Some time later, they came upon the first outlying groups of Elves standing, awaiting their arrival. Balfrith was amazed at their appearance, for these Elves weren’t arrayed for travel as his companions, but rather dressed for the ceremony. Most wore long and flowing robes in bright colors, shimmering in the evening sun. Men and women alike glided over the ground as if they floated, their sandal-shod feet moving silently and carrying them smoothly over the swards, and the broad marble avenue upon which they now road toward the main gate of the city. The Elves - Elefdar, he reminded himself - were a beautiful people, tall and slender like birch trees, with hair of gold, silver, copper, or burnished bronze. Their eyes, he noticed as he looked about him, were the color of jewels: emerald and amethyst, jacinth and chalcedony, sapphire and topaz. They gleamed in the evening light like fireflies in all colors of the rainbow, so that Balfrith was mesmerized by it. Somehow he had never noticed any of these things in his days of travel with lord Felaranthir and the others, but he was so bemused by everything around him that he hardly noticed this fact.
As they broke from the canopy of trees one last time and beheld the city before them, down a long slope and filling the valleys and plains at the foot of the mountain, and rising up its sides, Balfrith gasped at its beauty, for it was far and above anything he could have imagined. The avenues shone silver and gold in the waning sunlight, twisting and wrapping in complex patterned knots all through the valley, and across the plains, and even up the mountain side. Lights and lamps glittered and glowed here and there, along the avenues and on the buildings, in preparation for the fall of night. They, too, shone in all colors of the rainbow, and some colors for which Balfrith had no name.
The buildings were equally amazing structures, made of all sorts of materials. He saw the same white marble as the avenues, other stone work in different colors, veined with gold and silver and clear crystal, and structures of wood, carved as if they had simply grown up from the trees to form complete buildings. Most buildings were a combination of materials, and Balfrith began to notice that the foundations tended to be of some kind of stone, with upper walls and stories in wood, accented with cut stone at corners and around window and door frames.
Finally Balfrith noticed the gate itself, and the wall. Felaranthir had told him about it, of course, but he’d completely overlooked the most obvious piece of the landscape in his awe at the city and glowing lights beyond. The land rose to a height of many spans, though it was still lower than the hill upon which they stood looking down. Upon the top of the embankment was a wall of trees and vines and thick shrubs, interspersed with roses in many colors, red and yellow and pink and white. Balfrith wondered how difficult it would be to pierce that wall, and then remembered that it was full of thorns longer than his index finger, hard as cold iron and sharp as needles. Though he couldn’t see them from this distance, he could imagine how difficult such a wall would be to climb without ladders.
And how would an invading army transport siege engines to this place? he thought. The forest cover was far too thick and heavy, providing quite effective protection for the city for many miles in all directions. Perhaps if an army had the wherewithal to cut and burn their way from the Rushing River, they could eventually bring their engines of war to bear upon this wall, or even build them on site from the local trees. But then he doubted that the Elefdar would allow such trespass, not without bringing the fight to the invaders. He suspected that no invading army would ever get within sight or bow-shot of this wall of thorns, let alone within reach to try and scale it.
And then he was distracted from his day-dreaming by the sound of trumpets blaring, announcing their arrival. Balfrith, startled from his reverie, looked about and saw the Elefdar begin organizing themselves into several large groups, lining the avenue on both sides from somewhere behind them all the way down to the wall, and the large gate therein.
Those in front, lining the road, lifted boughs of ash and held them high, waving them as he and his companions passed. “Is this how you are always greeted when you come home?” he asked Felaranthir.
The Elefdar lord laughed and replied, “Hardly, master Balfrith. No, these are here to welcome you. We’ve not received the sons of Men into our realm in many years, and news of your arrival went swiftly ahead of us - especially as I asked our companions to prepare the way. Now I see that they have done as I asked, and more. Balfrith, of House Aethelred, welcome to Fanyamar. You may call it Skyreach if you wish, as that is the meaning of its name. Come now, let us ride forward to the gate, where we shall perform the ceremony of entrance.”
Balfrith swallowed, fear beginning to creep like cold claws up his neck and into his scalp. They rode forward, past the crowds of Elefdar, still waving their branches of ash. He asked, “Why do they lift only ash? Why not other trees, as well?”
Eärolan answered, “These branches are reminiscent of Yggdrasil, the Life-Ash and One Tree. Our people commonly use branches of the Ash as a blessing, a symbol of long life under the blessing of the One.”
Balfrith nodded, not fully understanding, but it was enough to know that they wished well for him. They continued riding, down the long slope toward the flat area before the wall, and the great gate. There, Elefdar soldiers in glittering mail stood before the entrance, blocking their way. Balfrith understood that this was where the ceremony would take place, and so he rode forward a few more paces and then stopped, about twenty paces back from the front row of guards.
