The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter LVII - A Corruption of Blood

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

At first, the Åelfwood seemed no different from any other forest that Grastalko had ever seen. The trees began intermittently as the grasses gave way first to scrub and low brush, and then finally all of it gave way to the wooden sentinels. Hanaman spent a long time consulting with Dazheen before he entered the forest. With the trees so tall and close together, he needed a path wide enough for them to pass through.

But enter they finally did at about midday. The Assingh brayed as they entered the wood, but their cries were quickly subdued once they had the canopy of trees overhead. So late in the year, Grastalko was surprised to see that most of the trees still had their leaves. Some were still green, though most were a rich blend of orange and maroon.

And then there were the strange ones that bore needles. Long and flimsy to sharp and short, he saw them all in just the first few minutes within the Åelfwood. Grastalko couldn’t ever rememberer seeing such a rich variety of trees. Back in the countryside around Stuthgansk, the only trees they ever saw had leaves that changed colour on a firm schedule. They would rely on the leaves turning a bright yellow in the middle of May and then falling off by the middle of June.

Not so here in this strange land. The other Magyars became even more furtive than they had been before. Grastalko knew that even if he wanted to try talking with any of them they would say but a few words and then clam up again. How could they dare to speak in this enchanted land where all of them feared being captured by the forest spirits and turned into an animal?

As was now accepted practice, Grastalko was asked to guide one of the wagons each day. Normally he would have company from one of the older Magyars, but as many as could hid in the wagons now. If they did not see the forest all around them then they were not vulnerable to the wiles of the spirits. He wondered what it meant that Hanaman had assumed he would be willing to risk the spirits wrath.

Grastalko sighed and let the Assingh follow the wagon in front of him. They plodded along at an even slower pace now. Dazheen’s foresight had brought them to a winding path through the woods mostly free of brush and also mostly level. But still the Magyars had to hold on tight as the wagon wheels caught on roots and rocks and rolled over little hillocks on either side. They rocked back and forth, and several times Grastalko could hear swearing from inside his wagon as the forest road jostled them about.

Suddenly something else caught his ear. A clatter arose in the branches overhead, raining down small twigs and leaves. A flock of crows cawed and took flight, ringing about the trees through which the Magyars passed. Grastalko held his bad arm overhead as the foliage fell. A leaf landed on what remained of his hand and instantly caught flame. He swallowed as he watched the yellow leaf shrivel and burn into black ash. It was gone before he could even think to brush it free.

The others made signs to ward off evil as they trembled and stared at the crows. Grastalko made the sign of the yew with his good hand, then glanced from side to side to see if anything else would come upon them. But apart from the crows, the forest was empty. Trees waited all around, stones upthrust through their roots, brush clinging to their sides, mushrooms scaling them like stairwells, and their leaves a sombre raiment. They and the crows, Grastalko thought, were both valediction and warning. The forest knew they were there.

The crows settled down and returned to their roosts once the Magyars and their wagons had passed them by. Grastalko could see that his fellow Magyars held their breath, and he realized with some chagrin that he did too. What was it that he feared in these woods? To become a mindless beast, or a tree which could neither move nor think? Would such a pain be worse than every day seeing the one he loved but could never have?

He sighed and pondered that thought as the wagon lurched and bumped forward through the woods.

Though the path they followed twisted, turned, and led them through shallow streams and over piles of rock and brush, it never completely disappeared. Their progress was slow but it was also steady. Because it jostled them so, Hanaman bade them with hand signals to take frequent breaks that they might recover from nausea before continuing on.

He also bade them not to wander from the wagons. In a forest as immense as this, it would be very easy to become lost and disoriented. He didn’t even want them to leave the sides of the wagons let alone their sight. Grastalko did not mean to disobey, but he felt weary and needed a solitude he could never have amongst the Magyars.

So after checking his Assingh for any cuts or scrapes after pushing through the undergrowth, he walked to the nearest tree and put his good hand on its rough bark. It felt warm to his touch, but not uncomfortably so. He set his feet on its gnarled roots and climbed around the trunk until he had the tree between him and the wagons. Between two large roots he saw a hollow filled with soft, green moss. He smiled to himself and sat between the roots, resting his arms upon them and imagining it a magnificent, upholstered throne.

