"A great fantasy adventure that is impossible to resist after the first few pages." Lies-und-lausch "More legends, heroism and epicness you will rarely find." Mediamania The great epic about young knight Rowarn and his battle companions. Centuries ago, a magical artifact shattered into seven pieces during a murderous war. Only the Two-Splitted, it is said, can heal the Tabernacle - but no one knows what will happen. Who might it be? Will he use the powers for good or for bad? All seems lost, Rowarn and his companions must flee from the Lightless Dubhan. It seems that Femris can no longer be stopped - so all the races join together once again in an alliance against him. Rowarn sets out in search of the last Shards of the Tabernacle, and in the process gets into Demon Land and lost in deep waters. In the end, the fate of the Two-Splitted bound to the Tabernacle must be fulfilled, and the decision as to whether Woodzee will fall into darkness will be made.
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About the author
SEVENTH PART The Fifth Path
Chapter 37 Return
Chapter 38 Of Dreams and Women
Chapter 39 Noïrun
Chapter 40 The Young King
Chapter 41 Hope grows
Chapter 42 A New Covenant
PART EIGHT The Sixth Path
Chapter 43 Sun and Moon
Chapter 44 The Journey begins
Chapter 45 In Gandur
Chapter 46 The Second Door
Chapter 47 The Price
Chapter 48 The Last Door
PART NINE Tabernacle
Chapter 49 Statues and Carpets
Chapter 50 The Gorgonian
Chapter 51 Storm
Chapter 52 The Seventh Shard
Chapter 53 In the Light
Chapter 54 The Crane
Uschi Zietsch was born in Munich in 1961. She is married and has lived for years as a writer and publisher with her husband and many animals on a small farm.
Her first publication, a fantasy novel, was published in 1986. This was followed by well over twohundred publications in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, children's books, TV series and many more.
"The Prince is dead! The Master of the Army of Ardig Hall has fallen!" Like wildfire, the news spread across the country. The inns were crowded, because that was the best place for people to talk about what they had heard at the market or on the road. They were eager for new news and commented on what had happened, although no one knew anything for sure. So far, there were only unconfirmed rumors, but that was enough for many a lively conversation. What else could one do at this time of year, when the days were short and the ground was fallow? Cattle were fed in the mornings and evenings, and the time in between was spent patching and mending implements and equipment, chopping wood and caulking houses and boats. But in the late afternoon, when the work was done and it was still too early to conceive the next child in the warm bed, it was time for a hot winter beer, spicy honey wine, mushroom soup, venison and candied fruit. In the guest rooms, damp clothes steamed, tightly lined up on wall hooks, fires crackled in the fireplaces, and the air was heavy, enriched with strong scents and sour exhalations. People crowded tightly around the tables and exchanged information about the events in the land of Valia.
The shock at the news of the death of the Army Master was deep-seated, for now all hope for the country seemed lost.
"There is no doubt," said one or the other in this or that inn, "now the Immortal is unstoppable. Femris will find the remaining Shards of the Tabernacle and will soon set about subjugating the entire land. He wants to rule alone over the lands of Woodzee and press us all into servitude."
Most agreed with this gloomy prediction. However, everyone was afraid of the future, even those who did not yet want to believe that the Army Master had fallen.
"It's not that easy," came opposition to the rumor, may it be born of despair or conviction. "The Army Master has defied Femris so far, he was invincible! He even pierced the enemy's shoulder with a spear, though not even the Vision Knights could ever hurt Femris! And has anyone seen the body of Noïrun? Where is his grave? Are the flags in the new army camp of Ardig Hall about half-mast?"
No one could answer the first two questions, but the last one could: the flags were not at half-mast, as merchants who delivered goods there knew to report. In general, they said, Iron Watch seemed determined to do anything, and Baron Solvan had announced that he was prepared if it came to an attack.
"How should the Army Master have perished in the first place?" was the most important question, to which there was no clear answer so far:
"By treason, certainly."
"I heard of a duel against the Immortal's Champion in which they both died."
This assumption, however, met with widespread disapproval. "At what battle? Where should they have met? What nonsense!"
Then it might happen that in one of the Inns at the Crossroads, where many trade routes met, someone appeared who claimed to know more details. Sometimes it was a lanky, beardless dwarf with many, richly decorated braids of hair, sometimes it was a daring one-eyed soldier who stood out with news. One or the other knight also made an appearance, in armor with surcoat and the flag of Ardig Hall in his back quiver.
"The host of Ardig Hall has fought the host of Femris," the young dwarf confirmed the most controversial rumor in an inn near the Stone Horn.
"The army commander of Dubhan has fallen in battle," reported a knight at the Great Crossroads near the Gold River.
"The Master of Ardig Hall is wounded, but not dead," the one-eyed man swept aside all gloomy conjecture at an inn in Ennishgar. "He is in a secret place for healing and will reappear at the appropriate time."
Were these just more rumors? Or the truth? No one could say, for as long as the Master of Ardig Hall did not show himself in the flesh, there would always be doubters. Many, however, clung to the vague hope that it might be true. For that would mean that Ardig Hall was truly invincible. Prince Noïrun was the symbol of the country's freedom; he would lead the peoples. They would wait for him, just like the slowly regaining army that was camped in Iron Watch and commanded by Felhir, the Deputy Army Master.
And as if this were not enough, new rumors arose, which the one-eyed man, and the dwarf, the knight and still others passed on: There was an Heir to the Throne of Ardig Hall. And Femris was lying petrified in Dubhan Castle since the attack of this young King.
"That sounds even more improbable than anything else before," the doubters might object when they heard this.
"Maybe so," was the hopeful's reply, "but even if it's not true, it shows us that Ardig Hall is not completely lost. And until then, we will not give up either. One day, not so far away, we will know the truth."
And wise men advised, "Let's get through the winter first, then we'll see."
And that was the best advice, because hard times were coming.
