Night Amongst Whispers - Part IV

The climb down the stairs took nearly as long as the climb up did, but for different reasons. All three of them were already quite exhausted by the time they decided to return. And after nearly tumbling down one of the upper sections of stairs, they each moved deliberately slowly so as to maintain their balance. But when they reached the afternoon’s middle, they also reached the base of the stairs, and were standing, hands pressed upon their knees catching their breaths in Cheskych once again.

There were several of the townsfolk milling about the stairs, attending to daily chores. When they saw the three Magyars emerge from the cleft in the wall, they eyed them suspiciously, but not without a bit of wonder and grudging admiration. Few among their own kind would attempt that climb, and only on the holiest of days after all. To see three Magyars, foreigners to their lands, to every land in fact, climb the steps of Pelain was a marvel indeed.

Even so, they were not approached, and after they had finally caught their breath, Nemgas, Pelgan, and Gamran all began to make their way back towards the wagons. Smiles lit upon their faces as they stretched, each of them delighted to once more be upon ground that was not so treacherous. Above, and even on the steps, one misstep could have sent them hurtling to their death. As if to demonstrate, Gamran began to skip a bit in his step, jumping to and fro as they made their way along the tiled lane.

Nor was he the only one cavorting about enjoying the ability to move about. As the previous day, Nemgas caught sight of a group of boys laughing and playing games together. They were on the other side of a line of houses, and they appeared to be tossing something back and forth. Nemgas held up his free hand, and looked to both his friends. “Hold.”

“‘Tis what?” Pelgan asked, glancing about, but not seeing what had caught the larger Magyar’s attention.

“I wishest to see those children,” Nemgas pointed, one corner of his lips turned up in a smile.

“Dost thee think thy children be amongst them?” Gamran asked, a mischievous delight creasing his features, limned by the light from their lanterns.

“Aye,” Nemgas said. “‘Tis my hope.”

The houses of Cheskych were kept fairly close together so the three of them had to walk back to the centre of town in order to get around to the other street. They passed by the fountain atop which stood the statue of Pelain, though neither Pelgan nor Gamran seemed interested in it just then.

When they came around into the other street, they could see the children playing with a large ball roughly the size of their heads. Some of the boys saw them and gave up a shout, running off through the nooks of Cheskych, but a few stayed. The ball, suddenly forgotten, bounced once upon the ground and then rolled down the sloped street until it came to rest against one of the boy’s feet.

Nemgas glanced idly about, and saw several curious faces poking out from doorways and narrow alleys. The boys were interested, but too frightened to come closer. A familiar voice called out from the centre of the road, catching his attention immediately. “‘Tis Nemgas!”

He smiled broadly then, looking to see that the boy he called Pelurji was there, holding that ball in his hands eagerly. Pelaeth was only a few ells from him, but he did not immediately approach.

“Greetings to thee, Pelurji,” Nemgas said, kneeling down slightly, setting his lantern upon the road. “Didst thee enjoy what the saw of us last night?”

The young boy nodded enthusiastically. “Aye! ‘Twas great fun!” He then looked at both Pelgan and Gamran, who were watching him with curious but friendly faces. “‘Twas thou three that wast juggling and dancing!”

Nemgas nodded at that and smiled. “‘Tis true. We hath spent many an hour practising our juggling.”

“Canst I juggle again?” Pelurji said in a pleading voice.

Nemgas smiled but shook his head. “Alas, we hath not our balls for thee to juggle. Tomorrow, if thou wishest it, I shalt bring them with me.”


“Now where wouldst thee like to meet me and when, little Pelurji?” At the naming of the child, many of the other boys looked quite concerned, suspicious and further afraid.

“The statue!” Pelurji chimed, his face full of personal delight.


“Aye! Morning!”

Nemgas smiled once again, and patted him on the head, tousling his dark curly hair. “I shalt see thee then.” He looked up to Pelaeth who had not moved from his spot, trying to look brave for all the other boys. “And thou art welcome to come too, Pelaeth.”

“I shalt be there!” Pelaeth declared, in his bravest sounding voice.

“Enjoy thy game, and do come tonight, for we hath many more things to show thee,” Nemgas said, even as he knelt to retrieve his lantern. Both boys nodded enthusiastically, and then the three Magyars were on their way once again down the road.

After they had passed beyond the line of houses and were heading once more towards that long wall before which rested their wagons, Gamran said, “Thou dost like that young boy. What didst thee call him? Pelurji?”

“Aye. Named for the hero of Cheskych, Pelain, and also for Shapurji, of whom the boy wished to know more,” Nemgas said, smiling warmly. “The other whom I hath called Pelaeth, wanted only to be like Pelain. They wert the only ones that hath no fear of us, and didst try to juggle yesterday.”

Pelgan smiled to him then. “Fine names that thou hast wrought for them. ‘Tis hoped that they doth live up to them.”

“Aye,” Nemgas said, even as he looked to the wagons and his fellow Magyars hard at work amongst them. “Aye, ‘tis hoped.”

Nemgas counted himself lucky, for Hanaman was talking with Adlemas by one of the fires when they returned from their climb. Excusing himself momentarily from Pelgan and Gamran’s company, he stepped around the benches, the fires, and his fellow Magyars until he was standing only a short distance from Hanaman. “If thou wouldst excuse me for but a moment, Adlemas, I hath a few words I must impart to Hanaman.”

The burly man nodded, his lips set in a thin frown. “‘Tis no matter.” Adlemas then took several steps back, giving Nemgas room to speak unhindered with the leader of the Magyars.

Hanaman appeared tired, his eyes heavy, cheeks drawn with the weight of a sleepless night. He nodded his head to the taller Magyar. “What dost thee wish to say?”

“What I wishest to say to thee canst not be done in a few moments time. Nor canst it be accomplished whilst so many ears art about. I shouldst ask thee to speak privately on this matter.”

Hanaman nodded at that, his eyes slowly drawing along the semi-circle of wagons. “If thou wouldst give me an hour, we shalt meet in thy wagon to speak. Dost that satisfy thee, good Nemgas?”

“Aye,” Nemgas said, smiling and bowing his head respectfully. He then nodded once towards Adlemas, and then began to search for Pelgan and Gamran once more.

None of them were too eager to do much after the strenuous climb up the stairs. After returning the lanterns, all three of them collapsed for a bit of rest in their wagon. Nemgas lay upon his bed, listening to the groaning of his friends, trying their best to lay comfortably, but finding the soreness in their muscles too distracting. With the back of his head to his small pillow, staring up at the bunk in which Pelgan lay, and above that where Gamran lay, Nemgas found it hard to think about any one thing for very long.

