CHAPTER III - THE DARK SIDE
oldar was as busy and active as always on the Avis Day, the first day of the month. Who should wonder - like every Avis it was a market day and life in the city was simmering and bustling accordingly: From all the surrounding villages and cities, sightseers and customers had arrived as uncounted pairs of legs chased over the paved stones, and an excited babble of a multitude of voices filled the narrow streets.
The whole of the main street of Voldar was sowed with a great variety of venders: Stalls, ranging from the herbalist to the rope maker, from the weaver to the weapon- and armor smiths, sold everything anybody might desire - even if the common folks could not afford most of the precious treasures offered. What could hardly be overlooked - and not overheard - were the performances of the jugglers, marionette players, acrobats and several magic apprentices. The latter clearly attracted the most spectators, eccentrics who were so widely admired, trying to make an honest effort to perform the tricks which they had highly praised in advance: They earned a few sans with their few and still rather humble skills, which they had learned in their first lessons at the Magical Academy in faraway Ximax at the west coast. To a learned sorcerer such trifles were nothing extraordinary, seemingly not even worth a brief glance - the eager crowd, however, was fully satisfied with seeing levitated objects, vanishing doves, and a fiery rain of sparks shooting from the tender fingertips of a young apprentice. After all, it was a rare treat that the Academy granted the students leave from its hallowed halls, and that such a veritable magic user was allowed to show his skills here in Voldar, so far from the famous City of Magic.
The children and adolescents were, of course, utterly fascinated by the mages, while the parents were fully ready to pay the apprentices for the entertainment of their young ones. - And for those still not satisfied: Even a seller of curiosities had found his way to Voldar, another rare honor indeed. He sold stones of magic, potions, luck amulets and similar things, which sold like hot cakes - even though it was not a secret that he did not intend to stay in the region for long, for reasons of business. - There was indeed a colorful and lighthearted commotion throughout the city, which was to everyone's taste. The market venders screamed themselves hoarse, the vendors offering refreshments at every corner had difficulty withstanding the stream of customers, and the innkeepers at the main street could hardly keep up with pouring the wine for their customers - no matter how Grothar let the sun burn down upon the Caelereth. From all directions, the most diverse odors and scents drifted towards the crowd that was slowly flooding through the sea of offered wares: Spice cakes from Thyslan, freshly caught fish from Accam, warm bread and huge amounts of confections and sweetmeat mingled to form an intense scent combination. The fragrance at first seemed unbearable to a nose not used to it, but once one had entered the commotion and was unable to escape the smell, one - having no other choice - found something in it that could almost be mistaken for 'pleasure'.
Eyrin, however, did not intend to allow himself to be distracted by the colorful atmosphere. Alas, he was unable to avoid the turmoil, since the inn he was making for was near the center of the city. Thus the rider had to force his way through a roaring crowd, returning a few occasional greetings now and then, and often speaking sharply to some who had picked of all places a narrow passageway between two well-visited booths for their gossiping.
At last he reached his destination. Above the entrance to the inn there hung indeed a magnificent lantern. Magnificent in size, but not regarding its condition. "The Golden Lantern" was written in great golden letters on washed-out, carmine colored sign, which was suspended directly below the lantern by two chains. The rust on the lantern made one strongly doubt the genuineness of the gold in question.
Eyrin halted. Involuntarily he looked up to Thyrrinth's Hold, which was clearly visible from the "Lantern". The fortress of the Count was set upon a steep hill in the middle of the town, and dated back to the war when Kaertherom's men defended Vardýnn against the elves. It was nearly a thousand years old. As Eyrin looked upon the castle over the swarming marketplace, he detected nothing out of the ordinary. Several guards stood beside the drawbridge, still and rigid as ever, as if they knew nothing about the whereabouts of their employer and regent.
Eyrin dismounted and lifted Mobb from the back of the horse. Then he tethered Chin to a post next to a couple of other horses.
"By the nine-tailed tomcat of Minich!", Mobb cursed himself. Startled by this sudden outburst, Eyrin cast him a questioning look. "Taram," Mobb exclaimed heatedly. "I completely forgot about him! We were in the middle of playing 'Hunt the thief'! By the Twelve, it's nearly an hour since! He surely is still searching for me... - I... I've gotta go right now..."
"All right, boy! Get going! I think you have done your duty for today in any case," Eyrin replied.
"See you! Thanks for taking me back", the lad called back, while he was already rushing towards the nearest group of people, and he was soon swallowed up in the crowd.
In the inn, Rosalind was already expecting Eyrin. She was at the moment busy supplying a rather noisy, heavily pipe-smoking group of men with a large round of ale. When she noticed Eyrin, she immediately approached him. "Seyella greet you, Eyrin! I hope you escaped the throng out there unscathed. Come", she said smiling, and motioned for him to follow her. Rosalind went ahead into the back room, where a second jolly company cheered them merrily as they passed. Eyrin was almost relieved that they were strangers visiting the city, so that he didn't need to explain himself to anyone as he followed Rosalind and descended the creaking stairs down to the wine cellar.
The cellar was large, but most of it was utterly dark. Only from the stairway, that they had just descended, did light enter into the room, together with subdued voices and the occasional roar from the carousers in the back room. A strange smell of damp earth and sweet wine permeated the air, mingled with the spicy scent of a supply of roast meat.