Beaten, they rode back to Fernhame in the brown frost of the last days of autumn. The dying leaves broke crackling from the branches when a sleeve or horse's neck brushed against them. The sun had veiled itself, as if it could not bear the sad sight of the small group wearily passing through the forest.
Rowarn rode beside his father, who sat bent forward in Ash Devil's saddle. The black-gray stallion set his hooves as carefully as if he were walking across a gossamer glass floor. Every now and then he turned his head back to his master and neighed softly. Not once did he put on his ears or bare his teeth. He rarely moved more than two paces from his master when they were camped, watching him incessantly. Rowarn was amazed at how much the horse suffered from what had happened to the Vision Knight.
He could hardly believe it himself. Since the escape from Dubhan, Angmor had not spoken a single word. Nor did he seem to perceive the sounds around him; his blind eyes were usually closed. In the evenings, he sat by the fire, completely impassive, and took nothing. Arlyn only managed to pour him a healing potion, which he obediently swallowed. At night, however, he often suffered from pain and woke the others with his groans. Graum would then lie down with his master and at least try to warm him.
That evening they made their last camp; they wanted to reach Fernhame by the next afternoon at the latest. The way back from Dubhan had actually been shorter and faster than their way there. As Angmor had originally planned, they rode over open roads where the horses could gallop unhindered. But no one pursued them; probably the Dubhani had not yet recovered from the shock of finding Heriodon dead and Femris petrified, and did not know how to proceed.
Both sides had suffered heavy losses in recent days, and the healing of the Tabernacle seemed further away than ever. Rowarn was also paralyzed and constantly lost in brooding thoughts. After all, the Nauraka had committed great wrongs – the first in removing the artifact from its resting place, and the second in withholding it from Femris. Certainly, there was a grave reason for this, for Femris had obviously chosen darkness even then. But was that a justification?
Perhaps Rowarn could somehow figure out what had happened when his mind was clearer. Right now, he was barely capable of an orderly thought. At least it was a relief to know that he wasn't the Two-Splitted. But it hadn't made his burden any lighter. Rowarn's worldview had been shaken yet another time. More than ever, he was in doubt about what to do now.
The freckled, stocky Laradim and the willowy, dark-haired Reeb always took care of the camp and the horses; they seemed glad to have at least one task. Arlyn and Graum searched for medicinal herbs and edibles; so far they had not gone hungry, and Rowarn's injuries, inflicted by Femris in swordplay, were almost healed. However, he was shivering no less than the others in the increasing night frosts.
"Arlyn – do you think you can help my father in Fernhame?" asked Rowarn quietly as the small group sat around the fire after dinner. Angmor lay motionless apart as usual, and Graum with him.
"I can't tell you, Rowarn," the Lady replied. "I've never had to deal with that kind of magical injury before."
He nodded; he could not expect any other answer. No one could know if Angmor would ever overcome the magical shock Femris had given him. "I should be glad to return to Fernhame, to the peace there, to prepare for the next battle," he murmured. "But I cannot."
"You fear what you will meet there," Arlyn said softly. "Death or life."
Neither spoke the name; since the battle, it had been like a taboo for Rowarn to talk about Noïrun. He couldn't bring himself to, and the others respected, "Yes." He ran a hand through his hair and looked up at the night sky above the nearly bare treetops. Stars twinkled high above; Ishtru's Tear seemed farther away than ever. "I'd love to run away, to the other side of the world ..." He winced as Arlyn placed her delicate hand on his arm.
"You've never done this before, Rowarn. You know you have to face your task. And no matter what awaits us in Fernhame – it must go on."
Arlyn moved close to him; he noticed that she was freezing despite the cloak and put his arm around her along with his coat. She pointed upward. "Do you know that the night sky far to the west of the world is not the same?"
"No," Rowarn had to admit.
"You see other stars, and ... the moon appears in greenish light and larger than here. Also, there is the Small Moon there, which is white like ours, and you don't see it here because its orbit is different. Why this is so, I cannot say."
"How do you know?"
"My people came across the sea, I told you that. On the islands to the west, many things are different, and very ancient knowledge is preserved. I know another legend that is about Valia." She turned to him, the flames of the fire drawing soft contours in her face with light and shadow. Delicately, she touched his cheek with her fingertips. "There was another moon, big and bright and shimmering, visible over all of Woodzee. It was the Eye of Lúvenor, as it was called, kind and watchful since the dawn of creation. But during the last battle on the Titan Field, when many lives were destroyed, when the greatest massacre in the history of Woodzee took place – this moon burst and was lost, like so much else. Sometimes, on particularly clear winter nights, you can see the remains as distant wispy stardust."
Rowarn swallowed. The Titan Field would probably never let him go, it haunted him like a curse, a curse in the form of Eliaha with her cruel eyes. "Did the moon have a name?"
"Certainly." Arlyn smiled at him in a way that touched him to the bottom of his soul. "Your name, Rowarn: Pearlmoon."
For a moment, he sat frozen. Olrig's song, which the dwarf had sung with Noïrun upon their arrival outside Ardig Hall, reverberated in his ears. "But that is the name of the first Nauraka who ..."
"... left the sea? Yes. Your mother already suspected that you would be the last, and that is why she closed the circle by giving you this honorable name. Your shimmering in the night is the memory of what was lost."
"With this," he gasped, "my burden will only increase ..."
"No," she replied softly. "It makes you part of the whole."
Rowarn shook his head and tried to compose himself. It was better not to dwell on it, so he diverted the conversation away from himself. "Does your name have meaning, too?"
"You bet. Morning Song."
"A beautiful name. And ... it suits you." The sun always rose for him when he looked at her, and her voice was like a song.
"As Pearlmoon is to you." She leaned against him. "No one expects miracles from you," she concluded softly. "Don't you expect them from me, either."
But that's exactly what they needed a whole barrel full of in the meantime.
