Looking South - Part IV

The western sky was reddening as the sun neared the horizon. Nemgas had spent the better part of the last few hours in the wagon cradling Pelurji’s head. The boy was quiet, and apart from his slow breathing, still as the mountains. The bruises to his chest where he’d been struck by the dragon’s bones had healed, but that was not the injury that concerned the Magyar. The spiritual wounds were far more serious and showed no signs of mending. That could only be accomplished in Yesulam, but with the appearance of the Driheli, that was a destination that would be far more difficult to attain.

Chamag and the others had returned from scouting the western path shortly after Nemgas had come back, and his news was no less damning. The passage forked, just as the map that they found amongst the knight’s belongings had indicated. The northern fork would permit their wagons, but the Southern fork was simply too narrow, although there were apparently several smaller branches that only led into the rock. However, they could clearly see the Driheli encampment not too far off on the Steppe.

Despite their return, none made any attempt to use that information to draw up a plan of where they would go next. Hanaman had closed himself in his wagon to mourn his dead son. None would think to disturb him. Even when Nemgas emerged from his own bedside ruminations, the air was muted, once jolly faces reduced to weak smiles. Strangely, though, as he moved into the crowd, his eyes searching for a face, one that he did not expect found him.

Dark curly hair bunched at her shoulders, her face slender though rough with many winters. The earthy scent of the Assingh that she tended clung to her more than it did the rest of the Magyars, but with her, it was a pleasing thing. “Nemgas?” asked Kisaiya, her voice uncertain. Turning, he beheld her standing only a few feet behind him. Rarely had she ever allowed him this close to her. Ah, if only she would let him touch her, just this one. “Didst thee?”

“Didst I what, Kisaiya?” Nemgas asked, his voice tired, but soft.

“Some hath said that thee killed a knight and his men,” Kisaiya reported slowly.

“Aye, though only the knight didst die by my hands. The knight’s squire didst kill both the priest and himself. ‘Twas not intended, but ‘tis what happened.” Nemgas took a slow step towards her, and felt his heart beginning to warm again, as she did not back away from him. He could almost reach out and touch her now. She was a full head shorter than he, and very light of frame. Sometimes he was afraid that if she let him touch her she would snap like a twig in a strong wind.

“I wouldst hath spared the priest,” Nemgas continued, looking just past her for a moment. The two horses had been tethered to the back of one of the wagons. They now had four Driheli horses, all of whom seemed to have accepted their diminished status with equine indifference. “He didst believe me when I didst tell him of the evil in the Ecclesia.”

Kisaiya’s eyes widened then. She looked up at him with some hesitancy, but she did not flinch from his presence like she had so many times before. “‘Tis good. But he wast killed.”

Nemgas lowered his head, taking one more step towards her. “Aye. Kisaiya,” his voice quested, and he reached out an arm. She stayed where she was, an he rested his hand upon her shoulder. “Kisaiya, dost thee think...” but his worlds trailed away, as he saw something that made him turn about. Kisaiya’s eyes had changed, she had begun to look past him curiously, and with a bit of trepidation. Behind her, several of the Magyars that had been laying about, had gotten to their feet, staring towards the western edge of the clearing.

And when Nemgas turned to look, he saw a lone rider dressed in a tunic with the Driheli cross emblazoned on the front. He carried a white banner, in one hand, and he stayed close to the entrance, letting his steed stamp his hooves to work out the last of his energy. Nemgas could see that the rider was no knight, probably only a squire to judge from his age, but there was a certainness to his manner that gave him pause. Whoever this was, he felt sure that his reasons for coming would bring success.

With Hanaman still locked in his wagon – though Nemgas saw Berkon rush off to alert him – it fell to Nagel the contortionist to approach the rider. The white banner was clearly meant to be a banner of truce. If the Driheli were willing to risk that then they must not relish the thought of making an assault in the mountains.

“What canst we do for thee, Driheli?” Nagel called out as he stepped a good twenty yards from the horseman. “Dost thee wish to join the Magyars and renounce thy barbaric ways?” The last was added in contemptuous jest, which Nemgas did not find altogether wise.

