I'm going to be honest with you: I am not happy with the following scene from chapter four. I will almost certainly end up re-writing it, so that the final version little resembles what follows. But part of the point of this blog, is to let you, dear readers, see the magic that goes on behind the scenes of writing a novel. And part of that magic is known as the "re-write". It is quite common for a novelist to re-write significant parts of a story, even to multiple chapters of the book. This is simply a part of the draft and revision process, and most novels go through multiple complete drafts before they are ready to be published. That doesn't mean they are completely re-written multiple times, but that the author re-reads his own story multiple times, and re-writes pieces of it each time, deleting some scenes, shifting others around, adding new scenes, and editing existing scenes that just need some improvement. That's part of why it takes so long to write a novel. In fact the first draft often goes fairly quickly, compared with the time spent in revision and re-write.
But, enough of that. Here, for your pleasure, is the first part of chapter four. Please go easy on me - I promise to re-write it and make it better.
* * *
The Elefdar company, with Balfrith among them, met up with a trio of Guardians late in the morning of their second day in Illithëon. Though he’d never seen them before, Balfrith recognized them by their dress and equipment, described in one of his favorite study books back home. Their raiment was composed of a tunic and breeches in mottled greens, browns and grays, such that if they were standing still, they would blend in with the forest undergrowth. They also wore a hooded cloak in the same random pattern. Each one carried the famed Elvish longbow, as tall as (and sometimes taller than!) the Guardian himself, thick at the middle and tapering out to a narrow tip at each end. They also each wore an Elvish longsword at the hip. Balfrith remembered studying both weapons, and what was known of Elvish tactics, under his father’s and Leofred’s guidance. Now, he looked forward to learning under the hand of actual Elves.
The Guardians spoke briefly with lord Felaranthir, jogging alongside his horse and speaking quietly in their native tongue, never breaking stride or appearing out of breath as they went. After a brief conversation, the leader nodded, and the three loped off into the forest, splitting up so that one went on ahead, while the other two went away to either flank along their path.
Balfrith rode among a group of younger Elves including his new friend Eärolan. As Balfrith suspected, Eärolan confirmed, saying, “Lord Felaranthir has sent them out to protect our flanks and scout ahead. I doubt that he expects any dangers along our path, but it is always a comfort to have Guardians accompany us.”
Balfrith nodded in agreement.
The remainder of that day, and the next seven after that, passed quickly. Balfrith kept himself busy helping Eärolan with his camp duties in the mornings and evenings, and the two chatted casually throughout the days of riding, with each other and with Eärolan’s friends. However, though they spent much time together, Balfrith never quite got the feeling that he was making friends with these Elves. They seemed to have a stand-offish attitude, as if they didn’t want to become overly familiar with a Man. Eldamir hadn’t seemed that way, in fact he’d been quite friendly from the first moment they met, albeit with an ironic sense of humor that bordered on mockery. But at least Balfrith had felt that there was some empathy between them, as if they were peers from different realms, with an understanding that they shared similar sensibilities. With Eärolan and his companions, it felt more like Balfrith was a child and they were adults, mildly amused at his attempts to appear more “grown up” than he actually was, and not willing to admit him into their more mature discussions. So, they were left largely with talk of inane matters, things of no real import.
Late on the seventh day, as the sun’s light dimmed under the thick canopy of trees, and as the company crested a slow rise in the midst of the forest, the Guardians appeared all at once, as if summoned. Lord Felaranthir called out to the company, “My friends, we fast approach the entrance to our realm, and no Man has crossed our inner gates in a long count of years. I would therefore stop here a short while and rest, before we continue on. I will speak with our companion Balfrith, and explain a few things ere we come to the gates. The rest of you, all except Eärolan, may continue on, and prepare the welcome ritual for new students. Eärolan, Balfrith and I will come along more slowly, and arrive at the threshold of our borders by the end of the week.”
Balfrith dismounted his horse, stretching his legs and back and walking around a bit to loosen tired and aching muscles. Looking about, he noted that none of the others had elected to rest even briefly, but rather continued on, talking and laughing gaily with one another. His heart yearned to go with them, but if the Elf lord wished to speak privately with him, he thought it must be important. I wonder where lord Felaranthir’s son, Eldamir, went - and what was his errand?
Felaranthir had also dismounted by this time, and left his horse to graze freely among the undergrowth. Balfrith watched as he walked a few paces away, and sat down upon a large rock that seemed almost to have been carved into the shape of a chair. Gesturing to Balfrith, he waved him over. Balfrith went, obediently, growing nervous as he approached the Elf lord.