The forest beyond their little track was filled with soft light coloured yellow from all the leaves. The sun shone through in patches as a light breeze moved the branches. He watched those rays of light dance and shift from one spot to the next and could easily believe it was really fairies.

He hadn’t had a moment truly to himself in so long now he almost forgot what it was like. The Magyars were people he had grown to love and care about, but they were always there. He knew it was their greatest strength that they would always be there for each other. But no matter whether he was inside the wagon or on top, or even if he took a walk away from them while they camped, another Magyar was only a few feet away. Even now all that separated him from his fellows was this large tree, a tree he couldn’t even name.

But perhaps for a few minutes it would be enough.

Grastalko leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He heard only the soughing of the wind through the leaves and the quiet complaints of the Assingh. He could feel everything around him, from the tough bark of the tree, to the tender cushion of moss beneath him. Somewhere above a bird nested in the tree, as well as a family of squirrels. He could sense their claws pricking at the bark and knew a mother’s compassion for them.

The earth framed him around and he could feel his toes pushing into it, eager to find its life. A great warmth filled him at each brush of the sun’s rays. The wind pulled through his hair, clattering each strand against every other. Nearby he felt a wagon wheel pressing down on him, and he felt dismay at it. But understanding too, as well as a question. It lurked at the back of his mind, and though he could not put it into words he knew the answer was very important.

A hand grabbed him and shook him. Grastalko blinked his eyes open, and brushed green leaves from his hair. Adlemas stood next to him, a fearful look in his eyes. With one hand he hauled Grastalko to his feet and dragged him back around the other side of the tree. His eyes vacillated between fear and anger. The young Magyar felt ashamed of causing such distress, and a sense of emptiness he couldn’t explain.

After Adlemas forced him back up his wagon, he stared at the tree and tried to understand just what had happened. Had it offered him a glimpse of what life as a tree was like? Is that how Shapurji lived now, with such tender concern for the little creatures who made him a home?

He pondered that with a smile as they continued through the forest. Their path remained as unsteady as ever, but they never encountered anything the wagons couldn’t cross. When the light began to fade, Hanaman stopped the wagons and instructed everyone to eat from their stores. Nothing was to be cooked that night. Grastalko munched on an apple, but had to do so inside his wagon with the others his age. Neither Rabji nor Volay would say aught, and for once Grastalko was glad for their silence.

He wondered what Bryone was doing. Did Dazheen teach her how to find their way through the woods with her runes? Did she think of him? He growled at himself for such foolishness. She could never be his. Only a mage could wed a seer of the Magyars, and he was no mage.

And without two good hands what was he for the Magyars? An extra in their pageant? Was he anything more except another body to them? He should never have become a Magyar. He’d been born to knighthood, but that was gone from him. And with his hand destroyed and Bryone a seer, all that mattered to him as a Magyar was gone too.

He lay awake thinking these very things. Grastalko pondered what he could do, and the answer seemed obvious. An offer had been made to him that day, and he knew how to accept. Still, it took him several hours to work up the courage to crawl out of bed and take Rabji’s hatchet from its drawer. And it took him several minutes once dressed only in his linens to open the door and crawl off his wagon.

He could barely see anything in the woods. A few Magyars stayed up to keep watch, but his wagon was not guarded. If he was careful, he could slip off without anyone noticing. Grastalko hunched by the door to his wagon and waited until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He could make out the silhouette of the trees, and very faintly he could see their roots along the ground. From all around they heard the distant hooting of owls.

Grastalko carefully eased himself off the wagon. He set one bare foot on the ground and waited a full minute before putting the second down. He glanced from side to side to see if any one was watching. He couldn’t see the Magyar ahead of him, but there was one sitting on the wagon behind his. It was Adlemas. Grastalko crouched as low as he could while Adlemas stared warily at the forest around them.

It was another minute before Adlemas turned to stare behind him. Grastalko crawled forward, climbing over a small rise and then down behind the line of trees framing their path. He lay there on a tangled mob of roots to catch his breath and still his heart which pounded like a hammer. Something dashed out of the underbrush at his feet and he had to catch the scream in his throat.

