Saturday, June 30, 2012

Chapter Six, Continued

A week after the *** Elefdar word *** spring equinox celebration, Balfrith awoke one morning to find that he was summoned to meet with lord Felaranthir. He quickly cleaned himself up and got dressed, then as he was about to say he was ready to go, the servant said, “Lord Felaranthir requests that you also bring your inheritance.”

My inheritance? thought Balfrith. I wonder what this is about? Nevertheless, he retrieved the sword Branulf from beneath his bed, still sheathed and wrapped in a blanket. Unwrapping it from the blanket, he drew out the sword in its scabbard, and slung it by the baldric over his shoulder.

The servant nodded, and led him silently through the halls and down the stairs to Felaranthir’s private study. Once there, he bowed and left Balfrith standing at the door.

Balfrith looked into the room, where the Elefdar lord sat at a large ornately carved table, quietly reading a book. “Come in, Balfrith,” he said, looking up as Balfrith waited at the door.

He entered. Three walls were lined with shelves, filled with hundreds of books and scrolls, and a few small odd items that seemed to act as book-ends. “You wanted to see me, my lord?”

Felaranthir nodded. “The time is soon coming for the completion of your studies among us, and I wanted to congratulate you here, now, before the ceremony of your *** Elefdar word *** initiation.”

“Initiation, my lord?”

Felaranthir nodded. “Into adulthood. You are, what, twenty years old this year?”

“Aye, lord.”

“And you shall be initiated into adulthood as a Man. We Elefdar hold an initiation ceremony every spring for our own young men and women. You will join them.”

Balfrith’s face flushed in a combination of embarrassment and excitement, but he nodded and said, “Yes, lord - and thank you.”

“You deserve it. I have watched you these few years, and I have seen a young Man - indeed, you were but a stripling of youth when you came to us - grow into adulthood and maturity. Of course this is only your first step into adulthood, but I think you will do well. And now, I have a request to make of you.”

Yet another surprise. “You need something from me?

Felaranthir smiled now, something he didn’t do very often, and said, “Don’t look so surprised, Balfrith. You will be leaving us soon, and re-entering the world of Men. I have a few acquaintances among your people, and I would ask you to bring some messages to them for me. In all, I have three messages, but these friends of mine are scattered across the West so it will require much travel of you. I can give you maps of course, and their names and how to find them. Also I will provide letters of recommendation to these friends of mine, and to my people in Ildallïe, and a small amount of traveling coin. But it will be up to you to arrange the travel. Is this something you would be willing to do for me?”

Without hesitation, Balfrith said, “Of course, my lord. I’ll be happy to deliver these messages for you.” He had actually been wondering what he would do when he left the Elefdar. He did not wish to go home, but he could think of no other options, so this opportunity gave him the chance to put off making any decisions for a while. And perhaps he would find something to do, or a place to settle in, while he was on this errand.

As if he’d read his mind, Felaranthir said, “Have you given any thought to what you would do upon your departure from us?”

“Aye, lord Felaranthir, I have - but so far haven’t made any decisions. I keep thinking of home - I would like to see my sister again. And I have some unfinished business with my father.”

“Indeed. Well, I may have some more advice for you, if you will take it. But first, I see you brought your sword - good. Please set it here, on the table.”

Balfrith nodded, removing the baldric from his shoulder and laying the sword on the table between them. Felaranthir reached out and lifted it, drawing the sword from its scabbard and setting the sheath back down. Then he inspected the blade, holding it up in two hands toward the sunlight filtering in through a window, looking closely up and down the blade as if he were checking it for evidence of abuse or disrepair.

Balfrith knew he wouldn’t find anything, but still he leaned forward, nervous. He had kept the blade clean and well oiled these past few years, inspecting it regularly for any evidence of corrosion, and of course he hadn’t used the sword even once, so there would be no nicks or anything like that.

Felaranthir seemed to study the runes etched into the base of the blade at the ricasso. Balfrith couldn’t read those runes, but he knew what they said: “I am Branulf, forged by Sørkell”. He knew that Branulf meant “battle-wolf”, and of course he knew of the master smith Sørkell and how the blade came into his family’s possession. All of these things he had learned from Leofred, years ago. Ages ago, it seemed now.

But Felaranthir asked him nothing of these things. Instead, he continued to inspect the sword, from pommel to blade-tip - “end to end and head to foot” as they say. And finally he sat down, laying the sword back on the table as he did so, apparently satisfied with the results of his inspection. Balfrith waited on the edge of his seat to see if Felaranthir would say anything, but the Elefdar lord remained silent for minutes longer. It seemed as if he was pondering something, though Balfrith was at a loss to guess what it might be.

Finally, he spoke. “Balfrith, this sword Branulf. You know that it was forged by Sørkell, over seven hundred fifty years ago, and given as a gift to your ancestor Aethelred. You know its history in your family, and the ill name that was given to it by a later generation, a name that I will not speak, for I will not give that curse any more power than it already has gained. Is there aught else you know about it?”

