Monday, August 20, 2012

Sample: Chapter 3

Author's Note: I haven't actually written anything recently, but I have several chapters that I can pull samples from for posting to the blog. Enjoy!

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It was a two-week journey to the Rushing River, by which time he was far beyond the borders of his father’s manor. The weather was perfect for walking and camping under the stars, with warm sunny days and cool clear nights, and Balfrith was pleasantly surprised at his luck. He rationed his food carefully, knowing that he had to make it last at least a fortnight, and probably longer - he wasn’t exactly sure where the Elvish settlements were in the forest, but he’d heard of their legendary Guardians who patrolled the forest borders, and assumed he would be able to meet up with them, and bargain for safe passage (and guidance) into the Elvish homeland.

The forest of Illithëon butted up against the river’s northern shoreline, and even at its outer boundaries, the trees were hoary with age. An old agreement between the Men of Nûmidëa and the Elves of Illithëon preserved the trees north of the river - no human ax had touched them in many years, though the pact had been broken by Men once, over a century ago. But the Elves came swiftly in their wrath, and the Men of Nûmidëa were effectively rebuked of their foolishness. Balfrith wondered, as he stared across the river, what had driven Men to break their pact with the Elves and try to harvest those trees.

The waters of the Rushing ran strong and fast, heavy with the spring melt. It was fierce enough to give Balfrith pause, and he wondered about the best way to safely cross - or if there was a safe way. He camped that night on the southern shore of the river, deciding to rest for the night and try to find a suitable crossing point in the morning.

Balfrith awoke in the deep of night, the half-full moon shining brightly, and lending a ghostly illumination to everything around. He sat up, yawning wide, and gazed with bleary eyes out at the world, wondering what noise or disturbance had awakened him from a sound sleep. Closing his eyes to listen, he heard the sounds of frogs burbling by the river, and crickets chirping in the tall grasses. From somewhere there came the hoot of an owl, though he couldn’t tell its direction.

And then he heard, faintly as from a distance, the clop, clep of a horse’s hooves! He turned his eyes westward, parallel to the river, and thought he could see movement a stone’s throw away and down the slope. Quickly Balfrith stood, and then he dropped to a low crouch and began creeping down toward the sound and movement, wondering who would be out in the wilderness of the River at this time of night. He didn’t stop to consider the strangeness of his own presence there.

Moving faster as he descended the slope, Balfrith thought he could see several horses walking slowly toward the river. Their riders were dark shadows, as were the horses themselves, mere outlines against the darker background, faintly limned in the silvery light of the moon. He watched them from within a stand of tall grasses, trying to keep his own shape from from being visible in the moonlight.

And then a voice said from behind him, “How is it that a Man - a young one, judging by your stature - stands at the border of Illithëon on this night?”

Balfrith started abruptly, whirling about to face whoever it was that stood behind him, and briefly wished he’d remembered to strap the sword to his side rather than leaving it back at camp. But at the sight of the figure behind him, that thought fled. It was an Elf!

He stood taller than Balfrith, though more slender, and seemed to glimmer in the light of the moon. Balfrith stood silent, tongue-tied, feeling suddenly like a clumsy and foolish youth.

“Come now, Manling, let me at least have your common name so that I may know how to address you. Here, allow me to introduce myself - perhaps that will loosen your tongue. My name is Eldamir, of the house of Lord Felaranthir.” He waited a moment, then said, “Now, it is your turn. Speak!

The last word - more of a command, really - startled Balfrith out of his reverie, and he stammered, “Ah, my name is, uh, B-Balfrith.”

“Well met, B-Balfrith,” the Elf returned, nodding his head in greeting, a sardonic smile briefly crossing his face. “Tell me, Balfrith. What do you here, in this place, and at this particular time? You do seem to be … rather well-traveled.”

Balfrith hesitated, still nervous in the presence of this Elf who seemed just on the verge of making fun at his expense. Finally he bowed, and said “Uh, I am the son of duke Osric, of the house of Aethelred. I’ve come to the edge of your Elvish forest, to present myself for training, as was done by my fathers in years past.”

The Elf, Eldamir, stepped back, stiffened his posture, and looked with sharp eyes at Balfrith. “That is interesting, given that the the lords of Men haven’t honored this tradition in a long count of years. Well, no matter - there is one in my party you should be speaking with, and it is not I. Come, Manling, follow me and you will be safe.”

The Elf strode past Balfrith, heading in the direction of the horses and riders down slope. Balfrith fell in step behind him, struggling to keep up now that they were walking at a normal pace. The uneven ground tripped him up repeatedly, though the Elf did not seem to suffer the same difficulties.

