The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XXXIII - Leaving Yesulam

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

The sun was sliding towards the western horizon when Nemgas and Kashin returned to the small passage adjoining the Great Cathedral. It was hidden behind a wall, and only thin arrow slits allowed the day’s light to penetrate the gloom. The two men smiled faintly on seeing each other, then waited to make sure no one was nearby that might overhear them.

Kashin leaned next to one of the slits, playing his fingers through the shaft of light slanting into the corridor. “It seems the Yeshuel do not know of Jothay’s disappearance.”

“Didst thou speak with them?” Nemgas asked incredulously.

“Nay,” Kashin replied, letting his fingers fall from the light. “But if they knew, they would have spoken of it.” He grimaced and rubbed his fingers into his palm. “Still, it was a terrible risk even listening to them. I know them, trained with them. One wrong step and they would have found me. We do not need that just yet. What did you learn?”

Nemgas leaned against the other wall, running his one hand through his dark hair. “Our things hath been put in the armoury as Czestadt didst say. ‘Twill not be difficult to steal them back, but ‘twill take several hands.” He let his arm fall to his side where his fingers began to drum against one leg. “The Driheli hath been asking the constables about Czestadt. He wilt not be able to return quietly. There shalt be questions asked.”

Kashin grunted. “I was afraid of that. But there will be questions still when he sends the Driheli back to Stuthgansk. And even if Jothay’s absence isn’t noted yet, it will be.”

“Nay,” he smiled as a Magyar would. Kashin could see a plan forming behind those eyes, one that he himself would not have considered. “There be a way. I hath also seen to his things, afeared his guards might talk. But his retinue be no more. I fear we know where the Blood Bound didst come from now.”

“His own men,” Kashin felt a turning in his stomach. Jothay had turned his Eaven servants into creatures of death and corruption. How twisted had that sword made his mind? “But he will still have Ecclesian guards. All Bishops have them.”

“And he didst keep them outside his chambers,” Nemgas replied. “I listened to them, but they had nothing to say. That their master be dead art unknown to them!”

Kashin nodded thoughtfully. “So what are you suggesting then? A charade?”

“A masquerade,” Nemgas replied, his grin showing all his teeth. “Jothay hath a carriage that he used little. We Magyars will take the carriage and lead it out of the city ere tomorrow’s dawn. In the night, with the right clothes, ‘twill appear that we art men of Eavey. We shalt tell the guards that Bishop Jothay hast undertaken a pilgrimage and wilt return ere long. Ere anyone learns different, we wilt be far to the north.”

“Aye,” Kashin began to smile. “That might work. And those who would have reason to suspect ill are exactly the sort of people we want to reveal themselves. Once Berkon is able to be moved, do it.”

Nemgas nodded. “And the Driheli?”

“Czestadt will need to do what he can to keep word about where he really was from spreading. And Sir Petriz...” Kashin let his hand pass into the shaft of light. Weird shadows flickered across the bare clay floor and wall. “You aren’t planning on taking him back to the Steppe are you?”

A bitter laugh escaped Nemgas’s throat. “‘Twould be a mistake. Few be the men who wouldst not be good Magyars. He be one of these. There be no better place for him than where he be. E’en when I didst threaten to make a Magyar of him I knew ‘twould be useless. Unless I tricked him with a matter of honour, he would let himself die first. And e’en then, he wouldst fight us until he died.”

Nemgas sucked in his breath and shook his head. “Yet I still think fondly of him. He be a good man, and wilt be counted a friend of the Magyars.”

“Not something that can be said of many.” Kashin knew this clearly. He still had all of Nemgas’s memories. At least, all of them up to when Jothay struck them with Yajakali’s blade. For so long, he’d lived as that presence at the back of Nemgas’s mind. Not having the Magyar’s spirit so comfortingly nestled against his own made him feel empty, drained. And now, his mirror was leaving.

“I suppose this will be the last time we shall have alone together, perhaps ever,” Kashin said. “It is odd, but in a way I wish it were not so.”

“Thou couldst come with us,” Nemgas suggested. “After thee hast thy vengeance. I wouldst ne’er deny that of thee.”

“Nay,” Kashin replied, his voice fading to a mere whisper. “My place is here. Yours is on the Steppe. We cannot change that.”

“Then we hath nothing to gain from pondering it. Thou art a Yeshuel. I be a Magyar. I dost not know how it came to be, whether thou art a reflection of me, or I be a reflection of thee, but it be what it be. And perhaps we wilt see each other again. Mayhap thou wilt join us by our fires and dance and sing with us for a night or two. I fear we Magyars wilt not be seen in Yesulam.”

Kashin chuckled lightly and shook his head. “I understand that. Maybe one day it will come to pass.” He glanced through the narrow slit at the afternoon sky. “Dusk will not be long in coming. We should return below and get a little more sleep before we part.”

His companion nodded and turned to lead the way. “There be a custom amongst my people that thou dost know well, Kashin. Before old friends part, there must be a feast, song and dance. I fear we have but grains to eat, and little room to dance, but our voices all work fine.”

Kashin followed him down the passage, the weariness in his heart lifting. “Aye, they will at that. One last song before we say goodbye.”