Balfrith shook his head. “No, my lord.”

Lord Felaranthir nodded his head, and said, “Then this may come as a surprise. Sørkell did not forge this blade.”

For a moment, Balfrith thought that Felaranthir was having fun at his expense, but immediately knew that was absurd. He also knew that Felaranthir would not have spoken thus, if he'd not been certain of his conclusion. “My lord,” he said, “how can such a thing be? Why would someone etch Sørkell’s name into this blade, if it wasn’t actually of his making? The sword is clearly a master work - I would think the actual creator would have wanted credit for it, rather than to assign it to someone else, even one as great as Sørkell. And that would also call into question its history in my family - did my ancestor not receive a blade called Branulf from Sørkell?”

Felaranthir shook his head and replied, “Nay Balfrith, I do not claim that this blade is a forgery, or that Sørkell had no hand in its making – it truly is the same Branulf that was gifted to your ancestor Aethelred. But the blade was not originally Branulf – that is to say, Sørkell did not forge this blade from a raw chunk of ore, or steel ingot. He did forge it, but its history goes back much further than Sørkell's forge. And it was not always called Branulf.”

Balfrith, confused, said, “My lord? I don’t understand this riddle.”

Felaranthir leaned forward then, speaking low as if to conceal his voice from hidden listeners outside, and said, “The sword Branulf has a long history going back aeons into the past, for it was originally a different blade. In the first age of our wars with goblin-kind, in the beginning of Long War, many great swords were forged with the purpose of defeating not merely goblins and trolls, but the Power that led them to battle against my people.

“Among those swords, of which only a few remain to this day, was one called Cammethor, the Hand of War. Long and straight was that blade, and of the finest steel we could forge. Cammethor, and its siblings, were given to the Elefdar lords, my own father among them. In fact, he wielded Cammethor when I was yet a young man and served as his squire.”

Felaranthir paused there, as if lost in thought, or perhaps remembering something. A look of sadness passed briefly over his face, but then he looked up at Balfrith again and continued, “The Long War, of course, never did come to an end. At best, we have reached a sort of stalemate in which my people are unable to completely drive out the goblins and trolls, but they are equally unable to invade our lands in any real force of strength. And it continues to this day, as you know well.

“Sørkell was a student of the Elefdar, much as you are now, and as many Men before you have been. He studied under our greatest smiths for many years, learning the secrets of iron and steel, of purity and alloy, of *** Elefdar word *** damascene, and of many other things. At the end of that time, and because he had distinguished himself above all other Men in the arts of the smith, he was given a great gift: the blade which had once been Cammethor, but which was, in those days, broken in two pieces and without the furnishings of a complete sword.”

Balfrith sat enraptured by the story, as Felaranthir continued, “At first, Sørkell was insulted. But his masters and teachers explained the history of the blade, the great esteem in which it was held by my people, and the reason we had kept it for so long in its broken condition. And having received this one last lesson, Sørkell took the blade with much humility, vowing to reforge it with all the skill he had learned from us, and create a sword that would remain as a lasting gift from the Elefdar to Men.

“And so it has been, though Men quickly forgot whence the blade had come. Sørkell went on to become a legendary smith among your people, but to us, and to himself, he remained always a student, always ready to learn and grow. This sword, Branulf, he finally reforged after many years, and at the height of his powers – in this, he was wise enough to wait until he had truly mastered the arts needed, rather than attempting it immediately and without forethought. I was there, Balfrith, when he presented the reforged Cammethor, now named Branulf, to your ancestor. And it was I that told the story of its history to Aethelred, from its forging in the First Aeon, through all the wars of our people against the goblins and trolls that once invaded the West, and finally unto its breaking in the hands of my father, when he fought the daemon Sharrapu, the Burner.”

Felaranthir spoke no further for a time, clearly grieving the loss of his father. Balfrith was stunned, thinking that it must have been three or four thousand years since the event, and not only did Felaranthir remember it, but he still grieved for his father, and missed him! Though he had once calculated Felaranthir’s age, this one story told in a few words brought it all home, so that he understood, if only in a small part, what it must have been like for the Elefdar, and for all of those who had lived and walked in this middle-earth for so long.

Felaranthir finally continued, telling the rest of the tale. “Aethelred vowed at the time that he received Branulf, to keep its history alive in his family, and to pass it along to his sons. And he was true to his word, for he taught the story to his children as each became old enough to understand. But then Aethelred was murdered by his wife and her lover, and he placed the curse on the blade. Aethelred's eldest son inherited the sword, and he, too, told the story of the sword, and its curse, to his son. But after a few generations, the story was forgotten - everything except the curse.

“And over the years that followed, the old alliance between the Men of Nûmidëa and Elefdar was forgotten, and Men no longer presented themselves before us for training, nor did we send our own sons away to live among Men. Many ill events befell your house, Balfrith, and the sword gained an evil reputation. Its noble history was forgotten, and knowledge of the blade was lost to us.

