Yesulam's Call - Part II
hen Kashin finally began to climb his way back to wakefulness, it was to the dull realization that he was only wearing his linens, yet he was quite warm. He tried to stir, yet something clutched at his arm. Grimacing, he pried his eyes open, only to close them again as light filled them. He tried to cover his eyes with his hand again, but once more, it was caught on something. He let out his breath, slowly letting his eyelids crawl back.
The light again filled his eyes, but this time it was not nearly so painful. After a few moments, the strange shapes began to take form. He was in a bed of some kind, there were several layers of thick quilts draped over his form. The fabric was fairly colourful, with yellows, blues, and reds in a zig-zag pattern. Wooden walls stretched up on his left, curving overhead, where a lantern hung. They curved back down a short distance to his right. Several cupboards were arrayed at his side. One of them was open, and he could see several sets of clothes jostled together inside.
On one end there was a door set in whatever room he’d been placed. A small snow-streaked window was inset, though he could not discern anything outside. Shifting his arm again, he still found it fastened somehow, though he could now feel the bonds which held it down. Lifting his head up, he could see that his wrist was tied to the wooden rail along the bed. Dimly he tried to remember how this had come to pass, but all that he could see in his mind were the faces of his friends and his master.
A sudden sound from behind him gave him a little start. Turning his head as best he could, he tried to peer back to the other end of the narrow room. Around the wooden wall came two figures. The first was a man dressed in a warm blue and green jerkin, with two daggers at his hips. His angular face was pierced by two dark eyes, and surmounted by long unbraided hair. At his side was a smaller and older woman, her face creased with wrinkles of age, while long gray hair was tied into a knot under a brightly coloured scarf.
The man spoke to the woman in a strange patois, but Kashin was able to recognize it now. He’d heard many of the knights of Yesulam use it, though none quite with this thick of an accent. “Get thee to Hanaman. Tell him that his beast has arisen.” The woman nodded her head low, and with only a short brief look at Kashin, scampered out the small door. Outside, he could see snow swirling and littering the ground. Where was he?
Kashin focussed his eyes on the young man before him. He could not be more than twenty-five in years, though there was a hardness to his face that spoke of a life fully lived. The smile on those lips however was one of amusement, as of a trapper who had caught something completely unexpected. Pursing his own lips, Kashin asked, “Where am I?”
One eyebrow rose at that. “The beast speaks.” He then leaned back against the cupboards, fingering one wicked looking dagger with a callused thumb. “It is not I who shall answer thy question. Thou must wait until Hanaman arrives. I am merely thy guard.”
“Why am I tied to this bed?” Kashin asked through gritted teeth even as he tugged at the rope. How he wished for his left hand. He was certain he could have undone the knot easily then.
The youth shook his head, still smiling. “It is not mine to answer, but Hanaman’s. Calm thyself, thou shall not find freedom out there, not dressed as thou art.”
Kashin fixed the youth with a foul stare, but lay back on the bed for now. Even were he to break free of his bond, his guard appeared to be fairly skilled with his daggers. And then there was the matter of his equipment, he could not leave here without it, especially the Sathmoran blade that had slain Akabaieth.
Instead, Kashin studied his surroundings, noting the slight tilt to the bed, the way the lantern overhead swayed, making the light flicker. Also, the warmth that filled the room. When the old woman had opened the door, he’d felt a blast of chill across his face, yet now the room was as warm as it had been when he’d woke.
“How is it that you can keep this room so warm. I do not see a hearth.”
The youth once more began to smile bemused at him. “Thy tongue is stranger than thy appearance, beast.” Then after a moment’s pause, he added, “Tis a simple charm that warms thy flesh, beast. It is cold upon the Steppe this time of year. Thou shouldst think of such things before thou settest foot to travel.”
Kashin gritted his teeth then. “I am not a beast. I have a name.”
The youth stood up straight then, a hot glare crossing his features. “Thou art a beast ‘til Hanaman saith otherwise.” His face then turned towards the door, as it opened once more. Kashin recoiled at the chill, trying to sneak himself further beneath the quilts. Yet his eyes could not help but stay fixed on the door itself. Through it came an older man, barely a decade shorter on years than Bishop Vinsah had been, though his face was cracked with wear. His dark hair was greying over the ears, though his was kept in a ponytail. His eyes were hard as well, like stone, and they surveyed Kashin as he would an animal at market he intended to slaughter.