The Elf called back over his shoulder, “Quickly now, Manling, my party has a destination, and some small need for speed. Given your current challenges walking, I’ll not trouble you with further conversation.”

Balfrith, grumbling, said “I’m keeping up as best I can. How can you see anything? The thick grasses hide the uneven ground, even in the moonlight.”

“Ah, he speaks after all!” laughed the Elf, only frustrating Balfrith more. “I can see because my eyes are open, O Man. But perhaps this is a skill which you’ve not yet learned. In that case, your coming to the Elefdar for training was a wise decision, indeed, though I cannot promise that we will be able to honor such an old, and largely forgotten, agreement.”

“You talk too much,” grumbled Balfrith, annoyed at the way the Elf seemed to laugh at him and mock him with every word.

“Indeed it is a failing of mine, perhaps due to my youth,” agreed the Elf, not sounding at all sorry. “And so, I shall speak no more.”

They walked on for a few moments longer, neither of them talking, and Balfrith tripped yet again in the darkness. Picking himself up, he glared daggers at the back of his guide - such as he was - and continued on, running a few steps in order to catch up. The Elf, true to his word, was silent and simply ignored him. Balfrith thought he noticed the Elf’s shoulders shaking, as if in laughter, but he elected to keep silent about it.

Finally they reached the campsite of the Elves, a flat and clear area that had been smoothed out over many years and much use. The river ran nearby, for the slope had finally descended almost to its level. Balfrith suspected that in years of heavier snow, this might be part of the flood plain, although it apparently was not flooded under normal circumstances.

A few tents stood in a rough circle around the outer edge of the area, and a small fire burned in the middle, with people sitting or standing around it. Balfrith heard voices speaking, and one singing, to accompany a simple melody strummed out on a lute. Walking between the tents, he now saw the full group of Elves circling the fire: they numbered about ten.

“Father,” called the Elf who had found him, Eldamir, “I bring you a gift from the Men of Nûmidëa. This is Balfrith, son of duke Osric of House Aethelred, and he comes to present himself for training, as was done in days of old.” He turned back to Balfrith and gestured him forward then, drawing him to step into the light of the fire.

Balfrith advanced closer, drawing parallel with Eldamir, and bowed. “As Eldamir said, I have come to humbly present myself, as my fathers once did in years past.” He bowed low, doing his best to appear noble yet contrite, though in this company he felt as foolish as he was certain he appeared.

One of the Elves sitting near the fire said, “Come closer, Man, that we may know you, and speak with you face to face.”

Balfrith straightened and took a few steps forward, until he was in the circle of light near the fire, flanked on either side by Elves, and with Eldamir stepping in behind him.

The one who had spoken before said, “You are Balfrith, son of Osric, duke of Nûmidëa?”

“Y-yes, my lord. My father is a descendant of Aethelred, champion and bodyguard of our first king, Numidides.”

“Aethelred - I remember him,” said the Elf. “He was a good Man, and served his king well, for a time. But what of you - do you serve your king?”

Balfrith had to stop and think for a moment. This conversation was already going in a different direction than he had imagined it would, and he really wasn’t certain how he should answer the question. “Well, my lord, my father serves the king as a loyal duke. He has fifty men-at-arms in his employ, and all are duty bound to answer the king’s call, should it come. We have a manor estate, and we pay our tithe of food and other incomes each year, as is required. So yes, we do serve the king, though perhaps not as directly as our ancestor once did.”

Silence. Balfrith grew even more nervous, afraid that any poorly worded answer might result in his rejection, and being sent back home. He waited, and suddenly noticed that the night had grown cold, for he was shivering and his exposed skin had gone to goose flesh.

Finally, the one who had addressed him said, “I am Felaranthir of Illithëon, and I lead this small party. We return home after a journey of several days. If you wish to accompany us, I will see to it that you receive a fair hearing upon our arrival.”

Balfrith bowed again, stuttering, “Th-thank you, my lord Felaranthir. I shall not betray your trust.” The Elf lord was silent, but Balfrith thought he saw a hint of a smile.

Felaranthir addressed his party, and Balfrith, saying, “Now, friends, let us rest for the night. Tomorrow’s river crossing will be hard, but we will make it safely across, and then we shall enter our forests once again. And it shall be cause for celebration, for we bring with us a guest from the Men of Nûmidëa.” Balfrith flushed then, feeling the heat rise across his face, and was glad that none could see it in the dark.

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