“Yes.” Caewen tasted the wine. It was very sweet. Almost sickly so, but she smiled politely and took another drink. It had a strong bite. “Alright then. Let me see.” She considered where to start, and after accepting some dates and goat cheese, she said, “Well, Dapple and I were on the road, not far off, a little way north of here–“
“Wait, wait, no. That will not do. Go back further. Start nearer the start.”
“Oh. Um. If you like. A little while ago we were set upon by a storm and were driven to a tower in the woods. It turned out the tower belonged to a sorcerer and–“
But she was cut off again. “Hold a moment. We?”
“Dapplegrim and me.”
“No. I want to hear the whole of the tale. Tell me how you two met. Allow me to behold the mystery of the whole tale.”
“That far back? Well, alright. In my home village there was a warlock named Mannagarm.”
She was not very good at telling stories. She mixed some bits up. She was sure that she made some parts, which ought have been interesting or exciting, unutterably dull instead. And the parts that should have been skipped over, quick and easy, she laboured with, making too much of them, or muddying it all with too much detail, or rendering everything vague with too little. Finally, after talking for an hour, her voice fell to silence. Her tale had arrived here, at the tent. “And then we were here,” she said. “Taken in by a magician from a distant land.”
“Myself,” said Samarkarantha. “It is good to know a little one’s own role in other people’s tales. It helps one find one own’s centre. It helps see the self from the outside.”
She drained off her cup of the wine. It was her third. It had started to taste quite good. “So, why have you taken us in?” she asked, directly. “What do you want out of it?”
He threw his hands wide, expansive. “What makes you think I want anything?”
She laughed, loudly, then trying to cover up her mirth, she suppressed the laugh into a murky giggle. An embarrassed heat crept itself through her face. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I am starting to think,” and here she paused, trying to work out what she wanted to say. “Well, I suppose, that everyone wants something. Especially magicians. Especially here.” The wine did seem quite strong.
“That may be so, but what I want is of no concern, and of no harm to you, or your friends. There are many factions with the dynasties of the magical. Though old Fafmuir and myself are of the same dynastic encompassment, so to speak, we are heirs of different legacies. I watch and I listen, to find out what others are, hm, up to. So speak.” He waved a hand. “As the jackal watches. As the jackal listens. And so do I.” He shrugged. “There have been–” he trailed off. “How do I word it? Disturbing nuances in the oracles. Strange pre-seerings, and odd. Weird voices that have not spoken in a hundred years are whispering in jungle groves. Bloody sigils have appeared on the walls of the smoke-caves of Tkiluki. The Devil-Temple of Shru Nithur is flocked full of talking monkeys again, and those grey monkeys of Shru Nithur have not spoken a word of prophecy in years. Words are seen in the clouds. Flights of birds spell out strange foretellings. It is all very disconcerting. So, I have come to the great convocation of the magical to listen to as many stories as I can. To pay attention.”
“Stories,” said Caewe. “Tales.” She considered this as she spoke. “There is magic in names, but a story is like a name spun out over a long time, with more depth. A long name. Does that have something to do with your magic then? Stories?” She wondered momentarily, through the fog of the alcohol whether she had made a mistake reciting her whole story to him honestly. She felt suspicion trickle into her mind. “Is your magic done through stories?” She asked, rather more bluntly than she had meant.
He grinned, but all he said was, “Your observations are astute.”
She didn’t know what to make of that. Had she put herself in more danger then? She couldn’t tell, and for now, it seemed more sensible to stay calm and chase some more answers. What he had said about omens struck her, and it knocked around in the back of her mind, like a bat caught inside a house. “What disturbing omens exactly?” As a part of her own tale, she had described Tamsin and the Winter King already. She circled back to this now. “Is this to do with what Tamsin saw, do you think? The armies in the north?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. I do not yet know for certain, but one of my guesses runs along that road. Yes.” Before he could say any more, the entrance to the tent ruffled as a hand brushed over it. A faintly familiar voice said, “Samar? Are you in there?”
“Enter, with peace.”
