Night Amongst Whispers - Part III
he rows of benches were already set up by the time that Nemgas returned to the wagons of his people. As was their custom, the wagons framed one half of a semicircle, while the benches were set to fill in most of the rest. In the centre of the circle several fires were made. At one of the largest, Varna’s cookpot was brewing a sweet smelling meal. He would take his shortly, as he still had an hour before they would begin their performances. Most of his fellow Magyars were out in the middle, sitting here and there supping upon a delightful stew and chewing on bits of bread.
To the east the sun still shone in the Pelain mirrors, though it was beginning to reach it’s limit. In another hour it would have disappeared completely, filling the gorge in darkness. Already the farmers and fishers were beginning to wander back through the massive stone gatehouse of Cheskych, leading their flocks back to their pens for the night. Several guards dressed in furs and thick leather walked along the walls, bows and spears in hand.
Most of his friends approached him as he returned, asking him what he’d gone to see in Cheskych, but Nemgas had to promise them the story when he finally sat down to eat, something he hoped would be soon. But there was something he had to do first he told each of them, and then asked them where he might find Taboras, the storyteller for the Magyars.
Taboras being an older man was not often out in the open air during the winter months. In the Summers when they travelled across the Southern Steppe he would often lead a wagon himself, enjoying the warm sea swept air, recounting legends of ancient armies and peoples that once lived in the empty lands. But until then, he only emerged from his wagon for meals and for the pageant.
But he had not yet emerged this time, a fact that Nemgas concluded from all those he spoke with. None had seen him, so they simply assumed he was still resting in his wagon. So Nemgas went to the wagon he knew belonged the older Magyar, and knocked sharply upon the door three times. “Who dost wish to speak with me?” his powerful voice rang out. Though his strength had failed in the last ten years, his voice had not diminished in the least.
“It art I, Nemgas, who doth knock upon thy door, master storyteller. I ask of thee but a moment, and perhaps a story for myself this eve.”
There was the sound of a drawer being slid shut, and then Taboras’s voice came back filled with hearty delight. “Enter my lad! Enter and sitteth with me.”
Nemgas pushed open the door and smiled as he saw Taboras standing next to a small table on one side oft he wagon. There was only room enough for two to sit at the table, but that was the way it was with most of the Magyar wagons. Taboras shared the wagon with several other older members of their clan, but none of them were there just then.
“I thank thee for thy hospitality, Taboras. I shalt not detain thee for long, I hope.”
“Sit!” Taboras said, gesturing to the seat towards the door. He stood by its companion until Nemgas had sat, and then he too slid behind the table, resting his legs. His face was limned by lantern light, highlighting the creases and wear that so many years wandering the Steppe had done. Like all Magyars, he wore a colourful patchwork tunic, though his appeared to have far more patches sewn into it than Nemgas’s own. His body was thin, though it did appear to have held great strength at one time. Short balding white hair topped most of his head.
“What story dost thee wish to hear this eve, oh mountain slayer?”
Nemgas smiled sardonically then, leaning back slightly, hooking his ankles together at the base of the table. “‘Tis perhaps of that I wish to speak. Dost thee know many stories of the great hero of Cheskych, Pelain?”
“Pelain of Cheskych, slayer of the dragon of Hanlo o Bavol-engro, builder of the walls of Cheskych, and the tamer of the sun?” There was a glint of delight in the old man’s eye, as if he were ruminating over a friend lost long ago. “Aye, I know many stories of Pelain. The storytellers of Cheskych know more, and they shalt tell thee of him for but a story of thy own. Why dost thee wish to know of him?”
Nemgas leaned forward then, his face darkening with seriousness. “I happened across some boys whilst wandering Cheskych. They told me some of Pelain, and what they hath suggested to me leaves me filled with great curiosity. Wast there any stories of Pelain visiting an ash mountain?”
Taboras’s bright demeanour was startled by the question, and he brought a shaking hand up to his forehead to steady himself. “I hath ne’er heard any such tale. A child told ye this?”
