Night Amongst Whispers - Part VI

Sir Lech Poznan of Bydbrüszin ground his mail fist together as he gripped the reins of his charger. The maps he had been given by the Bishop of Eavey had shown that there was a settlement here within a slender gorge of the Great Eastern Mountains, but there had been no indication that it possessed a massive wall, nor such huge mirrors to catch the sun. For the first time since entering this pagan northern land, Poznan felt as if he were from a backwards place staring like a mute beast at antiquity.

And he did not like that feeling one bit.

The gatehouse remained closed to them, but he was not so much concerned with entering this well-fortified town as he was in discovering if Kashin and his Magyar friends had passed this way. He knew that they had, for the wagon tracks through the road were unmistakable. What was more, they were not very old. He’d already spoken to one of the guards atop that gatehouse, and now he waited for a town elder to come and meet with him.

He could see the looks of awe in the eyes of many of his own men. Though they had seen walled cities before, Stuthgansk chief amongst them, they had never seen mirrors built into the walls of mountains before. Even Father Athfisk, usually dismissive of anything built by pagan hands, was impressed, mumbling questions to himself about how such a feat could be accomplished, telling himself that he would have to ask his fellow priests and scholars about such a sight when they returned to Stuthgansk.

Sir Poznan was even more angered by their gawking, but would not accost his men in front of the pagan guards. But he did scowl at any who met his eye. Though he could not help but share their own sense of inferiority standing before their walls. This was the first time they had come to a place where they knew they had no hope of winning a battle. He hoped that it was their very last.

Not surprisingly, it took quite some time before somebody came to speak with them. And when they did, they climbed to the top of the gatehouse and shouted down to them. “What business dost thee have here, oh knights of Yesulam?”

Sir Poznan looked up, and then had to immediately look away. The man who spoke was standing directly behind the reflected sun in the mirrors. Damn worm, insulting a Knight Commander of the Driheli so. “Of the Magyars and a man amongst them we would ask,” Sir Poznan called back up, shielding his eyes with one mailed hand. “A man with a lock of white hair, dark complexion like unto a foreigner, and but one arm seen you have?” He hated having to speak the barbaric northern tongue, for it came so awkwardly to his lips.

As always in this pagan land, it took some time for the people to answer. “We hath seen no such man. Why dost thou seek him?”

There was a strange twinge of animosity in the man’s voice, Sir Poznan noted. But it did not seem to be directed at them, at least not fully. Grimacing, he shouted, “We want him to kill! Our faith he betrayed. So now he will die.”

Though he could not make any of it out, there was a heated discussion at the top of the gatehouse for several moments. Sir Poznan looked out of the sun’s rays and spat upon the ground, his charger shifting from hoof to hoof in heady anticipation. Skowicz his squire held out a leather wineskin, and Poznan took a quick swig. It was pleasantly warm going down his throat, while the froth dribbled through his beard. He returned the wineskin to his squire, and continued to wait.

The voice cried out from above again after a few minutes. “We hath seen a man similar to the one that thou dost seek. He hath two locks of white hair, dark skin of Yesulam, but he hath two arms not one. And he wast a Magyar. Wilt thou kill him?”

Poznan shrugged as he returned his gaze to the speaker. “If he the one we seek truly be, aye!”

“He dost travel with the Magyars, and they hath continued South only six days ago. Kill this man and I shalt reward thee. He hath stolen my son, and I shalt reward thee greatly for my boys return. They shalt call him Pelurji, thou that ‘tis not his true name.”

Sir Poznan grimaced, not truly interested in returning any child. But it was nevertheless an interesting twist. This figure that all in the Great Eastern Mountains were describing, the one that sounded similar to Kashin, had kidnapped a boy from Cheskych, as this town was called. Why did he do that, he wondered for a moment.

“You I thank,” Sir Poznan said, and then turned his charger away from the city wall, and quickly galloped down the road to the south. His fellow knights were quick to follow him, while the guards simply watched them leave. After they had passed through the woods, Sir Poznan brought his horse to a stop, letting the rest gather around.

“I am beginning to wonder about this other man from Yesulam,” Sir Poznan admitted to the other knights. “Why did we not hear of him before we reached the mountains?”

