The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XLII - In Vysehrad’s Shadow

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

Evening was settling on the strange grasses north of the Vysehrad. The Magyar wagons had brought them many miles that day, but with the sun disappearing behind jagged peaks, they were forced to bring their journey to a halt. This did not bother Bryone so much, as it meant she could take a bit of extra time to collect meals for herself and Dazheen.

“What time be it, my child?” Dazheen asked.

Bryone slipped past the curtain and smiled. “Ere dusk, Dazheen.”

The old woman nodded her head as if expecting such an answer. She lifted one hand to her face and the curled fingers traced an arch across her forehead. “Bring food, Bryone, I hath a strange hunger.”

“I wilt do so, Dazheen. ‘Twill be some time ere the evening meal be prepared. Might I go and see the mountains?”

Dazheen’s smile was warm and understanding. “ ‘Tis a marvellous sight? Aye, thou mayest go. Bring the food when it be ready.”

Bryone thanked her and then quietly slipped out of the wagon. As always, the other Magyars were busy preparing the evening fires. She saw the heavy-set Varna with her cooking utensils hanging from her belt helping two young men hoist the massive cooking pot atop its stand; nearby were several more waiting to build the fire beneath it. And many were laughing and running, enjoying this bit of land that would be home for a night.

Bryone climbed up on top of the wagon and sat facing the mountains. She drew her knees under her chin and pulled her dress tight about her ankles. The solemn gray peaks had darkened to nearly black where the sun fell behind them. Low clouds hung in the western sky; they might have rain later in the evening. Bryone smiled; she loved listening to the patter of raindrops on the wagon.

For a time she watched the horizon, admiring the landscape she so rarely saw. The sounds of laughter and singing and play were all around her, as well as the sharp words of Varna to her assistants. Bryone laughed as she watched them trying to keep the rounded cook pot upright. Eventually they managed, and Varna went about adding water and vegetables. Before long a savoury brew would be steaming.

Bryone stretched and gazed around the field. The grasses were thick and green, ending where stout trees framed the foothills. Adlemas and some of the other men were chopping branches for firewood, while the youths played games of catch. She caught sight of Grastalko in a circle with other boys his age. She smiled to him, and for a moment his eyes caught hers. He looked away, and a moment later turned his back on her. Bryone blinked, bewildered by this gesture. Had he not noticed her?

His friends stood in a circle and they tossed a juggling ball back and forth, all to practice their skills. Grastalko could only use his right hand, but that was enough for this game. If they caught the ball, they had only a moment to throw it and call out the name of he who must catch it. Generally, the point was to make it more and more difficult to catch, or to throw it in as unique a way as possible. Grastalko was particularly pleased with his under-the-leg throw.

“Thou hast not told us of thy ride in the lead wagon!” bright-haired Volay chimed with a wicked smile. “Grastalko!”

The ball leapt from Volay’s hand in a graceful arc. Grastalko watched it as he turned to one side, hand behind his back to catch it. “There wast not much to tell thee, as ‘twas much the same as riding anywhere else.” The ball landed square in his hand and he immediately spun and threw it underhanded towards another. “Rabji!”

Rabji glowered but caught the ball. “But thou wert leading the wagon! I saw Hanaman give thee the reins! Desko!”

“Aye, and ‘twas exciting to know that I was in the lead, but only when I didst do something.” Grastalko shrugged. “There wast truly nothing for me to do.”

“Thou didst guide us across the bridge,” Rabji pointed out. Desko, a short wiry lad with dark hair called his name right back. Rabji had to stretch to grab the ball. He flipped it from one hand to the other and sent it down along the circle. “Volay!”

“But everyone didst do that,” Volay pointed out as he snatched the ball. “Grastalko.”

He nearly missed this time. For a single moment his eyes had locked upon the slender form of a young woman seated atop Dazheen’s wagon — Bryone. Hanaman’s words earlier that day came back to him and he felt his stomach tighten. Turning, he snatched the ball out of the air and put his back between himself and Bryone. “Aye, everyone didst do it,” Grastalko snapped. “Rabji!” He flung the ball harder than he’d expected and his friend had to chase it.

While Rabji swore, Volay and the others looked at Grastalko curiously. “Art thee well?” Volay asked.

