Under a Blessing of Ashes - Part II

Kashin did not find Adlemas to be very conversational as they neared Doltatra. The smoke that was rising from the horizon became clearer as the minutes trickled by. The burly Magyar did appear a bit concerned as he watched it, but he would not say why. There was nothing wrong that Kashin could see, but he had never been to Doltatra before. So he contented himself with just waiting until they arrived to discover what had his companion so anxious.

As they neared, the trails of smoke rising in the air were joined by several brown, low-lying buildings that were all grouped fairly close together. A few shacks stood apart from the rest on either side, but they were the exception. A few groves of trees were scattered about to the north and the south, otherwise the landscape was the same icy grass. A long meandering scrawl of blue that wandered through the town and the groves spoke of the Atra River.

But Kashin could now see what had his friend worried. Not all of the smoke in the sky was rising from Doltatra. Instead, there were several camps on the eastern side of the river in which fires were burning. The camps consisted only of numerous tents, the cloth fashioned from various unremarkable colours, with a few people moving amongst them dressed in leather hides, and horses that grazed upon the cold grass.

“What’s going on?” Kashin asked as he pointed in the distance. They were still several minutes from the town’s edge, but it was clear that every Magyar eye was upon the camps with their men and horses. He could see no women or children moving about, so he suspected they were all tucked away inside those tents.

“‘Tis one of the horse clans of the Steppe,” Adlemas said, his eyes straining as he studied their camp. “They roam as do we, but they hath no concern aught but their steeds.”

“Wilt they cause us trouble?” Kashin asked. It was only after the words had left his mouth did he realise that he had slipped into the older tongue of the Steppe. He had been doing that more and more lately, as the lilt of its speech was quite musical, and very infectious.

Adlemas cast him a sidelong glance. “That hath to be seen. Some of the horse clans art friendly towards us Magyars, others bear us great malice.” He stopped speaking and glanced up to the town then. Kashin turned his eyes there as well, and caught sight of a rider from the village meandering across the grasses towards them. From the first wagon ahead he could see the second driver waving their hand. Down the line of wagons the second driver sent the signal back. When Pelgan in the wagon directly before them turned and held up his hand, Adlemas was quick to pull on the reins, bringing the Assingh to a stop. Kashin turned about and held up his one hand to the wagon behind them, passing the order along to the rest.

Once they had been brought to a stop, the drivers began to draw up closer to the lead wagon, coming in alongside of it. Kashin gripped the side of his seat tightly with his hand as Adlemas drover them forward and sharply to the left. It took several minutes for them all to get organized in a tight semi-circle. By then the rider had reached them, and was talking briskly with Hanaman who rode in one of the wagons close to the front. Although they could not hear any of the words shared between them, their tenor did not sit well with either Kashin or Adlemas, or any of the other Magyars close by.

Pelgan and Negal were sitting just a short distance from him now, and so Kashin leaned over in his seat a bit and called over to them. The grey lock of hair fell in his eyes, but he pushed it back. “What’s happening?” A sudden itching sensation raced along his chest, but he did his best to ignore it.

The young man just shrugged though, his hands resting at his hips where his daggers lay. Negal kept his hands on the reins, watching the town itself in case another rider might venture to them.

“Who do you think they are?” the former Yeshuel asked, pointing across the river towards the tents and horses.

Pelgan shook his head. “I knowest not. When they hath finished, Hanaman wilt tell us all what hath been said.”

Kashin nodded at last, and leaned back in his seat. It was the first time he as a Magyar was entering a town, and could not still the questions passing through his mind. Was it normal for a village to send out a rider to greet the Magyars? He knew it was the way in some cities when a foreign dignitary was approaching, but they hardly counted as such. Would the horse clan be friendly towards them, or would they harass them and perhaps even kill some of them?