"Wait, or you'll stumble!", Rosalind warned Eyrin. She purposefully moved through the darkness, found what she was seeking, and then carefully lighted an oil lamp. The flickering light gave her face a slightly ghost-like hue. Her face was familiar to Eyrin: It was a good-natured, friendly face that was popular among many in the city. But it was also a face that could not hide the indications of its age: In the thick black hair that Rosalind had bound into a knot at the back of her head, the many grey strains were hardly overlooked. But it was only now, in the lamp light, that Eyrin clearly saw Rosalind's true age. For more than twenty years he had seen this face almost daily like the face of a close confederate and almost as often as the face of old Minna, who had nurtured him as a child. However, this time, as he examined her face in the flickering shine of the lamp, as a single face, not as a face among other faces, it suddenly seemed changed to him: More remarkable, wiser somehow.
Rosalind laid the little tinderbox back on a small table and wiped her hands on her apron. Then she took up the lamp and turned to Eyrin.
"I'm sorry that I could not tell you what is going on when we were up there. But on one hand I don't know much about it myself, and on the other hand the Count does not want the guests to learn that he is holding his secret conference down here. Too many ears up there in the inn, and they tend to always hear things they shouldn't." Rosalind rolled her eyes. "You ought to know that the Count himself instructed me to send Mobb to you with the errand. He does not want any rumors to start in the city."
"Yes, Mobb told me about it - and about the strangers and the half-elf too! What is it about? You make me curious..."
"Now, now, I am sure that the Count will tell you, even though he kept it secret from me. But he seemed very excited that's for sure... He forbade me to ask the strangers any questions - all my visitors constantly inquire about them. I don't even know their names! Well, and concerning the half-elf; he left the city this morning, ere the vendors had set up their stalls. No man knows where he's heading."
"I see." The youth nodded, but asked nothing more about the half elf. He let his eyes wander through the now slightly more illuminated cellar. He saw the silhouettes of huge wine casks, and a veritable host of shelves stacked with bottles, which filled the whole vault to the last corner.
"Come," the landlady said and began to go ahead. Eyrin followed her. They passed through several passages, surrounded on both sides by casks as high as an adult man. In addition to the great height of the barrels, the room between them had become so narrow that anyone passing through felt an uneasy fear of being squashed by them, and involuntarily made only slow, small steps. Eyrin was impressed at the way the toil of many years had collected here in a cellar, in the form of uncountable, gigantic monuments that struck the one passing through with awe of the slow work of time. And the work paid, as he well knew, for the wine that was served in the tavern was excellent.
"The Count came very early today in order to confer with the strangers", Rosalind interrupted Eyrin's wondering, as they proceeded along the cellar. "They've been sitting down there for nearly five hours now. It has to be something really important. By the Twelve, to be honest: It's rather rare that someone meets down here in our secret chamber. Why, it must be half a dozen cycles since the last time the Count had discussions here with anyone. You know what had happened back then; the Sneaking Shadows abducted the daughter of Oregrin the merchant - terrible thing, that!" For a moment Eyrin forgot the reason for his coming, as he put his mind to the sad fate of the young Evella.
Rosalind cleared her throat. They had now gone around a bend, forced themselves through a - at first sight unrecognizable - gap between the barrels on the right hand, and were now approaching a hidden winding stairway of stone. It went steeply down.
The second basement looked far more disordered and dusty than the wine cellar. Like Mobb had described it to him, the narrow tunnels of sandstone were largely covered in cobwebs; and a few rats, disturbed by the light, rushed hastily back into the darkness. When the tunnel came to an apparent dead end, they halted.
Rosalind's lips formed a smile. "Incidentally, have you ever seen a magically concealed door before?", she asked Eyrin. He shook his head, while recalling Mobb's words. Rosalind went on: "Several centuries ago, when there were few who could work magic, it was a common protection to magically lock important doors - 'tis said that these were the headquarters of a robber gang, and that they kept their booty down here and hid it with the magic. Nowadays every village has its local magic user - that's probably why magic seals went out of fashion and people went back to relying on a simple, sturdy lock... But this door is old, very old, and it was locked and concealed by magic, believe me. It's a true rarity in this region!" Rosalind pointed at the wall. "Mobb was totally awe-struck! - Touch it!"
Eyrin laid his hand on the wall. He jumped back in alarm as it slid through the sandstone with no resistance and was gone without a trace. He pulled it back out immediately: It was still attached and unscathed. He pressed it against the wall a second time, and again it slid into a substance that turned out to be a complete illusion. Eyrin carefully pushed his hand further in. Only when it had vanished completely and only his wrist was still visible, he met a hard, substantial and solid resistance.
"Verily, a marvel! It's a wall and yet it is not..."
"Look here, it's really quite simple to open it - if you know how to!" Rosalind positioned herself before the wall, lifted the lamp and began to slowly swing it from side to side a few times, as if signalling to whatever power was concealed behind the door. A small, unnaturally buzzing sound was heard, and the illusion of the wall blurred to insubstantial shapes. Voices could suddenly be heard through the cloud of mist.
But Eyrin had little time to gape in wonder. After the mists of imaginary sandstone had cleared, a small, windowless chamber was revealed: The floor was made up of wooden boards, and a magnificent carpet was draped over it. In the center of the room stood a great, round table of oak wood, and there was even a fireplace build into the little chamber; and its fire gave off a cozy warmth. The only source of light apart from the fireside was the lantern that stood on the table.
Three men sat there, apparently absorbed in a discussion. Eyrin recognized one of them as the Count. He wore his usual garb of office: A violet robe with a high, gold-rimmed collar and expensive decorations on the shoulders; on the front was the picture of an eagle in flight, the emblem of Vardýnn. A pompous belt with a golden buckle and inlaid jewels completed the picture.
Rosalind stepped aside and allowed Eyrin the precedence. As tradition demanded, Eyrin bowed formally as the subject approaching his lord: "Greetings, your excellency! The curier is putting his service at your disposal. I am ready, and proud to accept an assignment from your own hand."