“Aye, just had something in my eye,” he lied, trying to hide his anger. His left had was smouldering, and a bit of smoke rose from his sleeve. “And my hand dost hurt. I think I wilt cool it off for a time.”

Grastalko ran as fast as he could towards the small stream near the trees. Some of the other boys shouted after him but he didn’t listen. His could feel the agony of the burn racing up his arm, and the scent of burnt flesh filled his nostrils. His feet nearly tripped over several roots before he finally collapsed to his knees at the stream bank. He bent over and thrust his left arm into the icy mountain water. It hissed and steamed for several long seconds. Grastalko breathed raggedly, unwilling to cry out in pain.

Finally, the heat passed and tears stood unshed in his eyes. He wiped them dry with his right sleeve, and then lifted the ruin of his left hand from the water. The illusion that masked his charred flesh wavered under his intense stare, but he could not tell if more of his arm had been burned or not. Grastalko closed his eyes and sank to the ground. Whispering softly, he finally gave voice to his heartache, “Eli, why hast thou abandoned me?”

Though Varna had begun serving dinner several minutes earlier, Bryone waited until Grastalko returned from the woods before going down to get bowls for Dazheen and herself. The boy’s left arm was soaked, but otherwise he appeared fine. He stood in line with the others, talking to no one.

Bryone stood in line a short distance behind him. None of her fellow Magyars spoke to her except to greet her; they did not even ask after Dazheen’s health! Once Grastalko had his food, he skulked off to the other side of the wagons to eat by himself. Bryone followed after him, carrying two bowls of steaming stew.

“Grastalko?” she called, finding him hulked behind a wheel. He looked up at her and sighed.

“Go away, Bryone,” he snapped and turned away. He hunched his shoulder as if he were trying to curl into a ball.

Bryone tensed and took a step forward. “Be something wrong, Grastalko? I wouldst like to help.”

Grastalko shook his head. “Wilt thou predict my future for me?”

“I be not a seer yet, but Dazheen hath said I wilt ascend upon the Winter’s Solstice. But I can try for thee, Grastalko.”

“Thou wilt be a very fine seer one day, Bryone,” Grastalko said, his voice angry. He nearly growled each word. Bryone took a step back in shock. “Thou wilt be a seer, and spend thy life in thy wagon, alone with thy cards. No one wilt love thee, but all wilt come to thee for aid. We need thee just like that, ne’er knowing the love of any other. So go and be a seer, Bryone. ‘Tis more important than caring about anyone else, especially a lowly Magyar like me. Ja!”

“Grastalko, dost... dost thee mean it?” Bryone felt tears standing in her eyes. How could he say such horrible things!

“Ja!!” He shouted, his face livid, and his left hand beginning to steam. Bryone burst into tears and ran. In her misery she dropped the bowls of stew and did not realize it until she fell at Dazheen’s feet inside their wagon.

“What troubles thee child?” Dazheen asked, resting one crooked hand upon her shoulder.

“I... I... I dropped the stew...” Bryone broke into sobs, and could not be coaxed into saying anything more for several minutes. The ancient woman waited, one hand stroking back her hair, voice murmuring soothing words of comfort.

“Whatever pain thee feels,” Dazheen said when Bryone finally stopped bawling, “wilt fade in time. Bring me thy beads, Bryone.”

Still sniffling, the girl went to her cubbyhole and returned with the pouch of marked beads. Dazheen scooped a handful from the bag and spread them across the table. They appeared like nothing except a meaningless blob to the girl. But the elderly seer traced them with her fingers, and slowly, a smile crept up her cheeks.

“Thou dost love this boy?”

Bryone felt her chest tighten at the question. “I... I didst like him...”

Dazheen swept the beads together into one pile. “Be patient, my child. He hast deeper pains that must first be healed. Let him be for now.”

Slowly, Bryone began to nod. “I hath ne’er been yelled at before, not like that.”

“I know.” Dazheen leaned back in her seat. “I must sleep now. Something... something be coming.”

Bryone helped the old woman back into her bed, where she lay curled tight beneath the blankets, an almost skeletal figure, stooped and bent. Was this her future too? Would she eventually find contentment in her beads the way Dazheen had once known in her cards?