The thought of one of his fellow Magyars falling under the blade of the horse clan filled him with a desire he had not felt in quite some time. In fact, it had been so long, that he had difficulty recognising it at first. But with a wry grin he realised that he wished to protect any Magyars who would be threatened. He’d spent all of his life up until the last few months as a bodyguard, risking his own life for the sake of others. Why should it be any different now that he was amongst the Magyars?

The conference between the rider and Hanaman did not last for very long. Soon the villager rode back towards the town in the same zig-zag fashion he had sped towards them. Hanaman leaped down from his perch atop the seer’s wagon, and stepped out into the grassy field beyond. After giving one of the Assingh a firm pat along the neck, he waved to the rest to come down and join him.

Although Adlemas offered him help in descending from his perch, Kashin choose to jump down himself. The ice-covered grass cracked beneath his boots, his breath clear in the air before him. His face was cold, but it had since been hardened to it. It was little wonder that the faces of the Magyars were so warn and creased with lines. Living outdoors so much as they did, they endured brutal weather that could be met no other way.

As he walked past the two Assingh that had carted them across the endless Steppe, the first one nudged at his left shoulder heavily. Kashin turned to the huge beast, smiled a bit, and patted him firmly between the eyes. He could feel the heat of its breath as it washed across his face then, its own grey face bearing a strangely proud expression. Kashin gave him one more firm pat before joining the other Magyars that were assembling in the centre of the semi-circle.

The Magyars that had remained in the wagons opened windows and leaned out to watch as the men discussed what to do. A few of the older men also rode inside the wagons, but most of them were responsible for driving and protecting them and the women and children inside them. There were more women than men, but not by a great deal. The number of children though was surprisingly low. Kashin gathered that many of them could not handle the hard nomadic life of the Magyars and died while still young.

Kashin found himself standing next to Chamag and Pelgan. Chamag was a large man, one that he had come to know, as he portrayed a valiant Keeper in their pageant. Standing with his arms crossed amidst them all was Hanaman. His face was creased by the most unpleasant frown Kashin thought he’d ever seen upon the man. Whatever the rider had told him, he suspected it was not good.

“Thou hast seen that we shalt not be the only visitors to Doltatra. The others art the Tagendend horse clan.” He almost spit the name as he spoke it.

Quite a few of the Magyars did spit then, their faces contorted in distaste. “Not that foul band!” one shouted in dismay. “They hath dropped from their horse’s hinds!” another proclaimed with bitter distaste. Even more colourful invectives spewed forth from some of the Magyars, though Hanaman stilled them with a wave of his hands.

“I hath no love for them or they for us. But the Burgomaster of Doltatra hath requested that we keep our distance from them. He hath no desire to have us shed their blood on his lands. ‘Tis a foul season to die, so I want all of thee to put aside thy grievances and stay upon this side of the River Atra.”

“But how wilt we continue on our way?” Nagel asked. Kashin glanced to the tall thin contortionist. His hands were rubbing against each other, keeping the feeling within them. A bit closer, Kashin could see that Pelgan was rubbing his hands over the hilt of either knife at his side. A very cold expression filled the young man’s face. What had the Tagendend done to the Magyars? What could have elicited such hostility from these generally amiable people?

Kashin thought back to his days at Yesulam, trying to remember if there had been any knights from the Tagendend clan. While many from the Steppe journeyed to Yesulam to become knights, he could not think of any who had been named Tagendend. Perhaps they only roamed the northern extremes of the Flatlands? After all, most of the knights hailed from clans that travelled the southern reaches of the Steppe.

Hanaman nodded. “They,” he said the word with such venom there could be no doubt to whom he was referring, “wilt be heading South along the river in two days time. Once they hath left we may proceed on our way.”

Gamran fidgeted about on his feet then, standing not too far from Kashin. “What of Doltatra? Shalt we be allowed within her lovely walls?”

Hanaman gave the little thief a bemused smirk. “I did not think thee were in such haste to get within those walls again. The last time thou wanted out from those walls!”