In the morning Rowarn woke up very early. The first snow had fallen during the night, without notice, silently. Rowarn, who had pulled his head deep under his cloak and blanket, had not noticed, and now he was surprised to see himself enveloped by an additional white blanket. The trees around him were covered deep in snow; it would have been a romantic sight – had it been viewed through the window of a warm hut.
Arlyn had promised that it would be warmer in Fernhame. But first they had to leave the old forest behind. This forest, she said, was ancient and hardly received any light, so it was always freezing cold inside. It was located in a valley basin that also received sunlight only a few hours a day. "The forest is dying, there is no strength left in it, so it can no longer offer protection." Rowarn didn't know exactly what she meant by that; he was just glad that they would soon reach a warm house, especially looking forward to the hot springs. Shivering, he peeled himself out of the blanket and shook off the snow.
The others were all still asleep, including Laradim and Reeb. Rowarn did not wake them; he relied on the fine senses of Ash Devil and Graum, who could sense approaching danger in time even while they slept.
The Shadow Lynx, however, was not in camp at all, but out somewhere; apparently only recently, because the paw prints in the snow leading deeper into the forest were fresh.
And then Rowarn saw Angmor! The Vision Knight had risen alone, after all the days of apathy, and sat down in the lean shelter of a tree a little away from the camp.
"Tonight," Rowarn heard his deep voice, for the first time since Dubhan.
"Father!" exclaimed Rowarn softly, beaming. "When did you come to?"
"Yes, I can see," Angmor said.
"And your eyes are clear!"
Rowarn paused in confusion and stared at his father, whose icy eyes were fixed on him.
"Yes," the Vision Knight said slowly, "damn."
"Damn it!" escaped Rowarn. He grabbed his forehead. For a long moment he waited, but Angmor remained silent. Then Rowarn asked quickly, "What was that all about?"
The Vision Knight waited a little longer to answer, then nodded. "I think I'll learn to answer in the right order over time. It's a little difficult to begin with." He pointed beside him. "Sit down, Rowarn, and listen to me."
Rowarn silently obeyed. He was completely confused. A thousand questions waited impatiently to be spoken, but he kept his mouth shut and waited for his father to continue.
The mighty ram's horns on the demon's head cast a long shadow against the tree behind them as the sun rose, casting the first slanting rays through the rows of cracked trunks. Angmor's skin took on a deeper blue hue in the morning light, just as it might have been in his youth.
"The ordinary sight with which I was born," Angmor began, "is lost. Femris has truly blinded me. But he could not extinguish my visionary sight. It will take some time, however, for it to become permanent, and I will be plagued by seizures and pain for just as long. But you have not lost me as a fighter, and I shall be able to continue to do the duty of the Order."
Rowarn wondered if he would ever get used to how cool and distant his father talked about such drastic things. "We haven't given up hope that you'll get over the magical shock-"
"It was a spell," Angmor interrupted him, raising his hand. "I know. Too fast. But it's getting better. The reason it's so difficult is because I used to see in two layers, so to speak. I could consciously control the visions, fade them in and out, distinguish them from reality and merge them with it. So far my consciousness does not understand that I only see visionary and wants to react in the usual speed. I first have to get used to this: to distinguish when speed is appropriate and when it is not. And above all, how much time I have to let pass in order to answer after a question and not before." As before, he spoke completely unemotionally, but Rowarn was glad his father was so forthcoming at all. "Anyway, Femris cast a spell over me that I couldn't shake off until tonight. The awakening was not a pleasant one."
"Yes, especially because it was snowing. Are you freezing?" asked Rowarn anxiously. "Then ..."
"I'm not cold. I can never be cold." Angmor looked at his son promptly. It was strange to look into those clear eyes because there was no difference from before. Yet they were only looking into the future. "So much for me. Now you tell me what happened while I was out of my mind. I already know because you've already told me, but somehow ... it has to be in the right order. Because if you don't tell me now because I already know, that way I can't know at all, and so you have to tell me anyway."
"Yes, I think so too," Rowarn said, although he didn't have the slightest idea what his father was talking about. He didn't understand anything, he had to think about it calmly. He had just blurted out his own answer so as not to look like a complete fool. He decided not to think about it now, because it was the wrong time, and told his father what had happened to Femris and the three Tabernacle Shards, and that they would reach Fernhame today. "There you will find rest and healing."
"If one can speak of healing in the process." It sounded almost mocking. "I have excellent vision, by the way, better than before, because there's no more overlapping of vision. Almost as if I were young again." Slowly the Vision Knight rose, tall and scowling as ever. No more weakness was apparent – at present. "Now then, on to Fernhame. There we will lick our wounds and consider what to do next."
"Winter is coming. We have time enough for it," Rowarn said. "There is no danger to us from Femris for the time being, and I don't think there is from his army either. They'll have to see for themselves how they get along."
"His army will not crumble, if that's what you're hoping," Angmor offset. "Dubhan's power is not broken; his followers are still bound to Femris whether he is petrified or not. Soon his commanders will have appointed a new army commander to take matters into his own hands."
"Who's going to do this-" Rowarn began as he also stood up and patted his snow off, but Angmor again beat him to it a little too quickly.
"A demon, I suppose, who owes me no allegiance. From some other land or island of Woodzee. That would be obvious, after all the others have failed."
In the meantime, the others had also awakened and greeted Angmor joyfully. The Vision Knight, with his new perception, was not yet used to talking to several people at once, which created quite a mess, and so they soon fell silent, puzzled, and looked at him with wide eyes.
"I'll explain on the way," Rowarn said into the confused silence, finding the scene quite exhilarating. Even if it wasn't entirely fair, it comforted him a little to see his otherwise infallible overbearing father also slightly rattled for once. "Let's pack up and ride, and we'll catch up on breakfast in Fernhame – the sooner the better."
"Where is Graum?" asked Arlyn, looking around.
