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 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. Immediately around her, throughout the Château lawns, 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, above the Toulouse road. Aliénor had been waiting for this: the Bactrian 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 riding under three banners/guidons: the ladder of Gideon, the lion of Shem, and the white bull of Seleceus Nicator. They all rode under the banner of Bactria, 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 wheeled as if possessed, their screeches harshly dissonant in the calm afternoon air. Even if she had not understood the birds’ language, Although Aliénor did not understand the speech of birds, she easily deduced meaning from the terror in their 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 cohort stopped marching in front of it, but did not relax their guard, nor begin to raise a camp. The Bactrian leader, accompanied by twelve knights in light armor, six men and six women, approached the closed barred metal gate, which controlled access to the bridge. The portcullis was raised with the sound of metal on metal before the Bactrian leader had a chance to even 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 took his seat at Aliénor’s right hand, leaned over and said in a quiet but insistent voice, “Disarm them.” He gave his advice like an order, as he always did with women. The Lady Ithilaen 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 they are haffen-ælf. She said formally, ” Good sir knight please take notice of what proud warriors they are. They will not let us disarm them. Regardless, 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 visitors can camp by the glade.”
“What do you mean entourage?” The Chamberlain might have been dull and stupid, but at least he was precise.
The Lady turned to face the Riders, “That man”, she nodded at a lank Amharite, who rode under a the lion’s-head banner. The lion’s mane was styled to suggest sun-rays; its golden color offset prominently against a field of red. “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 who was dressed in brightly polished mithraël armour. The woman’s sigil was a ladder on a field of grey; the man’s a white bull on violet.
The Chamberlain said “Very good”, bowed slightly and withdrew to implement her 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, but never directly to oppose. He shuffled over to the Captain of the Home Guard, a pious yet violent Christian named Constantine, who followed the fanatic Durand. Two pages, twins from the de Blois family, attended him. After a few words with de Ruisseau, the Captain and his attendants wheeled their horses and cantered over to the Bactrian leader and his three lieutenants.
The Chamberlain turned his attention to the Home Guard, which had gathered on the Château side of the verge. He ordered one company of archers, and a second of foot-soldiers to take a position on the east side of the lawn, within range of the visitors. The rest of his foot-soldiers he ordered to cordon off the manicured lawn from a rapidly growing crowd of on-lookers. Aliénor was proud that her soldiers looked sharp in their green, black and white uniforms. Their pomp and discipline distracted her for but a moment. She feared this meeting with the Bactrian leader. No, she corrected herself. The fear wasn’t hers. He brought it with him.
The Bactrian leader stepped onto the verge. He had a groomed beard, and mithraël gray eyes. The moment he did she heard a voice in her head,
The children of Ailronde and Galadraël are pleased to meet you, Arwen’s youngest.
Who are you, Knight?, the Lady replied.
I am Dmitrius son of Heliocles, last King of the Bactrians.
Welcome cousin. Who accompanies you?
The second ælf thought, I am Jothamela daughter – and youngest child – of Gideon. This haffen-ælf 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 Aliénor’s Home Guard. She had olive skin, dark brown eyes and straight jet black hair. 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, exactly like that of her own niece. Aliénor sensed that some kind of magic had attached itself to her; Aliénor wondered if Jothamela had the ability to wield it.
The third ælf now introduced himself. He had short curly white hair, maroon-red eyes and skin so fair he became nearly invisible in the glare of direct sunlight. His mount, untethered and unsaddled, was mottled white and black. He thought, I am Hephestion, child of Ailronde. I conquered the world with Alexander and briefly bore his Bane. Hephestion accompanied his introduction with the same serene, slight smile Aliénor used when she wanted to disguise her thoughts. He nodded his head ever so slightly but did not bow.
