Eldamir followed Balfrith’s track as long into the evening as he dared, but even he had to stop when it became too dark to see signs of the young Man’s passage. Finally, he drew off the path a short distance and into a small copse of trees, where he could find shelter from the wind, and perhaps some cover from the morning dew. Drawing his cloak about himself, he lay down in a bed of pine needles and was quickly asleep.
Morning dawned clear and chilly, enough that Eldamir could see his breath puff out in small clouds as he exhaled. He sat up, shivering slightly, and watched as the sun’s leading edge just broke over the horizon. With that, he stood, stretching to loosen up cold muscles, and finally returned to the path that Balfrith had left for him. Sipping from his water skin, he looked around for the last track he’d found the night before. It took a short while, but he finally saw it again, and then he faced south and began looking for the next sign of passage further on.
So began another long day of tracking Balfrith’s path back to his home. Eldamir thought it would be at least another day or two before arriving at his destination, given what little information he had. But he was determined to make this journey as brief as possible, meaning that he had to keep moving during all hours of daylight, eating and drinking on foot, and stopping to rest only at night.
* * *
Two days later, Eldamir arrived at his destination. His unexpected appearance at the manor-keep of duke Osric caused no small amount of flurry among the local folk. As he approached the outer gate in the wall, peasant workers and men at arms alike gathered to watch the Elf. They’d never seen anyone of another race, be it Elf or Dwarf, but only Men. Unfortunately this was all too common throughout Nûmidëa in those days, and Eldamir for his part simply smiled, gazing at their apprehensive faces.
As he came near to the gates, he called out in his strong tenor, “I seek duke Osric, father of Balfrith. Have I arrived at the correct manor?” The guardsmen on the low wall waved him in through the open gates without a word. A captain met him in the yard, rustling and bustling as if he’d been roused from a nap, and Eldamir smiled to himself.
“I am captain Jonathan of the duke’s guard. You have arrived at the place you seek, though the duke himself is quite busy with other business at the moment. If you will give me your name and business, I will pass it along to him.”
Eldamir bowed slightly, and said, “Good captain, I am Eldamir, of the Elefdar of Illithëon. I bring news of the duke’s son Balfrith, and messages from my lord Felaranthir. I would relay the news and messages to him as soon as possible, for they are from my lord to yours, and of some importance.”
The captain bowed in return, and said, “I will relay this to my lord, and return with his response. Please wait here in the yard.” He then bustled off, striding with quickened pace into the manor house and leaving the Elf standing alone. Eldamir could see in through the large double doors, that they opened into a great hall wherein he suspected the duke sat with other guests or business. He wondered if all Men treated their guests in this way, leaving them standing in the open yard under the hot sun, and not even offering a cup of water to drink.
Turning and looking around, Eldamir noted that many of the common folk still stood looking at him, mixed wonder and fear apparent in their faces. He smiled, hoping to allay their fears, but said nothing. His ears picked up muttered comments about spells and enchantments, and he wondered at how rustic these Men really were. How could it be that their race, of all the civilized peoples of Aerde, were thought by his own people to have such great promise? He shrugged inwardly, and continued waiting.
Presently, the captain returned to him. This time, he seemed more calm as he approached, and he said, “Master Eldamir, please follow me. The duke will see you immediately.” He then turned, and proceeded back toward the manor house, Eldamir following.
Inside, the great hall was dark and musty. Though some sunlight filtered through the narrow windows and open doors in the southern wall, the main illumination was provided by torch lamps lining the walls on either side as they approached the duke’s seat. Men at arms stood at attention, lining the walls near the lamps, their swords sheathed and eyes staring straight ahead.
As Eldamir approached, the captain stepped off to the side so that he could face the duke directly. The duke, not looking up from the desk and papers he was reading, said in an off-hand voice, “I understand that you claim to have news of my son, master Elf. Please explain.”
