The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XXXV - Surveys and Soothsayers

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

He remembered that when the bright white person who smelled a lot like him only female came to the hurtful twigs that kept him confined so too came with it the sweet taste of carrots. But this time he remembered something else – he was married to this big white creature.

Slowly, inevitably, Phil woke from the fugue that had claimed his mind. Flashes of insight and intelligence passed between far longer periods of animal instinct. The one that most claimed him was fear, and it led him to dig at the sides of his cage. The metal wire hurt his paws but did not discourage him. By the time he looked up from his labours and remembered that he was a man he’d even managed to cut himself with his claws.

He pressed his body against the cage and called out, “Is there anybody there? I am myself again!” His voice was so small, frail. Phil had grown accustomed to its sound, but it never wounded him more than when he’d just recovered from thinking like a real rabbit.

“Phil?” a familiar voice called out from a nearby room. In rushed his wife, her fur white and ears tall. Her body shook with relief as she bent down to undo the bindings on the cage, something Phil could no longer do for himself. “Oh you’re back! Phil!” Overcome with emotion, she pulled him out of the cage and held him tight in her arms. Phil pressed himself close to her body, enjoying the warmth and her love.

“I’m back,” he told her. “I’m back finally.”

“A week?” he asked, an emptiness growing at the pit of his stomach. “I was gone for a full week? October is only days away?”

“I am afraid that is true,” Prime Minister Niacles replied. His frail form was seated across from Phil, and on his right sat Commodore Pythoreaus who looked even more glum. His face was riddled with frowns in every crease. “But not much has come to pass in that time.”

“What happened to the enemy fleet?” Phil asked. The last thing he could remember was seeing the wharves burning. And then snatches of his time as a rabbit, the scent of hay in his cage, and the feel of fear filling his mind. He shuddered and focussed on the present. He would be a man; a man!

“The attackers seemed to have run dry, they did not linger to engage ships on open water and withdrew from the harbor. After we managed to put a few of our surviving ships to sea the rogue fleet withdrew into the fog. The Windrunner groups moored beyond the harbor also escaped attack, hidden by the fog, as did our entire picket line. They set canvas and came full in but too late to do more than watch and pull survivors out of the water. The attackers must not have known of them, thank Eli for small blessings. One of our sentries patrolling the Southern Straits of Good Fortune claimed to have seen them heading back towards Marzac, but reports are sketchy.”

Phil sucked in his breath. “So they used the fog as a cover to slip past our sentries?”

“It appears that way, yes.”

“How extensive are the damages to the docks?” Phil asked.

Pythoreaus and Niacles glanced at each other. “It took a long time to put the fire out. We lost all of the cargo ships that were put in, seven full roundships and three caracks. Thankfully the fog did work in our favor and the waiting cargo ships were overlooked, moored with the Windrunners beyond the harbor. Unfortunately they were not laden, we lost a great deal of supplies. Of our naval assets the fires took twelve Drom, seven Dromus, and three Dromonai. Another six Dromanai are badly damaged and two of those are of little use beyond scrap. Dozens of other ships of every type are in need of repairs. We lost almost a thousand crew, many of whom were working aboard the ships when the attack came. Many more were injured. Some will not be able to crew again. On the positive side most of the Dromarius were abed and away from their vessels. Once roused by the attack they prevented uncontained spread of the fires beyond the immediate seafront. Once the surviving ships are repaired they can be fully crewed.”

Phil sighed grimly. “I want to see the docks.”

“Are you sure you are ready, your highness?” Niacles asked. His eyes were lit with concern, but that only made the Prince angrier. “Do you not fear a relapse?”

“I will not have a relapse!” Phil declared, rather more forcefully than he had wanted. He took a moment to steady himself and in a calmer voice repeated, “I will not have a relapse. But I am Prince. I must see the docks for myself. I was a Naval Captain before my father adopted me. Trust me, I can handle this.” He leaned forward, resting his paws on the table. “What happened before caught me by surprise. I never thought I would see the docks of Whales which have stood for hundreds of years burn with our own fire. Never! It has happened, and now I must see the damage.”

Niacles nodded at last and Pythoreaus rose. “I’ll escort you, your highness. The waterfront is not a complete loss, but very little of it is livable. The docks are lost, and with so many pilings and quays left behind the entire port is little more than a navigational nightmare. The damage is extensive and many places are not safe for men to walk.”