Despite the fact that they all knew the others were just as awake as they, none of them spoke to each other, allowing the others the chance to pretend to sleep for a time. Amongst the Magyars, there was little privacy, only in sleep and dreams could they be truly to themselves. Even then it was only in seeming, for Nemgas found that many of his fellow Magyars joined him nightly in his dreams. Rarely would he have any that did not feature four or five others.

Yet as the climb had seemed to take many more hours than it did, that single hour they rested stretched on as if time has become as viscous as molasses. It was worse because Nemgas could neither sleep nor contemplate upon anything. His mind simply floated within that molasses, unable to hold onto any idea. Occasionally he would remember that Hanaman would be coming to speak with him, and once or twice he managed to ponder what he would say and how to say it, but after half a minute, he’d become distracted. There was something nagging him, but he lacked any will to worry over it.

And so it was both relieving and upsetting when he heard Hanaman opening the door to their wagon, announcing himself with a few gruff words. Nemgas couldn’t make them out, but he knew who had spoken them. Rolling over, he blinked several times, and then stuck his head out from his bottom bunk, staring upwards at the older man. Hanaman shut the door behind him, and looked down, weathered face fully composed once more.

Nemgas groaned and pulled himself from the thin mattress. His patchwork jerkin hung by the collar form a small peg, though he had not removed his trousers. Still, he wore a discoloured linen over his chest, so he was mostly clothed before his leader. Reaching over, he plucked his jerkin from the peg and began to slip it over his shoulders.

“Thou hast said that thee wishest to speak privately,” Hanaman said, eyes casting to the two bunks above his own. “Dost thee still wish this?”

Nemgas shrugged himself into his jerkin, making sure to hook all the clasps in the front before he looked up again. “‘Twould be best, methinks.” He gave the two bunks where his friends lay a firm rapping with his knuckles. “Come then, Pelgan, Gamran, get thee to the cookpots. A warm meal wilt soothe thy bones.”

After a bit of protestation, both of his friends rose from their bunks and after donning their own jerkins and boots, slipped morosely from the wagon. Nemgas imagined it would only be a short time before both were regaling with delightful aplomb the tale of their climb to Thelia and Amile. While Thelia would be impressed, but chide the little thief for being so daring, he suspected Amile would instead berate Pelgan for not inviting her along!

“Now,” Hanaman said, arms crossed before him, eyes firm, annoyance flickering within. Yet the annoyance did not seem directed at him.

“I wish to tell a story to they of Cheskych.”

Hanaman stood silent for a moment, uncrossing his arms and then crossing them again. “What story dost thee wish to tell?”

“A story of my own. Of Metamor and of how I came to be a Magyar,” Nemgas said after taking a deep breath. It was strange to claim that tale as his own, because it had happened to that other part of him, the one that had died on Cenziga.

“Thou hast no practice at telling tales, Nemgas. Why dost thou wish to tell this now?”

Nemgas nodded, his legs aching from standing. Once he was finished here, he would join his friends by the cookfires. “Ah, but my tale of Metamor hast fascinated all of my fellow Magyars.”

“True, but thou didst hath to go back many times to fill in details that thou didst leave out. ‘Tis not the mark of a good storyteller.”

Nemgas nodded, knowing that it was true. He did have trouble telling a tale from beginning to end. There was just so much to remember, that he could not keep it all in his mind at once. “Still, ‘twould please me if thou wouldst allow me to tell that tale. ‘Tis one of loss and sorrow, but of hope and joy as well. Filled with magic, and after the pageant, ‘twould be even grander. And to know that one amongst the Magyars had seen such a place with his own eyes wouldst earn a story in return.”

One of Hanaman’s eye brows rose then. “Art that then what this be about? Dost thou seek a story of Cheskych?”

“Aye,” Nemgas admitted. “I hath heard rumours of Pelain, the man that didst build this city, and I am intrigued by them. I wish to know more. A story for a story.”

“What rumours hath thee heard?”

Nemgas licked his lips then, nervously running the tips of his fingers along his patchwork jerkin. “Several children told me briefly the exploits of Pelain. They hath suggested that Pelain went to the ash mountain.”

At this, Hanaman froze. His whole body was jerked into motionlessness for several moments, standing as still as if changed to a statue. Eyes became cold and hard like granite. His muscles tensed, fingers digging into his arms. The moue was chiselled upon his lips. Despite the magical charms that kept the insides of the wagons warm, Nemgas felt a perceptible chill wash across him then.

But after several tense seconds, Hanaman did relax, his moue growing more pronounced, eyes narrowing. “Thou wouldst tell them of thy ascent merely to discover if Pelain did as well?”

“Aye,” Nemgas breathed quietly, nodding his head slowly. “If he did, perhaps I wouldst better understand why I hath survived my own encounter. Perhaps I wouldst better understand that mountain.”

“Perhaps,” Hanaman admitted then, crossing his arms more tightly across his chest. “But I wilt not allow thee to speak of that mountain. Thou mayest tell the tale of Metamor, but thou mayest not speak of that mountain.” He paused a moment to let his words sink in with his fellow Magyar. “And thou speak truly when thou saith that thy tale complements the pageant. ‘Twould do so very nicely. Thou shouldst tell it tomorrow night after we finish. Dost thee understand?”

Nemgas frowned, but nodded anyway. It was disappointing, as he would be left to wonder about Pelain for some time yet. But perhaps he would be able to earn a story that could be helpful in some way. “I shalt do as thee say, Hanaman.”

“Good.” Hanaman’s stance grew more relaxed then, and he allowed the hardness in his face to melt some. His lips turned in a slight smile then, eyes merely curious. “I hath heard that thou hast ventured into Cheskych each day. I hath heard that thou hast tried to teach some boys to juggle.”

“‘Tis true,” Nemgas said, smiling as well. “Most hath too much fear of Magyars to approach, but two were quite interested. They wouldst not tell me their names, so I called them Pelaeth and Pelurji. They dost liked the names I gave.”

Hanaman laughed then, a light thing, but full nonetheless. “Named after Pelain and Shapurji. They art names that wilt be difficult to live up to. Dost thee know any more about them?”

“I believe that they art brothers, Pelaeth perhaps eleven or twelve, whilst Pelurji is but nine. ‘Tis all I know of them.”

“Thou shouldst discover more then of these young lads. But not now. I hath other things for thee to attend to. Tomorrow thou wilt go out to gather more wood. Once done, thou shouldst see to the boys. Thou mayest also wish to speak to Taboras to help thee craft thy story better.”

