Book 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
A short time over tea was not terribly short and the clock upon the mantle had tolled the hour twice before Murikeer and Kozaithy once more abandoned warmth for biting chill. As they stepped out the door, Murikeer assured Kimberly that he would return soon with any news he could bring the lady rat and that, along with the news of their journey, seemed to lighten her heart. She and the opossum bade them good night. The lights inside were out only moments after he closed the door.
Kozaithy, bundled up once more in the faded green cloak and cowl, looked much as she did upon their first meeting but for the white plume of tail drifting along in train. She said little as they crunched through the fresh fallen snow and stillness of the cold early winter air, lost in some private contemplation of her own.
Jurmas, the white-tailed deer morph proprietor of the Mountain Hearth Inn, was jubilant to have an honoured guest such as the effusively praised master mage Murikeer Khunnas return to his humble establishment. Having been forewarned of Murikeer’s return by the stable master who’d taken in his horse and cart some hours earlier Jurmas was ready for their arrival to his Inn. Not knowing the relation the mage might have with the heavily cloaked companion riding the cart with him the deer had been somewhat judicious and set aside two joined rooms rather than a single suite. He also pointed out that both of the rooms were among those in which new bronze tubs piped into the ready supply of hot water from the cistern Murikeer had repaired almost two years prior.
Begging fatigue from his travels Murikeer demurred the offer of someone to prepare the baths so he might turn in and get some much needed rest. Kozaithy gave a much bemused Murikeer a hug and a peck on his furry cheek before turning in as well.
Murikeer arose early the next morning and, after being told that his female companion had not yet emerged from her room, broke his fast among the other early risers in the common room. While he ate he contemplated what few things he planned to do that day.
A visit to his aunt, the tailor Walter Levins, and another to speak with the Lord Avery to find someplace a bit more permanent than the Hearth to take up residence. He was not sure how many dwellings remained unused though after the repeated incursions of Nasoj’s forces over the last decade, and the Curse, he did not fear he would find nothing.
Kozaithy had not put in an appearance by the time he finished an hour later so he left word where he might be found and took his leave. The sun had risen above the eastern peaks by that time in a sky clear of all but the highest wispy mares’-tails and the temperature was slightly warmer but still quite cool. A fresh blanket of snow covered the ground though horse-drawn plows were already sweeping the commons clear. For the more thickly furred citizens of the Glen it could have been considered comfortable while for what few humans who made their homes there it was not likely so pleasant. For Murikeer, both furred and wearing an amulet to ward against the chillness in the air, it was ideal. He meandered from the Inn and made his way idly toward the long building nestled between the broad roots of two great oarwood trees where his aunts, Walter and Annette, made their home.
Annette served as something like head chef and matron, it seemed, for the entire population of the Glen. The Curse had changed her into a spiny hedgehog but had not stolen away any of her abundant good cheer. Her husband, Walter Levins, had become a woman and for many years had been so embittered by the change that she became quite the opposite of her wife; as prickly in behavior as her wife had become in body. Some of that had sloughed away the last time Murikeer had seen her some months before. After Nasoj’s winter attack some change of heart had overcome her surliness and she’d adopted three orphans of the attack.
Murikeer met one of them emerging from the main entry when he arrived. A severe looking young woman with a quarterstaff favoured him with a level stare when she noticed his presence half a dozen paces from the door. “Yer... you’re new.” She commented with a slight pause to correct the country drawl with speech likely learned under Walter’s harsh tutelage. The young woman, more a girl in truth of perhaps fifteen years under the heavy coat and scarf she wore, looked him up and down appraisingly. “Walter’s not taking any more orders nor tending to any repairs until she completes her wedding consignments.”
“I had not thought to ask for either service miss...” Murikeer assured with as much a disarming smile as he could muster. The young woman’s information had been delivered brusquely but not belligerently, more out of long suffering and much repetition.
“Batrim.” She supplied at Murikeer’s trailed off query. “Batrim Marshal-Levins. And yer... yourself?”
One of the adoptees, Murikeer realized, and old enough to have been touched by the Curse. Apparently that touch had caused a gender-switch much as Walter had undergone, for Murikeer recalled Batrim having been spoken of as male during his earlier visits. “Murikeer Khunnas, son of Justin Windseeker-Levins.” That brought a momentary pause of surprise from the brusque young woman.
“Ah! Oh, cousin Muri.” She blushed and cast her challenging gaze down in embarrassment. “I did not chance to see ye during yer last visit, sir.”
“Which was altogether too brief, Batrim.” Murikeer said reassuringly, “And I am no knight nor lord. Call me Muri. Has Walter or Annette risen yet?”
Batrim grunted and favoured him with a brief grin. “If ma Anne were abed at this hour I think even the Lord Avery would come calling.” At Murikeer’s chuff of laughter she brought her gaze bravely back up. “Ma Walter is in the back, as always, hard at work. Ma Anne is up at Lars’ fattening up the off-duty watch. My sisters are at mistress Devon’s lettering class.”
“You’re of the watch? Scouts?”
“Not as yet. I’m still in Angus’ training and I best be gettin’ there before he sees me late.” With a quick bob of her head she trotted down the path with her staff over one shoulder. Murikeer watched her for a moment before crossing to the door and entering the steamy, warm business of Annette Levin’s kitchens. At that moment the well-tended room was empty but held an air of only slightly reigned hustle. Pies, breads, and pastries cooled upon numerous racks while the many ovens sucked fresh air with low growls to fuel the cook fires within. Dampened cloths covered bowls of rising dough and the chamber was permeated with the smells of a busy bakery in full motion.
How the short, stout hedgehog managed so much single-handedly Murikeer could not fathom. He made his way through the kitchen toward the ornate tapestry that separated the cook’s demesne from the tailor’s and ducked past it. The change in environment was stark from tidily maintained kitchen to the chaotic gaiety of fabrics and bright colors filling the tailor’s shop like an overturned caravan wagon. Wardrobes from fancy to frugal filled racks and tables and hung from ceiling rafters in riotous abandon. He saw the proprietress in brief glances between hanging garments fit for a royal ball sitting at the one patch of sunshine from a broad window with her head bent over some fine detail work Murikeer couldn’t see. But for a brief cough the shop was silent.