She had no answers, only a weary heart and a surly stomach. After returning her beads to their pouch, she went outside to clean up the mess she had made. Grastalko was no longer behind the wagons, but Kisaiya, the woman who tended the Assingh, was there. After picking up both bowls, Bryone asked her if she had seen the boy.

Kisaiya nodded, gently running her fingers along the hide of the nearest Assingh. “Aye. He didst run to the woods a short time ago. He hast not returned.”

Bryone sighed and nodded. “Thank thee.”

“Hath thee been crying?” Kisaiya asked. Bryone wiped her eyes self-consciously. But the dark-haired woman only smiled. “Worry not. I dost cry every night for my Nemgas. I wait for him to return and fulfill his marriage vow.”

“Why hath thee not sought another man, Kisaiya? There art many that wouldst be with thee.”

The woman smiled fondly. “Because there be only one whom I love.” She kissed the Assingh on the cheek and the animal responded by braying. “And I wilt wait for him, for the next ten years if I must. Thou shouldst wait too. If thou dost love, then thou wilt ne’er be happy with anything else. Wait for him, Bryone. All men who love wilt come back for thee.”

Bryone sighed, thanked the woman, and headed back to the cook pot to ask for more stew. If that was what she must do, she would do it. She had been doing it all of her life already. How hard could it be?

Dusk was near at hand, but the thin gray line on the eastern horizon was finally clear. They could see the Vysehrad!

It had been two weeks since they had buried Berkon, and each day they travelled from the rise of the sun until its setting. They allowed the horses to rest only at night, and after two weeks journey, they were beginning to show signs of weariness. But for the Magyars, the need to put behind the pain was greater still.

But once they could see and recognize the distant peaks for what they were, Nemgas knew it was time to allow the horses and themselves a chance to rest.

“This wilt serve well enough for the night,” Nemgas surmised as he brought the weary mares to a halt. “Kaspel, take them out and see to it they hath fed and then tie them to the wagon to rest. Chamag, Pelgan, prepare the cook fire.”

“There be another hour of light,” Pelgan pointed out. “Dost thee wish to stop so soon.”

“Every hour we travel dost bring us closer to home,” Kaspel agreed.

Nemgas shook his head. “ ‘Tis the Vysehrad. We shouldst allow the mares a chance to rest. They hath brought us this far in so short a time. We hath many leagues yet to travel, and we wilt go nowhere shouldst we work them to death.” He gestured to the small stream that ran southwest just a short distance north. “Amile, Gamran, refill our waterskins. Gelel and I wilt ready the wagon.”

Wordlessly, they did as they were told. The youth stayed with Nemgas while the others all dispersed to perform tasks that were becoming routine. As the sun neared the horizon, the day’s warmth began to leave.

Since Berkon’s passing, they had spent their travelling days redesigning the interior of the Bishop’s carriage. The comfortable bed that Berkon had slept in was removed, and several more built into the wall to take its place. The mattress was being divided into three, but that project would take another week before even one would be complete. But they were Magyars and used to sleeping on hard floors. They had done as much while in Yesulam!

But because Nemgas had stopped them early, the inside of the wagon was a mess in need of fixing.

Gelel and he quickly set about putting the wooden beds back into the wall, firmly fixing the support struts in place beneath them. While they were draping each in linens, Gelel remarked, “ ‘Tis the first time since we didst leave the wagons that we hath seen the mountains. Soon we wilt trod where they hath trod. When wilt we find them?”

Nemgas shrugged. He pressed his right stump against one corner of the sheet to hold it down while he tucked the other corner under with his left. “We shalt find them when we dost find them. It hast been nearly five months since we didst see them last, but they hath a long road to go. Hanaman said that they wouldst circle Vysehrad. We shouldst find them soon.”

Gelel didn’t seem convinced, but he said no more.

Once they were finished they returned outside where Amile and Gamran were trooping back with a bulging waterskin under each arm. Gamran flashed them a wide grin and danced on his toes as he reached the carriage’s front. “Ah, the water be lovely! Thou canst taste the Vysehrad in her sweetness!”

“How deep be the river?” Nemgas asked.