Behind him came the older woman, who crouched her head low, but whose smile could not help but escape the scarf. Kashin was not certain whether she was senile or not, as she approached bearing a small bowl. She put it at the side of his head and laughed slightly, “Come, drink this, beast. Thou need’st thy strength, drink.”
Kashin did as instructed, and tasted a rather foul broth. He did not spit it out though, but swallowed it as quickly as possible. It burned the entire way down, though once it reached his stomach, he did feel strength return to his legs and chest. It was not nearly as effective as the Åelvish wafers, but he felt far better just then than he had in quite some time. The old woman smiled to him, parting her lips to reveal yellowed, cracked, and missing teeth. He pressed his lips to the wooden bowl and drank again, finishing off the broth. Again he swallowed, the heat filling him completely. He wiggled his toes under the quilts, and rejoiced to find that he still had all ten.
The older man watched all of this with keen interest, but did not say anything immediately. The woman backed out of the way and slipped back around the bend and out of sight once more. The youth’s eyes were no longer on Kashin, but on the older man. This then must be Hanaman, Kashin reasoned. Though why they felt they had to tie him down, he was not certain yet.
“How art thou feeling, beast?” Hanaman asked, his voice deep and firm, despite its angular accent.
“Better now that I am warm. Who are you? Why have you tied me down?”
“Thou art a beast,” Hanaman said rather drily, his lips creasing into a whimsical smile. “Thou wouldst not expect me to put our lives at thy mercy?” He then gestured to himself with one hand. “I hight Hanaman, and ‘twas Pelgan here who discovered thy body in the snow. Thou wouldst have perished if we had not brought thee here. But thou shalt stay as thou art until I decide otherwise. Dost thou understand, beast?”
Kashin grimaced, but slowly nodded, even as he tried to sit up so that he might gaze upon them eye to eye. Yet the shape of the bed, and its slight angle made it difficult. Instead, he turned on his side and rested on his elbow. It was not what he’d hoped, but it was better than laying there like the animal they claimed he was. “I understand. I thank you for saving my life, but I cannot dally here, I must continue on my journey.”
“And where wouldst thou go?”
Kashin was not one to lie. “To Yesulam.”
Both Hanaman and Pelgan glanced at each other and laughed as two men might laugh at the antics of a mad animal. “Hast the cold driven thy mind from thee, then? Yesulam is four months walk with good weather. The weather hath not been so good of late. Thou might have noticed, I believe.”
“Then give me a horse,” Kashin shot back.
Hanaman appeared indignant. “I would not give thee a lame gelding who hath slept with my bride.” He then crossed his arms, face thoughtful. “Thou art a strange one, making such demands. Who art thou, and why wert thou walking the Steppe by thyself in winter?”
“My name is Kashin, and I was journeying to Yesulam, as I said. And I make such demands because I must reach Yesulam as soon as possible.”
“Well then, Kashin, what awaits thee in Yesulam?”
Kashin sucked in his breath, but kept his voice measured. “I cannot say. It is a private affair.”
Hanaman shook his head. “No, Kashin, ‘tis not. Thou hast no more secrets, for thou art mine. I took thee from winter’s grip, and thou art mine. Thou shalt do as I command, and follow in my ways forevermore.”
“Unless you intend to order me to go to Yesulam, I’m afraid you shall be disappointed.” Kashin could not help but let a growl escape into his voice.
Pelgan appeared quite amused by this, snorting as his one eyebrow lifted again. Hanaman however was not nearly as entertained, as the smile slowly disappeared from his lips. Those lines pressed tightly together, and the man’s thick hands rested against the pommel of the Sathmoran blade that had been at Kashin’s side everyday since the Patriarch’s death. It now was snug against Hanaman’s thighs.
“Thy life was forfeit, but I saved it. Thy life belongs to me now. Hast thou no honour, oh beast of Yesulam?” The edge in Hanaman’s voice was one that Kashin recognized. It was the same one that had been in Tilyå-nou’s voice that night in Ava-shåvais. Tilyå-nou, one of the elders of that ancient city, had bore him a malice that could not have been described in words, but was nonetheless very real. There had been a total lack of concern for his life carried in that Åelf’s voice, the same one that Hanaman had just reproduced.
“I have a higher calling that supercedes such matters of honour. I thank you for saving my life, but it was not yours to save.”
