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In fact, Dae was quite enthusiastic – well, enthusiastic by his standards. We sent round the very next day. No, it wasn’t a phrase I knew either. It meant sending the older kids out to all the neighbouring farms and homesteads to tell them to come – and to bring something to help, if they could. Even if they couldn’t, though, they were still invited.

“They will,” said Dae. “Everybody will want not to look mean. We’ll have too much, in the end, and be sharing it out as they go.”

“Pity nobody here is a Singer,” I said, “but we can make do without.”

Crear laughed. “You’ll keep never Tappy and her friends away, surely, my dear? You’ll lack not for music if they come.”

We pinned the Day Leaves out along the top of the kitchen door frame, where the children could see them but not reach; of course we were late, so there were only eleven to begin with. But it was still fun to burn a leaf each day, and you could see the children getting more and more excited – even though they had no idea what was going on. Kahan especially – she seemed to love visual things, not that the fever had left her hearing so poor.

Then the last leaf burned, and tomorrow would be the big day! But first, that evening, everybody took their cup and wiped it out and put it on the hearth, and went to bed.

At least, the children went to bed.

Of course, they really hadn’t caught on yet, so we had to ask them when they woke up in the morning, what the Lightbringer had left in their cup. And they were so wide-eyed when they looked! Every child had something good: a bone hairpin, a spintop, a knife handle, a cloak hook – each one carved for that child. I knew Dae had sat up late carving them a few nights back; but he must’ve spent far more time than that. And especially on the beautiful bone hairclip in Crear’s cup, carved into a twisted snake with gold wire wound round all along its back and tiny garnets for eyes. Crear was speechless, and I would have been too.

Dae had of course carved a quick cloak hook for himself, just to play the game; but Crear and I had replaced it with a pair of leveret skin mittens wrapped around a pot of my best skin salve. And that was worth it, too.

And yes, there was something in my cup. A cloak pin, shaped into a three-quarter circle, but so exquisite that I could not take in what I was seeing: made of something like gold in feel, but far more beautiful; shining cold, shining whiter than the Moon himself; so perfect that I could see my own face in it, as if it were a pool of still water; so pure that if it had not been a gift I would have feared to touch it, let alone wear it.

My eyes were filling so much I could hardly see it, and my hands shaking so much I could hardly hold it.

“Wh-what is it made of? It’s so – it’s beyond beauty!”

“It’s called silver,” answered Dae. “It’s a speciality of Bulken Market, but it’s brought from far in the east. Do you like it?”

Like it? By the Stones! It was a jewel to suit Steps­On­Treetops, or the Lady Of The Moonpath, not for an ordinary girl – or for a failed shaman from a broken tribe – to wear. I pinned it on my cloak, and felt ten trees high.

“Young Dae chose it,” added Crear, casually. “Put in quite some of his own rings, also.”

Really. An apology, perhaps? This was a bit more than a mere apology. Interesting.

Oh, and Whisper – he wasn’t a farm kid; he was a Hunter of the Causeway Tribe – he got his first knife.

But there was work to do. There was no hope of help from the children, not with their new toys to play with, so Dae got the animals sorted while Crear and I got ready for the evening – half deafened by whistles and drums, and in permanent danger of treading on a toy cow.

The neighbours started arriving in the middle of the afternoon, and Dae was quite right: they all brought more than they needed to. Quarters of lamb, strings of goat sausages, whole cabbages, hands of carrots, strings of onions, slabs of bread. Two brought barrowloads of wood. And a cartload – yes, a whole cartload! – of beer casks, and four families squeezed on them and among them. We checked the first cask to make sure it was good, and it definitely was. Beer seems to brew a lot stronger than the old Tribe’s mead ever did.

There was also a half-dozen of thrushes and a score of tanned rabbit skins. The Causeway Tribe had not come empty handed, however bad the hunting. And I was interested to see Whisper’s reaction when he saw them – I’d wondered why he didn’t always seem to be around when you’d expect him. Well, he’d got his own knife now, he can do his own skinning like a proper hunter should.

