In the aftermath, it felt as if the world had slowed down. Time crawled through a few halting and fractured seconds, before urgency and noise and movement all fell back into place. The sister threw a cross sort of look at her brother and said, “What were you playing at? You stepped left when you should have moved right, and then you were on your arse in the mud. You nearly got yourself killed.”
He shrugged. “It all turned out fine. Just barely a few scratches. You worry too much.”
They both turned to look at Caewen and Dapple then. The girl gave them both an appraising look, up, down. “Thank you. I’m Keri Manutuwatu,” she indicated herself, “And this simpleton of a turehe is my brother, Karu.”
Before Caewen could answer, Dapplegrim piped up, “Oh, don’t mention it. Just doing our heroic job of, hurm, being heroic.”
“Dapple.” Caewen let slip her own exasperated part-sigh. She got down from the saddle and stowed her sword. “I don’t know if we were really much help. I think mostly we just avoided getting crushed.” As she walked over to the brother and sister, the small gathering of the Modsarie rode around the corpse of the wurum, their leader looking cooly at the corpse of the thing. She waved at one of her men, and he got down from his saddle, then crossed the distance to where the creature’s tail lay. Drawing his sword, he hacked off the stinger with three quick strokes.
The girl, Keri, raised her voice, “Hoy! What are you playing at?”
The Modsarie lady answered, quite level, quite calm. “The venom has uses. The stinger is worth good coin. Seems a pity to leave it lying about on the ground for any old bird-snarer to carry off.”
“Well that coin belongs to me and my brother. And maybe this girl too. And her strange horse.” She turned to Caewen. “What was your name?”
“Yeah,” said the brother, Keru. “This strange girl Caewen and her strange horse.”
“Dapplegrim,” said Dapplegrim.
The Modsarie lady didn’t answer. Instead she brought her mount a few trotting steps closer to Caewen, slowing, then stopping where she could look down at her. “As for you.” She shook her head. “What are you doing even mixing with these strange-bloods? Fern-eaters. Tree-worshippers. They aren’t properly of the Nocturnal Parliament, you know. These Forsetti… their bloodline isn’t even properly of the north. They are not of the Night Queen’s children.”
“And what does that have to do with me?”
The Modsarie lady blinked, confused. “You have northern blood in you. Cold magic is all about you, like a song in the night-time. You shouldn’t lower yourself to the company of these two. Come with us.”
Caewen kept her voice flat. “And yet somehow I find myself preferring their company to yours.”
The lady’s face showed a twist of emotion. She was shocked. “Do you know who I am? No? Obviously not.” She rearranged the fur trim of her collar and cloak. “I am the Lady Sgeirr, first daughter of Staru the Namenthird.” After a pause in which Caewen did not register any change in attitude or any note of surprise, the lady added, “Staru? King of the Dearg Modsarie and the Red Boglanders, Lord of the Twelve Rivers, Overseer of the Gathered Clans, High Master at the Temple of the Silts and Weeds.”
“Oh,” said Caewen. “That Staru the Namenthird.” She had, of course, never heard the name of the king of the Modsarie. Her home village was not exactly situated on a well-trod road. And, of course she had spent much of her early years in a root cellar hiding from the feeble, nasty old warlock Mannagarm in his house on the hill. What Modsarie visitors their little upland village had received were few, infrequent and never stayed long.
Keri took some steps forward, whirling her fighting-spear about her in a flickering, slow weave. “You’d best have your man drop that tail. It’s our kill. It’s our trophy to divide as we see fit.”
“And you will stop me?”
“We just put down a wurum. The way I see it–if I were you–I would be much more concerned for my own skin than the gain of a few coins.” She moved into a fighting stance, the spear held at a poised angle in both hands.
“Perhaps,” said Sgeirr,” but, there were three of you, and now there are only two. Your chances are diminished.” Her lips curled into a smile. “Goodbye, Keri of the people who live in the forest shadows. Bird-snarers. Yam-worshipers.” Her tone mocked Keri’s words, echoing them back. “If I were you, I would worry more about the skin of your brother. It is gaining rather an ugly shade of grey-pruple about the edges.” Sgeirr pulled at the reigns of her horse and twisted its head around, making it stamp and whinny. “And you,” she said, “Caewen, wasn’t it? I do not forget insults. Prefer their company to mine if you will, but do not think I will forget it. We shall see how your choice of company works out for you.” Sgeirr turned and rode off, followed by her men. As she left, a quiet wheezing sound disturbed the new stillness. It was coming from Karu. They turned, looked and discovered he was on his knees in the mud. “Sister,” he said, “I do not feel well.” His fingers loosened and his fighting-spear fell to the blood-wet dirt. He swayed and slipped forward, plunging into the ground with a thump and a squelch. Even from a distance, it was clear that one of the scrapes on his arm–a shallow scratch that had been barely noticeable only seconds ago–was now weeping a sickly green liquid. His whole right arm was puffing up and the swelling was moving towards his neck.
“The stinger,” Keri said. She dropped her own spear and ran to him. “The stinger. Gods of wind and forest, Keru, Keru!” She grabbed at him and cradled him into her arms. “Keru. Look at me.”
Caewen went to him too, though she had no idea what to do about wurum poison. She had no idea about any poison. The idea terrified her. A slow, secret killer reaching for the heart. She looked around, trying to identify anyone in the milling crowd who might be helpful. Keri knelt down, holding wet sobs down, trying to prop her brother against knees. “Keru, Keru, you idiot,” she whispered, “don’t you dare close your eyes. If you close your eyes I will beat you around the head with a string of yams. Keru!”
Caewen looked over the crowd. “Is anyone here a healer? Does anyone have any herbals or bloodgeiys?” The three black-cloaked walkers who had escaping being crushed under the falling cage were gathered around their dead companions, lost in their own grief. They had dragged the short person in the gold dragon armour out from under the cage and pulled off his helmet. He was only a child, not the short adult that Caewen had assumed. The man who rode his boggart-palanquin was there behind them, although he had stopped eating his blackberries and the boggarts looked more sombre than sour. She looked around. There were two men in blue and gold robes. The man with the shock of dead white hair and a scald mark on his face and neck. Three women on donkeys with stacks of books tied to the saddles. “Is anyone skilled in the leech-work?” said Caewen. “Anyone?” No one answered, until finally, the blackberry-eater said, “None here. No. The best healers will be at the fair, by now, they will, with their shops. If you hurry…” but he did not finish the sentence, and looked uncomfortable. “Maybe. If you hurry.”