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
Every day that Gamran woke to the swirling sands of the desert was another day to live in fear. One by one his fellow Magyars succumbed to the waking nightmares that lurked at the edge of their consciousness. There were voices that mocked him, delighting in each new scream that would erupt from his friend’s throats. He closed his eyes at those times, and did what he could to keep them safe. But the wild look in their eyes and their strangled cries haunted him even when he laid his head down to rest.
It was now almost two weeks since Gelel had succumbed and was nearly swallowed by the sinking sands. He shuddered at the memory. He could see it in his mind, the youth flailing about in what looked like any other patch of sand in the desert. Only the granules shifted and pulled the young man downwards. Some great maw lurked below, a maw that would feast the flesh of men who trod above.
Where not even the ground could be trusted to hold men aloft, how could their minds be trusted to understand what they saw and heard? Gamran had no answer for the question, and it was becoming increasingly clear that there could be no answer. As the days passed, more and more of their number fell under the desert’s freakish spell. Once tied down to their horses, they feel into incoherent muttering, but if they were set loose for even a single moment they would scream and try to flee.
And now, two weeks after Gelel had shown the danger of this land, only three of them remained with their faculties intact: the little thief, the Driheli knight Sir Petriz, and Nemgas. Nemgas rubbed his chin from time to time. When Amile had fallen into the dreams, she had managed to kick him across the jaw. The wound had scabbed over, but it was an unpleasant reminded of how terrible this desert had become.
They had taken to journeying for an hour or two after sunrise before it grew too hot to move. Nemgas told them that they were nearing the desert’s edge. Soon the sands would give way to hard packed earth, and they would see the small villages that dotted the eastern bank of the Yurdon river. And if he had been following the stars correctly, Yesulam would be clearly visible on the western bank.
The rise of the sun brought surcease from the nightmares for Gamran, but the heat was excruciating. All he wished to do was curl up in his tent and try to remember what his wagon looked and felt like. It was always warm in the wagons, but it was a pleasant warmth. Here in the desert, the very air threatened to cook the flesh from his bones. At least during the day.
At night he would shiver, but it was not the chill in the air that did that. All the little thief could think about was when the dreams would come for him.
Gamran thumbed the rope tied around his middle. It was tight, but it had to be if they were to stay together. Nemgas was certain that when they left the desert their fellow Magyars would wake. He hoped his friend was correct.
He let his gaze trail to the horse in front of him. Pelgan and Amile were draped over the mare’s back, gags tied around their mouths. Amile looked to be asleep, her eyelids trembling in dream. But Pelgan’s eyes were open and staring penetratingly at the thief. Gamran swallowed and tightened his fingers around the reins. Those eyes were angry and Gamran felt Pelgan’s knives sliding further and further into his gullet.
Unable to bear the sight of them anymore, Gamran turned to look behind him. Sir Petriz was in the rear, with the rising gibbous moon to his left. His face was lost in thought, but he nodded politely to the little thief. Gamran was not sure what to make of him. He had been willing to sacrifice his life to save his squire’s and was now being very cooperative in helping them reach Yesulam.
Or, a sudden horrifying thought came to him, he was secretly steering them towards death in the desert. He had been willing to give his life to save the boy, would he not be able to give his life to take theirs?
Gamran took a deep breath and stared at Nemgas’s back. That was crazy. Petriz wasn’t even leading them! Nemgas was. The little thief knew that if he kept on thinking like this he’d be a raving lunatic soon too.
It was the desert. Gamran let his eyes gaze across the moon-swept dunes and the impenetrable starry sky. The wind carried the sand behind them, and the path ahead began to clear. Gamran could feel something soft throbbing in his mind. Like the whisper of fingers on a drum.
Again he took a deep breath, letting the cold air fill his lungs. Bits of silica flowed down his throat and his stomach immediately tightened. Gamran tightened his hand into a fist around the reins and shut his eyes tight, coughing to expel the sand.
He thought he heard Nemgas ask him something. He lifted his head and nodded, staring past his fellow Magyar at the horizon. The sand dunes had parted and he could see the dark of the sky beyond. But it was strange, there were no stars in that arc of sky. Yet there was a light at the horizon, a pale blue glow that seemed to shimmer and rise up.
Gamran closed his eyes and opened them again. He did it again and again but that azure nimbus continued to swell, drawing tall like a candle flame. The little thief felt a soft brush across his ear. The wind, just the wind, he told himself.
But the wind would not speak his name.
“Come to me, Gamran,” it whispered, the voice the sullen silkiness of a woman. He felt a warmth in his loins and a chill in his heart. “Come to me.”