Pausing behind an intricate gown of emerald green Murikeer cleared his throat. The long-suffering sigh that resulted made him grin. “I am busy, who ever you are.” Walter growled irritably around the pins in her mouth. “I am not taking on any more tailoring! Mending will have to wait until after the wedding.”
Murikeer, still hiding behind a screen of hanging garments, grunted as if in displeasure at the news, “I’ve been abroad for some months, madamme, and my raiment has hard suffered the travels.” He feigned surlishness with a sigh of his own.
He could hear Walter’s wordless muttering but also something altogether more disconcerting; the whispering rasp of steel being drawn from leather. “Well, show yourself then, stranger.” Murikeer stepped around the hanging garments with a smile.
“Murikeer!” Walter barked in surprise while trying to both scowl and smile delightedly at the same time. She slapped the poniard, and its garishly decorated belt scabbard, on her worktable and lurched to her feet. “Lad don’t give an old harridan such a fright.” The happy smile at his arrival won out over the scowl and she beckoned him to come closer.
Murikeer navigated his way to her and shared a strong embrace. “Harridan, aunt Walter?” he laughed warmly and tried not to knock any of the numerous works-in-progress off the table with his tail. “More myrmidon, I’d say, ready to pin me like an errant seam.” Walter released him to cough behind one hand.
“Strangers talking from hiding, after all the chaos of the last few years, is enough to chill the heartiest spine, nephew.” She hastily cleared a heap of cloth scraps from a stool and bade him to sit. “After the attack last Yule, the fights at the Keep, one of them just this past solstice, everyone’s a little on edge. Then comes a flood of refugees from the south, and with them news of the tensions, and battles, taking place in the south. I’ve seen refugees come before, but never like this. Things must really be bad if they’re willing to flee here to escape it.” She sighed with a shrug and sat back down on her own use-worn stool. “Not even the Duke’s wedding is enough to easily lift the weight on the hearts of so many.” Murikeer coiled the lush thickness of his tail about his feet to keep from littering the close press of clothes with errant fur while he tried to absorb the rush of news. “You found Justin?”
Murikeer nodded a little woodenly, “I did. I’ve interred him in the crypt until he can be properly placed at my mother’s side.” Murikeer looked at the garment laid out over Walter’s workbench, the richly tailored collection of expensive fabrics seemed garish against the typical clothing of Metamor, even that worn by nobles or courtiers. The sheath she had drawn the poniard from was a part of that garment. “What is this wedding of the Duke you spoke of, and fight at the Keep in midsummer?”
Walter leaned forward slightly on her stool and leaned her elbows upon her knees to work the fatigue out of her hands. She pondered a few moments and, after coughing once more behind a hand, spoke. “Fights, plural, actually the details of which I know little of. Apparently one of master Matthias’ old companions, the one who aided the Glen during last winter’s attack, turned out to have evil intentions. His machinations brought some manner of ill upon Duke Thomas. This all came to a head late in the spring, some time after you left, when they tried to break the spell that Thomas was under. This man appeared and there was a battle, but he escaped and the spell was broken.
“He returned this past solstice, with allies, during the midsummer festival and another fight was joined in the Keep bell tower. The man and his evil companions again escaped but I do not believe without some harm to both sides. The ambassador who came last year was slain, master Matthias was turned to stone, and another... well, I don’t think anyone knows what happened to him. He was struck down but still lives in some sort of coma.”
“You don’t know his name?” Murikeer was stunned. Charles turned to stone? He was not surprised that the ambassador perished, considering he was purportedly representing Marzac. But what side was he fighting on, Murikeer wondered.
“Charles was one of them,” Interrupted a new voice bringing Murikeer’s head around in surprise. Annette stood in a narrow isle between overburdened racks with a tray in her hands. The hedgehog smiled brightly upon spying her nephew returned from his travels. “His wife was your pupil, Muri. Welcome back.” Murikeer rose hastily to help her with the laden tray and Walter, looking abashed, coughed behind one hand. “Such unpleasant news should not be what you first hear upon returning home.” She rubbed her paws upon the front of her apron while Murikeer and Walter cleared enough space on the worktable to set the tray down. That done, Murikeer gave his other aunt a robust, if careful, embrace. She flattened down the dense forest of gray spines as best she was able under her blouse and kirtle and returned his hug.
“How did Charles get turned to stone? Who was left in a coma?” He asked of Walter and Annette. “Forewarned is forearmed, auntie, and if there is still danger I would want to be prepared.”
Annette tapped him lightly upon the nose with a fingertip. “Now don’t you be yelling this about, even we’re not supposed to know. Charles was bespelled to stone during that last battle in the belfry and not even his wife knows so don’t be worrying her more by that news. A warrior named Rickkter was left in a lasting coma while the Ambassador Yonson and some of his personal guards perished in the fighting.”
Murikeer chuffed out a stunned breath and sat down heavily. Rickkter in a coma? For months? Now his prospective wife journeyed into the heart of evil in his stead while the husband of a close friend, his own erstwhile pupil, was left a statue and his wife lied to about his fate? That was only three of the very few he had come to know in the short time he had spent at Metamor, but it felt like someone had decimated his own family. “How, then, do you know these things?”
The hedgehog baker’s narrow muzzle pulled into a reasonable facsimile of a smile, “No one pays heed to the help, dearie, even one so prickly as I.” Annette settled her nimble hand-paws upon the front of her hopelessly work-stained apron and giggled a soft, conspiratorial laugh while she nodded her head toward the tray. “Drink up, you two, before the wine cools.” She fetched a mug and pastry for herself and settled her broad, bristled posterior on a heap of fabric discards. “It’ll loosen your cough, too, Walter.” Murikeer did as he was bade and secured a meat-roll for himself. Walter stifled a cough behind her hand and made a face with a roll of her eyes before taking the remaining mug and another pastry. “I overheard the scout master Misha talking to Lord Avery about the events after bringing news about Master Matthias to his wife.”