With only a few hours until dawn, they knew they could wait no longer. When Nemgas and Kashin returned, they began fashioning stretchers from the linens and wine racks. Sir Czestadt insisted on having a pair of crutches that he could use once they reached the surface, but given the age of the wood, they would serve him for a day at best before breaking. After their work was complete, they ate and sung songs of parting. Even the Questioners sang when they learned the words, though most of the time they hummed tunelessly.

Then, after a few hours of sleep, the strange group of allies left the subterranean storage chamber. With Berkon and Czestadt carried on the stretchers, they were able to make good time through the catacombs. No longer did the mouldy walls and silent tombs hold any horror for them. They were remnants of ages past that were truly gone. They could bring only reflection; never harm.

When Kashin brought them to a stop, they’d reached a narrow chamber occupied by a large stone bier decorated with a sword and a yew. It was wide enough for both Berkon and Czestadt to be laid side by side. Father Kehthaek stared in awe as he drank in the articulate engravings covering each wall.

“This is the tomb of Sir Bearn,” he whispered, eyes wide like a plainsman seeing the mountains for the first time. “How could we have let it be forgotten?”

“It has not been. Every Yesbearn makes a pilgrimage here,” Kashin said as he helped lower Czestadt on top of the bier. “As do a few Yeshuel. They do not talk of it, for seeing the tomb of the first knight who gave his life for a priest is part of why they are so dedicated. They fear not living up to Sir Bearn’s example, so to speak of the pilgrimage is to admit shame.”

Kashin regarded the runes chiselled into the head of the bier, pondering the knight’s sacrifice for a moment. He’d been ready to give his life for the Patriarch’s, but in the end he’d lived and Akabaieth had been slain by the very sword that hung from his hip. His flesh grew cold and he shook the bitter memories from his mind. “But that is not why we are here.”

Father Akaleth, who had joined Kehthaek in examining a wall marred by hundreds of hands, turned and asked, “Why are we here?”

“We are here because it is convenient. And because it is only a short ways to both the barracks where the Driheli are staying, and the courtyard where Jothay’s carriage is waiting.” Kashin put his hand on the bier and looked first to the Magyars. They huddled in quiet anticipation on the other side of the sepulchre. “We will wait here a few minutes to recover our breath, then Nemgas and I will lead the Magyars to both places. Kaspel, Chamag and I will head for the carriage; we’ll take Berkon with us and ready it to leave. Nemgas will lead the rest to the armoury in the barracks where their things have been taken. They will reclaim them and then join us at the carriage.

“Once the Magyars are all safely out of Yesulam, I will rejoin the rest of you here.”

“And we are to wait here?” Akaleth asked with only a vague hint of irritation.

“It is necessary. But when I return we will help Sir Petriz and Sir Czestadt reach the barracks.”

“And then we will go to Jothay’s quarters,” Kehthaek announced. “I want to learn who else in Yesulam aided his treachery.”

For a moment, no one spoke. They stared at each other and the scroll work depicting Sir Bearn’s life and death. The walls of stone bore a sombre bronze glow in the lamplight, as if they stood in the presence of the setting sun. Their faces, unshaven and haggard, still blossomed with the relief they all felt.

“I doubt,” Father Akaleth began, “that I shall ever see you again.” He turned to the Magyars and smiled. “Thank you for tending me and trusting me when I needed it most. I will always say a special prayer for you, every day I still draw breath.”

“‘Tis most gracious of thee,” Gamran replied, a mischievous grin splitting his face. “Thou art a decent sort thyself, when thou be not creepy.” The Magyars laughed, and strangely enough, so did Akaleth.

“Thank you,” Sir Petriz added, “for your word keeping. Forgive us for the mistake we made.” It was the best Galendish they had ever heard from the knight. From the look of concentration on his face, they could all see how genuine it was.

“I hath no more enmity for the Driheli,” Nemgas said, extending his hand to Petriz. Without hesitation knight and Magyar clasped hands. “May it always be so.”

“May it always be so,” Petriz echoed, smiled, and for a moment it appeared they would embrace. But there was a hardness still in their eyes. Forgiveness had been granted, but there was pain still on both sides. Wordlessly, they parted, with Nemgas heading for the exit.

“‘Tis time we went our separate ways. Ja!” Without further word or gesture he left, followed by most of the Magyars.

“And time for us too. I will return soon,” Kashin told the knights and priests before helping Chamag and Kaspel lift Berkon from atop the bier. In the passage outside, Nemgas’s footsteps were already receding.

The armoury proved to be a well-stocked storehouse filled with numerous blades, both straight and curved, and various armours, from one set of decorative full plate standing by itself on a raised plinth to an assortment of mail and toughened leather vests. Along one wall was an arrangement of pikes, halberds, glaives, and staves, followed by another collection of axes, maces and flails. In the centre of the long hall were several unstrung bows, standing next to a row of crossbows. Deposited in leather quivers next to each bow were the arrows; some of them came to wicked points while others were hooked and barbed.

The Magyars gaped at the wealth of weaponry quietly waiting for them to peruse. The Yeshuel passages had led them to a secret entrance behind a tapestry of the Holy Mother with the Yahshua child. There were several empty cabinets in the rear of the armoury, and into two of them their equipment had been placed.

Predictably, Gamran went immediately for the decorative suit of armour. His eyes sparkled with the topaz inset in the breastplate, and he drew out his dagger greedily. Nemgas put his hand on the little thief’s shoulder and held him firm.

