Kashin stood silently for a moment, breathing the cool winter air, the scent of dust and grass flowing along the wind from the South. The line of trees did not stop instantly at the shallow creek, but they became sparse, shorter until they had thinned out to the scrub of the distant steppe. A cloudless sky awaited him in the distance, yet still the sun shone wanly upon the land, as if in thoughtful repose. There was a stillness to the scene despite the bending of the grasses beneath the constant breeze that brought the former Yeshuel up short.
To his side stood Andares-es-sebashou, the Åelf who had guided him these last two months on his journeys. From their first meeting in the vacant halls of the Ellcaran cathedral to the rowdy atmosphere of Lake’s Head Inn he had never been quite sure what to make of his companion. Now as he peered out onto the endless steppe of the Flatlands, he realized that he would miss this enigmatic creature, who even now had pulled the thick hood of his cloak over his face, obscuring the point of his ears. Though there at times appeared a limitless gulf between them, some gaze in the Åelf’s eye or slight gesture with nimble fingers, there were also times when Kashin was sure the two of them were old friends sharing a bit of ale beside a crackling fire on a cold desert night.
“This is as far as I may go,” he heard Andares say, already as if from leagues distant. “Continue due South and you should reach Yesulam in six months time on foot.”
Kashin grimaced, even as he hefted the well-stocked pack upon his shoulders once more. “I do not intend to walk the entire way. There are bound to be horseman upon the steppe even this time of the year. I intend to be on horseback within a fortnight.” He pulled the straps tight, one at a time with his single hand. “Besides, these supplies will only last me that long. I will have to hunt once they are gone, and that will take time. Your master said I must cleanse Yesulam quickly, before the next Winter Solstice. I intend to do just that.”
Andares nodded, his pearl-gray hands slipping within the folds of his greenish-brown cloak. Like all the things he had seen their ancient race make, the fabric shimmered as it moved, the shadows falling in and out of it, making the Åelf appear to be part of the trees and bushes surrounding him. Kashin still wore the black that had been his customary colour since the Patriarch’s murder. The weight of the jewelled Sathmoran blade was a familiar thing at his hip now. He ran the end of his finger across the hilt, nails biting against the cold steel.
“I wish you success then,” Andares said, his voice smooth, like the singing of a bird. “Do you know the way of the steppe?”
His eyes stared out across the vast plain that lay before him beyond the last trees. “Several knights in our order were of the steppe.” He paused, watching as the grasses shifted, swaying this way and that, before settling into an undulating wave towards the Northeast. “I know enough of their ways that I will not die.” His lips set themselves in a grimace, tight and unyielding. The air was chill, but he did not feel it just then.
“Then I shall take my leave of you. Go with Eli,” Andares said, turning his back to him, and stepping silently through the leaf strewn grasses.
“Andares,” Kashin called suddenly, not wishing to be left alone just yet. The mission was his alone, but he’d never been alone before. There had always been others, like Iosef, his friend and fellow Yeshuel killed in the attack on the Patriarch.
Andares stopped, the trees growing larger before him, thicker, and denser, until the dark of the Åelfwood would hide him once more. “Yes?” he asked, his voice tender. Though he could not be certain, Kashin thought he heard a bit of regret in that voice too, as if the Åelf did not wish to leave either.
“I shall miss your company,” Kashin finally said, feeling his lips draw upwards into a slight smile. Andares’s face was turned towards him, but much of it was shadowed by that cowl. Yet of what little he could see, he fancied that the corner of the Åelf’s lips had also turned up in a smile.
“And I yours. I think we will see each other again. Perhaps not before this is over, but see each other we will. Farewell, Kashin of the Yeshuel.” And then, Andares turned his face once more unto the wood, and continued moving into the trees. Kashin stood silently for a moment, watching as the figure slipped in among the foliage, before the forest was still, no sign of his passage evident.