Hanaman’s face grew cold then, as cold as the winter outside, if not more so. “What hath more importance than thy life?”
Kashin nearly shot off another barbed retort, when a softer voice caught his ear. He blinked several times, for it was so familiar, a gentle caress from a life that felt years behind. Sighing, he glanced down at the knife that had silenced that voice, that knife that rested on the hip of this stranger before him a stranger who had saved his life. Lowering his head, he finally shook it. “My life has never been my own. And it never shall be. I could not go to Yesulam in dishonour. I am yours, Hanaman. I will abide by honour.”
Hanaman’s smile was slow to return, but return it did. This time, there was actual warmth in it, though there was still that calculation and distance, as if he were surveying an animal and not a man. “Thou speakest wisely. It would be unfortunate should I be forced to take that life which is mine. At least while thou still hast that debt to repay.”
Pelgan snorted again, though he kept his hands at his sides, watching Kashin curiously. Kashin glanced back at the youth briefly, but could see nothing in his eyes but the amusement that had been present ever since he awoke.
“Thou art probably wondering where this might be,” Hanaman ventured, even as he gestured about the walls. “Thou art in a wagon, one of several that I lead. All those thou seest about thee art mine as well. We travel the Steppe all the year round, going as far as the Midlands, to Pyralis, and into the Great Eastern Mountains. We make our own way in this world, and thou wilt soon learn this way. Tomorrow at first light thou wilt be introduced to the others. I shall decide what I will have thee do later.”
Kashin nodded, though he did give his restraint another tug. “I do not know if I trust thee, Kashin. Thou wilt have to prove thyself first before I allow thee loose.”
“I give you my word I will not leave, at least until my debt is paid,” Kashin said, his body tense. He was not certain what to make of all of this, especially this man before him. Just how long would he have to serve in this caravan before Hanaman had decided he’d earned his release? At least he knew that such would eventually happen. He just hoped that it would be in time for him to cleanse Yesulam as he needed.
Hanaman smiled at that, while Pelgan chuckled beneath his breath. “I will have thy bonds removed at first light. Until then Pelgan shall watch over thee. Tell me, what did ye do before?”
Kashin blinked, angry that he must stay tied to the bed, but relieved to know that it would only be for the night. “I was a warrior, a protector. The man I was assigned to protect died though. I lost my arm protecting him.”
“No other skills hast ye?” Hanaman asked. “Nothing but swordplay?”
“I fought hand-to-hand. But I can use a sword.”
Hanaman rubbed his chin in thought. “Well, with only one arm, thou art no good at playing an instrument. Thou art simply too large to pick pockets or to beggar when we venture in the cities. Juggling is also likely impossible for thee. We shall see whether thou canst tumble or dance. Perhaps a costume to hide thy features. Yes, a costume for thee.” He then snapped his eyes back into focus and smiled warmly, but triumphantly to Kashin. “Sleep well, Nemgas, for thou shalt need it for tomorrow.”
And with that, Hanaman turned and stepped out the door and the wagon. It closed shut with a solid click, trapping the warmth inside once more. Kashin blinked a few times, trying to sort out in his mind all that he’d just heard. “Why did he call me Nemgas?”
Pelgan smiled just as Hanaman did. “It is thy new name. Hanaman renames all those whose lives he owns. Learn well thy name, Nemgas, for none among us shall call thee anything else. Thou art one of us now, whether thou likest it or not.”
With a slow dawning, Kashin felt his heart grow cold. He slowly lowered himself back upon the hard mattress, the quilts pressing him downwards. They were so heavy, he felt as if he would suffocate beneath them. For he had been rescued from death by magyars. He would never repay his debt to Hanaman, no matter how long he lived, or faithfully he served. Never again would he set foot in Yesulam, or in any city unless Hanaman chose to take them there. As he clenched his eyes shut, he wished the cold had taken him instead.
Kashin did not sleep well. Pelgan had dimmed the lantern so that only fantastic shadows were cast about the wagon’s interior, but in those shadows, Kashin saw many faces. There upon the cupboards was Iosef, his face burning in that black clad Sondeckis’s fire, melting until all that remained was ash. And there, on the curved beams of the ceiling, was Vinsah, his chest caved inwards, eyes clenched shut in trepidation, knowing he would soon be claimed by Metamor. On the door stood Alfais and Lakaesh his fellow Yeshuel, bodies broken, mouths calling out vacant words to him. And on the wall next to him peered down Akabaieth, face forlorn in death. Each face begged at him, and they remained even if he closed his eyes.