In a hushed whisper, Nemgas hissed, “We hath too much to carry to take anything else.”

“Not e’en a single stone?” Gamran whined, eager hope and disappointment flashing across his eyes.

“Not e’en a single stone,” Nemgas replied. Actually, one stone would be fine, but he knew Gamran would not be able to stop there. “We must find the kitchens and steal a few things there, so restrain thyself a moment more.” When the little thief nodded, Nemgas turned to see both Pelgan and Gelel handling the curved daggers hanging near the swords.

Though there were no guards in the armoury, there would be at least a pair outside. Nevertheless, Nemgas growled loudly enough that his friends heard and quickly put the daggers back. A moment later, they and the other Magyars were busy reclaiming all of their belongings from the closets. Satisfied, Nemgas picked up one of the smaller curved blades and slid it into his belt.

He didn’t plan on using it himself, but it would be a shame if he returned to the wagons without stealing something for his boy Pelurji!

“‘Tis everything,” Amile whispered. She hoisted the travel pack on her shoulders almost effortlessly.

Nemgas opened the secret entrance, making sure to keep his stolen dagger out of view. “Ja! We must find the kitchens. We shalt need food and something to cook it in if we art to survive!”

Gamran muttered, though he still smiled. “Good. I hath missed thieving!”

They all quietly laughed at that. A moment later, they were through the doorway and moving down the secret passages again. It would not be long now, just one more errand before they could leave.

“‘Tis quiet,” Chamag noted as he stared across the wide courtyard. They stood in a small alcove leading up from the sewers with Berkon’s stretcher carried on their shoulders. Before them was a dark courtyard with various stone structures arrayed along the high walls. A gatehouse towards the North was the only passage out for the carriages. Against the southern wall was the line of carriages, none of which were attended. Behind them were broad staircases leading up to St. Kephas’s Cathedral. Guards stood watch at the gatehouse and the towers, but they were looking out not in.

A waning crescent had just risen, but was still too low in the sky to cast any light into the courtyard. Kashin gestured with his stump at the southern wall. “Jothay’s carriage is the fourth in the line. Follow the wall.”

Chamag first glanced at each watchtower, then he stepped from the alcove out onto the brick esplanade. Berkon groaned atop the stretcher, but only briefly. When they all stood beneath the expanse of stars, their nervousness increased. No longer were they hidden by tons of rock on all sides, but stood exposed to all the heavens. Any joy they felt at seeing the sky for the first time in two days was muted.

The Ecclesia carriages were large enough for a Bishop and his retinue to travel in relative comfort. Seats were placed in front and back for guards to ride if they passed through unsettled lands. Along either side the Ecclesia yew was carved next to the heraldry of each Bishop’s land. The symbol on Jothay’s carriage was of a river winding through a forest with strange trees. The city of Eavey was built along a wide river that cut through the largest forest in Sonngefilde, and their heraldry reflected that.

When they reached the Eaven carriage, the courtyard was as quiet as it had been before. Kashin let Kaspel take the stretcher’s other pole while he drew open the rear entrance. He climbed inside and turned to help them hoist Berkon in. The interior was dark, and he kicked his shin against something as together they lifted the injured Magyar within.

Once they’d set the stretcher down in the centre of the carriage, Chamag lit their lantern and set it inside. The carriage was a bit narrower than most Magyar wagons, but it was also longer. On one wall of the rear was a single bed, with storage cabinets set above the mattress. The other wall had room for a writing desk, though there were no quill or ink anywhere to be seen. The front of the carriage had a table at which to eat and several more beds, these far more cramped.

“Now what?” Kaspel asked as he scanned what would be their home until they could find the other Magyars again.

Kashin stretched, loosening muscles that had tightened from carrying injured men for the last few hours. “Let’s put Berkon on the bed here. There should be uniforms in one of these drawers. You will both need to change.”

Chamag appeared appalled at the suggestion. “Why must we do that?”

“We need to collect horses from the stables at the other end of the courtyard. You must look like Ecclesia soldiers.”

“‘Twill take more than uniforms to do that!” Chamag grunted.

Kashin nodded. “So let’s get to work then, shall we?”

The uniforms they found were all too small for the burly Chamag. The closest in size could not be laced around his shoulders or neck, and so he sat at the front of the carriage while Kaspel went by himself to the stables to procure a quartet of horses. Fortunately, the ostlers were not inquisitive and only a few minutes later the archer returned with four sable mares.

Together, Kaspel and Chamag hitched the horses to the carriage, and stored the bag of feed the ostler had helpfully provided in the carriage for later. Kashin, who felt it wiser that he not be seen, stayed with Berkon while the other two Magyars worked. He’d fallen asleep again, so Kashin took a moment to examine his wounds.

The scars on his chest had scabbed over completely, and looked well on their way to healing. His thigh wound had stopped bleeding at least, though he could still smell the acrid scent of the poultice. Kehthaek had redone the bindings one last time before they’d left, and the priest had sounded hopeful about the Magyar’s condition.

There was nothing that Kashin could see different, so he draped a linen blanket over Berkon and let him sleep. He turned to see Kaspel and Chamag climbing back into the carriage. “We hath the horses ready,” Kaspel said, his body tense. “How be he?”