Kashin took several more breaths before turning on his heels and setting his eyes to the South once more. He did not dwell on the journey from Ava-shavåis, but instead turned his thoughts towards the journey yet to come. The steppe was a huge land, and he had to cross it, completely in secret. Taking one final breath, and touching the thick wood of the trees standing about him one last time, he jumped across the narrow creek whose thin veneer of ice covered a steady flow of water beneath.
The other bank was not remarkably different, though he felt a sense of timelessness leave him as his feet came to rest. Gazing back over his shoulders, Kashin thought he could see the empty tree branches cluster and seal themselves and the wood. No, there was no crossing that creek again, for he had left the Åelfwood behind, and that forest did not permit any man within its demesnes lightly. The trees on this side were smaller, nearly diminutive, until all that was left were various shrubs that gave way to the long grasses of the northern steppe. That vague distance he’d felt to the sun vanished as well, and it burned in the sky, though gave him no more warmth than before.
Setting one foot before the other and journeying with the sun before him, Kashin began to put distance between himself and that ancient wood. One day he would like to return, after he had avenged Akabaieth. The grass itself bent underneath his bootheels, and sometimes cracked as he forged his path. He did not see any creatures stirring in the midmorning light, but he could hear the subtle sounds of scampering claws, distant bird cries, as well as the gurgling of the stream behind him.
Kashin ignored them all as he continued on his way, in mere minutes putting the Åelfwood far behind him. A few minutes more and he had left the last of the trees behind, only the occasional scrub brush dotted the rolling landscape. Fields, endless fields of grass lined his vision on three sides. To his West lay a dark purple line across the horizon, the land curved like a gentle sea wave frozen in place. The East was brighter with the sun’s rays, but it too stretched off for many more leagues than he could discern.
Though it was not that cold for a winter’s day in the northern steppe, Kashin still pulled his own cloak tighter about him, gripping the collar firmly in his single hand. In fact, he had felt days far chillier than this on his journey from Bozojo through the ruins of Yerebey to Ava-shavåis, but the emptiness of the steppe only made it more oppressive and ever-present. As he could see no other moving creature, the frost was his ally and constant companion, yet this was a friend that he wished he too could leave behind. Kashin was a man of the South, of the deserts around Yesulam. His marrow had not been bred for weather such as this.
Yet Kashin continued to tread along the open plains, finding the footing easy, and he was able to maintain a steady gait. He did not stop for quite some time, or look back over his shoulder. The sun progressed steadily in the sky, rising to a low peak far to the South before it began its daily descent towards the West. Sometime just after noon, Kashin ventured a gaze back over his shoulder. Only a thin dark green line along the rolling hills told him from whence he’d come.
It was then that he allowed himself to take a brief stop. Setting the pack down upon the frozen grass, snapping several fronds in the process, he slipped open the top knot. Inside was the extra set of clothes he had brought with him at Andares’s insistence. Just underneath was the first of his meal supplies. It, like the thick but refined cloth of the jerkin he had yet to don, was of Åelvish manufacture. They were shaped like little square wafers, very nearly the same used by the Ecclesia for the Eucharistic meal, but they had a far sweeter taste, and although Kashin doubted they could nourish his spirit as the Holy bread did, they certainly nourished his flesh and renewed his strength. In fact, they were far more filling than he would have thought possible, as only a small piece was enough to bide him for a short time.
Taking one of the wafers, he quickly slipped between his lips, chewing slowly as he returned the clothes to their place, and tied the knot up once more. It was more difficult to do with only one hand, but having no other choice he was used to it. His pack sealed, he hoisted it once more on his back, and turned to face the South again. The hills stretched on in every direction. He was reminded of a journey he’d taken at Sea many years ago, before he’d been assigned to the Patriarch’s personal guard. No matter how far the navigators had told him they’d travelled, to his eyes, they’d never moved, for the sea looked the same as it did the day before.