But for several moments none of the other knights spoke up. Finally, Sir Ignacz shrugged. “Perhaps he is Kashin, but restored by some pagan powers?”

He nodded then. “That is what I am beginning to think as well. But we are close, six days behind now, instead of two weeks. Let us keep moving quickly. We should reach them very soon now. Sir Andrej, continue to scout ahead. We shall rest here for an hour and then continue on ourselves.”

Sir Andrej nodded, and led his party once more down the road, keeping wary for any sign of deceit on the part of the Magyars.

Sir Poznan leaned back in his saddle then, grinding his teeth together. The chase would not last much longer. He would solve this mystery, and bring an end to Kashin before the month of April was over. Then he could leave this pagan land and return to his father’s lands. All would show him the proper respect there.

With Pelurji now a Magyar as well, the days after leaving Cheskych seemed to pass by very quickly. Long before they stopped for the night the first day out, all of them knew of the young boy who’d come to join them at the roadside. When they did stop, Nemgas saw to it that Pelurji was dressed in the colourful patchwork tunic of their people, and introduced to many of the other children his age. Once satisfied that they would get along, he rejoined the adults about the campfires.

There was definitely a look of pride in the eyes of his fellow Magyars. Even Hanaman himself spoke highly of him, though he did hint that they might have to circumvent Cheskych for a few years. None wondered about who would look after the boy of course. It was quite clearly Nemgas’s responsibility, one that he relished. After a good warm meal, he found that Pelurji was already up to a bit of simple mischief with the other Magyar boys. They’d cajoled him into sneaking into one of the women’s wagon’s and absconding any undergarments he could find. The sudden shriek of a young woman in a state of undress by a prepubescent boy was unmistakable.

Nemgas laughed as he’d watched Pelurji jump out of the wagon, ducking out of the way of a small shoe hurled in his direction. The other boys laughed too, and even Pelurji had a bright smile on his face. In all his time in Cheskych, Nemgas had never seen the boy look so happy. Nor, Gamran claimed a week later, had they ever seen Nemgas nearly as content. He had to admit it was true. There was something fulfilling about being responsible for another’s welfare - especially one so alive as Pelurji.

As the days rolled past and they continued travelling to the South, Nemgas schooled Pelurji as best he knew on the ways of the Magyars. The other boys were also a help to him, as they kept him from missing his brother. It was a custom amongst the Magyars to have the children, once they were old enough, share a wagon, the boys in one and the girls another. Most of the time as they travelled, Pelurji stayed in the wagon wit the other boys, learning all the simple games that they played to pass the time, as well as teaching the rest of them a few new ones. Sometimes though, Nemgas would have the boy at his side as he drove the wagons southwards along the Vysehrad. During those times, Nemgas would tell him all the stories he knew of Shapurji. To his delight the boy never tired of hearing of them, even as his eyes strained to see what was on the horizon where they were headed.

Of course, as he was just barely old enough, he was given a part to play in the pageant, as one of the Metamorians who was made into a child naturally. At first he was sceptical of being good enough to be in such a wondrous show, but after a week’s practice, nobody could imagine him not being there he blended so well and convincingly. Pelurji did complain about the costume armour that he had to wear, saying that he wanted a real set of armour just like Pelain, but then Nemgas or one of his fellow bachelors would show him a juggling trick, and all of that was forgotten.

Kisaiya still managed to find every excuse to stay away from Nemgas whenever he attempted to approach her, but it did not bother him nearly as much as it used to. Whenever his latest attempt at speaking to her or even being near her was rebuffed, he’d simply find Pelurji and get the boy to talk to him about what he’d been doing that day, and he’d feel ten times better. Pelgan, Gamran, and the rest of his wagon still teased him about Kisaiya though, but instead of the grumbling dejection that usually greeted their barbs, they found a Magyar full of determined confidence that one day, she’d not run away when he approached.

As Nemgas did spent a great deal of time with Pelurji, so too did the rest of his wagon. Gamran gave the young boy all sorts of juggling, tumbling, and thieving tips, even encouraging him to make another attempt at the woman’s undergarments one day. Chamag and Pelgan gave him basic instruction in the use of simple weapons, from the knife to the axe, as he was still too young to use a sword effectively. Berkon and Kaspel both showed him the basics of the bow, though even by the time they reached Barchumba, Pelurji only hit the targets occasionally.