Eldamir, now somewhat discomfited, bowed and said, “My lord duke, I come from lord Felaranthir, bearing messages from him and news of your son. It is some days since I departed the presence of my lord, but we met with a young Man who called himself Balfrith, and claimed to be the son of duke Osric of Nûmidëa. He further claimed that he was on his way to Illithëon, to honor the old treaty between our peoples and to be trained up by us.” Here he paused, for the duke seemed to be ignoring him.
Finally the Man looked up from his papers, and said, “Is that what he claimed? Well, master Elf, I will admit that I do have a son named Balfrith. He disappeared from my home over three weeks ago, leaving neither note nor evidence of where he intended to go. But if he has arrived safely at your doorstep, then I am glad to hear it. You may keep him.” He then returned to his papers, apparently intending to ignore his guest once again.
Eldamir waited a moment, then continued, “I also bring a message to you from my father, lord Felaranthir. He said that if you do, indeed, intend to honor the old alliance, then there must be a trade of sons. I am here at his bequest, to take my training with you as our people did in long years past.”
Osric laughed bitterly at that, a single short bark, betraying the fact that he had been listening after all. He stood up, barely containing his anger, and with raised voice said “Are you indeed, master Elf? And what if I told you that I had no intention of honoring the old treaties, but rather that my son had run off on his own with foolish ideas in his head, and not only that, but he stole a certain thing of value that belongs to me - what would you say then?”
Eldamir stood still, and responded softly, “Nevertheless the offer of my father stands. I am here to honor the old alliance, and to receive training at your hand, if you wish. But if not, then I will be on my way and return with whatever messages you wish to send. And if your son still bears this missing property, then we shall return him, and it, to you as quickly as we can.”
Duke Osric shook his head. “I said you could keep him, and I meant it. I have washed my hands of that boy, and of the sword that he stole from me. If he wants to take the family curse upon himself, so be it. I tried to warn him, forbade him to handle things which were not meant for him, but he refused to listen. I will no longer protect him from the consequences of his own actions. Let the curse fall upon his head - and may my family be free of it forever more. And now, master Elf, I have other business to which I must attend. Thank you for bringing the news of my son’s well-being. You may do with him, or not, as you will.” And saying that, the duke returned to his desk and sat down.
“And the sword?” Eldamir asked.
Osric didn’t look up, but he replied, “If you will take my advice, I should say destroy it, for it is cursed. My family has been unable to rid ourselves of it for long generations, since the downfall of our ancestor Aethelred. But perhaps the Elves have some magic that can overcome even such a powerful curse. And if not, then let my son keep it, and trouble not yourselves any further. The curse will likely remain with him, as it has always remained in our family.”
The captain, still standing nearby, now stepped forward and looked at Eldamir. Eldamir bowed, and allowed himself to be ushered out of the hall and into the yard. On the way out, he saw a young girl watching him from the shadows. She slid back behind a curtain when she realized she’d been noticed, and Eldamir smiled and continued on.
When they got outside, Eldamir asked the captain, “Tell me, good captain, if you will - does Balfrith have any siblings that might care to have news of him? Or to send messages with me, to him?”
The captain paused for a moment, looking about furtively, and then said, “He has two older brothers and a sister, master Elf. But I think only the sister would care to hear news of him. I dare not fetch her now, for my lord would surely notice were I to do anything more than see you safely on the road.”
Eldamir nodded and said, “Perhaps then, you could bring a simple message to her - when it is safe to do so. Tell her that Balfrith is well, and that my father will watch over him. He will be trained in some small part, as he has requested, in honor of our friendship with the Men of old. And in due time, he will be allowed to go when and where he wills. She, and you, may yet see him again, on some future day.”
The captain bowed deeply at that, and thanked him, even as he nervously escorted Eldamir toward the gates. At the gate, Eldamir bowed slightly, turned and departed, not looking back. The people watched him go, even as they had watched him approach, with the same wonder and still a little fear. When he was almost out of earshot, he heard the voice of the captain call out, “Her name is Aingeall! Tell him that she misses him dearly, and that he should return as soon as he is able!” Eldamir turned back to wave, but there was no one there to see it.
* * *