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When I was a child, the mummers came to town.
It was not quite Solstice’s Eve yet. The nights were long and dark, and most nights a thin, jagged coat of haw frost would top the trees in glistening frigidity. What few horses the rich owned would stamp and whinny at their posts, billowing clouds of icy fog filling the air from their nostrils. The windows in the village had flickering tallow candles in the window, and the stores continued the custom of handing out sweets and cakes to the half-starved children. A thick, smoky fire was always lit in our house.
My father took me one night to the tavern. I myself was young, not yet a man but old enough to be trusted to drink without the barkeep watering the beer down. As we crossed the threshold, the thick wave of village chatter washed over me, and I remember feeling the rich acceptance that only a homely community can extend to you. In one corner of the squat, one-storey building, a performer strummed his instrument carefully, leaning against the black, ancient oak beam that supported the white plaster wall. Although he had a half-finished cup of strong liquor within arm’s reach, his fingers were not dulled by the alcohol, and the fast rhythms and leaping melodies comfortable backed up the incessant murmur of the village gossips.
I remember standing at my father’s side, sipping gently at the drink in my little hands as he talked to Arem, the local farmer who owned the barely fields up on the crest of the hill. He often did business with the next village across, set deep into the rolling chalk valleys, and it was gossip from the next village over which he was talking to my father about.
“You know, Gure, there have been whispers of strange folk around.”
“From beyond the valleys?”
He shook his head. “More foreign still than that. They apparently hail from across the sea, came over on strange filigreed boats from the Silk Isles. They don’t even follow the Great One.”
My father gulped down another mouthful of beer, his eyes widening in shock. “What? Dear One, what is upon us? What faith do these foreigners have?”
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s something stranger, something…” the farmer dropped his voice to a coarse whisper, years of dusty farm work evident in its low harshness, “older.”
My father hurried me away, rushing me off. I found a couple of similarly aged children to play with, dancing around between the legs of our elders, getting yelled at and cuffed on the ear more than once as we collided with people’s pints and knocked their drinks to the floor. Soon though, we were brought still by the hush that descended over the townsfolk. Quietly, I snaked my way through the crowd and found myself at my father’s side. I tried to advance forwards, but my father caught me, and held me tight at his side.
The door of the tavern opened, and a troop of men and women came through. They wore thick, dark cloaks, dusted on the top with a thin patchwork of fresh fallen snow that melted as they came into the warm room. They had on cowls of thin, near translucent silky material that shifted over their forms as they moved, thin golden threads in the fabric casting long shadows on their features. As they trod in a thin column into the pub, they gently removed their cloaks, and people gasped at their clothes. You have to understand, we were country folk, simple people whose aspirations didn’t extend beyond the next village over. To see the rich, imported vermillions, purples, blues, and golds that were daubed liberally over their gay costumes left us dumbfounded. Outside of the pretty birds that the Great One had made for us, we never thought to have seen such colours, much less shaped by the hands of man.
The leader of the troupe was a vaguely androgynous character, the hood dangling limply around his neck like a slack noose. He approached Stryor, the barman, and produced a thin purse. From this, he drew curiously imprinted gold leafs, hexagonal in shape, and wordlessly gave them over to him. Stryor examined them briefly, testing their weight in his hand, and then nodded, finding them acceptable. He disappeared into a back room, leaving us alone with the Mummers.
I heard whispers from my own folk, growing in aggression as they stood there, looking blankly at us from their hidden eyes in perfect silence. Another member, a woman, moved over to the fireplace and gazed into it quietly. She reached deep into a pocket and drew out a strange, patterned pouch that stunk pungently of mysterious herbs and spices. She held it to her nose, inhaling deeply of the scent, before tossing it into the flames, watching the fire spit teal and violet hues. As she returned to her own people, the leader gave a simple hand gesture, and what few Mummers had kept their cloaks on threw them off, revealing wind instruments and stringed implements that left the poor old lutenist in the corner wide-mouthed in envy. Then, without even looking at each other, they began to play.
The melody was mournful and slow. High, descant drones were complimented with chromatic bass scales and chords, terrible, important notes. My father gasped and gripped my shoulder tighter as we saw things come from the fire. The colours and sounds became more vivid in hue and pitch, the emotions of fear we all felt more powerful. I watched fearfully as things stalked forwards out of the flames. They were not human in shape, nor form, for they were purely shadow, dark creatures that flickered over us all. What they were human in, though, was the careful thoughtfulness with which they scanned over everyone, seeking something, someone. All too soon, the Mummers were finished with their song, and the fire had died out, leaving us in stony, dark silence as they trooped out, donning their thickly layered cloaks as they dissolved into the night.
For a little while afterwards, I searched for the children I had played with earlier, desperately searching for people whose names I now cannot remember. The screams of their parents filled up the nights, for no one knew what had happened to them. I wonder if anyone other than me counted the Mummers in and out. There were nine who entered, and eleven who left.