Under a Blessing of Ashes - Part VI

Kashin and the Assingh were the first to hear the horses hooves thundering along the low grasses of the Northern Steppe. The large donkeys, looked up at the Atra river and beyond, their long ears turned to hear the oncoming equines. Kashin let the axe he held in his hand as he worked the branches clean hang at his side as he peered across the wide river. The grove on the other side was clustered fairly close together, too close for horses to gallop safely through. The river was also fairly wide, with only two downed trees side by side promising any way across the frozen river.

There was no question that the horses were approaching form the East, and soon it became evident to the other Magyars as well. Fearful glances favoured that eastern bank, one they could see through another line of pine. The sound of axes striking wood disappeared, and soon too did the thunderous hoofbeats, replaced by a gentle walk as four horses and riders entered the grove, and approached the eastern bank of the river.

Though all four of the riders wore the brown leather of the Tagendend, and possessed roughly similar features, one of them Kashin was quick to recognize. Leading the group was the brash youth he had stared down the previous night, Horvig. Gamran recognised him as well and groused, “Methinks they hath not come to chop wood.”

“Stay back, they wilt not cross the river upon horseback,” Chamag counselled as he eyed the horsemen. The horsemen were all now in a small clearing near the river, the pine trees rising up behind them and on either side. Horvig rode up to the rudimentary bridge of two felled trees spanning the river, but stayed there, his stallion stomping his hooves into the snow-covered pine needles. The eyes of the Tagendend were upon them, vicious and confidant.

“Dost the dogs hide when the master returns?” Horvig spat as he perched in the saddle.

Pelgan’s hands balled firmly together as he climbed down out of his tree. Gamran spat upon the ground, but did not say anything. Kashin gnashed his teeth together, flinching at the insult, for he had never been called a dog before.

“Thou art not our master,” Chamag called back, his voice firm and scolding. “We hath no master. Thy master goeth about on four hooves!”

Horvig sneered. “Yip and whine thou miserable curs! Flee back into thy wagons. Leave the Steppe to real men.”

“If we left the Steppe there wouldst not be any real men left!” Gamran snapped, pawing his hands into the air as if he were a colt.

“A real man can master the world!” Horvig declared, slapping the neck of his stallion with one hand. “What hast thou mastered but being dogs?”

“What hast thou mastered but being an ass!” Chamag shot back, which obviously hit the mark, as the young man’s arms tightened and his hands gripped the reins of his steed fiercely.

Horvig finally wrinkled his nose in disgust, and glowered at them. The other three men with him kept quiet, but sneered as they looked across the river at the Magyars who stayed amongst the trees before the small clearing in front of the makeshift bridge. “Thee smells like one!” the horseman shot back after only a moment’s pause, engendering a few laughs from his fellow clan members.

“‘Tis better than smelling of horse dung as thou doest!”

“And thou wouldst know well of dung, for thou hides within it rather than stand and face a man!” Horvig spat once more, his stallion stomping his hooves.

Kashin frowned even more then, and finally could take it no longer. He had never been called a coward before, and did not appreciate it, especially from this teenaged boy pretending to be a man. Stepping out around the trees, he strode into the clearing. The other five Magyars who were there with him were quick on his heels, all of them holding their chins high and defiant as they gazed across the river at the four horsemen. Pelgan’s hands rested at his hips on the hilt of his daggers. Chamag held his axe in one hand, idly running his finger across the wide blade. Berkon and Kaspel had their axes at their side, but they also were touching them. Gamran began to idly juggle his smaller axe and one of his knives before him.

“We hath no fear of thee!” Chamag declared, hefting his axe high in the air over his head. “If thou art truly a man, then get off thy horse! Or art thou a coward who wouldst rely on the stallion’s power and not thy own?”

The challenge was one that Horvig could not refuse, not now, not after they had revealed themselves. With a snarl of defiance, Horvig dismounted, as did his three friends. The horses were well-trained, and would not wander far from their rider’s sides, and so they let walk where they would. The beasts seem to understand the confrontation, and moved back a way, giving their rider’s the room they needed in the clearing.