Kashin smirked a bit, remembering what Adlemas had told him had happened to Gamran the last time he had been to Doltatra. But the little thief was not deterred by the gentle ribbing. “I hath but to redeem myself, is all.”

“I wouldst let thee,” Hanaman said then, his face plainly irritated, “but the Burgomaster doth wish us to remain out here upon the grasses.”

Nagel spoke up once more, his hands gripped tightly together. “Then where shall we perform for the townsfolk? Dost they expect us to leave with nothing?”

Hanaman shook his head. “They wilt come here that wish to come. We hath but to arrange benches for them to sit, and we shalt perform about our fires and our wagons.”

“Wilt they allow us to buy food for the journey east?” Adlemas asked softly.

Hanaman nodded. “Once they hath left we art free to roam the village.”

“And wilt they say the same to them?” Pelgan asked, his voice conveying his distaste for the horse clan as well.

The leader of the Magyars nodded, casting his eyes upon each of them, pausing for a moment upon Kashin, before turning to face Pelgan. “Aye. The rider hath assured me that they wilt say the same things to them.”

“So they shan’t journey to the west of the river?” Kashin asked then. Though he did not know who the Tagendend were, he had no desire to meet them if they could make his fellow Magyars so angry and contemptuous.

“Nay, good Nemgas, they shan’t,” Hanaman added, much to the relief of the rest. “If one of them dost venture here, then be quick to send him upon his way. Do not fight with them, for they wouldst love an excuse to openly attack us.”

“I shall do as you say,” Kashin nodded his head to the leader of the Magyars. Those words appeared to please Hanaman far more than the former Yeshuel would have expected. And then again he felt that itching sensation across his chest, and worked his fingers across the multi-coloured fabric that seemed to be the cause of his discomfort. He thought it strange that it would take so long to irritate his skin, but scratched anyway.

Hanaman clapped his hands firmly together, the sound disappearing into the endless Steppe. “Now, saith these things unto thy brethren, and tell them that we must ready camp here. We shalt arrange the benches once the fires hath been lit and our meals art being made.”

Most of the Magyars rushed back to their wagons to inform those inside that camp was to be made. Adlemas himself was quick on his feet, leaving Kashin were he stood in his fervour. Pelgan also remained at Kashin’s side just then, walking back along side of him. The former Yeshuel looked down to the young man, his angular face set in a determined moue, while his long unbraided hair was lifted upon a chill breeze.

“Forgive my ignorance, but who are the Tagendend?” Kashin asked then. “You appear to know them.”

Pelgan snorted at that, dark eyes casting towards the horse clan’s camp in the distance on the other side of the silvery river. “They art worse beasts than the animals that they ride. Aye, I know them, thou I wish I did not.” He pulled one dagger from its sheath, the grey blade nicked in a few places. “My daggers hath a desire to know them.”

“What hath they done to you?” Kashin asked, perplexed. A moment later, he added, “Done to us?”

Pelgan sheathed his dagger then as he approached the side of one of the wagons. “Wilt thee help me assemble wood for the fires?”

“Of course,” Kashin said, widening his stance, flexing his fingers a few times. They were still cold, he did not have a left hand to rub them against anymore.

The younger man climbed along the side of the wagon up to the railing on top. After he untied the ropes the held the wood in place, he began to pass some of the logs down towards Kashin. Gripping them firmly with his one hand, he tossed them behind himself. When he had first been helping with unloading the firewood, he’d wondered how they would start their fires when they allowed the wood to get so wet. But the magical charms they did have at their disposal were enough to overcome that.

As Kashin tossed another log to the ground, he could not help but repress a slight grin. Throughout much of his life, he had lived in a city where magic was a thing reviled by most. While his former master had sought to calm fears of it and bring a better understanding of magic and its uses to the Ecclesia as a whole, most still spoke of it only in whispering tones. Now he was living amongst a people for whom magic was integral to their daily lives and to their survival. If ever an argument existed for allowing magic in the kingdoms of the Ecclesia, the Magyars convincingly made it.

