The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter LIV - New Prayers

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

“I know I have been negligent this last week in keeping you informed. But the news I received when last we dined was the most horrible news I could imagine receiving.” Titian Verdane paused as he studied the Lords Grenholt, Thrane and Stoffels. Grenholt leaned closer, while Thrane and Stoffels remained politely attentive. He had debated informing them of Duke Otakar’s conditions, but after a week with only his Castellan, his Steward, and his second son privy to his inmost thoughts, it was time to lay out his hand for his vassals, no matter their dubious loyalty.

“What have you heard, your grace?” Thrane asked, his oily smile far too wide.

“Hyman Calladar has betrayed us. In exchange for being allowed to expunge the Ecclesia from Bozojo, he has declared fealty to Duke Otakar of Salinon, and has handed my son over as a hostage.”

Grenholt shot to his feet. “That cur! We should march on Bozojo at once!”

“And kill my son?” Verdane snapped. “I think not. Barruw, think through this clearly. Calladar knew I would send somebody that mattered to me to ensure his cooperation in our little war. Once he had Jaime, he knew he would be safe from revenge. We cannot attack Bozojo, nor can we move to reclaim control of that land. Not unless Jaime makes a miraculous escape.”

Stoffels grimaced and tapped his fingers together. If Verdane wasn’t mistaken, the look of concern on the Lord of Ralathe’s brow was genuine. “This changes everything. If Otakar has control of Bozojo, he has control of the trade routes on the Marchbourne.”

“He and Duke Hassan of Metamor,” Verdane said. After a week, he could finally speak of his loss without growling like his sigil the wolf. “My spies have informed me that Hassan and Otakar have signed a treaty honouring each other’s territory. In other words, they conspired to hamstring the Southern Midlands. We have effectively been cut off from all lands north of the Marchbourne. It is only a matter of time before they divide Lanton, Hawk’s Point, and perhaps even Elarial between themselves.”

“Surely you don’t think Otakar can hold Bozojo forever.” Thrane glanced at the map. “This stretches his armies very thin. He will have enough trouble maintaining River’s Fork, let alone lay claim to Lanton. Lanton is ardently Follower — I doubt they will succumb to a Lothanasi duchy. Especially one that still claims ties with the elves.”

“Couldn’t you send the Wolf’s Claw to rescue Jaime?” Grenholt suggested.

“Otakar will expect it,” Verdane replied. “If they fail, my son dies.”

“Then you will be free to reclaim Bozojo,” Stoffels pointed out.

Verdane drove his fist into the table. “Do you not understand, Rukas? He has my son! My other son has joined the Ecclesia. My daughter has wed a madman. My grandson would rather be kennelmaster than King! My...” he caught himself before his tirade took him further. He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his forehead with one hand. “I will do what I must to preserve my line. Otakar may have hobbled our trade, but he can do no more. Not for some time.”

“So what would you have of us?” Thrane asked.

“Before we can consider what must be done about Bozojo and Otakar, we must end the conflict between Masyor and Mallow Horn. Grenholt, what word have you received from the fork?”

Grenholt stroked his beard with one hand and grimaced. “Our advance scouts have confirmed the earlier reports about the ships sailing up the Southbourne. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re in the lake already.”

“And what of Dupré?”

“He’s had his armies marshalled and they have marched north of Mallow Horn, but only a day’s walk.”

“He wants to march on Masyor,” Verdane surmised. He rubbed his chin, trying to still the anger in his heart. He couldn’t afford to think about Otakar and his son right now. It took all of his effort to turn his mind back to his lands. “Ready all of our troops.”

“But your grace,” Thrane objected, “without Calladar’s knights, we cannot block Lord Guilford in.”

“No, but Lord Dupré can still do that for us. If he doesn’t move on Masyor, we need to find some way to trick him into attacking.”

Stoffels leaned forward, eyes appraising. “Did you have something in mind?”

Verdane didn’t, and that was the trouble. But he didn’t say anything. Leaning forward, he tapped on the map, pointing at the armies arrayed. “Ships from Llarth are sailing into the lake. Supplies come across the lake from Weislyn, as well as troops across the Angle. Guilford is trapped in his castle, or will be soon. Only Dupré and our forces have mobility on land. The question becomes, what will convince him to attack. I don’t see that he has any option left.”

