Looking South - Part II
he clearing, when they came to it, was a recession between five different peaks, which apart from the northern two, had all been levelled years ago so that they allowed the sun in. A wide pool hugged one of the northern peaks before trickling over a small escarpment and continuing off to the east. Around the pool all sides was a sward of green grass, as well as a few berry bushes, but nothing more. The soil was too thin to support any other vegetative life.
The peaks themselves were situated so that there was no easy way through directly to the South, but there were roads that trailed off to the West and to the Southeast. Both roads continued to slope downwards, although both were far more pronounced. Nemgas guessed that both led out of the mountains, one in either direction. Strangely, the Eastern path had not decayed to the extent that the rest of the roads they had travelled upon in the last few days had. It looked younger, as if its addition were a last minute thought of the creators.
At one time the pond must have been larger, because the stone in the recess had been worn smooth The Magyar wagons had begun to line up in an arc around the grass sward, the Assingh gratefully lowering their heads to take a bite while their masters prepared to stop for the day. There was still quite a bit of time left in the day, but they were not likely to find a place as natural as this to make camp. Further, with two directions to head, they would have to make decisions before they moved on.
Nemgas jumped down from his wagon, and unhitched the Assingh. Both beasts flicked tufted tails at him as they plodded forward to the bountiful grass. He patted the nearest’s flank and then glanced back up to Pelgan. “‘Tis strange to see, but good.”
“Aye,” Pelgan nodded, climbing down from the seat of the wagon, but not to the ground. He went to the door behind the seat and slipped inside. Nemgas wondered what he might be retrieving, but did not stay to ask. Instead, he turned and joined the men preparing the cookfires along the slate earth. However, he was only able to arrange a few logs when Hanaman caught his eye with a discreet look.
He apologized to the older Magyar he’d been assisting and circled about the men to where their leader was standing a short distance off. The skeletal Nagel was with him, tousling his shock of grey hair with one hand. “Nemgas,” Hanaman said, and pointed to both roads that led from the depression. “I needest thee to scout the roads ahead. Where dost they lead, and what dost lie at their ends. Choose thy men and be off. Return ere dusk should fall.”
“And be wary,” Nagel added, rubbing a small dark stain with the toe of his boot. “We art not alone in these mountains.”
Nemgas stared at the sooty black smears that graced that bit of stone. He stared for a moment and then nodded grimly, a sharp wariness overcoming him. Somebody had been there already. And recently. They may have tried to eliminate sign of their passage, but the stone in the Vysehrad was so full of secrets already, it could allow no more.
“Four for each path?” Nemgas suggested. When Hanaman nodded in approval, he added, “We shalt leave ere the fires hath begun.”
He did not wait another moment before returning to the wagons. Both Berkon and Kaspel were quick to volunteer, as was Chamag. Gamran though had to decline, and the little thief was quite apologetic about it too. He had apparently promised Grastalko that he would spend a bit of time with him once the wagons had stopped. Nemgas smiled then and patted his friend on the shoulder, assuring him that he understood quite well.
Pelgan was likely still in their wagon, and so Nemgas made that his next destination when he saw Amile, the acrobat that spent so much time leading Pelgan on a merry chase. He smiled to himself, and then approached her. “Amile, wouldst thee care to assist me in the small matter of scouting the roads?”
The girl, dark of hair and complexion, smiled winsomely at that broad Magyar. “Wilt Pelgan be with thee?” she asked, though from the tone in her voice, he knew she’d agree no matter what his answer would be. If he was, she’d go to be with him. If not, she’d go so she could do it without him and tease him about it later on.
“‘Tis my hope,” Nemgas answered truthfully. “Perhaps thee couldst persuade him to join us? He lies in yonder wagon, doing what I know not.”
Amile chuckled brightly and backflipped once. “He wilt come out soon enough.”
“I thank thee!” he laughed too as she skipped towards the wagon, and then grinned to the others who had already joined him.
“Well, thou still must find two more,” Kaspel pointed out.
“Ask Hanalko and Gelel,” Nemgas replied after a moment’s thought. They were younger, but old enough to be counted amongst the men now. They were still very excitable, but Nemgas decided that it would be safe enough to have them scout ahead on the Southeastern path. He doubted that one would lead any where near where the Driheli likely lurked.