Grunting, he swallowed the wafer and continued on his trek. To the West swept a few billowy clouds, though they continued on overhead without comment. Shortly after they’d disappeared to the East, Kashin caught sight of a blue line at the horizon. He kept the same measured pace though, his legs long since used to the exertion. The sun continued to inch towards the horizon, but it still had an hour to go by the time Kashin reached the small river.
It was too wide to jump, and the ice appeared to be razor-thin. Though born and bred in the desert, he knew very well that if he fell into the water beneath he might likely die from the cold. Scattered in patches along either bank were bushes, and an occasional tree. Kashin migrated to nearest, and saw that it was barely thrice his height, but it would do. The lowest branches were several cubits high, and bereft of most of their needles. Glancing down, he could see a thick layer of them covering the frozen Earth.
Setting his pack against the tree trunk, he placed his hand upon the needles, ever so gently. He could feel a warmth there, though it was only latent. The needles were also slightly damp. Glancing towards the Western sky, even as that sky began to turn grey with twilight, he could see clouds forming in the distance. Kashin snorted in disgust, but decided he had no choice in the matter. He could not cross this river in the dark, and there did not appear to be any better spot to bed within.
Stepping out from underneath the pine, he cleared a small place in the grass, taking his knife and slicing the stalks at their roots and tossing them aside. He surveyed it several times as he worked, staring at it from several angles, and testing the winds, though they continued to blow to the Northeast as they had the entire day. Satisfied finally, he broke off several dry branches from the pine tree and lay them in a pile next to the cleared ground. Snapping the twigs free, he set them in the centre of the clearing, the thinnest on the bottom, growing thicker as he worked them around in a semicircle.
Finally, Kashin framed the small structure with the larger wood, keeping it well away from the other grass, and making sure no pine needles found their way into his pit. Removing the flint and steel from his pack, he braced the flint with his knees, pushing them firmly into the hardened dirt. He grunted as he struck with the steel, watching as the sparks flew, but did not catch upon the tinder. For several minutes he swung his arm down, smashing hard, the ringing echoing through the empty fields, but still no flame caught.
To relieve his mind from the frustration, Kashin began reciting several of the traditional prayers, saying them over and over again in his mind, even as he continued to fruitlessly attempt to start the fire with only one hand. He did not need it for cooking, and he dare not let it burn through the night, but he had his reasons, gaining a bit of warmth and a surcease from the chill among them. After saying his second Rosary, a bit of flame finally sparked upon the tinder. Dropping the steel, Kashin knelt forward, and gently blew upon the little flame, watching the red embers lick up along the rest of the wood, slowly growing a bright orange.
Finally, after much coaxing and a brief moment in which he thought the flame would sputter and disappear altogether, his little flame grew into a bright fire. It lapped upwards, bending to the wind, but snapping upright again a moment later. Kashin held out his hand, flexing his stiff joints, adoring the warmth that flowed into them. He sat close by, legs curled beneath him, the winter chill leaving him bit by bit. After several minutes he felt a renewal that even the wafer could not offer him.
The thought of food brought his head around, and he stepped once more to his pack. Drawing out a second piece, he chewed on it slowly, his hand catching the crumbs as they tumbled from his lips. Sitting back down by the fire, Kashin licked them up, letting the meal fill him as he needed. He would have to keep his eye out for any small game in his travels, to extend the life of the wafers. Kashin was not sure how he could catch any game even if he saw it though. He certainly could not use a bow any longer and he had no experience in setting traps.
Yet, as he huddled close to the fire, Kashin decided to put such considerations off for another day. Instead he centred his thoughts, clearing them of all distractions. The sun perched on the western sky, bathing the distant fields in oranges and reds, though they remained as empty as they had been before. To the East the sky grew increasingly dark, though no stars shone just then. The smoke from the fire rose, thin, but present into the empty sky. Grimacing as he caught the vague colour, Kashin scooped up a handful of pine needles and tossed them into the flames. They curled, turning bright red, crackling indignantly. The smoke grew thicker, a deeper grey as it ascended into the sky. Satisfied, Kashin continued to kneel at its side.
