Night Amongst Whispers

by Charles Matthias

During the week’s journey to Cheskych, Nemgas continued to feel that nagging thought at the back of his mind. But he did not find it difficult to ignore either. A mere focussing of his thoughts upon the road, the pageant, and all of the new tricks he would perform was enough to banish that unpleasant nagging.

Often times he would consider the Vysehrad itself, pondering the secrets that were held within those iron peaks. He even scoured his memories, the ones of his life as a Magyar, but in all the years that he’d made this trek, from the days as a boy climbing amongst the scattered rocks and boulders that lay at the feet of the mountains, to the days when he began to learn the fighting arts from the older men, and until the last days when he’d taken part in many of the events, all memories that he knew did not take place, he had never wandered any farther into those mountains than the foothills. None of them ever did.

Nemgas knew that if he wished to learn more, he simply had to ask Taboras the storyteller to see what that old man knew. Yet the opportunity never came, for his days were spent guiding the wagons of his people through the cluttered rock and grassy hills that clustered about the Vysehrad’s feet. And his nights were spent around the campfires, practising his new part in the pageant, as well as his juggling with Pelgan and Gamran. Several times he would spar with Adlemas and Chamag, but it was they who were learning, not he.

And in all that time, not one spare minute came to him to speak with the grizzled storyteller. So Nemgas went without the satisfaction of learning the secrets of Vysehrad. At least none that he had not already learned in the two settlements they had already passed through. And those he had already known from the memories Cenziga had given him.

It was midday on the seventh day when they reached Cheskych. The city itself was nestled in a small alcove, a gorge of sorts between two fingers of the rocky peaks. They were lower than most, and worn from snow-melt. A wide river wound its way through the hills, and at this time of the year was beginning to rise and flow more quickly. On the eastern edge of the gorge a waterfall poured out from a small gap in the rocks, a roaring sound that he could hear from at least a mile away. And when they turned around the last pillar of Vysehrad and into that gorge, it grew thrice as loud.

Although Nemgas could remember the walled city of Cheskych, he still felt a bit of awe at seeing it with his own eyes. The river kept close to the eastern edge of the wide ravine until it passed out of the mouth, heading to the southwest through the hills. A wide bridge of stone had been erected over it, though it appeared to have been fashioned in the days of antiquity, for the clever stonework was worn, the features smoothed until they were unrecognizable.

To the northern end of the ravine was the city itself cast in noonday glow with barely a shadow in sight. The ravine was at least a league deep, though its furthest recesses could only have fit a few of the wagons side by side. A large stone wall with fortress gate had been placed half a mile deep into the ravine. Only the hills abutting the river remained, as the rest of the land had been tilled and farmed, only the first hints of the new crops pressing up from the ground.

The walls themselves in places appeared to have been carved from the stone itself, while others were clearly the work of engineers, the stones pressed so closely together that an earthquake would not shake them free. The gatehouse was set against one of the mountain peaks, and also appeared to have been carved from the very rock itself, its granite façade variegated with thin veins of iron and chalcedony. The homes beyond the wall were clustered together, also fashioned from stone, and many seemed built atop on another, little holes that bored within the mountainside.

Nemgas smiled as he saw that city, and saw many of their farmers out in the fields tilling the earth. Along the riverbanks near the bridge, fisherman plumbed the deeper pools. They were not a numerous people, or even a prosperous one, but they held one of the greatest marvels of the Vysehrad as their home.

As they made their way up into the ravine itself, Nemgas noted an odd thing as he watched the wagon before him take the narrow road. At either side, and moving slowly, seemed to be two silhouettes, shadows, of the wagon itself. What was stranger was that these thin shades were pointed back towards the southern sun. It was as if there were two other suns within the ravine that kept it bright all the while the sun shone. And as he thought on this, he remembered the great Pelain mirrors.

What history he knew of this region was of the Sulieman empire. The city of Cheskych had been one of its easternmost forts, one that was remarkable in its construction, but had been abandoned for its remoteness at the beginning of that ancient civilisation’s downfall. The first builder and first commander of the city had been Pelain, who had in a generation’s time built the largest mirrors known at the time, built them right into the very peaks of the mountaintops, and along its walls. No matter whether the sun was rising or setting, the light of it would strike the mirrors and cast back down into the valley.