“Berkon is as well as can be expected. Now where are the others? They should have been here by now.”

Chamag grunted and turned back around. “I shalt wait for them outside.”

It was another fifteen minutes before Chamag came back inside. Nemgas was behind him, a sullen grin marring his features. “I dost apologize for the delay. But we didst need some fresh supplies for the journey.”

Kashin waved him and the other Magyars in. “Then get them inside and let’s get going. We’ve barely two hours til dawn.” Nemgas stood out of the way while the rest brought in a small set of cooking pots as well as sacks of potatoes, grains, a few jars of honey, flour, and a few other tidbits that certainly had not been with their things in the armoury.

“I see you finally got to do a thieving,” Kashin remarked sourly to Gamran who was grinning from ear to ear.

“Aye! And had that maid come a minute later, I would have stolen her heart too!”

Amile swatted the back of his head. “And I shalt tell Thelia of that, rogue!”

Gamran pressed his hands to his chest and smiled winsomely. “Wouldst thee? I so adore her when she be cross!”

The other Magyars began to laugh at this little show. Even Kashin’s lips broke into a grin. Nemgas saw it and patted him on the shoulder. “Art thee certain that thee wishes to stay here?”

The question was only in jest, but it brought Kashin’s mind back to the present. “Aye, and we have little time to waste. Kaspel, Chamag, start us out the gatehouse. I’ll guide you to the city gate from there. Everyone else, stay quiet and stay out of sight.” He no sooner spoke than the Magyars became as hushed as the tombs from which they came.

As the crescent moon rose in the sky, the city of Yesulam slowly began to wake up. Lamps were lit in homes, and the chanting of priests as they sung early mass could be heard drifting along the cool desert air. Already lamplight wagons were moving street by street to clean up refuse left in the gutters. Somewhere in the distance was the sound of a hammer striking an anvil.

Of those few who were moving about the city streets at that early hour, none took notice of the Ecclesia carriage as it rolled past. Kashin sat just out of sight behind the two drivers, Chamag and Kaspel. The guards at the gatehouse had not even looked at them, and so far their luck was holding. They had passed from the heart of the city and now made their way towards the northern gate through the labourer districts.

This part of the city was on a lower plateau overlooking the Yurdon River, and also was on the lower end of the sewage. There was a noticeable odour that clung to their skin as they passed. The residents were not as poor as workers in other cities would be, but they still could not afford the fragrances that the merchants and the clergy used to mask the stink of civilization.

Kashin watched with a heavy heart as he recalled not just the ramshackle homes, but also the people who lived in them. Part of a Yeshuel’s training was to be an example for the Ecclesia, and that meant showing charity to the poor. He had many months to catch up on, and he wondered with whom he should start. The family in that one home with the blue door had a lame child; how was he doing? And their neighbour’s roof appeared to be sagging dangerously. Could it be fixed?

“Where now?” Kaspel asked quietly. Kashin peered past him and saw that the street forked with both roads heading towards the walls. Soon they would pass beneath another gate and the last section of the city before the city wall. It was empty, but designed to repel an invading army, if ever things should grow so dire. The city guard routinely had to rustle squatters from the barren ground.

“Left.” Kashin shifted a bit closer. “The guards at the gatehouse will wave us through. But I will need to disembark before we reach there. The road will lead to the curtain wall. They shouldn’t ask you any questions, but if they do, you are taking Bishop Jothay north to Marilyth. If they pry further, emphasize that it is the Bishop’s business. They should not pry any further.”

“And if they ask why we art not of Yesulam?” Chamag asked, uncertain.

“You would not be the first Flatlanders to find employment in Yesulam. They will not ask.” Kashin patted them on the shoulder as they followed the left fork. Very quickly the final gatehouse came into view around a corner. It stood with portcullis raised, waiting like the yawning mouth of some nightmare beast to swallow them whole. Kashin stepped back from the door and smiled at the Magyars waiting in the lamplight interior.

“Well, it’s time. I will keep watch to make sure you escape safely. But I need to go now.”

Both Pelgan and Gamran stood and patted him on the back and side like old friends. Amile hugged him around the middle and gave him a quick kiss on the nose. “Thou be safe, Kashin of the Yeshuel!”

Kashin smiled and hugged her back. “And thee, Amile of the Magyars. And all of you. Gelel, you too.” The youth smiled and they traded a quick hug too. Even Berkon, who was drifting in and out of sleep, managed to wave and smile.

Standing at the back door of the carriage was Nemgas. The one-armed Magyar regarded the one-armed Yeshuel with brotherly admiration. Gone was any hint of sadness or loss at their parting. He could only smile. “Fare thee well, Kashin,” he extended his hand.

With Nemgas only having a left hand, and he a right, they could not shake normally. But they managed as best they could, before drawing each other into a tight embrace. “And fare thee well, Nemgas! My Brother. T’samut.”

Nemgas nodded. “T’samut. Now ja! Thou hast no time left.”

“Ja,” Kashin agreed. He opened wide the rear door and jumped down to the street. He turned and saw Nemgas pull the door shut. The carriage continued to roll towards the city wall. Kashin darted into a dark alley and made his way past the carriage to the wall. There was a staircase for the guards that he climbed. Once atop the wall, he crouched against one of the crenellations and watched his friends.

