Sorrel spent the next day at the market among the booths, glad to be back among his own people, even though he hadn’t yet been long from them. The Tethiri had information and goods to trade; stories and gossip – a lot of it fanciful and probably embellished, so Sorrel took it all with a pinch of salt – and new songs to learn, some from as far as Bornak and even Cartha. New people, too, with a few Carthan faces among them, burnished bronze skin and amber eyes, their elaborately painted and beaded, their clothes bright and flowing. They spoke little Tethiri, though seemed keen enough to try and converse with him, plucking interestedly at his brocaded wool and soft linen, and in turn making him touch their trims of copper and silver. He couldn’t work out if they wished to trade, or just admire their wealth from North to South. He wished them well with polite formality, smiling at the children who stared back, wide-eyed, at the young man who looked like one of the Tethiri but was not dressed in their fashion. He found nonetheless, if he stopped too long at a stall, that his coat hem soon became encrusted with children, most of them about the same height as his boot tops. Their parents bowed and apologised and tried to prise their youngsters off again, but he didn’t mind.
They trailed him from stall to stall, sticky with butter-twists and boiled fruit leathers, clearly enchanted with the prince with the amber crown, as he heard them call him. He smiled at that, wondering if a few amber beads really constituted a crown. He began to regret wearing them, and wondered why he had. Was it lack of confidence, a need to prove his worth among these rough Northerners and their lofty Lyr Deru masters? He felt no need for his crown among his own people. He thought about returning to the Keep to take them out, and went and did that.
There was no sign of Arianlach, though Sorrel checked the mead hall and the stables, remembering his invitation to the Earl to come out riding that evening.
‘He won’t rise for another hour or two, probably,’ said Henarian. He was rubbing his new stallion down and feeding him sweetmeats, to Sorrel’s disapproval.
‘Why? The market is in full swing. I’m surprised he’d want to miss that.’
‘He won’t. He’ll be there all night, when he gets up.’
‘Then tell him I’m with the caravans,’ said Sorrel, and emptied Henarian’s pockets of sweetmeats. ‘Don’t feed this to your horse. Sweetmeats are not for animals.’
He dropped the packet into the brazier and went out again, ignoring Henarian’s insults and threats to write to Baron Hervik and tell him what an interfering, meddling witch his daughter’s betrothed was.
Sorrel stifled laughter as Henarian’s shouts faded to nothing again. He passed the mead hall, its doors wide open to the frigid air, and checked once more for Arianlach, but of him there was no sign. Feeling a little bereft, Sorrel went on through the streets and back to the caravans alone.
Though the air was cold, the crowds seemed not to notice, and the market had a warmth of its own. There were stalls selling silk and velvet and the finest Tethiri-spun wool, dyed in the hues of the earth, sea and sky. Sorrel bought a length of deep ochre wool brocaded with russet silk, and a set of jet coat buttons; he spoke with many of the traders, and gave a rider a package of letters for his tribe. There was still no sign of Bai although his caravan had arrived.
Sorrel met with Koth and Siris, whom he knew by sight, and was told that Bai and Lute had taken two stowaways through the hills, and were bound for Silverheim.
‘Isn’t he here?’ Siris looked about, as if expecting Bai to be merely wandering among the caravans and simply hadn’t bothered to tell them he’d arrived.
‘I cannot find him, if he is. Nobody I’ve asked has seen him. Or his shield-bearer.’
‘I told him there’d be trouble,’ Siris muttered. ‘Bloody fool..!’
‘We did tell him,’ Koth added. ‘Perhaps we should ride…’
‘Don’t be simple, man! If neither Bai nor Lute could make it through the hills then no-one could!’
Sorrel folded his arms. ‘Why would he come through the hills with two refugees? Who are they?’
Koth said, ‘One is on the run from the Beyli of Mortua and the other is an old hag routed from the Southern slave routes. She wanted to come here and find someone. Wouldn’t say who.’
Siris made to spit, caught Sorrel’s eye, and thought better of it. ‘Lyr Blaed,’ she said, her tone heavy with omens.
Sorrel went away with that information, wondering what to make of it. As far as he knew, Lyr Blaed lived in the Northern lands, in forests and mountain passes and caves, under mist and cloud and dark skies.
And those who administered the witchbane never even crossed into Selahaleros. They didn’t need to, because the Lyr Blaed were barred from doing so.
The light began to fade, and once more a stiff wind rose as twilight settled over the land. Sorrel found Arianlach coming towards him through the crowd. He’d outdone himself in his dress, having chosen a coat of deep blue velvet with a high collar and sleeves of blue silk embroidered stiff with copper thread. His hair was neatly caught up behind his head and his eyes sparkled with energy.
He handed Sorrel a packet of honey-roasted almonds, his long fingers flashing with rings. ‘I haven’t forgotten your invitation, Prince Ellazhán. But I’ve no stomach for riding tonight, so perhaps you’ll join me in the dances?’
The thought warmed Sorrel’s blood. ‘The Tethiri dances, or the Northern ones?’
‘Tethiri,’ said Arianlach promptly. ‘Ours are stiff and stale. The dancers may as well be corpses for all the life that’s in them.’
Sorrel laughed. ‘Just as well my people know how to dance, then,’ he said, and turned a little, tilting his head for Arianlach to follow him.
‘I spoke to Henarian just before,’ said Arianlach as they walked along the avenue of stalls towards the caravans. ‘I think you’ve hurt his feelings.’
‘He’s writing to his father about me.’
Arianlach gave Sorrel a gentle thump and laughed. ‘Oh, he’ll write! And I’ll send a letter of my own asking for thirty venta for a mangy black stallion because his son’s a gambler and can’t pay his own debts! I wouldn’t worry about Rurien Hervik being overly bothered that his son got a dressing-down from his son-in-law. If anything, he’ll encourage the feud.’