Phil stood up as tall as he was able and declared, “They may be safe for me. Lead on, Commodore.”

The city was still in shock from the attack. Lining the road to the wharves were lean-tos beneath which men with burned flesh lay waiting for help. Women and children tended them, and Phil could hear moans as well as weeping from all sides. Some of the men would recover, their flesh a ruined and wrinkled mess for the rest of their lives. Others would succumb and be quietly taken away to await burial at sea.

Phil rode with Commodore Pythoreaus in a carriage bearing his emblem. The faces of men and women gazed at him, their eyes haunted, some pleading, others angry and indignant. A fetid pallor hung in the air, the scent of burnt flesh still fresh and all pervasive. For Phil, whom the curses of Metamor had made a rabbit, the acrid taste had nearly made him retch several times already.

“I hate this body,” Phil muttered darkly. “I should have been here for them. Look at the way they look at me, Commodore.”

Pythoreaus grunted and nodded at a pair of old women who sneered at the carriage before bending over a man whose left side was burnt black. His lips parted as if in speech, and he opened one eye. His left eye was a bright blue, and shone like a sparkling sapphire amidst the ruin of his body. It dazzled like the moon brilliant at night, cold and needful. Phil turned away from it, closing his eyes tight.

He dug his claws into the hard fabric of the carriage seat and tried to will away that desolate expression. That man would not survive another day.

“If not for these rabbit instincts I have to fight, I would have been down here when I should have been. How can they have a beast for a liege? It is not fair to them.”

“But you are the Prince, your highness,” Pythoreaus replied. “Lead them well now, and they will forgive.”

“They ought to have a choice as to who leads them,” Phil muttered. “All men should.”

“And who would they pick? Some fool who promises them wealth or glory, or some other idiotic notion? We need rulers who are wise and raised for that very responsibility. You may not have been born to it by blood, but you have certainly been born to it, your highness.” Pythoreaus looked at him with deep conviction. Many times Phil had had this argument with Duke Thomas and his other friends from Metamor Keep. Perhaps the fact that he had come from a low station in life had allowed him a different perspective. But right then, he had no heart in any such debate.

“Here we are,” Pythoreaus announced a moment later, and Phil was glad that he did because he did not recognize at all what awaited them outside the carriage.

The stone arches that led to the wharves were blackened from fire, and many of the blocks littered the wharves. Beyond, charred husks of wood remained in patches, while sticking out of the water were black spars like reeds of grass, bent in every which way. Half-submerged hulls clung against the stone quays like men lost at sea clutching a single plank. From one mast still flew the Whalish pinions, but they were tattered, with holes in spots where the fire had brushed them.

The eastern edge of the docks was in even worse shape. Built in more recent times and with wood instead of stone, they were completely destroyed. Where once Phil had pridefully observed a long and busy dock, now there was nothing but lapping waves. The nearer docks still had wooden pylons poking up from the water like bones thrust up through a grave. Where the wood had not been consumed it had buckled when the ships had run aground trying to escape. There were a few tattered remains of clothes still caught tight in the splintered beams. Thankfully, all the bodies had been removed.

The one thing that Phil should have noted immediately happened to be the last thing he realized. “Where are the ships? I thought you said that half a dozen were in need of repairs. Surely some of them escaped the onslaught?”

Pythoreaus nodded. “The ships that are able are on patrol, none more than an hour from Whales. The six you mention were towed to the western ports to be repaired. We will have our hands full repairing the docks. Besides, I didn’t want to leave them vulnerable here.”

“That is a good decision. Had I been able, I would have done the same.” Phil hopped out of the carriage and began to head towards the ruined quays. The sea battlements had been damaged, with the naval barracks charred on one side. One of the towers had crumbled, but otherwise it was still sturdy. “At least our defences are still intact,” he observed. “Where are the workers?”

“Shoring up the wall from the other side,” Pythoreaus reported. “It is still early this day, but in another hour we should see them on the docks.”

“It will take years before we can repair all of this damage,” Phil said in resignation. “But we will rebuild. I want to tap the quarries again, and extend the stone quays. Building with wood was foolish.”

“Your great-grandfather used wood because the quarries were needed for defences.”

