* * *
It was two days later, Freyasday, that Balfrith and Eldamir were summoned by professor Ducca to his chambers. They’d been provided room and board by the provost, while Ducca was helping them, and had taken to enjoying afternoon walks around the campus. It was during one such walk that they were interrupted by a student who ran up to them, a young man with tousled blond hair and the wispy fuzz of youthful facial hair.
“Are you masters Balfrith and Eldamir?” he asked, out of breath.
“That we are,” said Balfrith, casually.
“Professor Ducca requests that you join him in his chambers, as soon as you are able,” said the boy, bowing. He continued, “If you need direction, I can show you the way?”
Balfrith said, “That will not be necessary, but you have our thanks. We shall turn our walk immediately toward professor Ducca. You may return to your own business.”
Nodding, the boy ran off without another word.
It was a short walk across the campus to the building where enchantments were studied and taught, where Ducca’s rooms were. The professor opened the door excitedly when they arrived, and ushered them in, offering seats and insisting they get comfortable before he would share his news.
“What is this all about?” asked Balfrith, growing more curious by the minute. He was fairly sure it had to be good news, because of the barely-concealed smile that Ducca wore.
The professor said, “I’ve found an old book, written by duke Aethelred’s seneschal, some years after his murder. It was a memoir of his service to the duke, from the time that he was knighted through his death, and the years following when he served Aethelred’s sons for a time.”
Balfrith waited, wanting to say something but realizing that Ducca would come to his point eventually, and not wanting to delay it any more.
Ducca continued, growing more animated, “The seneschal recorded the dying words of Aethelred.”
Balfrith replied, “So? I already know what he said, for my own family archives contain those same words.”
“Ah, but here is the thing, master Balfrith: they are not the same words at all! What was recorded in this book has very little similarity to the words which you spoke to me just two days ago, which were supposedly the dying words of Aethelred. Listen, and I will read to you what the seneschal wrote:
“As my lord lay dying, I rushed to his side, hoping to slow the loss of blood while a healer was summoned. But he bade me stop, for he already knew that he’d poured out too much of his life, and there was no hope that a healer would be able to help. Instead, he motioned for me to come close, and write down his final words. I thought that he would give me his final testament, and I suppose it was, but not at all what I expected to hear. My lord drew his sword, the famous (and now infamous) blade Branulf, held it close to his breast, and whispering over its hilts, he said: ‘Branulf, may you never be wielded by murderer or liar, troth-breaker or thief. May you twist in the hands of the ignoble. May you forever be a burden and a curse to them, never to be lost or discarded, a reminder of their guilt this day.’”
“My lord looked at me then, and said, ‘Record this for all generations. I, Aethelred, have spoken my last will and testament. Tell the king, and do not leave out anything you have seen and heard. The king and I have had dark words for one another of late, but I would have him remember me fondly, as I remember him now.’ He said a few other things to me, which I will not record here, for they were personal.”
Ducca said, “He goes on to say a few other things, but this was the important passage. Duke Aethelred’s dying words, even his last will and testament, accurately recorded by his closest servant.”
Balfrith was silent for a moment, not sure what to think. Finally he asked, “But what does it mean? It sounded like his words were close to those which my family had recorded, though I now have trouble remembering them exactly. And it was still a curse. What matter if he said the words in the book you found, or those which were recorded in my family’s archives?”
“What matter? What matter?” Ducca asked, growing agitated. “Words are the only thing that matters!” he exclaimed. “How can you know the truth of anything, without words to explain it? If you weren’t there to see his death, and to hear his last testament yourself - how would you know what he said, without reading words, the written testimony of a trusted witness?”
Balfrith held up his hands, surrendering to Ducca’s argument, and said, “Peace, professor Ducca! It is enough - I meant no offense. Please, can you show me the differences between the words I recited to you, and those written here? Maybe that will help me to understand.”