"I thank you, Eyrin." The three of them had risen from their seats, and the Count was speaking. "But I beg you not to overdo the formalities", he placated the newcomer who was well known to the Count. "Our guests might get a wrong expressions of our customs in the northern reaches of the realm."
Eyrin turned to the two men clad in grey robes; apparently they had - contrary to Morlins jestingly uttered fears - lifted their hoods. Eyrin bowed again. "Seyella greet you, my lords! My name is Eyrin."
"Greetings, courier." The apparently older of the two strangers extended his hand, but did not introduce himself further. Confused, Eyrin shook his hand, while gazing into a stern, wrinkled face with a high forehead and austere, piercing eyes. The little hair that the stranger still possessed had long turned white, and formed a semicircle around the back of his head. Contrary to his companion, he wore no beard, though he had clearly not used a shaving knife in the last three days - it was unclear whether this was because he was so deeply absorbed in important state business, or simply careless.
"Welcome" the other said briefly, and imitated the older one in terms of secretiveness. Eyrin shook that hand as well: it was damp with sweat. The man seemed to be shorter than his companion by at least one head, but his frame was stouter. He wore a full beard and had bushy eyebrows. As Eyrin was shaking his hand, he immediately noticed - besides the fact that the stranger had a rather resolute handshake - a conspicuous and unusually large ring on his hand. It curled around the finger in a spiral, imitating the form of a serpent; on the head of the beast, a strange design was engraved, resembling a dwarven rune more than anything else - but Eyrin did not recognize it. And Eyrin made another observation: Now that the men in the grey cowl were standing up, the youth noticed that they took up a rather stooped posture. He was not sure if he was right, but it seemed to him that standing upright caused them difficulty for some reason.
"Rosalind? You may go now, thank you." The Count signaled to the landlady.
She made a polite curtsey, and disappeared through the opening in which the mysterious magical wall had been. With another ritual-like ceremony by Rosalind, it condensed once more into illusionary matter.
At the behest of the Count, Eyrin sat down on the last free chair at the table, facing the regent, the cowl wearers on either side of him. As he sat at the table and pushed the lantern aside a bit, he saw that, stretched over the whole top of the table, was a map of white leather depicting all of the Santharian lands. He looked around: The room was not very large, but apart from the fireside it also contained a shelf of books, in which a few books were missing; these now lay on the table before the Count, some of them open, together with a few parchment scrolls strewn over the table. The Count seemed to have frequently consulted them during his discussion with the cowl wearers.
"Eyrin! You are, in spite of your youth, a man in whom I could always bestow my absolute trust", the Count began. "And this trust will have to be justified more than ever before in the task I hold in store for you now. But I am sure that you will not disappoint me and my guests." The Count spoke slowly and chose his words with great care. As was his habit, he constantly stroked his finely trimmed white goatee with his right hand while speaking; he would start by gripping his cheekbone with his right hand, drawing the fingers down to the chin and finally pulling them down the beard, and then repeating the process with the same, practiced air. "I shall introduce our guests to you. While their tasks and profession must stay a secret for the sake of all the Santharian lands, their names may suffice. These are Turcan and Dormetror." The Count pointed first to the younger one sitting at his left side, then to the white-haired man.
Dormetror's expression became even sterner as he heard the Count mention his name.
"Your Grace!" He suddenly interceded in an unexpectedly sharp tone, and rose as if he had been stung. "I shall have to remind you of your agreement to keep our identities disclosed from your emissary. You are right now violating said agreement directly!" Bewilderment was written all over Dormetror's face. "With renewed emphasis I must repeat that you will have to stick to our agreements for the sake of our mission, and not needlessly endanger our common duty!"
"Indeed!" the second one added, who had just been addressed with the name Turcan, and who, too, could not hide his disquiet. "We have not come here and given away all information on our strivings carelessness, just to be thus rewarded from your own mouth! I do not understand your actions!"
"Calm down please, calm down!" The Count was forced to raise his usually very tranquil voice. He formed a rejecting gesture with his hands. "I am sufficiently familiar with my duty and responsibilities, Dormetror. And because I know it well, I recognize in my words no violation of my promise. It is not my desire to endanger you by revealing your origins, and thus putting the reputation of my word of honor in jeopardy. Believe me: Your names are hardly sufficient for your identification, and are thus unimportant concerning our mission. And Eyrin will - by his oath on the King - certainly keep your names to himself. I deem that the fault of carelessness lies with you rather, for you draw unnecessary attention with your constant demands for secrecy, if you will not calm down. Once again: I fully trust Eyrin. He is a good man." He paused, letting his assurances sink in, and inhaled. Then he added: "But I hold the opinion that every honorable citizen has the right to at least know how to address his partner in a discussion, much more his employers. This one information should be imparted on him despite the seriousness of the situation."
Turcan grumbled. Dormetror however seemed to understand and accept the Count's point of view, and gave in: "Excuse my rashness, your Grace. I see now that your intentions are as good as ours. But the warning to take care cannot be spoken early enough, and I have been rash in speaking my concerns. Excuse our worries, and go on in your instructions to your courier."
"I thank you for your understanding, Dormetror." The Count turned to Eyrin once more, who had followed the discussion wordlessly and was now waiting for explanations. From what he had just seen in the conversation before him, these must be of a truly precarious nature.
"Eyrin", the Count began again.
"Yes, your excellency!"