"Here," the voice of the Shadow Lynx sounded at that moment, and he emerged from among the trees. His top coat had grown neatly in length and had become much lighter, the speckles were smaller and not so strongly set off, the undercoat thick and fluffy. Even in winter he was well camouflaged – and protected from the cold. Apparently, he could definitely freeze, unlike Angmor. Apparently there were very big differences among demons – apart from the fact that none of them were like Angmor, Rowarn had heard that often enough from Fashirh and Graum. "Looked around for pursuers, but there aren't any. Starting to worry me." He assumed his demon form, scooping snow with both hands and shaping it into a ball.
"But there is no more danger. We have only a few hours left, and Fernhame's protective perimeter already begins at the edge of the woods," Arlyn replied, pulling the felt cloak tighter around her. The air was clear and cold, it smelled of snow. "The forest troubles you, old friend, it troubles me too. But it looks like it has given us Angmor back."
Angmor, meanwhile, had turned to Ash Devil, who greeted his master joyfully and then looked puzzled when the Vision Knight stopped a good distance from his head and made a move to climb into an invisible saddle.
"Father, you ...," Rowarn began, startled.
"It's about time we arrived!" Graum shouted behind him and threw the snowball into the trees with momentum. It hit a thick branch, which then trembled, bent and shook off its snow load. An avalanche of snow was released from the tree, which fell in two halves and pelted Ash Devil's broad buttocks. The black and gray stallion let out a furious cry and leaped forward, right in place and at the very moment Angmor was about to put his foot in a stirrup that had not been there until then. Nevertheless, the Vision Knight struggled with his balance for a moment, until Ash Devil came to rest, and uttered a curse. He pulled himself up laboriously on the saddle and remained seated, breathing heavily.
"I know," he said when Arlyn joined him. "I need time."
"You should try to restrain yourself even more," the Lady said, making a surprised face and then frowning. "I hope this passes soon."
"The best thing you can do is let Ash Devil run after the other horses without steering him," Rowarn suggested to his father. Quietly, he said to Graum, "And you watch him – and no more shenanigans, understand?"
The Shadow Lynx showed his pointed teeth with a grin. "Oh come on, not so long ago you would have been the first to start a snowball fight, admit it!"
"Nonsense," Rowarn grumbled, annoyed mostly because Graum saw right through him. Yes, the Rowarn he had been before this adventure would have had a snowball fight without hesitation with this glorious first snow of the year, would have frolicked and laughed out freely to his heart's content. Yes, for a few moments he would have loved to be a carefree twenty-year-old again, whose greatest concern was to win over his beloved. But even that would be forever denied him.
Unhappily, he spurred Windstormer on with rough heel kicks, causing him to trot off in bewilderment and indicate by a short, violent bang of his head that he didn't like his young master's bad mood, and even less that he was taking it out on the well-behaved horse.
The day cleared more and more, the sun climbed higher and warmed the air, and when they reached the edge of the forest an hour later, half of the snow had already melted away. In front of them spread the protected area of Fernhame, a wide valley, at the far end of which snow-free slopes waited, bathed in sunlight.
The horses were now unstoppable. Windstormer was the first to dash off, and he didn't care at all if his master agreed. But Rowarn just smiled and released the reins. The little dun flexed his muscles as he charged down the first gentle hill, his ears set forward and his big dark eyes shining fierily. Ash Devil soon caught up with him, the huge stallion making twice as wide canter jumps as Windstormer, and the other horses followed them like a spring tide.
But one was even faster – Graum. Rowarn saw a spotted arrow with long brush ears shoot past him. The Shadow Lynx's long fur billowed in waves, its short tail spinning like a top as it swept through the valley in mighty leaps. The thawing snow splashed away on either side as soon as his heavy paws hit the ground, until a white billow of spray crashed over him; apparently he had landed in a deep puddle. Shortly after, he came yelping back out of the water, shaking himself several times and then each paw again individually.
The horses slowed now, snorting and snorting they fell into step, nostrils flared and bodies steaming. Rowarn looked around to see if everyone was still there, then nodded with satisfaction. It had done them all good to shake off the gloomy and heavy thoughts. Now they were to look forward with confidence and turn defeat into victory. They had already taken the first step – Angmor was with them again, and surely soon as strong as he once was.
"Are you all right?" turned Rowarn to his father.
The Vision Knight nodded slowly and turned his head forward, but Rowarn saw it anyway: his eyes had become cloudy again, and he had hunched his shoulders slightly, probably suffering from pain. Since Angmor didn't want to talk about it, Rowarn didn't say anything either.
Arlyn closed in on him, her face flushed from the rapid gallop, her hair blown away, and her black-blue eyes shining like a star in the evening sky. Rowarn's heart contracted painfully; he had never seen anything more beautiful and noble than this woman. It was hard to believe that she had given him her friendship, even though she was decades older than he. At most, Angmor was even closer to her. "Soon you will be home," he said.
She nodded. "The faster the better." She spurred her bay horse and trotted toward the snow-free hills.
Soon they crossed the last wooded area, and at noon they looked down from the hill at the edge of the forest to Fernhame. The whole valley was steaming; the wind was driving the haze from the nearby Cascade Falls through it. The view of the hot springs and the lake, over which a blanket of mist billowed, was breathtaking. The shrubs in Fernhame Park had lost their leaves, as had the trees; the ferns had curled or shed their fronds. In the middle of the valley rose House Fernhame, large and solid, a comforting and familiar sight. A few tables and benches still stood outside, smoke came from the house's great chimney, and there was a smell of wood fire and roasting. Fine plumes of smoke also rose from a few round houses. Further back, the market lay quietly, half hidden under the haze.
It seemed years ago to Rowarn that he had first looked down on Fernhame from the other side. He had not known then that the Vision Knight was his father and the demon Nightfire, and Heriodon's spirit had held him in its grip. And he had been eager to see Lady Arlyn. That Rowarn on the western hill yonder had been a different one from the one now returning from the Lightless Castle; and yet scarcely more than a change of moon had passed since then.
