Under a Blessing of Ashes - Part IV

Hanaman scowled darkly as he saw the riders approach. He had been talking with Burgomaster Agee as the man had appraised his wife’s dancing ability. Hanaman always enjoyed watching other men speak of their jealousy to him as they saw his wife Zhenava dancing, castanets in her hands, hips moving in a way that would melt the ice from mountain peaks. There was no question that she was a beautiful woman who caught the eye of every man under forty, and even some older than that. But she was his as surely as the sun rose and set.

As the villagers began to rise and cry out in concern, Hanaman crossed towards his fellow Magyars, taking one moment to nod to his wife. Zhenava returned the gesture, standing firm and strong amongst the other women. They would not move aside for any man. Chamag and Adlemas were at his side in another moment, while several others also joined them as they moved to meet the party of horsemen ridings towards their camp.

Hanaman was secretly delighted to see that Nemgas had also climbed down from his perch to stand with them, his face set in a determined pose he had seen many men bear. This newest Magyar would not let any pass either unless Hanaman willed it. Perhaps Dazheen had read the cards wrong and Nemgas was truly a Magyar as were the rest. And then he remembered what the cards had done when he’d asked his last question.

He quelled the doubts that had begun to pile into his mind and set his pose firm, as did Adlemas, Chamag, Nemgas, and the others. Even Pelgan had joined them, hands itching to his knives. With a single glance, Hanaman cooled the youth’s anger, and he relaxed slightly. They could now see that the riders were of the Tagendend, their clothes fashioned from the hides of slaughtered animals. He recognized the grizzled face of the horse clan’s First Hunter, Fultag, and his second son, Horvig. The brash youth could barely keep himself from arriving before his father, hatred plain on his face. Fultag’s countenance was more reserved, but boiled with quiet rage.

“Why hath thee come here?” Burgomaster Agee demanded as several of his own men interposed themselves between the Magyar’s and the horse clan.

Horvig was quicker with his tongue than his father, the dark haired youth pointing a finger at the Magyars who’d assembled close by. “They hath stolen from us! They art filthy thieves. Depart and allow us to slaughter them like the swine they art!”

Fultag’s voice was more measured, but he echoed his son’s sentiments, even if he used ice instead of fire. “One of the Magyars hath pilfered from our camp. We ask that thee allow us to punish them for this misdeed.”

Hanaman laughed a cold contemptuous laugh. “We hath not even the chance to greet and thou hast already accused us of thievery, eh Fultag?”

Fultag’s dark eyes, face long much like the animals they rode, bore down upon the Magyar leader. The First Hunter sneered. “Thou art doing well, ‘twould appear, Hanaman. ‘Tis a pity. Perhaps you wouldst allow us to correct that.”

Hanaman shook his head, crossing his arms before him. “I thank thee, but no, ‘twill not be necessary.”

Horvig snarled and reached for a dagger, stepping past Agee’s men. One of the other large men that Fultag had brought with him went to intercept the impetuous youth. To Hanaman’s surprise, Nemgas had moved forward, blocking the young man’s path, and stared down at him with a hardness to his expression that he had not seen before. It was as if the one-armed man were boring into Horvig’s soul. Hanaman expected he would find something there that would not be appealing to the eye.

The young horseman looked up at Nemgas then slightly startled. But when he saw the missing left arm, he laughed harshly. “What dost thee think thee can do, thou cripple! Stand aside!” Horvig pushed at Nemgas’s stump with his empty hand, but the Magyar stood firmly, not even budging an inch.

“Horvig!” Fultag shouted, anger full in his voice. The look of a man gravely insulted filled his eyes, a look his son flinched when he saw. Glaring once at Nemgas, spite clear in the youth’s eyes, he walked back to his father’s side. Fultag watched him return, his hands firm as fists, before he returned his gaze to Hanaman. “What hast thee to say, Magyar? One of thine hast stolen something from us, and we wish recompense for this offense.”

Burgomaster Agee held out his hands, glaring between the two of them. “Thou wast warned, Fultag. Thou shouldst not be upon this side of the river.”

Fultag nodded. “I wouldst not be but for the grave insult of the pilfering.”

Hanaman spoke as if bored. “And what wast it that was stolen from thee?”

