Under a Blessing of Ashes - Part V

The morning was crisp. Clouds ranged across the western horizon, speaking of a storm that would reach Doltatra in the next few days. Many were already moving about even before the sun rose. The fisherman sat upon their docks, the ice broken beneath while they lowered poles into the water in the hopes that they would catch enough to last several days. The Magyars had already begun to array their cooking pots for their first meal. And among the Tagendend, the horses had been combed and counted once more, all of them loyal to their riders.

Horvig watched across the river at the array of wagons in the distance with his fingers digging into his palms. Every time they saw this group of Magyars, something would happen. Why wouldn’t his father do something about it? These thieves, these dogs had to be put in their place and made to pay back all that they’d taken, and then some. When he was First Hunter he would not tolerate such insults. He would not nurse these grudges, but bring an end to them.

Grimacing, he grabbed the reins of his steed and nudged him forward. His older brother was watching over the herd from the saddle. Though Galvog’s right leg was gone, he still could ride, and ride with the wind just like any other Tagendend. They were separated only by a year, but were still like night and day. Galvog had been the eldest of the two, and so would have taken his father’s place as First Hunter when the time had come, and it had been a burr beneath their saddle. And then Galvog’s accident struck him lame, and they became both friends and brothers.

Galvog waved to him as he approached. Horvig returned the gesture, smiling through his anger. “How hast the herd fed this morning?” Horvig asked as he brought his steed alongside his brothers.

Galvog shrugged and gripped his fingers around the pommel of his saddle. “‘Tis winter, and the grass is covered in ice. They feed as well as we can feed them. Why dost thou stare across the river?” Galvog nodded towards the yonder wagons, distaste clear in his eyes. They narrowed with a subdued hatred as they took in the bright colours of the Magyars. They picked up the tiny details of those thieves going about their morning rituals. The faint sound of singing could be heard carrying across the Steppe from those wagons.

Horvig looked in their direction, but could not see nearly as much as his brother could. He had trouble making out details at long distances, while Galvog was blessed with the eyes of a hawk. When Horvig became the First Hunter, Galvog would always be at his side to be his eyes. But the title would be his.

“They hath stolen from us and father will do nothing.”

Galvog nodded. “I know. They hath the cunning of rats and the foulness as well. Let them hide in their shells and hide behind hospitality. The day wilt come when we meet them on the open Steppe. They shalt not be so fortunate then.”

Horvig nodded firmly as his hands tightened about the reins. He could feel the unease in his steed’s step, the desire to thunder across the plains and feel the wind in his fur. Perhaps there would be an opportunity for such later.

“If we were not upon the land of Doltatra, we couldst do as we wished,” Horvig said, at which his brother nodded, though only after a moment’s pause. The younger of the two then looked to his brother, a grim line set across his cold-wrought face. No whiskers decorated his chin, nor would they for a few more years yet. “Let me know if any of them leave their camp.”

“What dost thee have in mind, brother?”

“I wilt punish those dogs for their thievery,” Horvig snarled under his breath as he looked at those distant wagons. He spat upon the ground, and pulled back on the reins, starting to move away from his brother.

“Father wilt not approve,” Galvog cautioned.

“Father dost not need to know. Wilt thou keep this secret with me?”

Galvog paused, as if questioning the wisdom of his brother’s course of action. And then he nodded, rubbing his hand across his stallion’s neck. “I shalt wait till thee has gone before I tell him.”

“I thank thee, brother,” Horvig said, smiling a bit then, as he brought his stallion about, and rode back into the camp to prepare.

They had not started nearly as many fires as they would when the evening time came. Nor had they arranged any of the pyres that would be built later. Kashin of course knew that the simple reason for it was that they were running low on their supply of logs. So it came as no surprise when shortly after midday Hanaman ordered Chamag to take their wagon north along the river to the small grove of trees they could see in the distance and replenish their supply.