As he’d predicted, the guards at the gatehouse waved them through without asking any questions. The four mares drew the carriage into the wide barren killing field. The road was paved with brick and wound down towards the northern gate. The brick continued beyond the gate until it reached the well travelled road to Abaef along the bluff overlooking the river. With luck, in perhaps a quarter of an hour, the Magyars would be upon it.

Along the battlements there were a few guards, but none of them were near the stairs. He could hear two of them standing by the gatehouse talking, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. Kashin pondered moving closer, but it didn’t seem worth the risk of being seen. He needed to make sure the Magyars were away safely. Not only to protect them, but to make Jothay’s disappearance seem plausible. Anything to buy the Questioners time.

It took the Magyars a few minutes to cross the killing fields of Yesulam. When they reached the curtain wall, they were stopped by the guards. The city gates were shut for the night, but the word of a Bishop could open them. Kashin said a quick prayer that they would open now too. Though in the pale light of the crescent moon he could not see much, he knew that the guards were asking the Magyars questions. His fingers tightened against the stone wall, the tips going white. The seconds began to pass, more and more, and still the carriage sat there unmoving.

Kashin started to rise, pondering what he could do now. It was taking too long. Maybe he could... no wait... the gate was opening! He breathed a sigh of relief and slumped against the stone crenellation. Already the carriage was moving out. He stayed and watched until he’d lost sight of the Magyars beyond the curtain wall. The clanging of the heavy doors as they shut after the carriage seemed like the closing of a book.

Kashin took a deep breath, said a prayer of thanks, and then rushed back down the stairs. He had to get back to the Questioners. Now it was time for miracle two – reuniting the Driheli!

While they waited for Kashin’s return, Sir Petriz listened as the two Questioner priests discussed the various details of the crypt. The name of Sir Bearn was one that he as a knight was familiar with, but he did not know many of the details of his life. Over the course of two hours he learned how Sir Bearn had begun life as a peasant but who through effort and good fortune became a soldier and then a knight serving in the northern villages of the Holy Land.

That is until a procurator of the Suielman Empire decided to put down the fledging Ecclesia community. The Suielman soldiers had first sought to make an example of the priest. Sir Bearn found him first and over the course of a full day single-handedly kept the Suielman troops out of the home in which the priest had sought refuge.

In the end, Sir Bearn died, but not before making the Suielman soldiers so thoroughly hate their mindless slaughter of the men of Eli that the priest was spared and the procurator was chastised by his own government. Sir Bearn’s body was brought and interred in Yesulam at the priest’s request, and from out of his sacrifice the order of the Yesbearn was created.

Along the far wall was the name of every Yesbearn soldier who had been able to make the pilgrimage. A chisel and hammer were nestled in a small recess at the base of the wall, waiting for the next knight in service to the Ecclesia to mark their name, hoping that they too would be counted worthy of Sir Bearn’s martyrdom.

In fact, when Kashin did return, Sir Petriz was disappointed that he would not learn more about this extraordinary man. He had not lived to see his thirtieth birthday, but his example of noble sacrifice in defence of his faith renewed in Petriz all of the reasons he had sought to be a knight. It was not for his own glory, nor for that of his family. It was to be able to serve the Ecclesia, Eli’s Holy Church here in this world.

And now he would serve her in a way he had never thought possible; he was going to help these priests expunge an evil taint that may have spread throughout the Bishop’s Council. The very notion that such a thing could come to pass was frightening. If it were possible, how could they ever trust in the Council again? Would they always have to wonder whether the order’s they were given were holy? It had been so easy to simply accept, and to know they did Eli’s will when they drew their swords.

Now, he wondered how he could ever have that level of assurance again.

“Are you ready?” Kashin asked in the southern tongue, looking both to Petriz and to Czestadt who lay unmoving on the stretcher resting atop Sir Bearn’s bier. “It is nearly dawn. If we are quick, we can bring you to the Barracks without anyone seeing us.”

“I am ready. It will be good to see them again.” Even as he spoke, Sir Petriz thought on his squire Karol. The young man brought him such pride.

Sir Czestadt lifted one hand and waved Kashin on. “I will be ready when we arrive. Carry me there, and take the stretcher with you when you leave us.”

Father Kehthaek and Father Akaleth glided to one side of the bier. The elder priest favoured them with a blank expression. “I am not physically strong enough to assist with carrying the knight. Father Akaleth can. He will help you carry the front, Kashin, while Sir Petriz takes the rear.”

“That will be fine,” Kashin replied, and then gripped one pole in his hand. “Ready? Lift!”

Together, the three of them carried Sir Czestadt from Sir Bearn’s tomb and began the trek back towards the surface. The walls were far cleaner than they had seen below, but the acrid odour of the sewers began to permeate the air. Soon, they had climbed to a basement lined with old boxes and casks, some of which had once held ale. The sound of rats scampering away came to their ears, but nothing else.

The cellar led to a staircase and a hatch. Father Kehthaek stepped ahead and undid the clasp, and with a heave managed to swing the door open. It landed with a heavy crash, making all of them wince. But there was no sound of rushing boots or raised voices, so after a few seconds they breathed easier.

The hatch led out to the grounds behind the barracks. The stonework on either side was so tall that they could only see a sliver of sky above. It was deep blue, though no stars could be seen. Dawn was almost upon them.

