Summer’s high heat followed them the remaining two and a half weeks back to Castor, and it got so bad near the end that Balfrith found himself wishing for the rain to return, even remembering how miserable that had been. They had to make frequent stops for water, both for themselves and for the horses, which took additional time and meant that they had to march for longer in the day than they might otherwise have done in order to cover the same distance.
Roidh was determined to arrive at Castor on schedule - there was no arguing with him about it, and Balfrith watched Calunoth try again and again to get him to slow down their pace, all to no avail. Roidh wouldn’t say why he was so hard-set to stay on pace, but he also refused to argue about it. He simply kept driving the wagon, and if they wanted to keep pace with it, they were forced to keep marching until Roidh called a halt.
In the end, they arrived at Castor on the twelfth of Rialla, Throrsday, and on schedule according to Roidh. In fact, Balfrith was pleasantly surprised when Roidh praised their performance to their employer, Adradomir. And another surprise came when Adradomir gave them all a small bonus: a half-dozen silver double-eagles for each of them.
As Balfrith and Eldamir were preparing to return to the inn where they’d been staying before, Adradomir called them aside to his dining/meeting room. Calunoth waved goodbye to them as he departed, noting that he’d not been invited to the discussion. Balfrith had to give him that: he had a sense for when he was wanted, and when there were private matters to attend where he was not needed. Roidh was also noticeably absent.
As they sat down at the table, Adradomir said, “Tell me, how fared your search for knowledge at the school?”
Balfrith hesitated, then asked, “My lord? I don’t recall telling you that we were going in search of knowledge.”
Adradomir smiled, spread his hands and asked, “But why else would you be going to such a place? If the repairs that you spoke of could be done by any craftsman, surely you would have found such within the walls of this great city. Forgive me if I presume too much - I merely deduced what you were likely doing there, based on what I did know.”
Balfrith nodded and said, “No, my lord, I should apologize to you. For you have proven yourself to be a friend of my lord Felaranthir, and an ally to us. In fact, I daresay that Felaranthir would have wanted me to tell you the full tale of why we are here and what we seek to do.”
“If you wish,” said Adradomir. “I do not seek more than you will give, but am happy to listen if you desire to tell me the story.”
“I do. Let me begin then by saying that our search for knowledge was not as fruitful as I had hoped it would be, but we do have a plan for the next stage of our quest. For the man that we went to the school to meet, named Gregorius, had departed the school some ten years ago and moved himself to Nifflgarde. So now, we must take a ship north to the city of Drakenmount, and thence we will travel over-land to the place where he dwells. And then, hopefully, he shall be able to help us in our search. Which now brings me to our quest, and the reason for our journeys.
“Perhaps you may have noticed, but I carry two swords with me at all times: I have one slung behind my back, in a baldric over my shoulder; and I have one here at my side. Both are of similar type, an Elefdar longsword. I try not to draw attention to the sword on my back, and in fact I often have it covered in a cloth or light blanket so as to camouflage it from casual view. An observant watcher would certainly notice it, and wonder why I have a second sword hidden on my back. But to the casual viewer, it simply fades from view along with my other gear - or so I hope.
“Anyway, that is not the point of the story. The point is that I have this sword on my back that I never use, and never even unsheathe - except in the presence of a trusted few. I will do so now.” Balfrith unslung the baldric from his shoulder, and drew Branulf from the scabbard, laying it out on the table between them.
“Behold Branulf, the sword of my ancestor Aethelred, gifted to him by the master smith Sørkell over seven hundred fifty years ago. And Sørkell received the elements of this blade from the Elefdar some years before that, when he studied under their smiths as a young man.
“This sword brought great honor and fame to Aethelred during his life, but it was cursed by his own dying words, when he was murdered by his wife and her lover. At that time 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.’
“These words had been long lost to my family, not recorded in our own chronicles. We knew there was some sort of curse on the blade, but the words that we thought had been spoken were not, in fact, correct. But when Eldamir and I visited the University of the Arts in Nûmidëa, a professor there helped us in searching out the history of the blade. He discovered a memoir written by Aethelred’s seneschal, which recorded these words that the seneschal himself had heard his lord speak.