But the lad sat still for a moment before he shook his head. “Nay. For Kashin come I have. A trade it is we suggest. Kashin to us you give, and away from you we shall go.”

The skeletal Magyar laughed briskly, “Kashin hast died months ago. Leave us.”

Glancing across the assembled Magyars, every one of which was watching him suspiciously, the lad called out, “How did he die?”

Nemgas felt Kisaiya grip his arm in her hand and pull him back. “Dost not let him see thee,” she whispered, fear in her voice. But Nemgas did not flinch back, keeping his imperious gaze levelled at the knight’s squire.

“Kashin didst die when he climbed a mountain,” Nagel called back, eyes narrowing. “He left us, but ne’er returned. Thou dost waste thy time in continuing to threaten us. Go back to thy homes and leave us Magyars in peace.”

The squire looked uncertain at this news. His eyes cast once more over the crowd, until they settled upon Nemgas. He prodded his steed to move a few paces forward, turning its head towards him. “Told I have been that Kashin you are.”

“I hight Nemgas!” he cried out. He looked down to Kisaiya, who was still frightened, but gave her an assuring smile. He patted her arm, and then stepped away from her and towards the squire. He walked until he was even closer to the boy than Nagel was. “I hight Nemgas. ‘Twas I who saw Kashin die. I hath said this to thee many times already, but still the Driheli will not believe what their own eyes dost show them?”

The squire was clearly nervous then, his grip upon both reins and banner tightening. “But he looks like the description,” the boy muttered in his own tongue. “Could it be, magic?” Nemgas did his best not to show that he understood. But the squire was apparently more clever than Nemgas gave him credit for. “I know you understand me. We were told the tale how the one who looks like Kashin can speak the southern tongue. You spoke it to Knight Commander Sir Poznan.”

Nemgas frowned then. He remembered Sir Poznan, though most especially the way the ancient sword Caur-Merripen had emerged from his chest. Pelurji had wielded that blade, striking down the Driheli knight. “What of it?” Nemgas saw no point in denying this.

Leaning over a bit in his saddle, the boy gestured with his hand that held the horse’s reins. “You have locks of grey hair, just as does Kashin. You have the dark skin of one born native to Yesulam. Your build is that of a Yeshuel. You speak this tongue, something few Magyars should. You are Kashin, your arm restored by some foul magic. And...” the boy paused, smiling then, as if he had grown confidant that he was right, “it must have been you that told the tale of the Patriarch’s death at Cheskych. I’m told they were impressed with your attention to detail.”

“Nay, I was not at Metamor, though I do know that tale. I did hear of it from Kashin. We do look remarkably alike, but that does not mean we are the same. I am not Kashin, boy. I saw Kashin die. I saw him as forces I cannot comprehend pierced him through and struck him dead. I was there the whole time. I watched as his body was obliterated by a force greater than any mage could wield. You are chasing a dead man. Tell that to your masters. Tell it to them and leave us alone.”

The boy pursed his lips for a moment, and then shook his head. “I do not believe you. If you wish for your people to be spared, you will do the honourable thing and sacrifice yourself for their sake.”

“If I let you kill me,” Nemgas asked incredulously, “then you will leave the other Magyars in peace?”

“Yes. Will you sacrifice yourself for them?”

“You would be killing an innocent, so no. I will fight you unto death itself.”

The boy frowned and then called out to those assembled. “‘Tis this man here that we want. If you to us give him, then we will you spare!”

“If thou dost not leave now,” Hanaman’s voice rang out as the tall leader of the Magyars emerged from the gathered crowd, a crowd that looked at the squire with distaste, “then we shalt spill thy blood and let thy horse return thy corpse to the Driheli. Thou hast our answer.”

The squire looked in shock at the man, and then his eyes narrowed as he apparently saw something else amongst the gathered crowd. He looked down once more at Nemgas, and then turned his horse about and fled back down the path. Nemgas felt the tightness in his chest relax some, but only enough to allow him to breathe.

Setting his back to the path, Nemgas stared at Hanaman. The Magyar’s face was that of stone. “We hath much to discuss,” Hanaman announced, and waved Nemgas and the rest around him. All eyes followed their leader, and a murmuring quiet settled upon the camp.