Nemgas nodded. “Aye. I wast telling them of the exploits of Shapurji, and they didst assert that Pelain wast the greater of the two. And after I told them how Shapurji’s love for the moon princess angered the sun, they didst say that Pelain climbed the ash mountain. Art there any ash mountain’s other than that which I climbed? I thought that it had ne’er been climbed.”
The old man finally managed to regain his composure, and steepled his fingers before his lips, pressing against his wrinkled nose. It had been broken sometime during his youth and now twisted first to the left, and then back to the right. “There art nae but few legends of Pelain’s death. Some hath said that he ne’er died, but lives deep within the mountains, dickimengro of Vysehrad.” The use of the older Magyar word for spirit did not surprise Nemgas. In fact, the Magyar did not think of a spirit in quite the same way as he knew that other person he’d once been had. It was more removed, something watching over instead of living amidst the corporeal.
“Then, others saith that he went to Hanlo o Bavol-engro to die,” Taboras continued. “But ne’er hath I heard a legend of Pelain climbing the mountain of ash as ye hath. Perhaps he went there to die instead, for we dost know that others hath climbed that mountain, ne’er to return. Thou art the first to do so, and the legends shall long speak thy name and thy deed.”
Nemgas sat considering this, and nodded slowly. “Dost thee think that the children of Pelain might speak of it shouldst I tell my own tale of that mountain?”
The storyteller took a deep breath, but neither nodded nor shook his head. “I canst nae say what they shalt do. Before thou speakest of such things, thou must first speak to Hanaman. Such a tale would surely frighten many, and many more wouldst nae believe it. ‘Tis possible that thy tale wouldst offend them if thou hast no other tales to spin but that. How couldst a Magyar hath climbed that mountain if he hath no other legends to recount?”
“I can speak of Metamor,” Nemgas pointed out. “I can speak of the terrible things that befell that city. We speakest of it already. Surely a man who hast been to such a strange baro gav couldst climb Cen... the ash mountain,” he caught his tongue before speaking that name. Though it held no fear for him, it still brought much to his fellow Magyars. He knew what lurked atop that stygian peak, though he was incapable of putting it into words. And he also knew that they were right to fear it. Its attention was not to be desired.
“Aye, thou canst speak of such marvellous things, but wilt that be enough? I dost nae think so,” Taboras shook his head then, an understanding smile gracing his thin lips. “Thou shalt add many more exploits to thy legends in time, good Nemgas. One day thy name shalt be upon the lips of all Magyars, adored as Shapurji. If thou dost do many things worthy of legend.”
Nemgas nodded at that, not sure how he felt about being compared to the mighty Shapurji. He certainly did not wish to end his life as the greatest of all Magyars had, becoming a mighty tree in the Åelfwood and all his friends simple animals of the woods. But he knew that were he to ever be properly compared to Shapurji, he would need to do far more than climb a mountain, no matter how feared it was.
“I shalt speak to Hanaman.” He rose from his seat, and nodded respectfully to the storyteller.
“Ja,” Taboras said, rising as well. “Eat and worry another day.”
With one more nod of his head, Nemgas left the storyteller’s wagon in search of the cookpot.
Nemgas never found Hanaman before the people of Cheskych began to gather for the performance. Instead, he spent the time enjoying a bowl of stew with his wagonmates Pelgan and Gamran. Both wished to know what he had seen in Cheskych and so he told them of the statues, the homes that they could plainly see from where they sat, the strange staircase that led up into the mountains, and his encounter with many of the boys of that town.
“Thou didst teach them to juggle?” Pelgan asked, quite surprised. He’d already finished his meal and was busy running a whetstone across one of his daggers.
“I hath tried. But only one of them hath any true ability, a young child, the youngest of the lot. Perhaps nine years of age.”
Gamran laughed spritely then, juggling not his balls, but the stew bowls that he and Pelgan had eaten from. They twisted end over end, but the little thief kept them in the air effortlessly. And they never once struck each other, though they passed very near to each other constantly. “Didst thee let him try more than one ball? I remember thy uncertain look the first time I let thee try two.”
