They entered the provost’s office through a set of tall, ornately-carved double doors, the oiled hinges making barely a squeak as the portals swung open. The provost himself sat at his desk, writing furiously by the sun’s light filtering in through several windows spaced evenly along the west wall. In the sun beams, Balfrith could see dust motes floating lazily in the air.
As they approached, the provost looked up, squinting his eyes. “Hmm? Yes, what is it?” he asked, seeming a bit peeved at the interruption.
Balfrith bowed slightly, took a deep breath to calm his nerves, and said, “Good day, provost Colman. I am master Balfrith of House Aethelred, and my companion is master Eldamir, son of lord Felaranthir, of Illithëon. We come from lord Felaranthir’s presence, and at his advice, seeking your help in a matter of some importance.”
The provost sat back in his chair, eyes open wide as he took in the sight of them. Eldamir had removed his hood, so his Elefdar heritage was obvious, while Balfrith still looked the part of a weary and road-worn traveler rather than that of a noble duke’s son. But now he stood straight and tall, not bent or bowed like a supplicant, rather like one who expects to be obeyed without question.
It apparently worked, for after only a brief moment the provost stood up and away from his desk. Bowing deeply, he said, “My apologies for not greeting you, master Balfrith, but we had received no indication of your arrival. If…”
Balfrith interrupted, “It’s of no import, provost Colman, and we did not send messages ahead to tell of our coming. In fact there was no point in doing so, for we have traveled far and fast across country, and would likely have come upon your doorstep ahead of any messengers. And as you can see from my dress, we traveled incognito - I had no desire to advertise my whereabouts to certain others who might wish to see us fail in our quest.” Balfrith said the last mysteriously, letting the provost’s own imagination fill in the missing details of his fictional story.
And indeed his imagination must have worked furiously quick, for his voice immediately hushed, and he said, “Of course, master Balfrith, you can count on my discretion. Now, how can I assist you, young masters? For I perceive that even your companion, Eldamir, is a youth among his people.”
Eldamir stepped forward and bowed slightly when his name was spoken, and he said, “Aye, provost Colman, your perception is not wrong. You have our thanks for your kind reception, and I will relay to my father your good will toward us.”
The provost bowed again, and said, “And you have my thanks, master Eldamir. For though lord Felaranthir’s name is well known to me from my historical studies, it would be quite another thing, I suspect, for my name to become known to him. But now, please, sit with me and tell me how I can serve you.”
He gestured toward some chairs nearby, which circled a cold hearth. It was warm enough so that there was no need of a fire, but those chairs still appeared to be the most comfortable in the room, and Balfrith gladly walked over and sat down in one of them, followed by the others.
Before he sat down, though, he unslung Branulf from his shoulder, and unwrapped its hilts, setting it down upon a small table in the midst of the chairs. Provost Colman watched the process, but his face displayed no evidence of recognition of the sword. Finally Balfrith said, “Provost Colman, this sword is an ancient family heirloom, called Branulf - have you heard of it?”
Now the provost’s eyes opened wide again, and he said, “Indeed I have, master Balfrith: Aethelred’s Bane it is also called, and some say it was the greatest sword ever crafted by Sørkell. And I have heard rumors of other things about the sword, though I doubt their veracity and will not waste your time with them here.”
Balfrith nodded and said, “It is well, and I’m glad that you have heard of the sword and somewhat of its history, for it is about this blade that we have come to you. Now, let me tell you what I know of the sword, of some of what I suspect, which will be necessary before I can fully explain our need for your help. Parts of its story comes from my family’s history and the things I learned from my tutor, and parts have come to me from lord Felaranthir and his people. For I have spent the last five years with them, studying their ways, but also learning something of the history of Men in the West, and of our interactions with the Elefdar over the years.
“As you know, this blade was forged by Sørkell, when he was at the height of his powers. And as was his wont, he gifted the blade to my ancestor Aethelred, the champion of the king and most worthy knight of Nûmidëa in those days. And I’m sure you know of Aethelred’s exploits after receiving the sword. He bore it for many days, until he was murdered by his wife and her lover, and here is where the story turns tragic. Our family chronicles tell us that Aethelred cursed the sword with his dying breath, such that we would never be able to be rid of the sword, but would be forced to carry its burden until his line should fail. What is actually written is a little different, for it is recorded that Aethelred said this: ‘Branulf, you have served me faithfully all these years. Now do one last thing for your master: never permit another man to wield your power, but rather be a curse to your owners for all time.’
“Over many years, and with much bitter experience, my family has learned that the curse is linked to us as much as to the sword itself. And while we have been forced to carry the burden of this curse, none of his line have been able to wield it. And yet, we have continued from generation to generation, and Aethelred’s line has not failed. We do not have the glory or the influence among the noble houses that we once did, but my father is still a duke, and he is hale and strong even with advancing age.