The doors to the chamber opened, and Captain Nikolai stood in the doorway. His tabard was stained with dirt and he stank of horse. “Forgive me your grace but this message couldn’t wait.”

Verdane stood, and quickly so did his vassals. “What message have you brought, Captain?”

The head of the Wolf’s Claw nodded briefly to the lords, and then stared his sovereign in the eyes. “Your grace, Lord Dupré has just launched a siege on Masyor.”

He knew he shouldn’t, but he felt immeasurable relief at the news. “Then we ride today. Captain, we leave within the hour for the fork, and then for Masyor.” Now he had but one course of action. Now he could put an end to the madness tearing his lands apart.

“Very good, your grace.”

“Wait,” Verdane snapped, holding up his hands. “Captain, take the Wolf’s Claw to Mallow Horn and collect my daughter. I want her in my camp when we march behind Dupré’s forces.”

Nikolai nodded. “It will be done as you wish, your grace.” His vassals stirred uncomfortably, not a one of them certain anymore what their liege would do. The Black Wolf of Cabadair Woods, as he was once called, liked it that way.

His vassals did not sound nearly as enthused.

Despite being docked at the Silvassan wharfs, the Calf gently rocked in the river’s current. Elvmere slept peacefully, lulled to sleep as if cradled in his mother’s arms. His Lady briefly visited him in his dreams, softly cooing to him, and petting the back of his head as he curled against her legs, but he could remember little else. When he finally woke, it was to the sound of footsteps above.

Though dawn had come, the room’s sole porthole faced north. The near darkness felt good to his eyes, and he slipped from the bed and pulled the acolyte’s robe over his head. He shook his head to right his fur, and then stepped to the porthole to peer out at the city.

The wharves were bustling with activity, but only a handful of sailors moved along the wharves next to the Calf. Most of them seemed to pay attention to the larger ship docked behind them. The Indigo. He wondered when Nylene would be coming.

The sound of footsteps approached, and a moment later there was a knock at his door. “Elvmere, it is I, Elsevier. May I come in?”

“Do enter, Master Elsevier.”

The stout merchant came through the door and shut it behind him. “How are you this morning, my friend?”

“I slept well. I am hungry though. Do you have any fruits or breads to break fast with? I don’t suppose you have any fish just yet.”

“Fish you will have in abundance once we set sail.” Elsevier smiled. “We have nets, trained fishermen, and I employ a very good cook. As to fruit and bread, those I can offer. I will return with them in a few minutes. I prefer not to reveal you to my crew until we are underway. I’m sure you understand.”

Elvmere’s striped tail flicked back and forth, and he chortled under his breath. “I am surprised you have any intention of revealing me to your crew. I expected to spend the voyage in this room. I spent part of my journey to Silvassa in a grain barrel, so this is far more commodious.”

The merchant’s eyes widened in surprise, and then he laughed in a way that set the raccoon’s instincts at ease. He smiled and patted Elvmere on the shoulder. “You are an interesting fellow, young Elvmere. I hope that you will share the story of your adventures and how you came to be under Priestess Nylene’s tender care. But it must wait for later. Wait here and I will return with your meal.”

Elvmere nodded politely and his host closed the door behind him. Elvmere straightened out the white acolyte’s robe and knelt at the bedside, paws folded in prayer. But to whom should he pray? He barely knew the names of the gods, let alone how to properly address them. A part of him recalled the many liturgical prayers he would make to Eli and Yahshua. A soft growl reverberated in the back of his throat. Those prayers were closed to him now. He belonged to the pantheon, or he would.

Elsevier returned before the raccoon had even settled on any of the few prayers he recalled Nylene teaching him. He stood and smiled, tail twitching beneath the robe. He smelled the small loaf of bread before he saw it, and knew it to be cool, but fresh. “That smells very nice,” he said as the merchant entered. On a small plate lay the loaf and an apple. In his other hand, Elsevier carried a small book whose binding appeared well-worn. “What’s that?”

The merchant smiled, revealing his second chin. “I have been blessed with many children, and though my livelihood takes me from them for many months of the year, I am proud of each of them. This belonged to my boy Benyan, who became an acolyte and served in the temple. It was his prayer book.”