During the noon hour of course, there was no need for the mirrors, and so they did not shine as brightly. But when the sun rose in the sky, to the western slope of the gorge they would look and watch it climb upwards through the peaks. And when the sun passed beyond the edge of the western peaks, it would shine again from the eastern wall until it finally set at last. Powerful enchantments that were laid down by Pelain kept the mirrors free from grime, although it had been said that his spell should not have lasted as long as it did, and that other magical forces were at work in the Vysehrad that preserved his mirrors.

And that was all that Nemgas knew of Cheskych and its history. But this was not knowledge he’d had before Cenziga. The memory of Pelain in the world outside of Vysehrad was lost but to the most eclectic of scholars. Would any amongst the Ecclesia even know of it? He could not say. But he could learn more from the people themselves should he simply tell them a story of his own. He had many stories he could relate, but they were not of Nemgas, but of that other who had died on Cenziga. Did he have the heart to tell them?

Nemgas nodded to himself then. Of course he could. He would tell them as if they had happened to another man, which in fact they did. Nemgas had never been to Metamor, but Kashin had. He would tell a tale of Kashin, a man who was no longer upon the Earth. He smiled slightly to himself as he thought on this. That was a tale to tell, and it would earn him many tales in return.

His grin stayed with him then, even as he saw the gatehouse doors behind opened to permit their wagon’s entrance. He would have to inform Hanaman of his desire to tell stories too.

Once they were inside the walls of Cheskych, they brought their wagons to the clearing just behind the walls. Compared to most of the gorge, this part was shrouded and cast into twilight. It was secluded as well, the homes all further back within the ravine. Yet there were many faces that poked out of doorways to watch the new comers. While the dress of the Magyars was colourful and bright, that of the Cheskych were a mixture of grey and brown tones. The onlookers whispered amongst themselves, smiling to show their delight. The Magyars however, laughed and sang impromptu songs as they set about preparing their cookpot, and evening fires.

Nemgas was helping prepare one of the fires when a sudden motion out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. Turning, he caught the small colourful ball in his hand, and immediately tossed it back to the little thief who’d sent it his way. Gamran laughed and caught it back again, but not before launching two more in his direction. Nemgas laughed too then, and juggled with his friend for a few minutes before returning to his normal duties.

Like all not of their kind, there was a certain level of anxiety in Cheskych with the Magyars now present. In the wistful but wary stares of the people who made this fort their home, Nemgas saw little that he had not seen before in the other villages they had passed through. What new things he did glimpse was a bit of a warrior’s pride, of a people who were not afraid to defend their homes. These were a people who had fought before, though it was not their way. They did not simply hide behind a wall built by men long dead, they protected it as well.

And so, it did seem surprising to Nemgas that they be allowed within the walls themselves. Only the larger towns that they would pass through when they neared the extremes of the Midlands in the Autumn months would ever afford them a similar courtesy, and they were easily ten times the size of Cheskych. Yet, even as he tried to ponder why that might be so, he discovered that he had no memory of ever inquiring along that line before. Perhaps then, when chance came, he would ask.

It was not long after they had their fires lit and burning that Hanaman returned from his usual sortie with the town elder. His face was sombre, though it was filled with a bit of relief as well. All eyes were drawn to him then as he walked to the centre of their camp. “The people of Cheskych hath asked us to remain here for four nights,” Nemgas blinked in surprise, and quite a few of his fellow Magyars began murmuring to themselves. Such a time for so small a village?

Hanaman let one of his eyes slip to his wife Zhenava, a tall sultry woman whose grace seemed out of place amongst the Magyars. She wore a thin dress despite the relative cool air of early Spring. The dress was more suggestive than revealing, but few men amongst the Magyars could keep their eyes from her when she danced. But now her arms were crossed and she stared at her husband with all the warmth of an adder.

“They hath promised a great bounty in return for our delay. The merchants didst not come to buy this year, so their larders hath overflown so that they feed the birds.” Hanaman did not smile, but Nemgas could almost hear the smile within his voice. “I hath seen these storehouses, and I can attest to the truth in their claims. We shalt eat well if we but dally here two days more than we hast meant.”

