The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter LII - The Sons of Pelain

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

“We shalt stop here for the night,” Nemgas declared, eyes ever focussed on the crags of Vysehrad. Only a couple mile north along the base of the mountains roared a waterfall. In the cleft just north of the falls nestled the ancient city of Cheskych. With their wagon huddled in the hills, none of the townsfolk would ever know they were there.

That is, assuming Nemgas wasn’t discovered.

“Dost thee still intend to venture into that place?” Pelgan asked, pointing at the waterfall with a dagger. With his other hand he pulled the reins and brought the horses to a stop.

“Aye. ‘Tis my choice, but ‘tis also a duty of joy.” The younger Magyar frowned and sheathed his dagger. Nemgas sighed and added, “If it ‘twill sooth thy heart, I assure thee that I wilt not leave until after sunset. I hath no desire to be seen by any but the boy.”

“He shouldst hath come with us,” Pelgan said, words laced with the same ice that dotted the blades of grass at dawn. “Then he wouldst be a Magyar and thou wouldst not make this foolhardy trek.”

Nemgas felt the bite of the words, and stiffened. His temper rose, but then died. He had dragged Pelgan and the others on his quest for months now, and it had even cost good Berkon his life. They had been forced to shed all that they knew as Magyars and embrace a world that hated them. How could he blame them if all this wandering — and without dramatic conclusion as they had not even succeeded in stopping Jothay despite killing him — had wearied them? He too felt a weariness in his soul that couldn’t be expressed in words. This journey into Cheskych, he hoped, would heal some of that wound.

“‘Twas his choice, and not mine. And it shouldst be his choice. Not all are meant to be Magyars, Pelgan. Kashin and Sir Petriz are best where they are, dost thou not think so?”

Pelgan shrugged, jumped from the bench, and began undoing the hitch. “I canst make thee do anything, Nemgas. I trust thee to do what art best, though I dost not understand.”

The wagon door opened and the others slowly filed out. Kaspel took his place on top of the wagon to watch the horizon for danger, while Chamag carried the cooking pot for Amile. Gamran and Gelel continued to juggle as they climbed down, neither of them missing a catch.

After setting the pot down, Chamag glanced at the black crags of the Vysehrad and narrowed his eyes. “‘Tis Cheskych?”

Nemgas nodded, and then snapped at the two jugglers. “Bring wood for the fire.” As Gamran and Gelel hurried back into the wagon, Nemgas glanced at the burly Magyar and nodded. “Aye, ‘tis Cheskych there. Perhaps two miles north. Once the sun sets, I shalt walk there.”

“And if thou art found and captured? What wouldst thee hath for us? A rescue? ‘Tis folly to e’en think of it.”

Nemgas turned and tapped the stump of his right arm. “Though I hath but one arm, dost thou think I wouldst be so easily captured?”

Chamag frowned and crossed his arms. “Thou knowest I wouldst ne’er think ill of thee, Nemgas. But I think we shouldst pass Cheskych by. When we reunite with the others, then thou shouldst make thy journey. We shalt be stronger, and they wouldst dare do nothing to thee.”

He knew there was wisdom in Chamag’s suggestion. But his heart ached in a way that did not listen to wisdom. “Thou mayest speak true, but I wilt still go to Cheskych tonight. I wilt return ere the sun has risen, and then we canst be away from this place.”

“ I shalt keep watch for thy return,” Kaspel said from the top of the wagon. Nemgas turned to him and smiled. The archer waved back before returning his gaze to the Steppe.

Though the night of the full moon was only four days past, Nemgas had no fear of its silver radiance. This close to the Vysehrad’s western flank, the moon wouldn’t rise for three to four hours. The great mirrors were likely to catch its rays sooner, but that wouldn’t hinder him until he entered the city.

After eating a quick meal he’d left their wagon bearing on his left hip the jewelled Sathmoran blade and Caur-Merripen on his right. The Magyars objections exhausted, he nevertheless wished he could have left them with more confidence in the wisdom of his journey. Any confidence would have been enough to assuage the guilt he felt. But it was done and he would see it through.