“Come Balfrith, stand before me here,” said Felaranthir, gesturing for Balfrith to stand directly before him. Balfrith did as he was told, trying to calm his nerves.
The Elf lord looked him up and down, taking his time. Balfrith shivered, wondering what those eyes saw: he did his best to put up the front of a confident young Man, but he somehow knew that this Elf could see through that disguise. Nevertheless, what did he see? He wondered.
“Balfrith, as it was done in days of old, so now I give you this last chance, and choice. If you choose to follow me, you will go into darkness and shadow, whence you may not return. I promise that you will taste death - and I cannot promise that you will survive the experience. If you should survive, you will be the stronger for it, and death will have no hold over you. Though the price be dear, you will fear neither darkness, nor the shadow of death, for the rest of your days. But you will face your mortality, and you may not walk away from the experience. If you choose not to take this risk, you may instead return home. There will be no loss of honor, for my people will speak of it to none, and you may tell your family whatever you wish regarding your brief time with us. This is not a choice to be made lightly, and there have been many Men before you who returned home without ever seeing the hidden realm of Illithëon. It is my judgment that many of these made the correct choice, and went on to attain a measure of honor among Men in accordance with their strength. And so, it is now your turn to make the same choice. But first, I give you leave to ask me whatever questions you will, and I will answer as I may - but there are some secrets that may only be known to those who dare to enter Illithëon and face their mortality. Ask, as you will.”
Balfrith stood still, watching the Elf lord, trying to figure out what all of this meant. His tutor, Leofred, had never mentioned such a choice, or the threat of death that was laid upon him now should he continue along this path. What should he do? He didn’t want to die - but he also didn’t want to run away from this challenge - and he certainly didn’t want to return home!
Finally deciding to face his fear head-on, Balfrith asked, “My lord, what did you mean when you said I would taste death?”
“All Men die, some sooner than others. Is this not so?”
“Yes, but then you said you couldn’t promise that I would survive the experience. No man survives death - what did you mean by that?”
Felaranthir sighed impatiently and said, “If you taste a measure of death, it may not in the end kill you. But I cannot promise that you will survive, either. I cannot shield you from all risks, and there are risks and dangers aplenty even in the forests of Illithëon. No man is guaranteed a number of days in this middle-earth, nor can any man change his fate. If your wyrd is to cross the threshold of death’s door, then I cannot call you back. But if it is merely to stand and look across, then perhaps you shall remain in this world for a while longer. And that is all I will answer on the topic. Do you have any other questions?”
Balfrith thought for a while. He still wasn’t satisfied with the answers to his first questions, but it was clear that Felaranthir would brook no further inquiry on that particular topic. After letting his mind wander along the possibilities he now faced, he asked, “What will you teach me while I’m with you?”
At this, Felaranthir leaned back in his chair, relaxed a bit, and answered, “You will study with the young men of our people, the same things that we teach them - history, and philosophy, the use of sword and bow, matters of law, and of ethics. In the few years that you will be with us - no more than five - we won’t be able to teach you everything, but you will get a taste of Elefdar wisdom, and if you are a good student, I promise that even that small amount will be to your great benefit.”
Balfrith nodded then, reasonably satisfied. He probably won’t give me any more details anyway. “Thank you, my lord. I have no other questions.”
Felaranthir nodded. “Then I have a question for you, before we continue. Will you pledge yourself to be a good guest of my people, to apply your best efforts as a student, to learn the ways of the Elefdar and to respect our traditions, and to be a Man of honor all the days that you dwell among us?”
Balfrith hesitated a moment, feeling a twinge of guilt at the thought of the stolen sword, but he pushed it aside and said, “I do so pledge, my lord.”
Felaranthir leaned forward in his chair, and continued, “Then, master Balfrith, I will ask you some additional questions. First, how much do you know about this old tradition, of the sons of Men being trained by the Elefdar?”
“Well, my lord, I know that it is an old tradition, and I have heard that is is no longer practiced any longer by our peoples. I understood that young Men would be sent off to live with the Elves for five years, to be trained in Elvish arts and sciences. It was once considered a mark of great honor among Nûmidëan nobility, for a son to be accepted for training. Many were sent, but few were accepted, and fewer still completed the full five years of training. I had hoped - that is, my father hoped - to revive this tradition and reestablish our ties with the Elefdar.” Balfrith twinged inwardly at this slip, and he hoped the Elf lord didn’t notice.
“I see. And your father - tell me about him.”
Balfrith paused, thinking about what he could say that would reflect positively on himself, and still be truthful. “My father, Osric, is a strong man. He taught my brothers and me most of what we know about war and history. But he spends most of his time managing our estates, so I don’t see him much. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t even yet noticed my departure, even though I’ve talked about it a few times.” That wasn’t too far from the truth. “Still, I think he’ll be glad that I went out like this, to study and live with the Elefdar.”
