Looking South - Part V

Everyone was asleep but him. Golonka did not need to look around to know that. He could hear Chamag’s heavy snoring, the lighter breaths of Berkon, and the groaning of Kaspel to one side. Both Pelgan and Gamran added their own snoring to the other. Nemgas was not there, but of late, Nemgas did not sleep much with them. He spent most of his time watching over the little boy that had been injured. That he would do so that night did not much surprise Golonka. After tonight, Golonka would be the only person sleeping in this wagon.

Even though he had spent most nights tied to his bed by these same people, he still would hate the emptiness of the wagon. Gamran assured him that they would probably move him to another wagon or others would move in with him. Regardless, he did not relish the thought of starting over. Nemgas had asked all of them to come on his journey to Yesulam, and all had agreed. Golonka knew also that Amile was going, and one other, a younger man named Gelel. Why they had invited a woman, he could not guess. Women were not fighters after all. Maybe she had some other skills; the Magyar women appeared quite talented in many ways after all.

But, as he listened to those snores unable to find slumber himself, he asked himself that one question that had been preying upon his thoughts for so long now.

What did he really want to be? A Magyar or Driheli knight?

Grimacing, knowing that this was his last opportunity to choose, Golonka rubbed the perfunctory bonds at his wrists until he had worked loose the knot. He bent over slowly in his pallet, scowling and praying silently at every creak. Though the air was quiet but for the snoring of his wagonmates, each creak sounded as loud as if he had stomped on the floor with his boots.

His feet were finally freed though from their bonds. He laid the strips of cloth on the bedsheet, folding it back over gently and he lowered himself to the floor. His clothes, his Magyar clothes at least, were folded and sitting on the shelf next to his pallet. Being the seventh bunk in the wagon, his was naturally at the far back, and so ironically, he had a bit more space than the others to store his things. Not that he possessed much other than one change of clothes and a single pair of boots. And he hadn’t owned the boots that morning.

His heart trembled as he slipped his jerkin and trousers on. He listened ever intently to the snoring of his companions. But if any of them stirred, he could not hear. There was one moment when Chamag sounded as if he were clearing his throat. Golonka had frozen solid, his very blood turning to ice. But then, the burly Magyar had resumed snoring, and he felt sensation begin to return to his extremities.

It was much the same when he pulled on his boots. They had the nasty habit of making a hollow thunking sound when he set them down. But nobody stirred in their bunks. He breathed long and slowly, afraid that if the air rushed past his lips too quickly he might whistle by mistake. In fact, he was wound so tightly, that he was at first confused when his hand bumped into wood before him. It took him several seconds to realize that he had found the door to the wagon.

Lifting the latch slowly, he slipped outside, praying that none of them had heard him, or that the small sliver of light had not fallen upon any bleary eyes. Of course, there was likely more to worry about outside than in. He had no idea how many Magyars were watching the grounds. He might find it next to impossible to slip free.

But the fires had been allowed to die, only a few smouldering ruins were left. Even Varna’s cookpot had been placed back within the wagons. The grounds outside, though they had been lived upon, looked deserted already. He even saw a few wooden toys left lying upon the stone, abandoned by their owners. Golonka took a slow breath. Even if somebody saw him out at night, it would not look odd. Other Magyars would often walk about the wagons, unable to sleep from time to time.

There was an awful lot of space between the wagons and that passage to the west. Golonka stared at it wistfully. He was still standing outside the door to his wagon. He’d been unable to move ever since closing the door behind him. The air was very cool, so he was glad that he’d just pulled his clothes over top of his linens. Even so, he could not help but wrap his arms about his chest and double forward slightly from the chill.

There would naturally be sentries, though he could only see one walking out past where the fires continued to smolder. His eyes were not on the wagons though, but turned outwards towards the mountain walls. He felt a growing sense of resignation begin to envelop him. He’d never be able to sneak past that man, not without being seen. If he didn’t have the ability to chose his own destiny, what sort of choice did he have at all?

“If you really want to return to the Driheli, you’ll find a way.” The words came to him so suddenly, he had at first thought they’d been spoken. But the voice was that of his knight, Sir Andrej, and Andrej was dead. Golonka was still spooked enough to look over his shoulder.