Pelgan paused as he handed down one piece, his eyes scanning the camp beyond the river. “They bear us an enmity. Our paths do not much cross, though they hath done so many times. They always seek to bring harm to us. They hath accused of us many transgressions that we hath not committed against them. They hath attempted to draw us into fights at every turn. They hath done many things,” Pelgan stopped then, his eyes hardening with a mask so vile that Kashin flinched from it.

“Pelgan!” Kashin called out, snapping him from that vicious profane stare.

“Forgive me, Nemgas,” Pelgan said briefly, his hands tightening on the chunk of wood. He passed it down at last, and Kashin tossed it behind him into the pile. “I wish that thee shalt be spared their foul deeds.”

“Bring thy wood to the pyre!” Chamag called to them as he carried an armload to the spot where Hanaman had just been speaking. He set it down, arranging the smaller logs along the bottom in a circle. Pelgam climbed down then from the wagon and held his arms out to Kashin. The newest Magyar picked up the pieces one at a time and laid them in the young man’s arms. Careful not to block his vision, Kashin nevertheless managed to fit all of the lumber in that one load.

Kashin took the last piece off Pelgan’s arms and carried it in his one hand towards where Chamag was setting up the first pyre. Chamag gestured to another spot a short distance away, even as he began to rip up the ice-covered grass in a circle about his wood. Pelgan dropped the wood into the grass, the sound of the ice shattering muffled barely audible over the thumping of the logs.

Kashin was used to the routine now, and while Pelgan arranged the logs, he began to rip the grass free from its roots, tossing the hafts upon the pyre. The ice still upon them would quickly evaporate after they used their magical charms to light the fire. As the other Magyars returned from their wagons, more and more came to help. Kashin felt a bit uncomfortable, as the usual camaraderie was so palpably absent from them. When they had made camp on every previous night, there was always much talk, some laughter, and even some singing when one felt inspired to it. A few lonely voices tried to recall those more amiable evenings, but far too many eyes scanned the east of the river.

Once they had six pyres erected, Kashin saw that Zhenava had finally emerged from the wagon she shared with her husband Hanaman. That they were married surprised the former Yeshuel little, for Zhenava’s face betrayed even fewer emotions than did the leader of the Magyars. A woman of ice he’d heard whispered very quietly by a few of the braver Magyars, though she was also the woman who would light their fires. She was tall for the Magyars, coming up to Kashin’s own height. Her gowns were no finer than any other Magyar’s, though she wore hers with a grace that was strikingly out of place amongst this nomadic people.

As she stood before the first of the pyres her eyes also ventured to the east. They narrowed imperceptibly as she stared at the tents and the horses and people moving about between them. Finally, her gaze softened, and she watched the town. “Soon the people of Doltatra shalt come to watch us perform. Let us put the dung where it belongeth, from the horse’s ass!” The coarseness of her language surprised Kashin, but the delighted laughter from the other Magyars cheered him.

A slow sultry smile began to creep along her lips. Kashin’s eyes got wider as he watched that, having never yet seen her offer such gestures before. Hanaman, who stood just a short distance from her, had his arms crossed, and his lips set in a tight grin. But his eyes could hardly conceal his delight at watching his wife so skilfully strum his Magyars as if they were but a lute. She then bent down, pulling flint from within her gown and began murmuring soft words over the pyre while striking the flint. Sparks flashed several ties as the striking of the stone rang out across the Steppe. Soon, a gentle flame began to lick up the grasses thrown own, the smaller pieces of wood catching fire as well. She stayed several minutes while she spoke over the pyre, before it began burning earnestly.