Chamag turned and left them to retrieve the boys, even as the wagon door slammed open. Amile and Pelgan had their arms about each other, lips pressed tightly together, and eyes firmly shut as they fell back against the wagon seat. Amile seemed to have noticed that they were outside first, and blinked her eyes open in surprise, pushing the rather eager young man off. “Oh!” she declared in surprise. Pelgan had pushed down her tunic to expose her birk. Both Kaspel and Berkon nodded their heads and whistled in approval.
Pelgan blinked in shock then and looked about. He grinned once to his wagonmates, and then to Amile. She however had pulled up her tunic and gave him a withering glance. With feminine impudicity, she stalked off the end of the wagon, sashaying her hips as she strode from the stunned Magyar. The poor man stared gape mouthed after her, grinned wickedly, and jumped after her, catching up in a moment to grip her by the bull and draw her into another kiss.
“Mayhaps we’ll need two more?” Berkon asked impishly.
Nemgas could only laugh long and loud.
“Sir Tadeusz!” a voice from outside the tent cried out. Both Sir Czestadt and Sir Petriz looked up sharply from the map. Their eyes strayed to the tent’s cow-hide doorway, and took in relieved breaths. Sir Tadeusz had accompanied Sir Ignacz when they had gone to scout the outskirts of the mountains. If he had been sighted, then there had to be some good news. Sir Petriz did not like to speculate, so bid himself to wait until he’d heard the news from the knight bachelor’s mouth. He did however offer a quick prayer to Eli that the news would be full of blessing.
“Hevsky,” Sir Czestadt said. “See if Sir Tadeusz is indeed returning. If not, find out who the fool shouting his name was and tell him to come here. If it is Tadeusz, have his horse watered and then send the knight here with whatever dispatches he brings.”
The boy was up on his feet in a moment, nodding respectfully, only too happy to obey his knight’s wishes. A good and proper squire, Sir Petriz thought with admiration. When the boy had run from the door, he turned to his mentor, grey flecks beginning to fill his hair. “He’s a good lad, sir. I like him a great deal.”
Sir Czestadt reached out a hand and patted his second on the shoulder. “He’s a good lad, no doubt. I only choose those who want to be knights above all else in their lives. That sort of dedication is not easy to find, even in the fields of Stuthgansk.” There was regret in that voice, almost bitter regret. Sir Petriz was surprised to hear it. It seemed a bit stark for the Knight Templar. He had often heard Sir Czestadt complain about the lack of focus and devotion to the order amongst some of the Knight Bachelors, but never with any real venom.
“I am very proud that you chose me,” Sir Petriz said, smiling at this instrument of Eli’s will, and the answer to Sir Petriz’s boyhood prayers. How well he could remember that moment when Sir Czestadt had dismounted his destrier and crossed through the throng to put a gauntleted hand upon a young potter’s shoulder and declare him to be his new squire. The meal he ate that night had been the finest of his life. The prayers he spoke that night had been filled with nothing but thanksgiving and blessings upon Sir Czestadt. They had not failed him.
“And I am proud of what you have done, Sir Petriz. But there is more yet. Our enemy is clever and has many nefarious allies. That... dragon for instance. He brought Sir Poznan down. Sir Poznan waited until he was sure of victory to strike, but he had been wrong and it cost him his life. We must not make that same mistake.”
“No,” Sir Petriz agreed. He fingered the top of his escutcheon that lay next to the table. It felt warm to him, but it was meant to be. “But we have Eli on our side. No more powerful ally can there be.”
“Aye, but even the most devout knight can fall if they are not careful.”
Sir Petriz thought to say something more, but the words did not come to him. He had never truly thought that he might die in this foreign land, a land filled with pagans. It saddened him to hear that there were so many who did not know Eli the way He was known in Stuthgansk and Vasks. One day they would, he knew. But they were not here to bring more souls to Eli, but instead to find one man and bring him to Eli’s justice. But that justice had become far more dangerous than they had expected, especially with magical dragons aiding their enemy in his fight. Who knew what other forms of devilry he could conjure?
He was shaken from his thoughts by a figure thrusting the cow-hide doorway aside to let in the sweat soaked Sir Tadeusz. Tadeusz was one of the late Sir Poznan’s men, who along with Sir Ignacz, was in fact that last of the knight bachelors that had come from Bydbrüszin. A taller man, though one of somewhat limited capabilities. He was good at following orders, but it was not wise to allow him to act on his own.