“Events?” Murikeer asked around a bite of succulent meat-roll.
“The day of the joust, Muri, not long after the elk Knight Egland was vanquished by the rat Knight Saulius, there came a terribly swift wind and thick clouds through the valley on what was otherwise a fine, clear summer day.” Walter added. “I had a stall not far from the lists and saw the belfry tower clearly. After the clouds rolled in a great huge white beast, looking like those Gryffons we see winging about now and then but much larger, and a dragon began circling the tower which was flashing and thundering like a god’s forge.” Walter took a sip of her mulled wine while she retold her experience and nibbled her pastry. “The bells began a’ ringing with very odd noises, muffled and distorted, and I saw others climbing up the outside of the tower from a casement below. From where I was I could not see who was fighting in the tower or why, but I saw some fall from within.”
Walter shrugged her shoulders slowly, “The Duke let slip that assassins had taken refuge in the tower with the intent to strike him down with archers and some mages.” She made a derisive snort, which led to another cough, and took a hasty swallow of mulled wine. “But I hardly understand why a dragon would be called on to attack from without, or the purpose of the other flying beast.”
“Probably to keep whatever mages from getting a good look in the Duke’s direction, lest they be chewed or flamed by the dragon and its ally, if the other beast was not fighting the dragon? If what you say is true news about Charles and Rickkter, then there were certainly some rather potent mages involved. Rickkter is equal parts sorcerer and warrior, I could hardly imagine anyone who could easily best him in combat using either, and what little I know of Charles leaves me to imagine he was quite a fighter as well.” Murikeer observed quietly while he finished his wine. “I will check in on them when I am done here and return to the Keep.”
“Done here doing what, Muri?” Annette asked.
“Other than having my loving aunt threaten to pin me with an oversized needle and flatly refuse to mend my travel worn clothing?” Murikeer smiled warmly to Walter who grunted and rolled her eyes but smiled at his humor nonetheless, “I was going to speak with Lord Avery about finding a more permanent home.”
Walter finished her own wine and set the mug back upon the tray with a muted click. “Delightful, he and the Lady Avery are due here some time this morn for a fitting. They will be attending the Duke’s wedding.”
“Ah, yes, do tell me about that?”
Annette bobbed her head, “Oh, we shall, if you’ll tell us of this lady friend of yours.”
Walter raised an eyebrow in surprise and Murikeer blinked, “Lady friend?”
“Jurmas said you arrived last eve with a snow-white skunk with green eyes in tow, but took separate rooms.”
“Oh. Yes, well...”
The first thing they heard as Verdane’s army crushed the road towards Masyor was the snap of trebuchets. Like distant thunderclaps they rolled over the hills and forests that surrounded the city on the seashore. The castle walls of Masyor rocked under the assault, but they would hold for many days yet.
Verdane sat in his saddle as their army moved beyond the line of trees and out into the fields surrounding the city. Where once fields had lain fallow for the winter, Lord Dupré’s forces had ravaged into muddy froth that grasped at wagon wheels and slowed their advance. Besides him rode his daughter, imperious in her gaze, with her fiery red hair bound tightly with cords to keep the wind from upsetting it. She gazed at her father from time to time, eyes hot with anger, an anger held in check like a true Verdane.
Captain Nikolai of the Wolf’s Claw had rejoined Verdane’s army yesterday with Anya in tow. With most of William Dupré’s soldiers laying siege to Masyor, it had been easy for his elite troops to infiltrate Mallow Horn’s defences and snatch William’s wife and Verdane’s daughter without bloodshed. He’d even been kind enough to bring along several changes of clothes for her so she wouldn’t have to travel in discomfort. Titian Verdane still had to endure several hours of listening to his daughter describe her displeasure in exquisite detail.
But now, after the months of organizing his troops and cajoling what few of his vassals into obedience that he could, it was time to put an end to the feud between the house Dupré and house Guilford.
Nikolai rode from the front ranks to Verdane. At Verdane’s left rode Lord Rukas Stoffels. If any of his vassals were likely to betray him, it was Stoffels. Grenholt and Thrane each led a wing to outflank Dupré’s troops. Grenholt he trusted because the Lord of Mitok needed Verdane strong to defend his lands. Thrane was less certain, but craven enough that Verdane felt he would remain loyal so long as Verdane had the largest army.
But Stoffles was crafty and had been marching his troops to come to Dupré’s aid. The safest place for him was at Verdane’s side where he could do nothing but obey.
“Captain!” Verdane called as the leader of the Wolf’s Claw approached. “What news do you bring?”
“Lord Thrane and Lord Grenholt are in position. Lord Dupré’s forces are weak in the rear and sides. Lord Guilford is keeping his troops behind his walls. We couldn’t get around far enough to see what they do on the lake, but we saw no ships.”
Verdane nodded. “Good. It’s as we’d hoped. Give the order to Lord Thrane and Lord Guilford to move in. Lord Dupré will be forced to parlay.”
“As will Lord Guilford,” Stoffels added in a whisper still audible over the racket of the trebuchets and the stomping of thousands of boots and hooves.
Nikolai nodded and rode back through the ranks to send the messengers. Verdane watched him go and then set his sights on the castle. It rose above the hills like a squat toad protecting its log, hoary eyes scowling at all that lay before it. Catapults launched stones and boiling pitch from its towers into Dupré’s forces hidden behind the hill’s crest.
“And just what will you do with William?” Anya asked.
“Force him to surrender,” Verdane replied. “You know this war is foolish, and it has already cost me more than I can afford.”
Anya pursed her lips, the scowl in her eyes fading momentarily. Her tirade of the night before had ended when her father informed her that her elder brother Jaime was now a prisoner in Salinon because of her husband’s disastrous war. Though she had taken her husband’s name, her loyalty would always be to her family. And for that reason, she rode without objection beside her father into battle against her husband.