The worst of all of them was the face of the one who’d maimed him, that black clad Sondeckis who had thrust the Sathmoran blade into Akabaieth’s heart. That self-confident smirk filled his thin lips, dark eyes smouldering in the night, setting his body aflame with rage. Yet, he could do nothing to stop that man, as he watched him kill all those he held dear again, and again, and again. And there he lay, watching from afar, tied to a bed in the vast emptiness of the Flatlands.
Yet somehow, despite those haunting spectres, Kashin did manage some sleep. Whether it was from the exhaustion of his journey, or of the shock and sorrow, he was not entirely sure. But he woke to a chill breeze brushing across his face. Prying his eyes open once more, he could see sunlight streaming through the open door and around the figure of another man. He was also brightly dressed in yellows, blues and reds, though he was shorter than Pelgan, with a slight scraggly beard that ran down his chin, as well as a nervous twitch to his eye. Those blue orbs lit upon Kashin and he came fully into the wagon to stand at Pelgan’s side.
Pelgan himself was stirring also, standing upright from the cupboard he’d been sitting on the entire night. Blinking open those dark eyes, he looked to the stranger, and then back at Kashin. “Good morning to thee, Nemgas,” Pelgan said, his voice as clear as it had been before, no trace of his sleep therein.
Kashin grunted, and tugged at his hand. “Hanaman said at first light I would be untied. Untie me.”
Pelgan nodded to the smaller man, who appeared to be about the same age as the youth now that Kashin had a chance to study him more closely. With nimble fingers, the wiry individual quickly undid the knots that held Kashin to the bed. The thick rope slid free and dangled in his hands. The other magyar twisted it about between his fingers, working it over, rubbing each winding of the hemp with slow deliberate gestures.
Kashin pulled his arm free, flexing his fingers, even as he sat up, the quilts falling to his lap. The door had closed though, and the warmth had once more returned to the wagon. He was still only dressed in linens, though. He wondered where they had taken his clothes; surely they did not expect him to go about dressed as he was now.
“Nemgas,” Pelgan said, catching his attention. Kashin was not sure what meaning that name might have, or of its origins, but he resolved to find out as soon as possible. He wondered who among them might know. Hanaman certainly, but the former Yeshuel was not entirely eager to speak with the leader of the magyars just yet.
“Nemgas,” Pelgan continued seeing that Kashin’s eyes had wandered inwards once again. “This is Gamran, juggler, tumbler, pick pocket, and thief. He shall show thee about this morning. If thou hast need of anything, simply ask and he shall accommodate thee.”
Kashin turned his eyes on the rogue, who appeared rather emboldened by the list of tasks Pelgan had rattled off. “Gamran, eh? Well, can you get my clothes, my packs, my sword, and let me be on my way?”
Gamran laughed a trilling little laugh at that, though there did not appear to be any malice in it. “Thou hast a queer way about thyself, Nemgas. I shall get thee clothes, but thy sword and packs are not thine anymore. I’d warrant that thou wouldst need ask Hanaman for them, and I doubt he’ll oblige thee.”
Kashin nodded at that, slipping his legs out from under the quilt and dropping to the ground, standing up right once more. As he rose to his full height, he realized that he was at least half a foot taller than Pelgan, and at least twice that over Gamran. The two magyars looked up at him, their eyes unafraid. “Clothes would do for now then,” Kashin grunted. He certainly could not go anywhere without them.
Gamran nodded and turned about, deftly retrieving some garments from the cupboard behind him. Kashin blinked as they were lain on the bed. The trousers were sewn with several patches, each of various colours, while the tunic was the same brightly hued mishmash that Pelgan, Gamran, and even Hanaman wore. Grimacing, Kashin ran his hands across the fabric. They certainly felt warm, quite thick despite their light appearance.
Shaking his head though, he turned back to them. “No, these will not do. I need my clothes, the black robes I was found in.”
The thief chuckled once more though, his eyes dancing over Kashin’s bulk. “Thou art a Magyar now, the same as us, Nemgas. Thou shalt wear the clothes of Magyar as well. Thy other garments are no longer for thee.”