Nemgas nodded in assent. “Wouldst thee like me to do anything more?”

“I wilt tell thee if I decide so,” Hanaman then nodded his head, and turned to leave the wagon.

“Wait,” Nemgas said, a strange thought striking him. “If thou wouldst permit a bit of impertinence on my part, I must ask thee of thy wife.”

Hanaman’s face tightened again, hiding whatever feelings he felt. “Ask then, thou hast earned the right to ask this of me.”

Nemgas pondered what he could have done to have earned such a right, but accepted the good fortune gladly and without question. “Why hath she such wroth for thee now? She hast been angered with thee ever since we arrived here in Cheskych.”

Hanaman could only nod, frowning. “Aye. ‘Tis her time for such things. She prefers to be on the road whilst it occurs, and I hath kept us here for its cycle. This has displeased her greatly, a trespass that I alone shalt pay. Do not speak of this amongst the rest for now.”

“It wilt be known by all ere long,” Nemgas pointed out gently.

“Aye, but for my sake, do not speak of it. Shouldst Zhenava hear that others know, her wroth shalt only increase.”

Nemgas chuckled mirthlessly then and nodded. “I see, I wilt not speak of it then. I thank thee for thy time and for allowing me to tell my tale, Hanaman.”

“And I shalt look forward to hearing it, my good Nemgas.” Hanaman then turned fully and stepped out of the wagon, closing the door quietly behind him.

Standing alone in his wagon, Nemgas waited a moment, and then stretched, feeling the soreness in his muscles anew. A good night’s sleep would help, but so too would a warm meal in his belly. With that thought on his mind, he left the wagon as well, looking to find his friends by the cookpots.

Thinking so much about Metamor made Nemgas very uncomfortable. He did not like to dwell too much on the memories that other part of him had possessed. In fact, he did not much like to consider any long ago memories, it was often too painful to him. But, as the rest of the evening progressed, through his meal of potatoes and gravy to the performances for the people of Cheskych, and finally to the last stoking of the fires before he would sleep, he could not take his mind of that strange city filled with animal men.

Of the events he remembered, most involved a man that he knew in his heart was good, but strangely, he felt detached from now. That man was Patriarch Akabaieth. It became clear to him very early on as he considered the images that were left to him of Metamor, that the tale he must tell the people of Cheskych would have to be about that man. Nemgas himself had never been to Metamor after all. The memories belonged to another, one who was now dead. But he still knew the Patriarch very well, even though he also knew that he’d never met that ancient man.

It was fortunate that Nemgas did aught but assist others in the performances that evening, for his mind was far too distracted to have impressed the villagers. He spent most of the night standing between the wagons, handing props to the players as they would dance and cavort in all varieties. After having spent so much time practising and practising the various events, he did not have to think any to help, for he instinctively knew what was needed and when. Thus it was that his mind had no difficulty in occupying itself with Metamor and the Patriarch.

But even as the night drew to a close, and the people of Cheskych returned to their homes beneath the towering peaks of the Vysehrad, still Nemgas did not think he knew exactly what he would say when he spoke. All he knew was that it would be about the Patriarch. He couldn’t decide on anything else, and there was much to tell.

And so, when Nemgas finally laid his head down to sleep, he feared that like his attempt to rest in the afternoon, he would merely stare at the bunk above him, fixedly awake. Yet, with thoughts of the Patriarch still upon his mind, Nemgas found it strangely quite simple to slip into a pleasant slumber. Of what he dreamed, he couldn’t say, but he woke the next morning only barely feeling the soreness in his muscles from the climb up the stairs.

As promised, Nemgas spent the morning of his third day in Cheskych helping to replenish their supply of wood. Under the careful eye of several Cheskych guards, Nemgas and Chamag led a pair of wagons out through the gate in the large wall that blocked the end of the gorge. They took them down the road to the bridge that led South along the foothills of the Vysehrad, and there found a small clearing in which to work.

They did not cut down any trees though. Magyars rarely cut a tree completely down as it was. All of them knew the story of the ending of Shapurji, how it had all come about because he had felled a tree. So, Nemgas, Chamag, and the rest simply removed a few limbs, and then cut them down into more manageable pieces. It took all morning for them to collect enough to last another month of travel, but at least, shortly after the sun had passed to the west, they drove their wagons back into the city, bearing their new burden.

The Assingh had been taken out to graze in the fields just outside the city wall, and they were still there when they returned with the wood. Nemgas did not want to look, but he did let his eyes slide across the herd until he saw her, standing watch from a short distance. Her head did turn to his, but he was uncertain whether Kisaiya saw him looking at her. He did not keep his gaze for long though, turning instead to the city gates as they neared.

If Chamag had seen his look, the burly Magyar did not say. He merely seemed interested in returning the wood and sitting down next to the fires. Nemgas was grateful for that. The ribbing that Pelgan and Gamran had given him the other day was still fresh in his mind. It was not that he didn’t feel an interest in her, nor was it merely that she continuously rebuffed him - though that was disconcerting. He simply remembered a life that had been dedicated to another pursuit, one that brooked no compromise.

That was the life that had been to Metamor, and had seen all the things that he would speak of that evening to the people of Cheskych. And perhaps, he thought morbidly, that might be why he had let himself look for Kisaiya. Grunting, Nemgas brought the wagon to a halt, and jumped down to the ground. As the others could attend to the rest, he stalked off to his wagon, grabbed his pouch, and then marched himself back to the road towards the village. The other Magyars did not say anything to him, but they did step out of his way when he came.

By the time that Nemgas had reached the first line of homes, he was no longer stomping his way up the road. The scowl had worn its way off his face, and while some of the children playing in the street ran back through open doorways as he neared, a few of them were still laughing as if it were but a game. After Nemgas saw an older woman rush up a ladder into a home set higher against the wall, he finally managed to stop and take several deep breaths. He had to find the two boys after all. It would not do to be in a foul mood when he did so.

It still took him a few minutes to regain his composure. As he felt the strange discomfort begin to recede, he could feel some other thought clawing at the back of his mind for attention. Yet when he pondered what it might be it, like a startled mouse, darted away from him. He refused to be dismayed by this though, and though instead of the two boys whom he named. It delighted him to know that they were interested in learning to juggle. Though the younger of the two seemed more inclined, they both had great potential for it.

Armed with that thought, he felt his good spirits return. A smile even crept across his face, and a tune came whistling from his lips. With one foot forward, Nemgas continued on his way through the city of Cheskych, nodding to all the adults he passed, grinning even wider at all the children. He saw a few faces that seemed familiar, but neither of them were Pelurji or Pelaeth. Perhaps they were further along towards the end of the town. But when Nemgas finally reached the end of the road, the towering walls of the Vysehrad closing down upon him, he had seen neither of them.