“A few feet,” Amile replied as she hefted the waterskins onto the carriage’s rim. “I believe it shallows further upstream.”

“Good, we shalt continue northeast another day and then attempt to ford.”

“We shan’t reach the Vysehrad in a day,” Gamran pointed out.

“Aye, but we hath no need. Besides, we dare not enter any villages being as few in number as we be.”

“Not even to thieve?” the little thief asked, his voice taking on an exaggerated whine.

Nemgas snorted. “When we must, of course. I wilt enter Cheskych myself when we reach that city. There be something I wish to do there.”

“ ‘Twill be many more days yet ere we reach Cheskych,” Amile pointed out. She stretched her arms and glanced over at Chamag and Pelgan. They had arranged the cauldron and had just started a small fire burning beneath it. “I wilt bring them water.” She scooped one of the waterskins into her arms and pranced towards the two men.

Nemgas scanned the plains, and noted that Kaspel and the mares were quite a ways downstream. “Gamran, fetch Kaspel back. He hath gone too far for comfort’s sake.”

The little thief grimaced and nodded. He did a quick somersault before skipping back to the river.

Kaspel was glad Nemgas had asked him to tend the horses. Though he needed the company of his fellow Magyars, he also needed some time to himself. Berkon had been his closest friend for many years, and now he was gone. Though it had been two weeks, the pain was still deep in his heart. He would not cry for his friend, but he would mourn.

The mares cropped the grass amiably, leaving him alone with his reflections. So many memories of Berkon’s bright laugh, firm eye, and ever-ready aid filled his thoughts. Ever since the day that Berkon had joined the Magyars, Kaspel had sought him out, and they had always been in each other’s company. There was not a memory of his life that did not have his friend in it. Until now.

Kaspel kicked a loose stone and watched it splash in the river. His shadow stretched out behind him as the sun neared the horizon. They may have returned to the Steppe, may have even donned their colourful garb, but for Kaspel, he still did not feel like a real Magyar yet. How could he without his friend?

Pain dulls with time, and time would heal this wound too, but he feared it would take a long time. Perhaps after they rejoined the rest of the Magyars things would be better. Maybe he would settle on a girl, marry and have children of his own. Kaspel smiled at that thought. He’d name his first son Berkon.

He bent down and picked up a stone and rubbed it between his fingers. It was smooth, washed clean by the river during the Spring thaw. He cocked his arm and then tossed it into the water. It skipped twice before sinking with a plop. Kaspel smiled and bent down to select another stone.

Something clattered into the water downstream. Kaspel stood up, gripping his new rock tight. The mares grunted and stomped their hooves uneasily. Warily he called out, “Who be there?” There was no reply.

He started to walk down the riverbank. It curved between two low hills before being lost to sight. He kept a firm grip on the rock, but as he neared the gap, it slipped from his hands. Something stirred ahead, and he had to find out what it was.

“Kaspel!” a familiar voice shouted. “Kaspel! ‘Tis time to bring the mares back!”

Shaken, Kaspel turned and saw Gamran standing with the mares. The little thief smiled infectiously. “Didst thee find something?”

Kaspel shook his head, feeling strangely unsettled. “Nae. I thought I didst hear something.” He joined Gamran by the mares a moment later. “Back to the wagons then, ja!”

In the east, the outline of the Vysehrad began to darken. To the west, the plains remained quiet one night more.

Captain Delius proved even craftier than Vinsah guessed. After docking in Eldwater, the Sondesharan captain bartered for a wagon and four horses, all for the purpose of advertising his ‘merchandise’ in Silvassa. This allowed him to dock for an extended period of time without drawing any suspicion.

But his cleverness did not end there. While telling Vinsah of his plans, two of the sailors emptied a grain barrel into large burlap sacks; a third bored small holes into the barrel’s sides. When they were finished, they brought the empty barrel to Delius who smiled and tapped the rim.

“You want me to hide in there?” Vinsah asked, eyes wide in surprise.

“Until we reach the countryside,” Delius explained. “Once it is safe, we’ll leave the wagon behind. On horseback we can reach Silvassa in a few days.”

