here. There was a man set to watch the inner courtyard at night. Vilken killed him with a knife in his back, coming at him from an unexpected direction."

"Hmm." A dismissive flick of the fingers. "The death of an underling is no great matter. He should have been more alert. And then?"

"He went into the building, upstairs, and somehow found where Eriana was sleeping. He intended, we think, to threaten her with the knife and force her to go with him. Once outside, she would have been secured by the four men. Only, things didn't go as Vilken expected."

"How?"

"Father, there had already been several kidnap attempts on Lady Garia and so precautions were taken at the house. Eriana had with her in her bed chamber a new kind of weapon, which I will demonstrate to you now."

"What kind of weapon?"

"It would be impossible to explain it to you, Father, which is why I have to show you. There should be no danger to anyone here by doing so."

Embrikt considered, then nodded. "Then do so."

Torulf turned. "Men? Grab a table."

Three of the men who had sailed with him walked over to one of the tables and lifted it away from those who were seated behind it. They stood it up on one end, supported by the legs, in front of the doorway at the far end of the hall.

"I would ask the doorkeepers to move aside. I'm not sure how wide the spread is going to be."

He loosened his belt, allowing the Personal Pistol to slide out into one hand while he did up the buckle again with the other. The men nearest the door promptly shifted to either side.

"This is what Eriana had, Father," he said, holding the small object in the air. "I should tell you all now that this weapon, which is called a Personal Pistol, can be reloaded and used many times, much as a crossbow can. Each time it is used it can kill several men at once. However, I have been permitted to bring only one charge for it, for use in this demonstration. Once I have finished, you will know the reason why."

He checked the pistol, forcing the lever over to the far left as he had been trained to do. Then he held it out at arm's length, aiming at the center of the table top before squeezing the trigger. There was a slight pause and then the powder flared. There was a loud bang which made everybody jump and the area around him became filled with smoke, which the draft from the fire pit pulled swiftly up towards the louvers in the roof.

Everybody was on their feet now, in dead silence, staring at the hole, perhaps two hand spans in diameter, which had been smashed through the middle of the table top.

"Hammer of Thor!" his father gasped. "Is that what Vilken faced?"

"It is. I was shown his body and the hole in it. Eriana was asleep and, not knowing who she faced, was barely aware that she had taken her pistol and used it on the intruder. She did not know who she had killed until the following morning. Now do you understand, Father? If Eriana feels the need to return, all her men will be armed with these."

Torulf tossed the still smoking pistol onto the floor. "That was the one charge I was permitted to bring. The pistol is useless now and neither I nor anyone who came back with me has any idea how it was made. You will readily see that a single shot from such a weapon could kill several men, should they be standing close together. I have seen terrible injuries on those unfortunate enough to live."

"All Robanar's men have these?"

"Not all, Father, but enough. Some bear similar weapons that are much larger."

"And how many men does the King of Palarand command?"

Torulf regarded Embrikt with interest. "Do you really want an answer to that question, Father? In the recent war against a local enemy, Palarand fielded some twelve thousand troops against their foe. Most were levies, of course, just the same as we would have here, but there is a core of professional troops of perhaps four thousand, all told. In fact, the palace itself has a guard of around three hundred men - and women, who can fight almost as well as their men can. The city of Palarand has another three hundred."

"Twelve thousand? Woden's beard! And some of them women! Are they all so warlike up there?"

Torulf grinned. "Not at all, Father. In fact, they think we are the warlike ones, not themselves. Their armies are small for a population of several hundred thousand. However," the grin faded, "I would point out to you that the Valley countries desire trade, not conflict. They think that my presence on the throne of Einnland, following yourself, is the best way to make that happen."

Embrikt was wary now. "You talk of being Einnland's next King. Do you seek to depose me and make yourself King? Is that it?"

Torulf shook his head. "No, Father, not at all! I have still much to learn before I consider myself qualified to sit on your throne. I have respect for you as a father and as my King, even if I sometimes do not agree with your way of doing things." He shrugged. "That is your right as King. However, it is my right, as your heir, to be instructed in the ways of Kingship so that Einnland will continue to be prosperous once you have gone to Valhalla. I no longer care to be ignored, the way you did before I left to look for Eriana."

Embrikt stroked his beard. "Hmm. You are not the man who sailed away, that much is certain."

He came to a decision, standing abruptly and walking behind the row of chairs, to come down to the main floor and stand in front of Torulf. His son promptly got down on one knee and bent his head.

"Father, I have returned."

"Get up, Torulf."

Once the Prince had risen his father grabbed him in a warm embrace.

"Welcome home, son. It seems we have a great deal to talk about in the next few weeks. Come sit beside me and we shall welcome you as befits the son of the King."

He turned to address the hall. "Men! Our voyagers have returned! My son is safe, he speaks of wonders in the north. Get rid of that broken table and bring another, then let us have food and drink!"

Embrikt put an arm around Torulf's shoulders. "Come, my son, sit by me. Let us talk of the amazing things you have seen and done in the fabled lands of the north."

"I will, Father, and thank you." Torulf smiled. "I will tell you a saga of how your own daughter, with only twenty men, defeated an enemy of many hundreds and captured a fortress on the Sirrel in the recent war."

"Eriana did that? I did not think it possible! She was a wild child who disobeyed her father and ran away. How was she tamed?"

"Lady Garia, who would become the wife of Prince Keren, bespoke Eriana shortly after she arrived at King Robanar's palace. She taught my sister how to control herself." Torulf paused. "Later, she and Keren taught me how to be a Prince. I learned much in my months at Palarand, most of it uncomfortable but necessary."

Embrikt nodded as they walked towards the top table. "So I can see. Have you other tales? I hear much about the countries of the Great Valley and I do not believe most of it."

"Father, I have seen a dragon."

"A dragon?" Embrikt stopped abruptly and turned to look at Torulf suspiciously. "Do you make fun of me?" He closed to within a handspan of Torulf's face, his expression angry again. "Was all that you just said mere stories? It seems that you have not changed as much as I thought you had."

Torulf took a step back, his face still calm though his insides churned. One mistake was all it would need!

"Father, explain if you will how I could put a hole in that table. Explain how I dealt with Germund. Nothing I have told you today was a lie."

"I believed you, right up until you mentioned dragons!"

Two men came forward from among the crew to stand either side of the Prince, briefly kneeling before standing.

"Great King," one said, "we have also seen the dragon. Your son has told you no lies this day."

"Brinte, Inge," Embrikt said, recognizing them. "Has my son ensnared you with sorcery, then?"

Inge answered, "Great King, we have done only as you instructed. I was one of those who went with Lord Vilken to fetch Eriana, I heard the sound of the gun from within the house she slept in. King Robanar was very angry with us but pardoned us. I also traveled with the Prince when he explored the country with Prince Keren, it was then a party of us saw the dragon."

Embrikt was surprised. "You will swear to this? And you, Brinte?"

The two men bowed their heads. "We will swear by any of the Gods, Great King. We saw the dragon."

"How big was it, then? I cannot imagine you saw anything but a large avian at a distance."

Inge nearly choked on his laughter. "Great King, if the nose of the beast rested on your throne, its tail would be out through those doors." He pointed to the entrance doors.

Embrikt's eyes were wide, now. He turned to Torulf. "You expect me to believe this tale?"

"Father, I have many tales, all true, all can be confirmed by those in my crew. It will take me many days to tell them all to you. There is much you will need to know if you are to be friends with these people."

"It seems I have no choice but to believe. But first, food and drink! A feast for Torulf and the brave men who sailed with him!"



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