Taking a deep breath, Golonka lowered himself down to the ground, but on the opposite side of the wagons. It would not help him escape, but at least he could move to the end of the line without fear of being seen. Well, by any accept the Assingh who had lain down to sleep in the small grassy sward before the delicate lake. Stars and moon were reflected in that lake, making it look for a moment as if the sky continued below them as well as above.

Slowly, tentatively at first, Golonka began to walk along the line of wagons. None who saw him would think anything amiss, at least if they did not look too closely. He certainly hadn’t done anything yet to earn a reprisal from the Magyars should he be caught. Well, he had undone his bonds, but from what Gamran had said, they might congratulate him on it. Probably try to make him an escape artist to entertain villagers. A smile crept up his face then at the mere thought of it. It did look pretty funny.

But the smile faded as he stared up at the wagons. The minutes trickled past even as did the wagons. The wood they were fashioned from was as much as a mishmash as their clothing. In many places they had painted them bright colours, though the weather had faded most. Some of the wagons sported small tight windows, windows that looked like an old crone’s one good eye as she squinted at some upstart youth. He slipped by wagons with windows more quickly, as if afraid that somebody was indeed watching him there. He felt the sting of their recrimination.

One wagon in particular caught his eye. There was little to distinguish it from its fellows, though the window frame had been painted a gaudy yellow, while little bells hung from the front. He’d memorized it that evening, after watching Nemgas disappear into it three times now. His heart skipped a beat as he came to stand before it. Nemgas had not been in their wagon, so there was no doubt that he was in this one. His son must be in here, Golonka knew. If there was one thing he could do that would lead him back to the Driheli, it would be to go into this wagon and kill Nemgas, the one who was once Kashin.

Golonka trembled uncertainly. He still didn’t know how he was going to get to that western passage. But the voice of Sir Andrej was loud in his head. If this was his choice, he’d find a way. Gritting his teeth together, Golonka dragged himself up onto the wagon, and then, taking several long deep breaths, pulled open the door.

Immediately inside was a thick curtain that hung from the ceiling to the floor, and from wall to wall trapping in warmth and completely hiding what lay beyond. Golonka gently closed the door behind him, and then drew that curtain aside for a moment. He tensed. He’d hoped that Nemgas would have fallen asleep, but the man was bent over the pallet that lay to the back. On his knees, his head bowed as if in prayer, he was watching over the boy that lay wrapped tightly in linens like a newborn. There was a waist-high cabinet a few feet from where Nemgas crouched, and upon it were a few lit candles, as well as two swords.

One of the swords was shorter, golden in colour, with embedded jewels in the hilt, as if it were more a ceremonial blade than a real weapon. The design of the hilt was strange to him, the cross piece curling in opposite directions. He did not recognize the pattern, further convincing him that it was merely a ceremonial blade. Even so, the blade itself looked sharp, and for a moment, a single moment, there was a flash, of another image. A dark clad man sinking that blade to the hilt in an older man dressed in white robes. Golonka trembled, feeling a wave of sudden horror at it. What had that been?

The other blade was a long sword, fashioned from two metals together. Most of the blade seemed to have been chiselled out of black obsidian, so deeply did it gleam. But along through the middle was a line of silver that stretched the full length of the tang. The hilt was more conventional, but the grip was large enough for two hands. The guard was a simple cross piece that turned up slightly at the edges. There was a power in this blade too, and he felt his flesh tremble anew as he stared at it. No flash of image came to him, but he knew deep in the marrow of his bones that there was a history to this blade too.

Golonka stared for several moments. His eyes strayed from blades to man. Nemgas had his back to him and so far had not yet moved. It could be quick. Just grab a blade, take a few steps forward, thrust, and it would be over. The enemy of the Driheli would be dead and the Magyars would no longer have to fear them. They could be free to travel the Steppe once more. And the Driheli would be free to return to their homeland. But he’d need some proof. The head would do, but how was he to get it out of the Magyar camp? If any saw him carting a decapitated head about, they would raise the alarm. And there would be no doubt that they’d kill him if they caught him.

He could always use a satchel. There were enough of them around, probably even one in this wagon. It would stain with blood, true. He’d have to wrap it in linens to keep it from fouling the sack. There were plenty of linens here, that much was certain. But what of the sentry. Golonka grimaced. He’d have to kill the sentry probably. It was regrettable, but if he wanted to rejoin the Driheli, what other choice did he have? Do it, urged the voice of Sir Andrej in his head. Golonka felt a heaviness infest his chest, and he flexed the knuckles of his right hand, reaching out.