Horvig scanned over their faces and then spat as he saw the little thief. “Thou art the one!” He declared hotly, pointing his finger towards Gamran. “Thou art a thief, and thou art the one who stole from us! Face me like a man!” The First Hunter’s son stepped out onto one of the two trees that ha fallen across the river. Most of the branches had been broken off, though it was still a very unsteady perch. Between the cracks in the bark rivulets of snow had hardened into ice, preventing any secure foot hold on the natural bridge.

“Thou wilt not strike any of them without first striking me,” Kashin said firmly, stepping onto the bridge before Gamran or any of the others could act. The ice lacework over the thick tree trunk was quite slippery under his feet, but his boot heels held firmly. He took a few steps forward onto the fallen tree, single hand held before him in a tight fist.

“Thou?” Horvig asked in shock. “Thou wouldst face me oh half a man?”

“My half is more than a match for all that you hath,” Kashin said in cold tones. Chamag and the rest looked at him quite startled, but did not, would not, ask him to back down. Certainly not while he was facing this young man of the Tagendend.

“How wilt thou fight with only one arm?” Horvig decalred, stepping bit further out, knife gripped firmly between his fingers now. It was a long and wicked looking stiletto, the grey of the metal glistening in the afternoon sun. Behind them to the west the storm clouds continued to roll inwards, borne by a cold wind that made the branches rattle and scatter what few needles they still bore. Kashin felt the cold through his colourful tunic, but kept his focus upon Horvig.

“I would not worry about that. I would worry instead how you are going to be able to face me with only two,” Kashin said, his voice dead serious.

Horvig of course did not take him that way, laughing in bemused mirth. The other three horsemen also laughed, one of them even slapping his trousers with his hand. “Thou boasteth well, cripple.”

Kashin’s eyes narrowed then. “I hath a name, whore-pig!”

Horvig’s face sizzled at that and he took several steps forward, the glint of his stiletto firm. He strode the log with confidence, managing well to cover up the times when the ice slid his step more than he had expected. He pointed the blade towards Kashin then, as he reached the centre of the river. “I wilt make thee regret thy choice of words, thief!”

“There is no chance of that.” Kashin said, striding forward to meet him, bearing no weapon but his single arm. The bridge was simply two trees, laying about two feet apart. Horvig stood upon the left tree, while Kashin upon the right. And as the Magyar approached, the horseman began to turn slightly, offering him a chance to step into a fighting circle.

Kashin was very familiar with fighting circles. He remembered the last time that he had ever truly sparred with another, it had been wit that rat Matthias at Metamor. That had been quite a fight, though he had still had his left arm at the time. He moved the stump slightly, but still felt confidence flowing through his veins. He gazed at the youth, gazed in a way that only one blessed as a Yeshuel could do. And he could see what Horvig could and would do.

And so when the youth swung that stiletto in a quick ark at is chest, Kashin was able to deftly step back, and slap the back of that arm. Horvig nearly lost his grip on the stiletto as he stumbled backwards, his boots slipping a bit on the ice. But he regained his balance by jumping to the other log, grabbing at Kashin’s jerkin with his other hand. Kashin tried to reach for it with his left hand, but of course, it was not there. Jumping back, Kashin nearly fell from the tree, but managed to brace himself with his arm as he tumbled between them, righting himself upon the other tree even a some of the horsemen watching from the eastern bank laughed.

Horvig sneered then as he waved the stiletto tip back and forth, eyeing the Magyar as he rose to his feet. Kashin watched his opponent’s shoulder then, and smiled, waiting for the lunge. It came only seconds later. Kashin moved forward with one leg, straddling both trees, while his left stump pressed against the youth’s neck, and his right gripped his wrist, bending it back, forcing the knife free. He caught it then between his fingers, and with the force of his body weight, pushed the horseman down upon the tree, legs buckled beneath him. It was all Horvig could do to keep himself from falling through the ice below.

The sound of approaching horses caught their attention once more. Kashin kept his focus upon the figure scrambling back to his feet before him. Horvig still had another knife buckled at his waist, and was not likely to break off a fight now. But when four more figures broke through into the clearing, everyone stopped. Almost flying from his horse’s back, Fultag burst into sight, and jumped upon the wooden bridge, his face firm and tight with the lines of age.

“If thee wishes to fight, then thou must face me. I claim it as my right,” Fultag’s voice was firm, bearing no hint of anything but steely determination.

