Candlelight flickered in the windows of the small stone church nestled beneath a stand of evergreens. From the broad, moss-covered trunks of the black pines to the rustic gray walls laced with flowering vines, there was a feeling of eternal tranquility. Inside the church, before a gilded altar, a white-haired clergyman sat behind an ornately carved pine-wood table and smoothed his gnarled fingers across a parchment document lying before him. His black clerical cassock, with its close-fitting sleeves, was in stark contrast to the ashen pallor of his skin. Watery eyes, pale blue with cataracts, strained to see the words on the tanned sheepskin, and he nodded as if he were reading each letter with perfect clarity.
Across the table, two gentlemen stood in patient silence, facing the white-collared old man. Both were noticeably younger than the clergyman. The older of the formally dressed men displayed grayed temples and a weathered face that reflected more than sixty years. The broad-shouldered second gentleman was easily a head taller and visibly half the age of his companion, his ebony black hair and taut olive skin a testament to his vigorous health.
Crowded into long, wooden pews, the villagers kept reverent silence in respect for the occasion. Watchful eyes of all ages witnessed the momentous ceremony being performed for Herr Johann Hartmann and the young Baron Emmerich von Hayden, a ceremony that would bind together the two most powerful families in this region of the German Empire known as the Black Forest. Like the centuries-old legends of the dark woods, the history of these families was filled with stories of power, both real and mythical. For it was believed they were direct descendants of medieval mystics, people with inexplicable knowledge of things yet to come and other such unusual gifts of the mind.
The words on the parchment spelled out a promise between the Hartmanns and von Haydens, not only for the prosperity of the Church of the Mystics, but also for the rejuvenation of their own unique psychic powers. Since the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, members had been forced to denounce their beliefs and intermarry with the foreign conquerors, a submission that led to diminished powers, as well as the decline of the church. Though some families had tried to remain deep in the Black Forest where their lineage would not be threatened, only two of these families still claimed a small degree of their inherent spiritual gifts.
Now, despite the heavy rains of late spring, no one in the tiny hamlet dared stay away from the single event that was sure to change their lives—if not that day, certainly some day in the years to come.
The seated patriarch of the church lifted his quill pen and solemnly extended it toward the two gentlemen standing respectfully before him. The new Baron von Hayden accepted it with a formal nod, then leaned over the pine-wood table and signed the agreement.
In the final act that would seal the covenant, the gentlemen grasped palms in a binding handshake as the clergyman slowly rose and stepped around the narrow table. He gently placed his chalk-white fingers over the two hands gripped firmly together and raised his other palm in a silent blessing. Ageless wisdom shining in his pale blue eyes, the black-robed figure lifted his gaze beyond the men to the gathered crowd.
Although his outer form gave the appearance of frailty and weakness, his deep, resonant voice demonstrated an inner vitality and strength.
“Seven days we have mourned the passing of Baron Friedrich von Hayden, a great man and gifted member of our order,” he said. “In the last moments of his life, His Excellency spoke of a dream in which these two special families joined together through the marriage of their firstborn children. From this union, a son was born with gifts of prophecy and divine knowledge. In this vision, the boy grew to be a strong and able leader of our people.
“Today,” he continued, “we have gathered together to witness the signing of this marital agreement between the Hartmanns and von Haydens. Before us and our omniscient God, Merrick has vowed to honor his beloved father’s final wish. Soon he will leave for America where Johann’s son now lives. There Merrick will find and marry the firstborn granddaughter, Ilse.”
But not every villager welcomed the cultivation of a new leader among them. There was no assurance that the gifted child of this union would be kind and generous to his people. With the signing of the covenant, the seed of dissension had begun to grow.
* * *
Hours later, Merrick approached the front of the now-empty church, bowed reverently, then stepped into the first pew. He glanced around the rustic interior of the church, his vision blurring from the tears that threatened to overflow. Deep within, his soul felt torn open again as when he’d sat here years ago, shortly after his mother’s death. Tears came easier for a boy of five than for a man of twenty-four. But the searing pain was just as real.
Dropping his face into his hands, he gave way to quiet sobs for the father he would never see again, a reality he still couldn’t convince himself was true. Even as his shoulders shook, he expected his father’s strong, supportive touch on his shoulder.
After several minutes, the cleansing sobs subsided, replaced by an inner peace that glowed with reassuring warmth. Instinctively, Merrick sensed the change had somehow come from his father’s spirit, transcending the earthly barrier to comfort him. Though physically exhausted, Merrick’s mind cleared of the mists of pain, like an early morning fog dissipated by the heat of the rising sun.
His thoughts focused on the pleasant memories, instead of the tragic loss of a great man. His father’s forty-seven years had been full and prosperous, filled with many friends. Now the vast land holdings had passed to Merrick, as well as the profitable vineyards, a responsibility he’d earned from countless hours at his father’s side.
Yet, unlike his father who had continued to honor his mother’s memory, Merrick had never lacked female companionship, a fact he attributed less to his wealth than to his mystical abilities that tantalized the curiosity of society frauleins.
Merrick sensed somewhere deep in his mind, he’d known all along that this day would come, a day when he would be called upon to put his obligation to family ahead of his selfish pursuits. Despite his independence, his deep devotion to his father and those who were born under their protective barony compelled him to agree to this preordained marriage.
But winning the granddaughter of Herr Hartmann would prove difficult. Twenty years earlier, Johann’s only child, Ernst, had walked away from the old world culture with its myths and legends. He had found a new life in western Pennsylvania where his friends had accepted him as one of their own kind, not a man of mystical ancestry. Ernst had turned his back on the religion of his forefathers. In a disquieting sort of way, Merrick understood the defiance of this man he’d yet to meet. He also knew that, because of this defiance, his quest to marry Ilse Hartmann would not be an easy one.
The mustiness of the old church building mingled with the scent of pine, then gave way to the light fragrance of lavender, so delicately faint as to almost not exist.
A vision of a young woman standing with an adolescent girl wavered before his eyes—the older one fair and delicate, the younger one dark and robust. Though he knew in his special way that the golden-haired woman was Ilse, it was the large emerald eyes of the young girl that stirred a fleeting response from deep within his soul.
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