A Daemon-Horn Blade Ch. 25 & EpiloguebyStultus©
AFTERWARDS, ANOTHER FORTY YEARS LATER
Rowan held his beloved wife Gwenda extra tightly in bed, for she had been quite ill of late with a winter flux in her lungs that just would not depart, despite the treatments of the local medicus and the village wise-woman together. Even old Ashburn's best trained pupil, Doran, now the master medicus of Tellismere castle had taken ship to tend to her, but none of his remedies seem to offer her any improvement. In addition, her old skull wound suffered at Orshold bothered her increasingly over the years with constant recurring headaches that only a day or sometimes two spent in bed, in darkness would soothe. Her twice wounded shoulder could now accurately predict the weather and tightened painfully in the cold.
His own health, truth be told was not so good either, but he had tried to hide the worst of his aliments from his loving wife, so as not to trouble her. His heart was not so stout and strong, it seemed these cold and short winter days and he now tired easily and often, and he had been quite unable to bear the weight of the hammer in his smithy for very long lately. His own old war wounds were very painful and stiff these days also, particularly his old leg wound, that lamed up his leg so that a crutch or a cane was nearly always necessary now, even for a short walk. Their eldest son Coryn had been the master of the Swanford town forge for some years now, but Rowan, even at the ripe of age of seventy-four still tried to get up every morning and be useful in some small way.
Their eldest son and daughter, true to Gwenda's oath to the dying ship's captain of The Lady Ellyn, had been named for that brave old man and his late wife, who had saved her life on that nearly totally forgotten battlefield of Ruromel. Coryn was a fine mature man with a good wife and a growing family of his own. He was much like Rowan in many ways, quiet and gentle, but with a stout heart when it was needed. He was quite as skilled a smith as his famous father, and his own eldest son had just donned his first apprentice apron to learn the family trade. He was also the headsman of the village, and did those duties well.
Their eldest daughter Ellyn had married well to a good young nobleman of Broadmore, and together the young couple was trying their to match their mother's final brood of fourteen children. Each of the other twelve was now grown and had good lives of their own, mostly in other cities, and towns both in Tellismere and in other duchies, on many of Rowan and Gwenda's gifted lands. Two of Rowan's younger sons, and their second youngest daughter were each officers commanding companies in the small, pitifully maintained Duchy regiments that attempted to keep order in the many wilderness backwater regions of the land where still, even fifty years after the great war, many villages and towns had not been resettled, and most of the existing ones were still too weak to fend off the ever growing bands of bandits.
Rowan and Gwenda had retired from court, for good, some years ago, but the couple still paid regular return visits there to see their dearest friends until Ayleth's sudden illness and death three years ago. Ayleth and Boyle's eldest son, Godfried, was now Duke, and to all signs was trying to be a good one, but the problems he now faced would have overwhelmed even his resolute parents. He already had a consort and a young heir, and once he was sure his son was settled onto the dragon throne, Boyle had retired to Swanford, and there he remained, rarely ever returning to the castle at Tellismere City.
Shrouded in a perpetual fog of grief, he remained near his beloved's grave, where he spent much of his days, rain, snow or shine, until his own death less than a year later. His lungs had been slightly seared by the dragon-flame during his last famous cavalry charge, and they never entirely healed, leaving him with a constant rasping cough that only got worse over the years. When he passed, he was perhaps one of the very last and final victims of the great war, dying from those slow internal wounds at long last, but Rowan and Gwenda knew better. Their friend, acutely missing his heart-song, had quite lost his will to live without her.
Rowan saw that his tomb was laid right next to hers, and he commissioned a carved white marble statue of the two lovers, depicted holding hands together, set above their grave. On every free-day since, they and their many grandchildren would picnic there on the grass of the island, under the carved smiling faces of their old and very dearest friends, and while the children played on the soft and thick green grass nearby, Rowan and Gwenda would somberly relate to their departed friends the latest news. It was usually bad these days.