The Steppe gave way to rolling hills as it neared Vysehrad. Nemgas watched the stars emerge from the twilight as he kept the jugged spires before him as he walked. His ears heard only the wind sighing through the grasses, and the distant crashing of the waterfall. Along hilltops he spotted the occasional animal emerging to forage. Nemgas passed them by unnoticed.

Before him, as the last of the twilight failed, darkness loomed, unlit by the stars’ meagre light. The mountains of Vysehrad sunk into a shadow so complete that Nemgas saw them only as a mar in the night sky. He walked towards that emptiness, eyes scanning for any relief or feature to show him where the next rise came. Several times his feet found stones before his eyes, and he had to bite his tongue to keep from grunting in pain.

After at least a half-hour’s walk, the stars shone brightly enough that a faint glow blanketed the land. Vysehrad jutted from the ground, barren but for scrub and a few brave bushes clinging to the lower slopes. Nemgas stared upwards, neck bending backwards until it hurt before he could see the stars again.

Somewhere behind him, a pair of stones clattered together. Nemgas whirled, Caur-Merripen in his hand. The hills clustered together empty but for grass and scrub like children who’d huddled together for warmth before the cold claimed them. He listened, but all was silent. Nemgas held his breath, wondering if one of his fellow Magyars had followed him. He doubted it though; had they done so, he was certain he would have heard them before now. If he had made as much noise clattering against stones, surely they could do no better.

Suddenly, an animal shrieked and then just as soon fell quiet again. Nemgas sighed in relief, though his arm still pricked with every hair standing on end. He listened for a minute more, and heard something grunting in the distance. Surely just a beast feeding on vermin. Nemgas turned north and followed the Vysehrad.

After a few minutes, the only sound he heard was the roar of the waterfall ahead. He kept the sword in hand a few minutes more, unnerved by that short piercing scream. But once he saw the first of the trees, he sheathed it again. Once in the woods he made his way westward until he found the road through. Several months ago, along that road, Pelurji and Pelaeth had been waiting for them. A faint smile crossed his lips at the memory.

The road had once been paved; over the centuries vegetation had scattered the stones until the road was nothing more that a wide track in the woods. The men of Cheskych frequently kept the road clear of brush, but no attempt had been made to restore the stones. With only his feet and the pallid light from the stars overhead to guide him, Nemgas sought the ruts where their wagon wheels had ground, but he still stubbed his toes on loose stones or nearly slipped on piles of leaves.

Around him he heard the normal sounds of animals. Rodents dived beneath fallen leaves at his approach, and he heard at least two owls hooting back and forth. The familiarity of their speech set him at ease, despite the throbbing in his toes.

The trees thinned as he neared the river. Nemgas saw the rippling waters like a skein of light buffeted by strong wings. The bridge clutched either bank with heavy stone foundations, but the span had been replaced with wood. Nemgas waited a few minutes, observing the other side before he crossed the bridge. The guards of Cheskych must not keep watch so far south.

Once across, he discovered that the road was kept in better shape. He no longer stubbed his toes, and despite the darkness, made good time beneath the skeletal boughs. With each brush of wind, the barren branches clattered together, a sound that reminded him of the dry rustle of bones. The impression left him tense, and his hand stayed close to Caur-Merripen’s hilt as he neared the city.

As he began to emerge from the woods, a dark shape flashed before him. Nemgas jumped back, the sword free a moment later. Something chittered angrily at him from the underbrush, and then with only a faint jostling of leaves, disappeared into the autumnal thrush. The Magyar sighed and put the sword back, and stood still until his heart had slowed. That one animal dying out on the Steppe had ruined the solemnity of his walk, and had him leaping at phantoms. If he wanted to enter Cheskych, he’d need to control his faculties.

With the forest and river behind him, Nemgas could finally see the gates of Cheskych. Across a wide plain with farms left fallow for the winter and numerous pens for sheep, a crack had rent a cleft in Vysehrad. Between that cleft nestled the city of Cheskych. The city wall stood tall and unmarred, torches burning at the gatehouse and along its length. Beyond the fortifications, homes and tradesmen clustered together, some of them climbing up the steep escarpment walls like ivy. And hanging from those towering walls were the mirrors of Pelain. Already a sliver of the moon appeared in one set. Before the hour was out, all of Cheskych would be bathed in its soft light.

