Chapter 23– The Knights of Ritterheim
Chonkorchuk awakens as a familiar set of tiny claws sinks into his shoulder. Two armored men are in the processes of binding Druvvaldis with ropes. A man in dark robes, with a wide-brimmed hat appears to be directing them, though incongruously, no sound of any kind is coming from them. Chonkorchuk wakes the snoring Vasya Toptygin – it’s not clear who was supposed to be on watch, but one of the armored men easily strikes him down with his sword – a flash of light erupts from it as he does. Chonkorchuk is left alone against three, and decides to make an invisible getaway. He leaves tracks through the snowy forest floor, but the men do not appear to follow him. As he now seems safe, Chonkorchuk reflects on what has happened. The armored men bore the same devices on their shields that he had seen in his earlier vision. The hermit settles down to rest up after an eventful night, and leaves the faithful fefila to keep watch.
* * *At the knights' camp, the raiding party shows up with two more prisoners – Druvvaldis and Vasya. They put them in the prisoner’s tent, where Katarina and Plamen are already being held. Plamen was captured several days ago and interrogated by the man in the wide-brimmed hat, who had his knightly companions deliver blows with mailed fists and the pommel of their swords, to show that they mean business. Primarily, they want to know what the party’s business in the Otherworld is, how many allies they have, and whether they know the way to Baba Yaga's abode. They are also interested in Plamen’s specific powers – whether he can perform magic, fly, transform into other beings, and so on. Plamen lets on only that he is a healer and a tender of animals, and that as a half-polevik, he has some facility to affect fires. Otherwise, he tells the knights nothing they don’t appear to already know. When not being interrogated, he is watched closely by the knights’ two servitors – Hans and Franz – who are generally quite vigilant, and point their crossbows at the prisoners at all times. That night, they do nod off, and Plamen tries to free himself from his bonds, and roll out of the tent. But the bonds are too strong, and the tent is well moored to the ground, so Plamen misses his opportunity. He does learn, during the period of his captivity, that aside from Hans and Franz, there are three heavily armored knights, and an unarmed advisor called Father Sigismund, who leads most of the interrogations. Sigismund, along the knights, speak the Noriki language, though Hans and Franz do not appear to. Sigismund and Andreas, the knight’s leader, appear to treat each other as equals, while all the others seem to be in a subordinate position. There are also three horses about – they were used to carry the bound prisoners through the woods – but they did not accompany the group while they were on the lake, and do not appear to be about presently.
* * *Later that morning, Chonkorchuk is awakened by the fefila again, warning him of another intruder. The intruder turns out to be none other than Rodion/Raskel. He had spent the winter in the woods north of Medunitsa – strange, because Chonkorchuk and his companions have only spent a few days in the Otherworld. After learning of Lionia's escape, the takeover of his house by Yelizarov's people, and the destruction of Chonkorchuk’s hermitage, Raskel hid his share of the treasure and wintered in fox form, but as spring arrived, he began to search for his old companions, who had disappeared without a trace. That is when he ran into Baba Yaga, who chided him for stealing her treasure (though she made no attempt to recover it), and for abandoning his companions. She conducted him to the portal, and ever since he emerged from the shrine with the standing stones, he had been following, first, his own companions, and then, the Knights after they had captured them, in fox form. After Raskel finishes reciting his tale, both send their creature companions to search out the knights’ camp, while the two of them try to hunt down some food. Toward evening, the fefila, whose search is more successful, returns with intelligence. It reports on the number of captors and tents (three), and the horse tracks near the camp. It also discovers some sort of magically charged circle almost imperceptibly laid out in white pebbles and crumbs around the snowy encampment. Rodion, who has studied such things before, surmises that it releases radiant energy if someone attempts to cross the circle. The fefila also reports that the man in the wide-brimmed hat does cross it on occasion to fulfill his natural needs. Rodion and Raskel debate whether they should capture him, or use one of their captured hares to trigger the protective circle, and then invade the camp, and free their companions. They decide in favor of the second option, because they can’t see clear to what use capturing the wide-brimmed hat man (who Chonkorchuk says is a warlock) will bring them. That evening, the knights awaken late (after their raid last knight), and begin the process of attending to the day’s business, and to interrogating the captives again. Plamen decides to put on a demonstration of his powers, and is taken outside the camp to create (and then magically extinguish) a flaming sphere. Sigismund appears to be impressed by the demonstration, and Plamen is not beaten that night. Signs of the fire are later detectable to Rodion and Chonkorchuk, as they move in on the camp, using Rodion’s mystical lights as illumination. They position themselves about 100 feet away. The wide-brimmed hat man briefly emerges, but does not come close to the hidden ambushers, and returns to the camp. Rodion then summons an unseen servant, and makes it trigger the circle of protection. The three knights soon emerge, and converge on the spot where Rodion and Chonkorchuk are hiding.
- Chonkorchuk eludes capture by the Knights