Of course, this meant that Kashin would be going as well. While he could no longer hop wood himself with any degree of facility, he certainly could help in a myriad other ways. He could arrange tools and help load the wagon with the hewn branches. While another would chop he could brace the logs so that they could be cleaned of any twigs, which would be used for kindling. They were Magyars after all, and would not waste any of the trees they chopped from.

Varna supplied them all with a few fruits that were still good, while the other Magyars moved the equipment from the top of their wagon to neighbouring wagons, leaving them more than enough room for a new supply of wood. They did not have to chop every log into small piece of course, that would take far too long, and could always be done later. But they would have to bring back enough to last them several more nights. There would be more trees they could harvest along the way.

Strangely enough, they were all feeling rather good that morning. Pelgan and Gamran were swapping jokes and ridiculous tales, while Chamag and Kaspel inserted a few bawdy ones to round out the camaraderie. Berkon did not say much as he clung to the railing at the top of the wagon, but laughed heartily at the words of his fellow Magyars. Kashin also laughed as he leaned against the railing, legs crossed beneath him in the style long practised amongst those living in Yesulam, but absent elsewhere.

When he had first come amongst the Magyar, they had pointed it out, but now it was as much a part of his identity as was his missing arm, one that they accepted without question. Kashin did not volunteer any stories of his own as Chamag drove the Assingh, leading them north along the river, the town of Doltatra slipping behind them. He did not know how they would react to the stories of priests and of knights, though he suspected they would enjoy them nonetheless.

But the real reason that Kashin did not speak was that his mind continued to try and grasp at the fleeting images that had haunted him in his dreams the night before. He could not pin any of them down, but they tickled the back of his mind much like the fabric of his tunic tickled at his chest and sides. He scratched sullenly as he tried to find those images, but they proved as inscrutable now as they did when he’d arisen that morning.

Kashin suspected that they had everything to do with the events of the previous evening. Why should he so easily accept thievery as part of his life? Everything he had ever been taught up until then had demonstrated quite the opposite. And that he was a grown man made accepting it all the more difficult. Why he could not find it in his heart to hold it against Gamran, who was too utterly likable to truly be a thief, he still knew that it had to be wrong. No matter what Hanaman said, he doubted that he could ever accept being a Magyar, being Nemgas, if that meant accepting stealing.

Chopping wood was an entirely different matter, he realised with a grin. Berkon let out a loud laugh, slapping his knees with one hand then, snapping his attention away from his morose thoughts. “Didst thee hear, Nemgas?” Gamran asked, barely containing his own exuberant laughter. “Didst thee hear the one about the horseman, his horse, and the village girl?”

Kashin shook his head, trying to hide the blush that wished to come out upon his face. He suspected he already knew the punch line to this one. Definitely not a joke one of the Yeshuel would have told. One of the knights though, quite likely, when none of the priests were nearby! In fact, he had heard a few of them himself from those knights, especially the ones from the Flatlands.

“No, I have not. Tell me about them.”

Gamran’s eyes twinkled in fiendish delight then as he began to relate a sordid little tale much like Kashin had expected. Berkon roared with laughter once again when he finished, as did Pelgan, Chamag, and Kaspel. Kashin laughed slightly and shook his head, not sure whether he was truly glad he’d been right or not!

Strangely enough, the crude jokes only made him happier that they were going to be out chopping wood. The coarse humour felt appropriate to him amongst the Magyar, despite his own upbringing. And then, remembering a joke he had heard himself from one of the knights, he leaned forward and spoke in a low tone. “Let me tell thee the one about the Magistrate, his son, and the town harlot.” Surprised delight filled the eyes of his fellow Magyars then, and he was glad to see it.

It was going to be pleasant day after all, he decided.

Horvig was playing a game of sticks and stones when his elder brother rode up behind them all. The young man smiled to his opponent, and bid him wait while he conversed with his brother. The even younger hunter nodded, and thumbed his chin as he studied the board, the short sticks and the small stones arranged in a weaving pattern about the other, much like two snakes attempting to swallow each other.

“What hast thee seen, Galvog?” Horvig asked as he brushed a bit of dirt from his trousers. It was cold out that morning, but he was used to it.