“Thou hast a choice, Grastalko,” Nemgas said softly. But it was said so abruptly that Golonka nearly peed his trousers. His whole body froze in terror. How had he known? He’d been quiet, he hadn’t made any noise at all.

“The Yeshuel,” Nemgas went on, “art given certain gifts. They hath a clarity of perception that most men lack. They dost know when another hast entered a room with them. And they canst discern that man’s identity merely by listening to the very air. Men dost breath differently Grastalko. I couldst tell by the very scent of the air that it wast thee. And I couldst tell that thee didst come here thinking to bring me harm. Do not fear that I am wroth with thee. I understand precisely what thee dost struggle with. My double did as much.”

Golonka felt as if his tongue had been tied into a knot. He opened his mouth to speak, drawing his right arm back from the blades. Nemgas so far remained kneeling before the boy. The boy’s face was peaceful, though it was locked in slumber so fully, he had begun to look desiccated, sunken and malnourished.

“Thou art wondering what I didst mean by double. Thou hath ne’er heard of a mountain called Cenziga?” Nemgas waited a moment, but Golonka’s voice failed him yet again. “I didst think not. Kashin had ne’er heard of it either. ‘Tis a secret of the Steppe-folk, one that few others wouldst believe. The Steppe hast no mountains after all, but it hast Cenziga, and Cenziga is a mountain, a mountain of ash. At dusk, in every direction for a month, a blue star appears on the horizon where Cenziga lay. Except when a man dost climb the mountain, when the star becomes red.

“Many long years ago, a man named Pelain climbed that mountain. Most who dost climb that peak are destroyed by it. Some few survive. They doth possess some quality that allows Cenziga to spare them, some deep sense of identity that anchors them to this world. I didst possess this, even though I confess that my own existence rests upon the shoulders of Kashin, the man thou wast sent to kill. I wilt explain to thee, Grastalko, because I feel I must. I canst say this to the other Magyars, for they wouldst not understand, as they dost remember me when I wast a boy, and I them. But ‘tis the truth I speak, a truth that dost agonize me as much as I agonize o’er this boy, my son Pelurji.

“But ‘twas Pelain that I didst speak. Pelain was a mighty leader of his people, and he didst make his home in the Vysehrad. Thou mayest remember the city Cheskych?” Nemgas paused for a moment. Golonka nodded slowly the icy tension in his flesh still holding him tight. “Pelain was one of the builders of Cheskych. ‘Twas he who fashioned its wall, and the great mirrors that brought the city sunlight throughout the day. But he didst not do these things until after he ascended Cenziga. Cenziga split him. It created a second copy of himself. There wast two Pelains, though they wert the same man. ‘Twas magic beyond description, but ‘tis true.

“Kashin climbed Cenziga as well. But it did not do for him the same it had done for Pelain. He wast given a double, but Cenziga then smote him, because he lost his sense of self. He had nothing to anchor himself with, and was obliterated by that mountain. His double survived though, and it is he who now tells thee these things. I owe my very existence to Kashin, the man that thou wishest to destroy. By climbing Cenziga, Kashin allowed Nemgas to be free, to live his life the way he wished it. Not only that, but I hath now always been. Thou mayest ask any Magyar, and they wilt remember me as a child. But for the six weeks between when Kashin came amongst the Magyars and he climbed Cenziga, they wilt remember me. If thou asks after me in those six weeks, they will become confused, and uncertain. I know, I hath tried already. In those six weeks, Nemgas and Kashin became one. I was locked hidden inside Kashin, fighting to get out. The nearer we reached Cenziga, the more I struggled, the more I could make myself known, and he felt it as intense headaches and longing for that mount.

“I canst remember everything that Kashin ever did, and I hath the abilities of a Yeshuel, because I am the double, the mirror of Kashin. Kashin and his mission would hath remained dead had the Driheli not sought him out. The Driheli’s meddling hath brought the mission of Kashin back to life, and ‘tis a mission I will fulfill. I hath no choice. Not only am I his double, but ‘tis the only way I can save the life of this boy. This boy thee sees, he is of the line of Pelain. He and his brother are doubles too, doubles of each other. I didst not understand that until now. One came to become a Magyar, and one remained behind at Cheskych. Both will lead their peoples in time. ‘Tis in their blood. When I say that Pelurji is my son, I dost mean it in every sense of the word but for the biological. I hath no heirs born of my own loins. My kar hath tasted no woman. But Pelurji is a son of Cenziga, and so, of me, by his own choice.”