He held out one hand to forestall any objections. It was not the way of the Magyars to stay in any place for very long. Only in the larger cities of the Midlands would they spend so many days, and then only because they could put on the same performance each night without fear that any would see it more than once. Of course if they stayed any longer, the constables would be after them. But more than that, the blood of the Magyar yearned to move. If it stayed in the same place too long it would congeal and no longer be as strong.

Nemgas too felt unsettled at the thought of remaining in Cheskych for so many days. Already he wished he could be riding atop his wagons watching as the land slowly moved past. Still, he held his desires in check to hear what Hanaman had to say. “Forsooth I hath not come to this lightly. ‘Tis a burden I dost not wish to bear. We shalt do all that we canst for these people. Each art that we perform shalt be performed longer or slower if needeth be.”

For some this declaration caused even more fitful stirring of displeasure. For others such as Gamran, it only seemed to delight them, a greater chance to show off what they could do.

“I shalt decide ere night shouldst fall what they of Cheskych shalt see this eve and those that follow. Until then, thou mayest do as thee wishest.” Hanaman then gave a wave of his hand, eyes turning back to his wife Zhenava whose own gaze did not appear to be in the least mollified. That imperial lady turned and strode back to her wagon, disappearing within. Hanaman did not follow her though, turning instead to Adlemas and Nagel and speaking quietly.

Pelgan poked Nemgas in the side of the ribs then, a slight laugh upon his face. “Didst thou see the way Zhenava stalked off. Hanaman hast made an enemy of her this stay I shouldst wager.”

Nemgas nodded, laughing as well. He then pointed to the knives that the youth kept at his side. “Wouldst thou like to practise a bit? I shouldst like to see this city more myself ere the eve doth arrive, but I am not ready to leave the cookfires just yet.”

Grinning broadly, Pelgan drew both blades, adroitly turning them over in his hands, and nodded.

It was the middle of the afternoon when Nemgas finally excused himself, suffering from a few new nicks and bruises, so that he might explore Cheskych for himself. None of his fellow Magyars tried to stop him of course, as many were also wandering about the town freely, doing their best to keep their hands to themselves. Nemgas himself was not a natural thief, though he knew that he’d from time to time purloined his share of foodstuffs and baubles. But they of the Magyar would not steal unless those they performed for refused to pay their due recompense.

It was not warm in the gorge, but it was still pleasant, so Nemgas felt entirely comfortable only in his colourful patchwork tunic and trousers. The sun no longer shone directly within, but was reflected off the eastward mirrors, casting their shadows to the west in the afternoon, a thing that did turn Nemgas around at first. But there was little to be confused about in the narrow cleft in Vysehrad. One went towards one end of the ravine or the other.

Nemgas chose to head towards the closed end where the town lay nestled. Most of the homes in Cheskych were fashioned from stone. While parts of them had clearly been chiselled from outlying rocks, most of their fronts were formed by the stacking of fallen rocks so tightly together that Nemgas had trouble even finding the creases between them. Wooden ladders were arrayed against the sides of buildings, leading up to more homes that stood on the shoulders of their brethren. As Nemgas walked along one of the main streets, he marvelled at the honeycomb that rose at least five levels before his eyes.

There were three main roads that ran the length of Cheskych. With stacks of homes abutting each cliff wall, two roads of hard packed earth and stone followed along the outer walls. The third went through the middle as best it could. Homes filled the space between the roads, though along the centre were several man-sized statues that had faded over the years. Even the names that had been etched into the stone at their base had been erased.

The homes between the roads were larger and spaced out from their neighbours, demonstrating that these were the homes of those with rank and prestige in Cheskych. Even so, they appeared little richer than their countrymen in the honeycombs, with much the same clothes and shoes. It was clear that they were not able to produce many of their own cloths. There was a pen with a couple dozen sheep set just before the homes began upon one side, but that had been all.

There was one tangible difference that Nemgas noticed between those that lived in the finer homes and the rest - the rest were far more curious. As Nemgas wandered openly the streets, stopping to study any structure that caught his eye, he noticed that a small group of boys who could have been no older than ten or eleven had begun to follow him. They did not get too close, and they tended to scatter whenever Nemgas turned to look at them. But as soon as he was on his way again, they too began to follow him, whispering loudly enough so that he had no trouble hearing them.