“Will he, indeed?” said Felaranthir, thoughtfully. The Elefdar lord’s eyes seemed to pierce right through Balfrith, and he squirmed uncomfortably under that gaze. Felaranthir continued, “As I recall, you mentioned that you are of house Aethelred. What do you know of your family’s namesake?”
Balfrith suddenly found he was grateful for Leofred’s history lessons, and for having to memorize all those names and dates. “Admittedly not much, my lord. I know that he served our king Numidides over seven hundred and fifty years ago, and that he was the king’s bodyguard and champion for many years. I know he fought a dragon - Thoarn I think it was called - and that he was betrayed and murdered by his own wife.”
“And what do you know of Branulf?” asked Felaranthir.
“Branulf, my lord?” Balfrith felt the heat rising in his face. Oh gods, please don’t ask me about that!
Felaranthir leaned forward in his chair, looking shrewdly at Balfrith for a moment. “You’ve never heard of the sword, Branulf?”
Balfrith swallowed, his pulse pounding in his ears. “Oh, that sword,” he said, thinking furiously. “That was the one that Aethelred received from Sørkell, if I remember my history lessons. I think my tutor told me it was cursed.”
“Cursed?” exclaimed Felaranthir, clearly surprised. “Well, that is interesting.” He paused for a moment, thinking, then said in a voice that would brook no debate, “Bring me your sword, Balfrith, the one you would have left behind were it not for my son.”
Balfrith blanched - he was caught out, and he knew it. Well, there’s nothing for it now, he thought. I might as well get this over with, and prepare to be sent home. He walked over to where his things lay, near Eärolan’s own gear, and pulled out the sword still wrapped in its woolen cloth cover. Returning to Felaranthir, he held it forth for the Elf lord to take.
Felaranthir grasped the wrapped blade and laid it in his lap, then unwound the cloth to reveal the sword. He held it up, the hilt in one hand and the blade cradled across his arm, tilting this way and that to see it from all angles. Finally he said, “You know what blade this is.”
Balfrith swallowed. “Yes, my lord - it is Branulf.”
“And you say it is cursed?”
“Well, my lord, that’s what my tutor Leofred told me. And my father, too. They seem to think so.”
“And you, Balfrith. What do you think?”
Balfrith paused, then said, “I don’t know what to think, my lord Felaranthir. It is a master’s work, created by Sørkell, a long time ago. And yet the blade and hilt are still in pristine condition even after all these years. That could be accounted for by proper care, but the sword is also balanced perfectly - better than any blade I’ve ever held. Not that I’ve held or used a lot of swords, but still, there’s something about it. It’s not as fancy as some blades I’ve seen carried by noblemen, with jewels encrusted in the hilt and even the blade, but it has a beauty of its own, in its simplicity, in the quality of its materials, as well as the quality of the workmanship. My father says that bad things have happened to our family ever since the curse came upon the blade. Leofred, too, told me some stories. I don’t know what to think. Perhaps it is cursed, and the beauty is there in spite of that. If the curse came upon it after it was made, then I suppose its good qualities would remain even though the curse was in effect. I can’t argue with the history of my family and what has happened.”
“I see. Well, perhaps this is a conversation for later. Now…” Felaranthir paused, and seemed to stare deeply into Balfrith for some minutes. Balfrith stirred uncomfortably, but that gaze held him in place, unable to go anywhere. He looked around, unwilling to meet the Elf lord’s eyes, but not sure where to place his own. Finally Felaranthir nodded, sat back in his seat, and said, “It is enough. Let us rest now, and eat. The remainder of our journey should only take a few days, but in that time I will prepare you for the ceremony of entrance. This will be your first test, to prove your worthiness to be a student of the Elefdar. If you fail that test, you will never cross our threshold. Our Guardians will escort you home, but none will say what transpired here, and you will be free to explain your early return to your father as you wish. I will only hold you to your word, to be honorable in what you say about the Elefdar and your experiences among us.”
Balfrith stood there, dumbstruck - That was all? He was sure he’d been caught in his own lies, but lord Felaranthir stopped his questioning just when Balfrith was preparing himself to tell the truth, or as much of it as he needed to. He didn’t think he’d be able to tell the whole truth, since that would require telling the truth about his father, and the arguments, and his running away. He didn’t think he could face that just yet, not with a stranger - not even one such as this.
He sighed in relief, finally relaxing somewhat from his previous tense stand before the Elf lord. I miss Aingeall.