“These wharves are defences! They still stand, in defiance of all that has come and gone since their building, in defiance of treachery!” Phil declared, feeling a familiar heat rise inside of him. He would be a man, a man of the Whalish Navy, by all the gods that men worshipped! “These wharves and the ships they berth are what give Whales her power! Without that, we are nothing but another pile of rock in the sea. We will rebuild with stone. Is that clear?”

Pythoreaus nodded his head. “Of course, your highness. Forgive me for lecturing you.”

Phil hopped a short distance down the wharves and shook his head. “You are being an advisor, Commodore. No forgiveness is needed. Just this time you happened to be wrong. Now, we still have a number of vessels to arrive. We cannot berth them all here. It looks like we have only a dozen quays that can service them.”

“They still need to be repaired, and fresh supplies brought.”

“Then bring them. And send a message to the ships at sea that they are to patrol the harbour. Absolutely nothing is to pass through without letters of marque. Nothing! If it is a merchant vessel, then it can dock somewhere else on the island.”

“And the ships being repaired?” Pythoreaus asked.

Phil pondered that for a moment. He kicked a loose stone with one paw and watched it clatter away amongst the rubble heaped against the wall. Even stone could burn if the fire was hot enough, and Whalish fire was meant to be that hot. He could only be grateful that so little damage was done to the battlements.

“Have a few ships sail to those ports and patrol their waters. And send word to our ships in the straits; I want the mages there to dispel any fog or inclement weather which hinders their ability to see incoming ships. I do not care if it leads to snowstorms in Sondeshara, I will not let that rogue fleet through again!”

“Of course, I will have the messages sent as soon as we return.” When Phil said nothing more, he prompted, “And what of the rogue fleet itself? What shall we do?”

Phil stared at the graveyard, for that is what the wharves had become one week ago. So many sailors were now buried in the deep waters, burned or just drowned in the depths inside the husks of the ships they served. He had seen more death than any one man should; he’d even been forced to kill a mentor in the last days before he’d gone to Metamor. But this was the first time in two hundred years that any enemy had ever assaulted the city of Whales herself. This sight made him more heartsick than all else he’d done in his life.

“Nothing,” Phil finally managed to say. His voice was ragged, and he knew that he would lose himself to the animal if he did not get control again. “Nothing is to be done about them. We cannot send any more ships after them or risk losing them too. We will wait until more ships have arrived. Wait and watch and be ready to strike back at any attack.” He turned and stared hard at Pythoreaus. “I have seen enough. It’s time we got back to work.”

Pythoreaus nodded and held open the carriage door. The rabbit hopped in and settled himself, seething in his anger. Rabbits didn’t feel anger, but men did. And right now, Phil needed to be a man. But even in his fierce rage, a part of him knew it burned as strong as it did only because the fear of being a rabbit was worse.

Phil took one last look at the wharves and then closed his eyes, unable to stare at all the death his mistakes had wrought. First he had to make it right. Marzac would pay dearly for this. It had to.

The inside of the wagon was always warm. In her little nook where Bryone kept her beads, the air was constantly refreshed by the wisps of cooler air blowing in underneath the door. Behind her the curtain that kept the Magyar seer Dazheen cloistered trapped all of the old woman’s warmth inside. It did not keep out the voices from within, but after six years, Bryone was adept at ignoring all but what she was meant to hear.

She ran her fingers across the beads that lay in her lap. They followed the creases in her skirt, bunching between her legs and sliding down to her waist. She tried to straighten the crease, only to have the beads scatter across the floor. Cursing herself for a fool, the young girl bent over and scooped the beads back into her hands.

Each bead was marked with a different symbol, and each symbol could have several different meanings. They were meant to be tossed, and certain configurations of beads would imply different futures. But as Dazheen often said, they would not speak the truth until they had bonded with her, and absorbed some of the power of the seer that was already within her. And so she spent hours every day handling the beads; rubbing them between her fingers, kissing them one by one, but more often than not letting them sit in her lap while she turned them over and over.

Satisfied she’d collected them all, she sat back on her stool and let them fall into the small dimple in her dress between her thighs. They formed a small pile, with a questioning symbol resting at the top. Perhaps they were beginning to develop the needed power. For there were more questions in Bryone’s heart than anything else these days.

Leaning her head against the wagon wall behind her, she stared at the door and then at the curtain. Both were closed, leaving her with only these few feet of space in which to live. She could not leave the wagon in case Dazheen called to her, and she was not permitted to disturb Dazheen when she was not needed. Trapped between two worlds, she could only wait for one or the other to intrude upon her.