He took the other road back, looking closely at every one he saw, hoping to find some hint of the two boys. Nemgas began to get worried when he finally chanced to look up at one of the houses stacked atop another, and saw them both standing behind a stone railing. He smiled as he looked at them, for they both had found some stones, and were attempting to juggle them. Nemgas stopped walking and simply watched them for several minutes, delighted by what he saw.

Pelurji was clearly learning more quickly than Pelaeth, but the older boy was still doing his best to keep the rock in the air. No longer was he running around chasing after the rock, but he still had trouble keeping it in one place. Pelurji however was quite good at keeping the rock in exactly the same arc each time. Nemgas wondered whether or not he could show the boy how to juggle two balls yet, as he seemed to have been learning very quickly. That they were trying to teach themselves only made things all the better.

But eventually, Pelaeth dropped his rock and it began to clatter away. He ran after it, and saw the Magyar watching them. His face lit up then, and he waved. “Master Nemgas! Greet thee!”

“I greet thee, Pelaeth, Pelurji. I hath great delight to see thee practising so,” Nemgas called out, even as he glanced around for a way to climb up to them. But before he could do so, they had collected their rocks and practically jumped down a ladder laid just behind the wall to be with him. “Thou couldst tumble well too methinks.”

“We hath juggled rocks, master Nemgas!” Pelurji declared, showing the Magyar the rocks they had been using.

“I hath seen, Pelurji. Thou wast juggling thy rock very well. Methinks thou art ready to juggle two at once,” Nemgas smiled to the delighted boy. Pelurji stood a little taller at the praise, and nodded his head eagerly at the thought of juggling two balls. Pelaeth looked a little disappointed that he had not been praised for his efforts though, his whole body seeming to sink in on itself.

“And thee, Pelaeth, hath improved mightily since I last saw thee. Thou must still practise, but thy skill improves.” This perked the boy up some, but he still appeared a bit dismayed that the younger boy was learning faster than he. “Juggling is a difficult skill, not all hath the coordination to pick it up so easily. It took me weeks before I could juggle as Pelurji canst.” He smiled then. “Mayhap there be some truth to the saying that thou canst not teach an old dog new tricks. Thou both hast learned quicker than I.”

“Truly?” Pelaeth asked, eyes brighter than before.

“Truly,” Nemgas said, and then he let his face fall slightly, though his eyes were ever watchful of the boys. “‘Tis sad though that I wilt not be able to teach thee much more of juggling.”

“Why?” Pelurji asked, quite crestfallen.

Nemgas let his head hang a bit lower. “I art a Magyar. In two days time I must depart from Cheskych, and ‘twill be another year ere I return. ‘Twould pleas me to continue teaching thee both, but I canst while I travel and thou dost remain here.”

“But thee must!” Pelurji said, hands balled into fists. “Thou must teach me more!”

Nemgas smiled and patted Pelurji upon the head. He tousled his curly dark hair for a moment, and then kneeled down. “I wish to teach thee more, Pelurji. And thee, Pelaeth. But ‘tis impossible if things stay as they art. And thou still hast me for two days more; I can teach thee some still.”

“I thank thee, master Nemgas,” Pelaeth said, bowing his head, his frown still apparent but resigned.

But the younger boy appeared even more determined than before. “Thou must teach me more. I want to juggle like thee, master Nemgas.”

Nemgas turned his head to the side, studying the boy as he kneeled before him, their eyes level with each other. “And why dost thee wish to juggle so well?”

“‘Tis fun!” Pelurji said, his voice raising in pitch. “Don’t go!”

“There art many things in life that art fun. To each we must give up something else. And I art a Magyar, ‘tis how I learned. And as a Magyar, I must always travel across the Steppe. I canst not stay in one place for long. ‘Twould be wrong of me to do so. E’en here I feel the need to continue on, the crunching of wagon wheels beneath me.”

This struck the boy hard, though he did his best not to cry. Nemgas could see that the boy wished to, but fought it with every fibre of his being. “Thee dost not wish to teach me?”

“Nae, my good Pelurji, I do wish to teach thee. I yearn to do so, for thou hast great skill. But I hath to be who I art, a Magyar. A Magyar moves from one place to another, ne’er staying in one very long. We hath been here in Cheskych far longer than we would like already. And within towns like these art the only places we stop for more than a night’s sleep. No Magyar would hath it any other way.”

Nemgas rose back to his feet then and slipped his hand within his pouch, producing several of the cloth balls he used. “Thou still wishest to learn more, dost thee not?”

“Aye!” Pelurji said firmly, as did the older boy. As Nemgas saw them side by side, he became even more convinced that they were brothers. Their hair was the same curly dark brown, and they both had the same curves to their face. While their eyes were different colours, it was only one small difference.

Nemgas tossed one ball to each of the boys then, and they both began to eagerly toss it into the air, catching it again, Pelurji with practised ease, Pelaeth from sheer determination. “Good!” Nemgas said. “Thou both art learning well. Wouldst thee care to attempt two balls, Pelurji?”

“Aye!” Pelurji called, his voice full of excitement. Simply by juggling the ball he seemed to have lost all his earlier anger and disappointment.

“I must warn thee, to juggle two balls hath far greater difficulty. Catch thy ball and hold it first.” Once the boy had done so, Nemgas smiled and said, “Now hold out both thy hands, and I wilt give thee thy second ball.” As Pelurji stood waiting, both arms outstretched, the first ball clasped in his left hand, Nemgas stole a glance at his older brother. Pelaeth was not watching them, but focussing on his own ball. A few days more practise, Nemgas thought, and the boy would likely have the knack for it. He wondered if he would be able to see that.

Returning is attention to the younger boy, he placed a second ball in his hand, and then brought two more out for himself. “Now watch me, my good Pelurji. To juggle two balls thou must pass them from hand to hand like so, always keeping one in the air.” Nemgas demonstrated, first tossing the ball in his left hand into the air, and then handing the one in his right to his left hand, and projecting that a moment before he caught the first in his right hand. For several seconds he continued this, his motions smooth from many long weeks of practise.

Pelurji watched his hands move, giving the balls themselves only brief glances. Even before Nemgas had finished demonstrating the technique, Pelurji tossed the ball from his let hand into the air, and passed the one form his right to his left. Not surprisingly though, the first ball bounced off of his fingers as he tried to catch it again, and dropped to the ground.

Smiling, Nemgas continued to juggle, only barely moving any part of his body apart from his hands. “Thou wilt do better each time thee tries. Now try again.”