The cloth stirred aside and Caewen saw that the woman who stepped into the ruddy half-light of candles was the same who had told her off for riding into the crowd earlier, the one wearing the strange outfit of feathers in blues and greens. She stopped short when she saw Caewen, saying something that sounded like an oath in some foreign tongue. When she turned and saw Dapplegrim, smiling at her from the darkness beside the entrance, she yelled aloud, “Akalu! Mbele ti fo effur! Are you mad, Samar? Why do you have these… these… night-demons in your welcome?” Her habits of speech and accent were similar to Samakarantha, but the woman looked quite different to him. Where he was as dark as blue-back jet in shadows, she was honeyed in her skin, hair and her eyes. The latter were an arresting, bright, yellow-gold. “You have night-worshippers in your tent? Look at her!” She pointed at Caewen. “Have you invited her to stay here? She’ll be awake all night drinking swine blood and howling at the moon.” The lady shot Caewen a dirty sneer of a look, and rested her hands on her hips.
Caewen sat upright. Her head was more than a little dizzy from the wine. She put the empty wine cup down. “Hey! How dare you? I don’t drink blood. I don’t howl at things. And I do not worship Old Night and Chaos, if that’s what you think. None of my folk do. We–” She felt herself fuming, heat rising up her neck. “We live between the shadow and the sound. My village is neither properly in one camp, or the other. And a good thing too. You lot, all you lot. Night magicians. Sun witches. You’re all mad.”
But the woman just fixed her with a cool and calm gaze and pointed now at Dapplegrim. “You are riding around on a thing that is half night-demon! I am not an idiot!”
“I’m half-horse,” said Dapplegrim.
“What?” said the woman.
“What?” said Caewen.
“I’m half-horse too.” Dapplegrim snorted, his nostrils flared and his tail flicked as if to emphasise his horsiness. “Everyone is always obsessed about my father, night-demon this, high-lord of shadows that, master of the foul revels of the darkness soaked forests of benighted Ghortain, or something, something. But no one ever stops to think, maybe, old Dapplegrim, maybe he actually would like to eat hay and run around in the grass for a bit, time to time. I mean, I’m not entirely demonical, am I?”
“It talks?” said the woman.
Caewen said, confused. “High-lord of what? I thought you didn’t know anything about your father?”
Dapplegrim rolled his eyes. “Is this really the time to discuss whether my father might, or might not be, a dark lord of chaos-shadowed lands? The important thing is that I’ve almost literally never eaten anyone.”
“A cease to this!” It was Samakarantha. “He had raised a hand, and his fingers twisted into an odd shape, a gesture that made Caewen feel sort of queasy, just looking at him doing it. He then said. “Once upon a time there were three persons who bickered and bickered. And they bickered so much, that the spirits grew sick of it, and so the spirits took their voices away until they learned to be civil and live peacefully.” His words had a dull thudding echo to them. The sounds seemed to come from somewhere deep and brassy inside the thin, frowning man.
Caewen tried to speak but discovered that nothing came out of her mouth other than a low wheeze, like wind coming out of a deflating billows. Dapplegrim and the other woman seemed to also be discovering that they couldn’t speak either. They both made small, angry wheezing noises then stopped, fuming and glaring at Samarkarantha.
“This is my tent and household, and I will entertain whomever I wish, Lady Peloxanna.” He threw the woman an unimpressed gaze. “And I am not an idiot either. I would not have persons or beasts in my company that were a foulness, or a danger to me. I know how to judge fair from foetid.” His hand twitched, and his fingers flicked again. He performed another odd gesture. “And so it was that the three argumentative fools learned the value of silence and they learned peacefulness. The spirits returned their voices to them, but the bickerers knew that if they should fall to argument again, the voices would be snatched away, this time forever.” Caewen wasn’t sure she could have mimicked his movements of finger and hand as he moved them. It looked a little bit like he was stitching the air with an invisible needle and thread. She could not have copied him. Not even if she had tried right there and then to follow his movements with her own. There was something too boneless and fluid in them. His hand seemed to be moving not just up and down, forward and back, but somehow in and out of another, deeper and hidden direction. “So be it thus, your voices are restored,” he said, “and you will use them to apologise, and then to talk, as my guests.” Noise and soft hums of words came back to Caewen’s throat. The other two cleared their voices, and all three of them looked at each other in silence, awkwardly.
“Alright,” said Caewen. “I don’t think I offered the first insult, but I’ll offer the first apology. I’m sorry.” She was fuming inside, but forced herself to say, “I should have been more polite.”
With more than a small edge of reluctance, the woman ruffled her blue and green feathers up until she looked something like and angry peacock, and said, “And I ought have been more civil. I insult the hospitality of Samarkantha. I apologise too.”
They looked at Dapplegrim, but he just scuffed a hoof and said, under his breath. “Hurm. Well. Sorry. Yes.”