"You can see yourself how difficult it is to instruct you in your task, since the information I must give you is not for the ears and eyes of others. The more difficult it shall be for you to fulfill this quest. I am forced to leave you uninformed about the nature and content of the message you are to deliver - which is not the first time, but this time the matter is of significantly more importance than any other. For this reason, I ask you to follow my instructions to the last letter. You shall see that they are simple, but leave little margin for mistakes and demand your total dedication. Therefore, hark to the few things my guests will allow me to impart on you, and also the information I shall add myself, in order to give you a little background:
"Yester eve these two men arrived at our city. I had expected them several weeks earlier, but their tasks and duties - which are currently taken care of by others - kept them from coming here. As you can see, they are still marked by the arduous efforts they had to make, and their tempers are easily roused if you are not careful; so we will have to have patience with them." He patted Dormetror on the shoulder, and caused him to smile slightly. It was a spontaneous, friendly gesture, which dissolved much of the tension in the room. Eyrin had always marveled at the sovereignty of the Count. With his calm temper he always knew how to regain his humane side. Years of experience and wisdom lay in his words, for which he was admired and envied by many. To acquire all of these, as Eyrin knew, took much time and patience - not least the maturity, that is needed first of all, as old Minna had taught him: The maturity to admit to oneself that fate cannot be forced or commanded, as much as one would wish to do so.
The Count continued in his speech, now addressing the strangers. "You deserve all our thanks. Not only ours, of the Vardýnnians here in Voldar, but the thanks of all the races populating Santharia. I say nothing new to you in this, but to you, Eyrin." His eyes swept back to the courier sitting opposite of him, and his expression grew stern. "Eyrin, your mission is, like the deeds of our guests, of utmost importance for the well-being of our Kingdom. It is a hard task, certainly, but it is necessary. Every hour that Dormetror and Turcan spend here is a lost hour, and their return may already be too late. At least, the influence we can have on the current events is decreasing rapidly..." He sighed. "From our guests I received unsettling news, following which their efforts are in danger of being disastrously undermined, hindered and foiled. Measures must be taken; measures which surpass even my authority and capacities as the Count of Vardýnn. They are too important, and their consequences affect the whole country." The Count pulled his chair a bit closer to the table, and put his hand on that of his courier in a gesture of sympathy, like a concerned mother trying to comfort her sick daughter. "Eyrin...", he said with an expression of resolution. "You will depart before nightfall to travel to the King!" In his tone there was an air of solemnity, but at the same time the bitterness about the events making such desperate measures necessary. Dormetror and Turcan nodded silently in agreement.
"To ... to the King?" Eyrin looked incredulously on the face, and tried to regain his composure. Never before had he been sent to the ruler of Santharia himself - a task that required far more than the mere delivering of a message. Two contradictory sentiments were battling within him: On the one hand the desire for adventure, and curiosity to visit the King, but on the other hand the danger and the indistinct, dark peril, which was audible in the Count's words. The situation must indeed be serious, more serious than ever before. But Eyrin had no other choice.
"Yes, to the King", Eyrin heard someone say; the voice sounded far-off to him, and he did not know who had spoken: Too far was he immersed in his own thoughts. When he looked up, the Count was looking at him intently again; he seemed to guess Eyrin's feelings. "We have run out of alternatives, Eyrin. We urgently need the aid of the royal court. And one thing is certain: We have absolutely no time to lose!"
"Does that mean..." Eyrin paused. "...War?" He was suddenly searching for explanations for this strange task. Too quickly did the situation dawn on him; too clearly did he understand the significance of the Count's words. "Are the orcs crossing the Teiphra again? Are they standing before Nyermersys?" Eyrin spewed out his most pressing questions, completely forgetting to properly address the Count.
Dormetror interrupted the Count, who was already preparing to speak. "Listen again, courier! We are not authorized to give you detailed information. Though you may think it odd, it is the only possibility that allows us to send you on your way. Believe me, it is to your benefit!" He made a helpless gesture. "It would be better if you did not worry about the details, but try to fulfill your task as best as possible." Dormetror was speaking as resolutely as before, seemingly still in an effort to prevent the Count from rashly answering Eyrin's questions. "Should the worst come to pass – Santharia will doubtlessly learn of it soon enough. As of yet – honorable Eyasha be thanked! – it has not come that far, but the bad omens are increasing, mind you! Meanwhile, in hard times such as these, it is our duty to perceive hope not just as a word, but as a way of living – a way that is now needed more than ever, in both great and little matters, Eyrin.
Whatever has happened, and whatever may yet come to pass, rest assured: Always it is in our hands to hinder the evil. Did not the Fate Goddess Seyella herself speak to Esteban, that it is not she, who weaves the pattern of destiny, but that she only spins the yarn? Whether the thread is torn, or whether a most wondrous melody flows from it, that matter rests in the hands of the one who tries to pull it. But if you do not grasp it, you will never learn what the strand would have held in store for you."
Eyrin remained silent.
"The evil does not sleep, Eyrin, but it makes little sense to upset the people with that knowledge - at least not right now.", the Count spoke again. "Alas, if it were that simple..." The hesitation still had hardly faded from Eyrin's face, which the Count did not fail to notice. "It may be that our words only cause confusion within you", he continued. "But this is the path that you must go." The Count gestured to Turcan. "Turcan - please hand me the chest now!"
Turcan, who had inconspicuously remained in the background so far, rose from his seat. He drew a little chest from under the bookshelf, put it on the table and gave it to the Count. As all eyes were directed at him, the cowl wearer was overcome by a slight shudder in the moment in which he lifted the chest. When he reached the table, he let it slide out of his hands in an almost blundering way. Eyrin also noticed that Turcan's forehead was covered in perspiration, and he wondered what was the cause for this sudden agitation.
