Under a Blessing of Ashes

by Charles Matthias

Kashin did not find it hard to slip into the life of the Magyars. They were a nomadic people, and so most of their day was spent riding across the barren snow-covered Steppe. They followed the small rivers that crisscrossed the Flatlands, though most of them were covered with ice. As it was winter, the sun was not in the sky for very long, so they only spent five to six hours riding in their wagons a day.

They always stopped an hour before sunset, arranged the wagons close together, with a central “courtyard” in which a fire would be erected using wood they brought with them. As he only had one arm, Kashin had not at first been asked to help stack the wood, though he had demonstrated he was just as capable with his one arm as some men were with two. After the fire would be lit, Varna would begin the process of preparing the nightly meals, while the rest of them prepared to practice their art to entertain each other.

Kashin smiled slightly as he thought back to that first evening, when Hanaman had finally told him what role he would take in their little pageant. They were replaying the battle which brought the terrible curses upon the people of Metamor. Kashin, as he was so much taller than most of the other Magyars, was asked to play an evil ogre, and was given a cloth mask with a ridiculous, though monstrous face.

But the part that the former Yeshuel liked most about that night was when he let slip that he had actually been to Metamor. None of them had ever even met a man who had travelled to that fabled city, and all of them insisted that he tell them what it had really been like. Even Hanaman’s usually icy cool demeanour was warmed enough for him to show genuine interest in Kashin’s tale.

“What hast ye smile so, Nemgas?” Adlemas asked then, giving the reins in his hard thick fingers a quick shake. It was only shortly after noon on their day’s ride, but still their breath hung in the air after they spoke.

“Oh,” Kashin said, looking out at the line of wagons streaming along ahead of them. “I was just thinking of the pageant.”

Adlemas smiled a broad grin then, his face lined by creases of age far in advance of his years. The life of a Magyar was rough, and the years caught up more quickly upon them than they did the folk living in Yesulam. But he said no more, his attention upon the ice-streaked grasses that cracked beneath the Assingh’s hooves. Though they looked and behaved in all other respects like normal donkeys, the Assingh were as large as horses, making them ideal for hauling their heavily laden wagons.

Something else struck Kashin as they returned once more to the sounds of travel. He had grown accustomed to being called Nemgas, the name that Hanaman had bestowed upon him that very first morning he’d had amongst the Magyars. He responded to it as naturally as he would his own name. Amongst the Yeshuel he had always been known as Kashin, but here with the Magyars he would always be known as Nemgas.

The name was fitting, he realised. It did not take him long to discover that the little thief Gamran was as fond of talking as he was to listening. Though the Magyars were very close knit to begin with, there were still secrets amongst them. Hanaman was by far the most secretive of them all, prompting Gamran to opine that, “He hast kept his cards so close to his chest they are inside his shirt!”

But Garman was also very clever at ferreting out the identity of those cards, though he would not often speak of what he knew. But he did share with Kashin many things that the new magyar needed to know about his brethren. After a few days amongst them, Kashin was assigned to ride alongside the little thief, and he took the occasion to ask him what Nemgas meant.

“Is that all ye wishes to know? I was afeared thy might ask something hard! ‘Tis a bit of the old Flatlander tongue, don’t ye know? Now let me see, ‘twould be nothing more than ‘from ice’ my good Nemgas. I hast a little knowledge of the old tongue, don’t ye know, and this be a common word hereabouts. ‘Nemga’ being ice of course, and when thou hast tacked on that little scrawly ‘s’, ye hast come from what came before!” Garman had finished with a bit of a flourish, and Kashin had to admit he was a pleasant fellow to be around, despite his more dubious trade.

A sudden itching sensation crawling across his skin broke the former Yeshuel from his reverie. Rubbing his one hand along the multi-coloured cloth adorning his chest, he tried to find the source of his discomfort, but it left him almost as soon as it had struck. “I may not be used to these clothes yet,” he mused aloud. The truth was far greater than his words conveyed. He wished to wear black to mourn the death of Akabaieth, but Hanaman forbade him to wear aught but the clothes of a Magyar.

Adlemas nodded sagely. “How art the boots Pitesa fashioned for thee?”

