On this their seventh day travelling through the foothills of the Great Eastern Mountain Range, known as the Vysehrad throughout the secluded peoples who lived amongst its nestled crags and stony dagger-like protrusions, Nemgas of the Magyars felt an uneasiness grow within him.
It had begun as a simple nagging thought lurking with the confines of his mind as he rode upon the wagon top with the young man Pelgan, watching as the Assingh drew them up through narrow roads that wound back and forth amongst the high hills that flanked the towering peaks. The hills themselves had the appearance of a man pushed aside, a lump of grass and rock that had been shouldered away by the rising of the Vysehrad. And it was a similar feeling that the Magyar could not dismiss, that of being pushed aside.
It plagued him as the day wore on, he and Pelgan talking quietly from time to time, the sun rising only late in the day so close were they to those rocky citadels. In fact, as they hugged those monolithic walls of upthrust stone, the sun would not come into view until very nearly noon. But he had been this way before in life, every year in fact. Some deep part of his mind reminded the Magyar that there was another life that belonged to another part of him, a part that had been left behind on Cenziga. And that part had never been to the Vysehrad.
At first, he thought that the nagging might be that foreign personality, one so unsuited to a Magyar’s life - his life. But after a short time’s contemplation, knew that such was not the case. He flexed the fingers on his left hand, smiling down at the appendage. Until his trial upon Cenziga, he’d not had that limb. Now it was once more restored to him.
And that only reminded him once more that the memories he now possessed, as full and complete as they were, of a life lived completely amongst the Magyars, had never really happened. It pained him when he considered that, for he could remember events in the lives of his fellow Magyars that were true, but he had not actually been there to witness them. They all still remembered him coming amongst them as that other person, the one that he had left behind on the mountain of ash. Though it was not the niggling thought that lurked at the back of his mind, it was nevertheless one that he wished to put behind him as well.
After consideration of his identity, Nemgas had no idea what that unsettled whisper in his mind might be though. He continued to try and rid himself of that nagging uncertainty. In its place, he brought to mind all that he had seen in the days, weeks, and months following his trial at that dread mountain. They were memories that he knew were real, and they delighted him for that.
The journey across the remainder of the Steppe had taken a few weeks as expected. During that time they had done much as they always had, leaving early each morning to travel most of the day through the wide open spaces of the Flatlands. The snows continued to melt in that time, until they were but an afterthought amongst the tall broken grasses. At the end of each day they would make camp, allowing the Assingh to graze, while in the space between their wagons they would rehearse their pageant and other tricks.
Nemgas even began to learn a few tumbler’s tricks from Pelgan, Gamran and the others. With his second limb returned to him, he now began to master the art of juggling. His reflexes were quite astute, and after the second day of practice, had mastered the art of keeping three little balls in the air. By the time they had reached the foothills of Vysehrad, Pelgan, Gamran, and he performed a complicated dance of juggling between themselves using at least twelve balls that were kept constantly in the air. They flew back and forth so fast it seemed a work of ancient art, the path of the balls traceries of gossamer thread that when bound together would be unbreakable.
Nor was his new learning restricted to juggling. His capability as a fighter gave him a strong ability for the acrobatic skills, although he was not quite flexible enough to bend his legs completely around his head as Negal often did. Nevertheless, Nemgas practised constantly during their firelit private festivals, stretching his body in new ways, pushing every aspect of himself to that new limit, determined to make the best of his good fortune as a Magyar.
He smiled oddly as he thought back on the earliest of his days after returning from the mountain Cenziga. All of his fellow Magyars rejoiced at his return naturally, but it was Hanaman who seemed the most relieved. The leader of their company often would ask him many questions about what he’d found on the mountain, and Nemgas told him much, but there was little he could make sense of, so determined had he been merely to keep from being rendered a drooling idiot.
But it had taken only a single day’s time since they were blessed by the rain of ash before his fellow Magyars had accepted and grown accustomed to the miraculous changes worked in their newest member. Few spoke of it afterwards, as if they were afraid to summon Cenziga’s name, even after one of their own had conquered that mountain as they saw it. Instead, he was treated as before, simply another Magyar doing his part for the whole. And that was just how he wanted it to be.
And so they had travelled across the Steppe, leaving Cenziga behind them. Strangely, even though it had been growing in awareness and presence for nearly a fortnight before they finally came to its base, only a day after they had travelled beyond it, it had disappeared completely beyond the horizon. Nor did the blue light shine at sunset anymore, but he knew from memories he’d gained that it never did when they left its shadow.
