The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XXXVII - Unexpected Truths

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

There was no sunlight in the hold of the Sondesharan vessel, and so Vinsah quickly lost track of the days. At first, he counted the meals of hard bread and meagre fruit that Captain Delius brought down for him. He lost count somewhere after ten, and now did not bother. When his food would come, he would ask where they were, and received the same answer every time: the Sea of Pyralis.

In some ways, not knowing felt better. There was not much that the raccoon had to be thankful for these days.

One of the few things he was grateful for was the calmness of the sea. Only once had they encountered a squall, and that had lasted an hour before blowing off to the East. In those moments Vinsah had clutched Akabaieth’s journals tight to his chest and buried his snout against the binding, back to one crate, and footpaws braced against another.

The only other thing that mattered to him were the journals he’d so jealously guarded. For hours he would read, letting himself be transported to days long ago when all the world was clear, and his purpose in it sure. He wished he could undo the last year, and return to that moment before they left Metamor Keep. He would have warned the Keepers of the coming attack, and they could have been prepared, laying in wait to capture this Zagrosek before he could murder the Patriarch. All the world would have been right then.

But he could not go back to the past; he could not undo the ravages of time. The wheel turned, grinding out, crushing him like so many pebbles beneath a mill. And that was how he would feel when his eyes grew weary of words, and he collapsed back into the present and recognized what he was: an exile from his home, cursed and despised by the very people he had only wished to serve.

He had counselled many in the past that a deep pain such as the passing of a loved one fades with time. But here, where time had no meaning, Vinsah felt his pain as clearly as the moment when Patriarch Geshter had pronounced his excommunication. At least in those hours when he could not bring himself to read.

Vinsah stretched and tried to put the image of his yew being smashed from his mind. He could feel the remnants in his small travelling pouch, and he gingerly fingered them through the hide. Strangely, it was a comfort to know that he still had the yew, shattered as it was. It was as if there lingered in him some hope that he could put all of the pieces back together like a puzzle. The metal inlay was bent and twisted now, but maybe it could be recast. Maybe he would be a Follower again one day too.

That thought made Vinsah hiss in irritation. Far too often he was thinking things that he had never thought before. Or for that matter, that he never would have believed himself capable of thinking only a year ago. His life stretched before him, and the one thing that he yearned for, the Ecclesia, was the one thing he could no longer have.

Vinsah hissed at himself again, and reached for the faintly burning lamp. He twisted the knob and brought a little more light into his empty world. The sides of the hull stretched up on all sides, dark and groaning with the weight of the sea. Closer at hand were wooden crates, sealed and silent as statues. And at his feet was one of the journals. He traced his paws over its weathered front, and gently opened it.

The pages turned with the binding, and he found himself at a striking date. It was very nearly the last entry in the journal, written only days before Akabaieth’s death. Vinsah closed his eyes a moment, gathered his breath, and began to read.

13 October 706 Cristos Reckoning

A most unusual day it was. The people of Metamor continue to surprise me. Their charity and companionship is almost without compare in any of the cities I have known. Their regard for all the mysteries of the world is certain, their faith varied, but true. I now come to realize that it is not merely their shapes that defines them, but the entire valley. It is a nexus between worlds, a place where great things can be done, and also a crucible for those who make it their home. Standing on the cusp of chaos, they have been forged by their trials like steel tempered in the furnace.

My attendants continue to amuse me as well. I had hoped for a more ready acceptance of these wonders, but many, including my beloved Vinsah, cling to the orthodoxy they have learned, an orthodoxy that may be keeping them from a truer union with Eli. But I should not presume too much. Their reticence may mask a greater strength than I am capable of possessing.

Still, I was delighted to find welcome in the most unlikely of places this day. While touring the library, I encountered a most interesting lad, a young man, perhaps not even twenty, although as he was in the guise of a skunk, I cannot vouch for his age. His name was Murikeer Khunnas, and he was a mage of some skill. A Lothanasi as well. He had gone into hiding for the express purpose of not meeting me. I daresay we both left that meeting with changed opinions of one another. No longer did he see the office of the Patriarch as some distant power, but met a man who merely wished to do good in the world. And I did not see some theoretical dialectic of witchcraft, but a living mage, who also wished to do good in the world, using the talents Eli gave him to do so.

But in some sense, meeting Murikeer was not the most remarkable event of the day. Vinsah and I had the privilege of meeting with the Lothanasa of Metamor Keep, a one Raven hin’Elric. She was a gracious host, once she overcame her suspicion of my intentions. Considering the animosity between our faiths, I do not blame her. And if she had known of my past sins, she may have been even more reluctant to allow me to enter. I am grateful that Eli has allowed those painful years to be forgotten by some.

Enough of that. For the first time in my life, I was permitted entrance to a Lothanasi temple. Vinsah was escorted by the junior priestess Merai, whom the Lothanasa suggested might be the vessel for a prophecy amongst their kind. There are many kinds of prophecy, so I do not doubt there is some possibility of it coming to pass. What was important was that Lothanasa Raven shared my goal of mutual peace between our people, and has demonstrated she is willing to allow it to flourish at Metamor.