Nemgas took a deep breath then, a long sigh escaping his lips. Golonka felt mesmerized by this tale. He remembered that strange mountain now, that one shrouded in mists. The blue light that came upon the dusk. Yes, he could remember it. He’d felt his flesh crawl then. He wanted to know what lay beyond the tower of fog, but the fear in him, and the fear of his knight and the knight commander, had been the stronger.

“Thou dost see two swords. Both hath felt the touch of Cenziga. The black and silver blade is Caur-Merripen, the sword of Pelain. I didst find it in Hanlo o Bavol-engro, and ‘twas that blade which smote Sir Poznan. And ‘twas this boy that didst wield it. It too hast a double, though that blade remains, along with Pelain’s second set of armour, hidden for a time when I might present it to Pelaeth, this boy’s brother. Pelaeth didst not join the Magyars, but I love him all the same. I think I love him all the more for his courage.

“The second blade, the golden one, hast no name. ‘Tis a Sathmoran blade, one not meant to fight, but meant for ceremony. It hath tasted blood only once to my knowledge, and that was when it was used to murder Patriarch Akabaieth.”

Golonka’s tongue was loosed only long enough to suck in his breath as he flinched in horror. Was that the image he had seen? Was that the murder of the Patriarch he’d witnessed? Had the... blade shown it to him? And why?

“Kashin the Yeshuel wast meant to destroy the Patriarch’s murderers, to bring them to justice. The man who didst kill the Patriarch hast gone to a place that Kashin couldst not follow, nor couldst any of us. ‘Tis a cursed place that would corrupt and turn us to evil just as surely as it did the assassin. But there were some in Yesulam who plotted Akabaieth’s murder, and are even more guilty than the assassin of the deed. ‘Tis they who Kashin set out to kill. And ‘tis they who wilt taste death upon the end of that golden blade. Dost it surprise you to hear that there art priests who didst conspire to murder the Patriarch?”

In truth, it did surprise him. The very thought of it sickened him. How could any do such a thing. He had heard that the Patriarch was universally loved by all in the Ecclesia.

“Men are men,” Nemgas went on. “They hath been drawn to evil since the earliest days of the world. The very first story of the Canticles shows men being drawn to evil, thou knowest. A Yeshuel is dedicated since birth to protecting the Patriarch and serving. A Bishop was like any other man for the many years before his life wast dedicated to the Ecclesia. Which dost thee think more likely to betray Eli, hmm?

“But I didst say that thee hast a choice. Thou didst come here hoping to slay me, as thee knew it would be the only way the Driheli would ever accept thee as one of their own again. Thou surely must know they wouldst kill thee for a traitor for being dressed as a Magyar, and for having learned to speak as one as well. But thou hast made friends amongst the Magyar, and thou wouldst come here, not merely to help the Driheli. Thou dost believe what that herald didst say. Shouldst Kashin die, the Magyars would remain unmolested. Thou art a fool to think so. As soon as word reaches the Bishop that I hath died, he wilt send more men out to destroy the band of Magyars that didst harbour him. Thou wouldst aid in our destruction. And thee, wouldst still likely die, perhaps placed in battle where thee wert sure to meet thy end.

“All that I speak is true, and thee dost know it. But thee still shouldst make a choice. I wilt not look. Pick up one of the two blades. If thee wishest to see the Patriarch avenged, then chose the golden blade. If thee wishes to kill me, take Caur-Merripen, and strike as fast and as hard as thee canst. I wilt not wait for thee to kill me, for I am committed to this task. Now choose, Grastalko. Wilt thee serve the Ecclesia? If thou wishest to be a Driheli more, than thou wilt harm the Ecclesia. But in this moment, thou wilt serve the Ecclesia far more by remaining a Magyar. What wilt thee choose, Grastalko?”

Golonka found that the iciness that had paralysed him had finally disappeared. His muscles were sore, and an uncertain tension filled him. He stared at the swords, the various metals melting together in his mind. The wagon began to spin about him, everything blending into what lay next to it. He wanted to believe it was all lies, wanted badly. The voice of Sir Andrej scoffed at him for his weakness, urging him to take the black and silver blade and run the lying Magyar through. He’d never be a knight if he couldn’t do this. His name would be a byword amongst the Driheli, the boy who’d broken his vows of service to his knight, to the order, and to the Ecclesia.