“Nae, I hath not let him try two. Shouldst I see him tomorrow ere I climb the stairs I shalt let him try two.”
“Thee wishest to climb the stairs?” Pelgan asked, surprise showing on his face. “I hath heard that they art treacherous.”
“Aye, but what I hath seen of them wast scalable,” Nemgas said, spooning a bit of potato into his mouth. They had not yet exhausted the supply of potatoes that he had stolen from Doltatra. Somehow, knowing that he had stolen these potatoes made them taste all the better.
“I wouldst like to climb them myself,” Gamran announced then, catching each bowl in his hands and then stacking them together on the bench at his side. “I hath ne’er seen them. ‘Twould be great sport!”
“And Thelia wouldst be very impressed,” Pelgan pointed out, a slight grin creasing his lips, still running his whetstone across the dagger’s blade.
At the mention of the young seamstress’s name, Gamran began to blush furiously. “Aye, ‘twould impress that lovely lass. And shouldst thee climb it,” he said, pointing at Pelgan, “I wager thou wouldst impress Amile.”
Pelgan’s smile grew at that, thinking of the young acrobat who was even then stretching before one of the fires, performing for those of Cheskych who had already arrived. His eyes darted over to where she stood upon one leg, her other lifted straight up into the air, arms gingerly wrapped about it as if it were a stately birch. And then the young man’s grip on his whetstone faltered, and it fell to the ground. Pelgan gave out a short exclamation, and then sucked upon his thumb where the dagger had cut it.
Both Gamran and Nemgas laughed then. “Thy wound is not so serious?” Gamran asked after he recovered himself.
Pelgan glanced down at his thumb, flexed it a few times, and then nodded, sucking upon the wound once more. “‘Tis but a small scratch,” he said after he was satisfied that it had stopped bleeding. “I hath many more.” He leaned over and retrieved his whetstone and continued to sharpen his blade. “I shalt accompany thee tomorrow to climb the stairs. It doth sound like great sport.”
Nemgas smiled around the bit of meat he had just eaten, and swallowed. “Shouldst we ask Kaspel, Berkon and Chamag to join us?”
But Pelgan snorted and Gamran laughed mischievously. “Ah, thou hast not heard of what Chamag hath done this day?” At Nemgas’s headshake, the little thief continued. “He hast spent all of the afternoon in the lass’s wagon with Fenella.”
“I didst not know that he hath eyes for her,” Nemgas admitted. Chamag was the eldest of the other five bachelors he shared a wagon with. A large built man, and one of Hanaman’s best fighters. He also played the role of the fox warrior in the pageant. Fenella happened to be one of the dancers learning all of the secrets that Zhenava wife to Hanaman held to tantalize a man’s flesh without ever touching.
“Hah!” Pelgan laughed disapprovingly. “Chamag cares only for her birk and bul.”
“Ah,” Nemgas said, smiling a bit, “but she hath quite a fine birk and bul.”
Gamran smiled to him, still the impish glint to his eyes. “I thought thee hadst eyes for Kisaiya, oh brother Nemgas.”
He returned the stare sourly, spooning the last of his potato in his mouth. After swallowing, he drank down the broth, and set the bowl with the other two that the little thief had been juggling. “She hath not thrown herself at my feet. That alone hath made her interesting to me.”
After he had returned from Cenziga, very nearly all of the lasses were quick to try to woo him, at least those who were not already infatuated with another. Of the few who did not, it was Kisaiya that had caught his eye. The rest would smile to him hopefully. She who tended the Assingh and sometimes helped Varna at the cookpot, always turned away from him when he looked, doing her best to avoid his gaze. A few times he had approached her, but she was always quick to find an excuse to leave his presence.
“But,” Nemgas added quickly, “I still hath eyes to note what many a lass doth possess. And of birk and bul Fenella hast great bounty. She wilt tempt the hearts of many men in the years to come when she dost dance.”
“Aye, thee speaketh truly,” Gamran said, smiling wickedly. “And thee still hast stared at Kisaiya.”
“Kisaiya wishes nothing to do with me,” Nemgas pointed out, his frown deepening.