Horvig appeared to flinch at that, but finally did return to his feet, looking from his father to the Magyar that had disarmed him so quickly. He opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again at some unseen signal.

Kashin turned the stiletto around in his hand, and offered it to the young man. Pelgan snorted in surprise as he saw the motion, while Gamran whistled in awe. Horvig appeared quite taken aback, but snatched his stiletto anyway. Venom still in his eyes, he slunk back long the tree, and then past his father, though he did not step off the tree bridge. Fultag noticed that, but did not press his son any further, instead, keeping his eyes upon the one-armed Magyar.

“Wilt thou face me instead, thief?”

“I am not a thief. And yes, I shall face you.”

One of Fultag’s eyebrows rose at that declaration. “Thou speakest like a foreigner. Thou were not borne amongst the Magyars, nor hath thee lived long amongst them. Tell me, what wert thee before thee wert a Magyar?”

Though his voice was inviting enough, Kashin knew there was enmity within it. And he also knew that his fellow Magyars were listening, and would judge him on his response. Here he was faced with the leader of their enemy, and he had been challenged in a way he would never have expected.

“I am a Magyar. Life not lived as a Magyar is not worth living or remembering. It matters not.”

A few chorused shouts rose up from behind him, and he felt a bit of pride in that. Fultag bore an unpleasant moue then, and his eyes narrowed. “Very well then, Magyar. Thy parents be but mules and thou speakest without music in thy voice. Thou art still a thief and I wilt cut thee down.”

Kashin bristled at the slight against his parents, but did not return in kind. The truth of the matter was that he did not know who his father and mother were. He knew they were not mules however. With a wry grin, he stomped one foot upon the ice-slick wood, carefully maintaining his balance. “Be wary, I hath a mean kick. Inherited it from my parents.”

Fultag snorted a laugh, an amused grin creeping along his lips. But it lasted only a moment, before the moue returned. “I wouldst like to see thee kick and stay standing. I shalt not give thee a chance.”

Kashin stood ready to receive the First Hunter’s blow, even as he drew out a knife carved not from metal as the stiletto had been, but chiselled from the bone of some Steppe animal. However, at the sound of more hoof beats, these coming from the western bank, even he paused to see who it was. Riding upon the back of an Assingh came Hanaman and Adlemas. The former’s face was set grimly, eyes narrowing as he saw who stood upon the makeshift bridge spanning the ice-covered river.

Hanaman dismounted, even as Chamag and Kaspel attended to the long eared steed. The leader of the Magyar’s strode to the base of the bridge, and set one boot upon it, crossed his arms and looked at them. “So, ‘tis a fight then to settle affairs?”

“Thy latest acquisition and I hath agreed to such,” Fultag said, pointing with his bone knife at Kashin.

Hanaman’s eyebrow rose at that, and he looked to Kashin. “I hath no doubt that thee wilt regret facing my fellow Magyar, Fultag. As is my right, I wish to take his place and face thee.”

Fultag snorted as if he had expected such a move. Kashin turned then and grimaced. “I hath agreed to this!”

“‘Tis my right to decide who wilt fight. Stand aside.”

Kashin stood more firmly in his place, indignant, though he knew he should not be. “I will let thee, but you must grant me a boon whenever I ask it of you.”

Hanaman for the briefest of moments appeared as if he had been slapped. But he recovered quickly, stepping upon the tree, standing as tall as them now. “I wilt offer thee but one boon. Ask for any more and I shalt toss thee upon the ice!”

The threat was more for the benefit of the Tagendend, Kashin knew. But he nodded and stepped back at that. “I thank thee, Hanaman.” With that he backed off, passing the leader of the Magyars to step back onto the river bank. Hanaman patted him once on the right shoulder as he passed, and then turned his attention to the First Hunter of the Tagendend.

“A spirited young man,” Fultag remarked. “Where didst ye steal him from?”

Hanaman ignored the remark, drawing a slender knife of his own. It was not the ornamental blade that Kashin had brought with him when he’d first become a Magyar. It was simple and adorned only by a leather brace holding it firmly to his wrist, so that it could not be dislodged the way that Kashin had done with Horvig’s stiletto. “Dost thee wish to settle this affair or dost thee wish to stand and freeze?”