Even so, by the time that they reached the massive defile known as Barchumba coming down from the Vysehrad, Pelurji had become so steeped in the ways of the Magyars, none who saw him would think he’d ever been anything before. He could already juggle three balls at once without difficulty, and he’d even juggled a knife a time or two. He knew more stories about Shapurji and his friends than did most of the boys his age. Even Hanaman himself complimented the boy several times on his performance in the pageant and with each word of praise, Nemgas felt himself swell with pride.

Barchumba, the Great Defile of Vysehrad, came into existence, if the storyteller of Cheskych was to be believed, during the age of the Suieleman Empire. A terrible earthquake had reduced a mountain into a stream of rubble that stretched for twenty miles along the range. The Steppe itself had been crushed under the weight of so much stone, and so the vegetation nearby was dry and sparse. Further, the rock itself was brittle and unsuited for mining. None lived near the Barchumba because of this.

What the defile did offer was a way into the Vysehrad itself, as the slide of rack had opened up meandering paths that fed into the western peaks themselves, though few dared venture that way. Not only the legend of Pelain’s death, but many others spoke of Hanlo o Bavol-engro, a place of ancient mystery and living curses. And it was the paths that they crossed as they meandered along a flat portion of the Barchumba that would lead them to that ill-spoken city.

But because of how far the defile spread, it was actually easier for the Magyars to ride their wagons over it then around. The paths were firm and provided for once a very good view of the surrounding foothills, and the Steppe not far to the west. And it was then, two weeks after leaving Cheskych, that they noticed a small party of horsemen coming along the paths behind them.

As luck would have it, they had moved the wagons down into a small gully in the Barchumba, so they were all fairly certain that they had not been seen by the riders, but none of them quite knew what to make of it. Hanaman had brought several trusted men with good eyes up to the top of the rise to study the riders and decided what to do.

“‘Tis strange,” Adlemas murmured as he scratched at his beard, “to see so few amongst them. ‘Tis but a party of four.”

Nemgas squinted down at the winding path, jutting rocs pushing up haphazardly, occasionally blocking their view. It was nearing early afternoon, so the sun was shining from the southwest. Two of the four seemed much brighter than their companions. “Methinks they hath armour.”

“Armour?” Chamag said dubiously. But he and all the rest squinted harder into the distance as they lay atop the rocks, fingers tapping the rocks beneath their chins. “I fear that thou art right. Who wouldst wear such armour on the Steppe?”

“A knight,” Hanaman said sourly. “Wait,” his voice grew sharper then. His eyes narrowed and he stared att he riders. “They hath stopped.”

Nemgas leaned a bit closer grimacing as he tried to make out what the figures were doing. “If knights they be, then ‘tis from Yesulam they hath come.”

“But Yesulam be to the South,’ Adlemas objected with a shake of his head.

“Aye. Then they hath a quarry that they track,” Nemgas opined. “They hath stopped to check for tracks methinks.”

There was a tangible silence then. The riders continued on their way up the defile only a moment later, tiny specks in the distance that grew larger with each passing moment. They were but an hour away now, Nemgas judged, an hour that could pass very quickly. Finally, Hanaman spoke. “We must discover their intent. We shalt leave men here to stop and question them. Shouldst they pose no threat to us, then we shalt let them pass.” He did not say what would be done otherwise, but they all instinctively knew.

“I wish to accost them,” Nemgas said then even as Hanaman began to slide back from the peak.

“I thought thee might. Very well, thou shalt remain here,” Hanaman said, nodding to his fellow Magyar. “I shalt move the wagons into the next gully for now. Pick thy men, Nemgas, and the rest shalt be off.”

Nemgas selected his fellow wagonmates naturally, as it was they that he knew the best. Chamag was slightly upset that he had not been given the responsibility, but did not pursue the matter once Hanaman had spoken. They returned to the wagons only to gather the weapons they would need, and then back to the rise. Though in its overall shape, the Barchumba appeared to have a smooth slope, it was filled with jagged rocks that poked up at odd angles. So several paces from the top of the rise the six of them secreted themselves amongst the rocks, knowing that they’d be hidden from view by any who would approach along the path.