“Nae,” he whispered, eyes locked on that nightmare shade. It was a creature of blackness, the blue glow outlining its unearthly form. Svelte curves sashayed with poisonous languor. Nemgas seemed impossibly small in comparison, swallowed up by her nocturnal thighs.
“You are mine, Gamran. You cannot escape.”
“Nae!” he screamed, his heart lodged in his throat. “Nemgas! Petriz! Help! She’s here! She’s come for me! Please help!!” Feverishly, he tugged at the rope but found it too tight. He could not get away from her.
That desert succubus drew closer.
“It is only us now,” Sir Petriz said, looking Nemgas in the eye. Gamran’s cries had ceased when the gag had been placed in his mouth. The little thief’s fingers twitched between their bonds, but otherwise he lay still next to Pelgan and Amile. There was no room left on the horses for any more, unless either Nemgas or Petriz dismounted.
“Aye, and if I have counted correctly, it will be another four days at least before we reach the river.” Nemgas glanced up at the night sky. The stars hung motionless, mocking him. He knew they had to be near Yesulam. These stars were the same stars that the Yeshuel Kashin remembered seeing at night. But could they be lying to him? Everything else in this wasteland seemed to be false.
“We’ve seven madmen to attend to between us. And almost every other night the desert claims another mind. We don’t even know if they will be sane again when we leave,” the knight pointed out, his voice heavy and tired. There had always been a measure of defiance in Petriz’s eyes. Now there was only weariness.
Nemgas snorted and gazed across the horizon. “Well, we have Gamran secured, we should continue. Getting out of this place is their only hope of survival. Do you think we have enough water?”
Petriz frowned and drew his tabard around his shoulders more tightly. “If the river is four days west, then we will barely have enough. I fear we will not be able to risk riding at all during the day. The horses could die from dehydration. And if we give them enough water, we or one of your friends will die. Maybe more.”
“By the gods, will we ever escape this place,” Nemgas muttered under his breath.
“By the gods?” Petriz asked, his face frowning in mild curiosity. “I thought that a man who once defended the Patriarch would not so quickly dismiss the ways of the Follower.”
Nemgas shook his head. “I told you not to speak of that, knight. I am a Magyar and have been since birth. And we Magyars believe in many gods, because we need each and every one of them to keep us safe.” Even as he said it, Nemgas wondered how deeply he really believed. From Kashin’s memories he knew that the Magyars gods were just bastardizations of the Lothanasi pantheon, changed and moulded to a more Magyar worldview over the course of centuries. But it was still comforting to think that there was a god protecting all those who stole for survival.
“They have not helped you thus far,” Sir Petriz said reproachfully. “And I doubt they will help you now.”
“Sir Petriz of Vasks,” Nemgas snarled. His horse stomped one hoof nervously in the sand. “We are the only two left with our minds intact. We cannot quarrel over these things. It will only drive us mad that much faster. Is that what you want?”
Petriz opened his mouth to speak, his eyes full of sullen anger. And then he closed his lips and lowered his eyes, the rage melting away. “You are right. Forgive me. I have spoken foolishly.”
“I do not expect you to like me,” Nemgas added, his own anger subsiding. “I have taken you prisoner. But now I need you as much for my own survival. The irony does not please me, but that is how it is. Now we should continue to move or we’ll never reach Yesulam alive.”
Petriz shook his head. “If we go mad, it may not matter.”
“What other choice do we have?”
“This. Seven of our company have gone mad. But that is only half of our number. We have five horses. Not a single one of them has succumbed to desert’s clutches. Maybe the desert cannot fill them with evil dreams as it can us.”
Nemgas looked down at the horses who were all gaunt and weary from their deprivation. But their eyes were stolid and sure, not even a hint of madness amongst them. Nemgas was so shocked that he hadn’t noticed it before that he slipped into his native tongue. “Thou art right. I hath been a fool ne’er to hath seen this! The horses shalt lead us hence from this place.”
Petriz nodded slowly as he did his best to understand the Flatland tongue. “My steed is very good at keeping a direction. Especially at night with a clear sky such as this. Let me lead, and I can steer her westward. She’ll continue west even if I fall into the dreams.”
“Very well,” he replied in Petriz’s tongue. “But we will also have to tie ourselves to our horses. If the madness comes on either of us, we will not be able to save each other otherwise.”
Petriz nodded slowly. “Then let us take a drink of water and eat a bit of our food. And give a bit of water to the horses and your friends. We will not be able to do so again until the sun has risen.”
“Agreed. And may the gods be with us.”