“That is, until another traveller sees me.” Vinsah gestured at his furry body. His tunic and breeches were worn and filthy, and something had gnawed a hole in his shirt last night. “And I reek. I haven’t bathed in a very long time. Few horses will bear me with this scent.”

Delius chuckled and gestured at the torn blanket heaped at the raccoon man’s feet. “I selected the calmest steeds I could find. I will lay your blanket over the most docile so she can grow accustomed to your scent. She may be a bit skittish, but we’ll manage. I assure you this will work.”

Vinsah stared at the barrel and chittered in irritation. Not at the indignity, but at his foolish hesitation. “Of course. Put the journals in with me, and something I can eat and drink.” He climbed inside one leg at a time, trying not to appear awkward. Once inside, Vinsah crouched until the sides of the barrel were above his ears. “Let me sit as best I can,” he called out, his voice echoing oddly. He shifted back and forth until his tail was behind him, knees in front, and foot paws and rear were pressed against the bottom of the barrel. The scent of grain was dry but appealing.

One by one Delius lowered the journals into the barrel, and Vinsah framed them along the circular sides. A minute later he was given an apple and a fresh loaf of bread. Lastly, a waterskin was handed to him, which he draped around his neck so nothing would spill on the books.

Delius leaned over and asked, “Is there anything more you will need? It may be a few hours before we dare open the barrel.”

Vinsah shook his head. “I will be fine now. Be careful, Captain.”

Delius nodded before fastening the lid back in place. Vinsah could see a bit of light through the small holes drilled into the barrel, but nothing of himself. The sailors left him in darkness, their footsteps echoing up the stairs. Patiently he waited, rubbing the pieces of yew between his fingers. He prayed to his Lady that she might help him make the journey safely.

It was several minutes before the sailors returned. The hold opened and bright light spilled through his breathing holes. Vinsah squinted and kept one paw between him and the light. It was the first time since he’d left Yesulam that he’d seen daylight, and it hurt. With eyes shut, he listened to the sailors shout back and forth as ropes were lowered and several barrels were hoisted above. Soon a pair of figures blocked his light, and a moment later his barrel was lifted into the air.

Vinsah dug his claws into his wooded cage, eyes closed tight. Sailing was bad enough, but the way the ropes swayed back and forth made him nauseous. He prayed again and again that the ropes would hold. A horrible image of the barrel washing down the river, water pouring in the holes and ruining Akabaieth’s journals filled his mind.

The moment passed far too slowly for the raccoon’s taste. But it passed, and the barrel knocked him from side to side when it landed. Vinsah managed not to cry out, even when his apple fell on his toes. He winced, picked it up, and stuck it between his teeth, but did not take a bite.

“That’s everything, Captain,” one of the sailors shouted nearby.

“Good,” Delius was even closer. Someone’s fingers – Delius’s? – drummed across the top of Vinsah’s barrel. “Everyone follow your instructions. We will return in a week. Marius! Brujon! We’ve many leagues to go.”

Vinsah felt the world shudder beneath him. He could hear the clatter of horseshoes on cobblestones, and the creaking of wagon wheels. They had put the barrels on a wagon and were now leaving the quays of Eldwater. The road bumped and then they were riding across smoother ground; a beaten path perhaps?

Vinsah stayed quiet, leaning back against the wood and trying to relax. He took a bite of his apple and found it succulent. A few moments later he was spitting the seeds into one paw. One by one he pushed the seeds out through the holes. When he was finished, he pressed his eye to one hole and gazed at familiar buildings. Amongst them was an Inn he recognized. Malger, and he had played at that Inn, that is until one of the drunken knights had discovered Sheyiin.

The memory filled him with indignation. They had seen him for what he was and tried to kill him. Even the officer of the city guard, one who had seen his innocence, had demanded he leave the city. Vinsah hissed to himself and leaned back in the barrel. There was nothing more he wished to see. He took the loaf of bread in his paws and began tearing little morsels free to eat.

As the minutes crawled into hours, Vinsah passed in and out of reverie. Seeing the Eldwater Inn had brought back all the memories of his journey through Sathmore with Malger and Murikeer. They had been the strangest of travelling companions, but after a time, he could imagine none better. If it were within his power, he would trade these Sondeckis for his two friends.