But I could not help but wonder as I sat in that ancient holy place, how different my own life might have been had my father been made a diplomat to Sathmore instead of Pyralis. Would I have become a Lothanasi priest to spite him, instead of an Ecclesia priest? Would I have lived the last seventy years of my life dedicated in service to a pantheon of deities, each with their own sphere of influence in our world? And if that had come to pass, would it truly have been a bad thing?

It is easy to condemn the Lothanasi as pagans from afar. We do not know them, and can hardly be expected to sympathize with them. But if we had been born in their lands, we would be pagans too. To suppose we are somehow special because we were born in lands answering to the Ecclesia is presumption that we are not worthy to claim. Only Eli’s grace allows us to know the freedom He has bought for us with His Son’s own blood. What makes our lives more valuable than those who are taught at an early age of the glories of the pantheon, and our need to serve them?

I do not believe there is an intrinsic answer to this question. The conundrum only emboldens me to seek peace between our peoples. Priests and Priestesses such as Lothanasa Raven hin’Elric and Meria hin’Dana are good people who serve faithfully. If our faiths, our peoples, and our churches are allowed to grow closer together as I have opined in these pages before, then people such as they would acknowledge that they serve Eli, no matter which way they do it in. And we should do the same.

I could have been a Lothanasi. And neither my life nor my soul would have been in any greater jeopardy than they are now had it been so. I am grateful, and continue to offer thanks, that my life has been what it has been, and that Eli has revealed many truths to me through His Son, Yahshua. I do not say these things about the Lothanasi or the Pantheon and imply any disrespect to Holy Yahshua. On the contrary, I feel they are part of His plan too. Perhaps it is meant to show us how better to be humble, to admit that His ways are superior and to submit with thanks to His will. I suspect this is a mystery about which we will always be able to learn more if we but open ourselves and seek His truths.

But this one truth I feel sure I know, better now than ever before: there is no sin in being Lothanasi. We are all Eli’s children, and He will bring us home if we wish to be with Him. Only those who reject Eli and seek the indulgence of self will be lost. Servants such as Lothanasa Raven and Priestess Merai are, in my estimation, not such people. I am grateful to have had this chance to meet them.

Tomorrow there will be even more wonders to discover here at Metamor Keep. I look forward to them, and to continuing the mission of peace throughout all of the Midlands. I do not think I will live long enough to bring this message to Sathmore, but perhaps those like Vinsah who will follow in my footsteps will be allowed entrance to that kingdom. It is my hope and prayer that they will understand these things in time.

Thank you, Eli, for your grace and for giving me this one last opportunity. Not as I will, my Lord, but as you will. Amen, Lord, so be it.

Vinsah traced his claws across the surface of the page as he finished the entry. So many thoughts, so many memories. He would soon return to Metamor himself. All these people he would see again. Murikeer had become a close friend in their journey through Sathmore. Perhaps he would also meet Raven and Merai again. This time, he promised himself, he would be humbler, and willing to grant that their service was just as valid as his own.

For several moments he sat staring at the page, that last thought echoing in his mind. Then, his breathing quickened and he shut the book, his body clenched with fear. He buried his head against the deck, eyes squeezed shut, paws grasping for his pouch. It took him several feverish seconds before he found it and drew it to his chest. He pressed the wooden shards against his chest, whispering unintelligible words through his lips.

He had not believed he would ever be surprised again by the strange notions that came to him. He was wrong, and now, Vinsah could not help but quail from that which was unthinkable. With a beastly cry, he jumped up, stuffed the pouch between his jaws, and scampered on all fours over the other side of the hull where he could hide in the darkness. For the first time in his life, he found comfort in the feral ignorance of the raccoon.

An hour later, his mind woke up. Vinsah blinked and saw the contents of the pouch spilled out on the floor before him. Though only a flicker of light shone around the edge of the crates, his eyes could discern the outlines of the pieces of his yew. He breathed slowly, claws nudging each piece, as if expecting them to slide across the floor and merge together.

“No use,” Vinsah said, and then with a shock realized those had been the first words he’d spoken all day. “No use in trying. This is broken.”

His heart ached with the words. A part of him felt a strange desolation, but another felt relieved in some strange way. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then set about returning the pieces to his pouch. He couldn’t be what he had wanted all his life to be anymore. That didn’t mean he could not love the Ecclesia, he just could not partake of it.

It would pain him the rest of his life, but that didn’t mean he had to stop serving Eli. He just had to find a new way to do so. Vinsah sighed, straightened, and walked like a man back to the lamp and Akabaieth’s journals. The oil was running low in his lantern, but it would last until his next meal.

He nestled down, and grabbed one of the books. Vinsah did not open it, but let it lay in his lap. He rested his paws against its surface and whispered, “My Eli, I know what has been done to me, and though I cannot serve in your Ecclesia, I still wish to serve you. Show me how I might do that, and give me the strength to do it. Eli, Yahshua, it is all that I want, all that I ask.”

He paused and a smile teased the edges of his muzzle. “My Lady, please present these prayers to our Abba in Heaven. And please come back to me in my sleep, and show me what I need to do.”