“Ah, but thee shalt win her heart if thee persist,” Gamran asserted, sitting up straighter on the bench. “Thou must impress her with all that thee hast done.”
“I wilt hath climbed two mountains.”
“Ah, but what mountains!” The little thief declared with pride. “And nae forget thy victory o’er that cur of the Tagendend.”
“‘Twas Hanaman’s victory, not mine.”
“Ah, but thou didst save Hanaman’s life then, and all love thee for it.”
Nemgas frowned uncomfortably. Strangely enough he found worrying over the significance of Pelain having climbed Cenziga - if indeed he had - to be a far more pleasant and less complicated affair. To speak of Kisaiya only left him confused and uncertain. Why did she refuse any attention he paid her? Why did she avoid him whenever she could? He could not understand it at all.
Narrowing his gaze, Nemgas turned on the little man. “And just what hath thee done whilst I was teaching the boys of Cheskych to juggle?”
“Ah,” Gamran laughed, a delighted burble that Nemgas had heard many times before, “I hath great delight in thy asking. ‘Tis a story ye shalt ne’er want to forget.”
Somehow, Nemgas knew it would be just the opposite, but nodded for his fellow Magyar to continue. Smiling in amusement, Pelgan turned his dagger over and began to sharpen the other side, even as Gamran drew himself up to regale them with his latest tale of skulking and possible thievery.
As it was the first night that the Magyars spent in Cheskych, the first night of four that they would spend, they did not perform their pageant of Metamor. That was to be saved for later, though Nemgas did not know which nights Hanaman planned for it. Instead, that night’s activities consisted of a wide range of minor but nevertheless impressive acts. Nemgas himself helped out in several different ways, from assisting the musicians with playing on a set of drums, to juggling and tumbling with Pelgan and Gamran.
The three of them at one point were the centre of attention as their complicated juggling dance ensued. They would each toss four balls into the air, two to themselves, and one each to the rest. And they would hold that pattern without breaking stride, even as they moved in a steady circle around one of the fires. This always delighted people to see, calls of delight and amazement as some of the balls were tossed through the flames to each other.
Nemgas, when he could, scanned the assembled crowd for any familiar faces. He saw many children watching, their parent’s protective hands keeping them from getting too close. But amongst those children he did not find Pelurji or Pelaeth. It was only when he reached the very end of the benches that he saw those two children. They sat together, while a larger man hulked behind them. Both their eyes were wide with eager delight as they watched Nemgas juggle. And they did aught but watch Nemgas, the Magyar they had met that day who’d tried to teach them to juggle, and gave them new names.
He smiled briefly to each of them, hoping that they saw it, but then he was off around towards the other side of the fire. Somehow Nemgas knew he’d see them again while they were in Cheskych. But for then he continued to juggle, focussed on pleasing all with his skills as a Magyar.
But for most of the events of the evening he simply watched from atop the wagons. He sat with his knees pressed to his chest, hands looping in front of them. Pelgan and Gamran naturally were with him, as they were without a doubt his closest friends. But they were joined now by both Thelia and Amile, the women who had smitten their hearts. Nemgas smiled as his eyes slid to his friends, seeing Thelia huddling under a blanket with the little thief, and Amile teasing Pelgan by gently touching him in various places with her fingers, but always leaning back out of reach when he’d turn.
Nemgas tried not to think of Kisaiya as he watched them, but he knew how pleasant it would be to have her sitting next to him huddled beneath a blanket. Even if she were to tease his flesh by gently brushing her fingertips across it he would be ecstatic. Perhaps one day that would come to pass, he reassured himself. His stature probably frightened her, and his attention towards her made it only worse. Maybe he simply needed to be gentle.
And before he knew it, the people of Cheskych began to return to their homes. Even the two boys he’d looked so carefully for left their camp when all was done. But there was still one thing that Nemgas had to do. He needed to speak with Hanaman so that he might be given permission to tell the stories of his own. He did want to hear a story of Cheskych and of Pelain after all, and hopefully one of his own choosing. But before he could do that, he had to seek Hanaman’s permission.