“Sir Tadeusz, you have returned. Where is Sir Ignacz?” The Knight Templar spoke, standing behind his tale, watching the knight bachelor with a magisterial calm. There was a reproach in his voice, one that made the knight suck in his breath, and tremble despite his exhaustion.
“I left him, Master Templar. He bade me wait while he explored the other path, but I had to flee.” There was a measure of desperation in the man’s voice, and Sir Petriz wondered what could have filled him with such dread.
“You left him? Why did you flee?”
“The Magyars were coming. I could hear them, and there was no time to send word to Sir Ignacz. I... forgive me. I did not want to leave him!”
“Were you able to find the paths into the mountains?” Sir Czestadt asked then, his voice cold. Sir Petriz could feel that familiar righteous indignation building in the man. He could not help but feel anger at the craven that trembled their before them. How could he have abandoned his fellow knight?
“We found two,” Sir Tadeusz replied, appearing for a moment to gain some measure of control over his voice. His arms and chest sagged as if they were heavier than normal. “One a short distance to the North, and the second a bit further to the South, near the edge of the desert. The Southern exit is too small for anything but a horseman to traverse.”
“So the Magyars will have to come down the North exit,” Sir Petriz pointed out, finding that news to be good. If they had but one choice, it made matters easier for the knights of Driheli. They could be laying in wait for the Magyars when they came down. Even so, so few against so many, it would not be easy.
“Where do the two paths lead?”
Sir Tadeusz took one of his gloves off and ran his fingers back through his wet hair. The sun had already begun to dry it, but it was still slick from his sweat. He then pulled a small scroll case that had been looped at his belt. Czestadt took it and unfurled a small scrawling map of the mountains and the paths they found. “They join about twenty minutes from a clearing in the mountains. There is water and grass there, but not much. And there are two more paths leading away from the clearing. One to the Southeast and one to the North.”
“Where did Sir Ignacz go?” Sir Czestadt kept his voice level, his gaze resolute as he slowly leaned over the table and the two maps upon it.
“Sir Ignacz, his squire and Father Athfisk went down the southeastern path, believing that the Magyars would be coming here from the northern path. And they did. I waited at the clearing. Sir Ignacz did not want to risk that both of us might be trapped on the wrong side of the mountains, and so told me to return here should the Magyars approach. I heard them coming, they must have been an hour or two away still when I heard them. But I came straight back here.”
“And how long did it take you to return?”
“It took us five hours to ride down the main road,” Sir Tadeusz replied, his exhaustion making him lean against the table.
Sir Czestadt waited a moment, his mind working out what he had heard. For Sir Petriz, there was one matter which he wanted to know. “How long will the grass and water last them if they remain there?”
“The water came from the mountains, but the grass looked no more than three or four days for all their animals.”
“Thank you, Sir Tadeusz. Get some rest.” The Knight Templar waved one hand dismissively, his voice tight and eyes narrowed.
“But...” the man objected, “Sir Ignacz?”
“See Father Givny if you need to confess that you left a fellow knight to die. I will hope that he finds another way. Regardless, I am no longer going to wait for him. Go get some rest. You have earned it.”
At this last, Sir Tadeusz no longer looked like a man who felt ashamed of what he had done. He smiled a bit, nodded his head to them both, and then backed out of the tent with only a polite blessing to mark his passage. Biting at his lip, Sir Petriz glanced down at the new map, and found that his mentor was already hard at studying it.
Sir Czestadt set the two maps side by side and was pointing to various places. “The map is crude, but Father Athfisk at the very least has some skill in cartography. You see the two entrances are roughly ten miles apart, here and here. And so, this southeastern passage must lead back further into the mountains. Perhaps even to the uncharted East beyond them.”
“Or into the desert,” Sir Petriz pointed out. “They are very near to that too.”
“Yes, it could mean that too. But the Magyars will never risk their wagons to the desert. They cannot descend this narrow path because their wagons will not pass through. So they have three choices. They can retrace their steps to the North. They can strike out into the unknown East. Or they can attempt the pass to the West. To us.”