Lately, the seer Dazheen had become even more remote. She called on Bryone when she needed something to eat, and when she needed her bed freshened, but otherwise the girl was left to wait and wonder. Hanaman often came to speak with Dazheen these days, as they journeyed through a foreign land beyond the spine of the world. But he had few words for the girl who one day would be the new seer.

In those times when Bryone was sent out of the wagon, she had always marvelled at the Vysehrad standing in the West. It was so strange to see mountains in that direction. It towered above them, peaks tall and sharp, covered with frost and snow. They were white and grey, like bones exposed from an old grave.

She turned her eyes to the closed door and tried to imagine what lay beyond. The fields were bright and green, with trees clustered around the foothills of the mountains. Strange trees more like ferns than anything she had seen would line the riverbanks, and fruit of the most unusual flavour and texture would dot its branches, if not lay mushed upon the ground beneath them. From horizon to horizon would be a bright blue sky filled with soft clouds that blended from one shape to the next as they passed overhead.

But Bryone could only hope to catch a snatch of such beauty if someone came calling on Dazheen.

Apart from Hanaman, some of the women came to see the seer to ask for advice with children or husbands. They treated Bryone respectfully, but they never warmed to her. As Dazheen had often reminded her, a seer’s life was filled not with the warmth of the present, but with the uncertainty of the future. She had grown used to the dismissal she received from her fellow Magyars. They were never cruel, but they were never very kind either.

Except for Grastalko. She smiled as she thought on the newest of Magyars. He’d once been in the service to one of those loathsome knights, but he’d adapted well to being a Magyar, despite the wounding he suffered to his left hand. He always smiled to Bryone, and usually blushed fiercely when in her presence. It was amusing watching him try to form a complete sentence and fail.

Maybe it was because he’d come from another life that he was this way. Then again, many of the others who’d joined the Magyars by choice or by circumstance treated her in the same way that the other Magyars did. She hoped Grastalko would not start to do the same. She liked it when he came to see the seer. Maybe one day he’d come just to see her, and they could talk about anything. She could tell him about her beads and all the little things she had heard through the curtain over the years. He could tell her about life with the knights and faraway lands, and also of what he now did with the other Magyars.

It was a sweet thing to think about, and it helped to pass the time, but it had not yet come to pass. And it probably never would. She stirred the beads in her lap, but they did not seem to say anything to her.

Bryone sighed. She collected her beads and poured them into the small pouch she kept next to the door. She pulled the drawstring tight, and then let her head rest against the wall behind her. Stretching out her legs, she closed her eyes and tried to forget about her fellow Magyars. But how could she forget her whole life in a single moment?

Before she could ponder that conundrum, Dazheen’s voice called to her from beyond the multi-hued curtain. Bryone sat up straight, put on a soft smile, and drew the curtain aside tentatively. “Aye, Dazheen?” she asked, poking her head through.

Dazheen could not see her, not with her eyes ruined. She kept bandages across her face so that none would see exactly what had been done to them. Bryone could remember seeing the cards embed themselves into her eyes as if they were alive. A tremor flashed over her skin as she recalled that image, but she stilled it quickly.

“Do come in, Bryone. There be something I must tell thee.”

Bryone stepped into the room, hands clutching either side of her skirt firmly. She pulled the curtain closed behind her, and then regarded her mistress. Dazheen was easily the oldest living Magyar, her face rumpled and crusty like a worn blanket. Her skin was covered in blotches and warts, but there was a kindness in the turn of her lips that made her countenance seem grandmotherly instead of hideous. She sat in her usual place at the small table where she often arranged her cards. A second curtain blocked off the bed at the rear of the wagon.

“Please sit, my dear,” Dazheen added, her lips drawing into a smile. “‘Tis important, but thou needst not weary thy legs for it.”

Bryone glided into the seat and rested her hands in her lap. “What dost thee wish to tell, Dazheen?” The seer’s face was too serene for the news to be terrible. Nevertheless, Bryone gripped the front of her skirt tightly. Any tighter and she would begin to tear it.

Dazheen smiled warmly, and proudly she thought. “Thou art young, Bryone, but thou hast been training for many years now. Soon thou shalt be ready to undertake the rites of soothsaying to invest thy beads with the power within thee.”