Whatever it had been disappeared into the night. A rabbit perhaps? Grastalko closed his eyes and pressed the back of his head against the tree trunk. He felt the stirring of leaves around him, and his fingers curled more tightly around the hatchet. No, this was too close to the wagons. They might suffer too.

Grastalko turned onto his elbows and knees and crawled forward, doing his best not to rustle the fallen leaves. As he climbed past first one tree and then a second, he kept wondering what he was doing. Was there any sense in it? Had it taken only a single day for the wood to drive him mad?

But what other choice did he have now that his life as a Magyar was meaningless?

Grastalko rose to a crouch after passing his third tree. He glanced behind him but the line of wagons was lost in the darkness. They would still be able to hear him, and doubtless the forest spirits knew where they were. He crept along the forest floor, his one hand feeling along the roots and brambles that littered the ground. He savoured the sweet blankets of moss that cushioned his knees. He pressed his toes into the soil and shuddered at the tingling sensation that raced through them.

When he could no longer hear the faint snorting of the Assingh behind him, he rose and walked at a steady pace, doing his best to keep moving straight. He walked this way for several minutes, gaining confidence with each step. Quite suddenly, the trees parted and he was in a very small clearing in which stood a single tree. Its branches swept wide over the bed of moss and grass, and a gibbous moon shone silver on each nook and cranny of the gnarled bark.

Grastalko stumbled into the clearing, digging his toes in the dirt, his whole body feeling as if it were ready to stretch upwards and claw at the sky. His left hand throbbed, and he felt the fire there smoulder and hiss. He wrapped his good hand around the hatchet and stepped closer to the tree. His feet seemed unusually heavy, and he had to yank his knees upwards to take each step. A part of him kept wondering if he shouldn’t just stand still and hold up his arms like this magnificent tree.

And then for a moment, he froze. A wind carried through the branches, cascading the leaves down around him and over his face. He couldn’t see their colour, but they brushed by him with a misery he couldn’t describe. He waved his right arm in front of his face, and winced when each leaf plucked free from his cheeks.

The moon shone through the branches just right for a moment, and in that moment Grastalko saw something in the way the gnarled bark folded on itself. There before him, impossible large and spanning the width of the trunk, gazed unseeing a face locked in repentance.

He shook his head and took the last few steps. He laid the flat of the hatchet against the tree’s bark, and whispered quietly. “If thou art Shapurji, I wilt take thy place rooted in these grounds. Thou wert a much better Magyar than I couldst e’er hope to be.” The wind moaned in the branches, and all around him the forest groaned. Goose bumps ran down his flesh, he closed his eyes, and raised the hatchet to swing.

And then he screamed when somebody grabbed his arm from behind. He was spun about and stared face to face with Hanaman. “What by all the gods art thee doing?” he spat each whispered word, eyes livid. The line of wagons rested behind him, one of the Assingh lazily grazing the grass at Hanaman’s feet.

Grastalko stared, unable to speak. How had he come here? He’d just been in a clearing with Shapurji’s tree!

Hanaman yanked him back a pace and then dragged him towards his wagon. “Get thee inside! Give me that hatchet, fool boy!” Grastlako let the Magyar leader take the hatchet away, and he stumbled as he climbed into Hanaman’s wagon. His whole body trembled.

Hanaman’s wagon was warm like all of them, with a single lantern set on the table next to a mirror. The light reflected in a faint glow around the small room. Curtains concealed the sleeping quarters Hanaman shared with his wife, Zhenava. A pair of chairs sat next to a small table. He could faintly smell one of Zhenava’s perfumes lingering in the air.

“Sit!” Hanaman bit the word as he pulled the wagon door closed. His haggard face glowered at the boy. Grastalko slumped into the far chair and wished his heart would just stop. Hanaman set the hatchet on the shelf and took a deep breath. “I didst warn all not to harm anything in this wood. Thou hast heard the tale of Shapurji, hath thee not?”

Suddenly, his tongue came to life. “Adlemas told me.”

“Then what wert thee doing? Dost thou wish to be a tree too?”