Nemgas took a moment to ponder his route. He saw no easy way to make his approach, but so long as the moon did not shine on the pastures, he might not be seen by the guards on the wall, nor by the handful patrolling the pastures. He started out, keeping low and close to the wooden fences. Within sheep and cattle milled, some bleating and lowing, but most sleeping.

He crossed the pastures without incident, reaching the base of the cleft. The towering mountains of Vysehrad rose up on either side, and only the silver of the moon and the few guttering torches brought any light. The western wall dwelt in shadow, and within it Nemgas crept towards the fortifications. Once there, he realized his entry into Cheskych would not be accomplished with the ease he’d expected.

When he’d entered Cheskych over the wall the first time many months ago, he’d had two arms. How could he ascend and keep his balance with just one?

Nemgas braced his back against the rock of the escarpment, its cool regard spreading through his tunic and linens to chill his skin. With his left hand, he pulled himself up, one foot against the masonry, the other pressing into any tiny crevice he could find in the mountain. His eyes watched the top of the wall, noting the way the torches limned the rocky paths at the wall’s base. Faint shadows passed through the dim light, and he knew them to be the guards walking back and forth.

Nemgas took a deep breath as he step by step pulled himself higher. The cold in his back agonized him, but he put the pain from his mind. His fingers numbed as they felt along the masonry for any grip. Thin rivulets of ice encrusted the blocks of stone, and several times he nearly lost his grip. If the tumble to the rocks beneath him didn’t kill him, the guards surely would.

But his sense of balance, and his fine control over every part of his body saved him. Nemgas ascended inch by inch, until at last he could reach the wall’s crenellations. Nemgas waited until the shadows moved away from him before he wrapped his hand over the edge and pulled himself up. He leaned his chest into the rock, and peered down the top of the wall. The nearest guards walked away from him, all of them armed with spears and bows.

Nemgas pushed down and slid his stump through the crenellation. Together, he squeezed onto the top of the wall. He wasted no time climbing over the other side, taking only a moment to find a foothold on the escarpment’s face before letting go. A rock slid free, clattering beneath him. Nemgas flattened himself against the wall, pulling as close as he could. And then beneath him a cat yowled.

He said a quick prayer of thanks to all the gods, even as the guards grunted and continued their patrol. Gingerly, Nemgas crouched and reached his feet down for another grip.

It took him another minute to reach the base of the wall. The first homes didn’t begin for another fifty paces beyond the wall. He passed by pens filled with sheep and cows, far more than had been out in the pastures.

And then he came to the city streets. Already the moon reflected in the mirrors above, casting weird shadows and pale light everywhere. Nemgas nestled behind a stone wall, and studied the roads leading from the gatehouse and into the city. The road split in two, leaving three sections of the city. Summoning his memory, he thought back to the day he’d crept into Pelurji’s house to ask him and Pelaeth to reclaim the juggling balls from their father.

Satisfied that he knew the house, Nemgas climbed the ladder next to the wall, crossed over the roof and by the door of another house, and quickly disappeared in the winding rooftops and alcoves of the western flank of the city. The city slumbered peacefully, quiet and unaware of his intrusion. Through shuttered windows he heard snoring, and occasionally a sombre voice, but never once a hint that they knew he was there.

By the time he found their house, the mirrors reflected almost all of the moon’s face. The light made it easy to step around the many bowls and tools left near the door. With exquisite gentleness, Nemgas lifted the latch and swung the door inwards. The air inside was cool, but warmer than outside. He smelled no smoke or other sign of fire.

Nemgas glanced around the room first before closing the door. Apart from the stove against one wall and a small table surrounded by three-legged stool, animal hides covered nearly every inch of the stone floor. A wash basin leaned against the wall behind the table, a small pool of water collecting beneath it. Two doorways led into other rooms, both hung with cow-hide to trap heat. After a moment’s reflection, Nemgas recalled that Pelaeth slept in the room closer to the escarpment.

Gently, he drew aside the cow-hide and peered inside. His memory had not failed him. Through a gap in the shutters light from the mirrors illuminated a boy’s sleeping pallet. Within, Nemgas saw the dark-haired youth bundled in a heaping mountain of woolen quilts. He smiled and slipped inside. Being careful not to make any noise, he crossed the mostly empty room and knelt by Pelaeth’s side.