“It was?” Elvmere could hear the faint tones of an old wound in the merchant’s voice. “What happened to your son?”

“A few years ago, a sickness came though Silvassa. Some few died of it, including my Benyan. Priestess Nylene saved the lives of three of my other children stricken by the sickness, but in Benyan it came too quickly.” Elsevier put the book to his lips and he stared at Elvmere’s white robe, his eyes flush with memory. “I would like you to have it.” He held it out with both hands.

Elvmere smiled, feeling humbled by the gift. “This is a gift of great price. Thank you, Master Elsevier.” He put one paw beneath the book, and the other atop it, his claws gently touching the merchant’s fingertips. Elsevier didn’t recoil, but slowly let go, and then rubbed his hands as if washing them. Either from the book or from the raccoon’s touch, he didn’t know.

“I need to prepare the Indigo now. When you feel the Calf row out into the river, do not fret. We need to bring it alongside the Indigo if Nylene is to join us.”

“Of course. The gods blessing be with you.”

“And with you. I shall return with our beloved Priestess.” Elsevier closed the door behind him again, and this time the footsteps did not return.

Elvmere cradled the prayer book in his paws, admiring the decorative cover. He gingerly opened it and turned each page, admiring the illumination for each prayer. On the fifth page he found a prayer of blessing, knelt, and began to recite, “Great Kammoloth, I beseech your blessing upon your servant Elsevier of Silvassa. Bless his family and his house, his work and his service, his servants and his beasts. Bless him Great Kammoloth, and all those who love him.

“Akkala, preserve him and his family in good health.

“Velena, let no finger disfigure him or his family.

“Dokorath, protect him and his family from all their enemies.

“Dvalin, give him rain and sun for his crops, and winds for his mills.

“Artela, provide him fuel to warm his family, and food to sate their hunger.

“Yajiit, may his fuel ever burn, and his family never suffer cold

“Samekkh, grant him wisdom to provide for his family and all his loved ones.

“Wvelkim, make his journeys sure and quick, and reunite his family at their end.

“Great Kammoloth, grant him these favours now and for the rest of his life.”

Elvmere knelt a moment more, head bowed in prayer, and then flipped through the prayer book to find a blessing before a meal.

Temple guards rode ahead of their carriage, while a second carriage followed with their supplies. Other than the guard, Priestess Nylene hin’Lofwine took her leave of Silvassa without fanfare. The Lothanas had not even come to bid her farewell, but she knew he was only too happy to have her gone for a time. She regretted that she wouldn’t be able to learn more of his heretical acts, but she felt greater need in Elvmere.

If she could instill in him an honest and humble devotion to the Pantheon, she would achieve more than all her subterfuge in Silvassa could ever hope to accomplish. She could never recall a more eager student, except perhaps Malger Sutt, but that one had long been marked to serve Nocturna so his conversion hadn’t been as surprising.

But Elvmere, once the natural successor to the late Patriarch Akabaieth, had no such spiritual connection. Through whatever trials he’d face din the year since Akabaieth’s murder, he’d come to believe in the Pantheon, even if he did not know them. Only his commitment to the Ecclesia kept him from acting on this belief. Once excommunicated, and once the tatters of his life had settled, he’d done the only thing he could — he followed his beliefs into the arms of the Lothanasi.

Nylene hin’Lofwine would make sure those arms were both welcoming and loving.

All she had to do now was escape the Lothanas’s gaoler, Thelina. She sat opposite the priestess in the carriage, her hands folded serenely in prayer. But her eyes watched Nylene and the road outside. Did she suspect duplicity? Thelina was not foolish enough to doubt that Nylene knew her true purpose. And Nylene had rebuffed her several times since the raccoon’s arrival. There would be reason enough for any suspicion.

Whether she suspected duplicity or not, Nylene couldn’t risk the acolyte’s mind being sharp and clear. She smiled and asked, “Have you ever left Silvassa, Thelina?”

She looked up in surprise. “Have I what, Priestess?”

“Have you ever left Silvassa before?”

Thelina shook her head. “No, Priestess, I have not. I was born within the city walls. My parents could not afford to feed me so sent me to the temple where I have been ever since.”

