Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Little Sample

Well, dear readers, I find myself at a loss tonight for something to write on, and I did promise that I would post every day. So, rather than putting up something not worth reading, I've decided to give you a small sample from chapter one of Balfrith's story. Of course this is still just the rough draft, so I can't actually guarantee it will be worth reading. But I suspect you may find it interesting, perhaps even enjoyable, and give you a small taste of what is to come.

So without further ado, I give you a slice of chapter one...

Balfrith’s tutor Leofred walked into his bedroom on a morning like many others, talking to himself about something. He was tall and thin, with graying hair, and he kept his face clean-shaven like Balfrith’s father. His eyes were cast to the floor, his shoulders hunched, as if he’d just come away from a scolding.

Balfrith smiled, for he knew his tutor wouldn’t do anything to deserve a reprimand. He was much too proper a man for that.

“Leofred,” he asked, “What’s the lesson for today? Elves?” Balfrith had to struggle to keep the hope out of his voice.

“Always the Elves with you,” Leofred said, frowning. “You’ll make me regret I ever brought them up, with your endless questioning.”

Balfrith slouched in his chair, disappointed. “Well, what is today’s lesson, then?”

Leofred smiled, his brow rising, and said, “Ah, master Balfrith, you’re going to like today’s lesson, I promise. Full of swords and battles, and love and hate - and adventure!” When he said the word adventure, his voice dropped in tenor, but increased in volume - like the bards from the city, who told their tales with such dramatic flare.

But Balfrith knew what that really meant: “Not another history lesson,” he groaned. “Father already teaches me enough history.”

“Yes, with his maps and boards and set-pieces, he lays out battle plans and teaches the lessons of war - the most fundamental of which is - Balfrith?”

On cue, Balfrith recited, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Leofred nodded, satisfied. “Just so. But today, we learn not about the lessons of war - at least not directly. Rather, we will be studying the history of your family, and how it rose to greatness in the civil wars of king Numidides.”

“More dates to memorize,” Balfrith grumbled, still unhappy. History was his worst subject.

“Dates, and places, and names - yes. Also swords, and magic, and heroism! Join me at the table, young master, and listen well as I recite to you the story of Aethelred.”

Balfrith didn’t want to show it, but his curiosity was piqued: “Magic?” he asked. Leofred smiled and winked, as he set down the leather bag he’d carried in, and began pulling out a few items from within and laying them on the table.

Balfrith stood and walked to the table, pulling out a chair and sitting down. He reached out toward one of the things Leofred had set there: a section of dark mail rings, appearing as if it had been torn away from the original garment - perhaps from a hauberk. The steel rings were blackened, corroded and pitted - but from what? He looked questioningly at his tutor.

“That, young master, is all that remains of the mail armor of your ancestor, Aethelred. We have a few other relics from his life, laid out here.” He pointed at a hemispherical piece of lacquered and filigreed steel, and said, “This was the standard that he bore on his shield - the boss itself. Note the pattern inlaid?”

Balfrith looked closer, and recognized the gold lion rampant upon green field. “My family crest,” said Balfrith, amazed at the fine detail of the gold lion filigree laid into the steel.

"Just so,” said Leofred. “He was knighted and given this standard by king Numidides, along with the lands upon which you live - where this very manor-keep is built.”

“Really?” Balfrith’s eyes opened wide in amazement. “How long ago was that?”

Leofred paused a moment, thinking, but then said, “You know the answer, master Balfrith. You tell me.”

Balfrith frowned, but thought about it for a moment. Finally he said, “My family’s ancestor Aethelred was elevated to nobility by king Numidides, seven hundred and fifty-four years ago. He saved the king’s life in one of the last battles of the civil wars that almost destroyed our nation.”

“Very good, master Balfrith,” Leofred said, smiling.

“I only said what you made me memorize,” he grumbled in return.

"And it worked, did it not? You were able to recall the relevant facts on demand.”

Balfrith said nothing - he still hated history. But then he remembered, “You said there was magic - I don’t recall any stories about magic in your history lessons before.”

“That’s because I had to get all those names and dates hammered into that thick skull of yours, first.”

Balfrith ignored the response, knowing that Leofred was only teasing, and his attention was drawn to another object on the table: a dagger, with a long straight blade and jeweled hilt. “What’s that?” he asked.

“That,” Leofred said after a brief pause, “is the dagger upon which Aethelred died.”

“Really? Who killed him? And how?” Balfrith asked, interested once again.