Karol thanked Eli that he be allowed to leave the Magyar camp alive, and unmolested. The rampant hostility he found there unsettled him. Never in all his days in the fields around Stuthgansk had he received so fouler a welcome as he had from the Steppe-born nomads. He trembled as he recalled it, and his fingers tightened their grip about the reins. His steed also seemed to share his disquiet, as he took the sloping path a bit more quickly than me might otherwise have.

Not only had they steadfastly rejected their offer, but even the man who from all accounts must have been Kashin himself had declared the Yeshuel dead, struck down by unimaginable forces, whatever they might be. Their hopes for a peaceful end to this had been dashed. He knew his master Sir Petriz would be proud of him for his bravery, but he could not help but feel somewhat ashamed for having failed the Knight Commander of Vasks.

Not in all things did he fail though. He was meant to take a look and see more clearly what forces the Magyars had available. He had counted their men and women to be just over a hundred, though a good number of the men were too old to wield sword. Perhaps twenty to thirty were of fighting age. One of whom had caught his eye more than the others.

Although they had not known each other very well, and in fact, he had thought him dead, there was no mistaking that lighter face for who it was. Golonka, the late Sir Andrej’s squire, had been sitting amongst the Magyars, dressed in their clothes, and gazing at him with a look of abject loss. Were they trying to turn a Driheli squire into a Magyar? Such an insult made him tremble. And then his anxiety increased. Had they decided they could not risk him returning to his people, they could have captured him and then forced him to do the same. But why hadn’t Golonka tried to escape? Had they already broken his will? Taking a long deep breath, Karol fought back against the new wave of tension that coruscated through him.

The one other detail that he’d noted was the four horses hitched to the wagons. Though their barding and tack were all removed, he still recognized them. Two especially were familiar, as he’d helped saddle them a week past. They had belonged to Sir Ignacz and his squire. Whatever had happened, it was not likely that they would see either of them again.

Sucking in his breath, Karol began to whisper another prayer to Eli, that the souls of his fellow Driheli might more quickly be conveyed to Heaven. The twisting mountain rode wore on as the first stars of the night sky began to appear.

There were several close circles, with Hanaman and many of the older Magyars sitting in the closest. Nemgas, by his very nature and exploits, had earned a place in that inner circle, and he could feel the press of his fellow Magyars at his back, all leaning forward to hear and ponder the words of their leader. Many were afraid, and many had begun to lathe the rocky mountain passes that had been their home for a little over a month now, but they would stay if that was the choice of Hanaman. Nemgas knew it could not be so, and hoped that they all understood that as well.

In the knight Sir Ignacz’s saddlebags they had found the beginnings of a map, showing the two paths down to the west, and the scrawling line that went to the east. Nagel had spread that out upon the smooth stone, placing rocks at the four corners to keep the parchment from rolling back up. They all studied it thoughtfully, while the whispered wonderings of the Magyars in the outer circles continued.

“Taboras,” Hanaman called out, his voice crisp with a sharp edge to it. “Taboras, what canst thee tell us of this land to the East of the Vysehrad. Hast thee heard any tales of it?”

The old storyteller shook his grey head. He was in the second circle, very near to where Hanaman sat huddled. “Nay, good Hanaman. There hath been no stories from the east for many long years. Far to the East there art lands where people dost dwell, but they dost live far from Vysehrad. They dost dwell upon the distant coasts. I hath only heard that the land between is a home for monsters and dragons. They wouldst like a chance to devour poor Magyars.”

Hanaman snorted loudly then. “We hath boys who canst slay dragons.” His tone was contemptuous, and Nemgas could feel a ripple of confidence flow through the Magyars. In truth, they had but one boy who had slain a dragon, Pelurji, and that boy lay dying from the attempt. But Nemgas was not going to point that out and foul the mood that Hanaman had created.

“The Driheli dost lie to the west, waiting for us to leave the mountains,” Hanaman pointed out. “Dost any think we canst escape through them?”

“We hath defeated them at every turn,” Chamag pointed out brusquely. He was seated back in the second rung as well. “We canst do so again.”