“I shalt accost them first,” Nemgas said from his place of hiding, a sudden thought occurring to him. There was a part of him that had once been a Yeshuel and knew a great many things about Yesulam. “I hath once spent time in the company of such knights as these, ere I became a Magyar.” The words were like ash on his tongue even as he said them. He wished they were not true, but that his memories of growing up a Magyar were the ones that had really happened. “Perhaps I couldst ply their tongues more easily.”

“And if thou shouldst need us?” Chamag asked, his voice suspicious.

“Then I wouldst snap my fingers, and thou must all come out with thy swords drawn and arrows knocked,” Nemgas replied, shifting slightly in his hiding hole. “Dost thee all agree to this?”

There was a murmuring chorus of “Aye” then, each of them one by one giving their ascent to his plan. Nemgas smiled and sighed, eyes casting out of the small crevice into which he’d wedged himself and down along the path. The wagons were moving already, the first of them passing over the lip of the next smaller rise, only to disappear a moment later as it entered the wider gully beyond. Each in turn passed over that threshold, for a moment standing high on the rise, the afternoon sun limning the Magyar riding atop it, before it would disappear beyond the twisted slope.

It took only a few minutes before all of the wagons had made their way into the next gully, but Nemgas could still hear the crunch of the wagon wheels over the rocky soil for a few minutes more. He wondered what Pelurji thought was happening. Told to stay in his wagon even though they had stopped, and then they moved again for a few more minutes before stopping once more. Would the boy have any notion that they were concerned a party of knights was trailing them? He doubted it.

A strange image came to him then, of one of those knights trying to grab at the back of Pelurji’s shirt with a mailed hand. Nemgas felt his body smoulder at the very notion. What if those knights were not from Yesulam, but actually from Cheskych, the armour hidden away except for the gravest of times? Perhaps they had ridden out to reclaim Pelurji for themselves, to take him from the life of the Magyar? Nemgas felt his hands curl around the hilt of the sword he’d taken, teeth grinding together. No, he’d not let that happen.

But then why, another voice asked, would they have sent so few men after them? This was but a party of four - two knights and likely two squires. How could they alone hope to defeat a band as large as the Magyars to reclaim a single child? It seemed preposterous the more he thought about it, and so his jaw was once more set at ease. But his hand still gripped the hilt. Try as he might, Nemgas could not completely dispel the image of the knight taking Pelurji.

It was not the most comfortable of vantage points from which to wait for the approaching horsemen, but he routinely stretched his muscles so that they would not get stiff. He could hear his fellow Magyars doing much the same thing. Occasionally one of them would cough quietly, but otherwise they remained silent. They had all been thieving before after all, and in that, silence was just as much a key to survival as it was then.

The hour that it took the knights to approach stretched on for what seemed far more than an hour. When they finally began to feel the trembling of the Earth at the hoofbeats, Nemgas had in fact begun to feel drowsy. But that soft murmuring woke him instantly, and with alert ears, he began to hear the clink of metal armour, and the pounding of the horses’ hooves. He shifted himself slightly in his crevice, ready to step out the moment that they appeared over the rise.

But much to his dismay, he heard them bring their chargers to a halt just before the rise itself. A loud metallic thunk sounded, and then slowly, the chinking of armoured footsteps sounded just beyond the rise. Nemgas held his breath tight, swallowing hard. Soft words were spoken in a language that sounded vaguely familiar, but one that was too quiet for him to understand. He blinked, a bit of dust getting into his eye, making his nose twitch. Somebody responded in that same language. A horse snorted and stomped a hoof. Leather creaked, metal rubbed against metal. A laugh.

Nemgas bit his teeth together, the pain in his eye worsening, blinking to get the bit of dust that had fallen within out. A third voice spoke up, this one even more subdued than before. Another set of feet struck the earth then. Nemgas closed his eyes tighter, something beginning to catch in his throat. A stone bounced off the rocks far below, its echoing cry resounding for several seconds. Words were spoken once again and then the rubbing of leather once more. Horses whinnied plaintively, more hooves stomping upon the ground.