However, Hanaman was in his wagon with his wife, and had been so for most of the day in fact he discovered. He had begun the night’s proceedings with a few words to the townsfolk, but that had been the last any had seen of him. Nemgas did manage to find one of Hanaman’s children, the elder boy, who appeared quite glum. And when he told Nemgas the reason why he was so glum, the Magyar felt quite stupid for not having expected it.
Zhenava had not been pleased at staying four days at Cheskych, the reasons for which Nemgas still did not know, and was taking it out on her husband. They would be likely to see very little of either of them during their stay in Cheskych, a fact that only soured Nemgas’s mood. And so, after helping to clean up from the night’s activities, Nemgas retired to his wagon with his fellow bachelors and tried to sleep, while some niggling thought roamed around the back of his head.
It was strange indeed to have morning signalled in the west, but that was the nature of Cheskych, Nemgas reminded himself. Everything in this gorge was in some ways a mirror reflection of what was real outside. Out on the Steppe, no town would have ever let the Magyars make camp within their walls, but the people of Cheskych did so. There were other comparisons to be made he knew, but his mind was not capable of dredging them up.
Nemgas had not slept peacefully that night, unable to get his mind off of the stories he wished to tell, but moreso for the reason he wished to tell the stories. Had Pelain actually climbed Cenziga? Knowing as little as he did of the builder of this town, it was entirely plausible. Cenziga was still a good months journey from Cheskych, even as the crow flies, but stories of it would have been known to any traders who’d made their way to the foothills of the Vysehrad.
Others had climbed Cenziga, Nemgas knew that. Otherwise how could the terrible legends and warnings surrounding that ash mountain have ever come to exist? But Pelain was the very first person he had heard of about whom it had also been suggested had made the climb. Perhaps if he’d heard other names mentioned before this it would not have upset him so, but still he could not help but feel that if true it was significant in some way.
Nevertheless, he dressed warmly and emerged to take a meal before making his ascent up the stairs of Cheskych. Pelgan and Gamran also rose with him, the little thief’s narrow face full of anxious delight at the prospect of doing something as exciting as this. Pelgan was more contemplative, rubbing a lock of his long unbraided hair between his fingers, dark eyes lost amidst the high peaks on either side.
They had asked their wagonmates Berkon and Kaspel to join them, but they, like Chamag, had already been given duties to attend to that day. So, after a warm meal of eggs and bread, the three of them, freshly lit lanterns in each hand and a small pouch of provisions at their side, began to walk through the streets of Cheskych.
The morning was not new minted, and so several of the townsfolk were out walking the streets, tending to small gardens in which grew berries and grapes. Most of the children were helping their parents with the chores, though a few did run about with mischief on their minds. Nemgas was disappointed when he did not see Pelurji or Pelaeth on their walk to the stairs at the deep end of the gorge, but he suspected that he would see them again later.
The townsfolk did avoid the three Magyars walking by in their colourful clothing, bearing lanterns that provided no more illumination to the sun filled gorge. But that did not stop Gamran from being his usual boisterous self, greeting with a whimsical step each person as he passed. Though one hand held a lamp, his other was busy juggling two balls, taking great delight in the distraction it caused amongst the children.
When they reached the stairs though, he slipped both back into his pouch and stared. They all did in fact, standing still for several moments while the considered the stone staircase that wound up into a small fissure in the escarpment. With the reflected sun at their backs, light filled the fissure, highlighting many veins of rock, some that sparkled like thousands of pinpricks of snow. But they could also see that the fissure turned sharply only a short distance in. They would need the lanterns to even see the stairs in less than a minute’s time.
“We shouldst begin,” Nemgas said, looking to his fellow Magyars. “We hath not a day to waste in watching.”
Pelgan nodded, grimacing and tossing his hair back over his shoulders. “‘Tis true. How long wilt it take to climb, I doth wonder.”
“We shalt find out,” Gamran said, smiling once more, his usual exuberance beginning to return. “Who shalt go first up yon stairs?”