Kashin shook his head and pointed his finger at the little man. “You do not understand. I am in mourning for my former master, slain now these three months. I cannot wear anything but black until my period of mourning is done.”
“Well,” Gamran shrugged, favouring him with a smile. “It is done. Thou need’st not mourn for him any longer. Thou hast a new master now, and a new life. Be merry and enjoy thyself. Dress thyself, for thou shan’t be given anything else to wear.”
Pelgan thumbed the hilt of his daggers speculatively, eyes moving between Kashin and the thief, carefully watching them both. There was nothing but duty in those eyes at present, Kashin knew well the look, having borne it so much of his own life.
“You cannot ask me to cease my mourning simply because you plucked me from the snow. Now return to me what is mine.” Kashin could not help but let slip a bit of danger into his voice. He had no doubt that both Pelgan and Gamran were very quick with their knives, but he was also certain they’d never faced a Yeshuel before, even one who had been disgraced and lost an arm.
Gamran shrugged, and stepped back against the cupboard. “If that is thy will, then thou shalt have nothing. For what is thine is thine no longer, but Hanaman’s. Until thou provest thyself to him, thou shalt not receive any boon from him.” Gamran scanned Kashin again, taking a moment to study the stump of his left arm. “No matter how much thou wantest it. Or deservest it.”
Kashin grunted at the little thief, and took a small step forward. The wagon was already crowded with the cupboard and the bed, but now it was unbearably tight with the three of them all trying to occupy such a closeted space. “Then you should go make it clear to Hanaman that if he does not allow me to mourn my master, then I shall have no reason to honour him.”
“Or thou couldst say it direct to me,” Hanaman’s voice came from the other side of the wagon, where the old woman had disappeared the night before. Kashin blinked in surprise, and turned to see the older man standing there at the far end. A small door was set in that end as well, though it was clear it led up to a perch from which to drive the horses. Another bed stood at his side, though this was empty. “So Nemgas, thy honour means so little to thee?”
Kashin shook his head. “No, it means a great deal to me. So does my former master. And my name is Kashin.”
“Nemgas,” Hanaman said, his lips tight, arms crossed over his chest. The Sathmoran blade was still resting at his hip.
“Nemgas, thy life is mine,” Hanaman continued, as if he had not even heard the former Yeshuel speak. “If I say that thou hast completed thy mourning, than thou hast completed thy mourning. If I say that thou shalt wander about without any clothes on, thou shalt do it. If I will it, thou wilt lie down with the Assingh and sleep in their company.”
Kashin grunted. “You would abuse my honour?”
Hanaman only blinked once. “That too is mine. Accept thy fate, Nemgas. Do as Gamran hath said, enjoy thyself. If so, thou wilt find life as a magyar well worth living.” He glanced at the clothes still laying upon the quilts. “Now, get thyself dressed. Thou hast much to learn before we move on.”
Balling his hand into a fist, Kashin glared at the man, his heart pounding in his chest. “You cannot take away the sorrow in my heart. You have no idea for whom I mourn. If you did, you would not demand this of me.”
“I do indeed know for whom thou mournest, Nemgas. Thy former master, who is no longer thy master. I am thy master, and I tell thee, thou needst mourn no longer. Thou canst serve again, and will. Now dress thyself, and join the rest outside.” There was an icy firmness in Hanaman’s voice, one that told Kashin he would find no boon as Gamran said.
Kashin nodded, smirking slightly. He reached down and grabbed the bundle of garments in his hand, and held them out before him. “I suppose I should be grateful then?”
The magyar leader shrugged slightly. “If thou wouldst rather have perished in the cold, I suppose not. But, Nemgas, if thou art like most men, then thou shouldst be grateful.”
Smirking, Kashin turned the clothes over in his hand, surveyed them, cast his eyes once to Pelgan and Gamran, and then back to Hanaman. “I am not like most men,” He then tossed the clothes in the old magyar’s face, and leaned back against the bed.
However, it did not quite have the effect he’d hoped for. Hanaman grabbed the clothes from his face and tossed them back onto the bed. “Knowest thou no honour then?” The question was empty of feeling though, no indignation, no regret therein. His eyes cast once to the other two in the wagon, and then they moved quickly, hands reaching to Kashin.