As the three haffen-ælf introduced themselves, the companies they led spread out along the hedgerow that marked the boundary between the Château grounds and the dusty market square 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 and gold in the afternoon sunlight, although many were dressed like Jopthamela in leather and light mail. Despite looking like they had fought in dozens of battles, or more accurately like people who had never known peace, none of the knights had visible scars; and all 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 crossbowmen cocked their weapons.
The Bactrian walked slowly and silently onto the lawn, and stopped directly in front of the Chamberlain. The crowd of villeins and craftsmen was 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 painted images of a white cat with green eyes, the sigil of House Arwen. 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 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 two attendants, a slender, nervous niece of Burgundy and a vain, forgettable maid of France. The Lady, who was now beside the Chamberlain, spoke in a loud voice to both the Bactrians and her people, “Welcome stranger. My name is Aliénor , the Lady Ithilæn. My liege Lord is Duke John of Mortain. I am 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 her men. The Chamberlain acknowledged the 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 Lady and addressed her people in Frankish. The crowd, despite the vigilance of the Lady’s Home Guard, had now pushed onto the verge, 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, son of Heliocles 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 front 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: a sword and a bloodied bag. 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 unheard noise and blinded by a vision of flames and brimstone. The Marshall, who stood to her left, caught her when 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. “Thank you” Aliénor whispered breathlessly. She anxiously surveyed the scene while she steadied herself. No one else had noticed her swoon. 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 an iron crown, which was studded with tiny blue diamonds which sparkled like the 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 and take me. Do you see me? I am hanging from his neck. Take me. I will give you whatever you desire!
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.
While Aliénor resisted the Ring’s temptation, 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 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 Dmitrius’ neck. When the peasants saw the chattering head, 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 thought, and returned the chattering head to its leather bag, which he carefully re-attached to his belt, still moving. 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 of Ithilæn, I and my men have come to pledge fealty to you!”
With effort, Aliénor ignored the Ring and assessed the Bactrian 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. She let her eyes settle on their leader, the fallen king. She did not have to be a seer to see in him a future of loyalty, passion, temptation and danger. Despite herself, she smiled. At this, 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 Lady Ithilæn with an excuse to not hear him. She turned her attention to the Bactrian leader and said as loudly as she could,
“So be it Dmitrius Euthydemus! Swear allegiance and I will give you land and you will serve me!”
Dmitrius bent his knee and handed the Lady Ithilæn his sword. As he did so, the rest of the knights dismounted and all mimicked their lord’s action, generating only a light clatter as they bent one knee to the ground.
Eleanor looked at the crowd of pushing onto the verge. The villeins and townsfolk became silent 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 Ithil. He said,
“I pledge to become your liege-man, bearing to you against all that love, move or die, defending you in matters of life and limb, and eschewing 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. She looked from the sword to the Bactrian, tapped him 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 gestured for 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 they nearly touched. 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 sword into her bosom.
As he did so, the sword spoke to her. I am glad you have accepted me, Aliénor daughter of Arwen. I will serve you well.
What is your name, sword?
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.
I have also been captured by evil in three Ages. That is why I am glad to serve you. You are good.
I do not need you, sword. I have soldiers.
You will need me, and I will protect you.
How is it that a weapon can predict the future?
I can predict the future because I am a weapon. There will be war. 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 sword to a nearby attendant, a maiden of Hainault named Celeste Innocente, who was dressed in an expensive velvet dress, trimmed with Flemish lace. The young woman reluctantly let the edge of Eleanor’s gown fall to the ground in order to receive it. Eleanor, when she turned her back to her attendant, noticed Sir Gui looking at the sword covetously.
Celeste Innocente said, “Shall I place this sword with your heirlooms or in the armory, mi’lady?”
“Place it in my chambers, on the table by my bed. The one made of oak wood.”
The young woman curtsied and left.
Aliénor turned to face the Riders, who lined the far shore of the Ithil, and addressed them with her thoughts, 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 focus never strayed for more than one moment from the Ring of Power hanging from the neck of Dmitrius Euthydemus, the fallen King of Bactria.