It took a few weeks to cross the remainder of the Steppe. Before the month of February had come to a close, they had reached Vysehrad’s first foothills. They appeared first as simply larger than normal gradual inclines, like large mounds or bumps in the earth. As they continued, those bums became larger, rockier, and some were so pronounced that they could no longer travel in a straight line, but had to wind around them. A week later and they stood beneath the first sentinels of that towering range itself, a mighty fortress that could not be crossed over even on foot.
And now, it was the final week of March. They had passed through two more small villages at the base of those hills, the people in each suspicious of outsiders, but warm to the Magyars, who they welcomed with glad song and a few uncut gemstones. A part of Nemgas was surprised at the gemstones, but he knew that these people kept their mines hidden from outsides completely, lest others come to steal their homes that they might plunder the wealth of the mountains themselves. But in the Magyars they knew they could trust.
In fact, Nemgas marvelled at how many of the faces of these people so closely resembled the faces of his fellow Magyars. Had in some distant past his own people leave homes such as these at Vysehrad’s feet to wander within their wagons? Or were they forced to make their homes travel by some unremembered tyrant or plague? Had in the past some unscrupulous noble come and unhomed them for the gems? Was this but one more secret lost to the distant past?
But none of these questions could either Nemgas answer, or any other of his fellow Magyars. Nevertheless, in each village they performed their pageant before delighted audiences. The children watched with wide eyes at everything they saw, and their parents were no less impressed. And at the very least they gave sufficient compensation to the Magyars for their efforts. There had been no need to steal from them as they had from Doltatra. Their food wagons were once again filled with grains, potatoes, onions, and even with salted meats. There would be many more fine meals around Varna’s cookpot in the nights ahead.
In fact, they had just left the second of those two villages that morning, and the sound of laughter and applause still filled him. There was always a glow amongst the Magyar after a successful night’s performance, and he could see that Pelgan beside him shared it as well. Though there was still some nagging thought that besmirched his pleasant mood, it was not enough to keep him from smiling at his friend. “When shalt we reach the next town?” he asked suddenly, brushing one of his two white locks of hair from his face. He knew the answer already, he could remember it now, but he knew his fellow Magyars were more comfortable not thinking about what Cenziga had done.
Pelgan’s eyes traced up along the wall of stone that rose to their left. “‘Tis but a week’s journey again. Cheskych art it called by they that livest in its walls.”
“Walls?” Nemgas asked, though he could already picture the rough hewn rock fitted together firmly at the mouth of a small accessible rise in the mountains. Fissures led off from several sides, worn smooth by the yearly snowmelt, where hints of long carved staircases led up to dramatic heights above, but were now nearly completely erased. “What dost thee know of Cheskych, Pelgan? Hath it a tale to be told?”
The juggler fingered the knives he carried along his belt, a sly trace of amusement crossing his lips. After a moment he leaned back in the wagon seat, stretching, his colourful patchwork tunic stretching with him. He nodded as he let out a yawn, eyes brightening. “Cheskych hath more fable than history. Thou shouldst ask the storytellers if thou wishes to know more.”
“But what dost thee know? Wilt thou allow me some morsel now before I accost Hanaman or Taboras?” The latter was the storyteller and historian amongst the Magyars. None knew the traditions of the peoples as well as he, or the old legends that lived deep within the earth of the Steppe and its neighbouring lands. And it was he, with loud voice, that proclaimed the story of the fight at Metamor during their pageant. But Taboras was also old, and so he usually kept inside his wagon or beside the fire during the winter months.
Pelgan smiled affably then, nodding as he considered the road ahead. Nemgas held the reins, and was artfully steering the Assingh along the wide space between the foothills, avoiding the jagged rocks that sometimes filled the makeshift road. “‘Tis the oldest city in all of the Steppe. I hath heard it said that the fair folk hast a home there once. But ‘tis no more.”
“Who hath built what lay there now?”
“The Suielman I hath heard built it. A fort they meant it to be, though it hath become but a home for they that live there. They hath great pride in Cheskych, and speak of his heroes freely with but an offer of a story of thine own.” Pelgan turned to look at him, eyes prideful. “Thou hast a few of thy own to tell, Nemgas. Thy story of Metamor alone should win thee many tales of old Cheskych and Vysehrad!”