He did not make the sign of the yew, nor did he close his prayer with any benediction. Eli had heard, how could He not? Vinsah opened his eyes at last, weary and heartsick. He let the journal fall open in his lap, and let his eyes read the words on the page, and trust them whatever they may be.

He could only hope and trust that Akabaieth had been right.

Korazin was the northernmost city in the Holy Land. A city of fishers and merchants, it stood upon the top of the ridge that kept the Desert of Dreaming from sweepings its killing sands into the Flatlands. Its battlements overlooked the waters of the Galean Sea, and well kept roads led south to Yesulam and west across the plains to Marilyth in Pyralia. From time to time traders would ride down off the Steppe to barter for goods, but they were the only ones who returned to the Steppe.

No one journeyed into the Steppe itself, not for many years. Not until that day.

“Thou art sure of thyself?” Gamran asked, staring with longing up at the walls of the city as they circled round on the western road. “We couldst steal more supplies here.”

“Aye,” Nemgas agreed, eyes dark as he watched the minarets slide past. “But we hath enough already for a few weeks. We shalt find more as we dost need it.” He gestured at the city walls, tall, crenellated, and fashioned from the same red rock they saw in the hills. “‘Tis Korazin, Gamran. They hath no love for Magyars. ‘Tis the very reason we hath ne’er ventured into this land in generations. I wilt not risk a thieving here.”

Gamran narrowed his eyes at the walls, a brief glimmer of uncertainty filling his frown. And then he smiled, impish, like a child with a new toy. “ ‘Tis why ‘twill be fun. We couldst be the first in generations to thief from Korazin!”

The thought did hold some appeal to Nemgas. But from the eagerness he saw beginning to dawn in Pelgan’s eyes, he knew he had to put his foot down or he’d never stop them. “Nay, Gamran. I hath no doubt of thy skill, but I hath a respect for the watchmen of Korazin. If any Magyar be caught, then we all shalt be caught.”

Pelgan grimaced but then slowly began to nod. “He dost speak the truth, Gamran.”

Gamran sighed and slumped against the carriage seat. “ ‘Tis true. Still, ‘twould be a fine thieving!”

“Aye, ‘twould,” Nemgas agreed and then snapped the reins. The four horses broke into a brisk canter. “But I want more to see our land than to see any thieving.”

Both Pelgan and Gamran nodded firmly. The little thief took out his juggling balls and sighed wistfully. “Aye, so would I.”

None of them spoke for several minutes. The western road wound along the base of the rocky ridge atop of which stood Korazin. The hills continued to the west, with dry scrub more and more prevalent. Through a gap in the hills to the north they could see a horizon of autumn reeds, crisp and tan. The Steppe. Home.

Nemgas let his eyes stare at that wonder, so close now. It would not be long before they were through the gap and leaving the road for good. They would be on the Steppe, where their hearts could beat true and free. No more would they were the drab browns of the common folk cursed with civilization; they would don their colourful garb, full of celebration and frivolity. It would be, he hoped, the first of many great reliefs yet to come.

Behind them the carriage door opened and Amile poked her head out. “I hath bled Berkon again.” There was a weariness in her voice she could not conceal. Ever since his relapse, they’d had to bleed his wound each day, and sometimes twice. Each time, the black poison had come back. Nemgas’s only hope was that Berkon was strong enough to survive a couple months more. By then he hoped they would have rejoined the other Magyars; the seer Dazheen would know how to mend this wound.

Nemgas handed the reins to Pelgan and then stretched his fingers. “I thank thee, Amile. Tell the others that we shalt reach the Steppe soon.”

Amile’s eyes brightened, though the look of worry still clung to them. “In sooth? When?”

“By the afternoon,” Nemgas replied. “We hath but to pass the city and we wilt be in our land.”

She smiled weakly, her eyes casting to the city, then to the horizon, and finally down to Pelgan. He smiled back at her, patting her arm with one hand. She set hers on his shoulder. “We wilt be home soon,” he assured her. Her fingers tensed against his shoulder for a moment, before she turned and slipped back inside. Pelgan sighed and returned his eyes to the northern horizon.

“I wish we ne’er came here. I wish we ne’er didst know any of these affairs.” Pelgan tugged on the reins to turn the horses about a corner in the road. For a moment the gap in the hills and the glimpse of the Steppe disappeared, but it emerged as soon as they came around the giant rocks blocking the road. “I do not care what stories we wilt find our names in. I want Hanalko and the others back as they wert.”

“But we cannot,” Nemgas muttered under his breath. “We wilt save what we can. We hath avenged Hanalko. ‘Tis all we canst do.”

For a moment, Pelgan looked to say more, but then quietly returned his eyes to the road. Gamran watched the city walls slip past and fingered his juggling balls thoughtfully. Nemgas rubbed the stump of his right arm and watched the gap widen bit by bit.

It was another hour before they passed through the gap in the hills and could finally see the Steppe stretch endlessly to the horizon. Autumn had turned the grasses a dull brown, and that was all that could be seen beyond the small hamlet hugging Korazin’s northern wall. The road came to an abrupt tee, with the left branch heading for Pyralis and the right leading to the Galean Sea and the Korazin gates.