“They fit very well. Your wife is a very good cobbler,” Kashin smiled, lifting his feet from the seat of the wagon to show off the leather boots he’d been wearing for the last week. When he’d first arrived, Adlemas had given the former Yeshuel his own boots, as they were of similar size. But it did feel much better to wear boots made for his feet and not somebody else’s.

He had asked Hanaman at one point why he could not have his own boots back. The answer did not surprise him of course. “They are not the boots of a Magyar. Thou art a Magyar, Nemgas, and thou shalt wear the boots of a Magyar.”

Adlemas bore a warm smile then, his eyes trailing back to the ever distant horizon. The sun was slipping behind them as they continued eastward, ultimately towards the mountains that marked the end of the Flatlands, and the edge of the civilized world. As Kashin was from Yesulam, he was aware of the cities that were built within that mountain range, though he had never himself had occasion to travel amongst them. They were a secretive people who lived there; a people who did not much concern themselves with those who lived beyond the mountains.

But they were still quite some distance from the mountain range itself, as the horizon before him remained almost completely flat. Apart from the slight hills that meandered across the landscape, the Flatlands lived true to their name. Though the terrain ahead bore no features, the horizon itself was not completely empty. In fact, thin trails of smoke could barely be seen in the distance ahead, proclaiming the city they were bound for.

“Doltatra?” Kashin asked.

“Aye. ‘Tis Doltatra that ye dost see. We shouldst arrive in no more than two hours, my good Nemgas.”

Kashin nodded at that, rubbing his chin with his hand, noting the prickly stubble that had grown upon it. Ever since he had become a Magyar, he had not bothered to shave himself. “Pelgan told me that it was just a trading and fishing village. Gamran would not tell me aught about it.” He nodded his head back towards where the thief sat in the wagon behind them. His grey lock of hair fell before his eyes, and with another flick of his head sent it back to its place behind one ear.

Adlemas smiled again, letting out a low chuckle. Kashin always found the burly man’s reticence surprising. He had heard the man sing before, a falsetto so powerful that one could not imagine him speaking in anything less than a shout. But his voice was always quiet when he was not singing. “Thou shouldst not be surprised. Gamran ran afoul of the burgomaster last year.”

“Ha!” Kashin laughed, his grin quite wide. “I’m surprised he hast not been in such trouble in every city he has visited.”

Adlemas gave him a slight smile then and shook his head, his own dark beard streaked with a bit of white. “Nay, my good Nemgas. Gamran hast seldom been caught.”

“Of course not,” Kashin mused then, glancing at the wagon before them. The bright-coloured cloths covering each window sparkled in the icy day’s sun. The wooden beams holding the various articles atop the wagon appeared to have been replaced several times. Beyond them he could see the back of Pelgan and Nagel’s heads. The younger man had his head half-turned as if he were listening to them, but gave no other sign.

“So tell me,” Kashin said, turning back to Adlemas once more. “Just what is Doltatra like?”

“‘Tis a fishing and trading village just as Pelgan hast told ye,” Adlemas shrugged a bit as he gave the reins a gentle pull, turning the Assingh ever so slightly as they followed the course of the river.

“Yes, but how large is it? What are the people like? Where will we be performing for them? This will be my first time tonight before any but my fellow Magyars.” A part of Kashin could not believe the words that were coming from his own mouth. Only a month ago he had sat with the oldest being still alive in the world, and was told of one of the darkest chapters in all of history, and how it was still being fought in this age. Now he was revealing that he was concerned how others might view his rendition of an ogre in a pageant depicting the battle of Metamor.

Kashin had travelled south towards Yesulam so that he might cleanse the Ecclesia. Now, he was travelling east towards the mountains that he might put on a show. The demotion clawed at his soul, yet what could he do about it? With sombre resolve, Kashin knew that he had no choice but to be a Magyar for a time. How long a time, he did not know. But he had given his word of honour to Hanaman that he would not be aught but a Magyar until the older man freed him from his debt. Yesulam would still be there when that time came, and no matter how long he was with the Magyars, he would not forget that.