"You should ride ahead," he said to Arlyn. "Otherwise we'll be overrun."
"Not a bad idea," the Lady replied with a smile and spurred her horse. Graum followed her at some distance.
Reeb and Laradim kept behind Rowarn and Angmor, chatting in joyful anticipation. The sight of Fernhame dispelled any gloom, at least for a few hours.
Rowarn was torn between joy and fear, he let Windstormer go slower and slower until the gelding protested snorting because he fell back and got more and more distance to the others. He started banging his head, but this time Rowarn didn't let him get away with it and parried him sternly. The good training as a warhorse then worked on him, and the little dun obediently gave way, gathered himself and walked at a slow pace.
Arlyn had almost reached House Fernhame when she was discovered, and suddenly life stirred in the silent valley. People flocked to the Lady from all sides, cheering and waving, and those in front tried to take her hand and patted the horse. Rowarn watched her graceful movements as she leaned in the saddle, smiling and squeezing a hand or two. Soon she was so surrounded by women, men and children that she could go no further. She dismounted and spoke a few words of greeting. Rowarn could not understand what she was saying, but he saw the people immediately around her move to a respectful distance and bow ever so slightly, while those behind cheered and beamed. Arlyn's high nobility was evident from her posture alone, and her radiance could be felt all the way here; as if a star were moving among dark grains of dust. Nevertheless, there was no condescension to be seen; she smiled at everyone with equal friendliness and overlooked no one, no matter how ragged they appeared.
She is a Queen, Rowarn thought as he watched the scene with devotion. My Queen. There will never be another for me.
With a few gestures and words, the Lady of Fernhame quieted the people. Soon the people dispersed again to return to their work or to carry out orders, and Arlyn could move freely again.
The Lady had already disappeared into the house when Angmor and the two Knights arrived. Grooms took the horses, and two healers helped Angmor, who was at the end of his rope, out of the saddle. Ash Devil reared up and charged after the other horses, foaming and bucking, as if he could no longer bear to be near his suffering master. Graum took demon form and supported the stumbling Vision Knight on his way to one of the roundhouses.
Now only Rowarn was left, riding hesitantly toward House Fernhame, unnoticed by everyone, and that was just fine with him.
And then, near the entrance, Rowarn spotted a burly dwarf with gray hair, dark beard, and flashing blue eyes. He was standing next to a chair-litter in which a light-haired man sat slumped over, wrapped thickly in blankets.
In Rowarn, everything cramped together.
"Noïrun," he whispered.
Olrig waited impatiently until Rowarn was finally with them. The others had long since been greeted and disappeared into the house, and the dwarf moved restlessly on the spot. Finally he ran up to Windstormer, half pulled Rowarn off his horse, and wrapped him in his strong arms. "Tree Monkley," he groaned hoarsely, patting him on the back. "By Lugdur's forges, what were we worried about!" His leg was bandaged, and he still limped a little, but otherwise he seemed well and recovered.
He stepped aside as Rowarn now no longer wished to postpone the significant moment and went to Noïrun, knelt beside the palanquin and timidly grasped the Prince's hand.
Noïrun's skin was gray, his body sunken and emaciated. His chin was resting on his chest, and he had his eyes half closed. Deep pain was etched on his face. An ancient man sat there, who no longer seemed to be in his right mind.
Exasperated, Rowarn looked up at Olrig, who smiled reassuringly and nodded encouragingly. "He can hear you, Rowarn, so go ahead and talk to him. We're having a good day today, aren't we, old friend? The first snow, the rheumatism pinches, that still brings one out of the deepest sinking."
Rowarn's heart raced when he finally noticed a movement in the Prince. He raised his head slightly and looked at the young man. His usually crystal clear green eyes were dark and gray, but he seemed to recognize his former squire.
"Where's Tamron?" he asked.
This question only, nothing else, and razor-sharp hit the target. His voice was no more than a faint whisper, but his mind was still wide awake and sharp.
"That's it!" escaped Olrig, slapping his forehead. "Now I know who I've been missing all this time!"
Rowarn straightened up and noticed Arlyn, who had just joined him quietly. This was the second pain he had to face, and in her presence at that. "He was the traitor, Noïrun!" he groaned bitterly, clenching his hands into fists. "From the beginning, Femris knew about everything, about all our plans and decisions!"
"What?" Olrig's rumbling voice broke on the walls of the house and echoed up to the forest, where it was lost among the trees. "Tamron? My immortal friend? A traitor?"
"Not one," Rowarn replied bitterly. "He is the Traitor."
But Olrig was too fired up to listen properly. "All this time I've been taken in by lies and deceit, for decades, and I didn't realize it?" His hair bristled with anger, even his eyebrows; he was stunned.
"It's much worse than that," the young King groaned. "I screwed everything up because I wasn't in control." Filled with guilt, he looked to Arlyn. For the first time since escaping Dubhan, he spoke about it. "Arlyn tried to warn me, she tried to hold me back, but I didn't listen to her and ruined everything."
"I never blamed you," she said softly.
"Now slow down, Tree Monkley," said the War King, now considerably calmer. "Tell us everything in order."
"Shouldn't we go in first and talk to the others ..."
"No," the Prince interrupted softly. "I cannot sit here much longer. Report now, Rowarn, I beg of you, and be brief." His hands cramped into the blanket as he coughed; it sounded like the agonized barking of a lung-sick dog, and his gaunt body just convulsed.
Rowarn did not dare touch him, but Arlyn was already there. She supported the Prince, put her hand on his forehead and straightened him a little so that he could breathe more easily. With one hand, she opened the blanket to take a cursory look at him, and Rowarn saw her eyes widen in horror. When the seizure was over, she hurriedly ran back into the house.
"Hurry, Rowarn," Olrig pleaded. "Don't delay any longer, we can't wait. There will be time for elaboration later. Noïrun will find no rest until he has learned at least what is most important. Speak while he is conscious. We have waited so long."
