The Castle's main courtyard made a perfect performance location. The troupe known as Korwa Tsinda, hailing from the fishing village near the Castle - Nyfan - was energetic and loud. They encouraged the audience to clap and cheer, sing along when they knew words to the chanting that enhanced their performances, and even emulate certain parts of the act.
They were careful, at least the elder Xitix and Efoshiq were, to point out that their demonstrations were professional - that the fire-juggling acts were certainly not something that young kids should go home and try out. Certainly not up in the dry grassy hills this summer!
But the rope jumping, climbing and acrobatics, as well as the normal type juggling that they showed off - those were even the subject of some practice sessions after their first show.
As always, the young and adorably cute Uzhue got a lot of attention from the girls in the audience. However his older cousin Bhajem won over many of the women - an important distinction that both young men asserted in jibes whenever they weren't performing.
Oeormi juggled his way into the kitchens, to procure the troupe's meal for the evening. The show was well-recieved, but only a small number of people really knew they were there at all. By the time the morning sun had risen, however, they would be well known.
"I like the buzzing of the voices," he said to his friends, "do you hear them?"
"Always so dramatic," Bhuto said with a chuckle. "People always talk our first day. If we keep them talking for five, we'll be set for the next season."
"Do you think we can fill the courtyard five nights?" Asked Uzhue, more amazed than curious. "Did they like us that much?"
"Can't you hear it?" Repeated Oeormi, clutching the boy's head and turning his ears side to side - "they are talking... All the walls are buzzing with our name!"
They laughed, and pulled down the shades to get some sleep. Though they would be thought to be exhausted by their performance it was far from the case that they slept right afterwards. Wisely plotting their time, the troupe traveled around the countryside and only during their performance weeks changed their schedule.
The nights were spent prepairing, limbering up, testing the waters of the local populace to see which of their many different shows they could offer. Their midday activity then, was their evening performance. It had to be at night, mostly because the fire sticks and torches, lit hoops and other items, could best be seen at night. They brought spotlights along, mirrored bowls that had sparking stones in them, which lit the area well enough to see their expressions while they performed, but not over-light the fire.
Then, a long 'afternoon' was often spent wandering the silent halls of their present employment. They would sometimes help the service staff with the cleaning or late-night duties, stretching out their well-used muscles and even occsaionally running errands from one part of the place to the other. They'd been to Dun Keiba before, they knew most of the halls reasonably well.
When the time came for them to bed down, therefore, it was just about an hour after dawn. The noises of a castle hardly bothered this group, they were used to the constant noises of a fishing village after all. The endless rushing of the river water, the cascade of the falls near by, and the calls of every form of life that came to the lake to drink or bathe. Not to mention the people!
The troupe came in three carriages - large narrow vans pulled by draft-bred racers. Those were much easier to come by than horses or other earth-brought creatures, and they could eat whatever was put in front of them - be it kelp, hay or just weeds. While they did care for their beasts, none of the young men were really attached to them.
Their supplies took up only one van, while they slept in the other two. The day passed them by, while they slept.
The second night their performance's audience had filled admirably. There were quite a few repeat members in the audience: the troupe were adept at spotting the same hair style or smiling face very quickly. They plied their works on those returning customers, giving a slightly different show than the prior opening night.
Instead of three sessions of fire-handling, they did two at the start, mixing a bit more acrobatic work in a little earlier than they'd done before. Rope tricks and then more fire-tossing, and finally ending with a spectacular (but well practiced) pyramid of people. That always brought a huge cascade of applause and this night was no different.
However of course, they were besieged by questions: why didn't you do that one trick? Will you do it again tomorrow? Who's the cute guy? What's your name? Are you really from the village?
These nights of entertainment had brought with them the smells of fresh baked foods and fragrant wine, offerings that folks who ran shops nearby could afford to give. There was never a charge for their performance, but they always took donated trade items that they could then bater in other towns.
Their haul tonight was much bigger than the first night. Yzheie was responsbile for keeping track of who brought the most, and noticed that there were some rich looking folks out there. It became his duty then, to try and get them to come back the next day, or at least later in the week before they left.
While he was not the crowd-charmer that Oeormi was, his polite demeanor and occasional winks to the women would probably draw a few back.
The week went by so quickly. In the end, the troupe performed the entire extent of their tricks and dances, without repeating any of the same nights' worth of activities in a row. By the fifth night then, there were some folks hanging out in the front rows that the troupe could practically identify by name!
"We want to thank you!" Said Oeormi brightly, "you've made our journey a joyous one, and our future brighter! We look forward to coming back this way very soon!"
His words were met with frantic cheering, with the added disappointed cries of the girls that they'd wooed in between duty and daylight.
A couple of the girls came through, asking why they couldn't stay just a little longer.
"Well," Bhajem explained carefully with a girl draped over each arm, "we have other skills to learn, and we must find new ways to make you all... squeal!"
Uzhue rolled his eyes, and whispered to the girl that had clung to him since the first night they'd arrived, "he's just looking for ways to make himself more presentable for you all. Unlike myself," he puffed up, "I'm perfect just the way I am."
The assembly laughed, and continued to ply the group with questions, comments and gifts through the evening. Bhuto, always the thoughtful one and considerate of their audience, went from one group to the next and thanked them. Bowing sincerely and sometimes kissing the ladies' hands, he then begged out and went into their caravan to rest.