“This is where we leave you,” Kashin announced in a quiet voice. “Go to the left and around the front and you’ll be standing near the gate to the rest of the city. The barracks where the Driheli are staying will be across the courtyard from you. When the rest of the Driheli have set sail for Stuthgansk, we will contact you again to make the rest of our plans.”

“And until then?” Sir Petriz asked as he lowered his end of the stretcher to the ground. He knelt next to Czestadt to help the knight climb to his feet.

“You will not be able to find us.” Kashin’s face was blank as he spoke, but it was hard not to miss the implication that he did not yet fully trust them.

Given that their mission had been to kill Kashin, Sir Petriz could hardly blame him. Nevertheless, it still stung.

Czestadt pulled the crutches under his armpits and pushed them against the ground to steady himself. Sir Petriz stayed at his side to keep him from overbalancing. “Contact us when you are ready,” Czestadt said, his voice hard as it so often was. “Now leave us to do what we must.”

Kashin and the two priests collected the stretcher and climbed back down to the cellar. Akaleth pulled the hatch shut, much more quietly than it had been opened. They could hear the clasp lock into place, and then nothing. Sir Petriz sucked in his breath and said, “Are you ready, Sir Templar?”

“Aye, let us not waste any time.”

Together, the two knights walked around the tall stone building. To their right was a large stone wall, behind which was another portion of the city. The building on their left was likely one of the barracks, but they did not recognize it from the rear. It stretched in front of them a good thirty paces, yet it took Czestadt several seconds to manage every step. He would move one crutch forward, and then shift his legs between them to keep the weight off of them, and then pull the second in line with the first. And then the process would start all over again.

By the time they had made it around the building and out into the courtyard, the sky had brightened considerably, and the sparkling sliver of moon had paled into a soft luminescence. Soon the sun would shine across Yesulam, and the dazzling radiance of the golden domes of the Cathderal would shine like lighthouse beacons.

The courtyard was empty but for a few younger soldiers running errands. Sir Petriz felt his heart leap into his throat when he recognized one of them as his own squire. Karol was just coming out of the stables when their eyes met. Surprise crossed his ruddy features, and then he laughed and ran towards them in joy. Sir Petriz waved, but stayed at Czestadt’s side even as the young man reached them.

“Sir Petriz!!” he cried, his voice tight with relief. “I never thought I’d see you again! And master Templar! How did this happen? Where have you been? What...”

Sir Petriz held up his hand. “Patience, Karol. It is a long story, but you will hear of it. I am greatly relieved to be back. The Magyars did not harm me, but more on that later. The Knight Templar has been wounded and will need a place to lay down.”

“And I want to meet with the other knights. Wake them up and let them know we’ve returned. I want them all back in the barracks by noon. There is much to discuss.”

Karol nodded, his body tense with excitement. Petriz patted him on the shoulder and smiled broadly. “Go and get help, Karol. We’re back now.”

“Of course, Knight Commander,” Karol beamed and then rushed off to alert the others. Petriz felt his heart swell with pride.

It was a few hours later that matters with the Driheli finally settled to the point that Czestadt could have a rational discussion with his lieutenants. The whole barracks was alive with cheering and Sir Petriz greeted all his fellow knights with assurances that all was well for him and that what vengeance was required had already been meted out. He would not tell them of the Magyars, but promised them that one day he would do so, when he felt comfortable talking about all he experienced. This was good enough for them, as they were simply delighted to have their fellow knight returned.

Sir Czestadt was returned to his chambers in the barracks, which while not posh, were reasonably comfortable. He lay on his bed while chairs were brought for his men. His squire Hevsky brought him wine and fruit, but otherwise remained quiet. Around the table before Czestadt sat knights Petriz, Guthven, Poblocka and Wodnicki. In addition to hugging him out of joy at seeing him again, Wodnicki had complimented Petriz on the beard he was developing and told him he should keep it.

“When you disappeared two days ago, we were all worried,” Guthven reported, running one hand through his thick red beard. “But to see you and Commander Petriz returned is a great relief. You have not said what happened, but I assume that you brought the three of us here because you wish to tell us. Is this not so?”

Czestadt was propped up with numerous pillows, but he still looked tired. “I will tell you some. There are several shocking things I have learned in the last two days, but I cannot speak of all of them now. What I can say is that I am going to be sending you back to Stuthgansk.”

“Back to Stuthgansk?” Poblocka said in surprise. “Why? Is the traitor dead?”

“Yes,” Czestadt replied. “Only he wasn’t who we suspected. This is something that you must keep secret. Swear that you will never again reveal what I am about to tell you.”

Guthven immediately got down on his knees and held aloft a yew. “I swear upon this symbol of my faith that I will never again speak of what you tell me this day.” Poblocka and Wodnicki did the same a moment later.

It was then that Guthven turned to Petriz and asked, “Will you not swear as well?”

“I already know what the Knight Templar refers to. I was there and have already taken my vows.”

Czestadt nodded. “Indeed. The truth of the matter is this: I was injured by the same man who slew Patriarch Akabaieth.”

Guthven stammered for a moment, while both Poblocka and Wodnicki blanched in horror. The red-bearded Guthven leaned forward and managed to ask, “He was here in Yesulam? How is that possible?”