Sir Petriz frowned as he stared at the map. Only the South was blocked. “How are we to know if they head either North or East? These mountains are too treacherous to attempt scouting away from the roads. And scouting along the roads is very dangerous.”
“We may wish to consider engaging them where the road travels between the mountains. The narrowness of the path would nullify their numbers. It would cost us many of our own men, but we may have to consider it if no other opportunity presents itself.
“But,” Sir Czestadt added with a pause. “I do not believe that Kashin will flee. The only passage to the Flatlands that would be safe for the wagons would be nearly a month to the North. If they were to travel to the East, only Eli knows what could await them there. But the Magyars are a people of the Steppe, they will want to return to their own ways. They will not run from us forever. Not to protect one man.”
“Perhaps,” Sir Petriz suggested, “we could bargain with them? Kashin for our departure?”
“I do not like to bargain. They will know that we are here.”
“If they find Sir Ignacz then they will know already.”
Sir Czestadt considered that for a moment before nodding. “You are right. We have nothing to lose by this except perhaps another man. And if the Magyars are tired of running, they may be willing to give us Kashin. I would prefer to send a man after they have depleted their food more, but with another path here, I dare not risk losing them.” He rapped his knuckled on the map and let the ends roll back together. “Pick your man for this, Sir Petriz, and have them a horse within the hour.”
“By Eli’s grace, master Templar,” Sir Petriz said, a warm smile filling is breast.
Hanalko and Gelel proved quite willing to assist Nemgas in the duty Hanaman had assigned to him. Although as they insisted on being allowed to accompany Nemgas himself – they had both been swept up in his feat of climbing Cenziga, and then his tale against the dragon in Carethedor – Nemgas elected to scout along the Southeastern trail. He would much rather follow the Western fork, as he felt sure that it would lead to where the Driheli almost certainly were lying in wait for them. Plus, it would show him the path from the mountains down to the southern edges of the Steppe. From there it would not be a hard journey to Yesulam.
And in Yesulam waited the source of the corruption that kept his Pelurji ill. The corruption that would soon kill his son.
Nemgas did remind himself that there was value in knowing where all roads led. Out in the Steppe of his homeland there were no roads, only rivers and the almost familiar feel of the land as it changed from day to day. In the Steppe they were free to go where ever they chose. Here in the mountains of Vysehrad, they could only follow the road, a road set out by Åelves millennia ago, one that those ancient beings could never have imagined being used by a Magyar band so many years after they had abandoned their cities.
So after his initial misgivings were spent, he went down the gently sloping road with a glad heart. They walked the four of them, the two younger men, Nemgas, and his wagonmate Kaspel. Kaspel was always fairly quiet, though he had a warm laugh and a rather biting tongue when he chose to employ it. He could well remember the time when they had both been quite a bit younger that Kaspel had so shamed a village boy with his words that it had come to blows not just between the boys, but between nearly all the children of both Magyars and village. They did not returned to that small town for several years because of it.
So the four of them followed down the long winding road that stretched in a serpentine fashion towards the rising of the sun. As Nemgas was not about to let either Hanalko or Gelel out of his sight, he had those two walk in the middle, with Kaspel leading the way and he following only a few short paces behind the younger Magyars.
The road itself was wide enough for their wagons to traverse, and the curves it took seemed widened to make it easier for them to pass. A few times as they continued on their way they would see scrub brush and grass growing from a patch of dirt lodged in between the stones of outcroppings both above and beneath them. For a good bit of the way, one or the other side of the road fell away revealing a jagged field of stone, thick vegetation and murky pools. Sometimes the path would slope downwards, so they could reach those sullen depressions if they so desired. A good bit of the time they rested at the base of an abrupt ledge, as if the mountains had been struck repeatedly with a hammer by a craftsman with very poor aim.
The air smelled of the stale rock and earth that they had grown accustomed to in the Vysehrad. But there was something more in it now. There was a hint of the sand that lay to the South, and something else strangely familiar. There was on occasion a faint whiff of a pungent earth aroma that he thought he ought to know. It was something that he had grown accustomed to in the mountains, but that he should only smell it so vividly in a few places along the road struck his as peculiar and filled him with a sense of unease.