But the Magyars did not stop at the tee; when the wagon wheels left the road they felt the familiar crunch of the grass that they had long missed. Their spirits lifted, and soon they were telling jokes and singing songs together. Though they were still in Korazin’s shadow, they were upon the Steppe and that was all that mattered.

When evening approached, they stopped upon a small hill topped with stunted trees and commenced further stripping the carriage of its Ecclesian decorations. Those that were valuable they would keep or remake into something useful. Much of the rest they used to start a fire after clearing out a wide circle in the scrub. It was after Amile began making a meal upon the fire that Berkon woke, demanding to be allowed outside.

Nemgas stared at his friend and fellow Magyar in dismay. The bed stank of filth and was stained with blood. Berkon lay beneath soiled linens, weariness showing on his face, punctuated by brief moments when all his body would clench in searing agony. He tried to hide the pain, but could not fool Nemgas.

“Thou needest thy rest,” Nemgas counselled gently, his heart sick at the sight of his friend’s suffering. He wished they had not been so hasty in leaving Yesulam. Maybe the priests could have helped more if they’d waited another day or two.

Berkon narrowed his eyes, and said bitterly, “Shouldst I die, I wilt hath plenty of rest.” He shuddered, pressing his head back into the pillow. “Wilt I die?”

“Aye, as we all shalt.” Nemgas gingerly straightened the bed cloth; they had washed it yesterday, but already it was filthy with sweat and blood. “But if it be within my power, I shalt see thee safely to Dazheen. She wilt surely cure this wound.”

“Aye,” Berkon nodded, placidity returning to his face. “If not, I want to see the Steppe again. I want to dress as a Magyar ought. Please, Nemgas. Allow me this.”

He knew it was a risk, but in his heart he yearned for the same things. How could he deny them to a friend who might not survive the night? Still, it took several seconds before he finally relented. “Thou wilt see the Steppe this night, and thou shalt wear our colours as a Magyar ought. Wait here a moment. I shalt bring Chamag and Kaspel to aid thee.”

For the first time in days, Berkon smiled. “Thank thee, Nemgas!”

And a few minutes later when Chamag lowered him unsteadily to the grasses where Kaspel stood ready to support his weight, Berkon’s smile was deeper and broader than Nemgas could ever remember seeing. “The gods be praised,” he exclaimed reverently, “the Steppe!”

The others beamed and rushed to his side, except for Amile who stood over the cooking pot stirring a savoury broth that was beginning to steam. Berkon did not put any weight on his injured leg, allowing Kaspel to keep him standing on that side. But with his free arm he clasped hands with his fellow Magyars, and hugged them as best he was able.

“ ‘Tis a marvel to see the Steppe again. I hath ne’er seen anything so beautiful.” Berkon sighed contentedly after the others gave him some room. “Thank thee all for bringing me back home. ‘Twould be a shame to die anywhere else.”

“Thou shalt not die,” Kaspel insisted. “Thou art strong!”

Berkon nodded, though judging by the faint sigh that escaped his lips, it was clear that he had his doubts.

“Come, join us by the fire,” Pelgan said, and he patted a spot of earth where until an hour ago grass had been growing. Instead, they had laid out a bed fashion from those same grasses a few feet from where the fire snapped and popped. Kaspel helped Berkon reach the spot before gently lowering him to the ground. Berkon stretched out his wounded leg, but tried to keep himself propped up with his arms. He held that pose for a few seconds before his elbows buckled and Kaspel grabbed him by the shoulders.

“Thank thee. I fear my arms hath weakened from so many days abed.”

Kaspel sat behind him and with his shoulder propped Berkon back up. “I wilt keep thee sitting my friend.”

The other Magyars gathered around, all eyes passing between Berkon and the Steppe about them, with an occasional glance at the steam rising from the cauldron. Gamran drew out his juggling balls and proceeded to practice with them. “Just think, we hath returned to our home. We wilt be reunited with the others soon!”

“Two months, I believe,” Nemgas said, eyeing Berkon warily. He was still wearing the bland tunic and breeches that they had donned in order to conceal themselves while in Yesulam. “Since we hath returned to the Steppe, we must return to being Magyars as well. Pelgan, go and fetch our true clothes. ‘Tis time we wore them again.”

Smiles abounded as the young man jumped up from where he sat and dashed into the wagon. He returned a moment later with stacks of colourful patchwork jerkins and breeches. He did his best to hand them to the right person, taking special care when he laid Berkon’s in the man’s lap.

“Let us help Berkon dress first,” Nemgas suggested. Berkon smiled and shifted about as Kaspel and Chamag lifted his shirt over his head.

“Hold my back and I wilt put this on,” Berkon said, lifting his multi-hued tunic. Kaspel put his hands on Berkon’s back, and for a moment, they could all see his ribs through his skin. But he still pulled the shirt on over his head and arms, while Kaspel shifted his hands back and forth to help. He smiled when he looked at it, before tensing with a spasm of pain. It lasted only a second, and then he grinned broadly, rubbing his fingers over the heavy cloth. “ ‘Tis a joy to wear this again.”

