Seeing as how I posted the end of Chapter Seven with its mini-cliffhanger, I thought I'd go ahead and post the beginning of Chapter Eight right away. This is a longer scene, at over 2300 words, but as you'll see it was quite necessary to move the plot forward, not to mention Balfrith's character arc.
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Balfrith and Eldamir approached the gate to the manor-keep at a casual walk. Balfrith noticed that the southeastern corner had finally been repaired, with a full tower in place of the mound of stones that had been there when he left. Guess I won’t get out quite as easy next time, he thought, wryly.
The two guards at the gate were men Balfrith didn’t recognize, and they apparently did not recognize him either, as they stopped him and Eldamir from entering, without any sort of greeting.
“Ho there, strangers,” the one on the left said. “This is the manor of duke Osric, of House Aethelred. What is your business here?”
Eldamir was silent, as they’d agreed he would be. Balfrith replied, “I guess you don’t recognize me - I am Balfrith, third son and fourth child of the duke, and I departed this very manor in some haste, five years ago. Please inform my father that I request his audience.”
The guard who had spoken raised his brows at Balfrith’s claim of familial connection, but he seemed to accept it. He only paused a moment before saying, “The duke left instructions should you return - you are to be ushered into his presence immediately. Unfortunately, he has gone on a journey of some length, and we do not know when he intends to return. The best I can do is to let you meet with his seneschal.”
Balfrith felt waves of both relief and disappointment flow through him. Relief, for he wouldn’t have to face his father, or his wrath, just yet; and disappointment, for he had hoped for some sort of reunion, no matter the consequences, and now that would be delayed until some unknown future date.
He bowed slightly to the guard, and said, “You have my thanks, goodman. Please proceed, for I do wish to see seneschal Eadmund, and my brothers and sister after that.”
The guard gave him a funny look, but only nodded. He escorted them through the gates and into the courtyard, where a few people looked over at them curiously before returning to their work. Balfrith recognized a few faces, but once again it seemed that no one recognized him. It’s been five years since I left - and I’ve grown at least a span in height, not to mention adding weight like a full-grown man. I suppose it makes sense that no one recognizes me.
At the great double door of the manor, the guard turned to Balfrith and said, “Please wait here. I will inform the seneschal that you await his convenience.”
Balfrith nodded graciously, though he was annoyed at having to wait outside. Strangers were left to wait outside - not family or friends! Perhaps the guard didn’t really believe he was who he claimed to be. Well, they would know soon enough.
The afternoon heat bore down on them while they waited, and Balfrith found himself sweating, wishing for even a cup of water to quench his thirst. Eldamir commented quietly, “I received the same fine hospitality from Men, once. Is this the common practice in these days?”
Balfrith shook his head once, “Not exactly. My father’s practice has always been to allow visiting friends and family immediately into his hall, whether their arrival was expected or not. He would do the same for one of his peers, another duke or duchess. But strangers of unknown rank or relation are always kept outside to wait. I would have expected the guard to confirm my identity, and then we would be treated as family. Instead, he seems to mistrust my words, and so we wait as any common stranger would do.”
Eldamir nodded, finally gaining some understanding of his previous experience at this very door. “That would seem to explain their behavior,” he said. “Still, one might think your father would have a waiting room for visiting strangers, rather than leaving us out here, under the sun.”
Balfrith said, quietly, “My father was never one for hospitality, especially to strangers. When I was a child, I thought this was normal. But now, I am ashamed, for the Elefdar did not treat me thus, though your father certainly had every right to do so, given the way that I arrived in his presence. You showed much more hospitality toward a young and wayward Man, than my father does now toward his own son and a friend. But let us hope it is merely a misunderstanding - that the guard truly was not sure of my identity. For I did not recognize him either, nor the other one at the gate, so neither of them could vouch for the truth of my words.”
Eldamir seemed about to say something in response, but just then, the doors opened and the guard stepped out, saying, “He will see you now. Please enter, master Balfrith, along with your friend, and proceed to his seat at the head of the hall.”
They walked past the guard and into the cool shade of the great hall, where the sunlight came in through high windows along the walls, filtered though colored glass, reducing its brightness and blocking the worst of the heat.
Balfrith led the way, striding now toward the far end of the great hall toward the familiar audience seat. The seneschal sat there, hunched over his father’s desk, reviewing a document of some sort. Balfrith remembered well such sights from his childhood, for his father had often worked at this same desk for long hours. Though this was intended to be an audience chamber, his father seemed to prefer it to his own rooms when working, at least for those things which did not need to be kept in confidence.
They stopped a few paces from the desk, but before Balfrith could say anything, the seneschal looked up at him. It wasn’t Eadmund at all!
“Aldfrid?” Balfrith asked, shocked.
Aldfrid looked up from his work, barely glancing at Eldamir before setting his gaze upon Balfrith. “Hello, Balfrith,” he said, his voice chilly. The smile in his mouth did not reach his eyes, and Balfrith felt a sinking feeling in his gut. “I see you have fared well, these past five years. More’s the pity.”
Balfrith ignored the jab, and asked, “What are you doing here? Where is Eadmund, and where is father? The guard said he was on a journey.”
“Eadmund retired last year. Father has promoted me to be his seneschal. And father is on a journey, he did not tell me where. He left instructions if you were to appear, though I think he didn’t really expect it to happen. But he said that I should offer you hospitality, room and board if you wished it. I do not honestly know why, as I recall his feelings for you were rather less affectionate than when we were younger. But if you wish to stay here, you may do so. Now, you should answer my questions. Where have you been? And why have you come back?”