Even as Zhenava moved to the next pyre, Varna and the other three girls who helped her moved the cooking plot into its place over the pyre. The medium built woman fussed over the positioning, while one of the girls poured a pitcher of water that they had collected earlier within the cauldron. By the time that Hanaman’s wife had lit the last of the pyres, Varna was already stirring in ingredients into their dinner stew. The sweet aroma of fresh smoke and the cooking meat and vegetables was enough to stir them all to better cheer.

Once the fires were started and burning warmly, Kashin helped the others unhitch the Assingh, leading them to the clearing between the wagons and the fires. The large donkeys had already cleared the grass where they had been hitched. They began to eagerly help clear out the grass where they would be performing, though they were always careful to push with sticks any unpleasantness they left behind underneath the wagons.

Even as Kashin and several others occupied themselves with that unpleasant but necessary task, the other Magyars began to prepare for that night’s festivities. From the railings on the sides of each wagon lanterns were hung and lit, each checked to make sure they were full of oil. The benches were taken down and set up in several rows on either side of the clearing cordoned off by the pyres and the wagons.

In fact, as Kashin and the others watching the Assingh lead their charges to the other side of the wagons to roam freely for the night, he could see several villagers already walking out towards their camp to watch their strange and delightful performances. Kashin had worried the first night they had let the animals move about freely. But they knew where they belonged, and would never travel so far that their brays could not be heard if they should venture into trouble. And by morning, they would always be next to the wagons, ready to haul their master’s and friends for another day’s journey.

Already Gamran and Pelgan were tossing balls back and forth between them, readying themselves for the more remarkable feats that would come later. The actual performances would not begin until they had all eaten of course. Sniffing the air, he caught the thick fragrance of the Assingh, plus the delectable odour of Varna’s stew. It was nearly ready, and so Kashin wandered over to the cauldron with a few of the other Magyars that were in the pageant. As they had to don their costumes, they always were allowed to eat first.

It was already beginning to get dark in fact as he waited. To the west he could see the sun dipping below the horizon, grey sky overhead fading to a deep purple. More and more fires could be seen upon the eastern bank of the river, but Kashin and the other Magyars did not much pay it mind. But there was something out there far to the east that caught his eye. A star already shown very near the eastern horizon, twinkling with a blue light.

Kashin idly scratched as his colourful jerkin as he watched the twinkling. It ebbed and grew, and then began to fade again. It was only at the trembling he felt through his legs and feet did he realize that nobody was speaking. Like some strange lighthouse the star pulsed that pale blue light. And then, it ebbed from view until the dark cloudy sky replaced it once more. Kashin blinked several times as he stared at where the phantom star had been, but only imperceptible blackness awaited him.

He was still scratching at his jerkin even as the last rays of the sun disappeared beyond the western horizon. Looking to Chamag who stood just a few steps from him, also waiting for the stew to be finished, he whispered, “What was that?”

Chamag caught Kashin’s gaze then, his own eyes strangely quiet. He too had watched the blue pulsing star appear and then fade into the night. But the large man shook his head. “Thou best not speak of it.” He then smiled and patted Kashin firmly on the back. “‘Tis thy first performance before others, Nemgas! Art thou nervous?”

Kashin knew from the sudden change in the man’s demeanour that he would say nothing of that strange star, so did not press the subject. “Only a little bit. I just hope that all goes well this night. My performance would be difficult to ruin!”

Chamag laughed good-naturedly then, patting him once ore on the back with thick hands. “Thou shalt do fine, I know thou shalt. Thou wilt be a fright to all the children and e’er a few men and women!”

Smiling, Kashin decided to put the strange star from his mind for now and focus on feeding himself and the pageant. “And thou shalt slay me quite well,” he added, slipping into their patois once more without realising it. Of course, Chamag portrayed a Keeper in the pageant, the very one who wouldst end the life of one frightful ogre that Kashin played.