“Now the leggings,” Chamag grunted, gripping Berkon’s heels. “Kaspel?” The other Magyar gently hoisted Berkon off the ground a few inches, and Chamag wormed the man’s leggings free. Nemgas sucked in his breath when he saw the flesh of the injured leg. The wound was covered in bandages, but the flesh all down his leg was a pale grey. The other leg, though weak, showed no signs of the necrosis.

“By the gods!” Amile shrieked, dropping her spoon into the cauldron.

Berkon closed his eyes and shuddered. “ ‘Tis dying?”

Nemgas nodded as he approached. “Aye, the leg be beyond our aid. Thou wilt surely die ere we reach the others if we do not remove it.”

“Then do so,” Berkon gritted his teeth and all of his muscles tensed. Before their eyes, from beneath the bandage, dark lines began to spread up and down his leg. The poison.

“Chamag!” Nemgas snapped. “Thy axe.”

The burly Magyar nodded and dashed back to the carriage. He returned a moment later with his broad-bladed axe in both hands. While Kaspel began looping bits of tough leather through Berkon’s teeth and guiding him to the ground Chamag placed the blade of the axe beneath the cooking pot, stirring it amongst the fiery coals.

The other Magyars, even Gelel who looked frightfully pale, circled around Berkon and held his limbs down. None of them wanted to go near the darkening left leg, so Nemgas knelt beside the foot and gripped his ankle tight in his one hand. The flesh felt cold and soft, almost slimy to the touch. How had they missed this when they were changing his wounds, unless it just began?

“Chamag,” Nemgas asked, “how much longer?”

“Not long,” he replied, shifting the axe blade in the coals. “If it be not hot enough, he wilt lose more than the leg.”

Berkon shut his eyes tight, sweat poring off his brow. His chest rose and fell, and each time, the skin seemed to draw in a little tighter against his ribs. And bit by bit that black poison crept through his veins. Nemgas could almost feel the flesh under his fingers disintegrating. The other Magyars were doing their best to keep the fear out of their eyes, except for Amile who had tears streaming down her face and was clutching tightly to Pelgan’s back. But Nemgas could see it. They trembled subtly, each of them deeply frightened for their friend.

Nemgas felt it worse than they, for this was the man who had saved his life in the catacombs. He took a deep breath and then snapped, “Chamag!”

“ ‘Tis ready!” he replied, yanking the axe from the coals. The tip sizzled in the air, glowing a deep and sombre red. The Magyars gave him room, and Berkon bit down on the leather, his leg exposed. Chamag stood, holding the axe firmly in both hands, legs spread wide. Sweat coursed down his cheeks, eyes tightening, arms tensing and lifting the axe high over head.

“Yaaaah!!” he screamed, swinging the axe firmly. The blade drove through Berkon’s leg just below the hip and into the ground while Nemgas fell backwards as the severed leg bounced away. The skin on either side sizzled and the acrid scent of burning flesh filled the air. Berkon tensed and screamed through the leather, his limbs shaking in agony.

Chamag held the axe against Berkon’s stump as the flesh continued to sizzle. Berkon tried to pull away, but the others held him close. Nemgas tossed the fouled leg aside and rushed back into the wagon to get bindings. By the time he came back out, Chamag was inspecting what was left of the hip.

“‘Tis closed, I dost not see any sign of the foul poison either.”

“Good, bind him.” Nemgas tossed Chamag the linen bandages, while the others continued to hold the screaming man down. “I shalt bury the leg.”

They changed the bedsheets one more time before carrying Berkon back into the carriage. The Magyar had passed out shortly after the amputation, rousing only briefly to drink the broth Amile prepared; he had no coordination and only swallowed what she spoon fed him. But he did eat and he did sleep, so when morning came and he snored faintly, the other Magyars saw it as a hopeful sign that he would yet recover.

The next morning was mild, with only a few clouds in the sky. Nemgas turned the horses to the northeast, knowing that somewhere beyond the horizon stood the Vysehrad Mountains. He knew they would have to steal from every village they passed in order to survive the trip, but that was no burden; Gamran would be delighted at the prospect. At the very least, they could be themselves again.

After seeing them on their way, Nemgas climbed into the carriage to check on Berkon. Amile was tending him in the back, while Pelgan and Kaspel spoke quietly in the front. The others drove the wagon, with Gamran perched on top to watch for pursuit. He was apparently juggling, for every now and again they could hear a thump when the jostling of the carriage made him miss.

Nemgas rubbed his stump as he stood just behind Amile. “How be he?”

“Asleep,” Amile replied, her voice tired and her eyes withdrawn.

The sleeping man lay on his back, with only his gaunt, pale face exposed. The rest was covered by the sweat stained sheet. It was strange to see only one leg beneath the linen sheet, but Nemgas was keenly aware what life was like with a missing limb. Losing an arm was difficult enough, but he could still walk and fight. Berkon may never do either again.

“I wish to see his wound,” Nemgas told her quietly. Amile lifted the sheet from the side until his midsection was exposed. Unlike before, the bandages were still clean – Chamag had cauterized the wound well. Slowly, Amile unwrapped the bandages, revealing the charred flesh beneath. It was too early to tell, but it did appear free from the septic poison.

“Wilt he live?” Amile asked quietly.