Grastalko stared at him for several seconds, trying to find the words to say to explain himself. But Hanaman became blurry all of a sudden. He wiped his eyes, and discovered that he’d begun crying. How long had it been since he’d cried? Neither the Driheli nor the Magyars had ever shown much tolerance for a man’s tears.

Hanaman stood silent and watched as Grastalko tried in vain to dry his eyes. There was no end to them! Surely Hanaman would lock him in his wagon to keep others from seeing what a child he was.

The leader of the Magyars opened a drawer and pulled something out. Grastalko felt firm fingers grab his chin, and a cloth pressed over his cheeks. “Thou hast something on thy face, Grastalko. I shalt clean it for thee.”

There was something in those words that seemed so out of keeping with Hanaman. Grastalko felt the misery in his heart lighten at that almost gentle tone. He stared at the man and let him dry his tears. Hanaman rubbed firmly a few more times then sat down in the other chair. “Thou art much better. Now, tell me what thou wast doing this night.”

“I canst be a Magyar,” he said. There, the words had left his mouth. If he expected Hanaman to grow angry again, he was disappointed. Instead, the man nodded and gestured for him to continue. “I hath but one good hand, so I canst juggle or any of the other games. I hath no skill with song, or with poetry. I dost not wish to thief. What be there for me to do? Nothing! And the one whom I wish to be with thou hast forbidden me from!”

Grastalko felt the tears coming back. He balled his one good hand into a fist and beat his thigh. “I art so alone! I hath nothing to love or to be!”

Hanaman offered him the handkerchief, but Grastalko waved it away. He would not give into tears again. He clawed at his leggings and wiggled his toes. He could still feel the dirt lodged in his toenails. Had he really been trying to turn them into tree roots? His walk through the forest seemed almost a dream now, and it had only happened a few minutes ago!

He tried to look at Hanaman, but his eyes kept sliding away from the Magyar’s stony countenance. “But what else can I be? I wilt ne’er be a knight with only one good hand. I know nothing in these lands apart from the Magyar’s ways. I doth care for the other Magyars, but I can do nothing for any of them! I be of no use to anyone, and no one understands it.”

“Thou didst not know my son, Hanalko,” Hanaman said in a low voice.

Grastalko shook his head. The only thing he remembered about Hanalko was the day that Nemgas returned with the boy’s dead body. That had been just before Nemgas had made him choose to be a Magyar and the jewelled blade had burned his left hand. He couldn’t even summon a single memory of the boy when he’d been alive.

Hanaman took a deep breath and then sighed. “He wast ne’er very gifted at juggling or tumbling. Nor wast he good at poetry or storytelling. But the other boys didst follow him. Just as the younger men follow Nemgas and the older men look to me. And I hath seen that the boys thy age dost follow thee, Grastalko. Thou hast a place here.”

“Then why doth I not feel it?”

“Thou art young,” Hanaman replied. “We hath all felt out of place, strangers e’en in our own skin, at thy age. And thou must put Bryone behind thee. In time thou wilt find another to love.”

“I dost not want another. I want Bryone!”

Hanaman sighed and put one hand on Grastalko’s knee. “Boy, thou art the one causing thee thy pain. But I wouldst lie to thee if I told thee thy wound wouldst heal soon. I know it wilt not. But thou art ne’er alone as a Magyar. Thou art welcome in my wagon whene’er thou needst to be a son to another.”

Grastalko finally managed to meet Hanaman in the face. “Thou wouldst be as a father to me?”

“Aye, but know that I am not thy father. My true son hath died. I wilt ne’er hath another. But I wilt be as a father to thee, because thou dost need it almost as much as I dost need a son.” There was such warmth in his voice, that Grastalko could scarcely believe that it came from Hanaman. Was he still dreaming?

Hanaman stood, bent over him, and then kissed him on the forehead. He smiled, a true smile that dispelled the cracks and finely chiselled cheeks. There could be no mistaking it, a moment so rare that Grastalko felt himself nearly cry in thanksgiving. He knew then that he was not alone after all.

“I thank thee,” he managed to say, quivering in his seat. “But what am I to do?”

“Tomorrow morning I wilt bring thee to Kisaiya. She dost tend the Assingh, and wilt show thee what must be done. Once a week thou wilt take thy meal with me and we shalt discuss thy place amongst the Magyars. Thou hast to do but one thing in return.”