The boy slept, and for a moment all he could remember was the way his boy Pelurji slept and had slept for so many months now. Nemgas rubbed his eyes, determined not to cry. How could he tell Pelaeth that his younger brother lay comatose because Nemgas had wanted to explore a forbidden city haunted by dead spirits?

He slipped Caur-Merripen from his belt and reverently set it beside the boy’s pallet. In the moonlight, the band of silver in the blade’s centre shined. Nemgs leaned in close and whispered in the boy’s ear, “Pelaeth. I hath brought thee a part of thy birthright. The sword of thy namesake. Pelaeth...”

The boy stirred, and after a sullen groan, his eyes opened. He blinked several times, fright filling them. Nemgas leaned back and let the moonlight strike his face. Pelaeth stared, confused for a moment. Then, like a pup leaving the den for the first time, he reached out one hand and touched the single lock of white hair on Nemgas’s brow. Finally a smile blossomed on his face. “Nemgas! Thou hast come back.”

He held one finger to his lips, cautioning the boy to keep quiet. “Only for the night. I canst not stay long.” He patted the boy’s arm and felt strength in his flesh, as well as scars. “What hath become of thee?”

“Father hath blamed me for Pelurji. I hath spent my days since working with him in the mines.”

“The mines!” Nemgas paled. Had the lineage of Pelain fallen so far that his descendants were but common miners?

“‘Tis honourable labour,” Pelaeth replied, and from the tone of his whisper, Nemgas could almost think that the boy believed it.

“Thou art destined for greater things than mines. I hath brought thee a part of thy birthright.” He gestured to the sword when he heard the cow-hide door pulled aside.

“Who art thee?” A tall man with gruff voice demanded. He held a dagger in one hand, but his grip appeared uncertain.

Nemgas recognized the voice as the man who’d told the story of Pelain’s death so many months ago. Nemgas had named him Peloken, kin of the great Pelain. And then Pelaeth and Pelurji told him that this was their father. Nemgas tensed, slowly shifting on his feet to turn and face the man.

“Hold where thee be,” Peloken snapped. “Thy sword, remove it.”

Nemgas shook his head. “I hath not come to bring harm to thy son.”

The dagger faltered for a moment, and then the man hissed with unmistakable fury. “Magyar! Thou hast stolen my son!” With his other hand, he threw something at the ground, which flashed so brightly that Nemgas stumbled back into the far wall, one arm covering his eyes. They stung with the iridescence of a million stars swarming and exploding.

Peloken had the dagger at his neck a moment later. “I know thee, Magyar. Thou wert the one who didst steal my child from me. Hast thou come to take the other as well, thief?”

“Nae!” Nemgas stammered, blinking, but he could see nothing at all in the darkened room.

“Father, nae!” Pelaeth shouted.

“Silence!” Peloken snapped, and Pelaeth huddled in his blankets. In tones of ice, he continued, pressing the edge of the blade ever closer to Nemgas’s vulnerable neck. “Tell me, Magyar, what hast thou done with my other son?”

“I hath been a father to him, as he wished,” Nemgas replied. He held his left hand out where the man could see it, fingers open. This man would kill him in a heartbeat, but Nemgas could never kill him. He was Pelaeth’s father, and no boy should be deprived of their father.

“I be his father, not thee!” Peloken snapped, and then spit in his face. “Thou art a thief!”

“Pelurji didst become a Magyar of his own choice,” Nemgas replied as evenly as he could.

“Pelurji?” Peloken asked, at first confused, and then he cut into Nemgas’s skin. “Thou hast stolen his name too! Where be he? Thy wagons hath not been seen since thee didst steal my boy. How came thee here?”

“I wilt tell thee if thou wilt not kill me.”

“I wilt not kill thee if thou dost tell me where my boy be!”

Pelaeth climbed out of his covers and grabbed his father’s arm, tugging back. “Nae, Father! Please dost not kill, Nemgas! He hath brought something for me!”

Without taking any pressure off the knife, Peloken dislodged his son and snapped, “Stay down! This man hath poisoned thy mind!”

“I didst not steal thy boy,” Nemgas repeated. “He chose to be a Magyar.”

“Because thou didst fill his head with thy lies! I saw thee teach my boys to juggle, tempting them with a life of frivolity and nonsense!”