“There they are,” Stoffels said as they crested the ridge. Before them in the plain were several thousand soldiers. Pikemen and swordsmen in the first rank attempting to scale the castle walls, archers in the second to give them cover, while behind them the engineers used their trebuchets to deadly purpose. Along the walls of Masyor archers kept the attackers at bay. Every time the soldiers of Mallow Horn raised a ladder, the defenders would drop pitch down its length and light them aflame. The screams of the soldiers burning to death didn’t carry across the field, but Verdane had seen enough battles to know what they sounded like.
Before the banner of the ram thronged at the walls, while above the banner of blue osprey held firm in its watery perch.
“Forward march!” Verdane shouted. His pikemen kept up the advance and his archers moving into position. “And fire!” A volley of arrows streaked into the sky only to fall short of Dupré’s position. It didn’t kill anyone, but it certainly got their attention.
Trumpets blew, and the attackers rushed back, the soldiers having fallen into chaos. Grenholt and Thrane moved their troops along either flank, cutting off their retreat. One of the horsemen on the field shouted orders back and forth, sword raised in the air. William Dupré. The trebuchets kept firing, while from the tower walls the soldiers cheered in defiance.
After his troops had come halfway down the hillside, Duke Verdane gave the order to stop. The pikemen lowered their weapons in case of attack, while the archers kept their fingers upon their bowstrings. One by one, the trebuchets ceased. And soon after the Masyor catapults fell silent. All the field of battle, a moment ago filled with blood and death, now waited for the new army to declare its intentions.
As if knowing Verdane’s will, Captain Nikolai rode up to meet him. The man had a wicked grin on his scarred face. “What are your orders, your grace?”
“Send messengers to Lord Dupré and Lord Guilford. There is to be a truce while we parlay in a neutral tent. This tent will be between the walls of Masyor and the troops of Mallow Horn. My soldiers will build it. The consequences for not showing will be death. I am not in the mood for charity today.”
Nikolai grinned all the wider and bowed in his saddle. “Then none will be offered, your grace.”
“You would kill your son by marriage?” Stoffels asked in a quiet voice.
“He has an heir.” Verdane replied. What he didn’t say was that William’s heir was his ward and safely tucked away in Kelewair. “Anyone who would upset the peace in my land should fear the loss of their head.”
Beside him, Anya fumed in silence.
Before him, Verdane watched as Dupré’s soldiers stood staring like dogs kicked by their master. Atop the walls of Masyor the men seemed happier, but also subdued. Banners hung limply from their poles as the wind died down. Verdane did not smile. “The Verdane’s are wolves, Rukas. We will not suffer discord.”
“Aye, your grace,” Stoffels replied, a faint veneer of disgust covering his words. “Aye.”
“Cas, Dumas, Lis.” Grastalko pointed at each of the Assingh as he named them one by one. The animals flicked their ears as they grazed on the patches of grass growing between the ash and poplars that dominated the southern extremes of the Åelfwood. “Emen, Pilar, Veji.”
Kisaiya smiled as she ran her hands along the Veji’s neck. The Assingh brushed her snout across the Magyar’s middle, searching for the treat she knew was hidden in the folds of Kisaiya’s smock. With gentle hands, she guided the Assingh away and rubbed her snout. “Very good, Grastalko. Thou hast named them properly.”
The boy patted Dumas on the shoulder, and ran his fingers through the wiry, grey hide. “‘Twill be another year ere I know them all.”
She laughed, a soft thing full of warmth and affection. Grastalko had heard it said from his friends that Kisaiya had once been withdrawn and that she wouldn’t talk to anyone. But after Nemgas had sought her out and won her heart, she had become a new person. Now many of the young men eyed her and cursed themselves for fools for having never seen her before. She belonged to Nemgas, and would be his again when he returned.
“Thou shalt learn them as I did. With love.” Kisaiya moved between them and stroked the head of another Assingh whose name Grastalko didn’t know. “Thou hast practised for but two weeks and already thou dost know twenty names.”
Dumas pushed his snout into Grastalko’s chest knocking the boy backwards. He stumbled into one of the trees, and grabbed the branches to steady himself. Oddly, he felt like the branches pushed back to right him. To think that so short a time ago he’d wanted to risk becoming one of them in this enchanted wood! Even if tending the over-large donkeys was not the most glorious of tasks, the animals were friendly and they demanded only his love.
It wasn’t much purpose, but it was purpose. And it was something he could do with only one good hand. For now it would do.
“Aye,” he said as he righted himself. “I shalt learn the rest as thou dost say.”
Kisaiya nodded and moved through the herd to make sure none of the others wandered off. The Magyars had stopped in a small dell with scattered patches of grass between the trees. A river came out of the hills and made a small pond before flowing southwest along the dry track the wagons followed. Lily pads and ivy littered the far shore of the pond, and even so late in the year, they could still hear the song of frogs and toads as the day wore on to evening.
Grastalko still felt disoriented by the odd northern weather in Galendor. He knew it must only be a few weeks until the Feast of Yahshua’s Birth. In Stuthgansk the changing of the year was marked by sweltering heat. According to the Magyars, they should have already seen snow by now. But ever since they’d entered the magical forest, they had seen no hint of snow or rain. When they could peer through the canopy of trees to see the sky, they saw a deep blue marred by the occasional wisp of cloud. It was as if they’d stepped out of the world completely.
And judging by the silent yet jittery way the Magyars travelled through the forest, Grastalko knew it was true. He hadn’t spoken of the way the woods had moved around him that night two weeks past. He wished to ask Dazheen of it, but he couldn’t bring himself to face Bryone again. Just the thought of the seer’s young apprentice made his stomach tighten in a knot. He kicked a loose stone and then swore as he stubbed his toe on a root.
First the forest helps him, then it hurts him. Like his fellow Magyars, he’d be very happy to be out of this place!
One thing that did seem to stay true to the season was the sun. Though Grastalko was used to the long days of December they now started late and ended early. And each day was shorter than the last. Already the bright blue sky had darkened and what few shadows there were had disappeared into a uniform gray gloom.