With a hearty voice, Varna bellowed, “Thy meals art ready!” The cook stepped back a few paces and crossed her arms proudly. The other girls who helped her all held bowls in the hands and they handed them out to the Magyars standing close by. Kashin took his own, following behind Chamag to the simmering cauldron. Inside was a delectable broth filled with vegetables and bits of meat. The meat had come from a bison they’d killed a few days before during their journey, and so had only been salted lightly. Even so, it smelled wonderful and warm.

Chamag took the ladle and spooned some of the broth into his own bowl. Kashin held his own bowl out, and Chamag served him as well. One of the other girls who could not be more than sixteen handed him a small wooden spoon. When she saw that he could not take it, she blushed, and slipped it into the bowl for him. Kashin smiled back to her and said, “Thank you, my lady.” She blushed even further, her dark hair shining even brighter over the red of her cheeks.

Kashin followed Chamag to one of the benches, setting the bowl on the wood as he straddled his seat. A few of the villagers were approaching their camp, eyeing them uncertainly, but drawn by the bright colours and the boisterous laughter and activity. None of them sat down quite yet, preferring just to watch them. Kashin supped as he listened to the other Magyars nearby tell jokes and recite some lewd limericks. Strangely enough, he could not help but laugh along with them. When he had first heard such descriptive language, he’d been shocked. But now it seemed as commonplace to him as the colourful clothes he now wore.

Despite that sense of belonging, another deeper sense of longing filled him. This was the sort of joviality and camaraderie that he had known whilst amongst the Yeshuel and the knights of Yesulam. Though the jokes were cruder now, even then they had amused themselves with the foibles of their fellow an, and of their own. Where were the faces of his friends Iosef, Alfais, and Lakaesh? Where were the nights in their shining armour speaking of their stallions and mares, bright tourneys and noble battles? Where were the priests counting their beads, speaking words of wisdom and leading them in their prayers?

The answer made the stew lose its delightful flavour. Those he had journeyed with were all dead or radically transformed, forevermore locked away at Metamor, considered freaks and monsters by the rest of the world. And then, he remembered just what role he was to play in the pageant that evening. The Keepers would be the heroes, despite their beastly visages. By his efforts amongst the Magyar, he would still be working towards goodwill, assuring the people’s of the Flatlands that the Metamorians were good brave people.

As he thought of Metamor, Kashin wondered how the Keepers he had met there were faring. Was Murikeer Khannas still deep in his magical studies lost amongst the ancient forgotten shelves of the library? Had Rickkter found some peace for his lost friend that he’d asked the Patriarch’s intercession for? And what of that rat, Charles Matthias? Was he continuing to promote justice even in his own little way? And how were Bishop Vinsha and Sir Yacoub Egland adjusting to their new lives as Metamorians? What had they become even? So many questions he had, and no way to answer any of them.

But that was the way things normally worked. Kashin spooned the last of the stew into his mouth, enjoying its warm flavour at last. Tonight would be his first real performance as a Magyar. The villagers who were beginning to gather just a short distance from their camp, strange faces looking at them uncertainly, yet anxiously. They would see him and see a Magyar, not the man who once had been a Yeshuel. They would see Nemgas of the Magyar, not Kashin of the Yeshuel. That strange distinction made him frown slightly, but not for long.

Gamran and Pelgan were at their sides now, tossing small colourful cloth balls back and forth between each other. “Ho there, my good Nemgas,” Gamran called, his face flush from the chill of the night, and the warmth of the fires. “Art thee ready for thy first night?”

Kashin smiled to the little thief and nodded. “Yes, I am.” After a moment he added. “I hope you two will be able to see it.”

“‘Tis my hope as well,” Gamran smiled, bowing quickly to Kashin, before standing upright again. The balls that he and Peglan had been juggling back and forth continued on their paths, and even still the thin man was able to snatch them from the air and propel them back to his partner.

“Thou shouldst perform that trick!” Chamag laughed, slightly startled himself at Gamran’s adroitness.