Apart from the waning of the moon, one night in the Desert of Dreaming appeared no different than the next. Sir Petriz let his thoughts dwell on his squire Karol most of the time. He knew that Czestadt would make sure he received the proper training he would need. Czestadt was not likely to be able to provide the sort of comfort that Karol would require after losing his knight, but Petriz accepted that.
Czestadt was always a little strange after being slain.
Petriz had seen it happen twice before. The first had been while still Czestadt’s squire. They had been investigating rumours of a small brigand party operating near the villages in the Vasks’s hill country. They had discovered a camouflaged cave near an old graveyard. Czestadt had gone inside along with Petriz and one of the knights under his command. Several brigands were waiting inside, but it was not they who skewered Sir Czestadt.
His own knight had been offered great rewards from the brigands if he helped them kill Czestadt. And the knight did that very thing. Once they were a good ways inside the cavern, the knight slid his sword through Czestadt’s back. Petriz had thought his master dead and pulled his blade on the traitorous knight. But the brigands had grabbed him and laughed as they prepared to cut him down.
And then the brigands’ swords leapt from their scabbards only to sheathe themselves in the robbers’ stomachs. Czestadt had stood with a pale haunted look in his face, and Petriz had not known whether to be delighted or more frightened. The traitorous knight died with Czestadt’s hands around his throat, his body a twisted mess of broken bones and blood.
For days afterward, Czestadt had been distant and spoke of strange things. He allowed Petriz to see the scar on his back and belly, and it was then that he’d learned of his knight’s dread ability to cheat death from the sword.
It had only taken a week for Czestadt to return to his old self, and Petriz, who had been very frightened the entire time, had begun to feel comfortable around his knight again. None of the other knights knew of Czestadt’s ability to survive a killing blow, though they had all seen him manipulate swords in the air. Petriz told only his priest, and then only during Confession.
Sir Petriz looked out at the sky. It was still full of never ending stars. They were no comfort to him. And he doubted that they were to Karol either, wherever his squire was. Though Petriz had not been struck down unto death before his squire, seeing him taken prisoner was no less a blow.
How he wished he could have done what Czestadt had done years later, shortly before Petriz was given his knighthood. They had been ambushed by one of the Earthmasters of Hevagn and his hired mercenaries. From time to time the Earthmasters would try to lay claim to the land of Stuthgansk, but they never liked to leave their stony hills without protection. They were masters of rock and earth, but it was from the stone that they drew their true strength.
Sir Czestadt still bore his weapons, but Petriz had a knife at his neck. His fingers were only inches from his sword, and he hoped Czestadt would take it and skewer the man at his back. But Czestadt bartered his life for Petriz’s. And he took his own life, driving his sword through his gullet after Petriz had ridden away. Naturally, the Earthmaster reneged on his deal and sent the mercenaries after Petriz.
This was his mistake. Czestadt pulled the sword out and chopped the mage’s head off before he knew that he’d been tricked. The mercenaries saw a dead man walking and fled in fear.
But Sir Petriz had not been able to do that. He had given his life for his squire’s, but he’d been bound and carried on his horse like a common thief.
And now, he was leading his captors towards Yesulam. And he’d been doing so for the last two days.
Sir Petriz took a deep breath. There was no point in criticizing himself. He was bound by his word of honour, and that was something he would not break, not even if it was with these pagan thieves.
There were many strange things about the Magyars. What they had learned from the Bishop was that the Magyars were a nomadic people who stayed only a few days in any one place, and never went far from their wagons. They were known to steal food and valuables from towns they stopped in, and every now and again, a child. The child would become a Magyar in time, having no other choice in order to live.
Sir Petriz remembered what Karol had told him after delivering the Driheli’s message to the Magyars. His squire had seen Golonka dressed as a Magyar sitting amongst them and eating their food. If Czestadt had sent Sir Petriz east instead of Sir Poznan, that may have been Karol forced to become a Magyar. The very thought of it made Sir Petriz tremble in agony.
He gazed disconsolately up at the stars until he found North. His bay mare Karenna was keeping to their westward route without fail. He wished he could run his fingers through her mane, but his arms were bound to his chest, just as Nemgas’s were behind him. They had rigged the system of ropes so that when Nemgas and Petriz separated, the ropes would pull taut and keep their hands away from the reins. But it was the only way to protect them in case one or the other would lose their mind. When they stopped at dawn, they would ride the horses close together and untie each other’s bonds.
Until then, he could not touch his mare. Petriz sighed and let his eyes fall to the western horizon. The dunes were parting, and surprisingly, it looked as if there was grass beyond. Petriz felt his heart tense for a moment. Could they have found the end of the desert? No, that was not it. It was more likely an oasis.