The Count opened the chest and took out a sealed letter as well as a small casket, and handed them to Eyrin with cautioning words: "This is meant only for the eyes of the King – so do not surrender it to anyone, no matter what might happen and who might demand it from you with a pretence!" He drew up one eyebrow. "Keep both items separated from each other, so that they will not fall into an enemy's hand at once, should any such situation arise in spite of all caution. Also, avoid carefully all areas inhabited by mischievous beasts and creatures, or areas where the trolls are said to dwell." The Count drew another paper from the chest. "This will be very helpful to you: It authorizes you to exchange your horse at every station on the way from Voldar to Santhala free of charge. Make use of it as often as possible, because you have need for great haste on your way. You will need this document, for you cannot ride with the official insignia of a courier this time, but only in the raiment of an ordinary traveler; it is for your own protection." The Count reached into the chest for the last time, this time his hand appeared with a bag of jingling copper coins. "Five hundred sans belong to you in advance, Eyrin, and you shall receive the same amount again when you have completed your task to our satisfaction…" He paused, seemingly in thought whether he had forgotten an important matter.
"The camouflage assignment, your Grace", Dormetror came to his aid at the right moment.
"Oh yes, there is something else, Eyrin. Do not forget that the purpose of your mission is not meant for other ears, not even those close to you. As a cover, you will therefore officially deliver a letter for a Santhalian merchant, who is a close confidant of the court of Voldar. I shall---"
The count never finished his sentence, for a strong gust of wind suddenly seemed to blow through the flames in the fireplace. As though smothered by an invisible force, the fiery tongues hissed and flickered, and lashed out in all directions, before they all died as if on command. The light of the lantern that stood on the table also danced around madly in its casket, but decided to further give light to its surroundings. Nonetheless, it continued to flicker, like to a racing heartbeat, threatening to be go out any moment. All of a sudden, the room was filled with an icy coldness.
"What in the name of the Twelve...?"
In the eerie dim light, Eyrin glimpsed that the Count and Dormetror had risen from their seats. Both of them were intently gazing at Turcan. As Eyrin followed their looks, he was alarmed: The eyes of the man were wide open, and turned upwards like in a trance. Seemingly, he was having a fit. His heavy body lurched on the chair like a leaf gripped by storm. Finally, he toppled to the floor; a small, unarticulated scream escaped from his mouth as if his throat was closed by something. Then he was still. The coldness in the room increased rapidly.
Eyrin jumped up and kneeled down next to the fallen man. But when he touched Turcan, he recoiled instantly: The body was hard and rigid as iron, and it was cold as ice. Eyrin did not know whether it was just an illusion caused by the flickering light, or horrible reality, as he watched another phenomenon: In the back corner of the room, something slowly formed out of the shadows; it soundlessly glided out of dark, nearly invisibly. A shade, a nothingness, which started to move on its own accord. With what might almost be called determination, it drifted towards the unmoving Turcan.
A hissing followed that set the teeth on edge, making it clear for Eyrin that what he was seeing was not an illusion, but a nightmare that had come true. Unable to move, he followed the horrifying happenings with his eyes: The gliding shade slithered forwards, finally engulfed the unconscious Turcan, and slowly merged with him. The freezing cold intensified and became almost unbearable. It emanated from the shade, as Eyrin finally understood, but his fear was too deep to think clearly.
Possessed by the strange power, Turcan opened his eyes. His gaze was directed at Eyrin, wrath and hate shining in his eyes.
He rose to his feet.
In his strangely stooped stance, Turcan resembled a wild beast, ready to pounce on its prey. His huge, strong hands were extended like claws. Large beads of sweat were running down his face in spite of the icy cold; and the color of his face had changed: Blood was suddenly pumping through the frozen face, making his features look artificial, like paint spread to thickly on canvas.
"Give it to me, doomed one! Release it or die!", he yelled, seemingly in a mad intent to destroy the message for the King.
Turcan threw his left hand out like a hook to grasp Eyrin’s, which desperately clung on to the message; he clasped Eyrin’s wrist with a grip like iron. His right hand was struggling to force Eyrin’s fist open, and remove the letter. The youth resisted, his face with a strained expression distorted by pain. But the sudden attack had hit him unprepared, and he was not able to free himself, let alone engage Turcan in a counter attack.
When Turcan realized that Eyrin was not going to submit without a fight, he pressed Eyrin aside with the weight of his stout body. Eyrin slid of his chair and pulled his attacker with him in the process, who was seemingly not willing to release Eyrin’s wrist for anything in the world. In an instant, Turcan leapt onto Eyrin lying on the floor stunned, and again began attacking the hand which was closed around the document.
His strength failing him, Eyrin let go of the letter at last. But ere Turcan could rise to his feet, the youth had thrown one arm around his neck and was dragging him to the floor.
"Let go, misbeliever!", the falling cowl wearer choked, lacking the breath to shout. Without releasing the letter, both his hands were struggling with the arm that was closed around his throat. "I will destroy you, ignorant one!" His voice sounded strange, merciless. No, this could no longer be Turcan.
Eyrin was overwhelmed by fear. In a matter of moments, the situation had completely changed, and he did not know whether what he was doing was right, nor which side he was on. Turcan – was it even still Turcan who he was fighting? – seemed to possess strength beyond Eyrin's reckoning. Ever more vehemently he struggled against the choking grip, and Eyrin felt his own strength waning rapidly with every second. Helpless and desperate he looked up to search the faces of the other men in the room. He found them: In shock, the Count and Dormetror were standing unmovingly, watching the fight, bewilderment and incomprehension were written in their faces.
Finally, Dormetror approached. He went towards the raving Turcan, kneeled before him and looked into his face. "Turcan, what is it?", he asked cautiously, as if his words could soothe Turcan. In spite of the cold, icy sweat was also running down his face in beads.