“Because he was allied with Bishop Jothay of Eavey, the very man that sent us to kill Kashin.”

Poblocka jumped to his feet. “Nay! That cannot be possible! You are telling us that Jothay was part of his Holiness’s murder?”

Czestadt nodded. “I am. And it is true. Jothay had become entangled with an old and evil magic. It corrupted him, and it even now attempts to corrupt the Ecclesia from within. That is why Akabaieth was killed, so that it could continue to corrupt. We have struck a blow against it in killing Jothay. But there is more work here that I have to do.” He paused a moment, while the three knights stared in befuddlement. “Do you doubt my word?”

Guthven sucked in his breath and shook his head. “Nay. I would never doubt your word, master Templar. It is hard to understand. But if magic is involved, then I can believe it.”

“Good. Now I need you to take the rest of the Driheli back to Stuthgansk.”

“Wait,” Wodnicki said, his hands shaking. “We can help you here to destroy those who use magic to corrupt our good priests.”

“You could,” Czestadt admitted, “but I fear that with you still here, it will complicate matters. Bishop Jothay was our patron. He is now dead. We have no more reason to stay. Further, if our enemies think we have done what they wanted us to do, it will free Sir Petriz and I from observation. He and I stay because we owe a debt. But that is all.”

Guthven frowned and gripped his beard tightly between his fingers. “Why not simply tell us that we had done what we came to do? Why tell us these horrible things?”

“Because you of all the Driheli can understand them, and still serve faithfully. I need men like you in the months and years to come. In fact, I need you, Guthven, for something very important now. Sir Poznan was killed, and his office remains vacant. I am appointing you to be the new Knight Commander of Bydbrüszin.”

Guthven’s face flushed with surprise, and then delight and pride. “Thank you, master Templar. I will serve you with honour. I shall not let you down.”

“I know. Tonight we shall celebrate Sir Petriz’s return, and your elevation. Tomorrow I am tasking you with securing transport for our men, horses, and all of our supplies. I want the Driheli out of Yesulam within a week’s time. Can you do this?”

Guthven knelt again, lowering his head. Sir Petriz smiled as he saw the devotion there, so like his own. “I will do as you say, master Templar. But what of Skowicz, Sir Poznan’s squire?”

“You will finish his training. In a year’s time I have no doubt he will join the ranks of knight bachelors. Now get up, and see to it. I need to rest.”

Sir Petriz rose with his fellow knights. Their faces were a mix of relief and agony. It would be so for many days yet, but perhaps they would all come to a greater understanding of their duty as knights. He hoped and prayed for that very thing. But now it was time for good cheer and stories. He wanted to hear of their journeys, and perhaps he could tell a tale or two himself.

Petriz smiled warmly as he and the other three knights left the Templar to rest. No matter how glad he was that he’d been able to know and assist the Magyars in defeating the evil Jothay, it still felt wonderful to be home with the Driheli.

One of the things that Kimberly Matthias had always loved about the Autumn was the colours on all the trees. She was used to seeing the leaves turn yellow, red, and every shade of peach. Many times she had enjoyed taking long walks through the gardens while the wind carried those many-hued leaves around her face as if some secret dancer were courting her.

While the trees in the gardens of Metamor had changed colours in a brilliant autumnal display, only a few of those in Glen Avery did so. Most of the trees were coniferous, so instead of a broad avenue of fallen leaves to crunch beneath her paws, she was now careful to wear sandals to keep the many needles that littered the ground from piercing her toes.

Still, there were a few reddish leaves that drifted down from the high treetops. Each morning she swept them from the small path between the roots of the great redwood that she, her five children, and Baerle her friend and wet-nurse lived in. As much as she enjoyed being inside that wonderful abode, she knew that the weather would soon turn cold, and so every chance she had she wanted to enjoy outdoors with her children.

Charles spent most of his life outdoors. It was one way in which she could be closer to her absent husband.

It had been over three months since she had last seen him. But not a day went by that she wasn’t thinking of him; praying for him. Their five children were growing, and already they had begun to learn words. Jo, the village healer, had declared them to be the mental equivalent of a normal two-year old. Kimberly did not have much experience with young children, but it couldn’t be worse than five energetic little rats who adored her, and spent much of their time scampering over everything they could find.

So getting them out of the house to work out their energy was a blessing.

Especially when there was news to hear!

Earlier in the day, Kimberly and Baerle had strung up the clothes on a wire between their tree and a post. When Caroline the otter had come to the Glen brimming with news, they had taken one of the blankets and laid it out on the ground to sit in comfort. Baerle brought out little tea cakes Mrs. Levins had baked a few days ago, as well as some tea for them to enjoy. Caroline had not been able to wait that long to tell her news.

“Duke Thomas is going to be married!!” she had squealed, her whole body bouncing with delight.

“Oh that’s wonderful!!” Kimberly exclaimed. Baerle cooed in delight between running back and forth. Nearby the five rat children played with a pinecone nearly as large as them. They were pushing it around and watching it roll. One of them would get in front and try to jump out of the way before it clipped them. With luck, the worst of it would be a few scratches to tend later.

“Who is his grace to wed?” Baerle asked after she brought out the tea. She settled down, pouring a cup for each of them.