Kashin swung his arm solidly, but it sailed over Pelgan’s head as he ducked low, wrapping his own arms about Kashin’s middle. Gamran was quick to move his own arms about Kashin’s legs, bending them forwards until they nearly popped. The Yeshuel would have been surprised at the strength in one so scrawny if he weren’t struggling against Pelgan’s fierce grip. Those hands callused against the elements proved far more resilient than he had supposed.
With a swift kick, Gamran had opened the door at the back of the wagon, and was drawing his captive out. Yet Kashin finally managed to get his feet free, and with one swift kick, managed to clip the thief’s shoulder. Gamran went spinning into the snow outside with a single yelp. The cold raced up Kashin’s legs, and before he could brace himself against the door, two more pairs of arms wrapped themselves about his shins.
They held his legs firmly, while Pelgan tried to navigate Kashin’s upper torso from the wagon. Whipping out one of his daggers, he pressed the sharp edge firmly against Kashin’s throat, resting right against his Adam’s apple. Kashin met the youth’s dark eyes then, and took in their almost reluctant gaze some solace. He knew that Pelgan was not ready to kill him just yet. Pressing his arm upwards, he quickly dislodged the knife, and smacked his palm against the youth’s face. Pelgan reeled backwards, dropping Kashin to the floor.
He landed with a resounding smack, the floor of the wagon shaking from the impact. Yet the two men who had grabbed his legs then proceeded to drag him outwards. Kashin caught the end of the doorframe with his hand, the cold of the winter outside rushing through his body, penetrating his linens as if they weren’t even there. Yet he was not perched on that cusp for a moment before Hanaman gave his fingers a solid kick with the hard leather toe of his boot. Wincing in pain, Kashin could not help but let go, and be dragged down the single step and into the snow-covered grasses.
Shivering, he fought to get up, but the two men in brightly-coloured tunics continued to drag him out into an open area away from the wagons. They then let go of his legs and stepped back, drawing daggers. A couple other men of varying ages, some young, others older even than Hanaman, surrounded him in a small circle, holding spears and slings, even a couple short swords. Kashin glanced to either side, his skin shaking, betraying his need for warmth. The sky above was grey, offering no sun to warm him.
Hanaman came towards the circle, followed by Gamran and Pelgan. The thief was clutching his shoulder, though it only appeared to be bruised. Pelgan was already sporting a bright purple mark on his cheek, though it was probably not the first he’d ever received. Hanaman was carrying the clothes, however, and as he approached he tossed them to the ground at the Yeshuel’s feet. His face was crossed into a very cold stare, one that made Kashin feel an even deeper chill settle into his bones.
“If thou wouldst rather die of the chill, I shall let thee. All thou hast to do is wait. It will not take thee long.” Kashin could see his own breath before him, and the breath of every man about him. Back towards the wagons, other faces peered out at the spectacle, some women, other younger boys, and a few children. Their faces were curious, that and nothing more.
“But, if thou wouldst rather live, then don thy clothes, and ye shall,” Hanaman said, gesturing to the garments before him. Kashin looked down at them in distaste. He then scanned the faces around him, hoping for some pity, but saw none. They would stand there until he died from the cold rather than let him go. They would not move even an inch until he either died or put the clothes of a magyar on.
“You would just stand there and watch me die then?’ Kashin shot back, his voice strained already, teeth beginning to chatter. He wrapped his arm across his chest, as if that would hold the heat in. He could feel it fleeing him as if he were a pestilence.
Hanaman appeared annoyed by the question. “Thy life is mine. If ye refuse to accept that, then I will take that life.” He then leaned forward slightly, eyes piercing. There was a furious determination in them, one that brought Kashin’s blood to a stop. “Ye wished to go to Yesulam. How canst thou go anywhere when thou art dead?”
Kashin blinked a few times, and then glared anew. “How do I know whether you actually care about my wish to go there, or whether you are just saying that so that I don’t let the cold kill me?”
“Does it make a difference to thee?”
The bald question made Kashin stop once more, sucking his breath in tight. The cold was fixing itself into his bones, dulling his senses, numbing every extremity. Yet it was the chilling certainty that Hanaman was right that frightened him worse. Reaching down, he grabbed the shirt, and began to pull it over his head, slipping the warm fabric over his chest. It was slightly damp from where it had lain in the snow, but it was better than just his linens. He took the breeches in his hand as well, and one by one, stepped his legs through. The faces about him were calmer, there were even a few friendly smiles among them now.