Bryone sat up a little straighter, her heart tingling. “Thou dost mean I be ready to be a seer?”

Dazheen’s smile became an effacing laugh. “Soon, my child. Soon. Take thy beads and bring them here.”

Bryone returned to her small alcove and took the beads from their pouch. She brought them back to the table and kept them in her hands. “Here they be, Dazheen. What dost thee wish of me?”

“Let them fall on the table.” The smile was gone, but the warmth in her old face remained.

Bryone smiled some, and let the beads clatter to the table. They rolled back and forth, but to her surprise, none of them rolled off. They spread out in a V-shape towards Dazheen, and for a moment she was struck by their picturesque quality. It almost reminded her of a mountain slope, albeit one she had never seen before.

Dazheen let her hands feel across the surface of the beads. Her lips turned down in a frown as she felt each bead. Concentration filled each crevice of her cheeks. Those arthritic fingers, bent like a bird’s talons, brushed across each bead one by one. Finally, her smile returned and she nodded her head. “Thou wilt be ready soon, my Bryone. On Winter’s Solstice thou wilt become a true seer.”

“So soon?” Bryone asked, quite surprised by this revelation. She could not even predict the morrow’s weather half the time!

“If that be what thou wishest, then it will be,” Dazheen replied, pushing the beads towards her. “Now put these back and wait by the door. I must think.”

Bryone collected her beads, disappointed that there was nothing more. She glanced at the cupboard on the other side of the wagon. Waiting inside was the seer’s deck of cards that she used to tell the future. They had not been removed in so long. Bryone licked her lips and then asked, “What of thy cards, Dazheen? Dost thou feel them still?”

“Aye. Worry them not, my child. They wait as they must. Ja.” Dazheen leaned her head back, lips sealing tight in concentration. Bryone took a deep breath and then stepped into her little space between curtain and door. She pulled the curtain shut behind her and sat on her stool. Her dress bunched between her legs again. Absently, she spilled the beads into the skirt’s creases and watched them roll around.

Maybe Grastalko would come by that day. It seemed better to think of him than of the seer. But it was hard not to wonder what Dazheen had meant about the cards waiting as they must. Wait for what?

Sullenly, all excitement gone, Bryone resigned herself to waiting for whatever might come next, if anything at all.

One of the first things the Magyars did after leaving Yesulam was remove the Eaven crest from either side of the carriage. The forested heraldic symbol was too conspicuous in the Holy Land, and they preferred to travel as unobtrusively as possible, at least until they reached the relative safety of the Steppe. While they moved through the parched vistas of the Holy Land, they would do what they could to attract no notice.

They had been riding northwards on the main road with the ever narrowing Yurdon river to their right. They journeyed by night as much as possible, taking their rests during the heat of the day as they did when they crossed the Desert of Dreaming. Twice a day they would inspect Berkon’s wound, just before they began, and just after they stopped.

To Nemgas’s delight, the first few days out brought what appeared to be good news. The wound was closing up, and the bleeding had finally stopped. The pustules grew back once, but Amile carefully drained them again. After the second time they were drained, they did not return. Berkon did not move much, and not without help, but he did rise from his bed for a few hours each day. He bitterly complained about being confined, but until his thigh was fully restored, there was nothing they could do.

They took turns leading the carriage, with two shifts each night so that they could all enjoy the cool air and the brilliant stars overhead. The Holy Land was blessed in one regard that they were not used to – there were very few clouds in the sky, and so each night the heavens shone brightly like a still lake with brilliant candles floating just above the faintly eddying surface. Not a night went by when they couldn’t make out all the familiar constellations; the wagon, the juggler, the storyteller, and the great donkey to name but a few they found.

A weeks’ journey brought them to the widest expanse of the Galean sea. The hills were higher here, and the daytime heat far less. Trees grew in greater numbers, and the fields were mostly green for a few miles around the huge lake. They could see across it, but the distant shore was only a faint yellow line on the horizon. Small villages clustered the shoreline, and fishing boats could be seen casting their nets even from the road.

While Gamran and Pelgan took Gelel down to the village to bring back some food to eat – which meant it would be stolen if they felt sure they could get away with it – Nemgas sat at the front of the wagon watching the sun go down over the western hills. Chamag was beside him, his eyes trained on the travellers sharing the road with them. What few he saw were heading down to the village to spend the night. Not so the Magyars, once their friends returned, they would begin another long night’s trek northward towards the Steppe.

