Aliénor looked out over the valley of the River Ithil. The river flowed south-east, to her right, through a knot of blue hills, beyond which it joined the turbulent Andwin, and emptied into the Loire River near Angers. The flood plain was a field of wheat which stretched to both horizons; the River’s banks were vineyards dotted with villeins paying their labor duty. In her immediate vicinity other peasants were working under the direction of a dozen journeymen to construct stages and tents for next Sunday’s wedding. Normally on such beautiful days the villeins were lethargic. But it had been a bitter, cold winter and most were happy to be moving in the sun, even if today only their Lady profited from their labor.
A cloud of dust appeared on the south-east side of the plain, floating just above the Toulouse road. Aliénor had been waiting for this: the Riders had arrived. She signaled for her Marshall to mobilize the Home Guard.
The flood plain of the Ithil is famously wide where it joins the Andwin, so it took the better part of the morning for the cloud of dust to resolve into a cohort of knights, divided into three companies identified by their banners: the ladder of Gideon, the lion of Shem, and the white bull of Seleucus Nicator. They all rode under the banner of Bactria, which was a flaming golden ring set against a field of sky blue. The knights were followed by a wake of pack animals, wagons, retainers and a rear-guard of mounted archers.
The Riders disappeared into the Arden Glade, a hunting forest which followed the River from the ruins of Os’ Gilieth to the Bridge of Cuts. When they re-emerged they marched in single file, leading their horses by thin metallic reins. They were followed by a flock of madly cawing black birds of a type not found in the Duchy of Mortain. The birds sounded possessed, their screeches harshly dissonant in the calm afternoon air.
Aliénor walked to the edge of the verge which marked the south-east section of the chateau lawn. Even though she could not converse with any animal, she could easily deduce meaning from the terror in the birds’ cries. They were warning the world of the approach of a great evil.
The Bridge of Cuts was guarded by a cylindrical brick tower defended by ten archers. The Riders stopped in front of it, but did not relax their guard, nor did they begin to raise a camp. They simply waited while their leader, accompanied by twelve knights in light armor, six men and six women, approached the barred metal gate which controlled access to the Bridge. The portcullis was raised with the sound of metal scraping metal: the Lady had already given instructions for them to be let through.
From a distance the Riders’ mithraël armor gleamed in the sun. From up close their armor was bent and scuffed; their exhaustion so intense it wearied the senses to perceive it. Their leader was a tall, gaunt, dark-haired man with scarred, chiseled features and tired eyes. He approached the Lady Ithilæn followed by his entourage.
The Chamberlain, Gui de Ruisseau , at Aliénor’s right hand, leaned over and said in a thin, nasal voice, “Disarm them!” He gave his advice like an order, as he always did with women. The Lady Ithilæn looked at him in disbelief. Gui was a florid, fat knight. Despite the weather, he wore a heavy crimson velvet cape, lined with ermine and trimmed with a sable collar. It stank. She looked at him for signs of deceit, but he was not hiding anything. The fool, she thought. He has no idea that these Riders are haffen-ælf. She said, “Good Sir Knight please notice how proud these warriors are. They will not let us disarm them. I am certain they mean me no harm, so why the bother? Kindly escort their leader and his entourage onto the lawn. The rest of our guests can camp in the glade upstream from Arden Glade.”
“What do you mean entourage?” The Chamberlain was dull but precise.
The Lady turned to face the Riders, “That man”, she nodded at a tall, lank Amharite. His dark brown hair was curly; his thick grey beard was cut short, and square. He who wore light armor caste in a Roman style: two breastplates held together at the shoulder and waist by straps. The sigil which adorned his mantle was a lion. The lion’s mane looked like sun-rays; its golden color offset prominently against a field of crimson. “And those two”. She indicated the leaders of the other two companies: an olive-skinned, sinewy woman who only wore leather armor; and a tall, wan albino with snow white hair and red eyes. The albino wore brightly polished mithraël chain-mail on which was emblazoned the image of a white bull against a stylized sun; the women’s sigil was a ladder.