“I dost not know,” Nemgas admitted. “Breathe the Steppe air. I shalt watch o’er him. Ja!” Amile nodded, patted Berkon’s left arm softly, and slipped out the rear of the wagon. A few muffled thumps later and she joined Gamran on the roof.

As carefully as he could with one hand, Nemgas redid the bandages and covered his fellow Magyar with the sheet. Once satisfied, he sat on the same stool Amile had occupied a moment before. There he kept watch on his friend as the carriage continued its steady pace northeast. In a few weeks they would reach the southern edge of the Vysehrad Mountains. Until then, it was just their new wagon, the horses, themselves, and endless leagues of grass and shrubs.

Minutes trickled past, and more and more Nemgas dwelt in his memories. His memories were mixed with those of Kashin, but it was not the Yeshuel’s boyhood he recalled but his own amongst the Magyars. There were so many happy memories of running between the Assingh’s legs, and scampering over the wagons, not to mention learning to tumble and showing off before villagers in his colourful clothes that he could have occupied hours with simple reverie. But it was not truly of himself he thought, but a small village boy who’d tried to sneak into a Magyar wagon to steal treasure.

A faint smile crossed his face. “I dost remember the day that thou didst become a Magyar. The name of thy village, I dost not recall, but I recall thee.”

One of Berkon’s eyes twitched open, and it swivelled from side to side until it finally settled on Nemgas. Another moment and he was able to focus and smile back. “Nemgas. What didst thee say?”

“Thou wert six years old. Dost thee remember the name of the village?”

Berkon’s eyes filled with understanding, and his lips pulled tight, pale and weak against his teeth. “Nae, but I remember that day.”

“Thou wast quite distraught when thou didst become a Magyar,” Nemgas said with a mild smile. “I ne’er asked thee, why didst thee climb in the wagon?”

“Treasure, as thou knows,” Berkon replied, coughing lightly.

“I know that, but why didst thee think there wast treasure in the wagons?”

Berkon closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. When he opened his eyes again, his body began to tremble as if cold. Nemgas grabbed another blanket from the cupboard and spread it over the bed. “Thank thee.” He took one more breath and then said, “The others boys didst dare me to do it, and so I did.”

“Thou didst make friends easy,” Nemgas said softly. “Took a few days for thee to stop moping, and thou didst make poor Nagel chase thee down that one time.”

“Ah, my foolish attempt to escape,” Berkon chuckled to himself, his flesh still trembling, but not as badly. “I am glad I snuck into the wagons. I wouldst ne’er be as happy as I art being a Magyar. ‘Tis the greatest blessing the gods couldst bestow.”

“Aye, ‘tis the greatest blessing to be a Magyar,” Nemgas agreed. He waited to see if Berkon would speak more, but he had fallen into a fitful sleep, his breathing faint and wheezing. “Aye, ‘tis.” He leaned forward and gently kissed his friend upon the forehead before returning to the stool. For four straight hours he watched his friend and fellow Magyar sleep.

It was shortly before the sun began its final descent to the horizon when Berkon breathed his last. Kaspel had been with him when it happened. One moment he lay there quiet, his breath a sullen murmur, and the next he sighed and grew still. Kaspel did not immediately notice the change either, but only observed it after several seconds. Once he realized the danger, he cried in alarm and tried to shake his friend awake, but it was too late.

Nemgas recalled a strange art the Yeshuel used to revive men by pressing repeatedly and forcefully on their chests. This he attempted with his one hand for several minutes, but to no avail. Berkon was dead.

Amile sobbed loudly, while the other Magyars, stony faced, proceeded to dig a grave in a shallow hillside for their friend. They wrapped Berkon tightly in the linens, making sure to place his bow atop his body. Night had fallen, and the stars danced over head, while the full moon shone brightly in the East. About them the Steppe remained empty.

Dressed in their colourful smocks, the Magyars lowered Berkon’s body into the grave, each of them feeling empty and lost. Nemgas knelt at the side, where the earth had been dug up by dagger, pick and hand. He brushed his fingers across Berkon’s bow, and said in as firm a voice as he could manage, “Thou wast the best of us, Berkon. We wilt bury thee in the Steppe as thou hast always wished. And thou dost bear the clothes of a Magyar, as is proper. Thy spirit shalt ride with the wagons across all the afterlife. One day we shalt each join you, and on that happy day we wilt juggle, dance, sing, and rejoice. On that day...”

He stopped, and choked back the sob that threatened to escape his throat. Amile wept all the louder, and Gelel was having a hard time keeping tears from his eyes. Kaspel was quivering with sorrow, while Gamran stared slack-jawed at the pit in which their friend now lay. Pelgan hung his head low, murmuring a soft prayer, while Chamag stood next to the pile of dirt, his hard features distant and cold.

Nemgas struggled back to his feet and closed his eyes. “Goodbye, my friend. May the gods take thee and bring thee to thy earned rest. Ride their wagons, Berkon, ride their wagons and make them ready for us. Ja. Ja.”

For a few moments, the only sound was that of Amile crying. A moment later, she was joined by the mournful dirge of jackals howling in the distance. After much hesitation, Chamag began shovelling the dirt over the body. Still trembling, Kaspel came to help him. Pelgan and Gamran smoothed the dirt over his body, keeping it even. Gelel sat and watched, too stunned to do anything else.