Their dialect thankfully enough was much like his own, though the accent was deeper, more glottal. He smiled as he listened to their theories on what he might be doing, and what he might do to them if he caught them. As he listened, pretending to study the front of one home, fingers tracing along the invisible line where two stones were set together, he could tell that one of the boys was slightly older, the leader of their little pack. He was frightening, as well as exciting, the other boys with tales of what a Magyar would do if he caught you. Nemgas had to hold back a bark of laughter when the leader told the other boys that Magyars were all really vampires, and needed to drain the blood of a young boy to survive, and that was why children would disappear when the Magyars visited.

No, Nemgas thought with a slight smile curling his lips. They disappear because they become Magyars too. Not that it happened often. Usually only when a foul wind killed many of their own children prematurely. Sometimes a child would run off to join them, as he knew Gamran had years ago, but that was also rare. Nevertheless, the children of Cheskych continued to follow after him, perhaps not as closely as before, but they stayed near no matter where he went.

The central road led to a small fountain in the centre of the town. Surmounting that fountain was a larger statue, this one fashioned from marble. The face was turned up to the southern sun, and was draped in a long cloak that pooled at his booted feet. His right hand was held out before him through his cloak as if he were addressing an assembled audience. The fountain flowed, and though the stone work appeared old, it was kept well maintained. If there were any stories to be told of Cheskych, this fountain held a great deal.

As he stared, Nemgas pulled out a pair of balls from the pouch at his side, and he began to idly juggle them. It was easy to do and it relaxed his mind, allowing him to concentrate better he found. Nevertheless, he could plumb no detail or inscription upon either the statue or the fountain that gave him any clue to the statue’s identity.

“Boy,” Nemgas called after standing and staring for several minutes. “Come hither, boy.”

At his words, the children all shrank back, some screaming and running in fright. Not all of them ran though, he could tell. He turned his head slightly, and saw some of the children standing ready to run, their faces transfixed upon him. The leader of their group was still among them, as were three other boys. “Canst any of thee tell me of this statue? Who doth it be?”

The four remaining boys each blinked, until finally, scrunching his face up in determined bravery, lest the others think him frightened, the leader said, “Pelain, master Magyar.”

Nemgas nodded at that. It would make sense that they would honour Pelain so, the very man who had built Cheskych ages ago. With deft ease, he slipped the balls back within their pouch. “Feareth me not,” Nemgas said then, his voice losing its barking edge. “I shalt not hurt thee.” This last he said while turning his head to look more fully at the leader. His smile tried to be comforting. He gave the final ball one last toss, and then deposited it in the pouch, giving the drawstring a quick pull, tying it with three fingers.

All four boys seemed to hesitate, their eyes wide and frightened. But none of them wanted to show any sort of fear before the others, knowing that they would forevermore be remembered for that. Finally, the youngest of the four, a child a good head shorter than the rest dressed in a simple brown smock, stepped forward a few paces and managed to say in a boy’s stammering falsetto, “I hath no fear of thee, master Magyar.”

“Good,” Nemgas said, nodding. He then turned back around and gestured to the statue and the fountain it stood upon. “Canst thee tell me more of this Pelain?”

“My Father saith that he built Cheskych for us,” the boy said, the trembling still in his voice.

Not to be shown up by the younger boy, the leader then spoke more clearly, doing his best to keep his tone level. It was clear that he was also the oldest because his voice was changing. “Pelain once slain a hundred men, and he didst kill a dragon!”

“A dragon?” Nemgas asked, smiling a bit. It could be true he supposed. “Only a hundred men. Why, there wast a Magyar hight Shapurji who hath slain five hundred men!” Before he was turned into an oak for felling a tree in the Åelfwood, Nemgas thought with a grin of amusement. He loved the tales of Shapurji, certainly the most famous of Magyars. There were nary few legends amongst them that Shapurji did not play some part in.

Having their greatest hero slighted by the exploits of Shapurji went a great way towards strengthening the boy’s resolve. “Pelain built that wall in a day with his own hands. There wast a raging horde come to slay us, but Pelain held them back whilst he built that wall!”