Nylene felt some sympathy for her and wondered if there might be some way to undo the spiritual damage done to her by the Lothanas. If not for Elvmere, Nylene would gladly have taken her and tried to free her of her master’s influence. Perhaps another opportunity would come. These thoughts she kept to herself, hidden behind a pleasant smile and a kind word. “Then the gods will bless you with many new things on our voyage.”

“Have you left Silvassa before, Priestess?” This was a question of both courtesy and curiosity. For once, Thelina wanted to know something about Nylene for herself. It was refreshing, and Nylene’s smile widened.

“Not since I was a girl. I was sent to Isenport to serve there for three years before my initiation. It was a long time ago.” The carriage jolted lightly and came to a stop. Beyond the shouts and japes of sailors were accompanied by snapping sails and creaking wood. “Would you see to my belongings? I don’t want them damaged when they’re loaded on board.”

“We should first see to the arrangements, Priestess. Master Elsevier may boast, but if they are not acceptable we should decline his hospitality.”

“Master Elsevier is a benefactor of the temple!” Nylene made sure the horror was obvious in her voice. “And he has always been generous to us. We should not insult him by refusing his offer.”

Thelina frowned as she rose and opened the carriage door. But even she knew she’d misspoke. “Forgive me, Priestess. You are right. We should be grateful for whatever Master Elsevier can provide.”

Nylene followed her onto the street, where a pair of temple guards stood ready to escort her. At least they wouldn’t be coming aboard. She would have trouble enough escaping her watchful acolyte.

Across the street she was the wharves, and coming down the gangplank of a five-masted galleon was the paper merchant Elsevier. He waddled down and waved to them. Nylene walked past her guards to greet him. The guards and Thelina hurried to keep up.

“Good morning to you, Priestess Nylene hin’Lofwine.” Elsevier bowed once he reached the street. “May Dvalin grant us a sunny day, and Wvelkim a speedy voyage.”

Nylene traced the signs of Dvalin and Wvelkim before her and favoured the merchant with a warm smile. “I shall say a prayer for their aid. This is my acolyte, Thelina. She will see that my things are properly arranged on board.”

“Gareth!” Elsevier shouted. A burly sailor walked down the gangplank, followed by three other men of similar physique. “Please see to the loading of Priestess Nylene hin’Lofwine’s belongings. The acolyte, Thelina, will instruct you.”

“Of course. If you would, milady, show us where you want her things.”

Thelina bore an unhappy moue, but she turned to Elsevier and asked, “Will there be room enough in the Priestess’s quarters for all her things?”

Elsevier frowned, and then waved to the gangplank. “If you’d follow me, you can see for yourself.”

Gareth and his men waited on the wharf while Elsevier brought Nylene and Thelina on board. On the main deck they saw a wide opening for the hold, with winches and pulleys erected ready to lower cargo. Elsevier led them back beneath the aft castle into a narrow hallway. On the left was a single door, while on the right there were three. The door at the far end led to Elsevier’s quarters.

“I am giving you this room,” Elsevier said, opening the door on the right. It had a single bed, a mirror over a chest of drawers, and a closet for clothes. Sconces hung from the walls. A set of three portholes stared out onto the wharf. All together, the furniture used most of the room’s available space. “It’s the Captain’s room when I’m not on board. He’ll be sleeping with the first mate.”

Nylene stepped inside and ran his fingers along the footboard. “This will suffice, Master Elsevier, but I fear we will not be able to fit all of my belongings in here.”

“And where will I be sleeping, Master Elsevier?” Thelina asked.

“You may take one of the rooms on the right. I understand you have few possessions of your own?”

Thelina nodded, her moue growing into a full-fledged scowl. “And where shall we put the Priestess’s belongings?”

Nylene put a hand on her arm and smiled. “The ceremonial garments can wait until we reach Metamor. I only need my prayer books and symbols, my toiletries, and my day-to-day clothes. That we can fit with ease. Bring those first, and the rest we can store in the hold. They will keep there until we reach Metamor.”

“Of course,” Elsevier replied. “I will have Gareth see to it.”

“Thelina, instruct Gareth in what needs to go where.”

“And what of you, Priestess?” Thelina asked, still quite unhappy.