He could see that Kaspel was also worried about something, though his friend did not say what. There was a certain set to his shoulders, hunched forward, focussed, intent on what was before him, that helped set Nemgas on edge too. Apart from the soft scraping of their boots, and the wind coursing through the peaks, he could hear nothing.
Hanalko and Gelel did not seem to notice, both of them grinning at each other as if they were sharing a private joke. And then one or the other would see Nemgas’s watchful gaze and return to the studious examination of the walls that lined the road in places. They were clearly elated to be allowed to join the older men in this most important duty. Soon they even be old enough, assuming they were not wed, to leave the wagons their parents slept in. Judging by the way that Pelgan and Amile had been enjoying each other’s company, they would be joining a wagon for the newly married soon. There would then be a spare bunk in the bachelor’s wagon.
Nemgas cursed himself for letting his mind wander, especially when he saw Kaspel pause as he looked around a bend. The sky was still a bright blue, though the sun had disappeared behind the peaks to the west. Both sides of the road sloped upwards, though Nemgas could see that they began to diminish towards the bend. He quickened his pace briefly, then slowed as he neared his fellow Magyars. Even Hanalko and Gelel slowed as they approached Kaspel, eyes curious.
There was a nervous tension to Kaspel’s form. He was stiff but trembling. When Nemgas came around to stand at his side and look out across the narrow ledge, he felt that tension too. The path for a short space fell away on either side before it led between two other modest peaks. The rocks themselves on either bank were cracked and pitted, jagged things that sported no life. But it was not the treacherous condition of the path that had startled the Magyar. It was the sprawled form of a boy draped in sackcloth laying in the middle of that ridge that had done so.
“Ye wait here,” Nemgas said in a low voice. “I shalt see who the boy dost be.” The other three Magyars nodded, though both Hanalko and Gelel moved a bit closer, peering out from behind the last of the rock wall.
Slowly, Nemgas walked along the road into the open space where a wrong step on either side would have sent him tumbling down the steep rock strewn hillside, a fall which none were likely to survive. He gazed at the still form of the boy, trying to determine anything he could. The face was obscured by the sackcloth, so he could not be sure of the age, though from his gangly nature he was probably as old as Hanalko and Gelel. Privation had not yet set in the flesh of his arms or legs, the ones that he could see, a fact that made Nemgas very nervous.
Kneeling down he gripped the boy’s side, and rolled him over. The sackcloth was thrust back, and he beheld bright hair and a square face. His eyes gleamed for a moment, and then something thrust out at Nemgas from his belly. Nemgas slid to one side, gripping the out-thrust arm in his hand, and twisting it back around behind the boy. He cried out in pain then, the dagger in his hand dropping to the stone beneath their feet.
Kaspel and the others ran out several more steps, even as Nemgas glanced back around the area. The boy could not be alone. “‘Tis a ploy,” Nemgas called to them, his voice shrill. “Be wary. ‘Tis a plot of the Driheli.”
There was a crumbling sound of stone then, and from behind them, back along the path they had just come from, a figure jumped down from between one of the crevices in the rock, sword already drawn in his hand. The face was filled with sullen hatred, deep eyes smouldering with nothing but rage.”I will kill him,” Nemgas said, switching to the Southern tongue at seeing the Driheli cross upon the man’s breast. “Stand back!”
“You would kill a boy to save your life?” the knight asked contemptuously. “You are a man of evil, Kashin. I’m going to make you pay for all those whose lives you have destroyed.” And then, without another word, he swung out his blade in a deadly arc at Kaspel. The Magyar ducked the swing and tried to grab at the knight’s middle. But the knight was faster, ramming the hilt of his sword hard down upon the Magyar’s head. Blood began to flow as he fell to the ground.
Nemgas cried out, “Get ye back!” He took several steps backwards, dragging the boy along. If they could gain some space, Nemgas could safely give the boy to Hanalko and Gelel, and then he could defeat this crazed knight. But to his horror, they did not heed his words, but instead rushed at the man, screaming at the top of their lungs.
The knight thrust forward his sword at Gelel, and the boy slid along the side of the blade. It had not pierced him through, but it had cut deeply, Nemgas saw, as the blood began to well around his side and he cried out from the pain. The man then smacked his fist against the side of Hanalko’s head, and the boy stumbled backwards and to the side. Nemgas felt his heart clench tight as one of the young Magyar’s feet stepped over the ledge. For a moment he stood there, suspended in the air, and then he was gone, body tumbling like a sack of potatoes down the sharp incline.