The irritation in his nose was beginning to make it hard to breathe, what breaths he did take were becoming erratic and quick. Nemgas tightened his grip upon the sword hilt, knowing the moment he tried to wipe his eyes with his free hand, he’d somehow make a noise that would alert the knights to their presence before they crossed the rise. Water began to spill out onto the ground in spurts here and there. Somebody spit. A few more armoured steps towards the rise and an audible grunt.

Nemgas opened his mouth, trying to breathe that way, but he still felt the need to sneeze. His nails were digging into the leather strips wrapped about the hilt. The booted steps retreated fora bit, and then the sound of a man mounting a horse could be heard, the metallic sheen unmistakable. The dropping of water ceased only a moment later, and then another man mounted their horses, this one much more quietly. Nemgas kept his eyes shut tight, praying that they would cross over now. He knew he could back only for a few more moments.

He felt a thrill of relief when he heard the horses move once more, ascending up the rise and then over, coming down into te gully where they waited. Nemgas, still holding back his sneeze, slipped out form his crevice, and stepped out onto the road, causing the lead knight to pull back on his reins so hard that the horse reared and neighed in surprise. Smiling, Nemgas finally let the sneeze come out. He rubbed his sleeve against his nose as he gazed at the four figures who regarded him in shock.

Their armour was dirtied from a long journey, but it was in reasonably good shape he observed. Their horses were of a Southern stock he judged from their bulkiness and thick heavy manes. But it was their shields that caught his eye the most, for they were completely green, with a blue cross that extended to each side. They were not from Yesulam after all, because the Ecclesia’s knights bore a simple escutcheon with only a single bend sinister. But, from the memories of that other side, he knew who they were anyway.

“Hail and well met, oh Knights of Driheli,” Nemgas said to the four. “What bringest thee so far from thy home?”

The knights stared at him in dumbfounded silence for several moments. They were not wearing their helmets, so he could see the surprise full in their faces. The squires were also equally shocked, their eyes scanning across his face, and up to his hair. There seemed to be something of recognition in their gazes as well, and that startled Nemgas even more than seeing a southern order of knights in the Steppe.

“A Magyar you are?” the lead knight asked then, his composure regained. Nemgas nodded, arms crossed before him as he stood in the middle of the road. He’d manage to get the four riders to stop between his fellow Magyars. With one snap, they would be beset upon from all sides, but he was certainly not ready for them yet.

“Aye. Dost thou seek out the Magyars?”

The knight paused, studying him. “One among them what we seek is.” His mangling of the northern tongue was familiar to him from the memories of the other half. Apparently, their language organized words differently than did his own. “Where the rest of them are?”

Nemgas pondered that a moment. “Where art the rest of my kind? Why shouldst thou seek them out when thou canst speak with me. I shalt answer thy questions. If ’tis but a single person thou seekest, for whom dost thou seek it?”

The knight appeared to grow impatient, inching his charger a couple steps forward. Nemgas did not give any ground. “For the Ecclesia we search. How a Magyar know of Order of Driheli come to?”

Nemgas smiled then, and wondered if that other part of him knew the southern tongue. Much to his delight, he found the proper words making their way to his tongue. “I know many things of the Southlands. We Magyars have our ways of learning about others.”

To hear him speak in their native tongue surprised the knights even more. They had yet to draw their swords, though the second knight appeared eager to do so. “You are very talented, pagan. Who are you?”

There was something in the manner of this knight that made Nemgas feel distinctly uncomfortable. He was being studied intently. And they had recognized him. Somehow, they had heard of him, and now they were comparing what they saw with what they had heard. Wary, Nemgas kept his eyes focussed on all four. None of them moved yet, all waiting for some signal from the lead knight.

“I am a Magyar, and compared to the Driheli I suppose I could be called pagan,” Nemgas said, grinning wryly to them, though there was little humour in his voice. “Now who do you seek?”

The knight inched his charger forward another few steps. The horse’s broad nose was so close now that he could feel its breath and see the water dribbling from its supple, hairy lips. “Your name first, Magyar.” There was clearly a threat in his tone. They would resort to force if pushed any further.