“I will be fine here. I would like to sit for a while, and then I think I will rest until we’re underway.” Nylene sat down on the edge of the bed, her eyes drooping.

Thelina nodded. “Very well, Priestess. I shall see to your things.”

Elsevier followed the acolyte out, and then a minute later returned. “I’ve signalled the Calf to swing around our stern. Gareth knows to keep Thelina occupied. They should be outside now.”

Nylene stood and walked to the portholes. Peering through one, she could see the acolyte ordering the sailors with sharp arm gestures. Two of the men had her day-to-day clothes chest between them and were carrying it to the gangplank. “Do you have the toiletries I requested on the Calf?”

“Aye, everything you need except your clothes waits for you there. I spoke with Elvmere this morning, and he seemed in good spirits. He eagerly awaits you on board. We’ll be joining him soon. I’ll have my first mate stand outside your door to keep Thelina from disturbing your rest.”

“And your captain?”

“He will set sail upriver in an hour. With luck, Thelina won’t realize she’s been tricked for hours. Either way, my captain will sail one day upstream, and then follow us to Isenport, where they will wait until we return from Metamor.” Elsevier frowned. “You will be returning from Metamor, won’t you?”

She nodded. “I do wish to make a pilgrimage there, but my chief concern is Elvmere’s safe return home. I will see that he is accepted in the Lothanasi temple there and then return to you.”

“Very good. I will check on the Calf. Once you have what you need, come to my quarters.” So saying, Elsevier turned down the hall pulled the door closed, but left it ajar.

Nylene returned to the bed and laid down. She put one hand over her eyes, and breathed slowly. The bed was surprisingly comfortable, so she stuffed her heel beneath her knee to keep from accidentally falling asleep. That little bit of discomfort would suffice.

She listened to the sounds of the sailors. Apart from the heavy footfalls, there were also shouts and the occasional colourful expression. Into this she heard Thelina’s cool voice providing constant instruction. A moment later, two sailors pushed the door open and brought her clothes inside. Thelina followed and asked, “Priestess, where do you wish your clothes placed?”

“Over by the wall beneath the portholes. Thelina may arrange them later.” She waved one arm, and then let it fall back across her face. Behind them came the other two sailors and a second chest. “And put that one next to the first.”

The sailors trooped out the door, but Thelina lingered a moment more. Her acolyte asked, “Is there anything I can provide you, Priestess?”

“Nay. Let me rest for a time. Make sure the sailors do not damage any of the other chests.”

Thelina nodded and finally left. Nylene breathed a sigh of relief as the acolyte’s steps took her back to the main deck. She sat up, brushed the hair from her face, and crossed to the portholes. She watched Thelina follow the sailors back down the gangplank.

Hurrying, Nylene opened the one chest and grabbed as many of her clothes as she could. She’d made sure to pack those that she would need on top, including all her undergarments. Standing, she glanced out the porthole again. The sailors had taken four more chests and set them on the wharf. Thelina stood with hands on her hips watching the process. She kept glancing back at the galleon, lips curled in a frown.

Nylene slipped out the door and down the hallway. Elsevier’s door was ajar. She pushed inside, and found him leaning out one of his square windows at the stern. He yanked his head back in, saw her, and then waved her closer. “Quick. The Calf’s in position below us. Put your clothes in this bag, and toss it to them. Then you’ll have to climb down.”

“Climb down?” Nylene stuffed her garments in the cloth sack on his table. “What about you?”

“I’ll follow you down in a minute. I have to give the captain and the mate their final instructions.” Elsevier stepped away from the window and indicated a pair of ropes dangling out the window. “Just climb down this. Don’t worry, it’s secure. And they won’t be able to see you from the wharf.”

Nylene nodded, and cinched the bag tight. She peered out the window, and saw the schooner nestled against the galleon’s stern. Several men stood aboard looking up at her, one of them holding the other end of the rope ladder. She didn’t see Elvmere anywhere. Turning back, she smiled to the merchant. “Thank you, Master Elsevier. May the gods be with you.”

He smiled and lingered in his doorway a moment more. “You have given me an opportunity to repay you for all the kindness you have shown me, Priestess. Now go. Gareth cannot keep her for long.”