Hanaman himself offered him a smile, though it was curt. “Adlemas, wouldst thou please fetch Nemgas here a pair of thy boots, they appear to be the same size.” He then gestured towards the ring of wagons. “Come, Nemgas, please come and sit by the fire, thou shalt be warmer there.”
Kashin stepped across the snow, still barefoot, glancing to the faces about him, offering them nothing but a thin line. One of the other magyars had rushed back to the wagons ahead of him, a large man with curly dark hair and wide girth. A few seconds later, he returned, carrying a pair of leather boots. He offered them to Kashin, his smile revealing a missing front tooth. “For thee, Nemgas. I hight Adlemas.”
Kashin offered him only a perfunctory smile, slipping his feet into the boots as quickly as he reasonably could. They did feel warm and comfortable, though they pinched around his ankles slightly. His body already still, Kashin managed to walk the rest of the way to the wagons. The faces of the women and children disappeared back into the wagons, or to their tasks, while the older boys stood out to watch openly. Kashin let his eyes fall on them, but he could not find it in his heart to be angry at them.
At the centre of the ring of the wagons was a hearty blaze. Glancing past the wagons, he could see a small wooded grove. They must be near one of the various rivers that crisscrossed the Steppe. On one side of the blaze was a pot suspended by a spit. Whatever was cooking inside smelled rather delicious. Of course, given that all he’d eaten in the last two days were the Åelvish wafers, he was certain anything would smell good to him now.
Small wooden benches had been arrayed alongside the fire. Kashin lowered himself to one, turning his back on the flame, letting it warm him. He could feel the heat slowly work through his system, filling even his fingers. He flexed them a few times, staring at them, and then down at the multicoloured tunic he now bore. His heart went cold again at that sight. “Forgive me,” he murmured quietly, even as he closed his eyes, not wishing to see it anymore.
Yet the sound of footsteps approaching made him glance up. Gamran stood there, favouring him with a wry grin. “Thou hast a wicked kick, Nemgas. I hope I never again have occasion to brawl with thee!”
Kashin grunted, though he refused to think of that name as his own. “I apologize for that. I hope I didn’t do any permanent damage.”
“Oh no, ‘tis fine. Will have a nasty swell like a pregnant mare tomorrow though!” The little thief said the latter as if it were a matter of pride. He glanced back as another came near. Kashin did as well, staring past Gamran to see the youth Pelgan approaching, rubbing his cheek thoughtfully with one hand.
“Going to swell like a pregnant mare tomorrow as well?” Kashin asked him as he drew closer.
Pelgan’s eyes went wide with surprise at the question, he then glanced at the thief, who was stifling a bit of a laugh. He then shook his head. “Oh, not quite that bad I think. Thou hast a good arm though. Where didst thou learn to fight?”
Kashin grimaced and shook his own head. “I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore. I am here with your little band now it would appear.”
Pelgan sat down at his side, while Gamran pulled three small balls from his pockets and began to idly juggle them with one hand. “It is not as bad as all that,” Pelgan said, rubbing his hands firmly together to warm them. “There are worse things in this world.”
“Did you choose this?” Kashin asked pointedly.
The youth smiled slightly, and then looked up as Hanaman approached, flanked by Adlemas and one other who was almost as wiry as Gamran, but taller. Kashin flicked his eyes upwards, and then cast them back down to the snow-covered earth. He ground the frozen grass beneath his boot heel, hand rubbing across the colourful fabric, picking at one of the patches sewn across the leggings. The cloth was thick, probably wool mixed with something else, and then dyed. Perhaps he’d discover later. He certainly had little idea what awaited him now.
“Now, Nemgas, as thou art new amongst us, I shall tell thee a little of what I have intended for thee.” Hanaman grabbed one of the other stools and sat upon it, stretching his legs before him. With a single flick of his head, his pony tail was cast behind his shoulders. “As thou must already know, we are magyars, travelling o’er this world, never staying in any one place for more than a week or two. We stop by towns and villages, give the folk a good show, and take what we need from them.”
“Don’t you mean steal?” Kashin offered sardonically. He kept his voice level though, and let his eyes slide up to meet the older man’s.
Hanaman shrugged slightly. “Some we steal, the rest the folk supply us. We live in these wagons, everything we have is stored in them. Thou wilt never have riches as a magyar, but thou wilt have the road, the sky, and all the earth under thy feet. Ere long, thou wilt have it no other way as well.”
