Two days on the road, and the Troupe was getting closer and closer to the foot of the Mountains. The long shadow of those craggy hills stretched over them as they marched through the forest. Though they had begun their journey rather jollily, talking and laughing amongst themselves, now they were quiet. All that could be heard was the sound of their feet sliding through the fallen leaves.
Zon was at the head of the line, Ameryn close behind. Enilor loped along beside Narina, taking two hops to every one of the Sprite girl’s long strides. The others followed in the single file, Zon’s brother and the giant Loui bringing up the rear, walking backwards, covering their tracks.
The sun set behind the Mountains, making them look even darker and more sinister, a feat Ameryn had hardly imagined possible. Zon put up his hand, and they came to a halt, silently setting up camp in the shadow of silence that loomed over them. Enilor quickly busied herself with making a fire, but its small red light seemed too weak to illuminate the gathering dark.
They sat in silence around the fire, eating salted meat and dried fruit and hardly daring to look at each other. Ameryn noticed that Narina would not touch her rations. She sat with her knees up under her chin, staring into the shadows with her back to the fire.
Suddenly, Zon’s voice broke the silence.
“We should rehearse,” he said.
There was a pause.
“D’you think it’s safe, Zon?” asked Enilor. It was not much of a question; her paws were already hovering over the clasps on her fiddlebox.
“Listen,” he replied. “It’s utterly silent. Nothing lives at the foot of these hills. Nothing dares.”
“They fear what’s in the Moutains,” Loui mumbled.
“I say the greater evil lies beyond them,” Zon answered. “No evil could be greater than the evil that holds sway over Nanduvar. And unless we rehearse,” he said, his eyes sparkling, “we won’t beat him.”
“Not a chance,” said Enilor with a wicked little smile, her fiddle already tucked under her chin.”
There was a rattle and a clatter of wood on wood, with some noncommittal low booming noises as the troupe pulled out drums and tambourines and pipes and who knows what other instruments from their bags and their tents. In seconds, every musician was ready, each poised with their fingers to their instruments and their eyes watching Zon. With a quick inhale and a flick of his wrist, they began.
Ameryn had never heard anything like it. The music was wild, rhythmic—as untamable as those that played it. Enilor skipped around the fire, sawing away on a song that sounded like every lark was singing at once. Loui’s drums made the earth throb, and the taurlin twins whistled out lively harmony on their panpipes. Zon strummed at his lute, his sister plucked a harp, his brother took to the bells and other percussive things Ameryn had never seen before. Narina closed her eyes to the dark and spun around the fire in the otterling’s tracks, her light palm beating the tambourine as she danced to rival the flicker of the flames.
Ameryn sat with her knees held to her chest, her eyes wide in awe. She had never seen anyone so happy as these vagabonds, each of them lost in the world of their own, but somehow producing the most joyous sound she had ever heard in her life.
Suddenly she found herself pulled to her feet. Zon had grabbed ahold of her hands, and was grinning at her.
“Do you dance?”
“Er—ah—well,” Ameryn stuttered, her face feeling very warm, “court dances, yes, but, uh, nothing that would go with this sort of—music.”
“Try,” Enilor yelled over the din. “T’ain’t too hard—just skip, girlie!” The rest cheered encouragingly.
“Come on,” said Zon, “see what you can do.”
He pulled her with him, leaping in time to the music. Ameryn fumbled along behind, gasping for air, and laughing. Laughing at herself, laughing at him, laughing with all of them as they cheered her on. She didn’t get the hang of it until Zon launched her into a spin that sent her flying a few feet. She landed, looked down at her dusty, red feet, and realized she hadn’t fallen.
“This isn’t—half—bad!” she gasped. She was not used to laughing.
“Told you so!” Zon yelled. Narina caught Ameryn’s hands and spun with her, then passed her to Claritas, then to one then the other of Zon’s siblings, and at last again to the man himself, who took her around twice, three times again. The song ended, and they all collapsed into laughter and applause.
“There!” Zon said, “That’ll put the darkness to shame!”
They laughed and cheered some more, and played a song or two, some soft, some loud, some joyful, some heart-wrenching. At last, the instruments were put away, and every musician crawled into the comfort of tent and blanket. Ameryn drifted off to sleep in Claritas’ tent, her head throbbing with the wildness of the music and the newfound gift of laughter.