“After that, knowing something more of the curse upon the blade, or at least the words spoken by Aethelred, we tried in vain to determine whether there was an actual magical curse upon it. The same professor there tried a spell that he thought might help, but unfortunately he could not detect any enchantment upon the blade, for good or ill. And yet, lord Felaranthir himself did not discount the possibility of there being a curse upon it, and in fact it was he that placed this geas upon me, to remove the curse.”
Adradomir said, “Indeed, that would seem to imply that he believed there was a real curse upon the sword.”
Balfrith smiled. “You have the right of it, my lord. And professor Ducca believed the same thing, which is why he referred us to a professor Gregorius at the School for Learned Studies in Westmere. He said at the time that he wasn’t sure that Gregorius would be able to help us, but they shared areas of similar knowledge, and perhaps Gregorius would have other ideas that he’d not thought of. Anyway, he was simply trying to help us in what way he could.
“And now, as you know, we did not find Gregorius at the school, for he has gone north to study some ruins in Nifflgarde, a place called Draugeborg, which is reputed to be haunted by wailing spirits and an ancient evil. According to his peers at the school, he went there in order to test out some theories that he had developed with regard to hauntings, and the calming of restless spirits. Apparently, he believed that he might be able to cleanse the place of those spirits, and that evil, and bring peace to the place.”
They sat in silence for a moment, Adradomir digesting what he had heard, and Balfrith trying to think of anything relevant that he might have missed.
Finally Adradomir said, “I know it may be too soon to ask, but do you have a plan for your journey to Nifflgarde?”
“Only that we will take a ship from here to Drakenmount, and then march over land to the Draugeborg. We have been told that it is some days’ march north of that city, not far from the ancient highway. We are hoping that the locals will be able to direct us when we get closer to the place.”
Adradomir nodded and said, “Undoubtedly, if it has gained such notoriety, someone will know of it and be able to direct you there. And hopefully Gregorius will still be there.”
Eldamir said, “Aye, that is one concern - he may have moved on, whether successful or not. But if he has done so, we shall do what we can to determine where he went after that, and continue tracking him.”
Adradomir, rubbing his chin, said, “I do not normally have any business in Drakenmount, but I do have an associate there… I’ve not spoken with him in some time - this may be a good opportunity for me to renew my ties with him, and remind him of our long friendship.”
Balfrith said, “My lord Adradomir, you have already done so much for us. I know it is done out of friendship with my lord Felaranthir, but even so, I would rather not be so far in your debt.”
“Nonsense,” interrupted Adradomir. “I hired you at standard guild rates for the journey to and from Westmere, something I would have done regardless of whether it was you or someone else. It was mutually beneficial, and so you owe me nothing. And in this matter as well, I will hire you to deliver a letter for me. I should have done so some time ago anyway, so again, this is a cost I would have borne regardless of who I hired as my courier. It is, once again, a happy coincidence that our purposes are so closely aligned. And so once again, you will owe me nothing when the delivery of my letter is completed. Unless, of course, you intend to refuse this offer of employment?”
Balfrith shook his head, embarrassed. “Nay, my lord, I’ll not turn down the offer of real employment. As you say, we both gain from the transaction.”
“Good. Now, in thinking about it, I can see that it will take me some time to compose this letter. Can you suffer a delay of a few weeks?”
“Weeks?” exclaimed Balfrith.
“Weeks. As I said, it has been a long time since I’ve spoken with my friend, and I must ponder how best to address him after all these years. I care not to explain myself further. Will you wait, or not?”
Balfrith looked at Eldamir, who said, “I don’t see that we’re in any real hurry.”
Balfrith sighed. “We will wait for your summons, Adradomir. I guess we’ll just have to find temporary employment here in the city, perhaps guarding a warehouse.”
Adradomir said, “On that, I cannot help you. I already have Roidh, and do not need another at this time. But if you will wait, I will pay the guild rate and also cover your travel expenses by ship to Drakenmount. After you have discharged your duty to me, of course, you’re on your own. Is that acceptable?”
“More than fair,” replied Balfrith.
“Then I will send for you, at the free-lancers guild, when all is in order and my letter is prepared.”
And with that, they said their goodbyes and left. Roidh, as always, saw them to the door, and bid them his own farewell before closing the door.