Nemgas laughed at that, but grew silent once more. Nor did his companion speak further then, leaving him to contemplate and wonder. But the Magyar could not help but know that the tale of Metamor was one that had belonged to his other self, and not to the Magyar that he was and would be ever more. And with thoughts of the journey ahead swept from him again, he felt that difficult thought again, his quiet worry that would not leave him be. Casting his eyes to either side, he could see the wide sweep of the Flatlands to his right, hilly at first, but then a featureless plain towards the horizon. To his left were the peaks of Vysehrad, straining upwards to the sky like so many knives. He could see a few birds flitting from crevice to crevice up in the heights, but nothing else other than snow and rock. Strangely disconsolate, though he did not show it to his companion, Nemgas rode on.
“The Great Eastern Range,” Sir Lech Poznan of Bydbrüszin said, running his tongue along the back of his teeth. He stared fixedly at the high peaks that rose up from the ground, until they reached the clouds above and were lost amidst the swirl of white. So unlike his home of Stuthgansk, where there were no mountains to be seen at all. A few rocky crags overlooking the sea, but they only stood a few heights of men above the lashing waves.
“What is it those pagans called it?” he asked then, turning to one of the other knights of Driheli that stood in their saddles at either side.
But it was Father Athfisk, the goggle-eyed priest, that answered him. “Vysehrad.” His face bore a foul distaste. “Pagan names.”
“Yes, Father,” Sir Poznan said, smiling lightly. “One day we of the Driheli will stamp them out as well.” It had been so long since he had drawn his sword against another man, he was almost tempted to order an attack on the small village that was nestled between the hill, the base of the mountains, and the small river that trailed past it. But the Templar’s message had been clear, all efforts were to be made on stopping Kashin.
“Sir Ignacz returns,” Father Athfisk said after a moment’s silence. His slender hand pointed in the distance as a lone knight came riding back, horse set at a gallop. Poznan nodded as he watched his fellow knight’s approach, sitting a bit straighter in the saddle. They had arrived only hours before, but there was much still to the day. In the last few weeks, they had pushed themselves hard, crossing the stretch from Doltatra to the mountains in a space of three weeks. There had been little to do but ride in that time. In fact, there had only been one part of that journey that had proved even the slightest bit daunting.
They had been warned of it, he thought in retrospect by the pagans of Doltatra. It was undoubtedly the source of the blue light at dusk. As after they had left it behind, the light came no more. The Burgomaster had specifically told them to avoid the place, and they had intended to do just that. But it crept upon them as inexorably and undeniably as the waves crept up the shore. And so when they had reached it, any thought of leaving it be had left Sir Poznan’s mind.
It had been a pillar of clouds that stood fixedly on the landscape as immovable and unavoidable as those mountains ahead were. Sir Poznan alone had approached that tower of fog, no other of his men would dare near it. He attempted to ride into it, but it was as solid as any wall he’d ever touched. No matter from which direction or where he tried to enter, his way was barred by hands that he could not see. At last, with a string of epithets that made Father Athfisk cross himself several more times - he’d been busy making that sign ever since they’d neared that column - Poznan gave up, and left the pagan site alone.
But now that they had been another week in the saddle, memories of that strange place were no longer upon his mind. When he did think of it, he felt mostly annoyance that it had denied him entrance. Otherwise, he wondered little what it might be. After all, his first goal was the finding of Kashin, not pondering some strange cloud in the middle of pagan land.
When Sir Ignacz brought his horse to a stop before them, he bowed his head once, but his lips were creased into a frown. “Knight Commander,” he said deferentially.
“What have you found from the pagans?” Sir Poznan asked, impatient for news.
“The Magyars passed by this way a little under a fortnight ago, but Kashin was not amongst them.”
Sir Poznan’s grip tightened on his reins, and he stiffened even more. “What? How is that possible? All the devils under the earth could not have spirited him away without a trace left behind. We found nothing!” He crossed himself after his hasty words and Athfisk’s blanching. Most of the Knight Bachelors did as well.
But Sig Ignacz could only shake his head. “They did say that a man of dark skin with two locks of white hair was with them, but he had two arms, not one.”
Sir Poznan let out a snarl then, swinging his mailed fist wide in exasperation, nearly knocking his squire Skowicz from his own steed. The boy ducked in time though to avoid being struck. “They must be lying to us,” he declared hotly, anger burning within him like a kiln’s furnace. “Kashin must be amongst the Magyars. They have lied to us.”
Father Athfisk narrowed his gaze, cheeks flush. “Let them know the wrath of Eli then! They have insulted the Ecclesia by lying. Teach them fear, Sir Poznan. Teach them now.”