“Thou shouldst not threaten me,” Nemgas said, reverting to his own native tongue then. He snapped his fingers once, and quickly drew his sword. Before the knights could react, from the rocks on either side of the path, his fellow Magyars emerged with such quickness that they could have simply winked into existence at that very moment. Berkon and Kaspel both had bows drawn, and arrows knocked. Chamag wielded his black axe, the same one that he used in the pageant. Pelgan had both stilettos drawn, while Gamran was twirling a smaller knife between his fingers from atop one of the rocks, a wicked grin upon his face.

“Now,” Nemgas said again, still in his native tongue. “Wouldst thou be so kind as to tell me who thou dost seek?”

The knight glanced back and forth across the new figures, knowing that he would be skewered by the two bowmen should he reach for his sword. His face was flush with rage. His fellow began sputtering curses at them, and he did reach for his sword. “If thou wishes to mimic a porcupine, then draw thy sword, oh knight.” With a snarl, he stopped, but he kept his hand close regardless. “If thou wouldst rather live then thou wouldst unbuckle they belt and let thy sword to the ground.”

The lead knight hesitated only a moment in unbuckling his belt. With a heavy clatter, his sword fell to the rock. His horse shuffled about nervously, but he kept it under control. His fellow knight did as instructed a moment later. The two squires only possessed short swords, but they also dropped them to the ground, both of them doing their best to keep the fear from their eyes.

“Good. Now thou shalt tell me who thee seeks,” Nemgas repeated.

“Grievous insult to the Ecclesia one of your kind has done,” the lead knight said in a snarl. “Find him we have been sent.” His eyes narrowed. “Perhaps two of your kind the Ecclesia insult have.”

Nemgas yawned then. “I hath grown tired of thy jibes. Shouldst I weary more, thou wilt discover thy mortality. Who dost thee seek?”

“Never to pagans will I beg,” the knight declared hotly, and then he spat at the ground. The glob landed only a few inches from Nemgas’s feet. “The slaughter of your people cause you will should us you kill.”

Nemgas lifted one eyebrow at that. “Oh? Dost thee have more than but these three to accompany thee? Where art the rest of thy knights?”

But at this he only smiled confidently. “Soon will you know. The fear of Eli will you pagan curs know.”

“Methinks thou shouldst know it first,” Nemgas said, but the knight only smiled confidently to him, as he shifted about slightly in his saddle. Letting his eyes fall downward, in sudden trepidation, he noticed that the knight had slipped his mailed boots free from the stirrups.

The lead knight led out a sudden cry, pulling back firmly on the reins. His charger reared with a sudden whinny. With his feet out of the stirrups, he slid off the back of the animal, even as Kaspel’s arrow sailed through the air where he would have been to bounce ineffectually off the rocks. His hand slipping down to his leg as he landed on the ground, he withdrew a knife, and threw it at Berkon, landing it solidly in his arm. With a cry, Berkon dropped his bow, the arrow speeding away wildly.

Pelgan leapt from his rock upon the other knight’s horse, even as the man gave the reins a sharp yank to the side. Any other man would have toppled from the back of the steed, but not a Magyar. With a quick thrust, Pelgan slid both of his stilettos through the creases in the knight’s armour, and withdrew them. The second knight, fumbled in his saddle to reach the knife at his side for several more moments before he even realized that he’d already been slain.

Both of the squires immediately turned their horses about and tried to gallop back down the rise. Gamran flicked his wrist once quickly, and one of the squires gave out a cry of agony, the blade protruding from the back of his neck. The body limply tumbled from the saddle, hands still tightly gripping the reins, bringing the horse to a clumsy stop, falling to one side. The beast gave out a sharp cry as it landed upon the jagged rocks, its flesh skewered.

Chamag and Nemgas both advanced upon the lead knight who’d yanked his sword form his scabbard. There was a wild fire in his eyes as he launched himself at both of them, swinging that broadsword widely. Nemgas had his own blade in his hands a moment later, deftly parrying the blow, even as he shouted to Kaspel. “Stop the squire!” Kaspel knocked a second arrow, and shot it down the other side of the rise quickly. An equine squeal came back, and then he and Gamran ran down the hill.