“‘Tis only a few days more now,” Nemgas pointed out. He rubbed at the stump of his right arm with his one hand and frowned. It did not hurt at all. He had heard that men who lost arms or legs could still feel their fingers or toes, even though they were gone and rotting. Nemgas tried to move his muscles as if he were flexing the fingers on his nonexistent right hand, but there was nothing. It was like trying to flap wings; he simply couldn’t even conceive how he would try!

“Good,” Chamag grunted. He crossed his arms and nodded to a solitary traveller coming out of the north upon a very tired donkey. “That fellow be lucky he wast not assaulted by robbers.”

“He probably ran that poor beast as hard as he might. ‘Tis no affair of ours. Soon we wilt ne’er need worry about such men again.”

“Oh?” Chamag looked at him, expression sceptical. “Thou art not forgetting the horse clans? They wouldst enjoy skewering us shouldst they chance upon us on the Steppe.”

“We be not easy prey,” Nemgas pointed out, a twisted smile crossing his brow. “They art dogs. If they dare attack, they wilt withdraw quickly, I promise thee. We hath not come this far to fall to such fools.”

“I hope.” He did not sound convinced. Nemgas would have said more, but then Chamag shifted to one side when the door behind them opened. Berkon stood in the door, gripping the jamb tightly with one hand.

“Ah, how dost thee feel this eve?” Nemgas asked in brighter tones when he saw his friend.

Berkon shrugged with one shoulder. “I hath felt better than this!” He winced as he put a bit of weight on his injured leg. “E’en if this wound shouldst heal, I wilt ne’er run again.” He sighed and pulled himself onto the seat at the front of the carriage. Nemgas stood up to give him room.

“One dost not need to run to be able to shoot a bow,” Chamag pointed out. “Or to be a Magyar.”

“In sooth,” Berkon agreed. He rubbed along his thigh gently, eyes narrowing. He had on his linens and simple jerkin, but no boots for his feet. In the fading light of the day, his toes appeared to darken as if bruised. “Nemgas, thou art the finest Magyar I hath e’er known, and to many, thou be only half a man. Wouldst we all be so maimed that we might be so glorious!”

“‘Tis not a condition to wish upon oneself lightly,” Nemgas chided with good humour. He patted his friend on the shoulder and looked up into the sky. The sun was dipping below the horizon. The crescent moon was following the sun down, and in a few more hours would be gone too. It would not be long now before the stars began to shine.

“Aye.” Berkon stared towards the village. “Didst I hear thee say we wilt reach the Steppe in a few days?”

Nemgas nodded and gestured with spread fingers at the small village. Lanterns were being hung from the fishing boats to allow the fisherman a chance to make a few final tosses before dusk ceased their labours. “Once we reach the Steppe we shalt head northeast towards the Vysehrad.”

“And then?” Chamag asked.

“We head north again, until we dost rejoin our fellow Magayrs. They didst say they wouldst circle the mountains when we didst see them last.”

“‘Twill take many weeks,” Berkon pointed out. He gritted his teeth and tightened his hand on his leg. “We wilt need to steal a great deal of food to last that long.”

“Aye, we shalt.” Nemgas was about to say more when Berkon doubled over, his body tightening and muscles straining against his skin. Alarmed, Nemgas gripped his arm tightly. “Berkon? Berkon, art thee well?”

Berkon spat and his face contorted in silent agony. His injured leg kicked out, his toes smacking into the front of the carriage with a muffled thump. Chamag grabbed the man’s other side and forced him down. While Berkon began to writhe, Nemgas tore at his linens, revealing the left leg.

Amile appeared in the doorway just then to see what all the commotion was about. She nearly screamed when she saw the black veins running up and down Berkon’s leg and across his midsection. Nemgas snarled. “Put something ‘tween his teeth. We must bleed him. Bleed him or he dies.”

Amile rushed back inside the wagon, only to return a moment later with Kaspel and a bit of tough rope. Sweat dripped from Kaspel’s brow, but he managed to shove the rope between his fellow archer’s teeth. Nemgas drew out the curved blade he’d stolen for his boy, and neatly slashed through the bindings. The scab was blackening, and when he cut it, a septic ooze began to drain.

“What be that filth?” Kaspel gasped, holding one arm over his nose.