It was not long before only a sliver of the sun was still visible in the West. Several stars shone to the East, the brightest of the night sky. Though many were familiar to him, Kashin was no astronomer to name them. Rising, Kashin broke more wood from the pine, and set them to one side. Snapping the pieces small enough, he set them upon his fire one at a time as the minutes passed. With each new log, the fire grew in brilliance before it slowly began to fade to the fiery orange, at which point Kashin would supply another dried branch, not caring if there were any pine needles or not.
For several hours he did just that. He did not notice the time as it slipped past him, except to see that the heavens above were filled with sparkling lights. The moon shone towards one side, a waxing half. He was glad of that, though wished it were fuller. Even with the fire, the frost of the winter night was all around. He pulled his cloak more tightly around him as he kept one eye upon the flames, the other upon the empty horizons. Finally, he unrolled one of the thick blankets he had purchased at Bozojo and draped it over his shoulders.
Until the moon hung high in the sky he sat like that, only moving to place another log on the fire. All the while the clouds moved steadily Eastward, growing thicker as they turned over themselves and each other. Finally, he allowed the fire to grow colder, the light dimmer, until it was nothing more than a collection of dull red coals, each of those growing fainter by the moment. Kashin pulled three more blankets from the pack, laying two out upon the needles beneath the pine tree. Drawing the last overtop of himself, he curled within them, resting his head upon his arm.
Kashin lay like that for several moments before sleep finally took him. The last thought he had was the one he had every night. It was not something he himself had seen, only something that he envisioned. There, on that lonely rain-slicked field, he saw that black-clad man drive the sword at his side through the Patriarch’s heart.
And then all he felt was the warmth he trapped within the blankets, and the chill outside. It was still dark out, the moon’s course taking it beyond the horizon, while the stars had twisted on the celestial sphere. Lifting his head slightly, his chin emerging from the blankets, he could see that the pile of ashes was covered with a fine white mist. In fact as he gazed around, he could see that same mist had covered everything, though the grasses were far too tall for that bit of snow to obscure. Underneath the pine, he was mostly dry, though a flake here or there had settled upon his blankets.
The clouds were to the East now, having passed him in the night. Kashin drew himself up into a seated position, curling the blankets about his entire body, and bowed his head in silent prayer. One of his prayers was answered though, his constant prayer. No longer did he remember any of his dreams, only that fleeting image that danced at the edge of his consciousness. It, however, was enough.
Setting his lips firmly, Kashin pulled his pack close by, and retrieved another wafer. Chewing it silently for several moments, he scanned the horizon. The snow appeared to be undisturbed in every direction, at least as far as he could see in the dark. With only the stars and not even a sliver of the moon to guide him, he found he could not see much. Yet he knew that he could not wait by this stream any longer.
Rising to his feet, Kashin retrieved the metal cup and his knife from the pack. The bank alongside the river was not steep, though the river was far shallower than it would be during the summer months. Finding a firm foothold in the frozen Earth, he brushed the snow from the ice with his hand. Taking the knife then, he stabbed through, breaking the ice in an instant. Chipping away enough, he saw the river beneath flowing smoothly, though slowly. Resheathing the knife at his side, he slipped the cup from his tunic and dipped the end within the stream. He pulled it out quickly, and drank the water within as fast as possible, being careful not to let the rim of the cup touch his lips. The water was very cold, but it also was very fresh, fresher than any well or oasis found in the deserts near Yesulam.
Thoughts of his destination brought with them the image of his master, Patriarch Akabaith once more falling under the blade he now wore at his side. Fierce rage warmed his heart, but it was cooled almost as quickly by his own sorrow. Wiping the cup with the edge of one blanket, he scrambled back up the side of the bank, kicking at the piles of snow in his way. Glumly, he returned the cup and knife to the pack, and began to roll the blankets up one by one. The last, the one on the ground, he took several moments to pick the needles from the weave before placing it too within his pack.
