The meal was done. Kernew watched as Tuetha Carah loaded up the little ones with sweet rolls and she and her daughters-in-law buttoned them into their warm coats. The Elder had only nodded at him when he’d entered, but now he approached Kernew.
“When will you leave?”
“Tomorrow is soon enough.”
The Elder nodded. “Time goes by so fast. Seems like just a few days ago he was running around gap-toothed like little Tudfry. I’d almost thought no one would come. But tell me, why did they send you?”
“I offered. Better me than someone with a grudge.”
“They’ll not hold it against him?” The Elder asked, his voice betraying his anxiety.
“I’ll see they don’t,” Kernew said, though he doubted he could do much. The boy would have to be tough.
“He has talent,” the Elder said.
“I’m sure he does,” Kernew agreed.
The family took to the path, small ones running ahead, smaller ones carried in the dying light. Music came from the square, applause and laughter in happy, contented waves. While the family settled themselves, the children pushing to the front, Kernew moved away from them, circling the edge of the crowd, searching for a glimpse of his new charge.
The show hadn’t properly begun. The boy, Nat, was drumming up trade. He played fast melodies on his guitar, old tunes that everyone knew. People joined in the singing, stamping their feet. Braziers had been lit and Kernew thought the air smelt fine, wood-smoke and grass, sweet-rolls and mead.
A drum roll caused him to stop and turn, face the front, where Nat was retreating and the giantess with the white hair began to beat out a rhythm on her drums. A hush fell under the slow, strong pounding, each beat tingling through the toes, stirring the blood, rising. Very gradually it quickened, each beat coming a little sooner than the last. Kernew felt it in his stomach, felt as if his own heart took up that double-beat, faster and faster. Quicker again, louder, more and more urgent it thrummed until it became a hum, the giantess' arms a blur of speed pounding down against the leather. She finished with a single hand-clap like a thunderbolt as a burst of light illuminated the stage.
It was the wagon, its front and sides folded out to create a stage, the one remaining side becoming a backdrop of riotous reds, greens and blues outlined in silver and gold and copper, glinting and gleaming. A single figure stood upon the stage, cloaked and hooded, the cloth blacker than the sky above and strewn with stars. The slow beat began again. Maya, Kernew was sure it had to be her, stamped her foot against the boards on the off-beat.
Dah-dan, Dah-dan, Dah-dan…
"In darkness,” a voice echoed from out of the shadows behind the stage. Not Ferran, perhaps the old man. Kernew didn’t know his name. His voice was deep, and though it seemed soft, carried weight, reaching every ear. “In darkness we find the light. The Sun!”
The cloak fell and Maya danced, encased in light, silver and gold, her dress, her sleeves sheer, moving around her like a cloud. She moved to the rhythm, sinuously gliding, her feet pounding down a little quicker now as she turned. Kernew forgot he was searching for anything.
“Light of life,” the old man said. “Giving warmth. The ancient goddess, ageless and beautiful. But someone saw. Someone saw and envied.”
Ferran leapt onto the stage, joined Maya in her dance. He was the red of rage, regal purple, his face twisted into a leer. The two circled and Kernew was captivated. They both seemed to be made of air, quick and sure, darting, spinning but never touching. The drums beat faster and music began, the guitar and pipes, notes melting, honeyed and strange so that Kernew felt his breath catch in his chest.
“He wanted what was hers!”
The cloak. It became a war. The sky-cloth was between them, each twisting into the fabric, almost falling, spinning away from each other and spreading the cloak so it hung above them and was caught by a breeze, rippling.
“He tried to take it! He alone would be the giver of life! And if he could not then he would extinguish all!”
The cloth shivered between them. The air shimmered. Kernew gasped. He felt magic, real and potent, warm as breath against his skin. The stars in the cloak loosened, as if they were alive. Point of light, darts of silver they hung then flew. The air was full of them, they dropped like arrows and everywhere they fell on the crowd. People slumped, slept, crumpled against each other, collapsed without a sound.
Magic held them, bound them. Kernew saw a dart, brighter than the rest streak toward a girl who’s lips were painted silver. The boy standing next to her opened his mouth in a shout, but the sound was swallowed up by the music which now swelled so loud Kernew felt his ears would burst. More mouths were open, in silent screams of anger and fear as people, even children, dropped limp as discarded puppets to the ground. Kernew only saw the boy and girl. The girl, who was smiling, as if she was welcoming the star and the boy, who’s features he recognized, perfect blend of either parent, his new apprentice.
“No!” Kernew shouted, his voice drowned like the rest. But power rose on his breath and streamed into the air, solidified the moment.
Everything stopped. The star-darts hung motionless, hovering over a stilled scene. He had only moments. He was spent and aching, breathless, but he had to move. He forced his way through to where they stood, took hold of the boy and dragged him backwards, but wasn’t in time to save the girl. As he looked back the magic failed, the dart struck.
Only the girl didn’t fall. Ferran was at her side, and Maya too. They lifted her between them and carried her away.
No one else was standing now. Kernew saw the wagon close in, the beat of hooves and they were gone, quicker than should have been possible, the wagon careering away from the square as if it had wings.
“Modesty!” the boy shouted, his voice torn with dismay. But she was gone.
“Easy,” Kernew said. The boy stared at him. He punched Kernew hard in the mouth with absolutely no warning, and started to run.