“Ja.” Nemgas repeated, listening to the fall of dirt and the howls of the beasts in the distance. A single tear threatened to fall from his eyes, but he brushed it away quickly. His friend did not need or want the tears of the men. They were Magyars. And Berkon was a true Magyar, no matter where he’d been born.

When the grave had been filled in, the Magyars quietly returned to their wagon to sleep, but not a one of them did.

The village of Stonybrak lay in the midst of farms just north of a small river coursing through the pastoral countryside. It was small, a collection of narrow buildings clustered around the road and river. Trees dotted the northern landscape, providing plenty of cover for soldiers to come and go as they pleased.

Duke Titian Verdane was thankful for the heavy clouds that had rolled in during the day. It was a night of the full moon, but now, the only lights that lit the village were found in windows. It gave the village the appearance of a quiet dog laying upon the floor, eyes open and patiently watching its master. There was only one building of any consequence in the village, and that was the Ecclesia chapel, a two story affair easily three times as long as the next largest building. On Sundays not only would the villagers flock inside its walls, but also the families from the surrounding farms, hence its size.

Verdane watched with a compliment of his elite soldiers, known as the Wolf’s Claw, at his back. A regiment from Haethor and Ralathe also accompanied them, but those he intended to use only if the battle went poorly. He did not completely trust them, not yet at least.

“Your grace,” a quiet voice whispered, and then from out of the shadows a shape emerged. One of the Wolf’s Claw scouts, dressed in dark tunic and breeches, with knives arrayed along his belt and bandolier. “There were a few guards on lookout along the road. They bore the cross of the Yesbearn.”

Verdane nodded. It was unpleasant business killing priests and their guardians, especially when they belonged to his own faith. But they were fomenting anguish in his land, and open rebellion to his rule. This he could not allow.

“Did they see you?”

“Not even when they died,” the scout replied, a self-satisfied smile gracing his lips. Even though he was standing just three feet from the duke in the midst of the trees and his personal guards, Verdane could only dimly make out his face. Enough to recognize him, but no more.

“Where are the other Yesbearn?”

“In the chapel from the looks of the town. I don’t think they are expecting visitors.”

That made Verdane smile. If they took them by surprise, the battle would be over all the quicker. “Good. Secure the town. I will follow you in a quarter hour.”

The scout chuckled under his breath. “So long? With that much time we might get sloppy.” He disappeared back the way he came, and they could all hear the rustling of leaves and the faint echo of swords brushing thighs as his elite warriors broke off from the regiment and headed through the forest towards Stonybrak. Verdane leaned back and crossed his arms, his personal guards drawing even closer to his sides. The lights in the town glittered unawares.

As promised, the battle was over quickly. It did not even last five minutes from Verdane’s reckoning. The Wolf’s Claw soldiers slipped along the city streets, keeping to the shadows as they converged on the cathedral. Archers killed the few guards standing at the windows, and the rest burst through the doors, catching the marauders off guard. A few screams echoed, and a few lights around the village were snuffed as the townsfolk hid inside their homes.

Verdane waited the fifteen minutes before mounting and riding into the village. The roads were clear until they reached the chapel. Some of the Wolf’s Claw were dragging bodies out into the street, two black-robed Questioners, but mostly Yesbearn. A few of their own men also lay dead, and these were placed next to the Yesbearn. Respect for those fallen in battle was one of the core tenets of the Wolf’s Claw, both for their own and for their enemies. Verdane nodded in approval before searching for the Captain.

“Your grace,” a narrow-shouldered man said as he stepped from the doorway. His face was weathered and cris-crossed with scars. He sheathed his short sword at his side, and fell to one knee. “We have taken the chapel as you instructed. I have counted five Yesbearn and six Questioner priests amongst the prisoners.”

“Good work, Captain. Was there anyone else in the chapel?”

Captain Nikolai nodded. “The parish priest and his aides. They had been confined to the monastic cells and ordered not to speak to anyone by the Questioners. One of our men is speaking with them now.”

“Good, I will want to speak with him too. Was there anything else, Captain?”

“Yes, your grace,” Nikolai gestured with one hand towards the chapel. “We found one of the Questioners in a second-floor study stuffing the hearth with parchment. We stopped him and bound him, and rescued what we could from the fire.”

Verdane dismounted, his personal guard doing so a moment later. “Good work, Captain. The Wolf’s Claw has demonstrated once again this night why they are the fiercest warriors in all the Midlands.”

“Thank you, your grace.” At Verdane’s signal, he rose to his feet. “I will show you the study.”

“Bring the Questioner who was there as well. If he was burning papers, then he probably knows what they mean. If he will talk, we may learn more.”

Captain Nikolai barked the order to one of the other soldiers, and then motioned for Verdane to follow him inside. Verdane’s guards accompanied them into the chapel, though it no longer looked much like a Holy place. Blood was smeared across the pews and tapestries, and even the altar itself had its sacred vessels scattered. A timid man in brown cassock was fervently reclaiming them and returning them to their rightful place. In the centre aisle several soldiers and black-robed priests were bound.