Grastalko patted the large donkeys on their backs and felt the brush of their whip-like tails in his face and shoulders as he watched the other Magyars serve the last of the food they dare eat raw. Not a one of them wanted to light a fire in the enchanted wood. Hanaman had already ordered a forced fast leaving half the Magyars to go without dinner every night. It was Grastalko’s night to feel the hunger, but it didn’t bother him anymore. It was better to think of the emptiness of his stomach than the emptiness of his heart.
An emptiness that Hanaman sought to fill in his own way. The leader of the Magyars had kept his word and twice now made Grastalko take his meal with him. They hadn’t talked much either time, but there was little Grastalko wanted to say, and Hanaman seemed to be waiting for him. After that first night, he’d tried to remind himself of Hanaman’s words; his wounds would heal in time and that another was meant for him. Then why did he still think of Bryone every time he thought of love?
Lis nudged him from behind and Grastalko laughed. He turned and hugged the Assingh around his neck while the beast brayed pointedly. Brooding wasn’t going to help. Besides, he had to make his rounds checking over the Assingh, just as Kisaiya had taught him.
One by one he inspected the Assingh. This involved checking their hooves for cracks, their hides for burrs, and their legs for scratches from the many brambles that they’d had to forge through. After being a squire of the Driheli, the tasks were second nature to him, and after the first day, Kisaiya trusted him to let him handle it on his own.
So he didn’t notice the commotion by the wagons until Kisaiya brushed his back with one hand. “Grastalko. There be something amiss.”
He stood and patted the jennet on the flank and stared at the Magyars. Covered by the trees, they were limned only by lantern-light, but they whispered frightfully, the news travelling through them faster than a juggling ball. One face that was painfully familiar turned to see them standing out with the herd and then ran toward them, hands hiking up her skirt.
Grastalko scowled and lowered behind the Assingh, resting his head against her leg and holding tight. He felt the tail swat the back of his head. Kisaiya nudged him with her foot, but he stayed firmly rooted to the ground.
“Kisaiya!” a voice that stabbed his heart cried. “Grastalko!” He closed his eyes as he heard her come around the jennet. “‘Tis Dazheen! Thou must hear!”
Grastalko blinked his eyes open in surprise and stared at Bryone’s feet. Dazheen? What could be wrong with the seer? Kisaiya asked the question for him. “What ails her, Bryone?”
“A vision! She hast a vision!” Grastalko lifted his eyes and saw Bryone staring directly at him. Her eyes were full of pain but he knew as soon as he saw her soft brown eyes that they were for the seer, not for him. Although he thought there must be some there too.
“What didst she see?” Grastalko asked, his words so soft.
“The Mountain! The Ash Mountain!”
“Nae!” Kisaiya gasped.
“Aye. Dazheen hast told Hanaman that we must journey to the Ash Mountain! Cenziga.”
Grastalko heard the fear in their voices. But all he knew was the flame in his hand that erupted at the mention of the mountain’s name. Buckling over, he cried in agony as it burned bright. Both of them reached down to aid him, but the pain had already silenced every thought in his mind.
The Bishops either named directly or implied in the copious letters of the now dead Bishop Jothay of Eavey were brought one by one to the Questioner Temple to face three priests chosen from that order to determine the extent of their involvement in the conspiracy against Patriarch Akabaieth. Further, their goal was to discern who had cooperated with Jothay in furthering tensions throughout Pyralis and in the many kingdoms of Galendor.
Never before in the history of the Ecclesia had any Patriarch allowed so wide ranging an investigation, but never before had the powers of evil corrupted so many including the Patriarch. To make sure that the proceedings did not devolve into hearsay, Kashin, the very man who’d broken the corruption on Patriarch Geshter, sat in attendance with the golden sword in his lap.
He regarded the three black-cowled Questioners without much joy. Apart from those few Bishops like Rott of Marilyth and Temasah of Abaef about which there was direct evidence linking them to the schemes to murder the Patriarch, the Questioners seemed complacent. Kashin stewed at the thought that so many who’d turned a blind eye to the murder of Patriarch Akabaieth would continue in their priestly office.
The lead Questioner, a priest in his forties named Vikedah, was sympathetic to Kashin’s concerns, the other two were not. Vikedah routinely sought to question them about the correspondence between them and Bishop Jothay. But he lacked the incisive mind of Father Kehthaek in ferreting out gaps in memory.
“So tell me, your grace, why is it that you conferred with Bishop Jothay about matters of precedence in the Council of Bishops?” Vikedah asked after exhausting the Bishop’s recollection of Patriarch Akabaieth’s public plans for his journey to Metamor. Bishop Selius of Cainos remained calm through the questioning, his dark skin and wide features placid and unconcerned. As he should be, Kashin reflected, given that he’d been to Yesulam for all of four months in the last five years. If not for several letters between him and the dead Bishop of Eavey, there would have been little reason to question him.
In his think Southlander accent, Selius replied with equal grace and magnanimity, as if he were doing the Questioners a favour. “It is well know that Bishop Jothay was one of those whom his holiness Patriarch Akabaieth trusted. Only Vinsah was more highly esteemed by his holiness. I am of Sonngefilde, as was Jothay. Thus, it is through Jothay I went to learn the disposition of the Bishops for the Council. Circumstances favoured my personal participation, so I was eager to learn how I could be of help.”
Vikedah removed the letter from his sleeve and asked in more pointed tones, “None of these things are present in this letter which you have dated January of this year. How is it that you learned of the death of Patriarch Akabaieth only one month after Yesulam did? Is it not a four month journey from Yesulam to Cainos?”
Kashin lifted his head. Though he had helped Kehthaek, Akaleth, and Felsah go over the letters, he hadn’t known that particular detail. How much was being discovered now that Jothay’s correspondence was being read by dozens of Questioners? His fingers curled around the jewelled sword’s hilt. Yet it lay there unresponsive. They’d yet to find a single other Bishop tainted by Marzac, a fact that both relieved and unnerved the former Yeshuel. Could it really have only been Jothay and Geshter? And could so many have followed those dark paths without being corrupted by that evil?