Nylene leaned out the window and held the sack out. One of the sailors held out his arms. She dropped it, and he managed to catch it. She looked at the ladder, and one of the sailors waved for her to climb down. She closed her eyes and lifted one leg, stretching to get it over the window sill. Her robe caught on the wood and tore between her legs. Well, there was no point in being careful then. She shoved her leg out, foot searching for one of the planks. She kicked the stern several times before finding it. When she got her second leg over, she heard a few polite chuckles from the sailors, as well as one inappropriate whistle.

Nylene ignored them, and started down the ladder. Her breath held tight as she moved one hand and one foot at a time. She’d always hated ladders, and as she clutched to this one, she found she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been on one.

Swallowing her fear, Nylene reminded herself for whom she did this. She could see the raccoon’s face, form his narrow snout with black nose and white whiskers, to the dark mask of fur covering his eyes and upper cheeks. She imagined the white band on his forehead and the rest of his cheeks, and behind that, his grey-furred triangular ears. Set in the middle were his dark green eyes, soft and aged in a way his youthful body couldn’t explain. That face gave her the courage to climb down the ladder.

“I have you,” one of te sailor said as she reached the final rung. He took her about the waist and guided her feet to the deck.

She swayed a bit and smiled, pushing away from him. “Thank you. Show me to my quarters so I can become presentable again.”

They led her to the aft, and down a short set of stairs. The sailor pointed to a door on the left. “Here’s the room Master Elsevier said was yours. And here are your things.” He handed her the bag, and then rushed back on deck. Nylene pulled her robe closer around her, noting the tear all the way up her legs to her waist. Maybe Elsevier would buy her a sewing needle and thread in Isenport.

She knocked on the door and asked quietly, “Elvmere?”

Something stirred beyond, and the door opened. Before her stood the raccoon man in his acolyte’s robe. He smiled when he saw her, and invited her in with the wave of one paw. She stepped inside and saw a simple bed, upon which lay a familiar prayer book. “That belongs to Elsevier. It was his boy’s.”

Elvmere nodded and closed the door behind her. He slid past her and took the book in his paws. He knelt down next to the bed, his claws turning te pages slowly. “He gave it to me. I’ve been reading through the prayers, but I haven’t found one yet to say before a voyage. I know I should ask for Wvelkim’s favour, but I don’t know how.”

She smiled and gently stroked his shoulder. “I will teach you one. First let me change.”

“I will study the prayers,” he replied.

Nylene smiled and squirmed out of her ruined robe.

A few minutes later, just as she’d finished changing, the boat rocked and she had to sit on the bed to keep her balance. Elvmere glanced up, and stared at the porthole. “We’re moving again. Do you think it worked?”

“Let us see,” Nylene said. She knelt by the porthole, and stared up at the decks of the Indigo. The galleon towered over them, its sails giants reaching for the sky. Sailors climbed the rigging, but nowhere could they see Thelina.

Somebody knocked on the door. “Nylene, Elvmere, it’s me.” Elsevier called.

Elvmere opened the door and grinned, his striped tail twitching nervously. “Did it work?”

The merchant grinned widely. “Precisely as planned. Once we’re around the bend in the river, we’ll raise the sails to full mast and head down river with all haste.”

Nylene and Elvmere sighed. “Very good work, my friend,” Nylene hugged him and smiled. “Thank you.”

“Aye, thank you,” Elvmere repeated.

“I must see to the ship. I hope to dine with you both later this evening. Then we can talk of the future.” Elsevier smiled to them both, and then closed the door behind him.

Elvmere went back to his knees, and looked over the prayer book. Nylene knelt next to him and took the prayer book from his paws. “Here, I will show you how to use this. But first, a prayer for safe voyage. Wvelkim will help, as will Dvalin.” And quietly, she added a prayer for Thelina, that one day she would understand.

Kaspel eyed his fellow Magyars warily as they scraped the last of the stew from the cookpot. Ever since returning from Cheskych, Nemgas had become withdrawn, speaking little while they ate their evening meal, and even less during the day. Kaspel had watched him carefully, noting that the sword Caur-Merripen was no longer buckled at his side. But the jewelled Sathmoran blade was, and that he watched.