One company of archers, and a second of foot-soldiers, took their positions on the east side of the River, within range of the Riders. The rest of the foot-soldiers were assigned to crowd-control. They set up a cordon to block the crowd of on-lookers from trampling on the Château lawn. Aliénor watched as they did so, proud that her soldiers looked sharp in their green, black and white uniforms. Their pomp and discipline allayed her dread for but a moment. She feared this meeting. No, she corrected herself. The fear wasn’t hers. Her guests brought fear with them.
The Chamberlain said “Very good”, bowed slightly and withdrew to implement the Lady’s will. Her commands were always very good to the Chamberlain. He was Duke John’s man so his job was to spy and undermine and redirect Lady Ithilæn’s policies, but never to directly oppose them. de Ruisseau shuffled over to the Captain of the Home Guard, a pious yet violent Christian who followed the fanatic Durand. Two pages, twins from the de Blois family, attended him. They were boys of no more than 10 years who wore leggings, and brown woolen tunics which came down to their thighs. After a few words with the Chamberlain, the Captain and his attendants cantered on their horses over to where the Home Guard awaited the Chamberlain’s orders.
The Bactrian leader had a groomed white and black beard, and dark gray eyes. He stepped onto the Château lawn. The moment he did so Aliénor heard a voice in her head,
The children of Ailronde and Galadraël are pleased to meet you, Arwen’s daughter.
Introduce yourself, Sir Knight, the Lady replied.
I am Dmitrius son of Heliocles, grandson of Ailronde and last King of the Bactrians.
Welcome cousin. Who accompanies you?
The female haffen-ælf replied with a thought, I am Jothamela, the youngest child of Gideon.
Hence the ladder.
Jothamela nodded her head and replied, Like my father, I strive for heaven. She stood beside a steed which had a copper-red pelt and markings like flames. She was short for a haffen-ælf but as tall as any member of the Ithilæn Home Guard. She had olive skin, dark brown eyes and straight jet black hair, cut bluntly across her forehead. Although fine boned she had pronounced muscles, which were taut because of the force she was exerting to control her anxious mount. Jothamela’s aura was an unsteady mixture of purple and crimson. Aliénor sensed that some kind of powerful magic had attached itself to her and wondered whether she had the ability to wield it.
The third haffen-ælf had a deep yellow aura. He had short curly white hair, maroon-red eyes and skin so fair he disappeared in the glare of direct sunlight, like a white shadow. His mount, untethered and unsaddled, was mottled white and black. He introduced himself with a thought, I am Hephestion, grand-child of Galadraël. I conquered the world with Alexander and captured …
Hephestion punctuated his sentence with a serene, slight smile but did not complete it.
As the three haffen-ælves introduced themselves, the companies they led spread out along the far shore of the Ithil, from the Arden Glade to the dusty market huddled in front of the Bridge of Cuts. The haffen-ælves were tall, lank, muscular and alert, varying not so much in their manner and dress as in the color of their hair, skin and eyes. Most wore light, polished mithraël armor, which sparkled crimson-silver in the afternoon sunlight, although several were dressed like Jothamela, in leather armor and sandals. Despite looking like they had fought in dozens of battles, or more accurately like a people who had never known peace, few of the haffen-ælves had visible scars; most had soft, blemishless skin.
The Chamberlain, who was once again hovering by the Lady’s right hand, rose solemnly, floated across the lawn toward Dmitrius, his swift small steps hidden by his cloak’s fur trim. As he did so, the Ithilæn bow-men cocked their weapons.
The Bactrian walked slowly and silently onto the lawn to meet him. The crowd of villeins and craftsmen strained to see him; barely held back by knocks from the cudgels wielded by the Lady’s foot-soldiers. The soldiers were dressed in leather jerkins on which were emblazoned images of a white cat with green eyes, the sigil of House Ithil. The crowd’s chatter was incessant, insistent, but not loud.
A spring on an Ithilæn archer’s crossbow broke with a loud, metallic twang, causing a bolt to fly askew toward the foreign knights. One of them, a tall, fine-boned woman from Shem’s company flung a grappler at the arrow, knocking it to the ground. The Lady Ithilæn shouted, “Lower your bows”. Her archers obeyed, though many looked to the Chamberlain for a countermanding order before they did so. The haffen-ælves looked on, alert and implacable.
