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The Tethiri tribesmen began to roll in across the moors a little more than a week later, first in ones or twos, then in groups of five or ten or more, then finally the main body, the rumbling of wooden wheels and thunder of hooves echoing through the peace of the moor.

Sorrel was disappointed not to find Bai with the caravans. Neither was his shield-bearer with him. Sorrel remembered the shield-bearer as being a boy a year or two younger than him, a tall and graceful man who could wield his two curved svárathi with a speed and skill that far exceeded his years. He was met with his peoples' usual non-committal responses of shrugs and we-don’t-knows when he asked where both men were. He decided, with equal Tethiri pragmatism, not to worry until he heard of their deaths, but that it wouldn’t hurt to see if he could seek them some other way.

‘They went through the hills,’ said one of the men eyeing Sorrel’s boot-tassels, which marked his tribe, and his svárathi, which marked his rank. Sorrel wore them both in a green silk ribbon low on his hips, and the ends of his belt were adorned with carved amber fittings set with gold. The man bowed, rather belatedly, but Sorrel let it pass. ‘I thought they’d be here by now. It should only have taken six days. I hope they didn't encounter Ulthvár dogs!' He spat, and made a Ward-sign, though his magic was weak and wouldn't have kept so much as a gnat from his skin.

Sorrel went away again, wandering the caravans with aimless dejection, until he ran across Arianlach and Henarian among the horse pens, haggling over a handsome black stallion that Henarian was trying to convince Arianlach to buy for him.

‘Ten gold Suns,’ grumbled Arianlach, the deal done. He turned his back on the horse and rammed his hands into his coat pockets. He was dressed in grey, his colours of pale green and silver forming the embroidery, a palette that suited him, but also made him look very much like a Lyr Blaed waif. Sorrel wondered if that had been his intent. He'd sensed already that Arianlach liked to play up his Lyr Blaed, and at the expense of the Lyr Deru in him. ‘What is that in venta?’

‘I'm not sure. Thirty venta?’ Henarian hazarded, his lips working over the calculation. He leaned over the wooden fence of the horse pen and frowned. ‘Eighty brochet?’

Arianlach rounded on him with a thump on his arm. ‘And what will you do to earn that, you penniless brat!’

‘I don’t know! I'll send to my father for it. Or maybe I can pledge you my service for a year and a day.’

‘I already have that! Thanks to your bastarding fucking father, I’ve got your scrawny arse hanging around here for another nine months, keeping an eye on my Tethiri prince! I ought to send you back to Hviturek for good.’

‘Over a horse?’ Henarian was aghast. He appealed to Sorrel. ‘Can’t you talk him out of his bad temper?’

Sorrel smiled and shook his head. 'I'm sorry, but I think the Earl is like a stubborn donkey with his head up his arse.'

'And you aren't? You're the crown prince of your people. Don't tell me you're as soft as a pampered babe! Am I stubborn, or just firm?'

'It's hard to tell,' Sorrel replied, trying to stifle his laughter, and failing. 'Why not make Henarian earn the right to the horse? Pit him against me and my mare. Each time he wins, he pays off ten venta.'

Henarian's face fell. 'That's not fair...'

'It's fair, and an excellent idea.' Arianlach pulled Henarian down from the fence. 'Come on. I want a drink.'

Sorrel fell into step beside the two as they made their way back through Silverheim’s gates. Crowds clogged the streets and the courtyard of the Keep, spilling from the mead hall. The music was loud and lively, and several times they had to dodge a wildly-whirling couple as they spun past in a dance. A girl snatched Henarian away from them, and he went laughing.

Arianlach stepped closer and linked his arm through Sorrel’s. ‘Do you want to spend the night in the town, or out with your own people?’

‘My people,’ said Sorrel immediately. He saw the disappointment in Arianlach’s eyes and said, ‘but why not come with me? You won’t be missed here for one night, surely?’

‘I will, but…’

Sorrel waited, enjoying the warmth of Arianlach’s arm through his. He smelled clean, with no trace of liquor about him, just lavender and incense and even a little of the peat fires whose smoke cast a pungent blanket of blue over the camp.

‘But…?’ he prompted, when Arianlach didn’t elaborate.

‘I will come,’ said Arianlach. He grinned. Wicked mischief danced in his eyes. ‘I should be back by dawn, then no-one will have missed me, perhaps? Or is that too much to hope for?’