What had been his vows? His knight was dead,. And that voice was just a memory, a blending of his own father and the gruff Sir Andrej. Neither had ever been satisfied with him. He had fulfilled his vow to Sir Andrej. It lasted until the knight’s death. And to the Driheli? What more did his vows ask of him there? Only of loyalty to them and to the Ecclesia. But he would be an ill servant to follow blindly. Not when he could see the truth. Nor would he do any service to the Ecclesia by letting the corrupt continue to use the Driheli against their own ways.

Golonka cried as he blindly stretched out his hand and clasped the hilt of one of the swords. He could hear the quick shuffling of feet, and when he opened his eyes, Nemgas was staring at him, a smile spreading over his lips. Looking down, Golonka saw that he’d taken up the golden blade in his right hand. He’d chosen to be a Magyar. Ah, Eli, forgive him this necessity.

Nemgas nodded and strode over unafraid, gripping him by the shoulder, “Thou art a truer man now than thee wouldst e’er have been amongst the Driheli, Grastalko. ‘Tis thy name now, thou shouldst accept it and think of thyself that way. Go now, thou shouldst return to sleep. Thee hast a long day of travel tomorrow.”

Golonka – no, his name was Grastalko now – nodded slowly, smiling half-heartedly. That is, until he felt the burning sensation in his left hand. He flicked out his hand, but he felt his flesh beginning to smolder as if he’d placed it within hot coals. Giving out a yelp, he dropped the sword, and grabbed at his hand, fingers clenched in agony. The lancing of pain stopped the moment he let go of the sword, but the shrivelling and burning did not stop. Nemgas was at his side now, gripping his wrist too, peering at the flesh as it darkened. His fingers curled up, shrivelling until they were twigs, blackened and burnt to the very bone. He continued to cry out at the pain, unable to comprehend what had happened to him.

And then, just as his hand had nearly become a useless stump, the pain vanished, and his hand was once more whole. Blinking, he tried to flex his fingers, but he could do nothing. They simply remained flax and unmoving. “What?” he asked, reaching out with his arm. He tried to set his hand against the wall, but felt a sharp thrill of pain as he watched his finger simply pass through the wood!

“Spirit of Eli!” he swore, staring at this, pulling back his arm. The fingers were there again, but still, they were as unmoving as they had ever been. Lifting his hand out, he tried to touch Nemgas, but the Magyar took a step backwards, “Do not touch me with that hand. Thou hast been touched by Cenziga,” there was genuine fear in his voice. “I doth not know how, but I shouldst not hath told thee to touch that blade. It burned thee.”

“But I didn’t touch it with my left hand,” Grastalko objected. And then he realised something else. The whole time, Nemgas had been speaking in the Northern tongue. Many of the words he had spoken, Grastalko had heard for the first time. Yet he had understood every single one of them. He shuddered anew, reaching out with his right hand to feel at his left. There was pain as his fingers passed through one another, but it was less this time. And then, the pain was gone, fading to a dull numbness. He stared at that false seeming, and for a moment, he thought he could see the burned stump that lay beneath.

Nemgas bent down and picked up the golden sword where it had fallen. He rolled it about in his right hand for a moment, and then swung with his left hand towards the wall of the wagon as if there was a blade there too. A chunk of wood broke free, sizzling as if it had been poked with a red hot iron.

“The blade hast a double too,” Nemgas breathed quietly, putting it back down on the counter top. “I dost not know what can be done for thy hand, but I suspect that the answer lays in Yesulam. Thou wilt know when we hath slain the enemy, Grastalko. Thou wilt know it in thy hand.”

Numbly, Grastalko could only nod. A dim flash of hope that he might be allowed to come came to him, but he knew it would not be wise. Not know. “I wilt go back to the wagon and to bed. I wilt see thee off tomorrow, Nemgas.”

“Nay,” Nemgas said, teeth grit as he stared back at the sleeping boy. “I wilt see thee off, Grastalko. I wilt see thee off.”

The fingers on his left hand twitched.

“Ah!” Sir Wodnicki exclaimed. He was the first to see the flicker of light that was coming towards them from the northeast. They had made their circuit back to the southern edge of their range by then, and Sir Petriz had been doing his best not to watch the mountains. Instead his eyes had scanned across the vast empty spaces that continued to the South. The desert was there, only a few leagues further. They could already see it beginning in fact, as the ground grew steadily sandier.