Grastalko took a deep breath. The pain still lingered, but it no longer seemed as sharp as before. The fog of misery had lifted, and strangely, everything around him seemed brighter and clearer, as if he were seeing it for the first time. “What dost thee wish of me?”

Hanaman’s smile faded from his cheeks, but it remained at the corners of his lips. “Return to thy wagon, sleep, and ne’er try to harm the wood again.”

He laughed unsteadily but nodded. “I wilt do as thee say. I thank thee, Hanaman. Thou didst save me.”

“Aye, this night. But thou wilt learn to save thyself too. Good night, Grastalko. Thou art a Magyar, and thou wilt find thy place.”

“I know.” He rose and let Hanaman see him out. The Magyar leader said nothing more but watched him as he walked down the line of wagons to his own. The ground felt hard and unwelcoming beneath his feet.

On the western edge of the Questioner temple was a common area with a garden in which the many vegetables they subsided on were grown. A path moved in a circle from one wing of the temple to the other, and along that were fourteen statues, one for each station of the yew. Against the western wall was a small platform of stone. From there a single Questioner could address all of their order assembled in Yesulam. Other than the chapel itself, it was the only place in their temple large enough that all could gather.

That morning they had gathered and after singing the morning prayers, Father Felsah had addressed them and informed them of the choice that now came before them. He’d spoken briefly about Grand Questioner Mizrahek’s decision to retire to a monastery in Sonngefilde, and managed to say nothing of the reason why. Despite Mizrahek’s betrayal, not a one of them would utter a scornful word about him.

But now the time had come for a new Grand Questioner. Each of them were to spend the day meditating and listening to Eli’s voice as they decided whom to vote for as Mizrahek’s successor.

When evening came, the Questioners gathered in the garden again, and this time, Father Akaleth stepped forward and led them in prayer. Their voices rose into the heavens and reverberated from either wing of the Questioner temple, a sonorous thing that shaped their hearts and mind, all in praise and thanksgiving to Eli, His Son Yahshua, and His Most Holy Spirit.

As the last echoes of the final chord faded with the dying sun, Father Akaleth bowed his head prayerfully and chanted, “This is the time of election. Let your voices be heard. And let the voice of Eli speak!”

One by one, moving in the circle from left to right, each Questioner spoke a single name. Father Akaleth noted it on a scroll with quick dashes to keep count. This was the first such election that he had ever witnessed, having been journeying to Metamor while Mizrahek was being elected. Several names were put forward after the first dozen had cast their lots, all of them elder Questioners. But as the day began to darken and a lamp had to be brought that he might see the scroll, it became clear who would become the new Grand Questioner.

Father Kehthaek received two votes for every vote another received. Yet when it came to Father Kehthaek to cast his vote, he did not vote for himself, but another Questioner named Thekelsah whom Akaleth knew only by reputation as a level-headed priest who spoke little. After Kehthaek had thrown his support to Thekelsah, many other Questioners began to support him too. But it was not enough, and after an hour of collecting votes, Kehthaek had won.

Father Akaleth lowered his head in prayer again and chanted, “This is the time of election. The choice has been made. Eli, great and merciful, full of justice, calls forth Father Kehthaek to serve.”

The other Questioners parted to allow the white-haired Kehthaek to glide forward. His black robe billowed around his feet, the red cross clear and unwrinkled on his front. His face betrayed no emotion, and when he stood before Father Akaleth, he did not meet the younger priest’s gaze. He bowed his head and clasped his hands before him as if in prayer. “I accept this calling from Eli with humble heart. May His wisdom guide me all my days, and may Yahshua intercede for me when I fall astray. May His Most Holy Spirit preserve me from sin. May the Ecclesia correct me when I err. And May the Most Holy Mother Yanlin lead me into the arms of her son when I die.”

A quartet of Yesbearn emerged from the temple. One carried a decorative scroll case bearing the seal of the Questioner order. Akaleth rolled the parchment up and slid it within, then sealed the case and handed it back to the Yesbearn. The knights bowed and left the way they’d come. They would take the results to the Patriarch, and in three days time, the ceremony of installation would take place.