“Not upon the Steppe,” Adlemas pointed out. The falsetto singer was seated at Hanaman’s right, face turned down in a moue. “Horseman hast an advantage o’er us upon the plains. They wilt be free to move, whilst we shalt be tied to the wagons. They wilt slaughter us if we shouldst try to escape.”

“Nay,” objected Nemgas with a slow shake of his head. “They wilt first allow us to completely escape the mountains. Then they shall surround us and butcher us. They wilt suffer losses, aye, but we shalt suffer many more.”

“Canst we not travel in formation?” Kaspel asked. He rubbed at the bandage about his head. “We couldst arrange the wagons tightly that we might move like a turtle. We hath done so before when the filthy Tagendend wast nearby.”

“Aye,” one of the older men nodded firmly. “‘Tis what we couldst do. The Driheli couldst not destroy us then.”

“And once we hath repelled them again, they wouldst be whittled to the bone. They wouldst not dare attack again, and we wouldst hath no more fear of them,” Kaspel added. Nemgas could hear the murmuring amongst the gathered Magyars shift to that of longing for the Steppe. They were all tired of stone and mountain heights. So too was he, and while the plan could keep them safe from the Driheli, it would change nothing.

“Nay,” Nemgas called out loudly, his voice pained, but firm. “Nay. Thou we mayest defeat the Driheli, ‘twill change nothing. And ‘twill not save my boy. Thou wouldst cut off the snake’s tail. We shouldst strike at its head if we wishest to return to the Steppe free people once again. Somehow, we must go to Yesulam and destroy that which controls the Driheli.”

“What dost thou mean of snakes?” Adlemas asked, his eyes narrowing.

“If we didst defeat the Driheli, then their master would simply send more men to kill us. The Driheli art a small force. Our enemy wast looking for but one man. Shouldst the Driheli die, then we wouldst find the Steppe swarming with soldiers meaning harm to all Magyars. In fact, we shouldst ne’er kill the Driheli, lest more knights and soldiers come to stand against us.”

“Not kill them?” barked Chamag in surprise. “Hast thee gone daft, Nemgas?”

“Nay,” Hanaman said with a wave of one hand. “I think that good Nemgas hath seen a great truth. So long as the Driheli hunt, our danger is less. But I will not lead our people to Yesulam. ‘Tis a place that hates Magyars. We shouldst certainly be killed ere we near that city.”

“Hanaman speakest truly,” Nagel agreed. “We canst go to Yesulam.”

“Not as Magyars,” Nemgas said slowly, glancing at those in the tight circle, to make sure that all held his eyes. “But I wilt go, for I hath my boy Pelurji to save. If a few of us travel upon foot, we canst enter Yesulam unobserved, find the evil that dost seek to destroy us, and put an end to it. We canst then find you again and travel safely once more about the Steppe.”

“Thou wouldst leave thy wagon?” one of the older men shouted in obvious horror. “Thou wouldst abandon all that dost make ye a Magyar!”

“Taboras,” Nemgas called out, “Didst not Shapurji leave his wagon to do many mighty deeds in his day?”

The old storyteller looked rather unhappy to be drawn into that argument, but slowly he nodded with lips set in a grim line. “Aye, Shapurji didst often leave his wagon to wander upon foot beneath the forests or in the mountains. Thou many of his greatest deeds were done whilst with the wagons, some were not.”

“‘Tis a time for great deeds,” Nemgas said, nodding his thanks to the storyteller. “And what a story it wilt make, of Magyars going to Yesulam. I wilt,” he nodded to Hanaman, “go, though I wilt need help.”

“Nemgas hath spoken truly,” Hanaman declared then, his face unreadable, though his tone set, letting all know that his mind was not going to be changed on that matter. “I wilt send no more than eight of ye to Yesulam to rid of us these foul men plaguing us.” He leaned over and tapped the southern end of the map with one finger. “The desert here, how dangerous is it to mounted men?”

Nemgas frowned thoughtfully. “‘Tis perilous, but it is possible to cross, though it wouldst not be easy. I doubt the Driheli wouldst e’er consider crossing it.”