“Poison,” Nemgas replied, doing his best not to gag. He scraped the ichorous mess from the wound, and then glanced at Amile. “Wine. Ja!” Five seconds later, she was back at the doorway with a half-empty bottle in her hands. Nemgas poured it over the wound, using a scrap of Berkon’s linens to brush the area clean. The fecund slime was already staining the wood of the carriage a ghastly purple.

Once he was felt the wound was as clean as he could make it, he cut deeper, carefully, but certain. Syrupy blood poured from the new wound. With it came the discolouration in his legs and belly. Berkon banged the back of his head against the wood before ultimately passing out. By the time Nemgas, with Chamag’s help, began wrapping a tourniquet about his thigh, Berkon’s veins were once more free from the corruption.

“Didst we save him?” Kaspel asked, his hands quivering next to the unconscious man’s face.

Nemgas shrugged his shoulders. “For now.”

“Mayhap we could take him back to Yesulam, and let the priests heal him again,” Amile suggested.

“We cannot,” Nemgas said sullenly. “Shouldst we return, we wilt all be captured and likely killed.”

“Then what dost we do!” she demanded, tears standing in he eyes.

“What we canst,” he replied, his voice hollow. “Bring me his poultice and his bandages. I wilt retie them now. Then we put him back in his bed and he stays there.”

Chamag stood up and glanced towards the village. “Pelgan and Gamran art coming.”

“Good.” Nemgas scraped the filth from the carriage and wrinkled his nose. Already a fresh breeze was coming off the lake, bringing some surcease from the malodorous stench of the corruption. He glanced at the curved knife and frowned as the luster began to tarnish before his eyes. With a flick of his wrist he tossed the gift into the dirt. It was no good now. He’d have to find something else.

Beneath him, Berkon’s face was twitching as if from a nightmare. “Amile, prepare him a broth. We shalt leave once the others hath boarded.”

The Magyars did as they were told. Kaspel brought the new bandages, and moments later helped Chamag take the wounded man back inside the carriage. Nemgas could only watch the sky as the stars came to life one by one. He pulled his arm tight over his chest; the desert air was very cold that night.

The Seaview Road was old, built in the early days of the Pyralian Kingdoms, when they struggled against the still dominant Suielman empire for control over Galendor. It ran from the edge of the Marzac swamp to Marilyth in the East. The road followed the Pyralian coastline except where bluffs forced it inwards. Fashioned from stone and brick, it was the longest road of its kind anywhere in the known world. In many places the road had fallen into disrepair, and the once tightly fit stones had been shoved aside by grasses and the occasional tree root. But the stretch heading north from Tournemire to Breckaris was always maintained.

Small seaside hamlets dotted that particular stretch of the Seaview Road, all of them fishing villages of one stripe or another. The larger villages sported marketplaces where the outlying farms brought their crops to sell. With the amount of traffic through the towns clustered along the road, it was a full week’s ride from Tournemire to Breckaris. But all of the traffic would part when the townsfolk saw the insignia of a unicorn standing in a grassy field. That was the heraldry for their liege, the Marquis du Tournemire.

The Marquis reclined comfortably in his carriage with his cards splayed before him on a small table. Driving the carriage was his Castellan Sir Autrefois, while his Steward Vigoureux sat silently across from him like a puppet without a master to animate it; which was not an entirely inaccurate description. A dozen horsemen rode with him to keep brigands from attacking his carriage.

He didn’t truly need the soldiers to stop thieves from harming him. It merely made his passage easier if he did not have to deal with such meddlesome interruptions.

Occasionally he would look up from the table to see where they were. To his right the Pyralian sea stretched off into the horizon. On his left farms, small homes and copses of trees dotted the grassy landscape. As the day wore on, what shadows there were grew longer and longer.

His eyes returned to his cards and the Marquis frowned. Changes had happened in them since the last time he’d consulted them. Normally he left them alone in their mahogany case. He’d only just returned from the Chateau for this one last task before all would be complete. It seemed remarkable that after all this time planning, the actual execution was moving smoother and more quickly than he could have imagined.

But now the cards perplexed him, and he did not like it one bit. The Priest of Swords had fallen into the same darkness that had consumed the Knight and Ten of Swords. The face of the Priest, once cherubic and rosy, was now sunken and wailing in agony, eyes filled with a madness the likes of which men could not comprehend. Somehow, Bishop Jothay had died and his soul was in the hands of the Underworld.