"Begone, traitor!" yelled Turcan and furiously spat into the other's face.
Dormetror was not put off that easily. Although Turcan was frantically struggling with all his force, Dormetror laid one hand onto the other's forehead. He closed his eyes and seemed to concentrate. After a few seconds, in which Turcan was thrashing even more frantically, Dormetror's hands began to emit a blue glow, and to vibrate slightly.
'A magus!', the thought went through Eyrin's head. 'The Gods be thanked!'
Eyrin felt the resistance of his opponent decreasing. Just as unexpectedly as Turcan's wrath had erupted, his struggling ceased in a moment. The letter he had fought for slid from his fingers, and fell to the floor soundlessly. A last wheeze, and the room was silent apart from Eyrin's heavy panting and the innocent crackling of the lantern. The candle had ceased to flicker. Eyrin felt no movement in the body of the one he held, he almost seemed relaxed. He watched Turcan's hands slide off his arms, which they had just tried so forcefully to remove, then he saw the head nod down and remain there motionless. Respiring in relieve, he loosened his grip, without completely releasing it.
Wordlessly, Dormetror – still kneeling – drew near, lifted Turcan's chin and closely examined the sweat-drenched, worn face, as if trying to recognize something in his features. Finally he closed his eyes. His expression was more and more apathetic, trancelike. Eyrin did not move, his chest rose and fell rhythmically in the unabated beat of his anxiousness. Only one thing Eyrin still noticed: The whole body of the cowl wearer he was holding felt strangely cold, far colder than ever before...
"Careful, Eyrin!" It was Dormetror who had shouted, suddenly waking from his trance. In an instant he stood up, jumped two steps backwards. "Let go of him immediately!", he shouted at Eyrin. "Let go!"
Without further explanation, yes, as if he was not even aware of what was happening before his eyes, Dormetor lowered his head, closed his eyes again and laid the extended fingers of both hands on his forehead. 'Almost like a ritual', Eyrin thought, before he came to the conclusion that there was magic involved once more...
Ere the youth could form another thought, his own voice cut through the room formed to a piercing scream: Within seconds, Turcan's body had frozen with an icy cold. A crystalline, shiny aura emanated from him, an aura that had already engulfed Eyrin, who was unable to escape from it on his own: His hands, his feet, his whole body were out of his control. A terrible pain pierced him, a pain more dreadful than a hundred needle stings, a pain that was so intensive and fierce, that after a few seconds he stopped even perceiving it. He did not feel the pain anymore, and without it, not even himself. For the pain was pure coldness.
Then everything grew dark.
"Agra nem!", a familiar voice reached his ears, but he was unable to determine its origin. Although he did not recognize the voice, and the meaning of the words was unknown to him, he understood that it was calling him; calling him back: Calling him back from a void, a darkness which contained nothing but crystalline ice.
"Agra nem!" Eyrin's blurry vision recognized Dormetror standing at some distance. He, like Turcan, was now surrounded by an aura, but it was a bright, shining glow – he looked as if he was burning. Both of Dormetror's hands were pointing at Eyrin, and Eyrin understood that the fiery rays, that were emanating from them, were the reason for the sudden comfortable warmth that was once again flowing through his body. Each of these rays was like a salve for his painfully searing wounds. Slowly, very slowly, Eyrin felt life flow back into his body.
Turcan rose to his feet. He seemed to be more lively and bloodthirsty than ever before. Without even hesitating for a moment, he gave the heavy oak desk a kick with his foot, which sent it flying in the direction of the Count. The Count had no chance of evading it, and the desk with all its contents buried him with a crash. Glass shattered: The lantern was broken, and its oil was running over the carpet. Flames darted high, and greedily licked around the heavy carpets on the floor.
Desperately, Eyrin attempted to move, but his body only reacted with stabbing pain. Neither joining the fight, nor escaping was an option. He was condemned to watch the events helplessly.
Before his eyes, the situation was becoming critical. The tide had seemingly turned. Turcan was now facing only one last serious opponent: Dormetror, who Eyrin had counted among Turcan's closest friends only minutes ago.
Resolutely, Dormetror was glaring at the quickly spreading flames. "Agra szem! Karong szem!" Once more he raised his hand and spoke sharp words to the ever more threatening fire, that was already drawing dangerously close to the count, who was unable to escape. He repeated the formula several times. His voice grew louder and louder, and the air around him began to hiss and whistle. Finally, the incantation seemed to take effect, and a mighty blast of wind raced through the chamber.
A loud hissing noise followed, and the flames died. For a few moments, utter darkness enveloped the room.
One mere gesture from Turcan's hand was enough to ignite the fireplace again and give light to the battle scene. Slowly, the silhouettes of the two opposing men again became distinguishable from the darkness around them.
"You can still do it, blasphemous one – but not for long…", the strange voice from Turcan's mouth penetrated the darkness. The bearded man laughed aloud. Then he approached Dormetror again. The sight of the two bent opponents seemed almost uncanny to Eyrin, like to a grotesque duel between two overgrown gnomes.
Suddenly, Turcan drew a dagger from under his cowl. The blade glittered dangerously bright, as if bloodthirsty.
"Resist him, Turcan – By the One! Fight his power... You have strength enough to resist! Turcan! Take away his power!" For the first time, Eyrin saw genuine fear in the eyes of Dormetror. He yelled in panic, at the top of his voice. He had no time to counter the attack of his enemy with magical means; and he possessed no weapon with which to defend himself.
"Turcan! Halt! Resist!" Dormetror was seemingly trying desperately to wake Turcan, to call him to his senses, to appeal to something inside him which Eyrin did not understand. But his desperate pleas sounded hopeless, like the cries of a drowning man in the middle of a wide ocean.