The First Hunter crossed his arms then, and regarded the leader of the Magyars as if he were speaking to a child. “A metal brace with a wooden inlay burned with our insignia. It wast wrapped in a woolen blanket.”

“And how wast it stolen from thee?”

Agee looked between the two, but did not interfere. “It had mistakenly been left out by one of the tents when a thief took it, jumped into the river and climbed out upon this bank, running to thy camp.”

“The chill in the river wilt kill a man. Thou lookest for a corpse. Thou shalt not find one here.”

Horvig snarled. “Art thou so sure!”

Fultag snapped is fingers quickly and the youth became silent once more. He was even more hotheaded than the last time Hanaman had seen him well nigh a year and a half ago. It was clear to him that the First Hunter would have preferred to have his first son along, but the man had gone lame a few years before when a horse fell upon his leg. They’d had to saw it off to save his life. Had it been any but the First Hunter’s son, they would have given him a quick death. But at least Galvog had a cool temper like his father.

Agee stepped between them again. “Hanaman, thou wilt instruct thy people to remain out here, while I search thy wagons for this brace and blanket. If I find either and this sopping thief, then I shalt hold thee responsible.”

“Thou wilt need me along to identify the brace,” Fultag suggested in a mild tone.

Hanaman shook his head. “No, Fultag, thou art not welcome in my wagons. Burgomaster Agee, we are but guests upon thy land. I invite thee into my wagons. I wilt accompany thee upon the search, and shoudlst there be a thief amongst my kind, which there most certainly art not, then I shalt gladly allow thee to do what thou must to right this insult.”

Agee gave Hanaman a cross look, one that Hanaman knew to mean that the Burgomaster knew very well that many of the Magyars were also thieves, but would for the sake of hospitality not say so. And then Agee turned to Fultag, his face firm. “Thou wilt return to thy camps. If we find thy brace and blanket we shall return them to thee.”

Fultag simmered slightly, obviously upset at the Burgomaster’s decision, but unwilling to question it while on his land. He turned to his men and gestured to the horses. “We shalt await their return.” He climbed into his saddle once more then, and turned his stallion back east. Horvig glared at Nemgas once, though the newest of the Magyars simply stared impassively and unmovably back. The youth then mounted his stallion and followed after his father and the other Tagendend.

Agee glanced once at Nemgas, and then turned his eyes upon Hanaman, and then beyond to one approaching from behind them. Hanaman turned as well, as did the other Magyars, Nemgas included. Approaching were his wife Zhenava and one of the seamstress girls, Thelia. He repressed the smile that wished to emerge, for he knew that Gamran had made it back safely in that moment.

Zhenava, still dressed as she was in her dancing outfit, was pressing one hand to her lower belly, her face showing obvious discomfort. “Pardon my intrusion,” she began, her voice diffident, though still challenging. “My courses have begun early this month, and I sought thy permission honoured Burgomaster to sit in the wagons where ‘tis warm.”

Thelia managed to look ever the dutiful maid to the older woman, a concept that was not completely foreign in this area of the Steppe. The Burgomaster would naturally view Hanaman and his wife as minor nobility, even if only amongst the Magyars. The other Magyars also kept their expressions from their lips, though Nemgas’s eyes did narrow ever so slightly. But the gesture was muted, and neither the Burgomaster nor any of his men noticed it.

Zhenava was of course lying, a fact that only Hanaman would know. Her request could only mean that she was going to attend to Gamran. Agee nodded and waved one hand. “Attend to thy needs, milady.”

Hanaman stood silently as Zhenava lowered her head slowly, gracefully in grateful respect. She then turned about and glided along the camp towards the seamstress’s wagon, Thelia following closely behind. Turning, Hanaman gestured to the first wagon in the semicircle. “If thee wishes to begin thy search, then shalt we do so there. ‘Tis the first.”

“A good place to start. Lead on, master Hanaman.”

Hanaman offered a slight smile and led the way, while the other Magyars stood by silently watching. Nemgas was the only one who appeared also to be wondering. Hanaman consoled himself with the knowledge that Nemgas would learn all of this in time.

Zhenava swept into the seamstress’s wagon appearing ill. But once the door was closed, her bearing returned to stern ice. Gamran was still clutching the thick blanket about his body, the white rag between his fingers stained ever so slightly with blood. “Where art our new blanket and brace?”