“To be a Magyar is not to be frivolous, or to practice nonsense!” Nemgas shot back, anger flashing in him. His eyes were beginning to clear now, and he could make out the outline of the man’s head. It tilted to one side, and the knife blade pressed further into his neck. Nemgas stiffened, pushing himself against the wall. “Thy son didst make this choice. Thy other son wast there, and had I wanted to, I couldst hath taken him as well. But I let him return to thee as he wished. And thou hast worked him in the mines until he art scarred!”

Peloken smacked him in the cheek. “Thou hast no place to speak of such things. Where be my son?”

Nemgas swallowed, the blood trickling down his chest beginning to dampen his tunic. “He be safe, far from both of us. I hath come here in a single wagon. We hath no room for any other, and I wouldst ne’er take thy Pelaeth from thee.”

“Then why come here?”

“To give thy son his birthright, a birthright Pelurji and I didst discover in Hanlo o Bavol-engro.”

Peloken stopped and said nothing for several long seconds. The knife even relaxed, but still the man kept it next to Nemgas’s neck. When he did speak, the voice was curious, but no less angry. “Hanlo o Bavol-engro? Thou and my son didst journey there? What birthright dost thee speak of?”

“It lays by thy son’s bed. The sword of Pelain, Caur-Merripen.”

“Caur-Merripen!” Peloken’s voice filled with awe, but he caught himself and said in tight tones. “Thou art a trickster, Magyar. A trickster and a thief. Why shouldst I believe thee?”

“Thou dost know what Caur-Merripen looks like,” Nemgas replied, feeling a small measure of hope blossom. “Thou art of Pelain’s blood. Thy son can describe it for thee.”

“And what would thee have for this gift?”

“Nothing,” Nemgas replied. “I hath returned the sword to its rightful owner. I expect no recompense for it.”

“Not e’en thy life?”

Nemgas allowed himself a small smile. “I hope to receive that anyway, but I do not bargain with Caur-Merripen. Not e’en for my life.”

Peloken pondered that for a moment. Finally, in a commanding tone, he said, “Son, tell me what this Magyar hast brought.”

The boy lifted the sword with surprising ease, and the moonlight shone brightly on the silver and black blade. Pelaeth whispered, his voice almost lost in wonder, “‘Tis a blade of two metals, one silver, the other black.”

“Aye, go on.”

“The black hath been forged around the silver. The pommel hast been made for two hands, and there be a wolf’s head on either side.”

Peloken asked, “How heavy be it?”

“Nae, ‘tis light as a feather, father! I hath held rocks in my palm heavier than this!”

The man let out breathless gasp. “Caur-Merripen! ‘Tis true then. Only a descendent of Pelain couldst grasp that blade so. How didst thee find it?”

“I didst not find it. Thy son found it, in Hanlo o Bavol-engro. And there, he didst slay a dragon with it, the same dragon that they ancestor Pelain died to kill.”

“What?” Peloken snapped, anger returning. “Talk sense!”

“I speak the truth,” Nemgas replied. “Dost thou wish to see thy son again?”

“Aye! And I wish him to return to Cheskych, his home!”

“The first I canst promise, the second, nae, that be for Pelurji to decide.” Nemgas licked his lips. “If thou wishest to see him again, thou must let me live. When we didst enter the city of Hanlo o Bavol-engro, we didst discover the bones of the dragon, and upon them an armoured figure; there wast also a grave — Pelain’s grave. Within the grave we found a man bearing the same armour.”

“What didst the armour look like?” Peloken demanded.

“It hath been shaped to appear a snarling silver wolf. And I dost know why there wast two of them, and why there wert two sons of thine.” Nemgas narrowed his eyes, “Dost thee a brother?”

“He died ere he wast two,” Peloken replied. “Every male pair in my family hath shared that fate; one of them dost die a child.”

“Until thine.”


Nemgas pursed his lips. “Then thy rage at me hath more to do than with Pelurji choosing me over thee. Thy children wert to become the true heirs of Pelain.”

Peloken took a deep breath, and then pushed the knife deeper into Nemgas’s throat. “Thou mayest hath brought a great gift in Caur-Merripen, but thou art still a trickster and a thief. A Magyar can be no less. What hath become of my son?”