“Aye, I thought so too. Then the wagons shall go to the East. We wilt take our chances in that foreign land. When we leave the Vysehrad, we shalt head north, following the foothills until we hath come once more round to the Flatlands.”

“We shalt need to pass through the Åelfwood shouldst we go that way,” one of the older Magyars warned, his voice a trembling whisper.

“Aye, but we shalt not fall to Shapurji’s fate. We wilt be cautious when we pass through.”

“It wilt take many months to do this,” another protested. “How wilt we last?”

“There shalt be food to the East. I suspect we shalt find people too that we canst perform for. But ‘tis what we shalt do. I hath made up my mind. Nemgas, thou wilt lead these eight to Yesulam. When thou hast defeated our enemy, return to Vysehrad. Circle the mountains in the other direction, so that we might rejoin. When we hath become one whole again, we will return to the Steppe proper once more.” Hanaman stared hard at the assembled Magyars, and the murmuring slowed, each of them knowing in their hearts that their path was once more set. “Nemgas, thou wilt choose thy companions this eve. Tomorrow, we shalt depart ere the sun hast reached noon.”

Hanaman said no more, but stood and surveyed the sea of faces surrounding him. Slowly, one by one, those faces nodded their assent as fell back towards the wagons. Nemgas waited, even as he felt the pressure at his back diminish, his eyes never leaving Hanaman’s face. When the second circle had finally evaporated, the men going back to their affairs for that night, readying others for the move, Nemgas stood as well.

“I want the horses,” he announced, keeping his gaze resolute. “I wilt need them, not to ride, but to carry goods.”

Hanaman wasted no time considering. “Done. Wast thee anything else that ye needs?”

“Linen garments that wilt cover the whole body. ‘Twill be necessary to protect our skin from the sun in Yesulam. Two weeks worth of food, and water. Weapons for each.” And then, a sudden impulse struck Nemgas. “I wilt take Kashin’s jewelled blade.”

“‘Tis not a blade for battle,” Hanaman pointed out.

“Aye, but ‘twas important to Kashin. Perhaps it may help in some way to unmask the corruption that hast felled my boy.”

“Very well, ye mayest have all of these,” agreed Hanaman ruefully. A look of distraction briefly crossed his eyes. “I shalt be in my wagon shouldst thee think of anything more, Nemgas. Now choose thy eight and make ready. I wilt miss thee.” As if sensing he had said too much, Hanaman turned quickly and stiffly walked away, leaving Nemgas standing alone. He looked longingly at the wagons, the only home he knew or wanted. Tonight would be his last night sleeping in them for a long time.

It had not come as much of a shock to Golonka that he’d been shunted to the outer rings of the Magyar gathering. It had only been his first day to walk freely amongst them, and then only by Gamran’s kindness. In fact, Gamran, who had been invited further into the circle demurred, preferring to stay close to his less regarded companion. Golonka did not know how to feel about it. So much had already happened that day that his head was barely able to keep it all clear.

As for the little thief, he was not quite sure what to make of him. That he was kind and somebody he felt a friendship for, despite wishing otherwise, there was always that nagging doubt in him. Was Gamran being friends simply to give him a reason to continue being a Magyar? On their walk about the camp that afternoon, he’d looked at the people, and had realized that they were good folks, and in fact, many of them reminded him of people he had known in his youth. The assembly was like a closely tied village, and they shared camaraderie that was hard to find elsewhere. Even the knights of Driheli were not as open with each other.

Even so, here he was, the son of a Southlands knight, once a squire, now facing the prospect of a life lived as a nomadic entertainer and thief. His own knight, the one he’d squired to for two years, Sir Andrej, was dead. Andrej had been a hard man who had rarely had a good word for him, but he’d begun to show some kindness in the last few months. He had thought he’d finished his tears for Andrej, but seeing Father Athfisk also murdered, he had once more found them again. Athfisk had never been a terribly sympathetic priest, so intent was he on Sir Poznan’s mission, but he had always listened and patiently reminded him of his duty as a squire.

Now that too was at an end it seemed.