Selius nodded without showing any signs of distress. “I was on my way to Cainos when news reached my ears. I had been in Stuthgansk at the time conducting a mission for the churches there. Bishop Jothay wrote letters to all the churches of Sonngefilde, and Bishop Maksymiuk informed me when he received his letter. I immediately sought clarification on how things stood in the Council as events forced me to return to Cainos immediately. You will note that I was not present at the Conclave that elected Geshter Patriarch.”
Kashin sighed and leaned back in his seat. The Questioners seemed to grow bored too and before long Bishop Selius was dismissed, his name cleared of all wrongdoing. The dark-skinned Bishop nodded to him as he left the stone room in the Questioner temple. The three Questioners sat quietly as if they were conferring without speaking.
“Is that it then?” Kashin asked once they were alone. “There were many things you could have asked him.”
“There was no need,” Videkah replied with weary resignation in his voice. “There was little evidence to suggest Selius was complicit in any of Jothay’s machinations. Further, Selius was one of the few who spoke in Vinsah’s favour prior to his excommunication. All of those who’ve been implicated spoke against him.”
“And yet no one seems interested in undoing his excommunication. Where is the justice in that?”
Videkah sighed. “You know that is a matter beyond my control. If you wish to pursue that, speak to His Holiness.”
“I have!” Kashin snapped. He sheathed the jewelled blade and rose. “I am sick of this place. Send for me when you are ready to begin Questioning the next Bishop.”
He stormed out of the room and into the temple courtyard. He disturbed one black-robed priest’s meditation as he stomped past but he didn’t care. He stood at the courtyard walls overlooking the parched western lands and stared into the afternoon sky. Couldn’t they see what they were doing? He was beginning to understand the frustration the Sondeckis felt. No matter how much they sacrificed justice would never be achieved in full. So it seemed to be with the Ecclesia. Were they not Eli’s Holy Ecclesia? Then why did so many cling to darkness within her walls?
“You appear troubled,” a familiar voice said from behind him.
Kashin turned and saw Father Akaleth standing there with his cowl around his shoulders. He had a scroll in one hand while the other rubbed the drawstring between his fingers. “I assume you know what is being done with all the Bishops Jothay has mentioned in his letters.”
Akaleth smiled faintly, set the scroll down on the stonework and then joined him at the wall. His eyes stared past the crags and pastures as if searching for something that he’d never find beyond the horizon. “I have heard that Bishop Rott will be spending his last years as a penitent in a monastery on the shores of Manzona. And Bishop Temasah has been sent as a missionary to Rukilia. They won’t kill him there, but it will teach him whether he likes it or not how to love others.”
“That’s an odd thing to hear coming from a Questioner. Especially one as cold as you.”
Akaleth pursed his lips but didn’t reply immediately. He rubbed his thumbs together and then tapped them to his lips for several minutes as he pondered the words. Kashin stared at the western landscape, his heart slowing as he allowed his mind to drift into the attentive sleepiness of a guard riding across leagues of open land.
“I’m not the same man I once was,” Akaleth said. “Nor are you.”
“I never knew any Questioner before this.”
“Nor I a Yeshuel.”
“I’m not a Yeshuel.”
Akaleth turned and looked him up and down. Kashin was dressed in the black, with his left sleeve rolled up to meet the stump of his arm. The jewelled blade hung from his left hip and was the only thing in his attire that wasn’t black. The tunic and breeches had little tears in them that he’d repaired himself with whatever thread he had on hand. “You may not wear the green, but you defend a man long after he is dead. Everything you do is because of Patriarch Akabaieth. And you restrain yourself because of Patriarch Geshter, despite his possession by an evil that nearly killed us all. How much more a Yeshuel do you need to be before you will admit it to yourself?”
Kashin tightened his fingers on the crenellation’s edge. “And you? I remember what was done to you. You have more scars than I’ve seen on battle-hardened warriors. Was that penance for having your gift with light?”
“Perhaps for even more.” Akaleth gestured to the sun. It passed beyond a small set of clouds rolling in from the sea. “I learned much about being a man from your Magyar friends even if their sense of morals was astonishingly lacking. And one thing I know is this. Do not fear for the Ecclesia, she will survive. No matter what this world does to her, no matter what evils claim her leaders, she is safeguarded by Yahshua. And he knew how to come back from the dead.”
Akaleth smiled a laughing sort of smile, picked up his scroll, and then walked back to the temple. Kashin stayed where he was, trying to discern whether or not he should be afraid or laugh too. Finally, he sighed and smiled. Akaleth was right. “Trust it is then.” He made the sign of the yew on his chest and left to see who Father Videkah wished to summon next.
It took four days for Kaspel to succumb.
After thrusting the jewelled blade in his chest, the thing that resembled Berkon fled into the night. While the others saw to Kaspel’s wound, Nemgas tried to follow its trail but there was no trail to follow. Berkon bent no blades of grass nor did he turn any rocks in his flight. It was as if he’d vanished back into the earth from which he’d crawled.
That Kaspel even lived after driving a sword through his chest was miracle enough. Amile sobbed while Gamran and Pelgan bore Kaspel back to the wagon, neither daring to move the sword. But when Nemgas returned and examined the wound, they all marvelled at the black blood that welled up through his skin and then turned a bright red as it touched the sword. They waited several hours until the black blood no longer came before slowly drawing the sword out. Chamag took hot irons and pressed them into Kaspel’s flesh to seal the wound.
For hours Kaspel didn’t breathe and his heart beat sparingly, but he stayed with them half in and half our of consciousness as they continued northwards across the Steppe. He couldn’t speak of what Berkon had done to him nor could he say aught of why he’d stabbed himself with the sword. But he did tell them that he’d chosen them and begged them to keep him from becoming like Berkon.
His last words were to Gamran. The little thief was telling him stories of old when they’d been on thievings together. Kaspel smiled as he listened while the sword lay on his chest. It was the only thing that kept his pain at bay. As Gamran delighted in the intricacies of escaping a particularly bellicose burgomaster, Kaspel reached out a hand and clutched Gamran’s arm.
“He doth suffer worse. Save him.”