Adlemas shrugged once more. “Doltatra hath no peculiarness that I dost know. It is the largest village until we reach the mountains, and hath a few hundred. If they allow us, we wilt perform in the square. We hath always done that before.”

“How many times have you been there before?”

“Every year that I hath been a Magyar, my good Nemgas. It hath changed little since I was a boy.”

Kashin’s eyebrows rose at that. “So you have been a Magyar all of your life?”

Adlemas smiled slightly at that, but did not respond. Kashin found that was common amongst them. They never spoke of when they first became Magyars. He knew that not all of them had been born to it, it was something they all admitted. But none of them would admit if they had or not. Not even Gamran was willing to discuss it, though from what the wiry, little thief had said, Kashin guessed that he had not been born amongst them, but willingly joined them later.

And so the newest of the Magyars was surprised when Adlemas did speak, his voice soft as always, though brimming with pride. “What doth life matter if not lived as a Magyar?”

Kashin knew of many things he wished to say in response to that, but all he could do was smile slightly. But the wince of pain was clear across his features, and the other man saw it.

“Ere long, thou shalt feel the same,” Adlemas added, patting him on the back in a brotherly fashion. “I hath ne’er known a Magyar who did not.”

“And I am a Magyar,” Kashin admitted. He was fairly certain that it was the first time he had ever spoken those words aloud.

“That thou art, Nemgas. That thou art.” The burly man’s smile was broad and proud. Kashin could not help but feel a little bit better at that. Ever since the Patriarch’s death, he had been a man wandering lost in the world. After the ancient Åelf had given him some guidance, he had felt himself walking a path, though it was never a certain one. And now once more he was lost in the world, adrift with the Magyars on the endless Steppe. Was it then altogether surprising that what mattered to them would become important to him as well?

Pushing such questions from his mind, Kashin once more dwelt on the wisps of smoke rising on the horizon. “How long will we spend in Doltatra?”

“A few days at most. Neither the villagers nor we Magyars hath any tolerance for more than that.”

“Where will our next stop be?”

“In another month’s time.” And then in barely a whisper Adlemas mused, “Few dare live near him.” He then shuddered, and closed his lips tight, eyes looking about the empty plain as if expecting to find something.

“Near what?” Kashin asked, glancing about, seeing nothing but ice-slicked grass and the colourful wagons before and behind them. But Adlemas would not speak, only shook his head, and gripped the reins tighter. His hands were held so firmly together that his knuckles shone white.

Though he was used to silence, Kashin found the one that had now descended upon them quite unpleasant. He could only wonder what could possibly have spooked the burly man so, as he had never known him to show any sort of fear. He would have to speak to Gamran after they had arrived. Surely the little thief would tell him more about what awaited them beyond the wisps of smoke ahead.

And so Kashin sat back in the chair, legs pressed close together, the stump of his left arm pulled in tight against his side. The grey lock of hair once more began to fall over his face, but he brushed it back over his ear absently. His mind wandered far onto the horizon, seeking some answer, but found nothing. And his hand reached over to scratch at the cloth again as an itch danced along his skin.


Hanaman grimaced as he watched the smoke rise in the distance. A few thin brown lines were now visible beneath those trails of smoke, as they grew closer to the small village of Doltatra. There appeared to be more fires than usual for this time of year, so he could not help but wonder what was happening in the distance ahead. The sky was not completely blackened as they would be during an attack, always a possibility that the Magyars risked, but it was clear that something else was going on. He was not a man who appreciated uncertainty though he lived with it everyday.

“If ye wouldst take the reins,” Hanaman said softly, handing them to the large man at his side.

Chamag took it without question, gripping them firmly between his thick dark fingers. “Does something ail thee?”

Hanaman's lips were set in a firm line as he surveyed that distance. “Not yet. Keep an eye upon the horizon. I shalt speak to Dazheen.”

Chamag nodded grimly at that, but said nothing more. Hanaman stepped down to the door set just behind their perch, and knocked forcefully. He always drove the seer's wagon, as he never knew when he might need to consult her. The door was opened by a younger woman whose hair was tied up in braids. “Dost thee wish to see mistress Dazheen, master Hanaman?” Bryone was a mouse of a girl, her eyes trembling as she beheld the leader of the Magyars.