The Chamberlain retained his poise but was shaken. While he considered what to do next the Lady gathered her linen skirts and rose with the earnest assistance of her two attendants, Celeste Innocente, the eldest daughter of Hainault and her companion, a vain, forgettable niece of France. The Lady, who was now beside the Chamberlain, spoke in a loud voice to both the Riders and her people, “Welcome. My name is Aliénor , the Lady Ithilæn. My liege Lord is John Plantagenet, Duke of Mortain, among other titles. This man” she nodded to the Chamberlain, “is Gui de Ruisseau. He is my Chamberlain, though is sworn to my lord Duke John not to me. And this man”, she motioned to the scarred, gaunt soldier to her left, “is Sir Alain de Caen, my Marshall”.
Dmitrius bowed to the Lady and the to her men. The Chamberlain acknowledged his bow with a slight nod of his head; the Marshall’s bow was deeper and more respectful. Aliénor responded to Dmitrius’ formal greeting with a shallow curtsy.
To the surprise of all, the Bactrian knight turned his back to the Lady, beside whom he now stood, and addressed the assembled crowd in Frankish. The crowd, despite the vigilance of the Lady’s Home Guard, had pushed onto the lawn, so many were within arms length of him and reached out to touch him, as if he were a saint. He said in a loud voice, “My name is Dmitrius Eucratides of House Euthydemus. I am a great hero.” The Chamberlain scoffed quietly to himself as the Bactrian spoke these grand words, but the crowd murmured with excited awe. The Marshall stepped forward to hear better.
Dmitrius walked along the edge of the crowd, graceful and lithe despite his armor. As he strode, he detached a rough bag from his belt, which he displayed to the crowd, and then presented to Aliénor with a flourish. Though the spring afternoon was clear and fair, and the air clean and warm there was a force that surrounded the knight, an evil hum that beat the air around him.
Aliénor was deafened by a blast of silent noise. The Marshall, who stood to her left, caught her as she swooned. The harsh grip of his strong right hand sent a jolt of pain up her arm and brought her back to her senses. He eyed her quizzically, uncertain what had just happened. “Thank you” she whispered breathlessly. She collected herself and anxiously surveyed the scene. No one else had noticed her stumble – all eyes were fixed on the Bactrian hero, who had removed a desiccated head from the filthy leather bag. It was still wearing a diamond-studded iron crown, which sparkled like the River Ithil in the bright afternoon light. There was one giant blue sapphire above the brow (a tribute to the Sky God) on which was mounted a thin gold crescent.
A craven force reached out to Aliénor and implored. Take me. Kill the Bactrian and take me. Do you see me? Ignore the crown. Look for a ring. I am hanging from the Fallen King’s neck. Take me. I will give you what you desire! I know exactly what you want.
Aliénor looked at the Bactrian’s neck and noticed a tiny gold ring attached to a thin necklace made of beaten metal.
Take me. Kill him. Temptation stirred in the long-repressed human side of her nature.
The Bactrian leader shouted, “Behold the head of the tyrant Jamukha.”
The crowd, in unreflective obedience to authority knelt as Dmitrius paraded the grotesque trophy in front of them. Even though the tyrant’s head had been severed several years previously it was still animated. Its teeth chattered and it constantly strived toward the Ring hanging from his neck. When the peasants saw the trophy they fell back in terror, anxiously making the sign of the cross and averting their eyes, while monks and priests urgently pressed to the front of the crowd with raised crosses.
Put the head away!
Dmitrius acknowledged the Lady’s command, and returned the head to its leather bag, which he carefully re-attached to his belt. The bag rocked against his hip. Even in death Jamukha remained in thrall to the Ring.
Dmitrius picked up the trophy sword and turned to face the Lady. The Chamberlain tried to speak, but the Bactrian spoke loudly and drowned him out. He shouted, “Aliénor Ithilæn, I and my men have come to pledge fealty to you!”