Despite his best valiant attempts, Duke Godfried was fighting a slowly losing battle against his truculent barons, a weakening economy, and ever growing bands of lawless men in the ever increasing number of wilderness places of the Duchy. Already Lloan Valley had declared itself to be an independent Duchy, and Godfried had far less than sufficient arms-men to force his will in even a fraction of the places that they needed to be sent to. Even the pay of the soldiers was often in arrears, as the Duke had empty tax chests, and little means to forcibly collect even the minimal taxes that were due to him.
The lines on the maps that indicated where his authority ruled shrunk every year, and Rowan feared that by the time Godried's own son took the throne, the actual remaining Duchy of Tellismere would be little more than the area immediately surrounding Crystal Lake.
If Tellismere was poor and fragmenting back into ill-populated wilderness, the other four Duchies, which had suffered little or no actual physical damage during the great war, also had problems of their own. Each had lost great numbers of soldiers, about a third each of their respective armies, and while the defeat of the Eorfleode had been popular with their people at the time, the expenses of the war, and the loss of so many soldiers, had put a tarnish to the immediate afterglow of victory. Resentment began to grow as local taxes increased, collected and provided for the rebuilding of Tellismere for many years, until the bitterness over providing even token such sums was too great even for the more charitable Dukes, like Kelvin of Broadmore. Upon his death, no further pence, let alone any gold marks, went to help Tellismere. Overall, in each of the duchies, growing malaise seemed to turn into stagnation, and trade never seemed to recover to the profitable pre-war levels anywhere.
Broadmore and Drakland were at war, once again. This time probably for keeps. The treaty marriage, where Duke Kelvin's brother Roland had married Perola, the daughter of Duke Enos of Drakland had started auspiciously. The bride had been a fríþwebba, a peace-weaver to bind the two ever warring lands together in friendship, and no one could ever claim that she had not done her part, and with joy. Their marriage proved to be love-match, with the couple ever doting upon the other, but it was tragically doomed. Despite bearing three children, acknowledged heirs by all to the Duchy of Broadmore, each sickened and died in turn... in rather peculiar and often suspicious circumstances. When the couple themselves were drowned, when their ship sailing back from Drakland after a visit sunk, and in peculiar circumstances, the scramble for the throne of the Duchy began.
Drakland naturally made their claim, based upon the old, pre-war genealogies, and the young Duke of Everdun, and even the Duke of Oswein had new semi-valid claims by blood of their own. In the heady, optimistic days after the great war, the nobles of the five Duchies had intermarried much, and suddenly the idea of turning the Southern Duchies into a kingdom was much less unthinkable than it had been. Each of the four Dukes now plotted how their own head could best fit this crown, and the forges everywhere now rang with steel being beaten into arms and armor.
While the elderly hero Rowan was still hailed for his deeds during the war, the tarnish was growing to his reputation as well. More than a few gléamen and skalds were hinting in their songs and stories, that had Rowan accepted the crown, when it had been first offered, today the kingdom would be a happy and prosperous place. Rowan and Gwenda laughed at those tales, knowing them to be quite untrue... but still the legend of the 'golden age' that was lost, continued to spread, and more common folk, increasingly living lives of poverty and danger, began to believe that fairy tale story.
Old veterans from the war at last no longer came to Swanford to pay their respects. Like Rowan and Gwenda, they were now old and often infirm, if they even still lived. Not a day hardly passed that some note arrived in the mail mentioning the death of an old friend, comrade or companion in arms. Gwenda would read to him the short messages, as his eyes were too weak for most writing these days, and she'd craft a short note of condolence back in return. In past years, especially in good traveling weather, or at the anniversary of the great final battle of Lacestone, throngs of old veterans would come and visit him with their families, as if on holiday, to pay their respects and to introduce their old commander to their children and grandchildren.
To be honest, for many years Rowan found this visits an almost unwelcome distraction, as it made him recall those terrible months of the war that he had spent much of the rest of his life trying to forget. Still, as the years passed, he became more gracious about these visits, appreciating more the love that these old warriors still felt for their once young and inexperienced commander.