He kept his eyes on the grass, hoping that it was real. As the mare led him past the last dune, he saw that the grass was long and not like what he saw in the last oasis they had stopped at. Instead, it looked more like the grass of the Steppe. His heart began to pound fiercely in his chest. Was this, the dreams of the desert? Were they coming to claim him?
Petriz fought his terror. It would do no good to give in to fear. So long as he remained calm, perhaps he could keep his sanity, and the sun’s rising would banish anything he saw. But he had to warn Nemgas. “Nemgas,” he called back, hiding the tremble in his voice, “I think the dreams are upon me.”
“Nae,” Nemgas’s voice came back, floating on the air like a sultry wind. “‘Tis the wagons of my people.”
Sir Petriz swallowed and saw that the desert was gone. Before him was a wide expanse of grass, and framing a warm fire were a large number of brightly coloured wagons. “We hath come home at last,” Nemgas cried, his voice expansive and delighted.
“I am dreaming this,” Petriz repeated. “And you are part of my dream.”
“Thou wilt be a Magyar now too, my friend,” Nemgas called to him. He saw men, women and children all emerge from the wagons, dressed in the many-hued tunics of the Magyars. Gamran, Chamag, Pelgan, and the other Magyars all climbed down from their horses and ran to meet their friends. Nemgas stood beside Petriz and smiled to him. “Thou art home too.”
Petriz found his hands unbound, and saw that he was not even astride his horse. He must not give in to fear. This was not real.
He blinked and realized that he was now wearing the same sort of clothes as the other Magyars. He rubbed his hands over the patchwork cloth, pulling at the threads in surprise. “Dost thou likest thy new clothes?” Nemgas asked him, guiding him to sit down next to the fire.
There was nothing he could do. He had to allow the dream to play out. If he fought, he would only fill himself with fear. It was not real. Sir Petriz reminded himself of this with every second that passed.
“They fit fine,” he replied, and soon found himself sitting on a log with a bowl of stew in his hands. He could smell it. He’d never smelled anything before in a dream. Petriz stared at it in shock. Why could he smell it?
It was only a dream. More lucid than most, but still a dream.
Petriz ate, doing his best to ignore the savoury taste. The Magyars around him began to laugh and sing. Some of them started to dance, and by the time Petriz had finished the bowl, they were juggling and cavorting like madmen. Petriz tried to turn away, but he found balls placed into his hands. He threw them away, but they came back. Before he realized it, he was juggling like the rest.
“Thou hast it!” Nemgas cried, applauding and juggling with him. “Thou art a Magyar, Petriz! Thou art a Magyar!”
Petriz felt his entire body yearn to cry out against this, but he stilled that nascent desire. It was madness! Madness to resist, and madness to continue down this path. He was really sitting on Karenna toiling in the desert. His hands were tied to his chest, he could not actually be moving them, let alone juggling with them.
But his senses denied everything the knight’s mind was telling him. His eyes saw him juggling and in a Magyar camp. His ears heard the singing and laughter and the voices of Magyars raised in celebration. His nose could still smell the savoury stew, and with it the scent of equines and of human sweat. His tongue still tasted the warm potato, meat and broth. His flesh felt the patchwork clothes he bore, as well as the motion of his arms and the touch of the small balls he kept in the air. Only his mind continue to refuse this reality.
“Thou art not here,” Petriz said, and nearly bite his tongue when he heard the Steppe tongue come from his lips. “I art no Magyar!” He found panic rising in his chest, and had to close his eyes a moment to keep it from growing. He fought the panic, and tried to force a smile upon his face. Nemgas and the others were decent folks after all. If the dream wanted to make him a Magyar, than he would revel in it. He would enjoy it and not give in to the agony.
Petriz smiled and juggled with vigour, dancing and cavorting with the other Magyars with as much verve as he could manage. Colours of every hue spun around him, until the whole world seemed the brilliant smear of flame and his mind was heady with drink. He could have sworn that the sun rose and set again while he danced and juggled. Was he juggling balls or spheres of fire?
Screams erupted around him, and he felt bodies tossed at his side and feet. Blood pooled around them, and he saw knights riding around the wagons. Knights bearing the green and blue cross of the Driheli. “What hath thee done?” Petriz screamed, his whole body tense. What was happening?
Several children huddled behind him crying out in horror. He stood over them, a sword in his hands. He held it up towards the horsemen, feeling confused and frightened. But this was still a dream, wasn’t it?