This perplexed him because that had not been the plan.

Camille stirred the cards until he could see some of the other swords. Both King and Queen were still active, with the Queen of Swords staying close to the Priest and Eight of Spades. The Seven of Spades, a young man dressed as a Breckarin soldier, was also nearby and accompanied by the Six of Spades. The figure had once been a man, but now was a buxom woman with a foul temper in her eyes. The Marquis had seen her close to Agathe only two months ago, so the curse of Metamor was the only explanation for the gender change.

“What do you seek?” he asked, though only to himself. Vigoureux continued to sit without giving any sign that he had heard his master speak. Camille drummed his fingers against the table for a moment before stirring the cards again. Now he could see the suit of Hearts, all but the three lowest Hearts that is, in one pile on the table with two Coins on one side. They were moving closer to where the Queen of Swords lay. The Marquis smiled.

In their own pile at the other side of the table were most of the Spades. As always, the King and Ten of Spades were hidden beneath other cards. One in particular caught his eye, that of the Five of Spades. A priest dressed as a Questioner stood with head lowered. A halo of light seemed to emanate from his body. It had never done that before.

He ignored the glowing priest and glanced instead at the Queen of Spades, one of his favourite cards. The blinded seer sat in quiet repose as if dreaming. The only other being in all the world who could see through the cards, it had proven good sport wounding her eyes. She did not consult her cards anymore, a fact that pleased him. And ever since then, as far as he could ascertain, she had done nothing. Good.

He would have looked to see where the Coins were, but the carriage pulled to a sudden stop. Camille leaned forward and asked in a loud voice, “Sir Autrefois, why have we stopped?”

“Zagrosek has just stepped out of a shadow nearby, your grace,” came the reply from his driver.

The Marquis did not smile. “Very well. Vigoureux, let him in.”

As if summoned to life, the Steward stood and opened one door of the carriage. A moment later, a man dressed in black shirt and leggings climbed inside. He no longer bore the familiar Sondeckis robe, and so his well-muscled body was clearly visible. There was a narrow cut in his shirt at his midsection, and a similar one on the back. The flesh beneath was pale but whole.

“So, you have returned,” the Marquis said softly. He swept his cards across the table, gathering them up in his hands. “Sit down.” Zagrosek did so, taking a deep breath and wincing. Vigoureux closed the carriage door then took a seat next to him. A moment later and the carriage continued on the stone roadway. The clatter of horses hooves and the crunch of wheels on stone echoed within.

“Bishop Jothay is dead,” Zagrosek said flatly, his voice devoid of remorse. “The sword turned on him and used him as the sacrifice.”

Camille stroked one finger across his chin. “Did the sword successfully bind Yesulam?”

“Yes,” the Sondecki said, his voice weary. “But, like at Metamor, the Shrieker was destroyed before it could escape the temple. I barely escaped. Our plans were discovered by a group of Magyars, knights, and even a Questioner priest.”

He lifted one eye to regard Zagrosek. Curiosity flickered in his lashes. “This priest, did he glow?”

Zagrosek frowned. “He could create light. It made it difficult for me to escape. I had to leave my robe behind.”

“Ah, well, that explains it. We succeeded in Yesulam with what needed to be done. All else is irrelevant. I want you to accompany me to Breckaris. There are some affairs there that need to be tended to.”

“Such as?”

The Marquis smiled and set his cards back in the mahogany case. He closed the lid and felt the air grow lighter in the carriage. With increasing satisfaction, he leaned back in his seat and enjoyed the way the afternoon sun slanted through the carriage windows. “Daedra’kema is coming. Although not nearly as significant as the Equinox or the Solstice for our purposes, it is still a day when the veil between worlds is weak.”

“But none of the artifacts can be tied then,” Zagrosek pointed out.

“No, but they can be looped. If all goes well, we shall add Manzona that day.”

Zagrosek narrowed his eyes. “From Breckaris? But how?”

The Marquis gestured at the window. “It is such a lovely day outside. ‘Tis a pity we can only enjoy it with our eyes. When we stop for the evening we must have a bit of tea.” His eyes fixed the Sondecki and held him firm. “Enjoy the scenery, Krenek. It will be here for just a little while longer.”

Zagrosek swallowed, sighed, and turned his eyes on the seashore. The blue waters sparkled along the crest of each wave.

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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