With a fierce snarl, Nemgas thrust the boy forward and smacked him in the back of the head hard. He fell to the road limp from the blow and lay sprawled. Nemgas then picked him up and threw him back several more yards. He’d attend to him later. Turning back, he saw that the knight had stepped out onto the ledge, holding the bloodied sword before him, ignoring the two bleeding Magyars who were now incapable of fighting him.
“What is your name, knight? I want to say a prayer that the Daedre lords take good care of you when you reach hell.”
“Worshipping demons?” the knight snorted. “It is you I will send to hell, Kashin.”
“Kashin is dead. Has been dead for months now. You Driheli have no quarrel with the Magyars.”
The knight narrowed his eyes and swung out the blade, but Nemgas easily avoided it. “Do all Magyars lie so poorly as you, Kashin?”
“I am Nemgas,” he snarled, eyes narrowing at this foul beast of a man, “and though the Driheli have no quarrels with the Magyars, I have one with you.” And then he surged forward, and slightly to the side. The knight had brought his sword up again hoping to impale him upon it, but he nimbly avoided that blade. He grabbed the man by the arm and spun around behind him, yanking him off his feet, and then using his momentum as he stopped and turned, forced him to swing back around him.
The knight snarled in fury as he felt himself hurled through the air. He set his toes down upon the edge of the road, and for a moment he hovered there between the safety of the road and the wide emptiness below. And then the air took him, and the knight tumbled down, shattering himself against the sharp rocks of the hillside. He cried out for only a second.
Glancing backwards once, Nemgas saw that the knight’s boy had not moved yet. Turning, he rushed back to Gelel and Kaspel. The young Magyar was trying to tie a strip of cloth around his chest, but his body was too weak to manage it. Tears streamed from his eyes, and at every choking sob, another rivulet of blood would stream from his wound. The knight’s blade had passed along between two of his ribs, but the wound may not yet be mortal if Nemgas could stop the blood flow.
“‘Tis not thy fault,” Nemgas said, as he took the ends of the cloth from the boy’s hands and began to secure the knot around his side. The strip was already so soaked in blood that it was practically useless. He would make another though. “Wait here.”
He dashed back to where the knight’s boy had fallen, yanked off the sackcloth and began to tear at the white linen shirt underneath. The boy began to stir, muttering some foul curse. Nemgas gripped his head by his hair and smacked the boy’s forehead against the ground once more. Not hard enough to kill him, just enough to knock him senseless. Just as he stood to run back with his strips of cloth, he heard a scuffling of hooves on stone down the road a bit further. Were more knights coming? Taking a deep breath Nemgas hoped that it was not so.
Regardless, the feverish pounding of his heart told him he had but one thing he must do now, nd that was to save his fellow Magyars. Kneeling at Gelel’s side, he wrapped the fresh strips about his middle and began to tie them off tightly. “What?” Gelel managed still crying some, “Hanalko?”
Nemgas sucked in his breath, and shook his head. “I wilt see if I canst retrieve his body, but I fear that he wast killed in the fall.” He gently put one hand over the wound, but could feel little. “Canst thee stand?”
At Gelel’s nod, Nemgas helped him to his feet. “Why didst they do this?”
“They dost wish to kill Kashin, the one who died upon the ash mountain. They wilt hound us until they hath killed us to a man to get at that one. We shalt not let them.”
Gelel nodded slowly, his crying abating somewhat, though there was that lost vacant look in his eyes. His skin was trembling, but he managed to remain on his feet.
Turning to Kaspel, Nemgas saw that the wound was minor. The blood had already stopped flowing, and when the man finally woke, he’d be fine apart from a horrid headache. He propped him up against the stone wall, taking care to tie the last strip of cloth around his head. “Wait here,” Nemgas said, looking to Gelel. “I hath one thing I must see to.” The boy nodded slowly, allowing himself to crouch against the wall.
Nemgas walked carefully back along the narrow expanse of road. He glanced down at where both Hanalko and the knight had fallen. The knight had fallen further, but both were just as still and as battered. It would not be an easy climb down to retrieve Hanalko’s body. But he owed it to the lad to do so. If his supposition was correct, he’d probably find the means to make the task easier.