Gamran blinked at that, but Thelia produced the desired items. She unrolled the wet blanket that Gamran had taken from the Tagendend, revealing the metal brace with the wooden insignia stamped into one side. Zhenava took it in her hands and nodded, setting it down on the table. “They shalt search quickly. But first I wilt attend to thee. Thelia, lay out his clothes.”

Thelia did as she was instructed, laying them out before the shivering thief on the floor. Zhenava stood over them, speaking softly, her hands held out. Gamran felt the warmth that was in the cabin increase about him, filling his bones, and racing across his flesh. It lasted several moments, in which he watched the dampness evaporate from his garments, and from his hair. And then, he no longer felt the chill of aught but his nakedness, for he was no longer wet.

“Dress thyself and return quickly to thy wagon.” Gamran nodded, and pulled his trousers underneath the blanket covering him, and slipped them on, blushing all the while. Thelia laughed lightly as she watched, but it was a gentle laugh.

Gamran could not help but smile a bit, before he finally pulled on his boots, tossed the blanket aside, and nodded his head to both of them. “I thank thee both.” He then pulled the trap door open once more and ducked out. Thelia closed it after him and returned the rug to its place.

Zhenava gestured to the brace and blanket. “Bring those to me.” Thelia did so, and the older woman gazed at them long and hard. The damp cloth appeared to tingle and swell as she muttered soft words before it. After several moments, it appeared completely dry. Zhenava then laid the blanket out in a folded square upon the bench behind the table. She set the brace in between the folds of fabric, and then lifted her long dress that came down to her ankles, and sat upon it, leaning back so that it was completely hidden from view.

Her gaze then fell upon the white rag smeared with a bit of blood. “Wouldst thee bring that to me?”

Thelia nodded and did so, gripping the cloth upon one corner. Zhenava turned it over, folded it so that the blood smear was in the centre, and the placed it inside of her skirt. “Why didst thee do that?” Thelia asked in surprise.

Zhenava sniffed derisively, though not at the girl. “In case one of those pigs should dare to ask me to stand.” Thelia smiled slightly then, understanding just what she was up to. She then kneeled down and picked up the blanket she’d wrapped around Gamran. She folded it back up and returned it to its place in the cupboard. She then sat down and waited for the Burgomaster to arrive.

It did not take too long for him to put in an appearance either. Hanaman opened the door and let the man in first of course. Agee stared about, and then saw Zhenava leaning back languidly where she sat. One hand was pressed to her belly, and her face had a pale cast to it. “Pardon my intrusion. How art thou feeling, milady?”

Thelia spoke up then. “She needeth her rest, Burgomaster.”

“And I hath an obligation to the Tagendend.” Agee bowed his head to Zhenava then, genuine regret upon his face. “Forgive me, milday, but I must ask thee to stand.”

Hanaman snorted in obvious disgust. “Hath thee no compassion, Burgomaster! She hath entered her courses.”

Agee gave Hanaman a look demonstrating that he knew they were lying to him, but would not himself suggest so. Yet, there may have been some residual anger in the man over events of the previous year, because he went on and said it anyway. “Thou knowest I hath an obligation to the Tagendend. They wilt not believe that thy wife hath entered her courses without proof.”

Hanaman fumed at that, showing a rage he never displayed amongst his fellow Magyars. “Thou insultest me by this, Agee! Thou wouldst call my wife a liar, thou art a dog and a worm!”

Zhenava reached under her dress and pulled out the cloth, stained by blood, and held it out to the Burgomaster, “Wilt this suffice to satisfy thee?” Her face was also creased with anger, though it was also tempered by her illusionary condition.

Agee glanced down once at it, and nodded, grimacing in shame. “I hath offended thee, master Hanaman. Forgive my foul words, for they feel as if ash upon my tongue.”

“I shalt forgive thee if thou wouldst leave my wife to bear this alone,” Hanaman’s tone still boiled with a rage that was not truly there, but one that only his fellow Magyars would know to be false.

Agee nodded at that, and turned, face filled with shame at his impertinence. Without any more words, he left the wagon, followed by Hanaman. A quick glance form the leader of the Magyars made both Zhenava and Thelia smile, though his wife kept hers private. There would be no reprisals from the people of Doltatra for what they had done this night.

