* * *
Balfrith lay in bed, on his side, holding his ribs and weeping silently. The last thing he wanted was for anyone to hear him cry, hear him showing weakness.
There was a knock at his door, and the muffled voice of his sister called, “Bal? Are you alright?”
“Go away,” he replied, weakly.
The old wooden door creaked as it was opened a fraction. He lay with his back to the entrance, but he could hear it well enough.
“I heard what happened. May I enter?”
Balfrith sighed, and the motion brought a sharp pang in his ribs, causing him to gasp and twinge. There were footsteps from the door to the bed, and he felt the mattress shift as Aingeall sat on its edge. He rolled over, facing her and the open door, and noticing it, said, “Close the door.”
She got up silently, went and closed it to within a fraction of an inch, then returned and sat back down. “Want to talk about it?”
Balfrith said, “What’s there to say? He beat me again. ‘Sword practice’ he calls it, but it’s just his excuse to punish me. It’s always the same, when my birthday comes around. As if it was my fault.”
Aingeall was silent. He was right - it was the same every year, when Balfrith’s birthday, and the death of their mother, approached. “He doesn’t really blame you, Bal. You know you don’t make it easy for him, either. You’re always getting into things. What was it this time - did you start a fire in the hay loft again?”
Balfrith laughed in spite of himself, remembering that particular adventure from ages ago. He groaned as the laughter wracked his ribs. Aingeall laughed, too, at least until he hunched over, holding his sides. Tears coursed down his cheeks, though he didn’t cry, but she could see how much pain he was in. “Has the doctor looked at you yet?”
He shook his head No, but said nothing, still holding his ribs. They were silent again for a moment, then Balfrith said, “I think he does blame me, though he won’t say it outright. Why else punish me like this?”
Aingeall shook her head this time, and said, “Seriously now, what did you do?” Balfrith shut his mouth, frowning, refusing to speak. Aingeall, feigning irritation, said, “Do I need to start poking you? I bet I can find a spot that’ll get your reaction.” She raised a finger, wiggling it in the air in a mock-threatening manner, trying not to smile.
Balfrith smiled then, giving in, and said, “Alright, I’ll tell you. Did you know we have an old sword in father’s treasure room that everyone thinks is cursed? I saw it accidentally a few weeks ago, and when father caught me looking at it, I thought he would whip me on the spot. Instead, he only sent me off to my studies - but he forbade me to ever enter the treasury again, or go anywhere in his private rooms upstairs.”
Aingeall looked hard at him, and said, “We’re all forbidden to enter father’s private rooms, unless he summons us - even Wilfrid. You went up there again and got caught, didn’t you?” Balfrith nodded. “So really, you deserved your punishment.”
“Nobody deserves to be beaten for looking at a sword,” Balfrith muttered, grumbling. “I don’t even think it’s cursed - I don’t know what to think about it, but it’s just a sword. Well, not just a sword - it might even be magical. It’s a beautiful master work, Aingeall, given to our ancestor Aethelred by Sørkell. There’s no way it could be cursed, even if bad things did happen to Aethelred and our family.”
“Who’s Sørkell?” asked Aingeall, barely following his disjointed story.
“Oh, he was a master smith a long time ago. He made a few great swords, and never sold any of them. He only gave them away, and only to people he thought would be worthy to own them. Aethelred was honored above all others by that gift, and here we are calling it a curse! I just don’t believe it, and it’s such a beautiful sword - I just wanted to go up there and get another look at it. The first time, I hardly got to look before I was caught.”
Aingeall, still trying to keep up, asked, “So you got caught playing with the sword, against father’s orders, and got punished for it.”
Balfrith glared at her. “Punishment I can handle. But he enjoyed this - you should have seen him smiling when he hit me. And in the end, he left me lying on the ground with a cracked rib, and just walked away.”
“Oh Bal,” Aingeall said, and sighed.
They were silent for a while, Balfrith still holding his sides, and Aingeall sitting at the edge of the bed. Finally, Balfrith said, “What if we ran away?”
“What?” she asked, surprised.
“Come on, Aingeall - let’s run away. Did you know that the nobles of Nûmidëa used to trade their sons with the Elves for a time of training? We could go north to Illithëon, and join the Elves there. I would tell them we came to be trained, that our father sent us in remembrance of the old ways. I’m sure they would let us stay, after we traveled that far just to get there.”
She looked at him, one eyebrow arched. “Exactly how far is it?”
Balfrith paused for a moment. “Uh, I don’t actually know - but it’s a long walk. Probably at least a week or two on foot. Maybe we could stow away with a merchant caravan, or even hire ourselves out, and get there faster. What do you think?”
“I think you’re dreaming, brother. There’s no way I am going to run away, and neither will you. Now come on - get up. We need to get you to the doctor. You should have gone straight to him, instead of your room.”
“I suppose,” he said, moving slowly toward the edge of the bed and putting his feet on the floor. He stood with a gasp as pain wracked his sides, then straightened and offered a weak smile. “Shall we?” he said, and offered his arm.
Aingeall took it and wrapped it over her shoulders, to help support his weight as he walked. Balfrith said no more, but the thought of running away no more left his mind than the pain in his ribs.