“Who dost?” Gamran asked, shocked out of his forced joviality. “Kaspel?” But the Magyar’s eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped on the bed. “Nemgas! Amile!”
They tended him as best they could, covering him in ever more blankets to help keep him warm. But Kaspel never woke from that sleep. The next morning his body was cold and stiff. All of them remembered what they’d seen of Berkon returned from the grave, and so, solemnly, they burned Kaspel’s body until there was nothing left but ash and bone. And then Nemgas shattered the bone with the jewelled blade until even that was dust.
Little was said by any of them for days after. Nemgas took responsibility for the night watches from then on. He counted it his fault that both Berkon and Kaspel had died, since it had been Berkon’s arrow that saved his life in Yesulam. That same arrow had cost Berkon his life when the Blood Bound had bit into his flesh and poisoned his blood.
But, even after a week since Kaspel’s death, Berkon hadn’t returned. The days grew cold, and the nights bitter. Frost greeted them on mornings, and already a soft blanket of snow fell to lace the ground. They had little wood for the fires to begin with, and now the grasses were too wet to burn.
“We must learn if he doth still follow us,” Chamag insisted as he shovelled the paltry stew into his maw. “With so few of us, we dare not hunt for food or waste time cutting wood. Unless we be certain that Berkon no longer follows us.”
“Aye,” Pelgan said. He stirred his stew around with a wooden spoon but didn’t eat. “We hath enough wood for only a few days more.”
“And food for only a day more than that,” Amile added.
“I hath not seen him since that night,” Nemgas replied. “What else dost thee need? He didst tempt Kaspel, and he didst tempt Pelgan. He dost not tempt me. Now that we know of him, he hast left us for easier prey.”
“‘Tis but one possibility,” Chamag said. He finished the last of his stew and set the bowl aside. “Thou didst see the way thy blade changed Kaspel’s blood. And what wast Kaspel doing with the blade the night we saw him?”
“Stealing it,” Gelel said. All eyes fell on the youth, and he nearly shrank from their gaze. “Kaspel wast stealing it and taking it to Berkon.”
“Aye!” Chamag made a chopping motion with his hands. “Thou dost carry that blade with thee, Nemgas. It fears that blade.”
“Perhaps,” Nemgas admitted. He tipped his stew bowl up and drank the broth. With only one arm, it was too much trouble to bother with a spoon. “Perhaps thou dost speak true. Perhaps it hast not appeared because of the blade. Then I wilt leave it with thee this night and watch unarmed.”
Chamag shook his head. “‘Twill still see thee. ‘Twill see thee and stay away. It must be another.”
“Who?” Amile asked in a quiet voice.
“I shan’t,” Pelgan said. He shivered and shook his head. “I hath been tempted by Berkon once. I wilt ne’er do it again.”
“I couldst do it,” Gamran said in a little voice.
“Nae!” Chamag snapped. “Thou art lithe and quick. Thou couldst climb down the wagon and we’d ne’er know better. If Berkon comes, Nemgas must be ready to chase him down and slay him. There be only one here who wouldst make noise climbing down. ‘Twould be I.”
“I do not think this a good idea,” Nemgas said, brows drawing together. They’d defeated the Driheli knights and the evil master that had sent them to kill him. Through that he’d been resolute and certain. Now that one of their own stalked them he felt diffident and morose.
“Nae, I dost not like it either,” Chamag admitted. “But I hath great height and girth. If Berkon shouldst come and seek to draw me away, thou wilt hear it and canst come to my aid.”
“Chamag, please care for thyself!” Amile said, putting one hand on his burly shoulder.
But the axeman kept his eyes on Nemgas. “Thou knowest I speak true.”
Nemgas took a long breath then nodded. “Aye. I wilt wait in the wagon with the blade in hand. When I hear thee move I shalt come to thy aid. But if thou dost not see anything, then we wilt know Berkon hast not followed us. We must hunt for food and wood ere we starve and freeze.”
Chamag frowned, but his eyes were set. “Agreed.”
With their wood running low, the paltry fire they’d made died shortly after Chamag took his place atop the carriage. The wood creaked when he walked across the top, but after settling down in the middle it quieted. The horses snorted and settled in for yet another cold night on the Steppe. Chamag wrapped a second cloak over his shoulders and huddled down to keep warm. His broad axe lay across his lap.
A couple hours after the fire died clouds rolled in and blotted out the stars and waxing half-moon. Snow began to fall soon after, and Chamag watched as the distant plains disappeared completely. Without the stars he could see nothing at all so he lit the lantern at his side to provide some light. He kept the lantern just out of sight so as not to ruin his eyes, but at least he could watch the gentle layers of white flakes descend and coat the grasses and low hills. Before long his once colourful cloak became a blanket of white.
Chamag wasn’t sure what he’d hoped to see that night. He did hope that Berkon was gone to trouble them no more, but at the same time, after Kaspel’s death, he also hoped there would be some way they could save Berkon too. What foul power had brought him out of the grave and gave him the ability to poison their blood? Was the friend and fellow Magyar they’d laughed with, thieved with, performed with, ate with, slept with, rode with, and all around lived with still in there somewhere inside that corrupted body?
The night air was still but for the falling snowflakes. He felt no breeze and was grateful for that. His ears heard nothing but Gelel’s snoring, and even that was faint and could easily be put from his mind. The horses slept soundlessly, and around him the only thing else he heard was the faint brush of snow on the grasses as they landed. It was like a soft crunching as if the world were growing delicate crystals.
Deep down he knew that he shouldn’t expect anything. Whatever had become of Berkon had run every time it had been discovered. Now that they all knew about him, surely he must have moved on to easier prey. Could Berkon have rushed ahead to hurt the Magyars still with the wagons? He hoped not.
Something snapped in the distance. Chamag grabbed the axe and readied to rap the haft on the carriage top. But he heard nothing else for several minutes. With his free hand he lifted the lamp and peered into the darkness. The Steppe was cold and empty, what remained of the grasses either coated or buried with snow. He sighed and began lowering his axe.