Calming himself, the professor said, “Aye, master Balfrith, let’s do that. Now if you will recall, the only real phrase of Aethelred’s curse recorded in your chronicles was this: ‘Never permit another man to wield your power, but rather be a curse to your owners for all time.’ But in the seneschal’s testimony, it says this: ‘Branulf, may you never be wielded by murderer or liar, troth-breaker or thief. May you twist in the hands of the ignoble. May you forever be a burden and a curse to them, never to be lost or discarded, a reminder of their guilt to this day.’ Now, master Balfrith, do you see the difference?”
Balfrith shrugged, “I am sorry, professor, but I just don’t see a significant difference.”
Rolling his eyes in frustration, Ducca said, “In your family chronicles it says that he placed the curse on the sword, so that no one should ever be able to wield it, or at least it’s ‘power’, and that it should be ‘a curse’ on its owners for all time. But who are the owners of the blade? And cannot ownership be passed on? And is there a difference between wielding the sword itself, and wielding its power? There are just so many questions.
“Now in the seneschal’s testimony, it says that Branulf should never be wielded - not just its power, but the sword itself - and it even says who should not be allowed to wield it: liars, troth-breakers, and thieves. Furthermore, it should twist in the hands of the ignoble. Finally, the curse is placed as a burden upon ‘them’ never to be lost or discarded, a reminder of their guilt. Even though the ‘them’ isn’t explicitly described, it seems obvious that it should be those who betrayed and murdered Aethelred. And presumably, since it was a curse for all time, it was to fall on anyone who would follow in that same path. Not necessarily upon all of his descendants, but certainly anyone who became a liar, troth-breaker, or thief. So you see, master Balfrith, the seneschal’s version answers several of the questions that are raised in your family chronicles. The curse was only intended for the ignoble in his family, starting of course with his wife. And why would he have cursed his own sons? I cannot imagine that he would have done so. No, Balfrith, I think Aethelred only ever intended this curse to fall upon those who would use the blade for evil reasons, and not upon your entire family.”
Balfrith sat still, stunned to silence, mind racing furiously. Not upon my entire family, but only the liars, troth-breakers, and thieves? He felt a strange relief come over him, and then realized: What am I, but a thief? I will not be able to wield this sword myself until the curse is removed - and do I even have the right to do that?
Finally he leaned forward, saying, “You’ve given me much to think about, professor, and I thank you for that. But let me ask a question: what are we to do with this information? Does it give us any help in finding a way to remove the curse?”
Ducca stood up from his chair and started pacing. “Aye, master Balfrith, you’re asking the same questions I have been. I’ve also been searching some of our oldest lore for anything I could find on curses. I admit we don’t have much, for the placing of curses is strictly forbidden by my order, and because of that, any research into curses is generally discouraged. Indeed, all that I have found seems to indicate that a curse is not the same thing as an enchantment, even though both terms imply some sort of magical effect imbued into an object or person. There are even some sages and scholars who dismiss the very idea of a curse, saying that it is superstitious nonsense. And the only testimonies I have found relating to the reality or efficacy of curses, is hearsay at best and rumor-mongering at worst. So that line of research seems to have come to an end.”
Still pacing, Ducca continued, “But for all that, I do have an idea which we might try, if you are willing. Based on my knowledge of enchantments, we might attempt one or two tests that are commonly used to determine whether something is enchanted, and if so, with what powers or effects. And if we find anything, we can go a step further and attempt to remove it. What say you to that?”
Balfrith nodded, for it made sense to him. He only said, “As long as these tests will not damage the sword, then I would agree that we can try them. But I’ll not risk the destruction of the blade.”
Ducca nodded his assent. “Indeed, master Balfrith, I would have it no other way. I can gather the required materials by tomorrow morning. Shall we meet back here tomorrow, after breakfast? We can then go from here to my private laboratory.”
Balfrith said, “Very well, professor, and I will bring the sword. Until tomorrow, then.”
Ducca bowed, and Balfrith nodded his head, and then he and Eldamir left, to return to their walk out in the fresh air.