It was not until the Burgomaster and his retinue had left their camp that Kashin allowed himself to breathe a sigh of relief. No blanket or brace had been found, and certainly not a sopping wet thief. Although the Burgomaster spoke of his anger towards the Tagendend for making false accusations, there seemed to be an unspoken understanding that one amongst the Magyars had stolen something, but they had been clever enough to hide it.

Kashin knew that it had been Gamran, but though he wished that the thievery had not been done, he was more concerned for the little man’s well being. Was he all right? Kashin had not seen him since he’d begun to dress in his costume, leaving he and Pelgan juggling. But he did not speak of what had happened after the villagers had left. After all, he did not know how such affairs were handled amongst the Magyar, and given the way that Hanaman stared at him every few moments, he knew he had breached their ways too many times already.

Instead, he went about the normal affairs, cleaning up the mess that they had left that night. It was drawing on towards midnight already, and though the fires still burned brightly, they all could feel the night’s chill filling their bodies. The benches could remain where they were for the night, as there would be another performance the following evening. Many performances would remain unchanged, such as the pageant, but there would be other acts as well to encourage more of them villagers to attend.

But it was as Kashin was helping Chamag pick up some of the discarded weapons from the pageant when Hanaman approached alone. At a single nod, Chamag said to Kashin, “Thou shouldst let me handle this Nemgas.”

Kashin nodded, seeing the determination on the Magyar leaders face. He stepped back towards the side of one of the wagons where they could be alone. Hanaman followed after, giving him a look that bespoke only of gentle rebuke. “What dost thee wish to see me for, Hanaman?” Kashin asked, wiping a few splinters from his colourful jerkin and trousers.

Hanaman’s lips twitched ever so slightly and then the look disappeared. “Why didst thee stand before Horvig?” He asked after only a moment’s pause.

“Because he wished to cause you harm,” Kashin replied, as it was the simple truth. He was not about to allow anyone to hurt any of his fellow Magyars.

Hanaman nodded at that, some of the rebuke slipping free. There was a brief look of admiration, but it passed in a moment as well. “Thou art brave to face him when thou hast but one arm.”

“He would not have gotten past me.”

“Art thee so certain?” Hanaman asked, surprised at the show of braggadocio. At Kashin’s nod, the older man continued. “Thou wert not born upon the Steppe, so thee shouldst not be expected to know her customs. We art upon the grounds of Doltatra, and we shouldst respect that. When the Burgomaster stands between we and the Tagendend, we must let him continue to stand there.”

“Then Horvig showed disrespect by approaching us?”

Hanaman nodded. “Indeed he hath done so. Horvig hath an impetuous heart and an intemperate soul. I fear the day when he shalt be the First Hunter. But thou shouldst not have stood before him. Thou shouldst have let Burgomaster Agee make that move.”

Kashin nodded and frowned. “I understand. I do apologize for my behaviour.”

Hanaman patted him once on the shoulder then. “Thou dost not need apologize to me, young Nemgas. Thou shouldst apologize to Burgomaster Agee if to any, thou I wilt not ask thee to do so.”

He was not sure what to make of that, but decided he would offer an apology to the Burgomaster the following eve should the man attend their performance. Another thought struck him then and just as Hanaman was turning to leave, he asked, “And what of Gamran?”

“What of him?” Hanaman turned back around, a challenge clear in his face.

Kashin bristled slightly, but hid that as best he could. “Did he or did he not steal what the Tagendend claim?”

Hanaman shrugged. “The cloth will make several coats to keep our children warm in these months. The metal can be fashioned into tools to be used all the year round. The wood will serve well in the fires. Our lives are the better for it.”

“And the Tagendend the worse,” Kashin pointed out morosely.

“It was left out by them, they did not need it. We do.”

“That does not justify taking what does not belong to you.”

Hanaman crossed his arms then. “What dost belong to thee? Thou hast nothing in this world, and thou canst take nothing with thee when thee leaves it. What then dost matter aught but need?”

Kashin opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. Though he had spent his entire life amongst the Ecclesia, he had never been very good arguing matters of doctrine. What Hanaman had sounded familiar enough to what the priests had told him that he could see no flaw in the reasoning. He knew that stealing was wrong, but how could he possibly express it?

As if reading his thoughts, Hanaman leaned forward and said in a low voice. “Wouldst thee tell thy brethren that their children shouldst not be warm?”

