Kernew de Seballe was cold and wet. He hailed from the warm, dry South and already knew these damp hills would be the end of him. He didn’t know when he’d been colder or wetter. The thick cloak he’d purchased, on the assurance that it was proof against everything this climate could throw at a man, was drenched and clung to his shivering shoulders in clammy folds. His hat, once the peak of sartorial elegance, flopped over his eyes in a depressingly shapeless way. His boots were ruined.
Nothing was right. Everything was wrong. The way the ground folded and dipped when it should be flat; the way the trees crowded in close and dripped on him without mercy; the way the dark mud sucked at his boots and climbed steadily up his legs; the way the clouds clung stubbornly to the ground instead of floating high up in the sky where they should be, so he could barely see a couple of feet ahead; wrong all wrong. The sky was too close, lowering and grey, utterly uninspiring. To think he’d bought the idea of it as an adventure. To think he’d looked forward to the journey.
Through the trees he heard the jingling of tack and plodding horses, realized that the fog had driven him from the road. He cursed under his breath, couldn’t suppress a shudder at the thought he’d almost lost his way and hurried back, using the sounds as a guide.
Forcing his way through a shrub that clung to him with the desperate strength of a fretful lover, Kernew almost lost the tip of his nose to the side of a wagon. It rumbled by an inch from his face, swaying and creaking. He had a confused view of riotous color, painted animal faces leering at him, ribbons and dancers and a bright yellow sun. It swung away, revealing three riders following. A man and a woman, both clad in flamboyant, eccentric garments and a sulky boy trailing them who looked as if he’d fallen off his horse more than once. They had the pasty faces he’d come to expect from this sunless part of the world, but unlike most people he’d met recently they were smiling.
“Hey!” the woman said and laughed. “Careful!”
“Told you,” the man said to her. “Folks around here are so desperate to see us they’ll risk a beheading for the privilege.”
“As long as they’ll part with their money as eagerly,” the woman said. “But this isn’t a local, Ferran. A fellow traveler I think?”
“Nearing the end of the traveling part, I hope,” Kernew said. The woman really was very pretty, beautiful almost. The pale skin he’d believed he could never admire was complemented by her bright, dark eyes and the lock of chestnut hair that peeked out from under her purple and red hood. He fell in alongside them. The wagon made sure they couldn’t travel quickly, so he could keep pace easily, glad of company at last.
“You’re for Wahleiss?” the man, Ferran, asked. “Well, of course you are. Nowhere else on this road unless you got yourself completely turned around. My name is Ferran, this is Maya and the boy is called Nat. Don’t mind him though, he’d sore from the riding.”
“Kernew,” Kernew said. “Kernew de Seballe. But I understood Wahleiss was a small place. Travelling players stuck to bigger towns, I thought. You’re putting on a show?”
“Best show you’ve ever seen,” Maya said. She laughed again, but there was an odd expression in her eyes and Kernew saw Ferran shake his head a little at her. Behind them the boy sighed and muttered something to himself.
“What about you?” Ferran asked. “What brings you here?”
“Business,” Kernew said. “And a promise I made years ago.”
“Intriguing!” said Maya, beaming. “A promise. To a lady I assume? I like to see a promise kept.”
“What’s your trade?” Ferran persisted, in a tone that made Kernew regret what he’d said.
“Jack of all,” he said, keeping his tone light. “And what is it they say? Master of none.”
“Surely not ‘master of none’,” Maya said and the boy, Nat, snorted. Kernew glanced back and saw the boy was glowering at him. His hair was the color of rust, which was seldom seen in the South, and eyes the muddy green of the wet leaves. He was twelve or thirteen, freckled where he wasn’t mud-streaked and looked as wet and wretched as Kernew himself.
“Believe me,” Kernew said ruefully.
“We’re here for a promise,” Maya said. “A promise at Wahleiss, how odd that sounds! For a place so lacking in it. Appearances can be deceiving.”
“And we’ll keep ours tomorrow,” Ferran said. They had come out of the shadow of the trees, the track opening out into a meadow, and here the wagon rolled off the road, coming to a jerky stop. Two people appeared; an older man who nodded vaguely in their direction and then went to see to the horses, and a woman who came toward them. Kernew had to force himself not to stare. She was a giant, freakishly tall with a face as ugly as the darkest sin. Though she couldn’t have been very old her hair was dead white and stood up all over her head in a crazy frizz. She towered over even Farren, still mounted on his horse, and Kernew thought he now knew why the wagon creaked and groaned so.
Maya caught his eye. “We’re stopping here.” She said. “Farewell, Kernew de Seballe.”
“We’re players,” she said and smiled. “We have to prepare. Make our grand entrance! We put on a show Kernew, or else why would they pay us?” The boy gave a laugh, but stopped and looked sulky again when Ferran frowned. “Wahleiss is just around the corner,” Maya added. “You can’t miss it.”
This was a definite dismissal. Kernew nodded his goodbyes and left them behind, walking on down the track. He decided he would watch the show when they came into town. He imagined Maya in a revealing costume, dancing. He thought he wouldn’t mind paying to see that.