Nemgas smiled then, turning his back to the fountain and regarding the four children with amused delight. “Oh? Shapurji once hefted a mighty river and set it down to wash an entire army into the sea!”

“Pelain hath captured and tamed the sun! I bet thy Shapji hast ne’er done anything like that!” the leader declared in a proud voice, crossing his arms before him confidently.

Nemgas continued to smile. He rather liked these boys - they had spirit. “Ah, but Shapurji fell in love with the princess of the moon. She didst love him too, and they didst wish to always be together. But the sun thy Pelain caught wast jealous, and so now only one night a month wilst shine upon all of the moon.” It was one of the less likely of legends. He seemed to recall from somewhere hearing an explanation about why the moon would shift so, something about cycles and orbits that made little sense.

The boys looked quite daunted, but the youngest tried to stand a little taller and stomped his foot indignantly. “Pelain hath climbed the ash mountain!”

This alone of all caught Nemgas off guard. The road about the fountain was tiled with close fitting stones, and naturally around the fountain were wet as well. For a single moment, the Magyar lost his balance, and that was all it took. He toppled over backwards, the whole of the gorge flashing upwards, the sky sinking to his feet, and then all was cold and wet. Gasping for breath, he pulled himself back out of the fountain, spluttering and shaking water from his eyes.

He’d only halfway fallen in, but his patchwork tunic was now quite soaked. He stood there dripping and streaming, trying to wring the water from his tunic with his hands. Both locks of white hair were plastered to his face. All four boys were laughing now, all traces of their former fear gone. Nemgas stepped away from the fountain then, still dripping wet.

“To what mountain didst Pelain climb? A mountain of ash?”

The boys looked fearful again, the youngest looking quite uncertain especially. As if he had something he knew that he should not have. None of them spoke for several seconds, simply exchanging worried glances with each other. Nemgas spoke again, his voice more forceful this time, “Where layeth this ash mountain? Doth it a name?”

The motion was quick and timorous, but Nemgas noted it still, and his entire being began to quake. Something began to throb at the back of his mind, a memory that scoured his very being until his identity had been the only thing left. Brilliant lights that flashed in the sky, a constellation of alien faces converging to a twisting spindly spire of black fulgurite, limned by a coruscating blue light. For their eyes had wavered to the northwest.

“Didst Pelain return from this mountain?”Nemgas asked, his hands trembling now. He flexed his left arm once again, to reassure himself that it remained. With his right he slid back both white locks of hair.

But the boys would no longer answer him. They looked like they wished to run then, follow after the other children that had already fled. Each seemed to be waiting for any one of them to take that first step, when all the rest would quickly follow suit. It was just that none of them wished to be the first one to flee. None wished to be thought of as the coward.

“Thy Pelain hath great bravery, and I hath seen it alive in thee as well,” Nemgas said, realizing that he would hear nothing more of this unless he could gain their confidence. And perhaps they knew little more anyway, but he likely would never have heard of Pelain’s journey to the ash mountain from any but a child.

“Wouldst thou show me how it wast that Pelain didst capture the very sun?” Nemgas suggested then. The boys looked uncertain still, but finally the leader nodded, and pointed towards the large mirrors that hung like giant monoliths along either wall of the gorge. The eastern mirrors were bright with the sun’s rays, a hole of sky within the mountain wall.

“He built those,” the boy said simply, still a little shaken.

Nemgas nodded, wringing a little more water from his tunic. He was beginning to feel a little chill seep into his skin. He would need to dry his shirt soon. A little exertion could help. “Canst we climb to them?”

The three older boys tentatively laughed at such a ridiculous notion, but the youngest once gain demonstrated that he was too young to properly understand the impossible. “There art stairs, but we canst not climb them.”

“Stairs?” Nemgas asked, smiling openly to them. “What stairs art these? And why canst not thee climb them?”

“We shalt bring trouble if we shouldst climb them,” one of the other boys said, the first thing Nemgas had heard from the tall lanky lad. “Our parents wouldst be angry.”

“Is there any law to prevent me from climbing them?”

The boys seemed stumped for a minute, and then the leader took a few tentative steps around the Magyar and the fountain. The others quickly followed after him. “I shalt show you where they art. Come and follow!” And with that, they took off at a run. Nemgas, jogged after them, his pouch filled with juggling balls bouncing upon his hip.