Boys can be hunters. But they can’t be shamans.

Not all brought food, of course. Two lads and two girls came with a bundle of pipes, a drum, and a thing of gut strings stretched over a box, and started playing almost as they stepped through the gate. One of the girls was obviously in charge; tallish, a bit older than me, a shade paler than the general run of Farm Folk (but not as pale as us Tent Folk) – but once she started playing you didn't really notice the physical details: what you noticed was how she shone. As soon as she was making music she lit the room up.

“Are you Tappy,” I asked her.

“Yes, who’s asking?”

“I’m called Seer.”

“Oh you’re the great Seer, are you? Another like Zaradzagus, they say. Well, expect me to grovel not as you pass, thank you. He’s poison enough, we need not more like him.”

I wanted to answer, but it would’ve taken too long. Pity. She seemed like someone I’d’ve liked to know. Especially the way she bossed the two boys around. And a Singer and a Shaman aren’t that different – except a Singer should be a man, of course.

Tappy mostly had the drum, tucked under her arm, tapping it with her other hand – and how she didn’t give herself severe nipple-rash I can’t imagine – but she sometimes played a pipe instead, and then the string plucker would take over the drum for a spell. I had to stop and listen, and I wasn’t the only one; they were that good.

But it was getting close to sunset. My big moment approached. I had to retreat to my private domain to prepare.

No, I was not naked; that was my first concession to the Farm Folk. I was dressed in my best dress, but with a hood and cloak that covered my arms, and long thick whitened ropes stitched onto it that wrapped around over my whole body, scalp to toes, snaking up and down, and with little dangling bunches of river-mussel shells that rattled and hissed as I walked. I also had a tall staff, cut from hazel whose growth had been twisted by woodbine, also wound round with white cord, a dry sheep skull fixed on the top, and a single bunch of bone plates hanging from the skull’s palate. I had given up hope of dancing, but I still wanted to make an impact, to try to recreate the weirdness of the Tribe’s Nightwatch. To judge by the looks as I walked back into the kitchen, I think it worked.

Our arrangement was that Crear and Dae would explain what was happening to everyone while I was gone; so I said nothing – just stood there briefly with the hood pulled over my face, waited for silence, then turned and watched the sun sink. Once it was cutting the horizon I turned back and struck the threshold of the house three times with my staff. Dae and Crear picked up a torch each from the heap we’d prepared, lit them at the kitchen fire, walked out past me and stood outside on either side of the door. I slung my staff over my back, picked up two torches, one in each hand, and walked out to the yard, lighting them at Crear’s and Dae’s torches as I passed. The rest each picked up a torch, lit it and followed me, so that we formed a fiery snake wrapping round and round the unlit bonfire, Crear and Dae at the end. Tappy (could that possibly be her real name?) beat time with her drum.

The children stared from the door and the windows, safely back from the flames. Their eyes glittered in the last of the sunlight.

Once the circle was complete and I reckoned the timing was right, I stopped, facing the setting sun across the woodpile. There was just a fingernail of brightness showing over the far hill.

The snake stopped coiling and became a ring. The drum fell silent.

“The Dark is great,” I declaimed, “but the Light is greater.” I lifted my torches high. “I am of the Light!”

“I am of the Light!” they all echoed.

“The Dark is strong, but the Light is stronger.” I lifted my torches high again. “I am of the Light!”

“I am of the Light!” they all echoed.

“The Dark is deep, but the Light is deeper.” I lifted my torches high again. “I am of the Light!”

“I am of the Light!” they all echoed.

The last shred of sun flicked out. The shadows fell on us, and the fire of the torches suddenly seemed brighter.

I lifted my torches high in the air for the last time, and began to spin fiery circles in the gloom. “Though Darkness comes, the Light will return! Though Darkness conquers, Light will have victory! After Darkness, Light!” The fire-circles span faster and faster, higher and higher. “After Darkness, Light!” I tossed the torches and caught them, and swung them straight into circles. “I am of the Light!”

“I am of the Light!” they all echoed.

“Burn, Darkness, Burn!” I shouted, and flung both torches spinning head over head into the woodpile.