Akaleth folded his hands before him in prayer. “The time of election has passed. Go forth and do Eli’s will.”

“May His will be done forever,” the priests replied before slowly dispersing. Kehthaek lifted his eyes and met Akaleth’s gaze meaningfully. The younger priest followed that gaze as he climbed down from the rock slab.

Ten minutes later he and Father Felsah knelt in Father Kehthaek’s cell. The elder Questioner led them in a short prayer, and then said, “Thank you for assisting in the election. You fulfilled your duties with dignity and with impeccability.”

“Thank you, Father,” Felsah replied. The dog Rakka that had once belonged to Grand Questioner Mizrahek now lay at Felsah’s side. The Questioner drew his fingers through the golden furred animal’s back. Mizrahek was not allowed to take the dog with him when he set sail for Sonngefilde, and so Felsah had kept him in the order, not as his own pet as he steadfastly maintained, but as the friend to all who lived in the Questioner temple.

Akaleth tapped his fingers together. “I’m curious why you voted for Father Thekelsah. Surely you knew you would be the next Grand Questioner.”

“Indeed I did. But Father Thekelsah is a far better manager than I, and far less biassed by recent events than I. I will employ him as he ought to be employed in the coming years, just as I hope to do with each of you.”

“Is that why you asked us here?” Felsah asked.

“It is. Each of you can play key roles in the reform of our order. That it needs reform should come as no surprise.” He turned his eyes to Father Akaleth. “How is your sleeve?”

Akaleth laced his fingers together. “I do not reach for it as often as I once did. But I take the meaning of your question. You do not wish to see my old methods employed again.”

“On the contrary,” Father Kehthaek replied, “I have no compunction against its sparing use. It can effectively loosen tongues, but it can also make a person say whatever it is we want them to say. That is not the purpose of our order. We must restore it to finding the truth, not torturing supposed heretics.”

“So what would you have of me?” Akaleth asked.

“The same of both of you. Instruction. Your experiences can help the rest of us learn new ways of seeking truth, ways that do not lead us away from Yahshua. Far too many Questioners savour the power they hold over those they question. This must not be. It is a duty, not an opportunity to boast of oneself.”

“But how are we going to do that?” Felsah asked.

“That is what we must discuss,” Father Kehthaek replied, a faint smiling at the corners of his lips. “Ideas. At present, we Questioners are one of the reasons that the heretics cite in their rebellion against the Ecclesia. I do not wish us to be a reason for their obstinacy. Let us pray and consider the many ways we might unmask them.”

Father Felsah nodded and stroked his hand down the dog’s back. Rakka’s tail wagged. “Only send Questioners who engender trust into these lands?”

“That is one,” Kehthaek replied. “Return here tomorrow with five such ideas; ideas we can implement. And in a few days time we will begin.”

Akaleth and Felsah rose and left the new Grand Questioner to his nightly prayers. Rakka padded after Felsah with his long tongue dangling from his mouth. Neither priest spoke to the other, but they both locked eyes several times. Akaleth could see in Felsah’s eyes that his fellow Questioner thought Kehthaek’s newest quest would be harder still than all that they’d already accomplished.

And Akaleth agreed with him.

For the last week, the Magyars had kept him pinned in bed and refused to let him outside. One of them kept watch on him at all times, and they were constantly fretting over him. They’d bleed him from his neck, mutter and moan over the quality of his blood, and then put foul smelling poultices over the wound.

Kaspel was getting irritated by it all. He just wanted to go outside and be with his friend — his master. His heart ached at the thought of Berkon being out there playing his song, and Kaspel unable to listen. He fidgeted in the bed, his flesh cold despite the wagon’s warmth. Nemgas, who watched him that night, flicked his eyes closer and asked, “Art thee well, Kaspel?”

Kaspel grunted and let his face droop against the pillow. It was the surest way to lose their interest. A moment later he heard Nemgas mutter to himself. The one-armed man rested his hand on the hilt of the jewelled blade. Kaspel’s eyes stared through half-closed lids at that blade. His master wanted it. But how could he ever hope to take it from this man, especially when his body felt so weak?