Turcan's features had changed to a twisted, unnatural grimace, that looked as if it belonged to a daemonic creature that had found its way into life through dark magic, and which was now indulging itself with the pleasure of dragging all life down with it, into the abyss from where it had come.
"I will kill you too, you traitor!", spoke the deep, croaking voice out of Turcan's mouth, emanating hatred.
The dagger shot forwards toward Dormetror. It sliced through the heavy cowl of its victim as if cutting through paper, but it missed Dormetror himself by nailsbreadths, who had jumped aside in the last moment.
"Wretched one!" A series of wild thrusts cut through the air, uncounted curses accompanying them.
The panic granted unexpected speed to Dormetror. He ducked swiftly in spite of his encumbering clothes, and also dexterously took advantage of the dim light to dance backwards, step by step, and evade the unceasing stabbing thrusts. Aware that they were directly aimed to kill, and that a single mistake could cost him his life, he managed again and again to dodge the mortal stabs by a nailsbreadth.
But as Dormetror reached the door, he realized that there was no escape for him from the room: The door was the only exit, but it was magically sealed and there was no time for a counter charm. And the options he had of defending himself were limited...
With his back against the wall, he saw Turcan approach him. One last step brought him so close that Dormetror had no hope of escaping to either side.
Eyrin closed his eyes.
A piercing scream told him that Dormetror had been hit.
Eyrin opened his eyes again, expecting the worst, and prepared for a gruesome sight.
But still the fight was not over yet. Dormetror was cowering on the floor. An open wound was throbbing at his shoulder, the floor was covered with blood. He was whimpering.
Again the dagger rose, its blood-drenched blade was thirsting for more. The madly petrified grimace above it knew no pity, and no mercy. With a speed that the eye could not follow and which united all the wrath Turcan could muster behind it, the hand shot downwards, toward its target...
Again a scream cut through the room, but this time it was Turcan who had yelled. With his last remaining strength, Dormetror had dragged him to the floor. The dagger slid from Turcan's hands, shot along the carpet and forcefully collided with the opposite wall, as if it still contained the fury of the insane cowl wearer.
Turcan did not let this distract him. He immediately leapt on the wounded Dormetror. Without leaving the mage time to defend himself, he placed several hard fist blows directly into his face.
Eyrin hear the uncontrolled, high-pitched laughter that Turcan emitted in his sadistic joy, saw the relentlessly continuing rain of blows, which Dormetror was helplessly exposed to. The brutal cruelty, and the pleasure he displayed, were of a degree Eyrin had never before seen. He was disgusted.
But Eyrin noted something else: He saw the dagger flying from Turcan's hands, being flung through the room, bouncing off the wall and sliding towards him…
The weapon was now lying less than one fore from his left hand. Eyrin excelled at the use of thrown weapons, but he was unsure if his current condition would allow him to make efficient use of that skill. But it was the last option, the only possibility that he had, and he had to seize it.
And Eyrin did. Without hesitation. Grinding his teeth together, he extended his arm slowly. With the utmost strain, he managed to carefully pull the dagger towards him. His joints were burning with pain as if they were on fire, but he had to bite back the pain. His only chance required that he kept his nerves... Be quick, and – throw precisely...
Eyrin strained to shut out the shrill laughter of Turcan and the weakening yells of Dormetror – at least for the few moments that he needed to concentrate. With great caution and an expression distorted by pain, he passed the dagger over to his right hand. It was as nerveless and numb as the left, but it still possessed enough strength to securely grip the dagger's point between thumb and forefinger. Very gently, he used his left hand to move the handle over the back of his right hand, and back. Then he drew back his arm, and slowly took aim...
"Seyella, help me!" Eyrin yelled, but the strain of shouting caused the scream to end in a choking noise. But it was yet enough to alert his enemy, and cause him to react. Indeed Turcan, who was just bent over Dormetror, rose. His eyes met those of Eyrin, and he noticed the weapon, prepared for throwing.
"Hah! You don't think…", Turcan started to say. A buzzing noise interrupted him. As fast as lightening, the dagger pierced the air. The noise that followed was a short, hard thud.
Eyrin looked up. To his dismay, he saw that he had missed his target. The dagger was deeply embedded in one leg of the oaken table that Turcan had ducked behind.
"You forced me to do this, courier! May Queprur be delighted by your mangled corpse!" Turcan said acidly. He rose up once more. His eyes were glowing greedily, hungrily. He concentrated for a moment, and suddenly a blinding, deadly bolt was flying towards Eyrin.
A last, uncannily intensive feeling of mortal fear gripped the youth.
Then he closed his eyes. As if he could thereby make the spell vanish. As if he could make himself vanish from this fateful room. As if he could make reality itself unreal. As if he could change the fabric of the world. As if...
Something was happening.
Instinctively, Eyrin opened his eyes once more. He saw that the lightening spell had suddenly, inexplicably changed its direction and was flying back towards its originator.
Turcan's eyes widened. His hands were twitching. Their instinctive reflex to protectively cover his body came too late – the deadly missile had already penetrated the man's chest. He was staggering, then he fell to the floor with a thud. His heavy head crashed noisily against the wooden floor. Only moments later his body dissolved and dissipated, as if it had consisted of nothing but dust. Only the grey cowl and the snake-shaped ring, which fell to the floor with a chiming noise, remained.
The nightmare was over.
At the other end of the room Eyrin saw Dormetror rising cautiously to his feet. "Daín artanhé!", he hailed Eyrin in elven custom. "Seyella be praised that we had you among us, Hár'fachón!"
Eyrin nodded, though he did not comprehend the words. A silent prayer flowed over his lips, and he reclined backwards, relieved.