The First Hunter narrowed his gaze at the Magyar. He swept his bone knife before him, pointing to all eight of them in one move. “Thou hast stolen a blanket and a brace from us. If thou returneth them now, then we shalt leave thee be.”

“We hath stolen nothing,” Hanaman declared in even tones. “If thou wouldst stop accusing us falsely, then we wouldst not be compelled to defeat thee in combat so often.”

Fultag gripped his weapon tighter, his knuckles gone white. Eyes narrowed and lips curled back in a canine snarl as he stood there a few scant feet away from his enemy. “Ye art a liar, Hanaman. If thou had been raised by horses instead of by asses thou wouldst know this!”

Hanaman laughed bitterly at that. “I wilt take my Assingh over thy gangly inbreeds any day!”

Fultag’s sneer became one of vicious undisguised hatred. The other Tagendend also let out shouts of indignation and spat vile curses across the waters. The Magyars stood though, offering few of their own, knowing they had already won the war of words this time. Fultag had been the first to lose his temper after all.

Seeing the slight grin that traced over the thin lines of Hanaman’s cheek, Fultag finally let his rage subside back to the deep hidden place in his heart. “Very well, to what shalt we fight?”

“First blood,” Hanaman said without hesitation.

Fultag sneered and laughed a dismissive laugh. “Art thou so afraid to face me that ye shouldst choose so easy a prize? Thou hast fewer privates than thy jennies!”

“I hath no desire to kill thee, Fultag,” Hanaman explained in an insulting tone. “Were I to kill you, Horvig wouldst be First Hunter, and he hath not even the shred of sense that thou hast.”

Horvig snarled, his eyes gone livid with rage. Fultag’s also filled, his chest puffing forward. “Thou darest to insult my son before me, ye coward?”

“If I wished thee dead, I wouldst have let Nemgas slay thee. Art thee too afraid that I might draw thy blood first? Whoever loses blood must take their people and leave Doltatra this very day.”

Fultag breathed heavily as he considered the offer from the Magyar. Finally, he nodded. Hanaman smiled, venom upon his lips. “‘Tis agreed then. First blood to settle this affair.”

“Agreed.” Fultag spat then, and glared. Hi spittle landed upon the ice below and began to freeze. The two men watched each other, knives held firmly in their right hands. Fultag leaned forward slightly, as he stepped foot over foot along the ice-slick tree. Hanaman did not yet, remaining upright, moving his knife back and forth slowly, up and down and all across his chest as he moved forward.

It was the sort of dance that Kashin had seen many times, although in watching both of their motions he began to see their strengths and their weaknesses. Fultag was the sort who would aim for the Magyar’s belly. If a bit of blood letting ended up killing the Magyar, so much the better Fultag must have thought. Hanaman appeared to be the sort who would wait for his opponent to strike before he made his own moves. Should Fultag strike faster or a little bit differently than Hanaman expected, then the Magyars would lose this fight.

Fultag and Hanaman slowly approached each other on opposite trees, beginning to circle on another as Horvig and Kashin had done only a few moments before. Fultag swiped out his bone knife then in a long and low arc, but Hanaman brought down his own, blocking the move, and pushing back. Fultag, stepped to the side quickly to prevent himself from being pushed back off the tree, pulling his arms back to prevent a lighting quick stroke from shedding his blood while he was off-balance.

Hanaman continued to just weave his knife across his chest, his other arm held in close, the open hand also beginning to move in the intricate little dance. Kashin tensed, his whole body urging him back onto that log to save this man. He had lost one master before, how could he lose another? But he felt Chamag’s hand press against his back, and a reassuring smile from the man calmed his beating heart only slightly. In the end, they would do as they had always done, live for another day, and sing and dance to chase away the fears and the sorrows.

Fultag made another strike then, this one coming in from the other side, the tip of the knife plunging towards Hanaman’s chest. But the Magyar leader stepped back, pushing the knife blade down with his own, deflecting the shot. He then darted his own blade forward along the First Hunter’s arm, attempting to end the battle quickly, but Fultag leaned in forward with his other arm then, slamming his fist into Hanaman’s other outstretched arm, knocking him back

Kashin caught his breath as he watched Hanaman tke a step back, his foot nearly slipping free of the tree, but he regained his balance, and quickly began to move his knife across his chest once more, eyes set firmly in stone as they watched Fultag move, inching closer and closer. A grim sort of smile played across the First Hunter’s lips, the smile of one who felt they were sure to win. It was a smile that Kashin had seen on the face of many warriors when they knew that the battle was already theirs. It was the sort of smile that black clad man had on that night, the night Akabaieth had been killed.