Golonka sucked in his breath. He had to admit that he could not quite follow everything that Hanaman said. The older Magyar was apparently the leader, and there was no doubt a countenance about him that spoke of command. He’d seen it in Sir Poznan, but more readily in Sir Czestadt the Knight Templar. Just thinking about the Volka wei Stuth made him tremble. If there had bene a man alive whose mere presence could scare him, it was that man. What would Czestadt do if he saw him dressed in the colourful patchwork smocks of the Magyars? Gut him most likely for being a traitor. With that sick sensation filling him, he sulked lower as he tried to follow what was being said in the Northern tongue.

He was learning it fairly quickly, he had to admit. Half the time he misunderstood only because he couldn’t hear very well being so far from the conversation. The constant murmuring amongst the Magyars added to that difficulty. But he understood the basic gist of it. And it did not sound very good. The east of Vysehrad? He tried to conjure up a map of the Northern kingdom, but he had to confess he only knew what he had heard from the knights. If he went to the East, he’d never be able to find his way back to the Driheli camp. He’d never see his homeland again.

But Nemgas would take others to Yesulam? Golonka stood up straighter then. He’d never even seen Yesulam, holiest of all cities. But Nemgas would never take him, that he knew. With a long sigh, he looked to Gamran, a worried expression on his face. “Fear not, Grastalko,” Gamran said with a reassuring grin. “There shouldst be no more death on either side if this dost work.”

“Thou trusts Nemgas in this?” he asked, remembering the lessons of Nemgas. The way they said things was so strange here in the North. The sentences seemed to end with a whimper instead of the forceful intent as they were meant to.

“Aye,” Gamran nodded, even as the rest of the Magyars began to disperse. There was an unsettled feeling amongst them, and Golonka could not help but share it. Over time he would begin to know these people, to learn their names, what made them laugh and what made them cry. He would hear their dreams, and he would share his own. At least, if he went with them to the East.

“Nemgas doth know what must be done,” Gamran assured him with a pat on the back.

“Dost thee know what lies to the East?”

“Nay, but ‘twill be exciting to discover, no doubt!”

Golonka thought the eager look on the thief’s face was forced, but smiled in return to at least sate his friend. In truth, he did wonder what may lie beyond the mountains. So far, his time in the Northern lands had consisted of staring at vast stretches of nothing but grasslands, and then briefly, the towering peaks of the Vysehrad. And then quite a bit of time spent inside a wagon. Something different would be a pleasant change.

“Nemgas,” Golonka said, staring past Gamran’s shoulder as he saw the larger man approach. There was no doubt in his mind that this man had once been Kashin of the Yeshuel, the very man they had been sent to kill. What had that squire said, the one who’d come to barter? If Kashin were dead, then the Magyars would be left in peace?

“Ah, Nemgas! Thou hast a most dour look about thee,” Gamran tried to sound in good humour, but it was clearly forced.

“Gamran, Grastalko,” Nemgas nodded to each of them in turn, but then focussed his gaze on the thief. “I hath already asked Chamag to accompany me and he hath agreed. I wilt need stealth and small hands as much as strength. Wilt thee join me, Gamran?”

“To Yesulam?”

“Aye, to Yesulam.”

Gamran pursed his lips thoughtfully and then nodded, smiling once more. “‘Tis a small price to pay for losing the mystery of the East, but I shalt pay it.”

“Canst I go too?” Golonka asked, surprised at his own words.

Nemgas looked at him, shocked at the request, but his face filled not with kindness as he had hoped, but with the iron he had seen in the knights so many times. “Nay, Grastalko. Thy place is here amongst thy fellow Magyars. Thou canst not help me.”

“But I know many things. Of the Driheli and... I canst help thee, Nemgas. I want to.” He could not hide the desperation in his voice. What did he hope to do? Did he want to help Nemgas, or was he trying to escape? He felt so confused.

“Thou mayest know things, Grastalko, but thou knowest the wrong things. Why shouldst I believe other than thee wishes to go merely to learn of us so that thee might betray us to the Driheli later? Thou knowest they wouldst kill thee for thy clothes now unless thou dost bring them something, eh? Art that thy game?”