Neither Pelgan nor Gamran seemed inclined to take the first step, so Nemgas did. “I hath found them, and ‘twas I that wished to climb them. So I shalt lead thee up yon steps. Come.” His mouth set in a firm line of resolve, Nemgas set his foot upon the first step, finding it solid and dry beneath his boot. He then lifted his other foot and set it down on the second step, discovering that it was much like the one below it. A few seconds later, and the walls of the escarpment crept up on either side of him, towering above impossibly high.
He tried to remember a time in his life when he had stared up at earth so high overhead, and could not quite think of a single instance, from either set of memories he contained. While the part of him that had been in Metamor could remember the towering peaks on either side of that castle, they had always been several miles distant, something to admire from afar. Even when that other person had been in the Åelfwood, the trees whose height seemed unbelievable could not compare, for they were but spike that rose up from the ground. He could walk around them in but a minute’s time.
Nor did he remember a time during his Magyar life when he’d stood beneath such a crushing weight. While he knew that he’d been to Cheskych many times before, and also along the entire length of the Vysehrad, never before had he stood so close to the cliff walls. They had always remained remote in some sense, as if they were a boundary not to be approached by a Magyar, as if beyond them lay a world that was not of their ken. And now Nemgas and his two fellow Magyars stood upon that threshold, ready to cross over.
“Why hast thee stopped?” Pelgan called from behind him.
“He needeth to relieve himself!” Gamran chided with a laugh.
“Nae,” Nemgas said, smiling, but not turning around. “‘Twas simply admiring the mountain.” And with that, he stepped into the shroud of the fissure, feeling those walls press in on either side of him. He stole a moment to glance upwards, but the twisting rock obscured any view of the sky from there.
Strangely though, with the huge weight of rock coming down from all sides, Nemgas felt completely comfortable. There was little more room to move about in their wagons after all, and they would spend an entire day within them while travelling if it was not their turn to lead them. Those were the days he most enjoyed in some sense, for he would wake up in one land, go into his wagon and spend many hours practising his arts, repairing his garments, or spinning tales of yore, and he would emerge to take his evening meal in another land.
It did not take long to reach the first turn, and soon, Nemgas could only barely see the stairs before him. Only the lantern he held in one hand provided any light, and the stairs were gloomy, but still clear. The centre of the stairs was worn slightly, but still solid and easy enough to climb. The steps themselves were long enough at first, though still steep. At several points as they made their way up the winding fissure, the steps would suddenly narrow, and they would have to slowly climb past them. Already, he was breathing heavily from the exertion of the climb, as were his friends.
The steps themselves were almost flush with the walls of the fissure. But between them and the walls were small channels that framed either side, worn deeply from year after year of run off. This was where the rain water washed through the fissure so that the steps would not completely disappear in only a generation. How many more would it before the channels washed out the support beneath the steps and they would be unclimbable? Nemgas knew that it would be a long time before that happened. Perhaps some wizard might come and might protect those stairs with a few spells, but otherwise he saw no way to preserve the staircase for all time.
The walls on either side of the staircase shifted and changed colours as they continued their ascent through the rock. At times the walls were so close together that they had turn on their sides to get through. Sometimes they would be wide enough apart that they could stand shoulder to shoulder as they climbed. But it was the colours that truly caught the eyes of the Magyars. The glossy greys and blacks that had met them at the base shifted into deep maroons and reds as they continued upwards, shifting into a blend of what seemed purple and blue at several points. It was clear that these walls were decorated by unmined gemstones, stones that could not be removed if these walls were to remain standing. What riches Cheskych had, but could not sell if they wished to continue living in the valley. Had they attempted to extract these gems, the very walls might collapse, burying their city and all that they are in the rubble.
The climb was very strenuous on all of them though. Every single step after the first was quite steep, forcing them to work their legs more than they were used to. And so after an hour of climbing, they paused upon a wider step to rest. That place was doubly unusual because above them the fissure did not twist and turn, but led directly out to the sky. As they leaned against the rock, rubbing their legs with calloused hands, they admired the bright blue of the sky far above. A few wisp of clouds trailed along that narrow opening, but otherwise the sky was clear.