Turning, Sir Petriz smiled brightly as he watched that light continue towards the camp. “Karol!” He felt his heart bubbling with elation. “Let us ride. We should catch up with him in a few minutes.”

So saying, he gave Karenna a gentle nudge to her ribs, and cracked the reins. His mare understood, and began to gallop at a comfortable pace. The older knight was not far behind. He savoured the cold wind wiping about his arms, its touch sliding across his cheeks. They were rough with his day’s growth of beard, but he would shave it clean on the morrow.

Between his legs, he felt the pounding muscles of Karenna beneath him. Ah, what a magnificent animal she was. A present from Sir Czestadt as well. He’d trained her since she’d been a yearling, and he would ride no other horse. She could sense his excitement at seeing the light in the distance, and picked up her pace. He patted the side of her neck with one hand between gallops, laughing into the wind.

It did not take them long before they were nearing the lone rider. As they closed, Sir Petriz slowed their pace, until finally the three of them fell alongside of each other, their steeds trotting briskly across the Steppe. “Karol! Ah, it is good to see you again my boy!” Sir Petriz reached out and grabbed his squire in a firm hug. Karol seemed surprised by this show of affection, but returned it nevertheless.

“Sir, it is good to see you too.” Karol nodded once respectfully to Sir Wodnicki before continuing. “I’m sorry. I failed you. They rejected our offer. Even threatened violence against me if I did not leave. But Kashin was there. I saw him and spoke to him.”

“Changed as Sir Tadeusz said?” Petriz asked. They had originally began their hunt after a one armed man. But now it seemed he had two again. Magic no doubt was at work.

Karol nodded. “I counted at least a hundred men and women. Probably a good thirty men were of fighting age. I did not get a chance to see what sort of supplies they had, but it did not look like they could carry too much in their wagons.”

“Well we know they don’t have much,” Sir Wodnicki pointed out gruffly. “They had to steal from those towns a few nights back. And not that much was taken, at least not to feed a hundred mouths.” His head lifted higher. “Looks like Volka wei Stuth is coming too.”

Sir Petriz glanced in the direction of the camp and saw another three horses riding out from the camp. Although he could make out no colours or banner sin the night, he could see the moon glinting off the familiar features of the Knight Templar. There was just something distinctive in the way he rode. There was an unnameable power that lurked in the spaces between his flesh and the air around him.

“I did see Sir Ignacz’s horses,” Karol added, his voice quiet. “I saw no sign of he nor his party.”

“Damn!” Wodnicki spat. “That’s another good man they’ve killed.”

“We knew it was a risk sending any into those mountains,” Sir Petriz pointed out, smiling still despite the ill news. “And we knew that there was little hope of seeing Sir Ignacz again after Sir Tadeusz told us of the Magyar’s arrival. We all risk our lives for Eli. To lose that life in His service... well I can think of no other death I should like.” He turned away from the approaching riders and back to his squire. The boy looked shaken, but relieved to be in friendly company again. He’d have to let him taste a bit of wine that evening. “Was there anything else that you saw there?”

“Yes, Sir. Do you remember Golonka? Sir Andrej’s squire?”

Sir Petriz frowned. “Yes. Killed with Sir Andrej a month ago now I think.”

“Golonka did not die,” Karol said, his face ashen. “I saw him there. He was sitting and eating with the Magyars, dressed in their clothes. I even saw him sharing a joke with one of them. That is, until he saw me. He had... I don’t know, some look of horror on his face when he saw me. He knew I’d seen him I think.”

“Golonka gone to the Magyars?” Wodnicki stammered in disbelief. He growled in his throat. “Little traitor. I’ll skewer him when I get my hands on him.”

“Sir Wodnicki, please,” Sir Petriz said, though he too felt horror at these words. “I do not doubt that Golonka is being forced to wear their clothes and eat their food. Were any of us prisoner of the Magyars, they would do the same to us. It is their way, or so the scribes say. Let us hope that Golonka merely adopts their ways while he bides his time to escape. I will hear no more talk of killing him.”

The older knight nodded his head but continued to look distinctly unhappy. Sir Petriz reached over with one hand and gripped his squire by the shoulder. “You did very well, my squire. Very well indeed.”

“I did?” Karol stammered, his whole posture brightening. “Thank you, Sir! Thank you!”