Galvog smiled as he looked down at the game, seeing how cleverly Horvig had arranged his stones. There was little change he could lose that game. But there was much bigger game to be had that day. “They hath sent out a single wagon up north to the trees.”

“The trees?” Horvig asked, at which his brother nodded. “They art in need of wood? Well, we shall cut them down. Hast father seen?”

Galvog grimaced and shrugged. “I do not know. If he hast, he dost not saith so.”

“Tell father that I and a few others hath gone for a ride and wilt return ere long.”

His brother blanched at that. “I wouldst not lie to father.” Horvig’s fellow player also appeared aghast at the notion. To show such disrespect to the First Hunter was unheard of for a Tagendend.

Horvig nodded and frowned. “Thou speakest the truth. Tell him nothing then until he asketh thee where we hath gone.”

Galvog nodded. “I shalt not speak of it until then.”

“I thank thee, brother,” Horvig smiled and patted his brother upon one arm as he looked to find his steed. Turning back to his partner he snapped. “Find Belig and Algol. We shalt ride, Begend.”

Begend nodded and smiled to him, showing a single missing tooth before he darted off into the camp to follow the son of the First hunter’s orders. Horvig smiled once more to his brother and then narrowed his eyes as he gazed at the camp. “I wilt teach them.”

Galvog nodded. “That thou shalt. Be careful, my brother. I wouldst miss thee shouldst thou fall.”

Horvig straightened himself out and sneered. “I shalt ne’er fall under the blade of a dog!” He spat at that, and stomped one foot. His steed caught the signal and approached, long head nuzzling at his chest. He rubbed across the dark ebony fur, and patted the great beast between his eyes. The stallion nuzzled at his head, sensing his agitation. Horvig smiled lightly and nuzzled back. “‘Tis well, ‘tis well. A bit of blood to be spilled that ‘tis all.”

His brother turned his own steed around, even as Horvig’s friends returned upon horseback. He climbed then upon his steed, and with one swift quick, the four of them set off eastwards into the Steppe. They would circle around to the trees and soon give those dogs the whipping they should have received last night.

The grove of trees proved to be mostly pine, most of them rather short, only twice a man’s height, though a few were a good bit taller, standing like titans over the Steppe’s vast landscape, watching in every direction. Kashin knew from experience that the towering peaks of the Åelfwood were only about two days ride north, but even so, they were lost beyond the dark horizon.

Of course, the trees in the southern extremes of the Åelfwood were not nearly as taller as their Northern brethren, but they still dwarfed the meagre examples this small grove along the Atra river presented them. And they would certainly provide more wood, something that Kashin had pointed out shortly after they had arrived there and began to pick branches to be cut down. His fellow Magyars reacted much different than he expected.

“Cut a tree in the Åelfwood?” Chamag asked in utter disbelief, his face gone ashen white at the suggestion.

“Going into the Åelfwood,” Gamran pointed out with a shiver. “Thou hast lost thy mind, Nemgas!”

Kashin shook his head. “No I have not. I was in the Åelfwood before I came unto thee.”

Both Berkon and Kaspel looke at each other in shock, as did the others. Pelgan finally nodded a bit sagely. “Thou art a very lucky man, Nemgas. I hath known of no man who hath e’er ventured into that ancient wood and come out again.”

Chamag shook his head. “It is safe to move along the outskirts of Åelfwood, but ne’er into her heart. ‘Tis a magical land that wilt swallow thee whole. And shouldst thee ever harm a tree, even along the outskirts, thy life is forfeit.”

Kashin grunted, though had to admit it did seem a likely possibility. He remembered how alive that forest had felt, how aware it had been of his presence and of his passage. But how could it have retaliated if he had chosen to chop down a tree’s limb?

Chamag directed them to a few trees, Berkon and Pelgan climbed up the branches, carrying axes upon their belts. They began to hack away while Chamag directed Kashin to hold the one that Pelgan was working on steady. It was easy enough to do, though his whole body shook with each strike of the axe. The reverberations would race down his arm and into his boots, but it did not hurt.

