It was the thin tall man dressed in white linens, writ all over with strange letters. He was standing near enough to be standing over her. His complexion was dark, much darker than the Forsetti, so that he was almost a blue-black. He smiled. “Peace be upon you,” he added, seemingly by way of greeting. With a slight bow, he held a hand over his heart, then smiled and said, “Old Fafmuir is a man of straightforward bargains. He would only take your soul. After all, you are she who he made the bargain with, are you not?”
She had to work through that last thing he said for a moment, just to be sure she understood it. “Yes,” she said, slowly, drawing out the sound. “How very fair of him, then. And who are you?”
His smile broadened. “I am him they call Samakarantha, born of Mtawu and the Gold Dales.” He shrugged. “You will not have heard of my homeland. Very far off. South and east a long way.” He gestured in what was presumably a vaguely south-easterly way, then added. “But I wouldn’t worry about old Fafmuir too much. He likes to make himself seem mysterious, does he not? But he is reasonable man underneath all his peculiarities and musings. Or as reasonable as we magus-folk ever are.” Pausing, he said, “I and some friends have a tent nearby, if you wish to rest? Your companion is unwell still. He would benefit from a warm place to sleep.”
“For what cost?” said Caewen and Dapplegrim in unison.
But Samakarantha waved his hands and said, “Ah, I see you are learning the ways of the workings of wizards. I offer this free and without obligation or debt. It is customary, among my people to offer hospitality thus.” He strung out a thread of uneven silence, before saying, at lenth, “Although, I am curious to hear your story, for it must be some story. So perhaps, if you do feel obliged you can pay me with that?”
“That seems fair.”
“There’s nothing more to the offer?” said Dapplegrim.
“Nothing more,” replied Samakarantha, his smile turning serious.
“Very well.” Caewen helped Keru to his feet, and followed after the dark man in his flowing robes. Dapplegrim paced after them, his nose down and eyes flaring with a dim red glow. Not far off, they came to a tent with russet and white stripes. Samakarantha parted the tent, and inclined his head, indicating that they enter, although when Dapple tried to, the magician stepped in his way and, his voice, dipping in and out of an uncomfortable tone, asked, “Is your… creature, house-broken? It will not foul the rugs?”
Dapplegrim answered for himself. “I am quite house-broken, sun-wizard. Or tent-broken. Or whatever. And you will let me in, or you will have a broken house. Ot tent. Or whatever.”
Samakarantha seemed to hold in his appraisal for a moment before he chuckled a long, low belly laugh. “You beast is amusing. I see why you keep it, despite perhaps…” another wave of the hand, this time at Dapplegrim’s somewhat skullish features, “aesthetic questionableness.”
“Hur. Beauty is to the eye, what it is to the mind,” Dapple snorted.
“Ah!” said Samarkarantha. “An educated horse. That is a quote of the philosopher Erithrostle, anciently of Heriphinere, Lost to Waves.”
“I suppose it may be,” said Caewen from inside the tent. “Dapple has been in the service of many over the years, and he has better knowledge of the world than me.” She was supporting Keru over a shoulder and casting around, trying to work out where to lay him down. “And, Dapplegrim, please don’t fuss. Just come in and sit down somewhere.” She sighed, frustrated. Everywhere seemed to be a mass of pillows, rugs and low tables. The air smelled faintly of a sweet, peppery scent, with oiled undertones. Small trickles of white smoke rose from an incense burner sitting on one low table. She said, without paying much attention, her voice directed at Samarkarantha, “You know, sometimes I think Dapplegrim is mostly all questionableness, but he won’t knock things over or leave manure on the floor. Not without intending to.”
Dapplegrim smiled with his strange horse-face and pushed past Samakarantha.
“I see,” said their host.
As it turned out, Dapplegrim was barely able to fit under the canvas ceiling anyway. He had to get down on his haunches near the door. There would have been barely any space for him to lie down among the jumble of tables and pillows.
Once Caewen had made sure Keru was settled, she said, “Wait. I’m an idiot. How will Keri find us?”
“Keru’s sister. She is along the road somewhere. I don’t know how far off she is. Some way, I guess. We galloped off ahead of her to get help for Keru.“
“Ah. More company then.” Samakarantha smiled. “Luckily, I am one who enjoys human company, conversations and all the trappings of wit and banter. Tales from far lands. Jokes. Clever little asides. I am happy to have another guest, if one more is to be welcomed.” He reached over for a small gong and knocker that were hanging on ribbons from a nearby tent-strut. The note he struck was clear and pure, taking a long time to fade. Curtains at the far end of the tent stirred and three creatures, dwarfish in stature, crept out from behind the folds of cloth. Caewen stood up and put a hand on her sword. Dapplegrim snarled. Keru didn’t react, but this was presumably because he was already asleep. Being saved from near-death was exhausting, it seemed.
The creatures were only roughly human, with red and grey brindled skin, and instead of hair, they had something that looked like dead summertime grass growing from their scalps and in tufts from under their armpits and down their chests. Their wrinkled faces had the sort of hard look of carved wood that had been left out in the weather, and their mouths were jutting snouts full of teeth and tusks. One of them spoke, its voice soft, like rain falling through a canopy, “Ekulu ti fo olarumila?
“Tasu, tasu,” said Samakarantha, shaking his head. He pointed at the door. “Ethiit, ti ifi ifi. Atha!”
The three creatures bowed and shuffled to the tent doorway, disappearing through the flaps of canvas.
“Are those demons?” said Caewen, still standing.
“Asks the woman who rides a creature that would make most people run off, trailing wet dribbles of fear behind them?” Samakarantha laughed. “You have strange notions of what to be afraid of. Those were my biloko.” Then said, “Wait, no. That will be confusing. It is Eloko if there is one. Biloko is there are many. And yes, they are a sort of demon of the forest in my homeland, but they are under my sway, fully and properly. I took their bells away from them, and locked them up with words and charms and stories. You need not fear them. I have told them to go and find your friend. They will know her. They have their ways of knowing things.” He stretched himself a little, rolling his shoulders. “In the meantime, let us pass around some food and drink. Here. I’ve a little of the red-black wine of my country, if you would like to taste it?”
“I suppose so,” said Caewen. She took her fingers away from the hilt of her sword, and eased herself down, cross-legged into a pillow.
“Good then.” He poured out the wine. Passing the cup he added, “I would most certainly like to know your story. You and your horse-thing are intriguing to me.”