“I do,” Hanaman said, his voice cold. The seer’s aide nodded daintily and stepped back, holding the door wide. Hanaman snorted indignantly as he stepped through. If this girl ever had hope of succeeding Dazheen then she would need to learn how to stand on her own feet.

The wagon was divided into three sections, the front consisting of a small room with locked shelves lining both sides and barely enough room for two men to stand. A thick coloured curtain riddled with primitive arabesques and symbols hung from the ceiling, concealing the small room beyond. Hanaman pressed it aside and stepped underneath, the warmth inside filling his bones rapidly. The magical enchantments used to heat the wagons was a welcome relief after the winter chill outside. He rubbed his hands along his arms absently as he let the curtain fall back into place behind him.

Sitting at a small table, her stiff fingers rifling through a large set of cards, was Dazheen. Her face was wrinkled like the mountains, eyes once as blue as the sky dulled to the grey of the winter clouds. Her lips were creased in a warm knowing smile though as she kept her focus upon the cards. “It is good to see thee, Hanaman,” she said, her voice scratchy from age. “I sense thee wishes to know of a great many things.”

“Thou art correct again,” Hanaman said, as he stood at the table, room enough only for one other to sit. The small room bore no windows, but there was enough space for them to move about. At the other end was another cloth curtain, behind which he knew to be the beds for both Dazheen and her young aide.

“Please take thy seat,” Dazheen suggested, at which point Hanaman gracefully slid within it. “What troubles thee, oh young man?”

Hanaman tossed his head slightly, his dark ponytail flipping back over his shoulder. Dazheen was the only who ever called him that. “There hast been a great deal of smoke rising from Doltatra. I need thee to impart to me what hath transpired there. What awaits us?”

Dazheen pulled the cards to her then, and then with calm deliberateness began to rearrange the ornate cards amongst each other. At last, she began to lay several of them out, face down. The design on the backs had been crafted delicately, symbols that Hanaman did not understand fashioned into them. Still bearing that smile that came from a long lived life, she arrayed five cards in a square, one in the centre. She first turned the card nearest to herself over. It bore the picture of a knight, one of swords.

“Thou shalt face opposition from another there,” Dazheen said, her smile slipping slightly, though it remained. Turning the east card over revealed the image of a man working with a spade. “They hath come for their own affairs.” The card nearest Hanaman revealed a pauper in a street being given a bit of gold. “There shalt be an opportunity to gain from this.”

Hanaman's expression did not change at any of those revelations. He rubbed his fingers together, feeling the warmth flowing through them. He could not help but wonder who could be waiting for them at Doltatra. Dazheen had seen that they had not come to Doltatra because of the Magyars, but they would oppose them. So he held his breath as she turned over the western card, and revealed two warriors locked in struggle. “Thou must face them, but not for thyself I see.”

“For who then?” Hanaman asked, his voice betraying none of the worry that he felt.

Dazheen's frail fingers traced over the centre card for several seconds before she turned it over. It fell to the table almost reluctantly, revealing a broad lake covered in ice. Hanaman snorted as he saw it, as if he had half been expecting it. “Nemgas?” he asked, before she could respond.

“Thou hast seen true.” Dazheen’s grey eyes came up then to meet his. There was compassion within them, a motherly caring few ever showed to him. “Thou worriest about the young man, dost thee not?”

“Aye.”

“Dost thee wish me to see into young Nemgas?”

Hanaman pondered that a moment. He rubbed his chin with one hand, newly grown stubble marring the smoothness of his face. His eyes traced along the room inside the wagon, watching the few articles in it swing back and forth as the wagon was jostled about in its trek across the Flatlands. Along the far wall were arrayed a group of candles, their wax dripping onto the floor as they burned. It always unnerved him how they danced and wove about whenever Dazheen consulted her cards, as if responding to a wind, but there was never any wind within the wagons.

Finally, his curiosity overcame his reluctance and he nodded. “Aye, tell me what thee dost see about that man.”