The ten year reunions, of which the fiftieth one had just recently passed but two weeks ago, were the hardest upon him still, he felt. Held at the old battlefield of Lacestone, the short journey for him wasn't hard or taxing... but the still overwhelming memories were. His job was to be seen, and to shake the once thousands, and now but a mere few score hands of the survivors. They would gather in formation and salute him, after which he would make a short speech of thanks and welcome. Everyone then would assume their old position in the battle-line, as if recreating the battle once more. The great dragon's head, borrowed from its display in the Duke's castle, would be displayed and everyone would cheer. Then everyone would drink, feast and tell their stories of the war to their families, friends, the townsmen and the thousands of visitors, and to the ever eager groups of gléamen, skalds and story-tellers, eager to hear these tales one last time from the lips of the survivors, trying to not notice when tears came to the old soldiers eyes when they spoke of the death of an old friend or companion. As the ale and wine flowed, the more the tears would flow.
The war had been dreadful for everyone, and sometimes tales of honor and courage weren't an adequate replacement for their feelings of pain and loss, even long decades later.
War, or the rumors of war, seemed to be everywhere. Caestor, emboldened by the weakening of its old rival the Aldarian Blessed Sapphire Empire, constantly threatened Oswein, and all of its other neighbors, and its legions grew. Further to the east from Caestor, Helden and Acquila were locked into a deadlocked war of their own to the bitter end. The stories Rowan had heard were savage and barbaric, as each side, desperate for allies and any sort of tactical advantage, summoned Infernals to the land to fight for them... and with predictable results. The evil daemonic creatures, as always, worked for their own advantage, and now it was they, more so than the two human armies, that ruled that battlefield now.
If he had been bit a bit younger, Rowan mused, he would have gone to that sad land to help repel the Infernals. What madness it was for any mortal to believe that those evil creatures would for even a moment serve them!
"My sword!" He croaked suddenly with a hoarse voice, not remembering that his weary and ill beloved was sleeping by his side. "It was hanging up in the smithy, but I didn't see it there today.
"Gone, some years ago, my love." Gwenda whispered, and then coughed for a long while, as if she were unable to take a clear breath of air. "You gave it our daughter Cwengyth, our youngest. She had a dream in which she was told that she would need to be the next guardian of the sword. She took it with her on her consort-day, when she left home for his lands in the east. Don't you remember?"
"I do now... I had forgotten. I hated that sword... hated what I had to do with it and the lives I had to take with it, both of men and boarmen. Sometimes I look at my hands and I still see only blood. I know! I did what I had to do! I submitted myself to the will of the Weavers and I became their instrument. In return, we have been gifted with a long and happy life, a multitude of children who all honor us, great wealth and even greater power and responsibility over the people of this troubled land... and I am not unthankful. Still, I would pray that I had never forged that Daemon-Horn blade, save that it brought me together with you, my heart-song, and together we saved something of our people, although I fear that when we are gone, the land may yet prove to be finally beyond all saving. Tell me, my love, was it really all worth it?"
"Yes." She whispered, in a low voice that held the entire conviction of her heart. "We saved five lands from certain destruction, and our peoples. The Duchies survive and perhaps someday again they will prosper, but at least the lands are not ruins and the hosts of Boar-Men did not invade the other empires as well. The world will never be a perfect place, but by our examples others might yet fight someday when the odds become equally dismal, and all hope is nearly lost. I hear little of the news these days, but what I do hear saddens me. Bless the Foole and his schemes, for the date of the return of The Seven shall not come too soon!"
"My love, already my heart is near broken by the meager news that I still hear, and I shall continue to spare your ears the most recent tiding, for your illness wearies you much, and I would keep your heart glad, if I could manage it!"
"I was wrong to talk you into taking us to that last reunion." She whispered, and coughed again, awhile later. "I already had a cold and the rain and cold wind did my chest little good! I know you didn't want to go, but I made you... it was just one last final duty to those we owe respect and thanks to for their service. Still, I'm glad you put me right to bed, before the banquet feast was even over, for my chills were already paining me. Even now, with three good quilts upon the bed, I still do shiver!"