Before him he recognized the figure of Sir Czestadt. In one hand he held the reins to his warhorse, and in the other he held Karenna’s reins. Petriz’s bay mare looked at him with hurt eyes. Beyond Czestadt’s shoulder was a dark figure in clerical cassock.
“You have betrayed the Driheli, Petriz,” Czestadt told him. “You led our enemies to Yesulam. How could you have done this?”
“I hath done nought! I art a...” Petriz found his tongue tripping. He wished to speak in his native tongue, but he could not form the words. “I art a... a... Magyar!” He felt shame fill him as the word crossed his lips. What was happening?
“He must die, Czestadt,” the creature dressed as a cleric said. The voice was syrupy like melting wax. “Kill him now.”
Czestadt grinned and drew his sword. Petriz looked at the blade he held in his hands. It would do him no good. Czestadt swung in towards him with unbridled ferocity. Petriz ducked to one side and deflected the blow, even as he reached his free hand inside Czestadt’s strike. He grabbed his knight around the throat and squeezed. Czestadt coughed in surprise, and tried to clutch at Petriz’s neck, but Petriz had a better grip. He kneed Czestadt in the chest and pushed him to the ground. Petriz beat his head against the earth until the body went limp.
“You are cast out of Eli’s Church. You are no knight,” the Bishop declared in triumph. He didn’t know why, but Petriz felt certain that the clerical figure was a Bishop.
Petriz smiled, picked up the sword, and severed the priest’s head. With heavy breath, Petriz looked at his horse. A sign of knighthood. He brought the blade down through her head.
The blood spread around him. Petriz fell to his knees. The Magyar children surrounded him smiling up at him with wide sadistic eyes. “Thou hast killed it, Petriz! Thou hast killed it!”
“What?” he asked, voice racked in agony.
The children looked amongst each other and laughed in a way that made Petriz’s blood run cold. “Thy childhood, Petriz. Thou hast killed thy childhood!”
Petriz looked at Czestadt, the priest, and his horse, all slain. All he’d wanted, all he had prayed for his whole life was to be a knight, and he’d just destroyed it all.
Unable to bear it anymore, Petriz let loose his scream.
After about five minutes, the Driheli knight finally grew quiet. Nemgas felt no relief in the return of silence. The desert was barren and empty, and he alone amongst all his friends still had his wits. Even when he’d been climbing the treacherous dagger rocks of Cenziga, he’d not felt this alone.
The Magyar watched the bay mare between Petriz’s legs. She continued heading westward as Petriz had promised. Knowing that was not as consoling as he’d hoped. Nemgas rode in the back of the column of horses, and before him stretched the mad forms of his fellow Magyars stretched out over the backs of horses, tied together with their belongings and travel packs. He could see the lines of their faces twitching every now and again like a sleeper who could not rise.
Whatever nightmare they were lost in they could not escape. The desert had no intention of letting them go.
Nemgas knew it would be coming for him now, and the only thing he could do was to keep going and hope that they’d leave the sand behind before it was too late and they were all lost forever.
The dreams had never struck twice in one night, but Nemgas would take nothing for granted. It was at least another day’s ride before the grasses would start – at least if Kashin’s memory served him well. He dreaded to think how much further they might need to journey if the dead Yeshuel’s memories were false.
Nemgas hummed to himself Magyar tunes, and kept a smile on his lips. The dreams incited terror. Perhaps it could gain no foothold in him if he was not afraid. So he hummed and imagined himself dancing with Kisaiya, the woman he would wed when he returned to the wagons. Just thinking of her made his heart both ache and fill with joy. He could see her dark hair as it collected around her shoulders. She attended to the Assingh with a humble grace that left him breathless. And her skin was warm against his rough hands, warm and inviting.
The Magyar kept her in his thoughts until the sun burned the last of the chill from the night time air. When it grew too hot to continue, he urged his steed forward until he was close enough to the knight’s mare to pull her to a stop. It took him the better part of ten minutes before he’d managed to free his arms from their bonds enough to build the tents within a stand of rocks. One by one he deposited his friends within to keep them safe from the sun. The horses he lined up beneath one more tarp that he stretched between two larger boulders. To friend and horse alike he gave water and some food, and then a bit for himself. When he was done he collapsed against his blanket and found a fitful sleep waiting for him.
He woke before nightfall feeling tired and sore. Nevertheless, Nemgas put his friends back on their horses and gave them each a bit more water before gagging them again. He laid Petriz on the rear horse, and took the bay mare for himself. It took Nemgas some time to arrange the knots so that he could draw them taut when they began to move, but at the sun neared the western horizon, they had resumed their journey.