The boy did so, though his motions were still fumbling and forced. But as the sun began to glide along the mirrors on the eastern mountain face, Pelurji began to find it easier and easier to juggle those two balls. He was still awkward, but he did manage to keep both balls in the air for longer and longer each time, nearly for a full minute by the time the shadows stood longer upon the ground than they did high.

Nemgas made a show of putting his own balls back in his pouch and glancing at where the sun shone in the mirrors far above. “‘Tis late, and I must return to my people. Wilt thou come watch tonight?”

Pelaeth caught his ball and stood there, shrugging. “If we canst.”

“Thou must!” Nemgas crooned. “Tonight we perform our pageant. ‘Tis something thou wilt remember forever. I wilt be looking for thee in the crowd.”

Pelaeth held out the cloth ball. “Dost thee wish to have thy balls back?”

Nemgas smiled then and nodded. “Aye, but not now. Thou mayest keep them and practise with them. I wilt claim them tomorrow ere the fall of night. They art safer to practise with than thy rocks. And do practise, ‘tis the only way to learn to juggle.”

“We shalt, master Nemgas,” Pelurji said, doing his best to keep his two balls in the air. He misjudged one throw though, and the ball went behind his back. Grimacing, he turned, picked it up, and resumed juggling them, his mouth set in a determined line.

“Thou wilt master it soon enough, methinks, my good Pelurji. I must leave thee now. And remember to come see the pageant. Thou wilt nae want to miss this.” Nemgas then turned on his heels and strode back down the road, his feeling of elation so great, he felt his boots were lifting up off the cobblestoned street. Strangely enough, even as he recalled that he would have a story to tell that evening, he knew that it would all fit together when the time came. A jaunty tune came whistling from his lips again, and the Magyar returned to his people happier than he could remember being in weeks.

Nemgas was in the midst of dressing in his ogre costume for the pageant when a knock came at the wagon door. Chamag, who shared the wagon with him and the other bachelors, had already finished donning his costume, apart from the fox mask that he would slip over his head after the flash of light signalling the calling of the curses by Nasoj. So it was Chamag who stepped to the door and called out, “Come in,”

Strangely enough, it was Pelgan who entered, an amused look on his face, running one thumb over the hilt of his dagger. “Thou hast a visitor, Nemgas. A boy from the village. One of thine if memory dost serve me. He didst come to our camp a few minutes ago, and wast asking to see thee.”

Nemgas blinked, lowering the mask that he was holding in his hands. He’d managed to pull on most of the costume, a heavy bundle of wrinkled cloths painted in green splotches along the arms and legs. His eyes were creased with black charcoal rings to hide them better under the mask. In another few minutes he would appear a frightful monster. Though he could no longer let Chamag pretend to chop his left arm off, they still had quite a good fight.

“Only one?” Nemgas asked then, narrowing his gaze. He was glad to hear that the boy was there, but disappointed to hear that only one of them had come.

“Aye. Dost thee wish me to let him in?” Pelgan asked. Chamag look from one to the other, his gaze curious.

Nemgas turned his eyes first to Chamag and said. “I wilt tell thee of it shortly.” Back to Pelgan: “Let the boy in.”

Pelgan nodded and stepped back from the doorway, waving one hand to motion the child forward. Into view stepped a very nervous looking Pelaeth. Strangely enough, he would not cross the threshold of the wagon door. In fact, he placed one hand upon the jamb as if to steady himself. “I thank thee, master Nemgas,” Pelaeth said, swallowing nervously as he glanced from Chamag to Pelgan, and about the interior of the Magyar wagon.

“Greetings Pelaeth. Thou mayest come in and sit. They wilt not harm thee. Where might Pelurji be?”

But Pelaeth did not move form the door. He smiled nervously, barely able to keep his eyes from the other Magyars surrounding him. Taking a deep breath he said, “Our father forbade him leave his room this night.”

Nemgas blinked, an angry grimace breaking out upon his face. “Why hast he done that?”

“My father caught him juggling thy balls, master Nemgas. He took all the balls and wilt not give them back.” There was fire in his voice now, his wavering speech giving way to the anger he felt. Nemgas nodded at this, approving of the boy’s spirit.

“Didst thee tell him that they wert not his balls to take? That they dost belong to a Magyar who wilt have them back?”

Pelaeth shuffled his feet. “I didst tell him that they were thine, master Nemgas. The boy lifted his face further into the light then, and Nemgas could see that his pink was red from where it had been struck. “He didst tell us to ne’er speak with thee again.”

“And yet thou art here,” Nemgas said, approval in his voice. “Thou hast done the right thing, Pelaeth. But now thou must steal back my balls and return them to me ere I leave. They do not belong to thy father.”


“Aye, steal. Take them without him knowing. Canst thou do this?”

Pelaeth stood silently for a moment, his grip tightening on the door jamb. “Aye. I shalt look for them when he is gone.”

“Be on watch for them at all times. To steal anything, thou must be wary for every opportunity. And thou shouldst also help thy brother come see our performance tonight. ‘Tis something he shalt not wish to miss.”

“I shalt try,” Pelaeth said, grimacing slightly.

“Thou shouldst succeed. If thou wants it, then thou wilt find a way,” Nemgas said, favouring him with an approving grin. “I know that thou canst do these things. Now return from here and steal back my balls. And return with thy brother in an hour to see the pageant. We shalt be performing by then.”

Pelaeth nodded then, turning about on his feet, still with his hand on the jamb. “I shalt do my best for thee, master Nemgas, though it earn me another lash.” Before any could say anything, he darted from the doorway, the sound of his footfalls disappearing quickly amidst the bedlam outside the wagon.

Pelgan smiled as he watched the boy disappear, while Chamag lifted one eyebrow. “Who wast that?”

“A boy of Cheskych that I hath called Pelaeth,” Nemgas explained. “I hath been teach he and his brother to juggle.”

“And steal now too,” Chamag added, chuckling to himself. “Thou hast been quite industrious, Nemgas. I hope for that boy’s sake that he dost not get caught. He seems a decent lad.”

“Aye,” Nemgas smiled. “That he art.”

The pageant began a bit earlier than Nemgas expected, and so he was not too surprised when he couldn’t find either of the boys within the crowd. Nor could he see the crowd very well at first, because he was hiding back behind one of the wagons, waiting for the cue form Taboras to begin the attack upon the ‘Metamorians’ waiting in the clearing amidst the fires. This vantage provided him only a narrow view of the crowd. By moving about he could scan the entire length, but they sat beyond the fires, and so their faces were cast in deep gloom.

