After so many weeks spent trekking in the wilderness, finally entering the great walled city of Armoria felt like an assault on her senses. Gwin had memorised the layout of the city before her journey even began. This meant she had been able to walk confidently through the Crimson Gates and straight down Furnace Alley, covering her nose and mouth with her sleeve as the thick, smoky stench of the tanneries wafted up the narrow street towards her. She had been prepared for this and kept walking, congratulating herself for not baulking. When she arrived at the entrance to Artisan Square, however, she stopped, unable to help herself from staring in wonder.
The sun was setting on the spice stalls, alighting on sacks of sweet-smelling thyme, sage and basil and briefly coaxing the dull yellows and greens into a blaze of colour. Gwin had heard this was the most vibrant market in the city, but nothing could have prepared her for the exotic smells and the noisy chatter of people looking for the last of the day’s bargains. It was said you could buy anything you desired in Artisan Square and she believed it.
Forcing herself to begin moving forward, Gwin’s gaze was caught by a boot hawker. He was packing away his wares for the day, stacking soft calfskin sandals next to hard-worn boots in crude wooden crates. He smiled broadly at her, perhaps scenting a sale.
“Only one previous owner,” he said, thrusting a pair of darkened leather slippers under her nose. “See the double stitching!”
Gwin shook her head politely and hurried on. She could feel eyes on her as she walked. Some onlookers were furtive, some openly stared. She knew her hair drew attention, falling in palest blue waves about her shoulders. She pulled up the hood of her cloak and kept her eyes on the fish-gut strewn cobbles, only occasionally risking a glance at the sky. The violet moon was growing steadily larger and brighter against the stars. As dusk settled across booksellers and meat merchants, violet Aikana – the feminine moon – was gliding into position before silver misted Mamai.
Many believed this switching of the twin moons signalled great change, maybe even great floods. The floods told of old were terrifying and brutal, wiping out the once great kingdom of Noeland. Even Armoria’s famous trading ships gave that place a wide berth, fearing the shadows of the dead. It was said they would rip sailors from their ships if they came too close, screeching in on the wind with gnarled hands outstretched to snatch away their souls.
Gwin could see the people in the market paid far less heed to these old stories and legends. They had fish to sell and beer to drink and the Changing of the Moons was nothing but an excuse to raise an extra glass or two to the Purple Mother. As she passed a stall festooned with intricately patterned silk scarves, shimmering like a delicate rainbow between the pie seller and the glass merchant trading on either side, Gwin overheard two women loudly discussing Sally Long’s cat. Apparently, the animal had birthed a litter of twelve kittens that morning, all born with unusual silver eyes wide open. Rather than worrying about ancient tales of celestial doom, the gossipers were more concerned that Sally would be unable to find homes for the wretched creatures.
“I suppose she’ll have to drown ‘em,” one of them said. “After all, you can’t be too careful with these things. What if they’re cursed?”
Gwin almost stopped to turn on the women and demand to know where Sally Long could be found. She could not bear the thought of letting such kittens suffer so cruel a fate. Thankfully, before she could act the other woman spoke.
“You know Sally would never do that,” she said. “I bet she’s got half a mind to keep them herself, though Thetia knows how she would feed them all. I heard she was telling people they were a blessing. I think she’s half witch, that one.”
Gwin smiled with relief and walked on, black cloak fanning out around her feet. She glided through the square and on towards the Obsidian Citadel, much to the disappointment of her onlookers. She was not in the great city of Armoria however to visit its towering seat of power, a great, glassy black shard of a building that jutted into the sky as if to rip the clouds apart. She had a far more important appointment to keep.
Quickening her pace as the shadows deepened and night descended on the buildings packed tightly around her, Gwin made her way to the Bard’s Quarter and Midnight Square, fabled haunt of composers, conjurers and charlatans. Here she was greeted by a gaunt young man dressed in the traditional grey and purple colours of the bards. He was sitting on an upturned wooden crate at the entrance to the square, picking his teeth with dirty nails.
“Artist or audience?” he inquired. Unlike his contemporaries in Artisan Square, this man seemed completely unaffected by the girl and was not at all perturbed to be caught extracting his lunch from his teeth. His coat was tattered and shabby and his hair was unwashed. Fortune was not kind to the bards of Armoria and many spent their lives virtually penniless.
“Artist,” the girl said.
The man sighed and picked up a roll of papers he had discarded at his feet. “You really should have been here by now. The others are already setting up. Name?”