But Poznan turned on the priest with an unpleasant stare. “Are you blind?” He pointed one finger at the rock walls surrounding the small village on two sides. “They have burrows for their arches in those walls. We could surely kill them all, but we would still lose half our number from those archers.” But how his hand yearned to draw his sword and order an attack anyway. It was only the firm instructions of both the Bishop and the Templar that kept him from forgetting caution altogether.
“Damn,” he muttered at long last when no one else spoke. “We must ride harder than before. Only the Magyars will know where Kashin is now.” He spat distastefully upon the ground at his horse’s hooves. “We must capture some of them now.” his fellow knights grimaced at that, and Athfisk’s eyes appeared to protrude even further from his balding head.
“But what if they have gone into the mountains,” Sir Andrej pointed out, his voice cautious, but brimming with anger like the rest. “They could spot our approach if we are too quick.”
Sir Poznan was so angry he nearly felt compelled to strike at one of his most loyal knights. But a moment’s stewing told him that his fellow Driheli was right to worry. Although he had difficulty imaging the Magyars leading their wagons into those forbidding peaks, perhaps they would know a secret path that the knights would miss if they moved too quickly through the foothills.
“Sir Andrej, take three of our company with you and ride ahead. I shall lead the rest an hour behind you at all times. Should you think the Magyars plot some treachery, send word back immediately. We will move fast still. I mean to have them in a fortnight.”
The large man nodded at that, and hoisted his helm once more upon his brow. He gestured with one mailed fist to another knight, and then they and their squires galloped away into the hills, following along the beaten course the wagons of the Magyars had left behind. Sir Poznan watched them ride ahead bitterly, waiting until they had disappeared around a bend in the road, the sound of the hoof beats still reaching his ears, though faintly.
“Should we not send a message to the Knight Templar?” Father Athfisk said then, his voice tremulous, as if he disapproved of Sir Poznan’s choice but lacked the courage to speak it.
“Why?” Sir Lech Poznan declared. “Any messenger we send would have to pass by the Magyars to reach him now. No,” the son of the Lord of Bydbrüszin said morosely, “we can only race to reach them first.” He said no more then, running his mailed fingers along the hilt of his sword, yearning for the day he’d reach those foul pagans and he’d be able to draw it at last. Seeing his mood, the other knights and the priest moved their horses off to the side, speaking quietly amongst themselves. Only Skowicz his squire remained at his side. The boy regarded him fearfully, but said nothing as well.
“Where in all the Hells did you go, Kashin?” Sir Poznan murmured, but was answered only by the rustling of the grasses beneath the mountain’s wind.
Sir Petriz shielded his eyes from the blinding morning sun as he stood at the entrance to the Knight Templar’s tent. Although they were but a thin line on the horizon, they could now finally see the southern reaches of the Great Eastern Range. It had at first been strange for the Southern knight, never having seen any mountains himself. But after a short time squinting at that thin smear atop the endless grasses and sands, he recognized it for what it was.
“You can see the mountains at last,” he said, calling back into the tent to the man he’d once been squire too. He turned and offered a slight smile. “Just on the horizon, but you can see them.”
Sir Czestadt nodded then, sipping at his earthenware cup. He was leaning over his makeshift table, examining the map that the Bishop had provided them of the Flatlands. “Yes, it should be another two weeks before we reach them still.” He rubbed his chin with one hand. “It is unfortunate that we do not know more about these mountains,” he mused, leaning forward to tap a portion of the map with a single finger.
“Yes,” Sir Petriz nodded, his smile stretching out into a thin line. “But any path that they can take, we can take more easily. They are using carriages after all.”
“True,” Sir Czestadt said slowly, as if that knowledge were less certain to him. The rider from the Bishop had only returned a week before, bringing with him several scroll’s worth of information about the Magyars of the Steppe. There was so much to know, but so little revealed it seemed from those pages. Sir Petriz himself had read through the scrolls and had come to the conclusion that the only way to know any of the Magyar’s secrets was to be one of them.
With one more grimace, Sir Czestadt tossed back the cup and set it aside. His new squire Heszky quickly retrieved the cup and dried it off. Sir Petriz smiled approvingly at this, well remembering his duties when he’d been Czestadt’s squire. Ah, those had been days heady with excitement and tireless duty.
“Sir Petriz,” the Knight Templar announced then, folding the map once more. “Order the men to break camp. We leave here in half an hour.” His eyes then rose up to meet the Knight Commander’s. “When we reach the mountains, we shall make further plans.”
Nodding, Sir Petriz left the tent, shielding his eyes once more from the bright sun.