Exhausted, the troupe spent an hour just separating their 'loot'. If someone gave one of them something in particular (like a shy, portly middle-aged woman had done with her semi-precious stone bracelet to Xitix) no one tried to take it away from the man. But the group always agreed on the bulk of 'useless things' - stuffed toys, sandals, pots and pans - whatever else might be given as trade, could be put into the last cart and bartered off.
Amazingly enough the troupe rarely fought. Though they were all clearly handsome men in the prime of their lives, they were also professionals. Hardly a day went by that they missed a practice session. Tomorrow would be such a day, since they were breaking camp and moving on. Heading to the north toward the coast and the ruins of Mi'ihen castle, they knew that there were still remnants of a township there. The townsfolk could use some of these traded items much more than the troupe could!
Efoshiq was beginning to develop a new routine involving the fire sticks and a hoop, one which would involve the other acrobats to leap through and then catch the sticks - alive with fire - on the other side. They had to practice without using the flames, especially up here in the grasslands. Out in the deeper woods it wasn't much of a problem, the wet ground never caught fire while they were around it.
But before they even got the chance to get farther away than the horizon, from the castle, they sensed something around them.
"Nex," whispered Uzhue, and he tightened his grip on the racer's reigns. The other drivers did the same, it would be easy to tell that something was amiss. The grasses moved unnaturally against the wind, a tactic that the clever Nex of this area used. It kept them downwind of their prey, but it meant a more keen mind would percieve it earlier.
Presumably they were going for the racers. The brown colored lead racer had seen several Nex attacks in his life, and was hardly able to be controlled. The five others took their cue from him, and began getting nervous.
"Should we keep going?" Asked Yzheie with a voice that carried gently over the wind, but would not alert the Nex to their knowledge.
"No," said Oeormi with confidence, "just pull up for a stop. Light the sticks."
"The - the sticks?" Uzhue asked in shock. "But if they..."
The others had already started pulling the wagons around his, they stood in a block with the racers in the front and the goods wagon between the other two. Fewer stock items could be lost that way, they could afford to lose some of the things in their personal wagons, plus the Nex had sometimes gotten bored when looking for prey and being thwarted by several layers of tough canvas and junk.
This time however, as the Nex began to chitter and make the racers nervous - they came from the sides and surrounded the wagons - there was another option.
The flames from their fire sticks and torches would hold off the vile insectoid creatures long enough, but eventually they'd get bold. But this time, they scattered!
A moment later, everyone in the troupe knew why! A trio of shadows blocked the sun momentarily. Draks overhead!
Acid spitting, trumpeting and hooting draks!
The troupe cheered - they had enough practice with crowds that their voices chorused across the grasses, and by the time the Nex were thwarted and sent wounded back to their holes, the knights knew they'd been just in time.
"How did you know to come? We don't have a fairy drak!" Said Xitix, and the knights settled to the ground while the others extinguished their torches.
"We actually..." One said, scratching his head and looking to his companion, "we were going to come looking for you anyway."
The troupe became suddenly nervous. Sometimes, they'd been accused of theft! But this time, the other two knights assuaged that thought with a laugh.
"We watched a couple of your performances from the castle walls," said another man, "What Pascal is trying to say, is that we'd like to Judge you."
The older man glanced toward the third of their party, a black-haired man who looked a little queasy after their chase. "The High Knight and his Squire are absolutely right, you're almost impossibly right for draks."
While most of the troupe remained stunned in silence, young Uzhue blurted out, "he's the high knight!? Wow!"
"It's not like he's the prince," muttered Pascal, who almost started to duck before he said it. But Dunstan merely laughed and nodded.
"The Prince will be interested in meeting you up close."
"As will the princess," muttered the dark-haired man, and Pascal and he snickered to one another.
"Normally," Dunstan said with a sigh, "our knights and judges are a bit more formal... but the thrill of our hunting these Nex seems to have broken that tradition."
"But ... we ..." Oeormi started to say, then he turned to his friends. "Discuss," he suggested, and headed toward the one van. As the judges and their draks watched, the seven men climbed deftly into the back of their main living cart.
"Should we?" He asked simply.
"I'd like to at least try," Uzhue eagerly said.
"It would certainly be ... different," Xitix added.
"We aren't tied down to anything right now," Efoshiq said, "but would that have to change?"
"I don't know," Oeormi said. "Hold on."
He ducked out of the canvas van, and called out, "would we have to remain at Dun Keiba or some other castle?"
"Only if you wish to," Izzy yelled back, "ninjas never do, and I've Judged a dozen of them!"
Satisfied with that, Oeormi stuck himself back inside. They were all perched at odd angles, every one of them used to contortions and postures that would make most folks sieze up.
Bhuto nudged Xitix, "you'd be able to make a catch of that fine woman th'gave you that," he indicated the beaded object which he wore on one wrist. As the others laughed, Xitix got a bit miffed, saying nothing.
Yzheie nodded slowly, "we would be able to fly to places. And portal. They can do that you know."
"We'd ... be able to get rid of these things?" Asked Bhajem.
"We could keep them," Oeormi asserted. "We'd be able to find a place where we could live. We could just travel to our performances. Maybe..."
"Maybe even the draks would be able to perform with us?" said Uzhue. The rest of them nodded, and silently they came to the decision that yes - it would be beneficial to them as a troupe and not just individually, that they become Aspirants!
To the swooning of several of the local women - again - the troupe came back to Dun Keiba. They were informed by the Prince that they'd be split up briefly, because it would probably work best if they stood as Aspirants at different locations. So they began to choose where each of them would stand.