Once done, Kashin surveyed where he’d slept with some melancholy. Until that fateful day, he’d never slept upon the open ground quite like that. Now, sleeping indoors or even in a tent was something to be treasured, a luxury that he simply could not take for granted any more. He was like many at Metamor, cursed to be part animal, though his was not a physical blemish, but a place of dishonour. Though that ancient Åelf may have suggested otherwise, Kashin knew that his place among the Yeshuel would forevermore be regarded with shame.
Blinking several times to clear his mind once more, Kashin hoisted the pack onto his back, and pulled his cloak tight about his chest. He still had far to travel, and could ill-afford to waste any more time here. Standing by the pine, he glanced to his left and right along the river. It winded through the slow rolling hills, but did not appear to narrow visibly in either direction. Shrugging, Kashin set off to his left, towards the East. It was still dark even in that direction, but there was no more benefit to staying by the solitary pine.
The hills themselves felt smoother, flatter than those that he’d journeyed across the previous day. From what he had heard, he expected there to be no more hills after another day’s journey. As he scuffled through the light snow, he idly wondered why no one had ever thought to farm this land as it did seem arable enough. Yet this land was the home of the Flatlanders, a nomadic people who lived by the way of the horse. He’d known enough of them among the knights of Yesulam to know that the thought of farming would have struck them as undignified.
Of course, as he surveyed the landscape, he had to snort at the thought of anyone farming it now. The snow crunched under his boot-heels, while the steppe grasses snapped at his passing, burdened by a thin sheet of ice. If any should choose to follow him, there could be no mistaking the trail he left behind. Even in the feeble starlight, it was clearly visible. Kashin wondered if weather such as this was typical for this region, or if it was not simply a special occasion designed for his passing. As he stubbed his feet into the ground, he hit upon the hard earth. No, there would be no farming this now.
The river itself wound smoothly through the slight inclines, passing amidst copses of trees every now and then, although they were sparse, almost an afterthought to the scenery. Kashin counted several that were not even as tall as him. Yet, he had nothing to topple them or chop them with, so could not use them to fashion a bridge over the river. Several times he would climb down the bank and tap at the ice, but it was simply too thin to even consider crossing.
It was inevitable though that the river would narrow, as he was heading upstream, and so Kashin kept walking, cloak pulled tightly around his chest, his toes clenched, the cold seeping through his boots. Yet it was not for several hours before he found what he needed. By then the Eastern sky was brightening, dawn would not be long in coming. A small wooded patch of Earth hid his bridge, and even then, it was simply a pile of large rocks strewn haphazardly in the basin. Grimacing, he jumped down to the nearest one, nearly shouting a curse as he began to topple forward; the rock’s surface, though jutting up from the icy river, was still rather slippery.
Yet Kashin’s years of training proved sufficient to save him, as he righted himself by placing his left foot on the next rock before him. Looking down, he could see the water flowing just beneath the ice. Glancing to either side, the slopes of the bank were only gently touched by the snowfall. The short poplars on either side were still as they held the white in their branches, no wind to disturb them.
His breath regained, Kashin stepped from stone to stone across the gulf, and finally jumped with joy at the other bank, grabbing one tree root with his hand. As he kicked at the dirt, pulling himself up, he dislodged a few chunks, which fell and slid across the surface of the ice. Grimacing, his teeth clenched, Kashin managed to pull himself up at last. He turned over on his back then, rolling through the fine mist of snow. The former Yeshuel lay there for a few moments to regain his breath and to rest his legs.
Yet, as the cold began to sink once more into his flesh, Kashin forced himself to rise. Looking down at his side, he saw the jewelled scabbard resting against his hip. Patting the hilt once, though not with any sense of affection, he set out away from the river, until he was out from underneath the trees and could see the sky clearly once more. Enough stars were still visible for him to find North. Setting his back to that beacon star, he started to walk across the vast unadorned landscape.