He tensed at that memory even more, yearning to save Hanaman from this monster, but once more he felt the gentle but reassuring touch from Chamag. This was Hanaman’s battle to fight, he had already agreed to it. But how could he change what he was, a man who protected the lives of others?

Hanaman however, did something that gave him renewed confidence then. Instead of continuing to back up, he pressed forward, stepping onto the same tree that Fultag was perched upon. With sudden little lightning strokes, Hanaman put the First Hunter on the defensive, the blade of his knife hewing little pinpricks into the bone of Fultag’s blade. The First Hunter found himself taking steps back as he blocked strike after strike. So focussed was he on stopping that blade that he did not see Hanaman’s leg move.

With a balance that Kashin wondered whether he himself could reproduce, Hanaman swept Fultag’s legs out from under him. Fultag fell between the two trees, bracing himself between them, as they were close enough together that he could do so. With his own leg, he kicked at Hanaman’s foot before the Magyar leader could bring his other back down. Hanaman let his foot fall back behind him, his arms crossed before him, taking the blow. His knife sunk into the tree slightly, giving him leverage enough to pull himself up between them.

Fultag was struggling to find a grip on the ice slick bark with his fingers, but he continued to slip between the trees, his rear moving perilously closer to the ice below. Moving one leg beneath the trunk, Fultag gripped the shat as he would a horse, pulling himself through the crack to hang beneath the tree by his legs, which he hooked together on top. Swaying backwards with his chest, he slid along the tree back towards the eastern bank. He climbed back up there, staring always at the Magyar who was beginning to rise.

Hanaman did not have to move through quite the contortions that Fultag had to find his footing once more. Bracing his legs between either tree, he yanked his dagger free, a few chips of bark coming out with the metal. He then moved back to only one tree, boots slipping only briefly along the ice before he regained his balance. By that time, Fultag was once more standing, and the two moved to rejoin the fight.

Fultag began to move his bone knife before him in short, quick arcs, the sickle like blade slicing deftly at the air. Hanaman watched it carefully, though he kept his focus not on the knife itself, but upon the First Hunter’s shoulders. His own blade began to rejoin its dance, turning this way and that, catching the fading rays of the sun every now and then. He seemed to pause a moment as he they began to grow closer together, but it was just a moment. Spinning the knife in his fingers, he held it out at an odd angle, and suddenly, Fultag cried out and stepped back, rubbing at his eyes with one hand.

Hanaman dove forward at that, knife racing to draw blood from the horseman. Fultag lifted one leg then, allowing himself to fall backwards, repelling he blow he knew was coming. Hanaman was caught off guard by the sudden kick, and stumbled back, managing to keep his footing, but only barely. Fultag shrugged off the glint of sun that Hanaman had shined in his eyes, and also held his pose, the trees too close together for him to fall through at that point on the bridge.

The two men stared at each other for a moment as they slowly began to approach each other. Most of the onlookers held their breath as they watched them take stock. Neither held out their knives, keeping them at their sides, gripped firmly in their cold hands. They stood upon the same tree then, eyes narrowed and grim, until they were but a few feet from each other. Watching very closely, each simply waiting for the other to act. Kashin held his breath, as did the others, waiting for even the slightest hint of movement. Though it was very cold, and storm clouds continued to gather to the West, certain to be upon them by nightfall, they all felt a terrible heat in that confrontation.

And then Fultag brought his knife in a sudden arc aimed at Hanaman’s chest. Hanaman moved in that same instant, stepping off the tree and in between them both, falling through the crack only to become stuck fast when he spread his legs apart. And in that same moment, his own knife swept out in an arc through the air. Fultag’s knife skimmed just over top of the greying hair, while Hanaman’s crossed over the horseman’s trousers at the knee.

