The Sword of Erken the Bloody
They say poets are good for little but long winter nights by the fire. That they may sing for hours of the exploits of the brave, but themselves have not the courage to learn a weapon.
Allow me to tell you of Aelfra, that you might know that a poet may have more courage than any number of warriors, and that the words of a bard may be more powerful than the most legendary sword ever forged.
Aelfra was a bard—a poet by any other name—in a land you know well, long ago. Winters were long and the warriors coarse and harsh. Grown weary of the contempt of the soldiers at the winter fires, who huddled close for her songs but dismissed her abilities, she rashly vowed one night that she would find the legendary sword of the ancient hero Erken the Bloody, lost to human memory in the centuries following the collapse of the realm under his successor King Unraed. She swore she could find and win the sword, armed only with her wit and her words.
The warriors laughed rudely, and when she departed in the spring, men placed bets on her chances of returning. No one believed she would return with the sword. Aelfra knew that most believed that if she returned at all, it would because she had given up before even leaving their land. That she vowed would not happen.
But it was a pleasure to be out of the mead hall, and free for the time of demands for yet another song, poem, or story. Indeed, to walk the roads of the land in spring was joy enough, and she sang of spring and love as she walked. Despite the contempt of warriors, none in that land would trouble a bard; her lute was her safe-passage. When night fell, she found a castle, cottage, or hovel, and traded a few songs and a tale for a meal and a warm corner. Thus she made her way north, out of the known lands and into the mythic land once ruled by the Hero.
There things changed. That land had lain long in chaos and disorder, no leader stepping forth who could draw the people into peace and order since Unraed had died by his own hand. The old laws were broken and lost. Now Aelfra used her ready wits and her clever tongue to talk herself into and out of trouble, not merely to buy a night’s lodging.
At last she felt she drew near the hiding place of the Sword of Erken the Bloody. It lay in the heart of this cold land, but she knew not in what spot. Now it seemed she must speak of her quest or learn nothing, yet to speak was to betray herself to those who would stop at nothing to hide the legendary weapon.
This enigma occupied Aelfra not a little, as she wandered from dwelling to dwelling. For the first time in her travels, she found doors closed to her, and people unwilling to share what they had. She invented ever more elaborate lies to explain her wanderings, here in a dead land where only the mad—or the desperate—would go of choice. She began to wonder if she were desperate or mad—or driven, which might well be the same thing.
The story she built was that of a woman given long ago to passing merchants, by a family unable to feed another girl. The merchants had given her to the Players, and now she returned to seek her lost family. No, she did not hold a grudge; times were hard and they had done what they must that she might not starve. Her mother had wept sorely at their parting and. . . and Aelfra stopped, as her audience seemed to grow restless at this show of sentiment.
At the next place, she spoke rather of her anger and a desire to show her family that she had done well despite them. This tale received a more credulous response, but to her dismay, as she repeated it, she felt the anger she pretended grow within her as though it were real, a pulsing hatred for a family that did not even exist.
Then she began to hear of it. Rumors, only rumors, but of an ill spirit of this land that made people lose their hope and their compassion. It was the merest whisper, that some there knew the source of the malign power. It was not long before she discovered some believed the grimness came from the Sword of Erken the Bloody itself.
It was then that she began for the first time to see that a legendary weapon may have power for something other than the salvation of a land. Up to then, she had thought of the Sword as a relic that would bring fame and fortune to her and her home. Now she saw it might as easily bring death and destruction, and she wondered if she should turn back. But the pull of the sword was strong upon her, and she found she could not draw away.
The day came when Aelfra found the Sword. She knew when she neared the ruined castle that this was the resting place of the Sword of Erken the Bloody, whom she now knew to be no hero, but a vicious conqueror whose merciless spirit lived on in the sword and those whose spirits it corrupted.
No one lived in the ruin. No one guarded the sword. Such a weapon, she now understood, guarded itself.
Aelfra picked her way through the rubble, her fingertips itching as she drew near. Her words, even had there been any to hear them, had gone from her in the inarticulate lust for a power that was not her own.
Rubble covered the sword. She could sense it down there, calling her, sucking at her memories of a land where fires gave warmth enough for all, and companions meant comfort and safety. Her hands tore and bled as she pulled away the rubble until—a gleam of steel, untarnished by the years. Overloaded and bursting with magic.
She reached out her hand to take the weapon and the power.
And stopped. With an effort of will that nearly stopped her heart, she found and used the only weapon she had against that soul-destroying power. The words ripped at her mouth as she forced them out, and her voice cracked.
“I. . . will. . . not. . . yield.” The words gave her strength, and she began to sing, in a thin and choked voice, the ballad of the love of Ganelon and Theira, the most joyous song she knew.
The ground shook. In all the centuries since Erken conquered the land and the sword conquered his soul, none had defied the sword's will to hate and destroy. And now. Now when on the brink of freeing the sword to wield once again its full power, this mortal had refused its seductive enslavement.
Aelfra continued to sing, her voice growing stronger with each word, and the ruins shuddered and swayed around her. Then she turned and fled, as the ground opened and the rubble, the sword flashing as it tumbled among the stones of walls it had long ago destroyed, slid into the depths of the earth, to a place where it might never again draw mortal souls.
And on the moor once more, Aelfra shook herself, and stood taller, and felt, as though for the first time in weeks, the warmth of the sun on her shoulders as she turned to journey once again to her own land. She raised her head and began to sing a traveling song, and did not look back.