Caewen slept late, awaking groggy, unsure, and squinting against the light. The morning sun suffused the roof of the tent, setting the ivory and off-red fabric alight, like stripes of white and red forge metal, glowing. Her eyes felt gritty with sleep. She yawned as she got to her elbows, looking around. Everyone else had risen already. The bedding was empty. Just cold piles of blankets, some folded neatly, others in a more crumpled state. She listened. A distinctly wooden clicking and thunking was coming from immediately outside the tent. It was accompanied by an occasional rise and fall of voices. It sounded as if Keri and Keru were out there, involving themselves in whacking sticks together.
Caewen got up, looked around sleepily, and found a basin to wash her face, before pulling on her most clean clothing, then picking a path to the tent flap.
Outside, the sun made her blink and squint.
“Hur. Goodmorning, sleepyhead.” The familiar notes of Dapplegrim’s deep, gruff voice rose up. She found him sitting in the chill morning light, his legs folded in a quite horselike repose.
“Morning to you, Dapple,” she managed to mutter. Looking about, she saw that the Forsetti siblings, Keri and Keru were indeed sparring with those short flange-ended spears they called tine-hafts. That was the cause of the wooden clack, clack, whisk, clack. It was impressive to watch, even if the two of them were pulling their blows and seemed to be stepping through martial routines.
“Like a dance.” Samarkarantha looked her way and smiled. He sat at a small round table, spread with food and drinks. He nodded, indicated a seat beside him and turned his attention back to the pair. “Makes you wonder what is out there, in the world, beyond the shores we know.”
She agreed that it did make her wonder, and sat down in a spare seat. Her eyes fell immediately on some unleavened bread, dusty with flour. Beside the bread was an arrangement of various interesting coloured pastes. Strong aromas came off them. Some fruity, some savoury. “May I?”
“Yes, please. The measure of hospitality takes in the length of the dinner table as well as the length of the bunk.”
“Thank you.” They sat together in a companionable silence, watching the the long brown limbs of the two siblings, as they twisted, stepped, flurried blows at each other, retreated. “I always thought maybe the Forsetti came from the south, way back when. They’re darker skinned, like the people in the south. Sun-blest.”
Samarkarantha shook his head. “No. Where they came from is not known to my people either, and we are merchants and travellers, wanderers and scholars across the deserts and the jungles. No. They are from some other place, islands, or another landmass, away in the ocean.”
“I wonder what else is out there? Why they left? I wonder if the war between the Ladies of Night and Day is also a strife their homeland?”
“Who knows? The Forsetti themselves might, but they never speak to outsiders about their home, or why they left. Perhaps they themselves have forgotten. It was several hundred years ago.”
“It was a long time ago. They’re northerners now, mostly. I’ve seen Forsetti eat fermented fish and stuffed sheep’s stomach.”
“And that makes one into northern folk?”
“Have you ever fermented fish and sheep’s stomach stuffed with mince, oats and spice?”
“No. I suppose I have not.”
She picked at the bread, tearing it up and using a blunt knife to spread a sticky, sweat purple jam on it. “Is Lady Pel about?”
“She had business elsewhere.”
“Hm. Samarkarantha, can I ask you a question?”
“A question may always be asked. If it will be answered, is less certain.
Dapplegrim snorted. “Hurm. And you say I talk in circles.”
“Dapple.” She frowned. “Hush.”
“It’s alright. I appreciate the beast’s humour. It is, what is the word?”
“Irritating,” said Caewen.
“Perhaps that too. I was thinking of brash. So, what was your question?”
After a pause, watching the brother and sister strike and parry, sweep and step, she said, “I spoke with Lady Pel last night. Do you think that the Night Queen is evil?”
He shifted in his seat, looked at his knuckles as he folded them on the table, but at last, he shook his head and said, “No. She is not evil. And the Queen of the Day is not good. Truthfully, there is no battle between good and evil except that which is inside all of us. People like to believe that good and evil are like a weft and weave of the cosmos, a hard truth outside, out there somewhere. But they are not.” He tapped his chest. “They are in here.”
“But the creatures of the night… blood-drinking bogey-beasts, boggarts and troldes, the restless dead, shadow things with scales of slime and darkness…”
“And have you seen all those things?”
“No,” admitted Caewen. “I’ve met with boggarts. They didn’t seem very evil,” she admitted, “more, just, I don’t know: a bit feral and impolite?” After a pause, she added, “I’ve met worse men. Mannagarm, for example. The old chieftain of my village. Gone now.”
“And so it is. And so they are.” Samarkarantha reflected inwardly for a moment, tilting his head down until his chin touched his chest. He then said, “Let me tell you of ogres. Have you heard of ogres?”
“Yes and no. They are cannibal men? Night creatures?”
“That is half-true. Ogres are a strain of huge flesh-eating giants. Sometimes as tall as two men atop one-another, thick and sinewy, with hard leathery skin and teeth like the mouth of a shark. We have none of your boggarts in the Golden Dales, but there are ogres. People call them obig, locally, and villages often pay them in sheep, and sometimes in people, to keep them satisfied and unruffled by hunger. But they are not like your pelt-wearing, savage boggarts. Ogres like riches: castles, cut from sandstone blocks, turreted and domed, with gold and red painted walls. They dress in finery: pelts of wild cats, silks, delicate brocades, cloth-of-gold. Nothing is too opulent. There are no she-ogres. Ogres breed more ogres by getting themselves on human woman. So they keep harems too. And, this final point is pertinent. They are monsters of the day, through and through. Ogres were made by The Queen who is Brightness in the elder-most age, when she wanted guards and soldiers for her wars against Night. But when she was done with them, she let them go free, and creatures made with no purpose but murder, fighting, eating and rulership do not make good neighbours. So, if you like, you can find evil in the ranks of the Queen of Day and Sunlight, too. Just as you will find evil in all hearts of all people and gods, if you look closely enough. No one is purely good, not the whole way through.”