Chamag swung his axe heavily down at the knight, but received a boot to his middle. The larger Magyar grunted and fell back, right into the knight’s startled horse. The beast reared again, ready to smash his face in with those heavy hooves. But Chamag stepped back, and slammed his axe blade into the creature’s neck heavily, hot blood steaming forth from the blow, coating his dark axe blade.

The knight was certainly good with a sword, Nemgas thought as he traded a few more blows with him. But he was better. With a flick of his wrist, he knocked the blade form the knight’s hand and brought his own up to the man’s neck. “Dost thee yield?” Nemgas asked once. But the knight snarled, slapping the blade away with a mailed fist, diving in to the Magyar. But before he could even reach Nemgas, he sagged and collapsed to the path, one of Pelgan’s stilettos buried in his neck to the hilt.

Nemgas took a long breath, and then sheathed his blade. He saw that Berkon had managed to pull the dagger from his arm and was trying to tie a tourniquet over the wound. Pelgan went to assist him, even while Chamag struggled to dislodge his axe from the horse’s neck. A few steps brought him to the top of the rise. The first squire’s body lay in a crushed heap beneath his horse, blood pooling around them quickly. Further down, Gamran and Kaspel were leading the other squire back up the hill, as well as the injured horse. One of Kaspel’s arrows was protruding from its thigh but it still walked.

When Nemgas turned back around, Chamag had freed his blade and was inspecting a nick it had gained. He looked first to Berkon though. “Art thou well?”

Berkon nodded, grimacing at the tourniquet. “I shalt be.”

“We shouldst take their armour,” Chamag said, gesturing to the two dead knights toppled on the ground.

“Aye,” Nemgas said then. “We shalt drape them o’er the horse.” He pointed to the second knight’s horse which still carried the dead knight. By the time that Chamag and Nemgas had managed to calm the horse down sufficiently, the other Magyars returned with the squire in tow, both of his hands tied behind his back. Nemgas motioned for the others to attend to the knight’s bodies, although Gamran remained to keep his knife pressed against the youth’s neck.

Nemgas stepped closer, glaring into the boy’s face. He couldn’t be more than fifteen he judged. His eyes were wild with fright. “Dost thou speak this tongue?” Nemgas asked, his voice harsh. Though he’d not slain any of them himself, he still had a little blood on his hands form moving the lead knight next to the horse.

But the boy continued to stare at him in fright, doing his best not to shiver. Gamran pushed him down to the ground then so that he was sitting and could move even less. Nemgas leaned over him heavily, placing one hand upon the youth’s shoulder. “So you do not speak the northern tongues then?” he asked in the language of Stuthgansk.

The boy gulped heavily as his eyes met the Magyar’s. “Not much.”

“Very well. Now, I have no wish to kill you, boy. What is your name?”

The boy closed his eyes and looked away. Gamran pressed the blade more firmly against his neck, and a small pinprick of blood began to well against that blade. But Nemgas shook his head, and the little thief relented. “Look at me. Look at me now,” Nemgas commanded. Reluctantly, the squire did, his blue eyes quavering. “Tell me your name.”

“Angele Dei, qui custos es mei...” the squire chanted.

Nemgas grimaced and punched him in the gut heavily. “Your name!”

Tears stood out on the sides of his face, as he looked up at Nemgas. He moved his lips slowly, his half formed prayer for protection now dead upon those lips. “You’ll just kill me if I tell you.”

“No,” Nemgas said. “I will not kill you. Tell me your name.”

But the boy stared at him, and then past him, his eyes seeming to see something else. One of the white locks of hair fell over Nemgas’s eyes then, but he did not brush it back. “Are you Kashin?” the boy asked suddenly, his voice filled with trepidation.

Nemgas felt as if he’d been struck by lightning. He punched the squire once more in the gut, and then backed away several paces. His knees were weak, and he felt unable to stand. And then Nemgas tumbled to the ground, one arm across his belly, doing his best not to heave. Chamag and the rest had managed to tie the dead knights down to the horse by then, and so came to his side. “Art thee well?” Pelgan asked, but Nemgas could only wave them away. What little sense he did have then he gave in thanks that the squire had said what he did in the southern tongue. None of the other Magyars yet knew what had been said. They would have to know, but not yet.