Dazheen collected the cards once more into her hands, rubbing across them, her eyes intent upon them. With a practised grace, she placed several out before her. A brush of air tantalized his pony tail, making the hair on the back of his neck rise. The candles were dipping and weaving about already as the old woman worked her arcane skills.

At last, she set the deck to one side, and considered the three cards she had placed in a row before her. Touching and blessing each one silently, she at last looked up once more to Hanaman. “Ask what ye wish to know of him.”

Hanaman pursed his lips thoughtfully for a moment and then said, “Why dost he wish to journey to Yesulam?”

Dazheen gently turned the card on the right over, revealing the image of a man standing next to a ruined castle. “He hath in mind a desire to destroy something there.”

Having never ventured to that desert city himself, Hanaman was not certain what could be there that Nemgas might wish to destroy. “What dost he wish to destroy?”

Turning the left card over, Dazheen revealed the picture of a priest taking a money bag from an outstretched hand. Hanaman swore as he saw it, one eye casting to the flickering candles as they danced madly, flames angling to one side as if bent down from the force of a wind. “Hast he gone mad? He cannot truly intend to attack the Ecclesia.”

Dazheen traced her fingers along the painted figure, smoothing over the priest’s saffron robes. “This be the Priest of Coins. The priest hath a twisted heart. Dost thee see ‘tis a bribe he hath received? Nay, Nemgas doth not wish to quarrel with the Ecclesia. He hath set out to find this evil priest.”

The leader of the Magyars nodded slowly, rubbing his chin once more. Despite the warmth of the wagon, he still felt a bit of the cold from outside making its way through his bones and flesh. Rarely did Dazheen ever reveal anything about the nature of the cards themselves, only her interpretations of them. However, his true interest was not what Nemgas had wanted before he became a Magyar, but what he intended now.

“Dost he still wish to find this vile priest?” Hanaman asked then, shifting slightly upon the wooden seat.

The old seer gingerly laid her fingers across the centre card, and then lifted one corner, laying it to rest between its brethren. The image displayed was that of one soldier driving a spear through another’s chest. The faces of course bore the familiar lines and features common to Flatlanders, but the armour each wore was reminiscent of Pyralis. Though he was usually able to discern at least part of the meaning of each card before Dazheen spoke, this time he was not sure what at all to think.

“He still hast a death in mind for his enemy,” Dazheen said after gazing for a few seconds at the card. “He hath not forgotten why he set foot upon the Steppe.”

Hanaman frowned at that. He had hoped that Nemgas would abandon his foolish quest to Yesulam and simply accept his life as a Magyar. He knew very well that such was not easy for many to do, but it was always his hope. Perhaps Nemgas would just need more time to accept things he supposed. So far he had done his best to adopt their ways, and he had learned well his role in the pageant. After that first day he had not once demonstrated any resistance to the ways of the Magyars.

“Dost thee wish to know more?” Dazheen asked then, retrieving the three cards she had laid out.

“Aye. I hath more questions for thee.” Hanaman waited a few moments while the seer placed a few more cards down from the deck. She arrayed three out as before, one next to the other, and then a fourth directly between herself and the centre card. The flickering candle light distracted him for a moment, but only a moment. “Hath Nemgas any desire to leave us?”

Dazheen took the right card and flipped it over in one smooth move. Before them both was a peasant tilling the land with a single spade. He looked like any Flatlander might, dark hair, long nose, and wide cheeks all familiar to them. Dazheen stared at the card for several seconds, her finger tracing along the haft of the spade, and up along the man’s arms. Finally, she gingerly tapped the card several times, and looked up with her grey eyes to the leader of the Magyars. There was a distant resignation within them, but one buoyed by hopeful patience.

“He hath no intent to leave until he feels he hath served and repaid his debt to thee. Like this farmer he will sow the field, but come the harvest, he shalt depart for home.”

Hanaman scowled then, his lips drawn tightly together. This was not something he liked. He had saved Nemgas from freezing to death upon the barren Steppe. How dare he think that he could choose when his service was over or his debt repaid! The effrontery was galling, and the lack of honour sickening.