Nikolai led him to a set of stairs just beyond the narthex and there they found a choir loft, as well as a few smaller rooms. The central one was a cramped study. On one wall was a hearth with a smouldering fire filled with parchment ashes atop the coals, while the other was completely taken up by a massive oaken desk stacked with parchment, maps, quills, and ink. Lumps of red wax and the seal of the Questioners lay atop one corner of a map of the Masyor countryside.

“Your grace,” a new voice called from behind. Verdane turned and saw one of his soldiers pushing a black-robed priest into the room. The priest fell to his knees, hands still bound behind his back. “This is the one who we caught burning papers, your grace.”

“Good work,” Verdane assured him, before turning his gaze on the Questioner. It took him a second to realize the shock he felt was recognition. He knew this priest.

“Father Timas,” Verdane said coolly. “It is a surprise to find you here in Stonybrak. It has been a year since I last saw you. My condolences for your sister.”

Timas did not smile, his face a blank expression. He did not even show contempt for his captors. “Thank you for your familial concern, your grace.”

Turning towards the desk, Verdane ran his fingers across one of the maps, this one of the western edge of the Southbourne River. Little ‘x’ marks had been drawn along the river, places where he knew soldiers from Llarth had garrisoned. “So what brings you to Stonybrak, Father?”

“The work of Eli takes us where it will,” Timas replied. “What are you doing here, your grace? Why have your soldiers attacked priests of Eli? If you wish to seek ablution for this gross injustice, than I am certain we will be able to grant it.”

Verdane found his chutzpah so galling he could only laugh. “You are hardly in a position to offer ablution, Father. You have offered nothing but death to hundreds of Lothanasi. They were citizens of my lands, and thus, I am charged with protecting them. You sought to cause discord in my lands. Why?”

Timas stared back at him, eyes and lips set firm and unmoving. Verdane shuffled through the papers, noting a few familiar names. He would have much reading to do it appeared. “Why were you burning these papers?”

The Questioner kept his lips sealed shut, that is until Nikolai gave him a quick kick to the back. He bent forward, wincing and said, “I feared our Lothanasi enemies were attacking. I had thought only they would dare attack the house of Eli.” He sneered at Verdane. “I see I was wrong. How could you, your grace?”

“How could you murder hundreds of Lothanasi. Not just the men, but the women and children! How?”

Timas sniffed derisively. “They are pagans, and should not infest Eli’s land. This land belongs to the Ecclesia, and we will see that all pagans are driven from its borders.”

Verdane scowled, and then glanced over the papers again. He couldn’t tell if they had been watching the moves that the Dupré and Guilford houses were making with their own armies, or were coordinating with them. Who else had been involved in this scheme with Bishop Ammodus? Did Timas even suspect they had arrested the Bishop?

“You have been writing many latters,” Verdane noted, turning the stick of wax over in his hands. “To whom?” But Timas remained silent this time, even after Nikolai kicked him twice. Verdane shook his head to the Captain, and set the wax down again. “Who are your allies? Is this all of your men? Or do you have others in other villages waiting to strike?”

Timas continued to remain silent, and Verdane was sorely tempted to allow the Wolf’s Claw soldiers to loosed his tongue. But he knew Timas, and knew the one thing that might make him talk. It was even more enticing as it brought no harm to anyone.

“Father Timas, let me again express condolences for your sister’s death last year. I know it was hard on you, but I was grateful for the chance to assist in securing your young nephews a place as altar servers in the Ecclesia cathedral in Kelewair. My son has many fine things to say about them.”

Timas looked up, the first bit of emotion showing in his face — surprise. And if Verdane wasn’t mistaken, the Questioner was beginning to look worried. “But I fear, your actions here have caused great unrest between the Ecclesia and the Lothanasi. Being Duke, it falls to me to mend the breach that you created. To mend that breach, I will give your nephews to the Lothanans of Kelewair, and instruct him to take them on as acolytes in their temple.”

“No!” Timas snapped, his eyes screaming murder. “You would be damned for all eternity if you harm the souls of children! Don’t you dare!”

“It is not I who did this, but you, Father Timas,” Verdane replied calmly. The priest was trying to get up, as if he would bite the Duke. “Both children are young enough, that they will have no difficulty in becoming faithful Lothanasi in a few years time.”

“It is sin!” Timas shrieked over and over, until Captain Nikolai kicked him in the stomach. The Questioner collapsed, gasping for breath.

Verdane turned to face the priest, crossing his arms over his chest. “I give you one chance, Father Timas. I will not give the boys to the Lothanasi if you tell me everything I wish to know and leave nothing out. You have my word as Duke of the Southern Midlands that I will relent if you cooperate. If not, your only living family will grow up Lothanansi. Do you understand?”

Timas’s eyes were full of hate, and his lips quivered. But after several long seconds, he finally managed to spit out his answer. “I understand, your grace!” He managed to say the title as if it were an insult, but Verdane was beyond caring.

“Then start with who you are making these attacks for.”

The answer came as a surprise, though in retrospect, he should have realized the truth of it long ago. Father Timas sucked in his breath, eyes nearly screwed shut as he said, “Lord William Dupré.”

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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