It was not long after the sun had disappeared that the air grew cold. Nemgas did his best to pull his cloak tighter around his shoulders. He knew that they were nearing the edge of the desert. All about the dunes were low and wide, perforated by stands of yellowed rock that took on fantastic shapes in the dark night. The moon would not rise for several hours, and until then, Nemgas had only the light of the stars.
As Nemgas stared to the west, one portion of the sky still seemed to be bathed in illumination. It was faint, but there was an outline of a rock rising to a narrow point. The Magyar could not help but stare at this strangely brilliant bit of rock. It was not like the other rocks of the desert. Its sides were regular, almost perfectly carved. Nemgas tried to ponder what it was, but there was something pressing at the back of his mind, some memory that wanted to come forward.
Nemgas took his eyes away, his hands balled into fists at his chest. At his left he felt the jewelled Sathmoran blade that had struck down the Patriarch slap against his thigh. On the right, Caur-Merripen dug into his boot. The blades seemed to be sliding forward as they rode, as if drawn towards that strange silhouetted rock.
“Nae,” Nemgas whispered to himself, looking resolutely at the bay mare’s ears. They were turned to either side, twisting as the slight breezes caught at the soft tufts of fur.
It was the desert trying to trick him and lead him into madness. He turned his thoughts to his boy Pelurji. It had been so long since the boy had last opened his eyes, but Nemgas knew that when he returned to the wagons he would see that bright smiling face again. Pelurji would run to him and jump into his arms, eager to tell him about all that he’d learned. Pelurji would show off his juggling abilities, mastering four and five balls, maybe even six! And then the boy would be rivetted by Nemgas’s tales of his journey to Yesulam. Kisaiya would be there as well, running one hand through the boy’s hair, now his mother and Nemgas’s wife.
He thought on them and smiled. There were no others he loved as deeply in this world. He so wished to carry Pelurji on his shoulders as a Father ought. He yearned to sit and talk with him atop the wagons as they travelled across the Steppe. But the undead dragon of Hanlo o Bavol-engro had taken that from him. Pelurji now lay in a coma, and only the destruction of the evil that had animated the dragon could wake him. Nemgas had to succeed, or Pelurji would surely die.
Nemgas grit his teeth and looked towards the horizon with determination. He would not let that happen. He would reach Yesulam, and once there, would find the one who had sent the Driheli after them, and the one who had sent the Sondecki to kill the Patriarch. And then he would kill them both. They might very well be the same person too.
A sudden thought struck him and he had to smile. Cenziga had made two where there was one. And here were two deeds spawned from a single evil. Both the Sathmoran blade and Caur-Merripen had been touched by that drear mountain of ash. Two swords for two crimes. It was very fitting.
The strange angular stone on the horizon was still there, only it did not seem as large as he would have expected it to be. Sunset was long past, but still the rock silhouette stood. The summit burned with a brilliant blue fire. Nemgas blinked several times, and watched in surprise as other things began to appear along side that illuminated rock. Lines brilliant like lightning began to coalesce around the base. They flashed, but they were always the same, like a painting only seen briefly.
But as they grew in intensity, Nemgas felt his heart crawl up into his throat. It was a mountain towering out of the sand.
“Nae,” Nemgas murmured, “‘Tis impossible. There art no mountains in this desert.”
Impossible or not, it stood before him revealed in the first rays of the risen moon. The bay mare seemed to take no notice of it as she continued westward, her hooves only minutes from its base. Nemgas swallowed deeply, and began to tremble. He knew this mountain. Somehow, Cenziga had followed him.
For a minute, he thought to turn the mare, guide her around its dread base. But even as her leaned forward to nudge her shoulders, another terrible thought struck him. What if this was the desert’s doing? What if it was all part of the dream?
Nemgas sat up straight and regarded the rumbling mountain with uncertainty. He had only survived it before by repeating his identity over and over again. Already, he could feel something throbbing at the back of his mind. If this was a dream, it felt startlingly like reality.
“I hight Nemgas,” he said out loud. He repeated it in his mind, again and again, unwilling to give any inch to the colossal peak. He felt the ostinato start in his thoughts, a sullen irregular drumbeat that began to crush any distractions. Nemgas was quickly losing his awareness of everything that surrounded him.
When the mare reach the base of the mountain, her hooves met with stone and she started to climb up a smooth stone pathway. Jagged rocks lined the curving path, with spikes so sharp that they would rip him to pieces should he fall. Nemgas chanced a glance behind. The path was so narrow that their arms and legs were being torn by the rocks. He watched as one sliced Pelgan’s hand off, and another cut through Kaspel’s head. The archer’s brain oozed out in a grey pile of blood like a bowl of poorly cooked noodles.