So Rowarn reported what had happened in Dubhan and how far Tamron's treachery extended, and the two men listened attentively. Noïrun's eyes also suddenly seemed more lively. Both of them could hardly believe that Femris and Tamron were two souls in one body, forming the Two-Splitted.
"One thing you have to give him credit for," Olrig remarked when Rowarn had finished, "he was better at hiding than you were, Noïrun. If he hadn't revealed himself, we never would have figured it out. Tamron played his part perfectly."
It still pained Rowarn. And part of him wanted to believe what Femris had said – that Tamron hadn't lied about everything. "How could anyone suspect that, either. For millennia, everyone has been led around by the nose because no one could know that they were two immortals, two brothers. That's why no one was able to defeat Femris, and not even the magic wall of Ardig Hall could stop him in reality – because Tamron could switch back and forth and report to him at any time. He was, after all, a friend of my mother's! At least that's what she believed, and so did I." He was tempted to spit. And this man, in his naive ignorance, he had thought was his father at the beginning! Disgust shook him. But to have worked himself up into his hatred would not have lessened his guilt. "And now I have killed him, and the Tabernacle is out of reach."
Olrig put a hand on his arm, not reaching up to his shoulder. "None of us ever expected that defeating Femris would be easy, and that you of all people would succeed now," he said graciously. "We aimed to get the Shards of the Tabernacle into our hands. And we have won a partial victory, they are now out of reach. That is the most important thing now is that you have all returned alive."
"But what will happen next?" asked Rowarn despondently.
"Certainly, there is no reason to breathe a sigh of relief. The last word about Femris has not yet been spoken, nor about the Tabernacle. I am sure that Femris petrified to escape death, and will free himself again one day when he is cured. But we will find a way-"
The dwarf wheeled around as a sighing sound came from the palanquin. Noïrun toppled unconscious to the side. Arlyn returned just in time, along with two bearers and healer Korela. Hastily, they brought the Prince to his roundhouse.
"Is ... he always like this?" asked Rowarn in dismay.
Olrig nodded. "What are you expecting? A miracle? Indeed it is, namely that Noïrun is still alive. But too little time has passed to expect him to be able to stand upright again already. He'd better stay in bed, of course, but on the other hand – if he doesn't move at all, that can't be good for him either. Besides, we'd have to tie him down." He carefully put weight on the wounded leg, then nodded to Rowarn. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go see him. I'll see you later. Rest first." Slowly, he walked after the palanquin.
Suddenly Rowarn found himself alone, and once again in a storm of conflicting emotions and despair.
Rowarn returned to his old room in the main house, which was already waiting for him. Landi, the caring maid, had placed a bouquet of straw flowers and fragrant dried herbs on the table, and fresh clothes lay on the bed. Soon Korela came to him, and this time Rowarn endured the brief examination procedure without objection.
"Where is Angmor?" he asked the healer.
"In his usual house," she answered. "Don't worry about him, young master, he is better than the last time. He merely needs rest, and we can give him something for the pain. Your other companions are also well."
"Not all of them," he said sadly.
She nodded. "Yes, I am sorry for your friend. But now that Lady Arlyn is here, there will be healing for the Prince as well."
Rowarn wished he could share her confidence. It shook him to see the once strong and vital Prince gray and suffering. Olrig, too, seemed to firmly believe that all would be well. Sure, it hadn't been that long since Noïrun had been wounded. But Arlyn's horrified face had expressed exactly what Rowarn felt as well.
The next few days passed quietly. After the first onset of winter, it became warmer again, the night frosts failed to appear, and rain alternated with sunshine. Rowarn sent Reeb and Laradim on patrol every day around Fernhame, because he did not really trust the peace despite everything. The horses were well cared for, equipment and weapons mended. Olrig's leg was almost healed, and he no longer limped. Arlyn still kept House Fernhame closed to travelers, but those seeking healing were not turned away.
Rowarn spent time alternately with Angmor and Noïrun, and at the hot springs, where he could think best. At least there was something to be glad about – he was not the Two-Splitted. As Heir to Ardig Hall, he was still bound to the Tabernacle, but it was not he who would one day have to decide whether its power should be unleashed – and how it should be used. Rather, he now had a clear goal in mind: to prevent Femris from getting his hands on the remaining fragments. Angmor had confirmed Olrig's assumption that Femris was alive, that he had protected himself from death by a magical spell. This did not lessen Rowarn's guilty conscience, but it gave him hope that all was not lost.
"That's not quite right, though," Graum once said to him when they met at the Houses of Healing and Rowarn spoke in response to the demon's question about what was bothering him. "If he is the Two-Splitted, then he must use the Tabernacle, that is how it was meant to be. You almost ruined Erenatar's plan with your sword thrust, but if you withhold the Shards from Femris, it makes no difference to me."
"I know," Rowarn replied. "But I have decided to heal the Tabernacle first, and then, I think, the decision will be made as to whether Femris is the chosen one. He may be the Two-Splitted, but still, he has to earn the Tabernacle first. That, at least, is my view."
"Femris fought the war only because he was wronged," objected the Shadow Lynx. "How do you know he really turned to the Darkness for good?"
"Angmor fears, and he is not the only one, Halrid Falkon also believes that Femris wants to use the Tabernacle to bring the Black Annatai, the Lord of the Flame Throne to Woodzee. – Don't worry, I won't speak his name," he hastily added when he saw Graum's fur bristle.
Graum's long brush ears twitched. "That would be ..." he put in a hiss, and Rowarn raised his hand.
"Now you see. As long as that possibility exists, I will do everything I can to deprive Femris of the Tabernacle, no matter how much I put myself in the wrong. For this cannot have been Erenatar's plan."
"Then I guess it's going to come down to one last confrontation between you and him, for which you'll need a lot of strength," Graum said. "I don't want to be in your shoes, young King of Ardig Hall, no, I really don't."