Nemgas managed to push himself to his feet at last, just as Berkon, still sitting upon his perch, gave out a sharp cry. He slipped form his perch quickly and laid himself down at the top of the rise. The rest of them rushed up to his side, staying low as well. Only Gamran remained behind, keeping the squire from moving. Nemgas squinted down along the sloping path across the Barchumba before he finally saw at its base what had alarmed his friend. There rising up the side was another force, this one many times larger than the one they had just defeated. They sparkled just as brightly as the two slain knights had.

“Damn!” Nemgas swore, scooting back from the rise and back down to where Gamran held the squire.

“What hast thee seen?” Gamran asked, eyes firm.

“They wert but scouts. The rest art but an hour behind. They shalt be upon us ere the night falls. Return to the wagons will all haste!” Nemgas drew his sword then and advanced upon the wide-eyed squire. He struck the youth across the top of his head with the hilt, and then sheathed his blade once more. “Now!” He dragged the squire over his shoulders and laid him across the injured horse’s back, leading the beast down the path at a quick pace. Chamag and Kaspel led the other beast, one who was far used to heavy burdens, while Pelgan, Berkon, and Gamran simply ran.

Over the second smaller rise they saw that the wagons were stopped, with drivers ready to begin again at a moment’s notice. Hanaman was pacing back and forth at the rear, frowning sourly as he saw them crest the rise. Nemgas did not wait for him to speak though. “They hath a far vaster force ascending Barchumba only an hour behind. And they doth mean us great harm. We must flee.”

Hanaman shook his head. “We shalt ne’er outrun them upon the Steppe. We shouldst fight. How many didst thou see?” He gave a perfunctory nod to the two dead knights and the unconscious squire.

Nemgas had not been able to count them though. “A score at least. I shalt tell thee what I know of them soon, but we canst stay here and fight. ‘Tis too open. We shouldst go into Vysehrad.”

Adlemas who was standing nearby as well gasped at that. “But that wouldst bring us to Hanlo o Bavol-engro!”

“Aye,” Nemgas said. “I knowest not wait waits for us there. But I dost know that death wilt come for us here shouldst we stay.”

Hanaman grimaced, but nodded. He turned to Adlemas then. “Move the wagons up the mountain path as quickly as we canst.” Grunting, Adlemas ran back up along the wagons, waving the other drivers to attention as he did so. Hanaman turned back to Nemgas then. “What of that one?” He pointed to the squire.

“I hath kept him alive to know what they dost intend.”

“Take him to thy wagon for now and tie him down. Berkon, go to Zhenava to tend thy wound. Hitch both horses here after thee dost put the knights inside.” Hanaman gestured to the final wagon, and very quickly Chamag and the rest began to lift the two knights up into the last wagon where they could be stripped of their armour. Nemgas draped the squire over his shoulder, and began to briskly walk back to his wagon, even as Hanaman kept pace with him.

Ahead, Adlemas had reached the first wagon. Slowly, the line of wagons began to move forward up towards a small cleft in the defile. From there it would be able to turn upwards and venture into Vysehrad. “What dost thee know of these knights, Nemgas?” Hanaman asked after they passed by the last wagon.

“They art the Knights of Driheli, a fanatical Southlands order of the Ecclesia. I dost not know yet what ‘tis they hunt, but I fear it may be who I once wast.”

Hanaman frowned then, visibly disturbed by this news. But at last he nodded and spoke gravely. “They shalt not succeed. We wilt do what we canst to slow them for now. Tie him down and return with pick. I shalt wait at the end.”

Nemgas nodded and continued along the line of wagons, picking up his pace as they all started to move up the path. Ahead he could see the first begin to turn up through a crevice in the defile, passing out of sight shortly thereafter. He followed that crevice up, and found himself staring at the tall snow covered peaks of the Vysehrad, dark spires that stood resplendent in the afternoon sun. Once again he would climb those mountains. He could not help but remember then that years ago Pelain had done that very same thing.

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