“We had given up the sword as lost,” Felaranthir concluded. “The lords of Nûmidëa, including your family, no longer wanted anything to do with the Elefdar, and we respected their wishes, though it pained us to know that Cammethor – Branulf – though reforged, sat gathering dust in a store room. And then, some years later, you appeared at our very door-step as it were, carrying the lost sword. I recognized it almost immediately, though my mind first doubted what my eyes saw.”

They were both silent for a moment, and then Balfrith said, “And now, here we are. And you are asking me for the sword back, to remain among your people.”

Lord Felaranthir's eyes opened wide, and he shook his head, “No, my student, not at all! This blade was reforged by a Man, and gifted to another Man – and among Men it shall remain, if I have any say in the matter. No, it is yours, as much now as it was on the day you appeared among our people.”

“Then what would you have of me, my lord? For I am not a man, or a warrior, worthy of such a blade, not by half. Even when I only knew of its history in my family, I felt humbled to be carrying it.”

Felaranthir paused, and said, “It has come to you for a reason, of that much I am certain. For the weapons forged in the Elder Days were created with a purpose, each one, and given names to reflect that. And our people – aye, even our smiths – were known to pour some small part of our selves into everything we created in those days. Even if its purpose was foiled, and it laid hidden for some years through the folly of Men, still it has found its way back into the light. And I must believe that it has returned to us at this time, not by random chance, but by Providence. But the question remains: to what purpose?”

Balfrith was at a loss for words, having no idea where Felaranthir was going with this line of reasoning and not wanting to interrupt him. But after a time of silence, Balfrith finally spoke up and asked, “What about the curse? Could that have something to do with it?”

Felaranthir nodded, a shadow crossing his face. “Though I hesitate to admit it, I am afraid that you may be right, Balfrith. It might not have been Providence, but some darker will, with a purpose of its own. And still, it falls to us - or rather, to you - to find out the truth of the matter.”

Me?” Balfrith exclaimed, standing up suddenly and stepping back from the table. “What did I do?”

Felaranthir raised his eyes, looking into Balfrith’s, saying nothing, his gaze piercing. “You know,” was all he said.

Balfrith stood frozen, in shock. He’d not told anyone what he’d done. The closest he’d come to a confession was at the gates of Fanyamar, on the day they arrived and he wanted so badly to enter this city and remain with the Elefdar. But even then, he’d spoken only in general terms.

He was tempted for a moment to put on a false bravado, to claim he didn’t know what the Elefdar lord was talking about. But one glace at Felaranthir’s penetrating look, and his pride crumbled. Balfrith’s shoulders dropped, and his countenance fell, and he whispered, “Aye, my lord. I stole the sword from my father’s house. I have dishonored him, and I have dishonored you by bringing this thing into your great city. And I have dishonored myself - if I ever had any honor to begin with.”

Felaranthir leaned back in his chair, while Balfrith stood before him, awaiting judgment. Finally he said, “Though you once abandoned honor, master Balfrith, I believe I can offer you a chance to regain it. If you will accept my advice one last time.”

Balfrith looked up now, making sure that his lord was serious. But how could he not be?

“My lord, I will do as you ask, whatever the cost, if it will restore honor.”

“Then take my advice, master Balfrith, and my well-wishes go with you on this errand. I lay this geas upon you, and no other Man: redeem the cursed blade and restore to it the good name that is its inheritance. And after that is done, return it to your father’s house, and into his hands. In doing so, you may redeem yourself and reclaim your own honor. As you leave Fanyamar, and our forests of Illithëon, I bid you go out into the world of Men and seek the truth of this curse, and how it may be lifted. The ways of Men are child-like to us, the First-born, and I know not how you shall redeem the blade. But I do know that if any Man can do it – and I deem it must be a Man, for by Man was the curse given – then it should be you. I suggest you try your University of Thaumaturgical Arts, near Hightower, as a first step.

“I would further advise you to leave your father’s house alone at this time, and return not until after your quest is complete. Visit the university, and then depart this island of Nûmidëa, and venture across the sea to the western mainland. For though I know not how this tale shall end, I think the blade’s redemption will require more than a simple visit to the library. And while you are on this quest, you can also deliver the messages of which we spoke.”

And that was all he said. Balfrith waited a moment to see if there were further instructions or advice forthcoming, but finally replied, “Of course, my lord. Was there anything else you required?”

“No, Balfrith, that is all. Enjoy your few remaining days among us. I shall arrange for your participation in the ceremony of initiation, and after that, you shall depart from among us. I think we will not see one another until that day, and probably not again after, so I wish you fare well, and the gods speed your way.”

Balfrith reached out and took Branulf from the table, re-sheathing it and slinging the baldric over his shoulder. He bowed once, deeply, turned and left his lord’s study.