He turned to go, but on the way he shouted something back. "But I will give my hide for you, Rowarn, and stay by your side to the end."
"Thank you," Rowarn murmured, not sure if he wouldn't have preferred to be the Two-Splitted himself. Instead of lighter, Graum's words had made everything even heavier.
But that didn't help him, he couldn't go back, he bore the responsibility. The first thing to do was to end this unfortunate war.
Every day he waited for news from the messenger falcons, and his hands trembled with excitement when he finally received a letter from his foster parents. He immediately recognized Snow Moon's curved handwriting, completely even, as if every word had been drawn. He sought a quiet corner in the inn, broke the seal, and read tensely.
Your Muhmes greet you.
Weideling is quiet without you and we miss you very much. Especially now in the approaching winter, we will miss the long evenings with candlelight and stories. It may seem strange, but with none of our foals was the pain of separation so great. Velerii children are quite independent from the beginning, but with you it was something completely different, for you we were there every day for twenty years, have protected and cared for you.
Anyway, Shadowrunner and I have decided to have another foal. We want to have children's laughter and happiness around us again. In the spring after next it will be so far. I am sure that by then our child will be born into a new time of peace.
Don't think that the changes will pass Inniu by unnoticed. We follow with trepidation and hope how the situation is getting worse and are grateful for any news.
We are therefore happy about your long letter, but it has also shaken us deeply and has kept us busy for days. But let us tell you before anything else: We are very proud of you. What you have already achieved at your young age is hardly imaginable. You are a true and worthy Heir to Ardig Hall, and we hope that you are also ready in your heart to accept the kingship. After all, you have written that you want to accept your inheritance – but you don't seem to be sure yet whether you can handle it. Be of good cheer! We have done our best to prepare you for this task. Shadowrunner would never admit it, of course, but he got a little misty-eyed when he heard about your exploits.
What we are struggling with, however, is the news about your father. Please forgive us for not going into more detail here. We have to get a grip on it first. Perhaps we will be able to talk about it one day when we meet again.
Now let us come to your request. We have already rounded up two hundred good horses, for fifty will not be enough for you. These horses are yours, Rowarn. Consider them a gift from Weideling to the King of Ardig Hall. A few new recruits from the Hinterlands, who could not go last spring, will drive the herd directly to Iron Watch, to the new army camp. They will certainly arrive there this winter, but they will take the Northeast Passage, not the route you took to Ardig Hall. We think it is safer to stay as close as possible to the borders of Gandur to avoid the Dubhani. Two moon changes, therefore, they will be on their way, but certainly not too late. The horses are already well trained, they just need the final touches to be used as war horses. The recruits are inexperienced, but I think they are loyal, strong and well-behaved lads and a few young women who are quick learners. I am also to give you greetings from Jelim. Of course she wanted to accompany the herd, but we won't allow it, her circumstances are already much too advanced. You can imagine the grief her arrival caused Rayem's parents. But they have taken Jelim in like a daughter. The grandchild is a comfort to them, and they can hardly wait for the confinement. I think in two moon changes it will be time. Jelim, by the way, is in the process of setting up a city guard in case the turmoil of war reaches Inniu. There are marauding gangs everywhere, as I'm sure you know, and also the troops searching for the Guardians of the remaining Shards. But don't worry about us, we can defend Weideling, and Jelim has the young men well in hand.
Dear foster son, from afar we send you our greetings. Go your way and believe in yourself.
Lúvenor's Light be with you!
Snow Moon and Shadowrunner
NS: I hope the messenger falcon doesn't lose the Royal Willow Oil on the way. It's only a few drops, but I'm sure Arlyn can use it. If it no longer has the oil on it, you have permission to pluck and roast it.
Rowarn read the letter twice while his fingers played with the small bottle of the Royal Willow Oil that the messenger falcon had brought back safe and sound. Again and again he had to smile, but at the same time he felt deep melancholy. He looked up when Arlyn came in. "Sit with me, I have something for you." He handed her the flacon, which she accepted with her eyes lighting up, and read the letter aloud to her. Several times Arlyn laughed in amusement.
"They have given me – but also you – an extremely generous gift," she remarked in conclusion. "Two hundred noble horses, that's enough to buy a small county, along with a castle."
"Already own it, albeit a bit run down," Rowarn said with a wry grin. "But I'm really touched by it, I never expected that. With this, we can rebuild the cavalry from scratch, and later ... oh, I don't want to think that far yet. Who knows what will become of me. I can't really imagine being King of Ardig Hall for the rest of my life. Maybe I'll go away when it's all over and peace has come."
She blinked briefly, but said nothing.
For a while, there was an uneasy silence between them that bordered on embarrassment. Rowarn therefore skimmed the letter again, and Arlyn musingly looked at the precious, completely colorless oil. With this vial, she could buy a principality. Or save a hundred lives. Rowarn frowned and rubbed the bridge of his nose as his thoughts took that direction.
"Rowarn, we need to talk," the Lady said at that moment, as if she had guessed his thoughts, and looked at him firmly.
"All right," he murmured, but avoided the penetrating gaze of her golden pupils. He had been afraid of this all along and had avoided her because of it. He didn't want to talk about it, but he knew the Lady wouldn't let up this time. So he remained seated, worried and tense.
"This oil," Arlyn continued without mincing words, "is not meant for Noïrun." She spoke in a calm voice, yet relentlessly. "I can't help him anymore. He's going to die. Maybe not in the next two days, but within the next ten. Only his will is keeping him alive, but one day he won't have enough strength for that either. His injuries are too severe, and we can't stop the bleeding. Soon he won't be able to take anything anymore, and then it won't be long. I'm giving him painkillers in doses that I can't really be responsible for, but it doesn't matter anymore."
Rowarn swallowed hard, his throat was tight. He suddenly felt empty inside. "I know you've tried everything," he said harshly, staring at the letter. The characters blurred before his eyes into a river of dark blood.