“I wilt tell thee. I desire to tell thee! We found Pelain’s grave, his bones, his armour, his sword, and the dragon whose life he gave his to kill. We wert then attacked by foreign knights. I donned Pelain’s armour and wielded his sword, e’en though they wert meant for thy sons.”

Peloken snarled. “Thou didst wield them? How? They shouldst not yield to thee!”

“A moment more and I wilt tell thee. The dragon woke from whate’er eldritch slumber it didst enjoy. It destroyed the knights, and they fled. But Pelurji, thy son, he lifted Pelain’s sword Caur-Merripen, and challenged the dragon to battle. The dragon attacked, but Pelurji smote it with the blade, and its bones scattered to dust. Thy boy, the child of Pelain, didst complete what thy ancestor didst begin.”

Peloken stood still for several long seconds. Pelaeth fidgeted on his pallet, excited by the tale of his brother’s victory over the skeletal dragon. Nemgas waited, the knife at his throat, though the wound no longer bled. The man took a deep breath and drew the knife back perhaps half-an-inch. “Thou I too am a fool, I believe that though hast spoken the truth of my son. Tell me, what hast become of him?”

Nemgas sighed and nodded. “A bone struck him and he hast fallen into a deep sleep. Only the death of the magic that corrupted the dragon can revive him. We hath destroyed it in Yesulam, but its final dissolution art beyond our reach.”

Peloken’s eyes flared. “What? What hast thou done to him?”

“Kept him safe. He survives under the care of my betrothed, and be safe with the Magyars. I hath done all that I couldst to destroy the evil. Now I return to him to see if he hast awakened.”

“And then?”

Nemgas narrowed his eyes, “When the Magyars doth return this way, I shalt bring him to see thee, a promise few Magyars couldst e’er make. A proper Magyar hath no life e’er becoming a Magyar. But he be son of Pelain, and that must ne’er be forgotten.” He stretched his one arm and slowly began to lower it. “And there be one more gift to bring thee.”

“And what might that be?”

“The armour of Pelain. One set belongs to Pelaeth here.”

The man pondered his words for another moment before asking, “Why dost thou care whether or not Pelain’s sword and armour art returned to his descendants?”

Nemgas pursed his lips, the confession never coming easy to them. “Because I hath walked in Pelain’s footsteps and seen a place only he hast seen.”

“Where be that?”

“I hath climbed Cenziga.”

Peloken laughed, contemptuous. “Now I know that thou art lying!”

“The power of Cenziga lies in that it makes two where there wast one. When thou last saw me, Cenziga had done so with me, I had two arms, two locks of white hair. Now I have but one. An arm can be chopped off, but a lock of hair? Thou mayest rinse it in water if thou wish it. I hath used no dye.”

“How dost thee know the power of Cenziga?”

“I climbed Cenziga. I beheld the spire at its summit, I saw the faces in the air. I saw the world turned upon its side. I saw all this and more, because I didst climb Cenziga.” Nemgas felt the knife draw back from his neck. Peloken’s eyes had widened, and in the light of the moon, he could finally make them out. The iris had expanded so much that his eyes appeared an orb of white with a black centre. “And the tale of Pelain climbing Cenziga and what he saw, ‘tis passed down in thy family? Art thou the only one who knowest it?”

Peloken nodded, and he lowered the knife. “Thou hast been there. I hath not told the tale to my boys yet. Thou hast not come to steal my son.”

“Nae, I didst not come for him, only to bring the gift.”

Peloken took several steps back. He still held the knife, but the anger and rage had left him. “And thou wilt bring my other son back to me? Thou mayest care for him, but I still be his father.”

“I wilt, but if he shouldst choose to stay with me, wilt thou hate him and me?”

“Thou art a fool if thou thinkest I wilt forgive thee,” Peloken replied, though the anger was gone from his voice. “But I wilt see thee from this city. If thou shouldst return and my son be not with thee, I wilt kill thee and thou wilt put enmity between thy people and mine for generations.”

“Father, he brought Caur-Merripen!” Pelaeth objected.

“I wouldst rather my son be here than a sword, e’en one so great as Caur-Merripen.”