It wasn’t that he didn’t care about his fellow Magyars. They were his friends too. But they didn’t understand what he needed anymore. They were frightened of what Berkon had become, and whispered often of him. They hadn’t seen him since that night, a fact that made Kaspel’s heart ache. If they wanted to see Berkon, then they should have only one of them keep watch. This he knew in his heart, but they did not heed his advice.

Kaspel breathed slowly, stilling the anger he felt. How could he serve his master like this? The other Magyars would never interfere if they understood. He hoped that they too would give themselves to Berkon that they might all be together again.

And the one thing that stood between them and their reunification was the sword. Kaspel didn’t understand why, but somehow it balked Berkon and kept him at bay. If only he could take it from Nemgas somehow, but the one-armed Magyar kept it on him at all times. With nothing else to do, he let sleep come closer, knowing that one day the Magyars would let down their guard and Berkon would bring another under his control.

Just as he felt himself drifting off, a faint snatch of melody caught his ear. He listened to it, feeling the agony in his heart begin to fade. Every touch of that song felt like a pleasant heat. Just like every time he’d given himself to Berkon, he’d felt emptier and worse than before. Kaspel latched onto that song, letting its tune wax across his spirit.

And in those strange sounds, he heard Berkon’s voice beckon to him. /My friend, dost not reveal thy wakefulness./

Kaspel kept still but inside he rejoiced. His heart beat faster, and he felt the two bite marks on his neck puckering and swelling, ready to give more blood to his master.

/I hath come for thee again, but I canst draw near,/ Berkon sung to him. Kaspel wondered why the others couldn’t hear him. His master’s song answered, /‘Tis a song meant only for thee, my friend. I couldst not sing to thee until thy body wast prepared enough to hear it. The others wilt ne’er hear it because their blood still flows red. Thy blood art black enough for the music I dost sing./

Kaspel knew that had to be why his body felt so cold. Berkon was changing him, slowly, and carefully, and with loving attention, to become more like him. Berkon’s flesh had always felt cold, and he could remember the black blood that Berkon had before they’d foolishly buried him. Would Berkon have to do that to him too?

/Nay, thou needest not rest beneath the earth to become whole. Feel thy teeth and know it to be true./

Kaspel opened one eye briefly and saw that Nemgas still kept watch. But he kept still for his master, apart from his tongue which ran along the back of his teeth. He didn’t feel anything at first, but as he listened to Berkon’s song, the points on his canines began to swell. He breathed more deeply, almost exultantly as he felt his teeth press into his tongue. Yes, that was how it should be. Just like his master.

Could he drink from Nemgas’s neck as Berkon drank from his? He felt a hunger inside like a fire smouldering and in need of fuel.

/Nay thou shouldst not drink of Nemgas. Whilst he possesses the sword, thou shouldst ne’er attempt it. And thy blood be not pure enough to do aught but wound thy friend. Thou dost not wish that./

Berkon was right. His teeth had grown like Berkon’s, but the time was not yet. But what then could he do to help?

/The sword. Bring the sword to me and they wilt join us in time. Let Nemgas think thee asleep. Go on./

Kaspel slowed his breathing as he lay his cheek against the pillow. He let his eyes close fully, sheltering himself in darkness. The sound of Gelel snoring echoed from the front of the wagon. He heard the creak of wood as Nemgas shifted on his stool. Minutes dragged past as he waited, his body so still now that he feared Nemgas would think him dead. But after what seemed an eternity of waiting, Berkon’s song returned.

/Thou art ready now. I wilt sing through thy tongue. Let the song I sing trill from thy lips. Quietly now. ‘Tis a song for Nemgas’s ears alone./

Into his mind flooded the melody, twisting and turning, ever sinking downwards. Kaspel’s tongue formed the phrases, and the faintest brush of wind bubbled up from his throat to play across those notes. His lips broke open in tiny pinpricks to let the notes free. He expected Nemgas to turn and ask him what he sung, but the Magyar said nothing. Kaspel’s heart swelled in excitement as his tongue danced with the song.