The boy was still unconscious, so Nemgas stepped over him and continued on down the road. It twisted a short distance down, high walls of rock on either side. Nemgas listened, and could still hear the scuffling of hooves. Pulling his own blade from its scabbard, he stepped around the bend and stared hard at the three figures beyond. Two of them were horses, saddle bags filled with provisions for the road. The third was a black-robed priest standing between them. His head was shaved in a tonsure, while his goggle-eyes stared with fear and loathing at the colourfully dressed Magyar standing not ten yards before him. There was something else in those eyes though, some other-worldly quality that was achingly familiar.
“Who are you, Father?” Nemgas asked, sheathing his blade, though he left his hand upon the hilt should the priest prove less bound to his vows than most.
“You...” the priest stared at him, but would not meet his gaze. For a moment, the priest seemed transported to another time altogether, as a flash of emotions crossed his face, holy terror being the most predominant. “You are Kashin...”
“Nay,” Nemgas said. How long would he suffer for looking like that dead Yeshuel? He took several steps forward, and to his surprise, the priest did not flinch. The horses were a little jittery, but apart from stamping their hooves, did nothing more. “Kashin is dead, Father. But I will finish what he started. I don’t want to kill you or any other of the Driheli. But if you stand in our way I will.”
“Filthy Magyar,” the priest said, eyes flickering across the rock, moving in all the places where Nemgas was not. “You are lying. You want to kill knights of Eli. You are foul pagan beasts and you want to do nothing but kill Eli’s people.”
“The Driheli attacked us first. We have only defended ourselves.”
“You summoned a dragon!”
“Nay, that came not of my bidding. That was something else altogether. I wish I had never seen it. That dragon was corrupted by an evil power. And it is that corruption I fight. That evil that I wish to slay, that Kashin wished to slay. And it is that evil that has tasked the Driheli to slay innocent Magyars.”
The priest’s eyes flashed up at him in anger. “Liar! The Driheli are here because the Ecclesia had need of them! The Ecclesia is Eli’s instrument in this world.”
“That it is, but an evil has taken some of those in Yesulam. This evil ordered the Driheli here. Tell me then, what crime did Kashin commit?”
“He did not fulfill his duty to protect the Patriarch!”
“Wrong!” Nemgas shot back, anger rising in his voice. “He lost his arm trying to protect the Patriarch. As you can see, I have two arms.”
“What of it? Foul pagan magic gave you your arm back!”
“Father, I grow tired of this. You chase after a dead man. A man who did the Ecclesia no wrong. He was seeking out the killer of the Patriarch, and he had discovered that the killer was not the true villain, but only a paid assassin. The Patriarch’s murder had been planned in advance by somebody in the Ecclesia. If you are here to kill Kashin, then you are acting at the behest of the Patriarch’s murderers.”
The priest gasped in horror, backing up a pace then, his knuckles white as he gripped the reins of the two horses so tightly. “You lie! Filthy pagan beast! You lie!”
“Look into my eye, Father,” Nemgas ordered, stepping forward, almost to the point he could have reached out and grabbed the man by his shoulder. “Look into my eye and see the truth there.”
But the priest steadfastly refused to meet his gaze, his face balling into confusion. “No! You will trick me!”
“You are a priest,” Nemgas continued, taking another step closer. “You know what I say is true. The Ecclesia would never order the murder of a Yeshuel, especially one set out to gain justice in the way that Kashin was.”
“It was the will of Eli,” the priest stammered, a sliver of doubt creeping into his tones. “Eli’s will cannot be questioned.”
“Of course it can. The Canticles themselves show that Eli told his followers to question prophets, seers, any voices that the people heard to make sure that the message was indeed from Eli. We were told to beware false messengers lest they lead us astray. Look into my eyes, Father. You have been led astray, and the knights of Driheli are committing grievous sin so long as they remain in the field against the Magyars. Look into my eyes.”
At last, the priest did look up, staring into his eyes with his own. His goggle-eyes protruded slightly form his face, and they flicked back and forth rapidly. But they slowed, even as the trembling in his flesh slowed. “By Eli,” he whispered softly, his face still bent into a rictus of terror. “You do speak the truth.”
“Aye,” Nemgas said, breathing a long sigh of relief. “I do, Father?”