While the crowd murmured with excitement Aliénor assessed the Bactrian’s forces: one cohort of knights and two of archers, enough troops to secure her County against all but the greatest Lords, perhaps even Duke John and his brother King Richard. The Chamberlain, who had been fuming beside her, interrupted her reverie, “Lady, these men belong to Duke John, not to you.” He pitched his voice quietly so that bystanders could not hear him. This provided the Lady Ithilæn with an excuse not to hear him. She turned back on the murmuring Chamberlain so that she could address the Bactrian leader directly. She cried with a loud voice:
“So be it Dmitrius Euthydemus, son of Heliocles! Swear allegiance and I will give you land and you will serve me!”
Dmitrius handed the Lady Ithilæn the trophy sword. As he did so, he bent his knee to the ground; his knights joined him with a soft clatter.
Aliénor looked at the townsfolk. Their chatter lessened under her gaze.
Dmitrius spoke his vow in a quiet but deep voice that could be heard across Château grounds and to the far side of the River Ithil. He said,
“Aliénor Ithilæn, I pledge to become your liege-man! I will bear to you against all that love, move or die, I will defend you in matters of life and limb, and eschew earthly honor in favor of all that promotes light and fights darkness. Never will I, nor my people, bear arms for anyone against you.”
Aliénor picked up the sword by its pommel, which was adorned with a stone carving of a sapling silver birch tree, the sign of House Galadræl. She tapped the Fallen King lightly on either shoulder, and then spoke, “We will it and we grant it. Be it so!” She turned her back to her knights and faced her people, to whom she said in Frankish, “Fehu-ôd Os Gilieth”. The Bactrian’s fief would be the cursed abandoned town of Os Gilieth, at the edge of Old Ithilæn.
Aliénor bade the Bactrian knight to rise. As he did so the crowd erupted in cheers. The Chamberlain looked troubled and ill. The Marshall was solemn, though quietly pleased by the doubling of his Lady’s, and therefore his own, military power.
The Lady moved so close to Dmitrius that she could feel his body’s heat. She said while handing him his trophy sword, “Take this. I have no need for it.” Dmitrius stopped her with an upraised hand and said solemnly. “I insist.” He placed his mailed hands around hers and pushed the short sword into her bosom.
As he did so, the sword addressed her with a thought. I am glad you have accepted me, Aliénor daughter of Arwen. I will serve you well.
What is your name, weapon?
A Greek name? Surely you are more ancient than the Greeks?
I have fought against evil since before the Age of Heroes.
But you are a trophy taken from the dead hands of a tyrant.
True. I have been captured by evil in three Ages. That is why I am glad to serve you. You are not evil, Aliénor daughter of Arwen.
Am I good?
Yes, but you can be corrupted. My mission is to see that even if you are corrupted you will serve your fate.
My fate is my own. As is my will. I do not need you, Numenos.
You forget that I am a well wrought sword and your world is violent. You will need me Aliénor daughter of Arwen, and I will defend you well.
How is it that a weapon can predict the future?
I can predict the future because I am a weapon. As long as there are men with weapons there will be violence.
If you were a hammer would you predict nails?
I only make predictions based on human nature, not my own.
The Lady handed the short sword to her attendant Celeste Innocente, who was dressed in a blue velvet dress, trimmed with Flemish lace. The young woman reluctantly let the edge of Aliénor’s gown fall to the ground in order to receive it. As she did so she noticed Sir Gui looking at the sword covetously.
Celeste Innocente said, “Shall I place this weapon with your heirlooms or in the armory, m’lady?”
“Put it in my chambers, on the table by my bed. The one made of oak wood.”
The maiden curtsied and left.
Aliénor turned to face the Riders, who lined the far shore of the Ithil, and addressed them with a thought, Welcome cousins.
The haffen-ælves raised their swords and cheered. The crowd joined in. In the racket few noticed the approach of Duke John along the Normandy Road. His small, ragged army had been fighting the Capetians near Alençon. Aliénor noticed, but her attention never strayed for more than one breath from the Ring of Power hanging from the neck of Dmitrius Euthydemus, the Fallen King of Bactria.