He could hear more than just his own voice. Berkon sung along with him, first in unison, then in harmony, and then in counterpoint. He could hear so much now as the song hung over every drop of air. Nemgas’s breathing slowed, and he slumped bit by bit in the chair. From time to time he’d shake himself and blink the sleep from his eyes. But Berkon and Kaspel only sung stronger then.

As Nemgas’s eyes drooped, Kaspel’s widened. For several minutes, Nemgas stared bewildered at him. The Magyar’s lips moved as if trying to form words, but no words came. Kaspel shifted in the bed, lips pulling back, eager to bring Nemgas into their union. And then Nemgas fell forward, his heavy body pressing Kaspel back down into the bed.

/Take the sword, my friend. When thou hast brought it to me, I wilt finish thy change. Together we wilt claim our friends. The darkness in our blood wilt be in theirs too./

Kaspel slipped out from underneath Nemgas. The Magyar’s legs were tangled in the stool keeping both of them from falling down. Kaspel licked his fangs and stared for a moment at the Magyar’s bare neck. A kiss of teeth and it could taste the joyous fire of the black blood.

But his master had bade him wait. His blood wasn’t pure enough yet to affect a transformation. Kaspel drew his lips closed and instead slipped the jewelled blade free from Nemgas’s belt. His hands burned at its touch, and he felt an ache in his heart. It was as if something far in the distance wept a bitter lament.

He bore only his linens, but he no longer needed warmth. Berkon’s voice still singing in his mind, he quietly opened the back door to the wagon and stepped out into the darkness, being careful to close the door behind him. The moon had risen and cast a silverly gleam over the Steppe. On top of the wagon, he heard Gamran and Chamag’s voices trying to keep each other awake. They did not sound as if they were succeeding.

Kaspel took his steps carefully. He could feel the draw of Berkon in the grasses ahead. Even still his feet slowed as if laden with lead. Another voice spoke to him in the darkness. He remembered the bright pageants, the laughter, the stories, and the merriment of travel that he’d once enjoyed with the other Magyars. It seemed so long ago now, like a dream of a story he’d heard before.

/Dost not listen to it!/ Berkon’s voice cut into his thoughts, foul and oily against those beautiful memories. But there was something enticing in the darkness too. /’Twill lead thee astray! Bring me the sword now!/

Kaspel stepped forward again, the dried grasses brushing across his shins. He felt the cool touch of ice on some. In his hand, the sword throbbed like the beating of drums. He shivered, a tremble shuddering through his flesh with every beat of those mysterious drums. Overtop of them Berkon’s song grew louder and more intense. Kaspel’s tongue tried to sing with it, but every time the tip brushed his fangs, he felt his throat clamp shut.

/Run to me, my friend! ‘Tis evil and must be destroyed!/

Kaspel stumbled forward, but the pounding shattered his thoughts. He stumbled and fell to the ground. He wanted to throw the sword away so he could crawl to his master and beg his forgiveness, but it wouldn’t leave his hand. He swung wildly with his arm, digging gashes in the dirt and cleaving grass. Behind him resounded a heavy crash.

“Kaspel!” Gamran shouted from the wagon top, unhappily roused from his stupor. H stomped on the roof while Chamag jumped to the ground. “Wake up! ‘Tis Berkon!”

Kaspel cried in agony as he struggled to his feet. The sword spun its tip inwards and nicked his other wrist. The blood flowed onto the blade tip a bright red.

From the grasses ahead of him he saw his master rise. His eyes were filled with fury and he strode towards him, the sung resounding from his throat. Behind him, the door to the wagon burst open and Nemgas leapt towards them.

Kaspel glanced between them, from the rage of his master and the fear and dedication he saw in the other Magyars. He had but moments to act. Both rushed toward him like wind upon grass.

“Get thee from him!” Nemgas shouted with a power in his voice that Kaspel yearned to hearken to.

The song in his mind, once so sweet and inviting, now hideous and dominating, sneered. /Thou art mine! Thy change canst not be stopped. Embrace it and bring me the sword!/ And his heart beat richly with the black blood, eager and needful of the corruption.

Kaspel screamed, tears hot in his eyes, and drove the sword through his dead heart. Berkon’s scream faded first. As everything grew dim, the Magyar remembered only the weeping of his friends who cradled him.

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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