Sir Petriz’s grin widened with the pride he felt. “You will make a fine knight one day, Karol. A very fine knight indeed. Now, let us see what the Master Templar has to say.” He gestured ahead, drawing his own steed to a stop. They all did as he, and a few seconds later, Sir Czestadt, Sir Guthven, and Hevsky all pulled their mounts to a stop. Sir Guthven looked bit disorderly, no doubt he’d just been woken for the run.

“Ah, good, you have returned, boy,” Sir Czestadt said as he neared, looking Karol over. “I see they did not harm you, that is good. What did they say to our proposal?”

“They rejected it, Master Templar, Sir. They threatened to kill me if I lingered.”

“Well, I expected as much,” Czestadt cast Sir Petriz a small glance, not unpleasant, but merely one that told Petriz that he, Sir Czestadt, had always suspected the Magyars would do this. “What else have you learned?”

The other three knights waited patiently while Karol recited what he had seen. Sir Czestadt asked a few probing questions while his steed stamped impatient hooves. Finally, Sir Czestadt nodded, and waved one hand at the rest of them. “Sir Wodnicki, lead the squires back to the camp.”

The older knight nodded his head, clearly unhappy to play nursemaid to the squires. But he did as he was bade, and within twenty seconds, was safely out of earshot. Sir Czestadt looked to the bearded Guthven first. Guthven had been one of Czestadt’s closest advisors for the last few years. Now that Sir Poznan had died, it was rumoured amongst the Knight Bachelors that Guthven would be elevated to Knight Commander in his place.

“What do you think?”

Sir Guthven ran one hand through his beard, pulling at a few knots that had developed in the dark hair. “I do not want to lead men up those mountains. I would rather storm Hevagn. I do not think we can win a battle in the mountains themselves.”

“I have to agree,” Sir Petriz put in. “I do not think we can go after him until he leaves those mountains.”

“And if he goes to the east? We cannot traverse the desert.” Sir Czestadt crossed his arms, gloved fingers curling tightly around his arm. “What then?”

“We found him once,” Sir Guthven said, though there was no joy in his voice. “We can find him again. But at least we will know where to look.”

“If he even goes to the east,” Sir Petriz pointed out. “They could head north again.”

“They’d still have to come out to the Steppe. They cannot evade us there.”

“How do we even know they will consider coming back to the Steppe?” Sir Guthven added morosely. “They may well just decide to take the eastern route and make the best they can in that land.”

“They may,” Sir Czestadt admitted. “But I do not think Kashin will want to do so. I think that is what we have been forgetting. What is it that Kashin wants?” The Knight Templar paused, tapping his chin with a finger. His eyes narrowed, and in the darkness they glowed golden like the eyes of a falcon. “I want our knights to withdraw twenty leagues to the west.”

“What?” Sir Petriz asked, surprised by this. And then, as he considered the idea, he began to nod. “Ah, you mean to make them think we have given up.”

“Kashin will know better,” Sir Czestadt said with a shake of his head. “He will know that it is a ruse. But the Magyars may come anyway. It will take them several days to become convinced that we are gone though. Sir Petriz, I want you to take two of your knights and head immediately to the smaller pass. They will not be able to see you if you hug to the base of the mountains. Light no fires and pitch no tents. Find an alcove if you can to prepare for the rest of us. Forage at night. Each night I will send six knights to you. In three days we will al be there waiting for them. When the Magyars leave the mountains, we will come upon them from behind. There we will destroy them.”

“And if they do not come?” Sir Guthven asked.

“If they have not come in two weeks, we will send a small force into the mountains, and they are to turn back upon first sight of the Magyars. When we return to camp, Sir Petriz, select your men and begin. It should only take you two hours to reach the pass. Bear no torches.”

Sir Petriz frowned. “I do not like the idea of skulking in darkness, Master Templar.”

“Neither do I, but if that is what must be done to put an end to the traitor Kashin, then that is what we shall do. Let us return and make ready.”

Sir Petriz nodded slowly. He’d ask Karol to come of course. A squire’s place was at his knight’s side after all. He looked to one side at Sir Czestadt as they resumed riding towards the lights of the Driheli encampment. Yes, he well remembered what a squire’s duties were. He would do as Sir Czestadt had asked of him, and thank Eli for the opportunity to serve this knight.

With that thought in mind, he smiled and rode on.

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