Balfrith replied, “I’ve been studying with the Elefdar - the Elves - for the past five years. My companion here is master Eldamir, son of lord Felaranthir. And we have returned - or rather, I have returned - because I made a vow to my lord Felaranthir, that I would return that which I had stolen, and repair that which I had broken. And while I cannot in good conscience fulfill all of my vows, I am here to try and mend one thing. I am here to apologize.”
Before he could say another word, Aldfrid laughed harshly, and it sounded much like their father’s hard laugh as Balfrith remembered it. Aldfrid said, “Apologize? For what would you apologize? For taking yourself away from this house, leaving our father in peace for the first time in years? For no longer raising his ire with your foolishness? For taking the family curse upon yourself, so that I would not need to bear it? For all these things, Balfrith, I forgive you. And I would go one step further - I commend you, for with you gone, our family has prospered. Father is on the verge of becoming a grand duke; Wilfrid and I are being promoted in our responsibilities, as father takes on more duties for the king; and Aingeall has gone to be with the Sisters of Rialla.”
Aingeall… Balfrith felt a longing for his sister - she was the one person in his family who he truly wanted to see and speak with, and she was gone, out of his reach now. He swallowed, and said, “Aldfrid, I am glad to hear that you all are doing well. I have prospered too, and have learned much from the Elef - the Elves. And though you say there is no need to apologize, I can see that the need for it has only grown, not lessened, over the years. I am sorry for my part in bringing pain to our family and our father. Will you please tell him that much, at least?”
Aldfrid fairly quivered with rage, and Balfrith could see that he barely kept it in check. “I will give him whatever written messages you wish to leave. But I will not speak on your behalf. And now, I am busy, and have no more time for you. Do you require a room for the night, or will you be departing immediately?”
It was obvious to Balfrith what his brother’s preference was, and he himself had no desire to drag out this visit any longer than needed. “No, we will not stay. I will leave a letter with you -”
Aldfrid interrupted him, “Leave it with the guard, he will see that I get it. And I will see that father gets it. And that is the only favor I will do for you. Now, leave me to my work.”
Balfrith bowed, backing away two steps, then turned with Eldamir and walked back toward the doors to leave the hall. At the entrance, the guard waited for them. Balfrith said to him, “Please bring parchment, and quill and ink. I would leave a letter for duke Osric.”
The guard nodded, and walked away, returning a short time later with the requested materials. Balfrith sat down at a small table and penned a hasty letter, signed it, and gently blew over the page to dry the ink. Finally he rolled it up and handed it back to the guard, who took it carefully and tied it with a ribbon, then folded it once and put it into his coat for safe-keeping.
The guard said, quietly, “After you go, master Balfrith, I will place it on duke Osric’s private desk, in his chambers, with his other personal correspondence.”
“You have my thanks, goodman,” Balfrith replied, nodding.
The guard opened the doors to let them out, and Balfrith led the way, Eldamir and the guard following, and the guard closing the door behind them. They hadn’t gone more than a few paces when someone came walking up from over by the practice yard, and Balfrith recognized it was his other brother, Wilfrid.
With mixed feelings, he said, “Hello Wilfrid, how fare you?”
His brother smirked, and said, “Better than you, I would guess. Did Aldfrid send you away?”
“He said he was instructed to offer us hospitality, but it was clear he didn’t want me to stay, so we are leaving. I have left a letter of apology for father, and I apologized to Aldfrid personally.”
Wilfrid stopped, and a confused look came over his face. “Was Aldfrid actually polite to you?”
Balfrith shrugged, and said, “I wouldn’t say polite exactly, but he wasn’t insulting. Why do you ask? Were you expecting something different?”
“Indeed I was, yes. But I guess he has left it to me, to speak the truth.”
“And what truth would that be?”
“Father has no interest in ever seeing you again, Balfrith. Nor does Aldfrid - nor do I. We all said good riddance when you disappeared five years ago, and we’ve been happier in your absence. Your return only opens old wounds.”
Balfrith, pained at the forcefulness of his brother’s words, said only, “Aldfrid intimated as much. And for my part, I am truly sorry for whatever pain I have caused you, Wilfrid.”
“Keep your weak apologies, little brother,” Wilfrid sneered. “When you took the sword and fled, father was only too happy to see you go. He sent out no search parties, unlike the previous times you had run away, and he forbade Aingeall or anyone else to look for you.” He glanced then at Eldamir, with a look of recognition. “And your Elf friend, here, came to us some weeks later to tell us how they met you. So we’ve known all along exactly where you were - and father was glad to leave you with them. He even said you could keep the sword, and let the curse be upon you. He washed his hands of you, Balfrith. As far as I’m concerned, you are no longer my brother, and no longer a part of this family. And I hope to never see you again.” And with that, Wilfrid turned and strode angrily away.
Balfrith was silent for a while, watching his brother depart. “I suppose I should have expected that,” he said, “but in truth I am surprised. I had hoped that the years would soften any hard feelings, but it seems that I was wrong. We should leave now, before my brothers, in their anger, may decide to do something they may later regret.”
Eldamir said nothing, having no words. But he remained at his friend’s side, and that alone meant much to Balfrith. They walked across the yard, and through the gate, and were ignored by the workers and guardsmen alike.
Though the sun still shone brightly, a cloud passed before it as they departed the manor-keep. Balfrith felt a chill, and he drew his cloak about his shoulders. “I suppose we should get moving, if we want to be at the university before month’s end.”