Like the previous day, he could see almost no distinguishing features before him. The long grasses were thinner here than on his first day, but they still snapped in his wake. There were fewer hills than before, and those he saw could not have been taller than the trees he’d just passed. Every now and then he would see a bush or a small tree, but they were not as common as he would have liked.
He could not help but notice the dawn as the ground flared into brilliant light, the ice reflecting the first rays of the sun, cascading in every direction. Kashin covered his eyes with his hand, glancing briefly to see the sunrise over the flat land. Again, the horizon was a thin line, with no telling features. Was this land completely empty, he wondered in a bit of dismay. He had yet to even see another moving creature since leaving the Åelfwood.
He tried not to think about such things as he moved Southwards. Instead, he recited the ritual prayers in his mind, going over all the stations of the yew tree, dwelling on each symbol. They were images that he’d lived with his entire life. Growing up in Yesulam he was quick to learn all the prayers that were said. Prayers for rising in the morning; prayers before going to bed at night. There were prayers said before one went out into the market; prayers said quietly in the home. And then there would be the prayers used in the various services, morning, noontime, afternoon, evening, and night. Kashin always loved the vespers, so many voices united in psalm, filling the cathedral with radiant sound.
Yet even as the sun rose high in the sky, he kept his thoughts upon those prayers, reciting them, and once he finished one, he’d move onto another. Never before in his life had he said them simply to pass the time. Never before had he a reason to. Kashin hated using such momentous words to keep his sanity in this endless steppe, but he did not have a choice. There were no other formulas that he knew. Running one finger across the blade’s hilt, he held back his breath. He had failed his Eli, and now he was debasing glorious words said in Eli’s praise.
Kashin kept right on using them though, even as he passed across a smaller river, by several thick copses of wood, and endless fields of the tall grass. He stopped only once by one of the smaller streams to have another wafer for his lunch. He was not there ten minutes before he was on his feet again, heading towards the South, the sun before him, its warm rays melting some of the ice about him. But still, he crashed his way through the grasses, leaving a clear path behind him, prayers recited in his mind, only words without meaning.
In fact, he kept on walking right on through the day, until finally near dusk, his foot caught on a stone and he tripped. Catching himself with his other leg, he stumbled, but regained his balance. Blinking, he stretched out his hand to rub at his calf which was sore. With that motion he felt the exertion all throughout his body. It weighed on him so heavily then, that he simply collapsed into the grasses, ice shattering about him with crystalline delicateness.
Rolling onto his back, Kashin stared up at the dull gray sky before him. Clouds were beginning to roll overhead, and he could see that snow would be in them too. Yet all the former Yeshuel could do was lay there in the cold, his body sapped of strength. He tried to raise his arm, but a deep pain filled it, pressing it back to the frozen Earth once again. He shivered as he could feel the first touch of snowflakes upon his face, but again, all that he could do was lay there.
As he watched the snow descend, he felt himself grow lighter, as if he was being borne up upon the grasses. Strange images flashed to him in that snowfall, faces flickered briefly and disappeared. He saw Akabaieth’s old wrinkled countenance smiling reverently to him, and then in the next moment, his friend Iosef was smiling to him, a smile reminiscent of better days. Kashin felt tears coming to his eyes; denied at every turn, they flowed now. Those faces still smiled though, even as he watched them shift and merge into one another. Kashin tried to cry out to them, but his voice caught in his throat, even as the tears began to freeze against his skin.
And then, a darkness passed before his face, and he blinked a few times, trying to sort out the strange shadow, but his eyes would not focus. He heard strange voices about him, shouting in some patois that was achingly familiar, but he could not place. And then, the shadows spread, and he lay there once more, staring into the faces of those he’d left behind. Sleep closed in over him, and a smile curled his lips as he drowned himself in the sweet surcease of memory.