Chapter 1: Riders from the East

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 long 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 troop 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. Even though Aliénor could not converse with any animal, she easily deduced 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 the Bactrian, 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 on metal before the Bactrian had a chance to greet the gatekeepers: the Lady had already given instructions for them to be let through although she knew that even this small party of warriors could overwhelm her Home Guard.

The Chamberlain,  Gui de Ruisseau , who had taken his customary seat 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. He was a florid, fat knight. Despite the weather, he wore a heavy crimson velvet cape, lined with ermine and trimmed with a sable collar. She looked 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 take notice of what proud warriors these Riders are. They will not let us disarm them. More to the point, I am certain they mean me no harm, so why the bother? Kindly escort their leader and his entourage onto the verge. The rest of our guests can camp in the glade just north of the Arden Wood.”

“What do you mean entourage?” [The Chamberlain might be dull but at least he was 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 was styled 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; the women’s sigil was a ladder.

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 policy, but never directly to oppose her. 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 tights, and 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.

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 rapidly growing 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 it with them.

The Bactrian leader stepped onto the Château lawn. He had a groomed white and black beard, and [mithraël] gray eyes. The moment he did Aliénor heard a voice in her head,

The children of Ailronde and Galadraël are pleased to meet you, Arwen’s youngest.

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 sigil on your mantle.

Jothamela nodded her head in acknowledgement of Aliénor’s comment and replied, Like my father, I strive for heaven. Jothamela stood beside a steed which had a copper-red pelt and markings shaped like flames. She was short for a haffen-ælf but as tall as any member of the 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 have the ability to wield it.

The third haffen-ælf, who had a deep yellow aura, now introduced himself. He had short curly white hair, maroon-red eyes and skin so fair he disappeared in the glare of direct sunlight. His mount, untethered and unsaddled, was mottled white and black. He thought, I am Hephestion, grand-child of Galadraël. I conquered the world with Alexander and briefly bore his Bane.  Hephestion punctuated his introduction with the same serene, slight smile Aliénor used when she wanted to disguise her thoughts.

As the three haffen-ælves introduced themselves, the companies they led spread out along the hedgerow which marked the boundary between the Château grounds and the dusty market huddled in front of the Bridge of Cuts.  Like their leaders, they were all 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 red-silver in the afternoon sunlight, although many were dressed like Jothamela who wore only leather. Despite looking like they had fought in dozens of battles, or more accurately like people who had never known peace, few of the haffen-ælve 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, an extraordinarily tall, fine-boned woman from the Amharite 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 implacably.

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 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 Duke John of Mortain. I am the cousin of two kings, Philip Augustus of France and Richard of England. 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 with a shallow curtsy.

To the surprise of all, the Bactrian knight turned his back to the Chamberlain, 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 also called Aniketos.] 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 removed two trophies 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 his trophies.

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 thick 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 attached to his waist. 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, above which was placed a thin gold crescent.

A craven force reached out to her and implored. Take me. Kill the Bactrian hero and take me. Do you see me? I am hanging from his neck. Take me. I will give you whatever you desire! I know you have desires. I know exactly what you want.

Aliénor looked at the neck of the Bactrian Knight and noticed a tiny gold ring attached to a thin necklace made of beaten mithraël.

Take me. Kill him. The temptation stirred the long-repressed human side of her nature.

While Aliénor engaged in her silent struggle the Bactrian leader shouted, “Behold the head of the Tyrant, whom I killed to save Christendom.”

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 of Power 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 the Tyrant was 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!”

[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 said, “Lady, these men belong to Duke John, not to you.” He had to pitch his voice quietly so the crowd could not hear him. This provided the Lady Ithilæn with an excuse to not hear him. She turned back on the murmuring Chamberlain so that she could address the Bactrian leader directly. She said as loudly as she could:

“So be it Dmitrius Euthydemus, son of Heliocles! Swear allegiance and I will give you land and you will serve me!”

Dmitrius bent his knee and handed the Lady Ithilæn the trophy sword. As he did he bent his knee to the ground, his knights joined him with a soft clatter.

Aliénor looked at the townsfolk, whose 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?

Numenos.

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 the 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?

Perhaps. I am not certain.

I do not need you, Numenos. I have soldiers to fight for me.

You will need me Aliénor daughter of Arwen, and I will defend you.

How is it that a weapon can predict the future?

I can predict the future because I am a weapon. There will be violence. There always is.

If you were a hammer would you predict nails?

I only make predictions about human nature, not my own.

The Lady handed the short sword to her attendant Celeste Innocente, who was dressed in an expensive 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.

 

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