Standing up suddenly had perhaps not been the best idea. Caewen realised this as she swayed a little. She was dizzy. The drink was stronger than she had thought. “I need to apologise again,” she held herself steady, struggling to keep words together as her head pulsed with the thud of her own blood. “Your magicianiness. I think I need to take a walk in the air. My head is, um, foggy.” Dapplegrim started to get up too, but she waved him back down and said. “No. Dapple. Someone should stay in case Keru wakes before his sister gets here. Will you please? Watch over him for me.” She started weaving a path towards the cut in the fabric that was the tent’s egress. Wind was sneaking into the tent, flapping the entry-fold gently, and chasing the candleflames around on their wicks. The light was throwing seasick shadows into among the cushions and low tables.
“Hurm. Hur. Are you sure?,” said Dapple. “I don’t know if it’s safe for you alone out there.”
She scrunched up her face in a dismissive frown and tossed her hair about with one shake of the head. “I won’t talk to anyone, or buy anything, or whatever.” I just need a breath of air. That’s all. I’m sorry. I’ve never been a heavy drinker, and the wine had got to me. A little.”
“Hurm. Well, if you are more than an hour, I will come looking for you.”
“Alright.” She smiled. “It’s nice to know you care.”
He huffed and snorted. “Care, hrmm. Care, might be stretching it.”
“Of course,” said Caewen, as she threaded a way toward the tent’s opening. She passed Peloxanna in her embroidered and woven silks, her cloak of feathers, blue-green and gold-tipped, hanging about her shoulders. “I am sorry,” Caewen said again. The wine was making her candid. “Really. I don’t like to be at odds with people. I find it upsetting.”
But Peloxanna just gave her a cool, gold-iris stare, blinking once, with a nonchalance that seemed perhaps a little too practised. Her voice was low, almost a whisper. “Out of respect for Samarkarantha, I will see that there is goodwill between us. But this I do only, out of respect for Samarkarantha. Do not mistake charity for naivety, northlinger. If there is darkness in your thoughts, it will out, and I will be watching you.”
Caewen just sighed. She let herself out, feeling the night air wash into her face. It was chilly under the evening sky, getting onto real cold. A crisp wind was rushing down out of the highlands to the west. A few damp stars were struggling to push their light through piles of cloud, and the moon was nowhere in sight. It would have been an empty, dark dusk, except for the soft lights that were just now appearing all over the valley. The tent encampments were dotted with torches and oil lamps. Down in the shallower bowl of the valley was a spreading flowerbed of a hundred other, eerier lights, arrayed in golds, ambers, reds and yellows. Caewen set out on a path towards this mass of lights. After a little distance, she came to the first of them and discovered they were some sort of candle-lantern encased in a coloured translucent material that she didn’t recognise. It might have been dyed silk, or perhaps some sort of hard, glassy paper? From the direction of the central mass of lights, a noise of voices, laughter and music drifted to her. The sounds chased over the wet sombre grasses. She took a hard long breath into her lungs, felt her ribs expand, and decided that it felt good. The cold was clearing her head already. She walked carefully, making sure not to trip on the uneven sods and tuffets. At the edge of the place where the softly coloured lamps grew thickest, she discovered the boundaries of a twilight gala, with stalls and tables scattered about, people milling in a hundred strange and foreign garbs, and smells of food wafting, music, and laughter. Most, but not all, of the stallholders were human. She tried not to stare at the other weirder folk, but found it hard to keep herself from gawping. She stole snatches and little glances at the sights as she walked. She passed some odd dwarfish little men with skin that looked soot-stained and leathery, and eyes of a luminous green–she saw a stern-faced troupe of fragile, pale people with ears that ran up to a point. Their hair was a lustrous lichen-grey, their eyes entirely sky blue, without pupils or whites–at another tent a talking vixen fox was animatedly advertising the rabbit skins she had piled up on a low table in front of her–after this, Caewen saw a stooped old hag with grey-blue skin, puckered black tattoos, and a harsh, icy voice. The crone was offering to swap miseries and sorrows for delights. Caewen hurried past–and now, a dozen mice, standing on a high, round table, wearing cloaks and swords, standing upright like people, and selling what looked like acorns made of silver. Their voices were quiet peeps, and she would need to have leaned right down low, just to hear them–a wizened old man with soft grey-pink skin was selling bright crimson crows that sang with human voices–another man was selling what appeared to be inanimate statues made of clay, except that when Caewen glanced at them she saw one statue blink–then there were musical sounding bells growing out of saplings in clay pots–delicate crystals full of sparkling dancing imp-shapes at another stall–a huge figure made of shadow, only when Caewen looked at it from behind, she saw a little, shrivelled old man at the heart of the darkness. Even more odd, he seemed to grow smaller as Caewen moved away from him, while his shadow seemed larger–there were bottles of churning, weird colours and liquors on makeshift benches–miniature stone horses made of a brilliant green stone that shone like fire–and all manner of entertainers too, jugglers, fire-dancers, singers, minstrels, and more and more. It was a wild and eerie night-market.