“‘Tis a feat I wish that I couldst repeat more often,” Gamran admitted. “It hath difficulty beyond compare!” he proclaimed, even as he lifted one leg and tossed a blue ball from underneath it. Pelgan repeated the gesture, though instead of a gentle arc like Gamran had been able to produce, his flew high into the dark night air. Even so, the little thief caught it easily and passed it back with nary a blink.

Kashin wished he could have applauded their little show. He settled instead for firmly slapping his thigh. “Well, it is quite impressive regardless. We should not tarry much longer.” The last he said to Chamag, who was finishing the last of his stew just then.

“‘Tis true.” He turned then to the others in the pageant who were sitting with them and also applauding the juggler’s performance. “Get thee to thy wagons. ‘Tis time to don our costumes.”

Kashin rose to his feet, gripping his bowl in his hand. The other sin the pageant did likewise, each of them carrying their wooden bowl and spoon, both cleaned of food, back to the cook and her attendants. One of the younger women took his bowl from him, and Kashin quickly proceeded back to his wagon. It was not truly his own wagon, as he shared it with several of the other unmarried men, including Gamran and Pelgan. Most of the men his age had taken a wife, though he was hardly expected to.

There was little room inside the wagon to keep his personal belongings, but he had so few now that it hardly mattered. The inside of the wagon was designed with six beds in two stacks of three, one above the other against one wall. There was a small table set at the front of the wagon where they could sit, but it did not have enough room for all six of them. There were three windows, two set on either side from the table, and the third set in the centre on the wall opposite the bunks. Also opposite the bunks were several cabinets and drawers containing several changes of clothes and whatever else they owned. A small, polished but greying mirror was affixed to the wall between two cabinets.

Opening one of those two up, Kashin pulled out the thick folds of cloth he would need to don. Laying the cloth on his own bed, the middle one in the far back, he arranged it to make sure that all the threads were still perfectly in place. Satisfied that they were, he pulled out the vicious mask that had been fashioned for him. The face was mostly painted, though the tusks of the ogre were fashioned from the bones of a bison. Lastly he drew out the wooden club that he would be waving about madly as he growled and terrorized the Keepers. It was solid, and if the need should ever arise, he could strike a man senseless with it, if not outright kill him.

Inside the drawer just below the mirror, he pulled out a small wooden box. Lifting the lid he revealed a pile of dark ashes that he’d collected from the previous night’s fires. Taking one finger, he dipped it within the ashes, and then began to smear them around his eyes, being very careful to not actually get any in his eyes. It took him several minutes to get the colouring right, but soon he had a dark ring of soot around each eye, framing them vividly. Satisfied, Kashin closed the box and returned it to the drawer.

With a strange sense of excitement, he began to pull on the ogre costume. It was difficult with only one hand to tie off the laces in the back, but another of his performers would be in to do that for him shortly. He could not quite identify what the tingling sensation was that filled him as he slipped each leg on, but it was one that he thought he enjoyed.

As he slipped his stump within the sleeve, he felt that itching sensation return. He could not readily scratch at it with his hand inside the costume, so he ignored it. The costume itself was made of hide, with patches of cow and horse hair spread across the flesh in haphazard style. It would be very warm after a while, but it was cool in the wintry night air, so he would not notice it too much.

As he pulled the head on, trying to make sure that the eyeholes were lined up with his eyes, he could not help but wonder what he was doing. He’d been tasked to cleanse the Ecclesia of the taint of evil that had corrupted it and led to his master’s demise. Now here he was putting on a performance with a group of people who did not even share the same faith as he! Just how could he go through with this?

As he stood there mutely, he could hear the laughter of several children outside. Their delightful voices brought a smile to his face once again, though none could see it through the monstrous visage he now bore in the ogre costume. Somehow, he knew that he would still be able to do what he must. He mouthed a quick prayer, his heart beginning to calm. He itched again for a moment, but it passed quickly. Gazing once more into the mirror, he tried to straighten the mask out, making sure that the soot did not smear too badly in his fumbling.

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