“Burn, Darkness, Burn!” called everyone else, and the whole wide ring of torches flew like fiery birds to sacrifice themselves in the great pile of wood.

The blaze was almost instant: almost exploding. Suddenly the heat slammed against us, suddenly the flames towered high. And Tappy’s music rang out in a dance that got everyone hopping and jumping in the glorious light. I swung my staff back into my hand, and began thumping the ground to Tappy’s beat. Stones! That girl knew her job!

“Burn, Darkness, burn! Burn, Darkness, burn! Burn, Darkness, burn! Burn, Darkness, burn!” We sang, we danced, we chanted to the fire, against the dark and cold and fear that was just beyond our circle. “Burn, Darkness, burn! Burn, Darkness, burn! Burn, Darkness, burn! Burn, Darkness, burn! Burn, Darkness, burn! Burn, Darkness, burn!”

Then as we all began to calm down a bit, Crear brought out the trays of meat, someone else rolled out the beer, and the party had only just begun.

Tappy and her friends got special attention, obviously. One of our girls – Minir, if I remember right – was given the job of making sure they had everything they wanted without even asking, so that they could play without stopping. They were worth it. Once, I remember, the other girl, not Tappy, put her pipe down and sang instead:

“There is a star
In the east shining, in the night-dark
Serene, afar
Sailing high beyond the night-dark
It sees me not
My name hears not
My hopes, my fears,
My angry heart, my silent tears
Touch never its pure candescent sphere
There is a star
In the east shining, in the night-dark
I hold that star
Serene in my own heart’s dark
I hold that star, follow that star, reach out to touch that star
In my heart’s eastward night-dark yearning far.”

Yes yes, I know. But words always sound trite when split from their music. And I admit it sounded a lot better after a few mugs of beer. At the time, it had me choking up. And I wasn’t the only one – I even saw Stack staring at her open-mouthed. He was still staring while she went on to sing some more conventional boy-girl stuff. Stack, of all people!

Things were well into the nibbling-at-bread-hunks stage when I ran into Young Dae, over by the henhouse.

“Hi!” he said. And paused. “Er, can I get you some more beer?”

“Thanks, but I’d rather have a sausage,” I said.

I’d hardly finished speaking before he was back with three sausages and a chop, clutched in two greasy hands.

“I love the cloak-pin,” I said. “The Lightbringer has good taste.”

“Good,” he said. “Er…”

The bonfire was still glowing hot and bright in the courtyard, the moon, just three days from full, hung cold and bright in the frosty sky, the Nightwatch ceremony had worked, and one thing led to another, and we wandered off together into the orchard, and…

No.

No, I will be nice.

I will not describe in full hideous detail the utter botch, the mind-bursting incompetence that Young Dae demonstrated that night. I did, after all, promise I wouldn’t tell, and I must keep my promise.

I mean, by the Stones! He’d been brought up on a farm! You’d think he’d’ve known at least what went where? And, even more importantly, when?

“Don’t worry about it,” I said in my consoling voice, as I mopped out my navel with his tunic. “It could happen to anyone.”

He flinched. “You’ll tell not, will you?”

I should’ve been nasty, I meant to be nasty – after all, he well deserved it. But I was fastening the cloak-pin, and the Moon shone out of it, and I couldn’t. Yes, yes, I’m just a softy at heart. I know.

“No, I won’t.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.” I smiled, “If,”

He flinched again,

“If,” I repeated, “you keep your mouth shut too. If I hear one word that suggests you and I had sex tonight from anyone – and I mean anyone, I will provide a full and highly detailed account of every shameful moment. Yes?” I smiled again, he bit his lip, and we went back into the crowd.

Mind you, I wasn’t the only one. Half a dozen couples at least I saw drifting away, and I wasn’t even looking. That’s Nightwatch for you.

And I hope they had more luck than I did.

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About the author

Adge

Bio: Just a retired mathematician who likes writing stories about the beautiful part of the world he lives in. Checkout https://ko-fi.com/adge0304 for more stuff!

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