Kaspel and Gamran cleared off a few smaller branches to be used for kindling along with the dried Assingh dung that would be collected later that day. Chamag held the branch that Berkon was working on, propping it up first with one hand, and when that tired, with the other. Kashin found himself standing near to the other man, the one who had killed him in the pageant, and so finally worked up the temerity to ask, “Why would thy life be forfeit if you harmed a tree in the Åelfwood?”

Both Berkon and Pelgan glanced at each other with wide eyes, as if they were sharing a silent prayer. Chamag’s face twitched as a shudder passed over it. “That ancient forest dost not like to be disturbed.”

“But how do you know?”

Chamag licked his lips a bit and then switched once more to his other arm. The work was slow, but it would not be long before the branches were felled. What pine needles still remained upon the trees rained down upon them with each stroke of the axe. “There once wast a Magyar named Shapurji. He wast a brave lad, and he hath a terrible pride in his bravery. All the other Magyars admired him for there ne’er wast a thief as clever, or a fighter as skilled, as wast Shapurji. When one of the Assingh went lame, he took the ropes and pulled the wagon in its place, so strong wast he.”

Kashin smiled slightly, having heard many tales similar to this. This Shapurji must have been a very remarkable Magyar to have been so accomplished! Chamag however was still swept up in telling the story. “One day, whilst travelling through the area of the Steppe, they ran out of wood for their fires. Shapurji assured the elder that he would bring them warmth. First he tried to rub his hands together fast enough to warm them, but he couldst not warm them all. Then he tried to hunt down as many game nearby, to bring their skins back to warm the other Magyars, but he couldst not find enough game for them all.

“Angered at his failure, Shapurji proclaimed that he would challenge the spirits themselves, and wouldst bring them enchanted wood which would burn always. He wouldst bring down a might tree from the Åelfwood for the Magyars. And so, Shapurji set out with four of his closest companions, Holbar, Roami, Khiakos, and Sorab.

“Holbar wast the strongest of them all, and Romai a runner as fast as the wind. Khiakos wast the greatest of swimmers, this in the day when the Steppe had many lakes and many more rivers, while Sorab could steal a hawk’s eggs whilst she was upon the nest! Surely no spirit could be a match for their cunning and skill.

“Shapurji lead them into the Åelfwood, intent on cutting down the biggest tree they shouldst find. They left early in the morning, as they did fear what would become of them shouldst they still be within that wood at night. They searched and searched for many hours until they found a tree worthy of their people, a might pine as wide as a all of them across. With all of their skill, they brought down the tree, and began to carry it back.

“But they became lost in the wood. Nothing wast where it had been before, and so they went in circles for hours, before night fell, and they once more found themselves at the stump of the might oak they hath fell. There they were set upon by an army of spirits. Shapurji and his friends fought bravely, but for each spirit they struck, two would rise in its place. And so at midnight’s hour, Shapurji and his friends were beaten and a powerful spirit punished them for what they had done.

“Holbar, the strongest of them all, wast turned into a bear. Roami, the fastest runner, wast made into a stag. Khiakos, a swimmer the likes of which the Steppe will ne’er see again, wast made into an otter and banished to the rivers of the Åelfwood. Sorab the clever thief wast turned into a raccoon. But the worst would fall upon Shapurji, for it wast his pride that led them to enter that magical wood.

“Shapurji wast placed upon the stump, and before his very eyes, his feet became roots, and his arms branches. And then, he wast but a new oak, one that wouldst grow to replace the one he brought down. The legend saith he wilt always stand, his face etched in sorrow upon the bark for his crime.”

Kashin blinked as Chamag stopped speaking, so hypnotised had he become by the legend of Shapurji and his friends. He nearly lost his balance when Pelgan finally chopped through the branch, letting it fall free. Kashin righted himself though and lowered the heavy branch to the ground. He let it go and it landed with a whump, dislodging more pine needles, and upsetting a bit of snow that had collected upon the ground.