As he dismounted, Felaranthir and Eärolan rode past him, dismounting their own horses when they reached the guards, who held their mounts. Eärolan remained where he was - he had no part in the ceremony. Felaranthir, on the other hand, received a scroll from an Elefdar who approached and handed it over, then he turned and walked to where Balfrith now stood. As he came within two paces, Balfrith remembered he was supposed to kneel, and so he quickly dropped to his knees. Branulf, tied as always along the right side of his rucksack, touched the marble stones and forced him to shift positions slightly to keep it from poking him in the back of the head.
Lord Felaranthir drew near now, within a pace of Balfrith, and held forth the scroll. Unrolling it, he scanned the text for a moment, as the crowd hushed to hear what he would say. Then: “Balfrith, son of Osric, of the House of Aethelred, and guest of the Elefdar. Why do you approach now the gates of Fanyamar?”
Balfrith said, haltingly, “I come to learn, my lord Felaranthir. I come to study the wisdom of the Elefdar, to represent my family and my Race, and to remember the Alliance of our peoples. Let all here know that I come as a friend!” The last phrase was spoken in a raised voice, not quite a shout but loud enough for all those gathered nearby to hear.
Felaranthir nodded his approval, and continued, “It is well spoken. But I must have your word of honor before you may be allowed past the gate to our city. Do you, O Man, promise to obey every command given you, by me or anyone that I should delegate to act in my stead?”
“I do, my lord.”
“Do you, O Man, promise to honor your teachers and benefactors, to respect their position, and yours, in your time among us?”
“I do, my lord.”
“Do you, O Man, promise to respect the traditions of the Elefdar, to honor our ways as you would your own, and to live as one of us in all ways while you dwell in our midst?”
“I do, my lord.”
Felaranthir nodded his approval again, and continued, “It is well spoken. And now, I have but one final question. Do you, O Man, promise to conduct yourself as a Man of honor and integrity, keeping your word as a sacred bond, all the days of your life?”
Balfrith paused. This was it - the moment of truth. Branulf dug into his back, a painful reminder of the dishonesty, and dishonor, with which he had begun his journey. How could he continue? How could he answer in the affirmative, and why had lord Felaranthir allowed it to come to this point? Surely he had seen the guilt on Balfrith’s face when they spoke before?
He broke out in a sweat, his hands shaking. He couldn’t do it, not like this. How can I redeem myself? What can I do or say? He glanced up at Felaranthir, who stood before him with the scroll, and looked at him with those piercing eyes. He knows. I’m sorry, my lord.
And then, as Balfrith prepared to give up, inspiration struck him. An image of squire Guthlaf came to mind, keeping his all-night vigil, praying in the chapel with his sword held point-down before him, and leaning on its hilt. That’s it!
Balfrith drew Branulf forth from its cloth bindings, setting it point-down on the avenue, resting in the narrow crack between two stones, and grasping the hilt firmly in both hands. The sound of hushed voices broke over the crowd, and Balfrith detected movement among the faces of the Elefdar as he broke with the long-held pattern of the ceremony. He spoke from his heart now, careless of the consequences. Either he redeemed himself now, or it was over anyway. “My lord, I am no Man of honor, or of integrity. But I promise you now, to conduct myself in all ways to the best of my ability, in word and deed. If you will receive me, I promise to restore that which I have stolen, and repair that which I have broken, if it takes me all the rest of my days.” And he bowed his head, hearing still the whispers and movement of surprised Elefdar.
Lord Felaranthir glanced up at the crowd, once to either side, which effectively silenced them all. Balfrith waited, holding his breath.
Finally, Felaranthir, too, broke away from the formal words of the ceremony: “You have spoken well, Balfrith. And to your promises you will be held, all of them. It is a hard path you have chosen, but a better one than I had thought possible. Rise, and be welcome among us.” Felaranthir reached forward then, grasping the pommel of Branulf, helping Balfrith to stand and put the sword back into its wrapping. Quietly, he said so only Balfrith could hear, “Let’s just keep the sword put away for now. Drawing such a weapon during this ceremony was not the wisest thing you could have done, though I think your reputation won’t suffer too much for it. You are a Man after all, and given to flights of passion.”
Then the Elefdar lord turned about and addressed the crowd, “My friends, let us welcome Balfrith son of Osric, of House Aethelred, into our midst! And let us celebrate again our long friendship with Men.” The assembled people raised a shout of joy now, released from the silence of the ceremony, and Balfrith laughed aloud with relief.
And together, Balfrith and Felaranthir walked side by side past the guardsmen, through the great silver gates swung wide, and entered the city of Fanyamar.