“Are you so certain of that?”
“Yes, I am.” Hanamn paused for a moment, then glanced over to Adlemas. The burly man nodded and stood up, and then grabbed the wiry individual by the arms. Despite some half-hearted protests, Adlemas proceed to bend the man’s arms behind his back, and lock his hands together. He then took each leg one by one, and placed the feet behind his head, locking them together in place. The man so bound by his own limbs, then pushed his fingers and toes out, and actually lifted himself up off the ground, and began to crawl about the ground, crying out, “Wouldst thou help me? I’m rather tied up.”
Kashin blinked a moment as he watched, and then offered Hanaman a smirk. “A contortionist. I suppose he has other tricks?”
The man then bent his arms backwards, and dislodged his arms, until he was walking upside down, his legs still placed firmly behind his head. “I have one or two more to show thee, Nemgas.”
Hanaman nodded, and motioned for the man to take his seat again. “Nagel is very good at what he does. Adlemas here can sing as high as a woman, though his bride claims he is quite a man. Gamran and Pelgan are both jugglers among other things.”
“And you want to know what I can do,” Kashin finished.
“Yes, Nemgas, what canst thou do?”
“As I told you last night, I know how to fight.”
“With one arm?”
“Would you care to spar with me and see what I am capable of?”
Hanaman appeared to consider the offer for a moment. He then shook his head. “No, we shall test thy brawling prowess later. Tell me, can ye act?”
Kashin snorted once. “If necessary.”
Hanaman nodded at that. “Good. We shall use thee in our pageant. I shall have a place ready for thee by this evening. Until then, have something to eat. ‘Tis thy first day as a magyar, Nemgas, so we shall tarry here for another hour so that thou might’st accustom thyself to thy brethren.”
Kashin watched Hanaman rise from the bench, and start to walk towards one of the wagons. To Kashin it looked much the same as any of the others, brown along the bottom but brightly painted in various reds, blues, yellows and greens from just below the windows to the rooftops. From the eaves were long wooden railings festooned with various tools and supplies. “Wait. Where is it that we are headed?”
“East,” Hanaman called back over his shoulder. “In half a fortnight we shall be in Doltatra, a small trading village along the Atra River.”
“It will be another month’s journey, and we will be at the foot of the Great Eastern Mountains. We shall journey through them until the Summer when we will travel back across the Steppe towards Pyralis. From there we will head to the Outer Midlands, and by this time next year, we will be travelling across the Northern Steppe once more.” Hanaman then continued on his way, without even so much as glancing back at Kashin. Adlemas and Nagel went to the cooking pot to have something to eat. Pelgan and Gamran just waited at Kashin’s side, casting furtive glances in his direction every few moments.
Gamran added another ball to his trio already in the air with a swift movement of his free hand. “Well, art thou hungry, Nemgas? Ye had best eat something. I could show thee about afterwards if that would please thee.”
Kashin gave the juggler a firm glare. “I have never associated myself with a thief before in my life. Why should I start now?”
The thief bore a pained expression at that, and caught one of the balls and slipped it into his pocket while the other three were still in the air. Like so, he returned each of them to his jerkin. “Ye slay me good sir. But come, thou must meet the others. And when thou dost meet Thelia, keep thy hand to thyself now! Pelgan, care to join our company?”
Pelgan laughed slightly at that, rising once more to his feet. “If only to keep thy hands from Ameli. Come, Nemgas. Let us tarry here no further.”
Lowering his head, Kashin nodded. He pressed his hand firmly into his knee as he raised, the warmth slowly leaving his back as he stepped away from the fire. “Lead on then. But first, let us having something to eat. No point in starving ourselves is there?”
“Not if thou dost not want to get a stern dressing down from Varna. She hath a demon in her if she thinks thou dost not like her cooking!” Gamran held his hands up before his face, and drew his lips back and exposed his teeth in a mock snarl. He then pulled out one of his brightly -coloured balls and tossed it high into the air, catching it behind his back.
Pelgan shook his head, smiling, as if he were used to this sort of behaviour. Kashin just followed along behind them, feeling as empty as the Steppe. He doubted that even this Varna’s cooking would fill him. Closing his eyes tight, he steeled himself to this fate, to be a magyar. As long as he was alive, Yesulam could still be waiting for him. In the end, he supposed that hope was all that was required to answer the call.
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