After being in their company sunup to sundown for nearly three months, they had grown to know each other very well. Because of Murikeer, Vinsah had lost his fear of magic; his life had grown dependent on it, what with the illusion that kept him appearing human in a land that hated the beastly monsters of Metamor. Because of Malger, Vinsah had come to understand that justice was not the sole province of the Ecclesia, but was given to all men to uphold. And because of both their lives, Vinsah had learned that not all good men were Followers.

How could it be otherwise? As his mentor had written, if his father had gone to Sathmore instead of Pyralis, Akabaieth would have joined the Lothanasi instead. For how many more good men was this true? Perhaps Eli’s mercy was deeper and more profound than any of them had ever guessed?

Vinsah chided himself. Of course that was true; how could it be otherwise?

Still, as he lay trapped in the barrel, both apple and bread eaten, all he could think about was his absent friends. He tried to imagine what Malger might say if he could see him now. “Elvmere, you’re supposed to beat the drum not hide inside it!” He chuckled under his breath at the thought.

And that was another thing he missed of their journeys; nobody had called him Elvmere since he’d left Malger and Sheyiin standing on the pier at Breckaris. He had introduced himself as Elvmere to the captain of the merchant vessel heading for Yesulam, but they had rarely spoken afterwards on that voyage. The last time anyone had known him by that name, the name his Lady had given him, was on that pier in Breckaris.

It was a good name — Elvmere. Sathmoran, though no longer in common usage. It was an odd thing to miss being called that name. He’d never missed being called Vinsah while journeying with Malger and Murikeer.

He wondered where his friends where now. Had Murikeer found his father’s grave like he’d hoped? Had Malger redeemed his house? And would he see them again when he returned to Metamor? He hoped so. It wouldn’t be the same without them. A half-grin twisted his snout. If Malger asked him to travel with him again, he knew he’d say yes, even if it meant he’d have to play that infernal octave flute!

But the thing he missed most of all was his Lady. While living at Metamor, she had come to him in his dreams almost every night. He had come to rely upon her to lift his worries and bring him relief from the troubles of his days. She would sit and stroke his fur softly, and he would crouch at her feet, pleased just to be her Elvmere. They spoke from time to time, and he would ask her many questions, but they did not seem so important once they left his tongue.

Since he’d left Metamor, she had come to him only a few times, once to assure him that he was to journey with Murikeer and Malger. The raccoon grimaced when he realized he could no longer remember what the other times she had visited him were. All he knew was that he had not seen her since he’d been excommunicated. That was the worst of it, because there had never been a time he’d needed her more.

His thoughts were interrupted by the wagon coming to a halt. He’d grown used to the gentle rocking of the barrel, and had given up trying to count the passage of time. He peered out the holes, wondering where they were. He could see broad trees before him, the leaves a mix of yellows and greens.

Boots landed nearby, and Vinsah ducked low in the barrel. Light flooded in and the wood creaked. Vinsah blinked and held his paws over his face as the barrel lid was pried off. “Are you well?” Delius asked.

Vinsah nodded. “I’m not used to the light. It has been a long time.”

Delius dropped a heavy cloth inside the barrel. “You’ll want to put this on. We will wait while you stretch. We must hide the wagon before we can continue.”

Vinsah held the cloth over his face as he stood. His joints were stiff, and he had to brace himself with one paw on the barrel’s rim to keep standing. He lifted one leg and then the other a few times before he felt sure enough to climb out of the barrel. He felt hands at his sides, and he allowed them to guide him to the ground.

His toes met hard earth. He swayed back and forth for a moment, but his balance quickly returned. Slowly, he blinked open his eyes. The day was overcast, for which he was grateful, and soon he was able to see where they were.

The road northwards was familiar, as Malger, Sheyiin and he had taken this very road on their journey south. The Sondeckis had stopped in a vale with a forest to one side. The trees led up along the hills towards the southern extent of the Sathmoran Mountains. They could see for quite a ways in either direction along the road, but there were no other travellers.

The bundle of cloth Vinsah held in his arms proved to be a black robe and cowl. There was no insignia anywhere to be seen on the cloth, so they probably bought it for him in Eldwater. Vinsah shimmied into it, and felt the cloth settle over his shoulders and down his back. It pressed his tail against his legs, and the hem dragged across the ground. He drew the cowl up over his head, and discovered that if he were standing, it obscured his body completely. When he was riding, he hoped it would not show much.