“‘Tis still far we hast to go,” Pelgan surmised between breaths. He gestured with one finger at the long tunnel of rock that wound over their heads out to the sky. To Nemgas’s eyes, it did appear to be closer than when he’d first studied the escarpment, but still inescapably high.
“Aye,” Nemgas said, nodding slightly, and then turning his head form side to side to stretch it. He brushed the twin locks of white hair from his face, and then stretched the fingers that had been curled about the lantern’s handle. They were all stiff, but he was used to it. “We shouldst still return ere the fall of evening methinks.”
Both of them nodded at that, and after stretching for another minute, rose to continue their climb. Nemgas once again leading the way up the winding stairs. The view of the sky was quickly lost to them, but as they continued on their way, they began to see it more and more. But even so, it was always only in snatches, mere glimpses that lasted only a second or two. Ever upward they climbed, feeling the beginning of aches seep into their bones.
At one point, the steps became so steep that they were forced to use their hands to help them climb. Nemgas left his lantern behind him with Gamran holding both high to illuminate the way. After he made it through to a flatter section of the fissure, he turned, and with feet bracing him against either wall, held out his hand. Both lanterns were passed up to him, and he set one upon the rock to guide the little thief in his way up. And after he managed it, Pelgan did the same, passing his lantern up first before climbing.
Several more times they had to do that, but after the second, they did not even hesitate in their routine so natural it had become to them. Nor did they even need speak to each other often, as they found they could communicate well enough by silent gestures. Nor did the climb leave them much chance to talk, for it taxed all of their energy and breath. It was strange to Nemgas to be in the company of Gamran and not hear the little thief chatting on about this or that. Pelgan was certainly the quieter of the two, but even he was often want to speak as well.
When they stopped a second time, also under an opening to the sky, Pelgan excused himself, walked down a few steps, and dropped his trousers to relieve himself. He used the small channels beside the stairs for it, while Gamran and Nemgas shared a bit of bread and water. When Pelgan rejoined them, he too took some bread and water, and they once again continued upwards.
The colours of the rocks had changed again, this time returning to the greys and blacks from before. A few slivers of white could be seen, but they were not common. There was also something different about the rocks this high up. They seemed to press against them far less than before, as if they were thinner, airy in some way. The air itself grew colder, and they had to breathe harder just to feel it fill themselves. Nemgas found his left arm wrapped about his colourful jerkin as he climbed higher, trying to keep the warmth within him. Glancing back at one point, he saw that both Pelgan and Gamran were doing the same.
It was roughly three hours into their climb that the fissure above finally opened out to the sky, the rock wall on either side no longer twisting with each vein that filled it. In fact, the steps themselves became shallow, long and broad, as if they were striding up towards an emperor’s palace instead of a mountain peak. And it was not long after that either that they finally emerged from the fissure completely, finally once more standing in sunlight.
The three of them stood still as they climbed the last of the steps. With the sun striking them and warming them ever so slightly, they found that they could look in every direction and see a new marvel. The stairs opened out to the North, and there they saw row after row of high peaks and jagged rocks, some of them still topped by snow. Several paths seemed to stretch out before them atop the Vysehrad, though most seemed to wind away without any course whatsoever.
To their East they saw much as they did to the North. Mountaintops rose even higher though, and snow covered all of them. If a world existed beyond, it was blocked from their view. The sun itself was now shining directly from the South, and in that direction they saw the mountains continue unabated, but they also found that they could see down partway into the gorge in which Cheskych rested. Beyond they saw the expanse of the Steppe stretching out endlessly until it vanished beyond the horizon. And to the West they saw more of the Steppe, stretching beyond the view of their eyes. Their breath caught in their throats, even as it misted before their faces. They were standing very nearly atop the world, all of it laid bare before them.
“‘Tis...” Gamran started to say, but he could not find the words to describe it. None of them could. They did not even blink as they stared, their eyes unable to take all that the Vysehrad had to offer in. This, the Great Eastern Mountains, the Vysehrad, was that upon which they now stood. A place where men could not tame or pass, a place that stood as the Eastern boundary of all that was known to men. Lands beyond were rumour and unknown, fables told to disbelieving children. And there they stood atop its western peaks, very nearly the furthest in any man could attain.