It was almost noon. Most people in the streets were already looking ahead to mealtime in wishful expectation, and the mood of the crowd grew, proportionate to the sun and the weather, steadily more heated and frolicsome.
Eyrin had already completed all necessary preparations for his journey. But before he left for Santhala, he was drawn into the city one last time. Taking a small detour, he had reached the westernmost quarter of the city, Little Varincia, where the buildings were less imposing than in the city center, and where life was a whole lot calmer and more peaceful, out of the way from the bustling rush of the traders. Eyrin enjoyed to ride through these narrow, silent, plastered streets of the town – almost as much as he enjoyed wandering through the forest, allowing himself to be entranced by the wholesome, vibrant scent of nature and listening for the noises of the wakening morning. Contrary to the virtues of nature, the atmosphere of the small town quarter had other charms: The sociability of the families, hospitability and openness were among the otherwise rare virtues in the city life. All this Eyrin had found in the people in this region, and appreciated it. In the streets of Little Varincia there was little poverty and still less jealousy, everyone shared the worries of their neighbors and could expect help if they themselves were in difficulties. That made the ride through the quarter into a heartwarming and pleasant experience: The people knew and appreciated each other, and every stranger who respected the life of the Varincians was just as welcome. But Eyrin already for quite a while was no a stranger to the inhabitants of the quarter.
He stopped in front of a house whose front door was decorated by the picture of a pair of scissors. It was the house of the Martens, the only tailoring house in Little Varincia.
The courier had hardly dismounted, when a dainty figure rushed from the house to greet him eagerly. The welcome was cordial – two short arms threw themselves around Eyrin's neck, and a pair of tender lips pressed themselves on his cheek –, but Eyrin's grave expression tarnished the joy of their reunion.
"You are going to leave – aren't you, Eyrin?", asked Jolanda as she let her arms slide off Eyrin's shoulders to intently gaze into the unusually disturbed looking face. Familiar with the customs of a courier, she had seen the black stallion at the youth's side, and knew that his journey was going to take him far beyond the neighboring towns. Otherwise Eyrin would surely have given Chin the preference. The sparks in Jolanda's dark eyes betrayed how excited and yet worried she was about this.
"Yes, I am leaving", Eyrin replied, almost laconically. Reluctantly he had to acknowledge that his back had not recovered at all, for the hug with Jolanda gave him a devious pain. "I am riding to Santhala", he added. He did not look at Jolanda, but let his gaze wander over the roofs and towards the azure-colored sky and the few clouds. The blue color was soothing, it seemed almost as if nothing had happened. But Eyrin found himself unable to meet Jolanda's eyes.
Jolanda was visibly shocked. It was a long journey to Santhala. "How long will you be gone?", she asked.
"I think it will be at least two weeks ere I reach the capital", Eyrin answered. "A month in total maybe there and back. But I will hurry." He tried to smile.
"But why so sudden?", those naïve two eyes were asking. Eyrin was ashamed that he was not able to do anything else than evade the sincerity of this gaze. "Didn't the Count know about it earlier?"
Eyrin remained silent. Finally, he only said, unoriginally: "I don't know. I can't change it. It's his decision. Somebody has to do it. And it's very important." He spoke in short, chopped sentences, and with great difficulty. It all sounds like a bad excuse, thought Eyrin silently and kissed the long, straw-colored hair, in an attempt to make up for it. He hated telling lies and half-truths to Jolanda – they were too close to hide something from her without feeling guilty. But the pledge on the Kingdom which he had long ago sworn to the Count, and the events which had occurred only hours ago, made it easier for him to keep his silence.
"Take care of Chin for me", said Eyrin.
"I will", Jolanda promised. Her voice sounded soft and consoling. She looked up. Her hands carefully slid over Eyrin's sturdy arms. "But… but you are shaking all over…"
"That's just the excitement", Eyrin said in an attempt to cover up his worries. He hugged Jolanda one last time, inhaled the scent of her hair, felt the wholesome gentleness of her being. "Just the excitement", he repeated to himself, while holding Jolanda in his arms, as if he expected to lose her forever soon. For the first time since long ago he had tears in his eyes.
The lips of the two lovers met.
"Have no fear, Jolanda", Eyrin whispered into the small ear. "I will be back as soon as possible."
1 The captain Kaertherom the Grey, as he was commonly called, successfully defended Voldar against the elves in the second Sarvonian War (550-501 b.S.) for years, thanks to his great experience. As the end of the war approached, the superior contingents of the elves moved north, while Kaertherom and his remaining army left Voldar to unite with the other divisions of Vardýnn and fight a last battle against the elves at the Pass of Selidor, near a castle later called the "Bloodhold". The battle ended with a mass suicide of the remaining human soldiers. In spite of this decisive defeat, Kaertherom is still known as one of the most renown heroes of Vardýnn; not least for his decision to surrender Voldar freely to the elves before the battle. It was due to this act that Voldar survived the war well nigh unscathed. [ok]
2 Still a common exclamation today, especially in the northern regions of the Kingdom. It makes reference to a blundering sorcerer from a Santharian fable. He spoke a spell with which he intended to remove several of the nine lives of one of his tomcats and transfer them to another being. Whatever his aims and intents, the tale tells us that the spell failed miserably, and the result was instead a tomcat with nine tails, an effect which Minich was unable to reverse (see "Master Tribells Miraculous Narrations"). The saying used by Mobb uses this tale to indicate a situation that could have been easily avoided, but can have disastrous and irreversible consequences through the blundering or forgetfulness of the person concerned. [ok]
Story written by Artimidor Federkiel , translated by Arancaytar Ilyaran