The blood grew so thick that the path became slick. The rear horse slipped and fell on its side. Petriz’s body was thrown into the rocks where it disintegrated into a red mist. The rope holding them together drew tight for a moment, but the cord was no safer against that maze of razors. “I high Nemgas,” he said again, swallowing the bile back down. He looked upwards, unwilling to watch his friends be cut to ribbons any more.
Amazingly, they were nearly to the rim of the mountain top. The pounding in his mind grew more severe with each step. The mare did not seem to be affected, plodding along the path with simple aplomb. Nemgas closed his eyes against the horror, and repeated his identity. The mountain would not defeat him.
And then, in the midst of the pounding rhythm, that blasting of the mountains name into his mind, a single thought managed to survive. It was all a dream.
Nemgas blinked and grabbed that thought. This was not Cenziga. He had not returned to the mountain of ash, and he had not witnessed his friends being cut to pieces by the rocky path. There was nothing for him to fear here.
But the pounding continued. Nemgas repeated his identity to fight against it, but he kept a smile upon his lips. The desert could not hope to defeat him. If Cenziga had failed, then so too would this piece of desolate earth. Aloud he cried, “I hight Nemgas, and I fear not thee!”
Suddenly, he crested the summit of the mountain, and stared at something he did not expect. Where he thought to see the jagged spire that topped Cenziga, he instead saw a single boy standing in the centre of a tiled esplanade. There were twelve towers that challenged the heavens over head, and a brilliant silver light radiated from their crowns.
Nemgas stared at the boy, seeing that familiar dark hair, bright eyes and colourful patchwork tunic and breeches. The child threw open his arms and began to run towards him. “Pelurji,” Nemgas breathed, the name like sweet wine upon his tongue. His mind was awash in uncertainty, intoxicated with the sight of his Magyar boy.
And then, skeletal black jaws snatched him up from the middle. Pelurji screamed, and Nemgas grabbed at the swords at his side. The dragon shook the boy once, and then shut his beak tight, severing the boy in two. Nemgas held back the scream in his throat. He took a deep breath, even as smoking nostrils turned towards him. The empty eye sockets glowered a smouldering red, a crimson so deep that their pits seared with star fire.
He breathed heavily, the sword pommels tight in his hands. The mare was beneath him, he could feel her but not see her. They were riding forward towards the dragon. Its long tail lashed behind, curling around one of the towers. Scimitar claws dug into the stones, crushing and rupturing them like so much splintered wood. It opened its mouth and the blood of Pelurji began to smoke as it rested on corrupted fangs.
Nemgas felt his body tremble with rage. But he knew better. He knew better than this. It was all a dream. “Nae. Thou didst not kill him. Thou hast failed. I do not fear thee, for thou hast died and returned to Hell.”
The dragon screamed at him and coiled backwards. Nemgas sheathed his swords and lifted his chin. “I dost not fear thee, desert! Thou canst do nothing to me! I hath faced worse than thee and hath lived. Thou wilt fail!”
The dragon screamed again and leapt forward, jaws wide. Nemgas stared into the eternal blackness within, and stood firm.
The blackness closed around him but he felt nothing worse than a rush of wind. Something moved beneath him, but it was becoming harder and harder to feel it. It must be the wagon. He heard somebody stepping on wood, a woman. A light came on, and there he saw Kisaiya. She was naked, with only the edge of the quilt to hide her figure from his eyes. Nemgas felt his tension begin to melt. By the gods, she was beautiful.
“Didst thou hear something?” Kisaiya asked, one hand over her mouth. Nemgas reached up his hand and rubbed his fingers over her belly. It was swollen. Pregnant. Yes, they were married and going to have a child together.
“I hath heard the voice of my lovely wife. Come back to bed my sweet,” Nemgas said, feeling utterly saturated by the sight of her. No, wait, something in the back of his mind said. He didn’t remember marrying her yet.
And then he hit his head against the wagon when it came to a sudden halt. Kisaiya fell to the floor and let out a cry of pain. The door shattered inward, a sword piercing the wood. Nemgas jumped out of bed, his body tense. The door splintered inwards, and he saw a face, one scarred by the touch of a blade. He felt his body freeze.
“Kisaiya, get thee behind me.”
But his wife could not stand. The knight broke through the door, and lifted his sword high. “Now you die, Kashin.”
“Thou art dead,” Nemgas snarled. “I didst kill thee.”
“No blade can kill me,” Czestadt replied. “Did Sir Petriz not tell you?”