He was normally not so nervous before a performance, but the unexpected visit from Pelaeth, and the tale of the boy’s father taking the balls away and keeping Pelurji in his room upset him greatly. And it was clear also that the father had struck Pelaeth upon the cheek quite hard. In another hour that bruise would likely purple. And it was all because Nemgas had shown them how to juggle and lent them a few of his balls. It was one thing for a father to discipline a child, but to do so on Nemgas’s account riled him in a way he could not describe.

And so Nemgas paced back and forth, ever trying to plumb the dark mass of the crowd to find their eager faces. If they were there though, he could not find them. He truly hoped that both boys would be able to see the pageant though. It was the highlight of any visit by the Magyars, showing them all at their best. There was little in their pageant that would not delight after all, and it required the greatest of skill and attention to work properly. But as long as he worried over the fate of those two boys, he knew he would not be able to concentrate properly.

Even so, Nemgas attempted to force himself listen to the words of Taboras the storyteller. The older man was standing nearest to the crowd, regaling them all with the lives of the people in the city of Metamor, speaking of the time before the curses had struck them. It was rare for them to come across a people who had not heard something of Metamor, though most could only say that there were supposed to be demons there. By the end of a pageant, they all would know that such was not true. The simple theme of defending one’s home no matter what was one that all could understand.

The prelude was not terribly long however, for soon Taboras would introduce Nasoj and speak of the evil wizard from the far North who wished to crush the people of Metamor. But during this, none of those who fought on the side of Nasoj were actually brought out to the clearing. Instead, Taboras wove a terrible picture with his words, and when he was finished all would know the vile wizard and his minions by sight. Thus it was that Nemgas was allowed to pace for several minutes more.

“Nemgas,” a voice called to him from nearby. He recognized the flamboyant thief with a slight smile, turning his attention away from the field for a moment.

“Aye, Gamran, what dost thee want?” Nemgas asked in hushed tones. It was not likely that any of the townsfolk would hear them speak over Taboras’s booming words, but they were still cautious.

“Look who it is,” Gamran crowed, gesturing to two smaller forms that approached along the rear of the wagons. Nemgas blinked for a moment, and then smiled as he saw the two boys move into view. It was dark behind the wagons, but he could make out their forms easily enough.

“Ah, you made it! But why art thee back here?” Nemgas asked, stepping closer to them. Both boys looked up at the monstrous ogre that towered over them, their eyes growing wide in horror. In the deep shadows of the night, it was hard not to tell that what he wore was only a costume. But it had been Nemgas’s voice, so they managed to stand still. Grunting, Nemgas removed the mask much to their relief. “Why art thee back here?” he reiterated.

“Our father’s watching,” Pelurji said, his face seemingly contemptuous. “He shalt see us if we sit with the others. Can we watch from here with thee?”

Nemgas nodded, smiling more broadly. “Aye. If thou wouldst climb upon one of the wagons, the fires shouldst keep thee hidden. Lay flat as well to be sure. Let me help thee.” Nemgas felt a surge of delight, all the nervous tension in his body evaporating as he held out his gloved hands, nd hoisted each boy up onto the nearest wagon. They both laid down chins resting on crossed arms as they watched the pageant from the rear. It was not the best view to be had, but it was the one that all the Magyars ever saw of it.

Gamran gave Nemgas’s shoulder a playful shove. When Nemgas looked to him, the thief pointed at the wagon top and simply grinned widely. Nemgas gave a short laugh then, and slipped his mask back on. It was going to be a very good show that night.

Naturally Nemgas was dragged off the field after being slain by Chamag the fox warrior and his vicious black axe. Once Pelgan and Gamran had him behind the wagons, he got to his feet and removed the mask. He thanked them as they complimented on another fine death, and looked to see where the two boys were watching the show from on top of the wagon. “Didst thee enjoy that?” he called up quietly.

Pelurji turned about and dangled his head over the wagon top as if he belonged there. “‘Twas marvellous! Didst it all really happen?”

Nemgas nodded, smiling brightly. “Aye, ‘tis a true story. I hath one of my own about Metamor that I shalt be telling soon. Stay there and listen. But if thee dost not wish to get in trouble with thy father, then thou shouldst leave after I am finished.”

The boy looked disappointed by that, but he scooted back around on the wagon top until he was facing forwards once more. Nemgas then turned to Pelgan and Gamran who were still standing close by. “Where art Thelia and Amile? I thought thee wouldst hath invited them to watch.”

Pelgan rolled his eyes slightly and shook his head. Gamran though sighed heavily. “They hath declined our offer tonight. And they didst giggle when they did so. The ways of women art fraught with a peril no man shouldst be forced to endure!”

Chuckling, Nemgas held out his arms. “Then wouldst thee assist me in removing this costume? I hath a story to tell soon.”

It only took the three of them a few minutes to extricate Nemgas form the ogre costume. He carefully folded it back up and left it in a small pile next to the door of his wagon where it would be safe until he could put it away properly later that night. With the sleeves of his patch-work tunic he wiped the charcoal ring from around his eyes. It would still be smudged, but he would no longer look like a racoon. Taboras was drawing the pageant to a close, as the ‘Metamorians’ discovered just how different they had become from the curses. But their shock and dismay turned to a celebratory victory cry as they knew that they had won their battle and their freedom, no matter how changed they had become.

And as the players began to file off the field, Taboras stepped to the centre once more and bowed low. The audience applauded eagerly and for several minutes. Taboras waited as he always did for their enthusiasm to subside. Nemgas smiled slightly as he realised that neither Pelurji nor Pelaeth were clapping. Had they done so, they might have been discovered. That both of them had been smart enough to understand this pleased the Magyar.

Once the clapping subsided, Taboras held out his hands. “I thank thee for thy kind approval of this pageant. ‘Tis not the only story of Metamor that we dost possess. Now another of our kind wilt tell thee of a tale of Metamor that he hath seen with his own eyes.” Nemgas blinked at that, and there was quite a bit of murmuring from the crowd as well. A Magyar who had been to Metamor, he knew they were wondering. He had not thought that Taboras would tell them that.

Nemgas knew though that the time had come for him to speak, and so stepped out from the protection of the wagons. He nodded once to Taboras, while the old man smiled kindly to him. The storyteller then disappeared back behind the wagons himself, leaving all eyes focussed upon Nemgas. With one hand he brushed back both white locks of hair form his face, taking a moment to scan over the crowd. There were several faces he recognised, but only in passing. If the boy’s father were here, he could not tell.