He pulled his knees to his chest as the cool breeze swept over the Steppe. He sat atop the wagon as always, his bow at his side. The others clustered around the cookfire, eager and ready to sleep once the sun had set. They would leave him alone to watch the night and keep them safe from any who would come. He had taken the duty to provide him some solitude where he might ease the wound in his heart. Now, he yearned for what had come to fill it to return.

His fingers searched along his neck, probing the skin to find the marks Berkon had left him. A sudden throb of pain made him gasp softly. There they were. He stroked them with his finger tips, feeling the scabs that had grown. His fingers were insistent, and the scab came free. Blood began to trickle. He licked his fingers clean, and felt a shiver of excitement race through his body.

“Art thee well?” Amile asked.

Kaspel blinked and looked down at the young woman. She frowned as she stared up at him. He smiled and lowered his hand. “Aye. ‘Twas a cramp in my neck.”

“If thou art weary of thy duty, one of us wilt gladly take it from thee.”

He shook his head, and pulled his collar tight against his neck. “Thank thee, but nay, I wilt continue to watch this night.”

Amile smiled and nodded, slipping inside the wagon to catch her rest. Nemgas and Chamag cleaned out the cooking pot then carried it back inside. Pelgan, Gamran, and Gelel all finished clearing the area around the fire, tossing the last of the grasses into the flames. They sizzled from where they’d been covered in ice, but they burned. They waved to Kaspel and he waved back. They would greet him again in the morning.

A moment more and all was quiet but for the fire burning out. In an hour it would be nothing more than a few hot coals. Kaspel stared at it, even as the sky around him darkened into night. The sun had set, and the first of the stars were appearing. The Vysehrad in the east stood as an impenetrable wall of darkness, brooding and haunting like a cat ready to pounce on a mouse outside its home.

His ears strained to hear Berkon’s song. Ever since that night when he’d seen his friend again, he’d thought of nothing else but that moment when Berkon’s fangs had pierced his flesh. His mind replayed the scene over and over again, and he couldn’t understand what had filled him with such fear.

The cold of the night air welcomed him like a lost child. He stretched, his skin trembling, almost ecstatic at its touch. He wished he could love the cold, the emptiness that was the Steppe in the way that what followed them did. He wished he could sing the same song that had come from Berkon’s lips. That song haunted his mind, ever there, ever assuring him, and ever beckoning him.

For a long time he sat there listening to that song, letting it grow in his mind. He savoured it like a final draught of water. And so the night had grown old before he realized that the song wasn’t just in his mind. His ears twitched and he turned towards the rolling hills between them and Vysehrad.

The fire had long gone dead when he climbed down the wagon and stumbled through the starlit darkness to find the one whose song compelled him. He scrambled over loose stones, cutting himself in his haste. He collapsed on the other side of the hill, yearning and whispering his need, “Please... hath me... I be thine.”

In the pale glow of the starlight, the Berkon-thing slid closer, continuing to sing but softly. Cold hands stroked over Kaspel’s face, wiping a bit of dirt from his cheek. The monstrous leg slid in close, between Kaspel’s legs, and he felt the nick of a claw remnant against his ankle. With one hand Kaspel stroked the fur, finding it dry and almost brittle. A soft laugh filled Berkon’s throat.

“Show me the sign of thy slavery,” Berkon said, his voice a hiss. Kaspel fumbled at his collar, pulling it down to expose the two circular scars. Berkon’s lips spread back, revealing his long fangs. “Good. Dost thee wish to renew thy bond to me?”

Kaspel nodded, too dumb to speak. His heart pounded in his chest, but he couldn’t feel the reason why. Everything else seemed irrelevant.

Berkon licked his neck, scrapping the second scab free. Blood trickled, and that too this thing licked. But instead of biting again, his lips rose to Berkon’s ear. “Swear me one thing, Magyar. Swear that thou wilt bring me the sword of the ash mountain.”

“I swear it! I shalt bring it to thee.” He didn’t even know what he was saying, but he would do it if it made this thing happy. He turned his head to expose his neck.

Berkon laughed, a sound so cold that it made him shiver. “Now give thyself to me.” He kissed him again, and then Kaspel felt anew that sweet pain as his life drained into his friend. He gasped in paralytic ecstasy.

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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