Caroline nibbled on the tea cake and grinned. “Dame Alberta Artelanoth! Yes, the knight who became a woman who became a donkey. Thomas and she had been seeing quite a bit of each other since she changed the second time.”

Kimberly dipped her tea cake in her tea and nibbled, one eye ever on the children. Bernadette was squeaking as the pinecone rolled across her tail. Not from pain, just from surprise. The boys chased the pinecone with more energy than she thought she’d ever had.

“When did he ask her?” It was so wonderful to hear this good news for the Duke. She didn’t know the female knight well, but that she was also equine seemed to make a good match. It was strange, but it just seemed right that Keepers of nearly the same ‘species’ should fall in love and wed.

“During the Autumn Festival. I don’t know much more about that,” Caroline replied. She sipped the tea, her lutrine nose wrinkling at the warmth. “But he did announce his new bride at the end of the festival. He was at his balcony, speaking to all the assembled Keepers. We didn’t know what it was about, not even Misha knew! And then, he presented her to us. She was standing in the Ivy Causeway, dressed in this beautiful gown of lavender and blue silk. She had a diadem on her brow, and the most lovely necklace which sparkled in the light. I think she was blushing at the attention and the cheers when he said she was to be his wife.”

Caroline leaned back, her face waxing nostalgic for some cherished memory. “She didn’t look a thing like a knight. She looked like a princess. Strange, but even though she’s a donkey, she looked right for him.”

“It seems fair that in Metamor, one who began life as a man, could become a Duchess,” Baerle remarked with an amused grin. “And it’s good that she’s a knight. His grace needs somebody who knows how to ride a stallion.”

They giggled at the joke, leaning in closer. A few Glenners cleaning the central square of the village gave them odd looks. They’d hear the news soon enough.

“So what happened next?” Kimberly asked. She stuck the cake between her teeth and chewed. Still as savoury as the day the hedgehog Mrs. Levins had made them.

“Well,” Caroline continued, “after the cheers had finally died down, Alberta went back inside and Thomas told us all of the good fortune we have had this year. He reminded us of our sacrifices to protect Metamor, of how relations amongst the houses of the Northern Midlands have never been stronger, and of how we are making friends in the free lands in the Giantdowns. It’s a glorious time to be alive. For the first time since the Battle of Three Gates, it seems like everything is looking up.”

Caroline looked at Kimberly, and her smile faded. She leaned over and set a webbed paw on Kimberly’s knee. “And we’ll soon have good news about Charles too.”

“I know. I pray for it every day. Have you heard anything?” Her eyes could not stay on the otter, but went to her children. The youngest, Ladero, had stopped chasing the others and was coughing, tongue sticking out past his incisors for a moment. In that one second, Kimberly felt ready to spring up and rush to his side, but then her son caught his breath and hurried to catch up with his litter-mates.

Caroline shook her head. “I’m sorry, we haven’t. You know we’d tell you if we had.”

“I know.” Baerle came closer and put one paw on Kimberly’s shoulder. “Thank you for coming by today. Will you be staying long?”

“A few days,” she said, “Misha wanted me to go over a few reports with Lord Avery and the Glen scouts.”

“And to talk with us?” Baerle asked.

The otter smiled. “Of course. You realize Misha was moping for weeks because he couldn’t go? I had to take him swimming a few times to help him get over it.”

“Charles will come back,” Baerle said, her voice firm. She hugged Kimberly close. “He loves you too much not to.”

Kimberly looked to the two women, but especially the opossum. In some ways it was a relief that Charles wasn’t here. As long as he was away, she didn’t have to worry about coming home one day to find her husband and wet-nurse kissing or worse. It was true she had given Baerle permission to pursue him, and it was true that they loved each other, just as it was true that Charles deeply loved his wife and would never do anything to deliberately hurt her.

But it was also the case that she hoped deep down that she wouldn’t have to share. The women of her home had often shared a husband. Some of the women were miserable, while others seemed even closer to their sister wives.

Kimberly didn’t want to have to find out which she would be.

“He’ll come home,” Kimberly said, feeling strength return to her voice. “I am sure he misses us just as much as we miss him. And the children...” she glanced at them, and smiled as she saw them pushing the pinecone back up a small hill. Their dark eyes were bright with mischief and fun. Their tails flicked energetically back and forth, and their darling ears turned at every sound. She loved them so.

“He hated having to leave them too.”

Caroline leaned back and finished off her tea cake. “Well, I suppose I should go make arrangements for where I’ll stay the next few days. I promise I’ll be back soon.”

Kimberly was about to tell her nonsense when her head turned. Ladero was coughing again. She turned her ears, but the spell lasted only a moment. Relieved, she looked at the Long Scout and smiled. “Don’t be silly, Caroline. You are more than welcome to stay with us while you’re here.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course! It’ll be nice having another set of paws for a few days!”

Baerle smiled too. “I can go get a room ready for you now if you’d like.”

Caroline churred in delight. “Ah, you both are so sweet. Thank you.” She hugged them both tight and then sat back down on the blanket. “Well, since I don’t have to go anywhere just yet, let me tell you what I heard happened after his grace finished his announcement.”

“Oh, this I have to hear too!” Baerle said with a wide grin.

The women all huddled closer and giggled at the sordid details rumour had conjured forth. All the while the children played beneath the needle-laden boughs of the Glen.

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

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