The Sondeckis had already unhitched the wagon from the four horses. Delius and his two companions hoisted the wagon onto their shoulders. Vinsah stared slack-jawed as he watched them easily lift what should have taken ten men to move.

They carried the wagon deep into the forest, but a few minutes later returned to the road. “How do you know it won’t be found?” Vinsah asked.

Delius shrugged. “We don’t. But it won’t be found easily. Are you ready to ride?”

“I think so. What about the journals? I will not leave them behind.”

The Sondecki held out a travelling pack. A thin smile crossed his lips. “They are all here.” Vinsah took the pack from him and slipped it over his shoulders. The weight was no worse than what he’d carried while travelling with Malger and Murikeer.

“Let me introduce you to your steed.” Delius led him to the four horses. They did appear quite docile, eyes languid and unconcerned at his approach. Their heads all turned and he could see they had caught his scent. But they did not shy away. One of them, a chestnut mare grown stocky from years pulling a plow, had his tattered blanket draped over her back. Vinsah reached out a paw and let her inspect it. She whuffed into his fingers, disappointed that he brought no food.

“I think you two will get along fine,” Delius said. He patted the saddle on her back. “Do you need any help?”

Vinsah chittered to himself. “It has been many years since I have ridden, so I may. But I think I can climb into the saddle by myself.” It took him three tries to swing his leg over the mare’s back, but he did climb into the saddle without aid. His legs stretched to accommodate her girth, and the robe fell open to reveal his foot paws and furry hocks.

“Is there anything we can do for your feet?” Delius asked, grimacing at what he saw.

Vinsah shook his head. “I cannot wear boots. I used to have sandals, but they were lost escaping from Yesulam. I honestly don’t even remember when I lost them.” He shifted the pack on his back and gripped the reins in one hand. “Perhaps if I ride between you?”

Delius nodded. “True. Marius and Brujon will stay to your right, and I will stay to your left. Let’s go.” He gave his horse a gentle kick, and the four of them set off down the road.

The remainder of the day’s ride was unremarkable. Vinsah woke sore and stiff the next day, but did not complain. The Sondeckis were quiet and said little to him, but they were vigilant. Several times during the night the raccoon woke to see one of them keeping a careful eye upon the road. It was not the same as it had been while travelling with Malger and Murikeer, but it still felt good to be on the road. It was as if he were sharing in an old memory.

The second day riding went much like the first. They passed several merchants on the road, as well as a few farmers and squatters. None of them paid Vinsah anything more than a cursory glance, for which he said a prayer of thanks.

On the third day, there were far more travellers sharing the road with them. They had to move more carefully, and it cost them several hours. When they finally lay down for the night, they did so well away from the road in a cairn of large stones surrounded by trees. Vinsah felt increasingly self-conscious of his legs, and that night cut his tunic into long linen strips.

“What are you doing?” Delius asked him after Vinsah had finished.

“These will hide my paws,” the raccoon man replied. He had removed his robe, folded it, and now sat comfortably upon it. The air was cool, but with his fur, it did not bother him so much. Nor did it bother him that Delius and the other two Sondeckis could see his chest. He was doing what had to be done, so how could there be any shame?

“You’ll appear a leper,” Delius warned.

“I know,” Vinsah replied. “But a leper is a thing these people will know. They will stay away from me. If they see a beast masquerading as a man, then you do not know what they might do. I have been attacked once already for this while travelling in these lands. I do not wish to endure a second. If I judge this wood right, then we will reach Silvassa tomorrow evening.”

“You will not enter Silvassa a leper,” Delius pointed out. The other Sondeckis nodded, though neither watched them. Both Marius and Brujon kept watch on the surrounding countryside. They were not the only ones camping beside the road that night. Most were innocent travellers, but some of them might be bandits.

“Nae, that is true. But I had hoped you would be able to bring me into Silvassa under cover of darkness.” He took one of the strips and began to wrap it about his foot paws. “I do not want my arrival to garner notice.” He really only wanted one person to see him. The problem was what happened after that. Vinsah had no idea what was to take place, and just hoped that he was doing the right thing.