‘Why?’ That genuinely surprised Sorrel. Among his own people, tribe loyalties were taken very seriously, and in-fighting was discouraged. The Tethiri took a dim view of rivalries among their own close-knit tribes. They maintained they had enough to do with the poselenech looking for trouble and didn’t need problems among the caravans as well.
‘He wants strong leaders,’ Arianlach shrugged. ‘Whomever comes off better will gain the greater rewards. Didn’t my sister warn you that you are going to a hornet’s nest? She did, didn’t she?’
‘Well, don’t forget it. Don’t get drawn into his scheming. You can’t be strong that way.’
Sorrel stopped at a stall selling pewter, holding a cup with intricate engravings up to the light. He put it back and took up a belt buckle, large and ostentatious and completely unsuitable for any belt he owned, though he noticed Arianlach’s belt was of wide, blood-red leather and tooled with leaves and vines. The buckle would do very well for it. Or it would, if it were silver. He suspected the current buckle was of that metal, hideously tarnished, as if the Earl had lazy servants who cared nothing for their lord’s appearance in public.
He cut the merchant’s sales pitch short with a glare and replaced the buckle on the stall cloth, and moved on.
‘I am beginning to think I should turn tail and run back to my family,’ he said wryly, as Arianlach caught up with him.
‘You’d live longer. Look - they’ve started the dances already!’
They’d come to the unspoken no-man’s-land of trodden bare turf that marked the boundary between the market and caravans. Sorrel looked to the sky. The stars had come out, and away to the West the sky glowed deep apricot under a blanket of indigo. A full moon cast its eerie glow over all: the signal that the Midwinter Dark festival had truly begun. The bright, lilting tones of flutes drifted through the camp, with the deep brass drone of the Tethiri long-horns underpinning the tune. As he and Arianlach came closer, they could hear other instruments: fiddles, pipes, and harps and drums. A huge space had been left in the middle of the caravan, smoothed clear for the dances, and the musicians had taken up their seats around this make-shift arena. All was a riot of colour, strange faces painted in the semblance of hawks, ravens and owls, foxes and wolves. Moonlight and firelight glittered on beads of amber, bronze and silver; copper sleeve-bells chimed with every movement, feet tapped and hands clapped. Already a few dancers had made their way onto the turf, mead-cups still in hand, laughter rippling out.
Arianlach stretched his spine ‘til it cracked, then held his hand to Sorrel. ‘I understand it’s fine among your people,’ he said, when Sorrel hesitated. Indeed, two girls were swaying to the music, their arms linked, their eyes on each other as if the rest of the world had ceased to exist.
Sorrel nodded and put his hand in Arianlach’s. His heart flipped over as the Earl’s fingers closed firmly around his and pulled him onto the grass. It was fine, he told himself. Only the Southern poselenech had decided it was debauched, and had outlawed it.
And it wasn’t as if the steps of the dance required them to be particularly close. More people joined them, and the thing became a different beast, an undulating dragon curling around the circle of turf, each of its many pairs of legs made of four couples, and its body many, many more, until they filled the arena and had to move out of it and head towards the town, the musicians following them as they went.
Sorrel had never felt so alive as this, a part of something, his feet making the steps of their own accord without him having to think. Though the dance took him from Arianlach to a brown girl with silver paint on her eyelids and bells all over her boot tassels, then to a boy with long black braids and outlandish scars on his pale face, and away to yet others, it always took him back again.
Link elbows and skip backwards, turn and spin, then skip forwards, turn and spin…
‘You’re light on your feet, gáhanash,’ said a warm Tethiri voice, and he smiled at a young girl with a babe on her hip, her hair wild and her face painted like a crow. ‘And yon Earl…?’
‘He is…’ Sorrel let the rest of the sentence go into the wind as he took her arm and spun her about, chucking the bairn under its soft, fat chin as he went onward.
Eventually, having wound through the streets of Silverheim and taken the traditional shower of dried gorse and cotton flowers to represent the sun and stars, the dance came back again to the caravan, and the dancers fell away and went to quench their thirst and slake their hunger at the fires.
Sorrel took a cup of spiced heather ale to Arianlach and bowed, then linked his arm through the other man’s. ‘Au’n gall sól erith calon Au, y stálan svet’ dusha n’Au, y ein sorbirith Au’n iyír, Arianlach.’
‘Likewise,’ said Arianlach, with a sunny smile, though it was clear he had no clue what had just been said to him. He raised the cup to his lips and drank, his eyes never leaving Sorrel’s.
At midnight, the lights were all lit – every candle, taper and torch – and they sent them into the darkness, the bards singing the traditional plea to the old gods to spare them eternal night and bring the sun back, the drummers beating the spirits away. The air was filled with sweet incense and heather smoke. Sorrel sent a series of mage-lights into the sky, Arianlach leaning on his shoulder and watching with wonder. At dawn, gifts were made, of sun, moon and stars stitched into belts and cuffs, svárath ribbons and bridles, or painted onto drums and pipes, or fashioned out of pure gold and silver for those who could afford it.
Arianlach presented Sorrel with a book cover, cleverly inlaid with a design that resembled the heavens. In return, Sorrel gave him a set of sword ribbons with such fine stitching in silver that Arianlach shut up almost until sunrise admiring it.
A cheer went up as the sun crested the horizon. Arianlach yawned and bowed to Sorrel. ‘I’m for my bed. I’ll see you later, Ellazhán.’
‘Sorrel,’ said Sorrel, smiling, and clasped Arianlach’s hands. ‘Sleep well then. I bid you good night!’