“Greetings to thee people of Cheskych, I hath a tale to tell thee. But first, I hath a request of mine own to make. I hath heard much in these last few days of a hero of Cheskych, the great Pelain. It wouldst please me greatly to hear a tale of Pelain, a great man, after I tell thee of another great man.”

There was a bit of surprised murmuring in the crowd, but one voice near the middle, an older man’s voice, still firm though, called out, “What tale of Pelain dost thee wish? For a tale of thy own is all that thee requires to hear it!”

Nemgas smiled then and turned to look at the man. He did not appear as old as Taboras, but there was something venerable in his features. And Nemgas thought he saw a bit of the chiselled lines that marked the statue in the centre of the square as well. Perhaps this man was a direct descendent of Pelain, and thus, the one who would naturally tell all the tales that there were to be told of him. He did seem a bit greater in stature than his brethren seated next to him, but perhaps that was merely the flashing and flickering of the firelight playing tricks on him.

“I wilt tell thee my tale, and then I wilt ask for thy tale of Pelain. Thou shalt know which tale it is that I seek,” Nemgas said. At that the man nodded, folding his hands before him over his knees. He’d been granted his tale, now it was a matter of making his own interesting enough to deserve it.

“The tale I tell dost take place at Metamor Keep. But ‘tis not a tale of Metamor itself. ‘Tis a tale of a great man that didst travel to Metamor, a man of tremendous power. His name be Akabaieth, and he wast a priest for nearly all his life.” Just then, somebody in the audience sneezed. Nemgas paused for a moment, glancing at all the faces in the crowd, making sure that everyone had heard it. They all of course knew what that meant. The tale that they were about to hear would be a true one.

Strangely enough, despite Nemgas’s unfamiliarity with telling tales, and his often disjointed way in which he presented them, he managed to relate the tale of Patriarch Akabaieth’s ill-fated trip to Metamor Keep, all the while not revealing his own part in the proceedings. He spoke little about those around the Patriarch, except for when it was absolutely necessary. Akabaieth’s arrival and greeting of the Metamorians took him several long minutes to relate. And he spent nearly ten full minutes discussing the banquet when Akabaieth had revealed his love of sailing. All that he managed to tell, and he was fairly certain he did a good job of conveying the notion of sailing, despite the fact that the most water anyone in Cheskych had ever seen was the river flowing from their city out into the Steppe.

Nemgas found it strange to speak of the Patriarch, a man that the person who’d lived those other memories swore to avenge. Nevertheless, he managed decently, treating each episode as separately as he could, and in the proper order. Though it was not nearly as cleverly woven as Taboras or any other storyteller might arrange, he managed to highlight any scene he thought would make Akabaieth a more heroic character. And he knew, as he told of the bright day when Akabaieth began to leave Metamor, that he had succeeded.

There was a gasp of horror from the crowd when he spoke of the plot being discovered by mages at Metamor against Akabaieth’s life. Yet it brought him no joy. Even as he brought back the memories of that other person to tell his tale, he felt the anguish at the loss of such a great man. It struck him as tragic that his other half had died before being able to avenge the Patriarch. Nevertheless, he continued with his tale, speaking of the wild flights to get to Akabaieth’s aide in time.

And then, with a sick morbidity, he described the killer, how he felled the bodyguards one by one with ruthless efficacy, and then drove a sword through the heart of Akabaieth himself. There were several cries of anger from the crowd, and some of the women were crying in sorrow as they heard what had happened to that good man. Nemgas let his head hang, feeling the sorrow himself deep in his heart. It was not his concern anymore, he reminded himself but he could not shake the regret.

“And then, he wast given to the grave by fire like an officer of Whales, just as he hath always dreamed of his whole life,” Nemgas finished. It was the last he had heard of Akabaieth, or at least, the last bit the other part of him could remember. He lifted his head high to the rest of them and to the night sky. “But his memory liveth on. And he shalt ne’er be forgotten. Stories of Akabaieth shalt endure through time. Thee art but the first to hear of it, but many others wilt know it soon too.”

Taking a step back, Nemgas spread his hands wide. “‘Tis the sad tale of the death of Akabaieth of Whales. Dost thee have thy story for me now?”

Nobody said anything for several long moments. Nemgas wondered at first, and then began to fear, that he’d said something to offend the people of Cheskych. If so, they had certainly not shown it while he’d told his story. Perhaps he should not have asked for their own, or at least, not one of Pelain’s death. But he could not be certain until they acted.

But at last, he felt relief wash over him as the older man rose to his feet, stepping a few ells from the benches and amongst the fires. “Thou didst wish a tale of Pelain, one comparable to thy tale of Akabaieth. Thou shalt then hear the tale of Pelain’s death, oh Magyar.” As he stepped further into the firelit, Nemgas grew convinced that this man was of Pelain’s blood, for the familiar features were all present. Were his skin to change to marble, he would have been nearly identical to the statue on top of the fountain in the centre of the town.

The storyteller stared for a moment at Nemgas, and the Magyar felt an uncontrollable urge to fall to his knees before this man. There was something utterly undescribably powerful about him that it took all his energy to simply back away slowly, head lowered respectfully. Whatever blood was in the veins of Pelain that had made him such a legend had flown into this man as well. Were there tales of this storyteller that deserved to be heard as well?

“‘Twas late in the life of Pelain. His city wast built, his empire defended, his family prosperous. Word of a threat from the South came, word of a terrible corrupted evil that was besieging the mountains themselves. All the townsfolk thought it rumour at first, e’en Pelain was wont to dismiss it as such. But they continued, and one night, the horrible cries began.

“Yes, cries the likes of which left grown men bawling their eyes upon the ground, shivering like newborn babes tossed within the Cheswent. They pierced the night, shattering one of the great mirrors when sun’s light struck it that next day. ‘Tis why for years afterward ere the mirror was repaired we hath an hour of night after noon. And ‘twas on this first night of noon that Pelain himself did saddle both his horses and made ready to confront this evil.

“Upon his horses he hath arrayed his most resplendent barding, silver and gold beaten over an armour of bronze, with ivory handles buried deep in the metal. His helm wast fashioned in the shape of a howling wolf, fangs made from polished silver, ears lined with precious gold, standing upright. The eyes set within his helm were made from amber taken from the very woods of Cheskych. His armour was covered in overlapping gold and silver lines, each chiselled to appear the thick fur of the wolf he’d taken for his own. Across his shoulders he bore a tabard of a great dire wolf that he hath slain in his youth. His gauntlets and boots each bore claws of malachite and steel to resemble the wolf’s claws. For Pelain wast a great hunter as wast the wolf.”