Kashin shook his head. “No, I would not.”

“Then why must thee suggest that they ought?” There was a stern lecturing in those words and in his face. But it faded and was replaced with an almost fatherly concern. “Thou art a Magyar, Nemgas. ‘Tis not an easy life, but ‘tis the one we both share. ‘Tis but something we must do for thee and thine.”

Hanaman patted him once more on the shoulder, turned about and walked back amongst the rest of the camp. Kashin stood there for several minutes, not knowing what he could do. Finally, he felt his knees buckle, and he fell to them in the cold grass. He made the sign of the tree before him, and closed his eyes in silent prayer. A prayer for strength, guidance, and forgiveness all. He did not understand why he had been brought amongst the Magyars, but there had to be some reason to it. What could he do now but honour them and his commitment to them?

Rising back to his feet, Kashin returned to see if Chamag still needed any assistance, but saw that the larger man had already returned inside his own wagon. Only a few Magyars remained out, most of them watching against betrayal at the hands of the Tagendend. He even saw that Hanaman was heading directly for his own wagon. It was only then that Kashin realized just how exhausted he was, the weight of the hours finally bearing down upon him.

The wagon that was now his home was not difficult to find, as it was in the same place it always was. The door was unlatched, and he stepped within the warmth gratefully. There was only a single lantern lit inside the wagon, so long shadows crept up the walls and across the beds. There were six of them, three set on either side, one atop the other. He could see that five of the bunks were already occupied, nd he smiled at that.

“Nemgas,” Gamran called as he leaned out of his top bunk slightly, grinning amiably. “I hear thee stood down that backwards born colt Horvig!”

Kashin snorted and crossed his arms as he looked at the little thief. “I hear thee was nearly caught while stealing a blanket.”

Gamran shrugged and winked. “Ah, ‘tis true, but I escaped and here I am now, and we are one blanket richer! ‘Tis reason to celebrate!”

“Perhaps. I am just glad we still have you with us.” Kashin said, even as he pulled off his shirt, folding it and setting it within the drawer set aside for him. His undershirt of white wool was much the same as the others.

“Ah, you had me before,” Gamran said, whimsy still in his voice. “Now thou hast me and a blanket as well as a bit of iron. I dost like that better.”

“As do I,” Pelgan said as he rolled over in his middle bunk, just beneath Gamran’s. Kashin’s was beneath his, while on the opposite side slept Chamag, Berkon and Kaspel. All of them were unmarried, and so they naturally shared the same wagon.

“How didst they spot thee?” Chamag asked as he turned over in his middle bunk.

Gamran grimaced then, faced turning in disgust. “I stubbed my foot upon a rock.”

“‘Tis always something like that,” Berkon opined morosely, to which Pelgan and Gamran both nodded.

Kashin finished putting his clothes away for the next morning and crawled down towards his bunk, pulling by the single thick woolen blanket. “Do you plan on visiting their camp tomorrow night as well?”

Gamran shook his head. “No, they shan’t lower their guard again. I wish that I might take more than just a blanket and a bit of iron from those mare-bred brutes!”

“Hear hear!” Kaspel raised a fist in support of the idea from his top bunk.

“But ‘tis enough for now,” Gamran said, smiling. “‘Twas fun though!”

Kashin kept his face free of emotion then, and laid back in his bunk. The lantern was hanging from the top wall, so either Kaspel or Gamran would extinguish it now that they were all here. And a moment later it was snuffed, though he did not see by whom. Before his thoughts began to turn dark though, a voice cut through. “Thou didst perform very well this night, Nemgas,” Chamag said. “Thou hast made me proud of thee.”

“And I as well!” Gamran said, his voice full of verve once more. “Thou art a true Magyar!”

Kashin blinked at those benedictions, chorused by Pelgan and the rest a moment later. How did he feel about such words? He was not sure, but his heart warmed nevertheless. How long had it been since he had belonged? Though he could measure it in months, it felt far longer. And so, when he found his voice, he choose his words deliberately. “I thank thee, my fellow Magyars.”

It pleased all of them to hear that, though as they were all very tired, nothing more was said. Kashin lay there, wondering how much of what he said was true. And he continued to dwell on the words of Hanaman. In a strange mush they lulled the tired Magyar to sleep.

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