“Athfisk,” the priest replied, his horror melting slowly, being replaced by a more scholarly mask. “I am Father Athfisk.”
“Father Athfisk then. I am intent on finishing the mission that Kashin started, but for my own reasons. I have no quarrel with the Ecclesia, but destroying the corruption in it, and killing the one who paid to have Akabaieth killed is something that I have to do. Will you help me?”
Father Athfisk blinked and looked away then, scuffling his boots upon the rock. “I suppose I must. It pains me to think I am siding with pagans, but Eli works in mysterious ways.”
“Good. Now what are you doing here?”
“Sir Ignacz... I guess he is dead now...”
Father Athfisk took a deep breath and continued, “Sir Ignacz was having me draw maps of the roads through the southern reaches of the Great Eastern Mountains.”
Nemgas felt a bit abashed at his interruption. “The name of the mountains is Vysehrad. Go on.”
“We were making maps so that the Driheli might plan how to kill you, I mean Kashin. They did not want to risk a fight in the mountain passes themselves, but wanted to draw you out onto the Steppe.”
“We knew that already,” Nemgas murmured. “How much further does this road go?”
Father Athfisk waved his free hand. “I would say it goes for another day. We did not reach the end, but another two hours walk leads you to a promontory from which you can see where the path winds. It goes out to the Eastern plains and the uncharted lands beyond.”
“How many came with you?”
“There were five of us. The other two we left at the clearing. They should have fled down the western passage as soon as they knew you were coming.”
Nemgas grunted. He had to go to the West, but the Driheli were waiting down there for them. They could go to the East safely enough, but it would take months more to reach Yesulam. Pelurji might not have that long to live. “Could you convince them of the truth?”
Father Athfisk frowned and shook his head. “Some might believe me. I think the Knight Templar would gut me for what he would consider blasphemy. I am just a priest, and know little of these things. He listens only to the Bishops, and usually only to those with some past relations to the Driheli and Stuthgansk.”
“So that means that either our enemy is of the Southlands, or is using one of them from the Southlands. Do you know who instructed you to come here in search of Kashin?”
The priest nodded, but then a sharp cry came up. It was Gelel. Spinning about on his heels, Nemgas saw the knight’s boy brandishing his dagger. Nemgas cursed himself. He left it where it had fallen. There was murderous hatred in those eyes. The moment of fear he’d had passed. He was afraid the boy may have gone for his fellow Magyars whose injuries would have put them at a disadvantage.
“Put it down boy,” Nemgas ordered his voice harsh. “Don’t make me hurt you again.”
“Revenge!” the boy cried, and then jumped, holding the dagger over his head, ready to drive it hard within Nemgas’s chest. Nemgas stepped to the side, and then felt his body tense in horror, as the boy’s momentum carried him forward, the dagger slamming solidly into the chest of the priest who had hid behind the Magyar. Grabbing the boy about the shoulders, Nemgas yanked him free, throwing his against the rocky ground.
Father Athfisk looked down at the hilt that protruded from his chest, even as the blood ran down from the sides of his mouth. He stumbled weak on his knees, before collapsing wordlessly to the ground, falling on his side. The priest’s body twitched once and then went still. The horses neighed anxiously, stepping back uncomfortably.
“No!” Nemgas shouted in horror. The priest had believed him, and was now dead. Spinning he looked at the boy.
The young man was staring at the dead priest in even more horror. There was a religious zeal to that expression, one of profound anguish. “Father!” he cried, scrambling backwards. “No, I didn’t mean. No!” Turning, he scrambled to his feet and ran back, his soul-torn cry echoing from the high walls.
“Damn thee!” Nemgas cried, chasing after the boy, slipping back into his native tongue. “Stop!”
But the boy paid him no heed, running right out across the ridge, and out into the empty air. Nemgas reached out to grab at the sackcloth he still wore about his shoulders, and felt his fingers grip the fabric. He pulled back tightly, but the sackcloth sprung free from the boy’s arms, and Nemgas stood there for several long moments just holding that cloak. Staring, he gazed down at the rocks, and the one upthrust spire that now bore the boy’s body like a warning spike. Feeling ill, he pulled the sackcloth across his face and screamed into it. His shrill cry echoed even so.
|Talk to me!|