The stairs were set back nearly the entire length of the town. Their foundation was set between a cluster of buildings, but after only ten steps it entered a narrow fissure in the escarpment, and quickly wound out of sight. The steps themselves through the fissure were worn at the sides from rain water and snowmelt, though the centre seemed firm enough. If one were careful, Nemgas judged, they should be able to ascend the stairs. But he certainly could see why these boy’s parents had no wish for their children to climb them. It would still be dangerous, and one misstep could lead to a very long and bumpy slide.

“Those art the stairs,” the leader of the boys said, pointing towards the occluded passage upwards. Nemgas nodded, idly juggling three of his balls. So these were the Cheskych stairs, stairs that he could remember hearing of in previous visits to this town, but never before had he seen them for himself. Somehow he had imagined them being far grander in scale, perhaps with an arched entryway, flanked by more statues of heroes of Vysehrad’s past.

It was then that Nemgas noticed the boys watching him juggle. He smiled then, and started to toss the three balls higher in the air. Their eyes went wide as they watched, obviously quite impressed. The youngest of the four finally asked, “How dost thee, master Magyar?”

“Oh,” Nemgas said, smiling broadly, “‘tis a simple trick. Any can master it. E’en ye couldst. Wouldst ye like to try?”

All four of the boys looked a little uncertain, but the leader finally nodded and held out his hands. The other three followed suit quickly enough. “One at a time,” Nemgas said, catching the balls in his hands. He then tossed one of them to the eldest boy. He almost caught it, but it bounced off of his fingertips and dropped to the ground, rolled for a foot and then stopped.

The boy picked it back up, and then looked at Nemgas awaiting further instructions or more balls. “Now, ye must throw it into the air and then catch it again. Until thou canst do this seven times seven times, ye canst not juggle another ball.”

While his friends watched, the leader attempted to toss the ball in the air and catch it. Apparently he had played a few games of catch with them before so he did not have too much trouble catching most of his throws. However, his throws were erratic, the ball often sailing several feet in front of him, and occasionally even behind him. After one throw had the ball bounce off the wall of one of the nearby homes, he growled in frustration.

“Ne’er lose thy patience if ye wishest to juggle. To learn as I hath done takes time. Continue thy tossing, I hast enough balls here for all of thee to try.” And then, he tossed out three more balls, one to each of the boys. Soon all of them were tossing their balls into the air and trying to catch them.

The two quieter boys appeared to turn the practice into a chance to see who could throw their ball the highest in the air. The leader of the four seemed intent on actually trying to juggle the ball properly, although he spent most of the time chasing his ball. The youngest of the four appeared to pick up the trick rather quickly though, a fact that made Nemgas smile in a bit of prideful delight. He was tossing the ball only a short distance up, and keeping it in a small arc before him, trying to toss it to the same place each time, and for the most part succeeding.

“Ye hast the right idea, lad,” Nemgas said to the youngest. “Tell me, what dost thy name be?”

The boy looked startled by the question, dropping the ball as he stared once more at the large Magyar. “I hight...” he started to say, but the older boy gave him a quick slap against the back of his head.

“Don’t give him thy name!” the older boy chided, though he then looked a bit fearfully at Nemgas.

“‘Tis all right,” Nemgas waved his hand. He knelt down, picked up the ball, and tossed it back into the waiting hands of the young boy. “I hight Nemgas. There. Now ye hast power o’er me.”

The boy blinked at that and nodded, looking down at the ball in his hands. “Hail Nemgas.” When he lifted his head, he was smiling again. “Canst ye show me to juggle two?”

Nemgas laughed then and patted the boy on the head. “Ye hast shown talent for it, perhaps I shalt. For now ye must continue with nae but one ball.”

Glumly, the boy resumed tossing the ball into the air to catch it. The other three children all seemed a bit nervous at the exchange, but nevertheless continued to play with the balls Nemgas had given them. The leader of the boys seemed the only other interested in even trying to master the art of juggling, though it would take him a great deal longer than the young boy. The other two would never be able to handle more than a single ball, and it was clear to the Magyar that they did not regret that at all. Idly, he drew out three more of his balls, he carried eight with him in his pouch, though he'd never been able to keep that many in the air by himself.