“Nemgas!” Kisaiya cried. “Thou must cry for help!”
Czestadt’s sword shout out and sliced across Kisaiya’s thigh. Blood began to flow and spill across the floor. She screamed in pain, and grabbed at his feet. “Nemgas!!”
Nemgas stared in horror. He pulled his hands to his chest, and closed his eyes. “Thou art dead, Czestadt. I art dreaming this. My hands hath been tied to my chest, and I am riding on Sir Petriz’s mare. Desert, thou wilt not claim me!”
Czestadt snarled and he heard the sword swipe again. Kisaiya screamed, and he felt blood splatter against his face. Her voice faded, and he heard her call his name weakly one last time. Tears wanted to reach his eyes but he fought them back. “Nae!!! Thou canst not take her from me! Thou canst not take me!”
He mastered himself, breathing slowly. He felt the sensation of motion all around him. The sensation of blood passed. He felt the ground on one side, wet with leaves and rain. It struck his face. There was an emptiness to his left side. He tried to move his hand but felt nothing.
Nemgas opened his eyes and was staring at half a man. He stuttered and slid backwards. A man from the Holy Land lay in the grass, the right side of his body completely seared away. Nemgas tried to remember his name. Iosef. He’d been a Yeshuel just like Kashin.
Nemgas stood up and saw that his left arm was missing just above the elbow. “Thou hast taken me to this day, desert.” He took several deep breaths as the rain streaked the green uniform of the Yeshuel that he now wore. “I fear not Kashin’s memories either.”
He stepped out of the woods and stared at the desolation he knew he would find. Bodies were strewn in piles, mangled and broken. Everywhere he looked was death. This had been a camp of professional soldiers and knights all set to protect one man, and now it was an open grave.
On the other side of the road he saw a man running. Nemgas jogged over to get a closer look. He felt his throat tighten. It was Akabaieth. A black figure grabbed him from behind, a jewelled blade in his free hand. “Nae!” Nemgas cried despite himself. And then the blade struck. Nemgas pushed himself back, diving into the ground. He covered his face with his one hand, and tried to still his breathing.
“‘Tis only a dream!” Nemgas repeated to himself. And the desert was going to scour his mind, scour it until it made him cry out in fear. Nemgas took several long deep breaths.
“A dream.” Nemgas looked up at the sky, and began to smile. An idea was collecting at the back of his mind. “Thou hast shown me many things!” he shouted at the sky. The clouds thundered angrily and the rain began to beat at his face so hard that it stung. “Thou wilt now see what I want thee to see.”
Nemgas pictured in his mind his friends all sitting upon their horses and laughing together. Lances of darkness kept pressing at that image, but he held it firm. “They art Magyars, desert! And we wilt leave thee behind! See, we do so e’en now!” And he thought of the edge of the sand, the grasses growing, and the first signs of the people that lived along the river.
And the first building of the desert was the dungeon. A great tower that stood a day’s journey into the desert, it had no locks on the doors. A prisoner was free to leave any time they wanted, but they would never be able to cross the desert to escape before the sands claimed them. Food was brought in for the gaolers and the prisoners once a week, and that food was the only thing kept under lock and key. Even a few months in the tower cells were enough to reform the hardest of criminals.
“That was what I didst see,” Nemgas said in triumph. He held the image of his fellow Magyar riding past that dark tower’s shadow. “I hath seen the dungeon of Yesulam!”
Nemgas sat back, feeling the mare between his legs once again. “Thou hast failed, desert. We hath crossed thee!” And he saw them, all his friends waking from that desert’s nightmare.
The sky shuddered and the whole of reality screamed in bitter rage. Nemgas stayed still and resolute. Thunder clapped, and the earth ruptured, sand casting in every direction. A panoply of colours danced across the sky, and the stars were sent swirling into oblivion. The moon shattered into a million fragments, and they burned like fire through the sky, crashing into the sands and searing them into scintillant glass.
And Nemgas kept his gaze ever forward. “We hath crossed thee, oh Desert of Dreaming. It is already dawn!”
The sands fell, and the sky began to brighten. The world ceased to tremble. Nemgas stared as he could see in the hazy outline the cliffs of Yesulam. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the great dungeon tower somewhere to the north.
The bay mare stopped and bent her head down. Grass. Nemgas smiled. He pulled at the ropes binding his hands to his chest. He could hear groaning behind him. Glancing back, he saw the Magyars all shifting about, blinking the dream from their eyes.
“We hath made it my friends!” Nemgas cried out in joy. “Welcome to the Holy Land!”
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