So much of it was enticing. Caewen found herself wanting to stop and touch things, or pick a delicate piece up, or breath in the smells from perfumed flowers, but she knew better than that. With an uptight, fixed rigidity, she did not talk to anyone, nor offer to buy anything, nor sell anything by mistake. She kept herself perfectly silent, perfectly watchful. She kept herself, perfectly to herself.
Near the far end of the market, she ran into a small group of hairy men and women, bent, hunch-backed with long thick-knuckled hands, bulbous eyes and protuberant lips. They wore raw hides and furs, but their belts were finely tooled leather, and the daggers and hammers they carried were so finely wrought they might have been objects fit for princes, kings or a more modest sort of god. This gave them a strange appearance. Whilst they mostly looked like broomcutters and dirty beggars, the hammers they had at their belts were made of gold or silver, and crusted with gems. One of these hunched creatures looked directly at Caewen, and ambled towards her. She watched him come. His gait was bow-legged, rolling. “Greetings to you, fine mistress. If I may have a moment, a word, a breath?”
Having been staring at the little man, she could not pretend not to have seen him. “Aye. You may.”
He bowed, deeply, scraping the ground with the small straggle of his wiry beard. “Good luck to you then, and bounty too.” Coming up, he snuffed air out through his nostrils and asked, “Have you, by chance, seen anywhere in this market, or this moot, a small box. Perhaps for sale? Or perhaps not. It would be made of sea-ivory, tooled all over with roses and thorns? There is a carved goat leaping on the lid.”
“No,” she said, truthfully, for she had not. Remembering the tales she had bought from the rumourmonger, she asked, “Are you one of the Nibelung?”
“The Nibelungr, yes. I am Farli, get of Fjalarr.” He bowed again, just as deeply, and his tone and habit had a sort of obsequious, frail edge to it. The fawning tone seemed like thin ice covering a deep chasm.
Caewen placed words carefully, like pieces in a game of stones-and-cheques. “I am sorry for your loss. No. I have not see your little ivory box.”
His face brightened. The thick lips curved into a smile, and his hairy cheeks hitched themselves up. “Yes. Our little box. It is ours, and well you remember that, and tell other folks to remember it too. It was stolen, and we will have it back. One way, or another, yes.”
“Very well. If I see it, I will remember that you asked after it.” She was careful with her wording. She did not want to accidentally promise anything she might not be able to do. It seemed safe to promise that she would remember the Nibelung. “May I go?”
“Yes. Of course, fair one. Go on your way, yes.” His smile was unctuous. His teeth, when they flashed behind his lips, proved to be long, sharp and yellowed by fuzzy plaque.
She turned, hurrying off while trying to not look like she was hurrying. The empty knot in her gut left by several cups of wine and nothing really solid was growing increasingly demanding. There must be food to eat here? Something to buy that wouldn’t be a risk? Just plain old food. Even magicians must eat, surely? She glanced over her shoulder and noticed that the small hairy man was still watching her, his head crooked almost comically. He didn’t seem to mind that she saw him watching, and he smiled, waving once, with a clawed hand that had too-long fingerbones and thick joints. She felt a shudder pass through her muscles, her tendons, through the underneath of her skin.
She turned away. Alright, Caewen thought. First, find something to eat. The need to eat was definitely making her light-headed. She had good coin, after all. She would just look carefully before she spoke to anyone. Circling around some food stalls, like a wasp circling an open jar of preserved fruit, she settled on a woman selling plain-looking biscuits. “Bernoth knobs,” called the woman in a low sing-song voice as she worked, serving piles of hot, round biscuits one moment, taking coins or tending her squat portable oven the next. Caewen had got to be quite mistrustful by now. She watched the people in front of her, counted out what they were paying, and when she gathered herself up, and walked to the front of the stall, she offered the same price. “There’s a dear lass,” said the baker-woman, nice local lass. Where’re you from then?”