The man hunched over to lean the paper on his knees and added her name to the list with a stubby piece of charcoal. “Instrument?” he asked without looking up.
Gwin pulled her cloak aside to reveal a small panflute hidden amongst its many folds. She presented it with an air of reverence and smiled slightly as she said, “I will be playing the panflute.”
The man wrote it down and finally looked up, a smile lighting his own face when he saw what the girl was holding. The panflute was bland and modest, not even adorned by simple sigils or the more ornate painted images favoured by the bards of Midnight Square. The reeds looked dry and sun-bleached and the man wondered if the single length of leather cord wrapped around the top was all that prevented the sorry thing from falling apart.
“That’s a panflute? It looks like something dragged out of the Thet.”
Gwin’s expression did not change but she held the instrument to her chest protectively. “It is not the look of the instrument that matters but the sound it can create.”
“Well, good luck getting a sound out of that. Next!”
Gwin left the man to his papers and moved out into the square. She was not upset by his comments. This was the foremost centre of music and performance in the known world and her panflute indeed resembled something that might have been dumped out on a fishing boat. It would have been strange to pass unnoticed into this place without someone wondering at her choice of instrument.
The square was full of people in their smartest dress, gathered for the annual Midnight Bard competition. The musician who won the title of Midnight Bard would be paid moderately well to be the Quarter’s Bard in Residence for an entire year, a highly coveted prize amongst those who barely scraped a living from street shows and tavern gigs that paid in part with watered-down beer.
Gwin headed towards the stage at the centre of the square. It was draped with grey and purple cloth to mark the importance of the occasion, lit by the torches that flickered all around. The crowd were talking loudly, cast in Aikana’s violet glow. Gwin felt a secret rush of pleasure to see a couple of changelings in the audience. Although she had searched for them during her long journey, these were the first such creatures she had seen. The changelings appeared alien beside their Armorian counterparts, their eyes fierce, their hair streaked with vivid colours. One of them, a younger woman, turned to glance briefly at Gwin. Her face was partially hidden by a deep, velvet hood but when their eyes met Gwin caught a glimpse of a large birthmark covering one side of her face.
The throng’s attention was suddenly drawn to the stage as a man jumped up onto it. They surged closer and Gwin was swept along with them, buffeted on all sides by jostling people until she somehow found herself directly in front of the stage, looking up at the man who was smiling and waving his hands to silence the crowd. He was wearing a long, grey tunic and a large wreath of purple feathers around his neck.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the man began. “Welcome to this most auspicious of occasions. The Midnight Bard is upon us! On so holy a night too. The Changing of the Moons has begun. The druids are locked up in their tower, on their knees and praying.” An unkind laugh rippled through the audience. “The good folk of Armoria are locked up in their houses,” the man continued, “waiting for the Change to pass. But where are you, friends? You are here with the madmen, the moon-blessed, the whores, and the bards. I salute you. Your lack of virtue or absence of fear has led you here tonight. We shall make merry and welcome our new Mistress Moon in the only manner that is fitting, with beer and song!”
At this, the crowd let out a great roar of approval. Gwin looked around, enjoying the spectacle. Many people were whistling or clapping with their hands held above their heads. They soon quietened down however when they realised this was not the end of the man’s speech. He instead began to list some of the acts they would be watching. After a further five minutes of this the audience began to shuffle their feet and whisper to each other impatiently.
“Goddess, he does drone on,” Gwin heard one onlooker say to another. She smiled to herself.
“May we all be as excited for the music to begin as this woman,” she heard the man announce. Looking up she was surprised to find him staring directly at her. He finally appeared to be finished with his lengthy introduction but he kept staring, even while taking a long, swooning bow.
Gwin began backing away into the crowd. She didn’t want to attract any more of the man’s attention but he was already springing from the stage and marching towards her. He had a determined look on his face that made her feel distinctly uncomfortable.
“Beautiful maiden, so fair of skin and clear of eye,” he said upon approaching her. He obviously didn’t care who in the crowd overheard him. “Please, let me introduce myself. I am Barlo of the Barlo Players and I am renowned in this quarter. I am witty and dashing and I will be escorting you this evening.”
Gwin’s first instinct was to turn and run away but she had to stay and play. She had to get up on that stage. Her fingers tightened around her panflute as she said, “I wasn’t aware an escort was required.”
“Something yearned for is very rarely something required,” Barlo said. He motioned at the crowd. “Look around. There are easily a hundred women watching us right now, yearning to be in your position here with me.”
Gwin severely doubted this was true.