And then he paused. Something brushed his ears, a soft tendril of air that circled the lobes and caressed the flesh inside. Chamag opened his mouth to speak, but the cold air sucked his breath away. The second cloak seemed to lift away; all along his back the winter’s chill touch crept. Slowly, he turned his head, that gentle caress in his ear numbing every nerve in his body that wanted him to scream.
There, standing on the carriage behind him was something that made him tremble. One leg was human, but the other was a clot of fur, with the limp head of some canine beast pressed into the man’s thigh. The lids drew back, and golden eyes gleamed from the beastly visage. A paw wrapped in bloodied linens stood next to the human foot.
Chamag lifted his eyes, and saw a tattered but colourful jerkin, crossed arms, and then the smiling visage of Berkon. His dark lips parted, and a sweet whispering song curled from his tongue down about the air, eddying this way and that, before settling into his ear and wrapping itself like molasses in his mind.
The burly Magyar turned his head back around, setting the lamp down and letting the axe handle lower to his lap. His muscles relaxed, head bending forward exposing his neck to the icy touch of the air. He felt Berkon draw closer behind him, a tongue brush out and over his neck, and then up to his ear. His voice, so beautiful and terrible, whispered into his ear, “Thou shalt wake no one.”
Chamag breathed. It seemed to be the only thing he could do. He felt Berkon’s face cover his neck, and then a stab as his teeth sunk into the flesh. A dark emptiness seemed to fill him as Berkon drank. Wasn’t there something he should do? His eyes stared at the axe in his hand. The flat of the blade rested against the rim of the carriage’s roof. A quick swing and it would... would what? He didn’t want to hurt his friend!
Berkon fed. Chamag felt something burning inside him, a cold far worse than anything the winter could conjure. It seemed to coax him, ever onward. All he wanted to do was savour the burning sensation, all else was immaterial. He relaxed and exulted in the fangs piercing his neck.
His fingers uncurled.
The axe slipped from his hand, the blade smacking into the side of the carriage as it fell to the ground. The door to the wagon burst open, and Nemgas jumped onto the driver’s bench with the golden sword in his one hand. Chamag felt Berkon tug and draw free with a hiss of anger. Nemgas turned, and in that moment, the lamplight caught his eyes. They were but black, a burning black that felt rage and fear at the same time.
“Thou wilt die!” Nemgas said, vaulting to the carriage top. Berkon stepped back, the jackal-head at his hip snapping and snarling. Chamag tumbled from the carriage top into the snow.
Berkon took one look at the sword and jumped from the carriage. Out the back door charged Pelgan and Gamran. They slammed into Berkon and knocked him to the ground before spinning away into the snow banks. Nemgas leapt down, boot smashing into Berkon’s deformed leg. The beastly head howled, while Berkon’s arms grabbed clots of snow and flung them in Nemgas’s face.
Nemgas drove the sword forward but Berkon spun to one side and kicked with his other leg. It caught Nemgas behind the knee and he slipped. Berkon jumped to his feet, and then reeled as Pelgan threw a knife into his neck. Black blood drooled around the wound and steam rose from the blade. Berkon plucked it out and tossed it aside. The blade sizzled and continued to disintegrate.
“What in all the hells art thee?” Nemgas snapped as he got back to his feet. Gamran, Pelgan and he formed a triangle around Berkon. Gelel stood in the carriage doorway with a bow drawn. Amile stood over Chamag who fumbled helplessly in the snow.
Berkon smiled, his face smeared with Chamag’s blood. “What thou shouldst be.” He bolted between Pelgan and Gamran, but Nemgas was faster. He jumped forward and drove the point of the sword into Berkon’s side, slicing downwards through his normal leg until he pinned him to the ground. Berkon screamed a sound so hideous that Gelel dropped his bow to cover his ears.
The blood steamed and sizzled. The jackal head snapped at Nemgas. He rolled to one side, lifted the sword, and swung it through the jackal’s head. Blood splattered his shirt and he yelled in pain as it burned his skin. The jewelled blade steamed and glowed bright, illuminating the entire field.
Berkon rolled onto his side, dark, lifeless eyes transfixed by the blade. His lips pulled back to expose his fangs, and he lunged one more time for Nemgas. Nemgas rolled backwards, pointing the sword before him and thrusting. The end emerged from the back of Berkon’s head. Berkon chomped down, and Nemgas snatched back his hand leaving the sword through the monster’s skull.
As Nemgas crawled away Berkon writhed on the ground, the sword pulsing bright and in a insistent irregular pattern. Nemgas felt his whole body throb with it, and he felt the power of the mountain slamming into them all. If Berkon screamed he couldn’t hear it. Berkon’s body curled inward on itself, the sword sinking back into the flesh as if it were being swallowed.
And then, just as the tip disappeared within, Berkon lay still. His flesh sunk against his bones and the grotesque leg turned to dust. After only a minute there was nothing left but skin drawn taut over bones.
“What happened to the sword?” Gelel asked.
“The sword!” Nemgas swore as he crawled back over to the body. He beat at the skull with his fist until it shattered but there was no sword inside. Likewise his ribcage and hips. The jewelled blade was gone.
Nemgas climbed to his feet and rubbed at the burn marks in his shirt. “What of Chamag?”
“He hath been bitten!” Amile cried. “He wilt die too!”
“The sword aided Kaspel. It restored his blood,” Gamran pointed out. “Wast it truly lost?”
“What dost thou see in that pile of dust and bones? Berkon took the sword with him into death!” Nemgas snapped, angry at his own foolishness. He should never have agreed to Chamag’s plan. Now their friend would die too. Unless... “There be one way. The sword healed Kaspel’s blood because of the power of Cenziga.” Gelel winced at the name of the Ash Mountain, but the others seemed to welcome it over the sight of what their friend had become. “To Cenziga we must take Chamag. ‘Twill heal him if we dost hurry.”
“Shalt we leave first thing in the morning?”
“First we put Chamag in the wagon. And then we leave,” Nemgas said. His fellow Magyars nodded and turned to help their friend. Already a light dusting of snow covered the desicated remains of the monster.
Book 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