“There,” Nemgas said at last, pointing towards a path that also bore several steps downwards that wound around to the west. “‘Tis what we seek methinks.”
Pelgan nodded, having set his lantern down so that he might rub feeling back within his chilled fingers. “Thou speakest true,” he said quietly, a firm wind grabbing at his hair and pulling it around one cheek.
“Shalt we see where it doth lead?” Gamran said, stepping out in front, smiling to the rest of them, his arms held close to his body. Both Nemgas and Pelgan nodded, following quickly after them. Pelgan left his lantern behind though, wrapping his arms about his chest.
The path was gentle compared to the stairs that they had taken, and it led right up to the edge of the escarpment, and then down slightly from it, a narrow path that was quite treacherous. A bar of iron appeared to have been fastened to the rock ledge that they might grip it as they moved, and all three of them did so. Just inches from their feet was the gorge itself, and as they peered down, they could see trails of smoke rising up from homes far below, the cluster of buildings appearing nothing so much as piles of rock placed atop one another.
At the far end of the valley they saw their wagons, their home, all clustered in a tight circle. Nemgas felt his heart ache as he saw the distance that lay between him and their wagons. Quite suddenly he yearned to return to them and to rest within his own, his blankets pulled tight about him. He could see that same look of longing in the faces of his friends. How strange was it for Magyars to be so far from their wagons. And the worst of it was that they looked so small, as if they were toys children had fashioned.
Amidst the wagons of their people, and the homes of Cheskych, they could see what looked like ants slowly moving about. Pinprick of light denoted fires that had been built, and these colourful ants congregated about them. “Canst thee recognize any?” Pelgan asked as he strained to look, his eyes firmly fixed upon the wagons and the long wall beyond them. “I canst not.”
Both Gamran and Nemgas shook their heads though. “Nae, they art too small,” Nemgas said. He then looked up and stared across the gorge and shuddered when he saw several dancing lights moving in the wall. After blinking a moment he realized just what they were. “‘Tis the mirrors,” he nodded his head by way of indication, “they doth show me our lanterns.”
“Ah,” Gamran said, smiling at last. “And beneath our feet art the rest,” He looked down, and sure enough, the huge mirrors hung, imbedded into the rock as surely as if it were the stone itself. All of them looked down, eyes transfixed on the massive sheets of polished glass. They stretched out for a long distance in either direction. The path that they stood upon wound its way to the southernmost mirror, which also happened to be the highest of them all, and then it dipped around and made its way underneath them all before the path simply stopped after the last.
“‘Tis how they must keep them clean,” Pelgan said softly. “‘Tis a duty that few men hath the valour for methinks.” He stared for several minutes over the edge in deep thought, but then pulled himself back up with his hands firmly gripping the long metal bar. “How doth they manage it, I wonder?”
Nemgas also pulled himself back upright, one hand tightly gripping the bar. “‘Tis possible that they tie ropes to this bar and lower themselves o’er the side. ‘Twould be how I wouldst clean them wert I of Cheskych.”
“Ah,” Gamran smiled, a look of relief clear upon his face, “but we art Magyars, and ‘tis not for us to do!”
“Great thanks dost I hath for that!” Pelgan said, his face whitening.
Nemgas nodded, glancing back up the path towards the stairs that would lead them back down. He then returned his attention to the mirrors on the other side of the gorge. “Canst thee imagine how they wert made? How couldst a mere man hath fashioned this mirrors and placed them here?”
Both Gamran and Pelgan shook their heads. “Only the gods hath strength enough for this, methinks,” Gamran said quietly, clearly awed.
“Aye,” Pelgan agreed, his face quite ashen now. “‘tis not the work of men but of gods.”
“Or a man touched by the gods?” Nemgas asked, though he was not sure why.
“Aye, ‘tis what this feat hath required.”
Nodding at that, Nemgas continued to watch, feeling the cold mountain air tugging at him as it blew.
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