“And still we carry this burden, though we do not fully understand it. And now I come to the reason why we have visited you here, today, provost Colman.” Balfrith leaned forward now, toward the man seated across from him. “My lord Felaranthir has given this geas to me, and me alone: that I seek to remove the curse from Branulf, and redeem the blade for my family. And I deem it is no small thing that he has asked me to do, for my family has tried in vain to remove the curse from the blade, and failing that, to remove the blade, and its curse, from our selves. But in all our efforts over the years, we have failed, until the blade was hung on a wall in our treasury, and ignored, but never forgotten. It is like the shadow of the executioner’s ax hanging over our heads, and we are helpless to prevent its fall. So now, can you help me? Is there some knowledge, or wisdom, or power that you can bring to bear, to help me remove this curse?”
Balfrith remained leaning forward, looking into the provost’s eyes, looking for some sign that he would be able to help.
Provost Colman leaned forward as well, looking down at the blade for a while before he glanced back up at Balfrith, meeting his gaze. “Master Balfrith, as I mentioned before, I have heard Branulf also called Aethelred’s Bane, and am aware of its reputation for being a cursed sword. Beyond that, however, I’m afraid that there is little I can offer you directly. However, there is one here who might be able to help. We have a professor, Ducca, who has wisdom in many types of enchantments. He may have some knowledge or lore that could help. I will summon him forthwith. Wait here, and I will return shortly.” He stood then, and walked out of his study.
Balfrith and Eldamir only had to wait a short time before he returned. And in his wake came secretary Liliwin, bearing a tray with a pitcher and wine glasses. Colman returned to his seat, as the secretary set the tray down upon the table, next to the sword. He proceeded to pour glasses of a deep red wine for each of them, and served Balfrith first, followed by Eldamir and finally the provost.
Provost Colman raised his glass to his guests, and said, “My apologies for not offering you refreshment sooner, but we jumped so quickly to the business at hand that I simply forgot. Now, I hope this will assuage that oversight. My friends, may you find fortune wherever your path takes you in this middle earth, and may you come at last to rest and peace.” Balfrith and Eldamir raised their glasses to the provost, nodded, and drank.
Balfrith found the wine tart and dry, with a smoky finish, and he nodded in appreciation to the provost, who smiled. They didn’t have to wait long before the professor came knocking at the door. Secretary Liliwin went and answered the door, allowed the professor to enter, and then turned and left upon being dismissed by the provost.
Provost Colman said, “My friends, this is professor Ducca. His areas of lore include enchantments of many kinds, including weapons and armor. Professor, I summoned you here to meet with my guests, for they have come seeking my help with a matter of some importance. But before we share with you the details, I must ask for your discretion in this matter. Please do not share anything that you learn outside of this small circle, for we are being entrusted with certain things that are not meant for public consumption. Can we trust you in this?”
The professor looked around nervously, blinking, from one face to another. He glanced past Balfrith with no reaction, then lingered upon Eldamir for a moment, brows rising, but not saying a word. Finally he said, “Of course, provost Colman. Not a word of what I learn here will be shared outside this circle.”
The provost nodded then, and said, “Excellent. Please, pull up a chair and join us then.” The professor found a reading chair in a corner of the room not far away, and dragged it over to the circle where the others sat. As he sat down, the provost continued, “The sword you see before you is Branulf, also known as Aethelred’s Bane. I’m sure you have heard of it, though you may wish to do some research into the details of its history later. For now, master Balfrith, here, will relate to you its story as recorded in his family chronicles. Master Balfrith, if you would?”
Balfrith nodded, and proceeded to share the same story that he’d just done with the provost. It only took a few moments, and the professor listened intently the whole time, not interrupting. When Balfrith was done speaking, the professor said, “If I understand you correctly, then, the curse upon this blade was spoken by your ancestor, Aethelred - who was no mage or sorcerer at all, but only a knight?”
Balfrith nodded. “Yes, he was a knight, and as far as we know, he had no lore of magic himself. Knights have never been trained in such, as you well know, and I’m not aware of any other training he could have received.”
The professor nodded. “Indeed, it does seem rather unlikely. And yet, my knowledge of curses is limited to those which can be cast upon a person or thing, rather like any other enchantment. Still, I think it will be worth spending some time searching out this matter before I speak any conclusions. For I cannot simply say, ‘This is impossible,’ without first trying such tests and experiments as I can think of to determine whether I am correct. The science of magic demands it, if not my own conscience.” He smiled then, looking at Balfrith as if to reassure him.
The science of magic? was Balfrith’s thought.