‘Too much to hope for,’ said Sorrel. ‘But then, if no-one can find you, what can they do about it? Come and see what the Tethiri make of Midwinter Dark, my lord Cangarth. If you dare.’

……………………………………………………………

After dark, the caravans and the permanent camp both blazed with torch-light and fire-light. The sun set over the horizon, bathing the heather in deep copper light, and a stiff wind blew up to send smoke gusting into faces of revellers, story-tellers, and bards as they crowded around the fires.

Sorrel and Arianlach listened to bard songs, and songs from the Bidcánid and Hanscánid, and Sorrel sang one himself. Arianlach sat, rapt, at his feet, staring in turns at him and the fire. A new svárath sat across his crossed legs, its silk tassels gleaming in the firelight. Sorrel thought how the Earl looked even more like the Lyr Blaed, with his pale head a stark contrast to the deep red-browns and blacks of the Tethiri hair.

Then came the laments and the love-songs, and the camp fell into a reverential hush as it listened. Sorrel sat with his arms over his knees, Arianlach beside him, his head bowed, his fingers absent-mindedly pulling tufts of grass and trickling them through his fingers in the wind. They joined in the choruses, got smoke blown in their faces and their hair blown into their mouths, singed their hems with sparks from the fire, and got thoroughly drunk, so that their blood burned in their veins with it and the Tethiri magic that rose up out of the wind and the heather and ensorcelled anyone in the vicinity. The mead-cup came round and round again in a raucous drinking game, and Arianlach shifted a little closer to Sorrel to make room for newcomers. Sorrel thought nothing of it, though it made him sweat. The fires were crowded at Midwinter Dark; everyone sat shoulder-to-shoulder, even strangers. 

But Arianlach's hair was soft and warm and smelled of smoke and warmth, and Sorrel almost buried his nose in it to breathe him in.

He stood up. 'It's almost dawn,' he said.

Arianlach looked up, startled. Then he scrambled to his feet and brushed his coat down. He made the formal Tethiri bow to the rest of the folk, and followed Sorrel out of the camp.

They’d imbibed more than their share of Tethiri wine, and ale from the castle’s barrels that had been wheeled out to the market stalls. Sorrel had enjoyed himself more than he had at any other Midwinter Dark he could remember. He refused to acknowledge why. That way lay a troubled road.

‘You look more like a prince of your people tonight than you did when you arrived,’ said Arianlach. They were walking slowly back to the castle, a little merry still, and very tired, with the silvery-twilight of dawn creeping up behind Silverheim’s towers. Arianlach reached out to touch the amber and silver beads braided into a crown across the top of Sorrel’s head. ‘You didn’t wear these when you came. You should have done, instead of creeping in through my gates like a vagrant. But what is this one?’

His fingers caressed the green-flecked Riverstone in Sorrel’s hair. ‘There is stone like that at Cebol Gorge. Strange stone, like it has stars crushed into it. They say it was made by the Lyr Blaed, before the curse, and they used it to travel between places. I don't think it works now.'

‘Cebol Gorge? I’ve never been there. Probably some trader brought it,’ Sorrel said, with an indifferent shrug. Arianlach was dangerously close to ferreting out his secrets. He would have to be careful. He didn’t know nearly enough about the Earl to trust him with something like that.

Even if he did like the softness of Arianlach’s palm against his cheek, the gentle, long fingers slowly trailing across his jaw.

He wrapped his hand around Arianlach’s wrist and pushed him away. ‘We should get some sleep.’

Arianlach looked serious for a moment, then shrugged and grinned, dancing backwards a few steps, then whirling away and down the street, toward the gates. ‘Come on then!’

‘Ride with me across to the far shore tomorrow!’ Sorrel called after him. 'We can test Henarian's stallion.'

‘Not until evening!’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t ride until after the sun’s gone down.’ Arianlach looked at Sorrel over his shoulder. ‘Or just before, if you insist. Come and wake me then, Ellazhán, and I’ll ride out with you. But I promise you, if you give my cousin an easy win just to curry favour with his tiresome clan, I'll make you rue the day.'

Smiling, and shaking his head, Sorrel fell into step beside his foster-brother, and they went back to the Keep, the strains of music still in their ears.

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