“His best friend killed him, stabbed him in the back, for the love of a woman - Aethelred’s wife. They were both hung from a pike for that, by the king’s hangman. A bloody affair - but then the affairs of the nobility tend to be that way.” Leofred sighed, quietly.

Balfrith nodded, but was disappointed - no magic in that story, apparently. “And the magic?” he asked, persisting until he got an acceptable answer.

Leofred exhaled loudly, exasperated, and exclaimed, “I should have known I would regret mentioning magic to you, before we got to the meat of the lesson. Alright, master Balfrith, you win. Take a seat, and I will tell you the story of Aethelred, and of Branulf, his cursed sword.”

“Branulf?” Balfrith interrupted, never having heard the name before.

“Aye, Branulf. It was a master’s work, the creation of the bladesmith Sørkell. It was said he never sold any of his greatest works, but gave them as gifts to those he felt would be worthy recipients.”

Balfrith interrupted again, growing excited. “And he gave one to Aethelred? Was it magic?”

Leofred smiled and said, “Well, there are those who say it was magic, but later the magic was corrupted and turned on its owner. Others think it started as an ordinary blade - albeit the work of a master - and became cursed after his death. With Branulf, it was said that Aethelred never lost a fight in single combat. He even slew the dragon Thoarn, wielding Branulf and wearing that mail there.” He pointed at the section of blackened rings. “It is the only surviving fragment of the battle. Aethelred grew to be the greatest swordsman of the age, and served king Numidides as bodyguard, friend and trusted confidant for many years.”

“Then what happened?” asked Balfrith, on the edge of his seat, fully entranced with the story.

Leofred continued, “Aethelred grew in stature and popularity with the men of the kingdom, a champion for the king and captain of his armies. After that it was said that a shadow came over the king and darkened his heart, for he saw that Aethelred’s stature fairly outstripped his own in the eyes of his people.

“Now in those days, Aethelred had married a young and beautiful woman from among the old nobility, a duchess, as a political alliance to cement his recently gained standing among the house of lords. His wife’s family, though of the old nobility, was itself looking to regain some of the influence which it had lost over the years - and hoped to do so through the rising popularity of duke Aethelred.

“It seemed an ideal match, at least among the politically minded -”

“But what about the magic?” Balfrith interrupted again, worried that the lesson was devolving into yet another history lesson with more names and dates to memorize.

“Ah … yes, well … yes.” Leofred stammered, trying to regain his stream of thought.

He took a breath, exhaled loudly, and continued, “Aethelred was at the height of his popularity, and it appeared that his prowess showed no sign of wavering, even with the onset of age. And men began to speak of the magic of the sword, that it somehow kept him young and strong, and enhanced his fighting ability.

“The king, too, heard these rumors, and it was said that he began to covet not only the popularity of his friend, but also the sword itself and the powers it apparently granted to its wielder. And so it happened, that he conspired with the wife of Aethelred, and with her lover, to kill him. For she did not love her husband, and had broken troth with him early on in their marriage. And since they believed that Aethelred could not be defeated in single combat, they resorted to the favored methods of the nobility of old: treachery and betrayal.”

Balfrith sat up now, frowning, the anger apparent on his face. “But why would they do that? I thought he was friends with king Numidides!”

“They were friends, Balfrith, but sometimes friendships are twisted by jealousy, especially when the two parties are both powerful and proud. For you see, Aethelred was not without his own faults. He had, indeed, become a proud man by his many victories and growing popularity. And he spoke openly and foolishly against his friend the king, not showing the respect that was due to his station.

“And the king became afraid, for he saw that if he allowed such behavior from his friend to continue, it would only open the door for others, less friendly, to do the same. So their friendship was poisoned by the darkness that hides within the hearts of all men, both pride and jealousy. And so Aethelred’s wife, with her lover and the king, plotted to kill him. Aethelred, unarmed and unsuspecting, was stabbed in the back by that man, as his wife watched from nearby and lifted not a finger to stop the deed.

“And when it was reported to the king that his friend had been murdered, he was overcome with grief and wept openly, tearing his royal robes. And then he called the duchess and her lover before him, and he hung them each from pikes in the courtyard of his castle, for all to see. At that time, none knew of his own hand in the affair. But many years later as he lay on his death-bed, the king confessed his role to a Sister of Rialla. And from her, the story made its way to the sons of Aethelred. And it has remained your family’s secret for all the many generations since.”

Now Balfrith was confused, and he asked, “But why would we keep it a secret? It’s not fair - the king killed Aethelred, and got away with it, and no one said anything?”

Leofred, with an ironic smile and a touch of sadness in his voice, asked, “Master Balfrith, who ever told you that life was fair?”

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