The storyteller paused, his face set in a cold frown. “For two weeks Pelain didst ride Southwards along the Vysehrad. He would hath continued but for that cry at daybreak, sundering the mountains themselves. The ground buckled and shook beneath Pelain, and he fell to his bul as he watched the rock slide and stain the Earth. Where once a mountain stood now a defile lay, showing a way into the mountains.

“Pelain climbed this path, ever wary. To protect himself from the cries he stuffed cotton in his ears, doing the same for his horses. There wast no way for him to know what awaited him up those slopes, for he didst discover the ancient city once known as Carethedor, but now called Hanlo o Bavol-engro. There amidst its ruins, the evil beast he found, laying curled about its foundations, searching and searching.

“‘Twas a dragon that Pelain found. But one twisted by a terrible evil, blackened and corrupted by some lost forgotten power out of the far West. Through the city it raged, its cries deafening through the cotton. Pelain didst ne’er feel fear though, nor did his horses, and with great valour they didst charge the beast, circling and attacking so fast that the foul creature swung at both sides, seeing two where there wast but one.

“The battle was long, Pelain cutting with his sword Caur-Merripen, forged from the very mineral of the Vysehrad itself., the dragon biting and slashing with horrid claws. ‘Twas the madness of the beast and the speed of Pelain that won him that battle. The dragon, raged so great that it could do aught but attack wherever it thought it saw him, landed nary but two blows. With one final thrust, Pelain drove his sword so deep within the dragon that it pierced the black abomination twice.”

Nemgas breathed deeply then, somehow seeing the battle as it unfolded. There was a man looking slightly younger than the storyteller, dressed in the wolf-shaped armour, bearing a sword of silver and black, moving so fast that Nemgas felt his head spin. There seemed to be two of them moving about that dragon, stabbing and slashing. The dragon itself was black, a hole actually that had been torn from the world. It lashed with malicious vile at every image of the great commander, striking only at the moment of its own death.

And then the images vanished as the storyteller’s voice resumed. “What the dragon wast doing in Hanlo o Bavol-engro we shalt ne’er know. Pelain found many artifacts there that he didst collect and bring back with him down the defile. There he sold them to a passing merchant train, before returning to the city. The wounds that hath been landed upon him were mortal, and with each moment he felt their poison killing him. At the end, when he’d dug his own grave and erected his own tombstone, his wailing was as great as the dragon’s before.

“And then, still dressed for battle in his armour, he cast himself upon that grave, and remains there to this very day, buried in that ancient city that once belonged to the fair folk. So too are the bones of the dragon visible, a reminder to all of that which evil can twist. Of the artifacts that he hath brought down, none know what they were. And of the city itself, none hath e’er gone back to this day. ‘Tis a land of shadow and whispers, clouded by that evil that befell it so many years before. ‘Tis said that the city goes dark for an hour after noon as our own once did. ‘Tis also said that Pelain didst wander that range within Vysehrad for many years ere casting himself to death upon the dragon’s bones. Many things art said, but this only is known: the dragon of Hanlo o Bavol-engro didst kill Pelain of Cheskych.”

This last was said with such certain finality that Nemgas’s knees grew even weaker. He stumbled back one more step, and bowed his head low and respectfully for the storyteller. “I thank thee,” Nemgas managed to say. “Thou hast given unto me and all my kin a great gift, oh storyteller. That thou art of the line of Pelain hast become clear to me. Though thou hast not said thy name, thou shalt be known amongst the Magyars as Peloken, a kin of Pelain.”

The storyteller appeared mildly surprised by this, and also bowed his head. “Thou dost honour me oh Magyar. I shalt accept the name that thou hast given unto me. ‘Tis empty whilst all that wast of Pelain remains at the feet of the dead dragon, but I shalt accept it.” He then bowed and stepped back from the fires, returning to his seat once more.

Unsure of what else he might say, Nemgas quietly walked from the field. Once he was behind the wagons, he rested against them, breathing heavily, resting one hand upon his forehead. None of the other Magyars said anything to him just then, all of them wide-eyed. Slowly, the people of Cheskych began to rise and leave for the night, seeing as nothing else was to be performed.

“Art thee well?” Pelgan managed to ask once more of the townsfolk had left.

Nemgas nodded. “‘Tis strange, but there wast a power in that man whom I hath called Peloken that I hath rarely felt. ‘Tis something passed by blood, and grown into with manhood. I canst not say what it might be.”

A shuffling about on the roof of the wagon caught his attention though. Glancing upwards, he saw that both Pelaeth and Pelurji were scrambling down, their faces set in hard lines. Pelurji’s was marked by a confused and nearly hurt expression. “Why didst thee say those things to our father like that?” he asked.

Nemgas blinked several times then, his knees nearly buckling once more. “That wast thy father?” he finally managed to ask, quite shaken by this sudden revelation.

“Aye,” Pelaeth said, rubbing at his cheek which had indeed begun to purple. “‘Twas our father.”

Nemgas continued to stare at them both, and sure enough, as he studied their faces in the firelight, he could see the resemblance. When they both grew into manhood it would become greater still. “I didst not know that. Thou shouldst still steal my balls back from that man. Though he may hath told a good tale, ‘tis no excuse. Canst thee do this for me.”

Pelurji nodded then, his expression becoming more defiant. “Aye! We shalt steal thee thy balls back!”

He managed to smile once more to the two boys, but it was short-lived. A frown crossed his features after a moment and he asked them reproachfully, “I thought I told thee to leave after I had finished my tale. Why didst thee stay?”

The two boys looked at each other, shuffling their feet a bit. “‘Twas a story about Pelain,” Pelaeth finally said. “‘Tis rare to hear our father speak of him so. He hast said that we look too much like our mother and not enough like Pelain.”

Grunting, though unsure why, Nemgas asked, “And what dost thy mother think of this?”

Pelurji shook his head. “She’s dead.”

The bluntness of the statement took him aback. “Well, thee ought to return ere thy father discovers that thee art missing. Ja!” Neither of the boys argued at that, and took off at a run around the backs of the wagons. Nemgas stood silently for a moment watching them go.

“Strange,” was all that Pelgan could manage to say.

“Stories within stories,” Gamran uttered softly, himself strangely subdued.

“Aye,” Nemgas said, nodding slowly. “Cheskych art filled with stories within stories. As too Vysehrad. Let us now to sleep, for I canst not think anymore.”

They both nodded, though Gamran managed a slight smile. “Aye, to sleep. But first thou must tell me why they need to steal thy balls.”

“I shalt, I shalt,” Nemgas assured him, climbing up on the wagon and retrieving his ogre costume. Strangely enough, it no longer seemed half as frightful.

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