"In Valia, there is no better healer than me," Arlyn said without vanity. "But as great as my powers may be, I cannot defeat death. I am sorry."
He nodded. "Is there anything I can ... do?"
"Talk to him. Help him make peace so he doesn't continue to torment himself senselessly," she replied. "He's only delaying the end, but it won't change anything. Hopefully, if you go with him, it will be easier for him to let go."
Arlyn looked up as the door opened. Angmor came in, a little unsteady in his steps. His eyes were dim, and he felt his way forward cautiously, but he didn't seem to be completely blind, he found his way around to some extent and avoided obstacles in time.
"I have to get back to work," the Lady said, standing up. "Angmor, go sit with your son. I'll have something brought to you." She stopped in front of the Vision Knight and looked critically at his eyes. "What do you see?"
"Shades and shadows," he replied. "Vision is all messed up. But I feel fine and have no more pain. My senses just haven't come back into balance yet."
"All right. I'll see you later." Arlyn gave his arm a quick squeeze and headed outside.
Angmor sat down at the table with Rowarn; shortly after, a barmaid came and brought winter ale, bacon, nuts, and roasted hot mushrooms.
They drank and ate in silence for a while. Then Angmor retracted his claws and stretched out his hand without turning his head. His eyes gazed fixedly straight ahead. Gently he felt over Rowarn's wet cheek. "What about you?"
"N-nothing more." Rowarn tried to get his voice under control and breathe more calmly.
"I heard a letter came from the Velerii."
"Oh, everything is fine there, they are sending two hundred horses, and they are having a foal, and Jelim is expecting her child soon, and Inniu seems to be the same as always, they miss me, but they are also proud of me." Rowarn spoke hastily, without pause for breath.
Angmor slightly lowered his horned head as he reached for his mug and pulled it closer to him. "What is it then?"
Rowarn would have liked to get up and run away. Since when did his father care about his state of mind? Since when did Angmor even care what others thought and felt? He didn't need that right now. The last thing he wanted was the pity of a demon.
"Talk to me," Angmor demanded.
Rowarn realized he was being unfair and gave a jerk. "It ... it's because of Noïrun. Arlyn said ..." He couldn't say it, but he didn't need to. Everyone knew it long ago, after all, only he hadn't wanted to admit it. Neither did Noïrun himself.
Angmor ran his finger over the rim of the jug. "You … love him that much?"
Rowarn was on the verge of losing his cool. "I ... I just can't imagine us going to Iron Watch in the spring without him. I can't imagine going on without him at all. I mean ... surely we'll manage somehow. Felhir is very capable, and there's Olrig, and you're in ... But ..." He interrupted himself and shook his head.
Angmor thought silently for a while. Then he asked slowly, "Would you mourn for me as well?"
Rowarn stared at his father, deeply concerned. "I don't know," he whispered.
Angmor said no more.
Outside, the sun was fighting a battle against an army of clouds that couldn't decide whether they were carrying snow or rain. Huge shadows rushed across the damp cold land, the wind shook the trees and tugged at the dry fern fronds. Silently father and son sat until Olrig joined them; tired, but not without a smile. The dwarf never gave up. He actually managed to lighten the mood a bit when Reeb and Laradim arrived, and they sang songs until lunch was brought, joined by Arlyn and Graum. Rowarn didn't manage to keep up his gloom for long, the others wouldn't let him, and even Angmor got carried away, telling a cheerful anecdote about his friend Loghir that not even Arlyn knew.
During the day, messengers arrived from two directions. They confirmed the reports of the Velerii about marauding Dubhani, who went murdering through the country, appearing here today and there tomorrow and terrifying the population. There was also a search for the Guardians of the Shards, for many wise women and hermits had been captured and tortured into revealing their knowledge. But the Guardians were well hidden, there was no trace of them.
"Then I must do something immediately!" cried Rowarn after the two messengers had finished their report, but Angmor slowed him down.
"You won't do anything before spring. We won't start a battle now in winter. Felhir will meet the gangs in his own way. He knows what to do! Trust him. And the wise know how to fight back in their own way. They are prepared for it, it is not the first time something like this happens. Don't take responsibility for everything, others can also act on your behalf."
"But it's my fault," Rowarn objected. "If I hadn't struck with the sword ..."
Angmor cut him off with a wave of his hand. "Then Femris might have slain or captured you, and me and Arlyn to boot. Stop it already! Our situation is not that bad. Be patient, you're not a fast-moving person. Stick to the teachings of your mothers!"
Graum came in, with a disheveled messenger falcon in one hand and a scroll in the other. "This feathered creature almost didn't want to give me the message." He handed the scroll to Rowarn. "From Iron Watch, it bears the seal of the Master of the Host. Today is the day of news, this is by no means the only bearer. Word must have spread that we have arrived here."
Rowarn nodded to the two waiting messengers, who were finally allowed to munch on the proffered meal. "Excuse us." He walked with the two demons into the small room next to the kitchen, vomited the sigil, and read hastily.
"Talk already," growled the Shadow Lynx, still holding the clamoring messenger falcon.
"As you said, Father – Felhir is taking care of the scattered Dubhani," Rowarn reported, slowly lowering the scroll. "And in the Splinter Crown, the new army commander has arrived."
"Who?" asked Angmor impatiently.
"Again, you were right. It is a demon called the Gorgonian."
"Sherkun!", Graum exclaimed, and his whiskers bristled, driving the wriggling hawk to despair. With a sharp beak, it pecked Graum's furry hand in panic, but he didn't even seem to feel it. "What do you think Femris baited him with?"
"He certainly cost himself a lot," Angmor commented, his brow ridges darkly contracted. "Sherkun is tall and in his prime, and a favorite of our god. A powerful adversary. Winning him as an ally should not have been easy for Femris. Sherkun usually doesn't bother with mundane events since he took possession of the island of Gorgonea and has been exercising his reign of terror there." He sighed. "If I were younger, I would have been looking forward to the fight."
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