Though he was furious inside, he let none of that show on his face beyond the moue he bore. Hanaman calmed his heart then, letting his mind consider what else he could ask. Finally, another question came to him. “Will he obey me should I order him to stay?”

Dazheen returned her gaze to the cards. The candles flickered as the flames bent in every direction, some of them burning horizontally even, though the air was as still as ever. Tracing her fingers along the creases of the left most card, she worked a chipped nail beneath it and turned it over. The picture was of two Steppe-born warriors facing each other over a battlefield, each bearing a sword in their hands. Hanaman tried not to lick his lips as he tried to discern what it could mean, though all of his own ideas did not sit well with him.

Dazheen had known him for many years than either wished to recount, and could see even the tiniest of changes in his demeanour. “This hast not the foul appearance thee thinkest it has. Thou art seeing the parlay. He may oppose thee if thou shouldst order him to stay, and he may do as thee commands.” She ran her finger over the two figures a moment, feeling the contour of the card. “There art things that thou canst do to insure he remains.”

Hanaman felt a smile twitch at the corner of his lips but he repressed it. He had to know what there was to be done to insure that Nemgas would abide by his honour and remain a Magyar. “What hath I to do?”

Dazheen smiled lightly, her lips curling knowingly. She knew very well what was passing through his mind just then, he could see it in the grey of her eyes. And then, she gently turned the centre card over, revealing another scene with two figures. It was of two merchants, dressed in plain garments. The one was passing a money pouch to the other, though Hanaman could not see how much the pouch contained.

His eyes narrowed as he gazed at the card and the image upon it. “What dost this mean?” he asked.

“He shalt ask thee for a boon. If thou wishes to forever more make of him a Magyar, then thou must grant it.” Dazheen looked up to him then, her eyes firm. “Thou dost wish this?”

Hanaman nodded firmly. “I hath saved his life, and his life is mine. He hast become a Magyar, and a Magyar he wilt remain.” He then leaned in a little more closely. “What boon must I grant to him?”

Dazheen reached down to the last card, trying to slide her fingernails beneath one edge. The candle flames bent sideways very quickly then, growing several inches in length as they did so. Hanaman glanced over at them in surprise – he had never seen them do anything quite like that. And as he watched, they ducked and wove upwards, appearing to tie themselves into knots several times.

Glancing back to Dazheen, he saw something else that made his body stiffen. Dazheen was prying her fingers at the side of the card that was nearest her, but could not make it move. “What is happening?”

Dazheen held one hand up to her face then, and silenced the leader of the Magyars with a single gesture. The rocking of the wagon was making the other cards that lay on the table tremble, but the one that was before the seer was stuck fast to the wood, not even the slightest of crevices was visible. But as they both watched, it became increasingly clear to them that it was not the bumpy ride of the wagon that was making the cards tremble.

Hanaman pressed himself back against the wall, sitting as far from the table as he could. He recited the traditional prayers over and over in his mind as his eyes grew wider as the cards shook, all but one. Dazheen’s grey eyes betrayed her own anxiety, but she did not flinch from the cards. They had been her companions, her eyes for all her life. She did not fear them, only what was happening to them.

Reaching out, Dazheen grasped the deck before her, and tried to turn over the top card. The candle flames flared brightly and went out a second later with a wailing gasp. In that same moment, the cards themselves also shot out from the table faster than an arrow leaving the bow, speeding off in every direction. Dazheen cried out at that, her old voice worn so long that all that remained was shock.

Hanaman had thrown his arms up, but felt nothing touch him. With the candles all extinguished, the interior of the wagon was too dark to see anything. “Bryone!” he called, his voice loud. The uneasiness he’d felt growing inside of him was suddenly gone.

Dazheen’s apprentice was quick to enter, pulling back the curtain, shedding some light into the room. “Art thee well?” she asked, her face white.

“Art thee daft, woman!” Hanaman snarled. “Thy mistress need thy help. Bring in some light at once, or I shall leave thee for winter!” He did not wish to actually abandon the girl, but out of respect for Dazheen he did not say what he really wanted to do.