“Thou wouldst not be a father if thou felt otherwise,” Nemgas replied. “Listen to him, Pelaeth. I wilt see thee again.”

“No, thou shalt ne’er step inside this house again,” Peloken said, gesturing to the cow-hide door with his knife. “I wilt kill thee next time, and I hath more to my arsenal than a dagger and fire stones.”

“Then I shalt ne’er come here again. And when I dost return to Cheskych, Pelurji shalt be with me, I assure thee of this.” Nemgas smiled once to the boy, who smiled back, and then walked out the doorway. He felt the knife point at his back. “I shalt leave, thou hast no need to fear me.”

“Aye,” Peloken replied. “Now.” He prodded Nemgas, and the Magyar kept walking, out the door and into the street. The moon shone brightly in the mirrors of Cheskych.

Kaspel sat with knees to his chin, the bow gripped in one hand, the other around his legs. The moon peered over the Vysehrad, casting the rolling plains of the Steppe in a silvery light. Apart from the distant crash of the waterfall and the wind through the grass, the night was a quiet one. His eyes drooped, but he prodded himself to stay awake.

He’d volunteered to keep watch during te night, and spent his days sleeping in the wagon. After the first two days when the constant bumping and the light kept him awake, he no longer had any trouble. He liked the solitude the night gave him. He needed it now that Berkon was dead.

The wind blew steadily out of the north, following along the western slopes of the Vysehrad. Cool, it made him shiver from time to time. Winter would soon be upon them, and then all of the Steppe would sleep beneath a blanket of snow and ice. But by then, they should have reunited with the other Magyars.

It took Kaspel several minutes to realize that what he took for wind carried something else. If he listened carefully, he could hear words, soft, almost sung, carried on the breeze. He turned his head, bleary eyes opening wide. Somewhere near, just beyond the hills. What could it be?

He knocked an arrow and as gently as possible, rose to his feet. He brought the bow up, pointing the arrow into the hills. The song continued, soft, unafraid. Curious, Kaspel gingerly stepped to the front of the wagon and climbed down. His feet hit the ground and crushed the grass. Bits of ice that lined the stalks cracked under his boots.

The song grew stronger, and Kaspel, still holding the bow with arrow knocked, walked away from the carriage to investigate it. The voice ached at his mind, so familiar, yet so strange. The moonlight bent around the folds in the land, leading him towards the music. Kaspel climbed up one rise, and then down the next, the carriage disappearing behind him.

Within a bowl-shaped depression a figure sat with its back to him. From his lips echoed that haunting melody. Kaspel felt his body stiffen, for though the flesh had grown pale, he knew this man. But the name would not come to his lips. Nothing came to his lips. Fingers suddenly limp, the bow slid from them and tumbled to the ground.

Turning, he saw Berkon’s face, eyes cold as they fixed him. His lips moved, the song slithering off his tongue and seeping into Kaspel’s ears. Berkon stood, his left leg a grotesquerie of dusty fur and flesh. Stiffly, what had been dead walked towards him, confidant and powerful.

Kaspel trembled, yearning to grab the knife at his side, but his arms felt like jelly. He could barely keep his feet. Berkon neared him, still singing, until one arm reached forward and slid beneath Kaspel’s armpits. Gently, the dead man eased him to the ground. Kaspel moaned like a lost dog, scared beyond words.

With precise motions, Berkon took the knife from Kaspel’s belt and set it aside. Almost like a lover, the dead man curled next to him, vacant eyes never leaving his. One cold hand drew back Kaspel’s collar, and the song began to ebb. Berkon smiled, revealing a pair of long pointed teeth behind his lips. “My sweet Magyar. Dost thou wish to be mine?”

Kaspel trembled, wanted to push this thing away from him and run screaming back to the wagon. But the song wrapped round his mind, confusing him, turning his insides to mush. His lips quivered, and his tongue pushed past them, a single utterance gurgling up from his throat, “Aye.”

“I thought thou wouldst.” Berkon leaned his head in close, lips kissing Kaspel, chill and fierce. Kaspel closed his eyes, shivering and cold. The dead man’s lips slid down his cheek, and then across his neck. There Berkon’s tongue moistened the side. Kaspel felt a tear stream down his cheek.

And then there was pain.

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

« Previous Part
Next Part »