Fultag let out a startled grunt, and stepped back, one hand pressing over his left knee. He lifted it up, and in agonised horror saw the smear of his own blood staining those trousers. Hanaman was trying to free his hips from the trees that he had wedged himself between in his fall, already certain of his victory. Fultag looked at the blood, and then down at the Magyar. With a disgusted snarl, he turned about and walked back to the eastern bank, refusing to limp on his injured leg.

Kashin heard delighted laughs from his fellow Magyars then as they celebrated their triumph. The Tagendend would have to leave Doltatra before the sun had set. Though Fultag and the other horsemen were to be despised, they would not renege on a matter of honour. Assuming they were properly groomed in such delicate matters. And so it fell to Kashin, once a Yeshuel and now a Magyar, to realise and act when one of the Tagendend forgot their place.

Horvig gave out a snarl of fury as his father past him on his way to his steed. Gripping his knife well in hand, he ran with all speed to strike down Hanaman, who was still trying to free himself from the makeshift bridge. Hanaman gave out a cry as he saw the boy coming forward, as did the other Magyar and a few of the Tagendend. Fultag cried out the boy’s name, reaching to stop him, but twisting on his injured knee and collapsing to the snow-covered pine needles.

Horvig held his knife high in one hand, intending to brutally slay the leader of the Magyas. He jumped upon the trees, rushing to meet him, eyes alive only with his anger at his father’s humiliation. But then his wrist was grasped firmly as Kashin rushed to meet him. The momentum of the boy’s run brought the arm down in a long circle, even as Kashin guided the weapon home, to the place he wished he could have sunk it in the Patriarch’s attacker.

Horvig’s eyes went wide as he felt his own blade penetrate his belly. His motion stopped, his face went slack as he looked at the one-armed Magyar in disbelief. Coughing a bit of blood up, he struggled to stay upon his feet, one hand gripping Kashin’s shoulder for support. Kashin held him up with his other arm, not bothering to remove the knife that had been sunk a short distance into the boy’s stomach.

Fultag and another of the Tagendend rushed out onto the bridge to bring him back. Fultag’s face was alive with both fury and dread. Though it was well hidden, there was the fatherly concern for a son within it, one well-masked from any outsiders such as Kashin. Dragging the boy back across the bridge, they laid him down upon the ground, even as the other horseman prepared a stretcher. Fultag removed the dagger swiftly, letting others attend to his son from then on. He brought the dagger, stained in blood, back to face the Magyars.

Chamag and Adlemas had come forward to help free Hanaman from the bridge by this point, but still Kashin stood between them. Fultag stood in front of Kashin, and narrowed his eyes, black hatred clear within those dark orbs. “If my son dies I wilt kill thee.” He then turned about and stalked off, even as the Tagendend continued to prepare a litter for the injured youth.

Kashin spoke softly, his words firm as he looked at the boy. “He hath broken the accord that ye struck with my master. The blood is on his hands alone.” He then turned as well, and saw that Hanaman was brushing off his trousers, watching the horsemen warily. It did not take them long to put Horvig upon a litter and begin to drag him back slowly with the horses. After several minutes, they were all once more alone in the copse.

Hanaman lead the four of them back to the western bank where the other four waited, anxiously. Once they were all back on solid ground, Hanaman turned to Kashin and patted him firmly on the shoulder. “Thou hast done well today, Nemgas. And ye hast my thanks.”

He nodded and kneeled then before the Magyar. “‘Twas only my duty.”

Hanaman smiled slightly at that, but said nothing. “Thy duty is to continue gathering wood. A storm shalt be upon us in a few hours time, and we must ready to weather it.”

“Wilt thou stay and assist us?” Chamag asked, his face hopeful. The battle had left them all shaken, and yet renewed. Kashin could see it on the faces of all his fellow Magyars. Though he had only known them for a few weeks, in that moment they felt very close to him. Was he truly one of them now? When the time came, could he leave them?

Hanaman nodded then. “Adlemas, wouldst thee ride back to the rest and let them know what has happened. I wilt stay here and help. We wilt return in another hour’s time.”

The large man nodded, and smiled to his master. “I hath a glad heart to see thee victorious!”

“Didst thou see the look on that pig’s face when he wast struck,” Gamran cajoled in delight. “Ah, brings a tear to mine eye!”

And then, as if one, they broke out into pleased laughter. The fear had left them with nothing else.

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