He would find out tomorrow. It was strange to realize that perhaps six weeks ago he had been a Bishop of the Ecclesia, especially given what he now intended to do. Vinsah growled at himself and put such thoughts from his mind. Instead he took a minute to make sure the wrappings around his right leg were secure and then began on his left.

“I will see you safely to the Lothanasi priestess,” Delius assured him. “I want to leave before daybreak tomorrow. Get what sleep you can now.”

Vinsah nodded and said no more. He finished wrapping his left leg and smiled at his handiwork. The fur and the bestial features were hidden. He hoped he could still walk on them. He cautiously rose, but found that he had no trouble balancing. Bending over, he plucked the robe from the ground and climbed back inside. He bundled his old blanket next to his pack and then laid upon the ground.

Tomorrow he would be in Silvassa. He shuddered, remembering well the few days they had spent in that city. Malger, Murikeer, and he had just returned from the Sathmore mountains, having warded off the Breckarin army. Once the evil spirit was exorcised from Bishop Hockmann, he had ordered his troops to return home. It had been strange aiding the Sathmoran army, but Vinsah was glad of it. He knew Akabaieth would be proud of him.

And how would he feel of Vinsah now? The raccoon huddled tighter in his robe, clenching his eyes shut. Somewhere, he could see that wonderful old man chuckling, both in love and in good humour. Always a bit too dogmatic, he could almost hear him chide. Even now.

Strangely, he found comfort there, and felt his weary body sinking into slumber. The world faded around him to black, and then even the soft breathing of his companions and the rich scents of the moss and trees ebbed into nothing. Still that memory of his mentor stayed with him, guiding him ever into his dreams.

Yet it was not Akabaieth’s face who greeted him there, but that of a beautiful woman. Her face shone like alabaster, and her smile, radiant and pure, brought him true delight. “My Elvmere,” she said softly. Excited, he wanted to cry out, “Yes, yes, I am your Elvmere!”, but all he could do was churr. At long last, after so many months alone, his Lady had come back to him in his dreams! He leapt to her feet, rejoicing at his good fortune. He meant to ask her why she had not come sooner, why wait so long to speak with him again, but he gazed into her eyes and saw her smile.

And then he knew that he did not have to be afraid anymore. All would be well in time.

Dazheen often dreamed of nine dancers. It had started only a few months ago, and every few nights they came to her. Strange figures, two of them beasts, and one or two of them were children! Though she only recognized one of them, the very man who could control her cards, of the others, all she knew was that they never changed. The same nine who visited her the first time were visiting her now.

She could see little of the room they danced in. The walls were ancient, scarred by strange cracks which at times glowed, and at other times appeared as nothing so much as lead. In the centre of the room sat a raised platform fashioned from gold, and around this platform the nine danced. At times she thought there were markings on the sides of the platform, but she could never discern them.

Unable to do anything but watch, Dazheen tried to learn more about what she saw, but to no avail. Even as she tried to press closer, the scene began to fade from sight. Everything turned on its head, and a baleful red glow faded into a nascent blue light. The sky cracked, and there was a lancing spire that rose to the heavens. Faces circled back and forth around this spire, lightning arcing from one to another.

A horrible pounding throttled her, and the spire grew into a strange mountain. She felt a scream echoing in her throat, but the drumbeat silenced that and all else. With a gasp, she sat up in bed, all the world dark.

Dazheen lifted her frail hands to her face, finding the bandages about her eyes. Sweat covered her body. Somewhere in the distance she could hear the faint murmuring of Bryone asleep. The pounding, the spire, and the dancers were all gone.

Yet the Magyar seer felt them still. She lay back down, and let her mind feel for the cards that were locked inside one of her cupboards. Ever so softly they hummed a song. A seductive song, one full of promise and betrayal. It loomed like a empty chasm before her, inviting her to take that fatal step.

Dazheen put her hands to her ears and tried to shut all of it out. She beat the back of her head against her pillow five times before all was silent again. There was nothing in her world but the warmth of her bed and the faint snoring of her pupil. Exhausted, Dazheen fell back into a dark and dreamless sleep.

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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