The threat was enough to spook Bryone. She brought in another candle, her eyes darting about at the inside of the room. Dazheen was sitting very still in her chair, eyes wide, glancing to the table where the cards should have been – should have been, but were not. Hanaman blinked, but his eyes had to rove about the interior of the wagon before he found the cards. Imbedded within the walls all about them were the seer’s cards, some of them sunk several inches deep within the wood.

Hanaman reached up to one that had flown past his face and gripped the part that was sticking out. Though it was made merely of thick paper, it was solidly within the wall. He pulled tighter, grimacing as he did so, but the card did not move. Bryone was testing a card that had sunk within the wall near the candles, but it too was held fast. Seeing that, the dazed girl turned to her mistress. “What hath happened here, mistress Dazheen? Art thee well?”

“What happened is none of thy affair,” Hanaman snapped at her. “Light the candles and be out with thee.” Bryone jumped back at his sharp rebuke, but she did as instructed, offering a worried glance one last time to the old seer. Dazheen simply nodded her head gravely to the girl.

Once the thick curtain was returned to its place, the woman turned the leader of the Magyars. “Leave them,” she said, her voice tired. “They hath no desire to be seen. I wilt collect them later.”

“Thou?” Hanaman asked, finding it hard to imagine that the frail old woman would have any more luck in freeing the cards than he had. And then he met her gaze and knew that she would. “Hast thee ever seen such as this before?”

“Nay, young man, I hath ne’er seen the like.” Dazheen traced one finger along the edge of a card sunk deep into the dark wood near where she sat. “‘Tis a bad sign.”

Hanaman was certain of that already. Gripping the edge of the chair to steady himself, he waved his hand about the room. “What led to this? Dost thee know?”

“Nay. All that I know is that powerful magic hath prevented me from seeing that card. They did not wish to be seen, whate’er they be.”

Magic was a part of every Magyar’s life, if they wished to have one that lasted at least. While few of them had any skill in those arcane arts, there would always be one or two within any band that would know a few of the basic tricks and cantrips. Hanaman was not one of those, but until that moment, he had never been afraid of any magic that he had seen. What had moved those cards was a power that he did not wish to fathom. Like always, he hid well what he felt, keeping his face as cold as the winter air.

“Canst thee see enough without thy cards that thee might answer one last question?”

Dazheen looked up at that, and nodded slowly. “Thee must be warned that I canst not vouch for such sight.”

Nodding, the man tightened his grip upon the back of the seat. “Tell me then, dost this boon that I must grant Nemgas, hath it to do with his old life?”

Dazheen breathed heavily then, closing her eyes, and rubbing her fingers into the hollows and lines of her cheeks. The candles that Bryone had relit flared slightly, flames dancing about in that strange moment. But they did not make any strange turns or snuff themselves as they had only moments before. After several seconds, Dazheen opened her eyes again and shook her head slowly. “I do not think so. All thy questions of his past disturbed the powers little. I may be mistaken, but that is what I hath seen.”

Hanaman nodded at that, and let his grip on the chair weaken. “When thou hast recovered thy cards, send your assistant to me. I will return quickly to ask thee this question when thou canst be sure of what thou seest.”

“Thou must do one thing for me, master Hanaman,” Dazheen said then, surprising the leader of the Magyars. While the seer was one of the few who ever made demands of him that he would carry out, rarely did she ever do so.

Breathing lightly, he asked, “What dost thee wish of me?”

Dazheen smiled motherly to him then. “Thou must apologize to my apprentice for thy rash behaviour.”

“What?” Hanaman barked, taken quite aback at that. “I wilt not coddle that infant.”

“I know that well, Hanaman, but thou wilt show her a bit of kindness. She wilt learn the strength she needs better that way.”

Hanaman held back the retort he wished to give. Bryone was Dazheen’s to govern and teach. On this matter it was his place to defer, though he felt very strongly otherwise. At last, the leader of the Magyars nodded his head. “I wilt do as thee sayest. May the lords of this world cast their blessings upon thee.”

“And upon thee as well,” Dazheen replied in the traditional manner.

Without a further word, Hanaman stepped back under the heavy cloth, preparing what words he could find to apologize to Bryone. They did not come easy, but they did come.

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"Under a Blessing of Ashes", copyright Charles Matthias