“Nemgas!” Gamran said in horror, grabbing the man’s arms, a look of anger clear on the thief’s face. “Thou dost malign him! He hast become a Magyar. Thou shouldst trust him!”

Golonka felt stricken right to his heart, and he flinched backward. The thief’s defence of him – he, once a squire, his honour now being defended by a thief – did little to assuage his sudden agony.

“Had he come amongst us any other way, I would,” Nemgas replied. Deep dark eyes bore into Golonka’s soul. “Methinks he hast not in his heart joined the Magyars.”

“Canst thee blame him! Wilt thou ask him to climb the mountain for thee to show it?”

Nemgas froze then, the simmering anger in his eyes replaced with a sudden agonizing fear. “Speak not of that again, Gamran.” Golonka stared, wondering what he could possibly have meant.

Even Gamran seemed surprised, stuttering an apology even as Nemgas turned and left their company. Gamran shouted his apologies to the man’s back, but Nemgas paid them no heed. Finally, heaving a sigh, Gamran turned and grabbed Grastalko by the shoulder and turned him back away from where so many had only moments ago gathered. “Come, Grastalko. ‘Tis our last night. Let us enjoy it. Thou wilt of course tell me all that thou sees of the east when next we share a seat by the fire.”

“Aye, Gamran. And thou wilt tell me of Yesulam.” There were tears in his eyes once more. This was too much.

“Aye, I shalt. Come.”

The night had grown very late. Sir Petriz, fearing for the life of his squire, had settled himself down for several hours after sunset in his tent, praying from the Canticles all the prayers of protection that he knew. When he had run out of those, he turned to the Psalms and began praying them one by one to still the unsettled fear he felt filling him. While he could not completely eliminate his fear that something dreadful would befall Karol, what surcease he did find comforted him sufficiently that he could go outside and sit watch with the other knights.

While the air was not as bone cold as it would be if their camp were an hour to the South and in the desert, it was still frightfully chilly. He had pulled on his surcoat as well as his mail and tunic, and still he felt a trembling chill lurk in his arms. Sir Wodnicki, a taller older knight that was nevertheless his junior amongst the Driheli was keeping watch with him. They stayed in the saddle, riding a few minutes walk east of the encampment. Their steeds would walk at a slow leisurely trot north for ten minutes, they would rest for five, and then turn back around and walk south for another ten minutes, where they would begin again.

The stars that hung overhead were bright. But even though Sir Petriz had been in this land for almost three months now it seemed, he could still not get used to the strangeness that they held. The familiar constellations of his youth were gone beyond the southern horizon. These stars told him no stories. He could see no arrangements that were familiar, and it unsettled him.

Even so, he was beginning to learn some of the sky. He could tell that it was nearing midnight even without looking at the moon for instance. There were a few stars to the north that he’d been able to identify and learn. The northern star for one, and the three that surrounded it. The brightest of them – the one he called Neeme after the ancient tale of the sailor who had endlessly circled the island off the coast of Stuthgansk – would always stand above the northern star when it was midnight. It was very nearly doing that now.

“You worry too much, “Sir Wodnicki said at last, his voice deep and gruff. “Young Karol will come back you know.”

“I know,” Sir Petriz said with a long sigh, as they brought their mounts to a rest. He patted Karenna on the side of the neck and the bay mare whiskered once before lowering her head to crop the grass. “I should not have let him talk me into sending him. He’s a good lad, and shouldn’t have to do this sort of thing so young.”

“Just because you squired in your homeland does not mean that it would have been best for Karol,” his friend pointed out. “Besides, if it had been you facing this choice, you’d have wanted to go up there too.”

Sir Petriz laughed lightly ten and nodded his head. He ran his fingers through Karenna’s soft mane and sighed loudly but wistfully. “You speak the truth. Indeed you have it clear.” His eyes strayed to the East, and the dark hulking mass that was the Great Eastern Range. Its spires blotted out the stars, so that the sky seemed to be jagged, like a bit of parchment badly torn. “I am still worried.”

Sir Wodnicki said nothing more then, but turned his own eyes to the horizon.

Saying another silent prayer, Sir Petriz waited, letting the night air’s chill fill him more.

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