"Speaking of the Foole and his schemes, did I tell you, that after I had put you to bed that night, while everyone else was still at the feasting, I limped over to the small goblin village, in the woods outside of Lacestone. Although their lives are shorter than ours, and none there still live that saw our deeds, their stories are passed to their young, faithfully, and even their youngest knows of us and our struggles during the war. Even still, I am as a savior to them and their people, those that follow the banner of the orange flame anyway. I am ever saddened that the peace between men and the púcel travelled little beyond our lands! They told me that the great tree of flame outside of Orshold still burns with my orange flame. Weaker perhaps, but still aglow."
"I think it shall, my love, until after the end of our days." She whispered, holding her man tightly as she fought to take even slight breath.
"There, amidst their own feasting, for their elders fought well and bravely that day as well, in the a corner of the taproom, I saw old Oddtus the Foole playing with a couple of púca children, telling them a story in their own language. I ducked into a dark corner to watch him, but I think he saw and recognized me when I left. He wore a different style and color of motley, and his name has changed, but nevertheless I know it was him. He hadn't aged a day, but from the sound of his voice to the small movements of his hand while he entertained, I knew it could only be him. I hadn't believed it when you talked of the seven Cisalo to me, before Ayleth passed, but I see now you were quite right in your guesses. I would have spoken with him, but I knew not what I should say to a God, or at least a godling, one of his separated seven parts, now trapped living on this world with mortals."
"It really all did make perfect sense, and I should have figured it out years earlier." Gwenda murmured, in-between coughing fits. "Oddtus always did know far too much about the past, even for a Histrio, an acknowledged Lore-Master. The way he talked often of Gældra, the Goddess of Spirit and Magic, sister to his own acknowledged god, was with more love and tenderness than any normal gléaman would show. You could always see it in his eyes when he spoke of her. When he told us about her creation of the seven stones that would divide her power, for the first great wizards to bear in her name, it already made me wonder if Gléagerád, her brother and the wisest of the Gods, had helped her much in their creation? Later, I figured that he too, in turn, did craft his own set of stones to divide his power, so that he too could walk the earth. As the Cisalo, "the hands" of his god, he has walked the earth since the days of the dragon war, now freed from the restrictions of the Weavers to intervene in mortal events. Every old story he told us was true, as he himself had indeed been there."
"So it was his own personal mistake that lead to the great oath-breaking, when men first became the Fex'oegh?" Rowan asked.
"It was... which was why he was so delighted to see you repair that old schism. I do not think that any of the other gods walk among us, as Gléagerád and his sister undoubtedly kept the secret to themselves. This makes me believe more firmly that the return of the other Banished Gods might indeed come soon, and it is towards this secret task that our secretive semi-divine gléaman devotes himself. I would have enjoyed seeing or speaking with him after his healing of Ayleth, for he then promptly disappeared nearly immediately after her restoration, and never returned again."
"He spoke that our role in events was over, and for that alone I am heartily glad." Rowan said. "The will of the Weavers is now upon others, and soon we will take our final rest."
"Earlier, when I was dozing, I had an odd dream. I was in a dark cave, shivering with cold and fever, much as I do now. You were beside me, tending and caring for me... but you were different, as was I! We were enemies it seemed, but also we were lovers, tied together once more by the Weavers for something strange and terrible, and much more important than our own lives or happiness. I could not tell if our next life together will be short or long, or happy or sad... but together, my heart-song, we shall be, once again. We are fated, or perhaps even doomed, to find and eventually lose each other, again and again, so not only in the Shadowlands but again in life shall we meet again, my beloved, and perhaps again later still, until the days of the Weaving are over."
"That is comforting to know, my love, for I feel that I shall not endure a moment beyond your passing. I do not think it is to be my lot to endure, to speak comforting words upon your grassy grave, and abide alone, like Boyle, for a short time lost in a half-life of shadow, beyond the comfort of friendly words or warm sunny skies. Let me hold you tightly, to warm you but a little with my own body, for I too sense that the shears draw near to us, and together with a single cut, they shall take us both. It shall be good in fact to embrace Boyle and Ayleth once more, and I think their touch in the Shadowlands will not be cold or ghostly, but warm and comforting, as they greet us at the gate."