After taking a step back from the younger boy to give the child some room, he resumed his own juggling, eyeing the near staircase that wound into the mountainside speculatively. He still had a few hours to himself before he would need to return to the wagons for the evening's performance. He might be able to ascend the staircase in that time. Or perhaps he should merely make an inspection of it so that he might climb it another day. But would Hanaman allow him the opportunity to venture so far from the wagons by himself again? The people of Cheskych were people that were good to the Magyars he remembered, although there was still a bit of distrust that was only natural for a Magyar to receive.

His thoughts were broken by the crashing of the two middle boys into each other. They had been tossing their balls high into the air, and running about to try and catch them, and had managed to run right into each other. Their balls landed, bounced, and then rolled away down the road a short distance. The two boys both were knocked to the ground, one of them hitting their head pretty hard against the stone. He immediately began to let out a snivelling cry, feeling at the back of his head.

Nemgas stared down at him as he continued to juggle, his mouth set in a cold line. The boy tried to sit back up, but appeared too dazed to manage it. The other boys had stopped trying to juggle and came to their friend's side, helping up to a sitting position, but the boy's snivelling only grew more intense. When he brought his hand around, it was smeared with blood. He shook at that, his eyes brimming with tears now.

Grunting in annoyance, Nemgas collected his balls and slipped them once more into his pouch at his side. “Get thee to thy mother, babe. She wilt tend to thy wound. Ja.” He lifted the boy to his feet and then gave his back a soft push. Numbly, the boy nodded, stumbling along with the other middle boy at his side. Perhaps they were brothers.

After they had both disappeared down a bend in the road, the young child turned to him and asked, “Master Nemgas, Why didst ye call him a babe?”

Nemgas’s frown was gone, replaced by a stern instructive line. “He wast crying. A man doth not cry if he wishest to remain a man. Crying art what women and babes do, not men. If ye wishest to be a man, then ye shouldst never cry.” Both boys nodded at that. “Now what dost thee wish to be?”

“Men!” they both said, faces wholly focussed on him.

Nemgas smiled lightly at that. “What sort of men dost thee wish to be?”

“A man like Pelain!” the leader of the boys declared proudly.

“Aye!” the younger boy said then, his face excited. “A man like Pelain!”

Nemgas smiled then, feeling strangely delighted by these young children. “Not a man like Shapurji?”

The two boys became quite uncertain at that question, glancing at each other as if asking the other for help. The younger of the two then looked up to the Magyar that towered nearly three feet over him. “He wast good too.”

But the leader stood a little taller, one hand resting over his heart, fingers spread wide. “I dost wish to be like Pelain. He wast the greatest man e’er born!”

“Then ye shouldst learn all that ye can of him, oh Pelaeth.” The word took the boy by surprise. He blinked several times, trying to understand what had just been said. Turning to the younger child Nemgas asked, “Wouldst thee like to be like unto both Pelain and Shapurji? Or wouldst thee wish only to be of Pelain as well?”

The younger boy looked quite a bit uncomfortable, but did his best to stand up straight. “I wouldst like to be of both. But Pelain art the greater!”

Nemgas chuckled then, finding the young boy's determination not to seem a child quite fulfilling. “Then I shalt call thee Pelurji, so that thee knows that though art of both Pelain and Shapurji, but the greater art Pelain.”

This delighted the young child who began to jump up and down a broad smile on his face. “Didst ye hear that? Master Nemgas saith I of both Pelain and Shapurji! I hight Pelurji!”

“Now, to be of Shapurji, thou must learn all that thee canst of him,” Nemgas cautioned. “Dost thee know anything of Shapurji?”

The boy whom he called Pelurji looked confused for a moment, but then shook his head, the delight leaving his face as quickly as it had come to it. “Wilt thee tell me of Shapurji, Master Nemgas?”

“I shalt, but not now. Now thee must practice thy juggling, for Shapurji was one of the greatest jugglers e’er to live,” and in saying so, Nemgas reached into his pouch and tossed the child one of the cloth balls. He caught it and soon began to toss it a short ways into the air and catch it again. Nemgas smiled as he watched. He would attempt the stairs tomorrow.

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