“And that ‘tis why we ne’er venture into that forbidden wood, good Nemgas. For it hath strange magics and spirits that dost not wish to be disturbed by men. Especially proud Magyars such as ourselves who might do them harm!” Chamag explained then as Berkon finished cutting down his branch as well.

Kashin nodded at that and smiled. “That is a wonderful tale. Why do you not perform it as well?”

A few of them laughed a bit at that, though tentatively, eyes casting to the northern horizon as if to make sure no spirits would sneak up upon them and turn them into bears, stags, otters, or raccoons! Chamag smiled to him though and winked. “We do, though not so close to the forest. When we shalt travel across the southern Steppe during the Summer, thou wilt see it. Thou might even be a part of it!”

Kashin smirked then and turned his attention on the branch before him. Numerous smaller branches were still attached and would have to be removed before they could load it onto the wagon. Taking the single axe set at his side, he began to work away at those branches even as Pelgan joined him further along their new wood.

Though it was only a legend, Kashin glanced to the north once himself. He had been within that forest and seen many secrets. But he had felt the hush of the leaves, and the watch of the trees. How many more secrets did it still harbour, he wondered. And did the Åelf even know all of them or were they but guests in the homes of something far greater than even they?

Pushing such thoughts from his mind, Kashin focussed solely on removing the branches. There would be plenty enough time for such speculation later.

“Where hast Horvig gone?”

The question had been inevitable, Galvog realised. Even as he perched as he always did upon his stallion’s back, the horse his legs now that he could not walk himself, his father Fultag still managed to tower over him while on foot. The stern look in the First Hunter’s eyes told the young man that his brother would be best caught before he reached the Magyars to stir up mischief.

“He hast ridden to the copse of trees in the North to find some of the Magyars that hath gone there as well,” Galvog admitted, feeling the lash of a whip across his back at the disapproving stare.

“And thou didst not tell me, thy father?” Fultag simmered. Without another word he turned off, calling out to a few of the older hunters. In another minute they had mounted up and rode hard northwards. All the chastened son could do was sit upon his steed and feel the lashes strike home.

“Hanaman!” came the shout. “Hanaman!” Adlemas’s voice sounded clearly across the Magyar campsite. The large man’s voice also sounded rather high-pitched, testifying to his ability to sing like a woman. The Magyar leader was inside his wagon with his wife, sharing a little tea as they discussed what could be done to take Zhenava’s place at the performance that night. When he heard the shouting, he politely escused himself, and stepped outside, looking down at the distraught man who ran to the wagon, before stopping, almost collapsing as he did so.

“What hath thee to say, Adlemas?” Hanaman asked as he jumped down to the ground, boot crushing what was left of the grass.

Adlemas paused as he caught his breath and then pointed wildly with one finger towards the Tagendend camp to the east. “Four riders hath just set out North.”

Hanaman felt his heart skip a beat and he gazed northwards along the winding course of the Atra river. The trees far in the distance were no doubt their target. “Four of them thou sayest? Prepare two saddles and bridles, I shall gather the Assingh. We ride to meet them.”

The man nodded and headed towards one of the nearby wagons to claim the requested items. Though normally they did not ride the Assingh so, they were quite capable of galloping apace with most horses, though he would never challenge those from any of the horse clans. Hanaman turned and found Zhenava standing in the doorway, looking at him firmly.

“I shalt return to thee,” he said firmly to the woman.

She just nodded her head gravely, dark eyes gazing out across the wide Steppe. “Do what thee must,” she said at last, and then returned inside the wagon.

Hanaman strode purposefully out behind the wagons, and called two of the Assingh nearby by name. They approached, expecting to receive a juicy apple treat or some such morsel, but grew even more excited when Adlemas approached bearing the saddles over his shoulders, the bridles in his hands. Together, Hanaman and Adlemas saddled their mounts, those long floppy ears moving back in forth, long ropey tail swishing back and forth in excitement. Hanaman hoped that the afternoon proved to be far less exciting than he expected it to be.

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