Fair Upon the Tor #52 (updates Mondays)

His eyes opened wide: jarringly awake and alert. “Ow! What in the all the earth’s fire–?”

“This is made the spit and blood of a sea-foam hydra.” Quinnya dribbled more of the stuff into his cuts. “Also, wine from vines in the gardens of the Temple of the Silver Dusk, ashes from the funeral pyre of a respected healer, and other more subtle ingredients. It’ll staunch the blood loss and do something to stave off mortification. After a good sleep you’ll find the cuts are more healed than they would be in the natural course of hours. Though you will find yourself with a few scars,” she added, indicating the gash above his left eye. “Lucky you’ve a thick skull, well.”

Despite the medicine, the grogginess of blood-loss was swift in regathering itself into Keru’s eyes. He was soon slurring his words again, sounding almost drunk as he said, “Smells sweet.”

Quinnya nodded. “Hmmm. It does.” She looked up then, first at Keru, then Caewen and finally over at Dapplegrim. “I was certain you were of the night-relam, given your companion there.”

“I’m in no-one’s realm,” she said.

“I can see that. I have eyes, and I have ears. I’m no fool. Which may not be true of you.” Hitching up her black dress, white strips of rune-marked fabric ruffling, she got up with a wince of middle-aged joints. “All of you might as well listen, though I don’t know if you will. My sorcery is the sorcery of the storm and wind, sky, squalls and lightning. I have no alliance either, not today, not tonight. The storm rages at noon. The storm rages at midnight. It has no allegiances. And my life has been a long hard road.” She chuckled, quietly. “I’ve a few striking scars of my own, though I keep them covered. But, I am also the officiator of the maze because I am neutral in all matters. I am trusted because of it.” She put away the bottle of the silvery dark wine and blood. “I have lived a long life only through the application of care and considered action. You–all of you–need to understand that you are nothing but trivial pawns in a great war, and yet, unaligned magicians are also a nuisance. A wild element in the vast games of the Sun and the Night Sky. If the great powers perceive a reason to expunge you, imprison, or execute: they will. Be assured of it. They will not pause for a moment.” She looked around at them. “You think me a nuisance too, well. But those who walk the third path would do well to follow my example. Do not cause a fuss. Do not kick waves from the shore. Do not draw attention from the magicians of night, nor of day. They will only find you aggrieving in the end, and eventually, you will be aggrieved by them.”

She cast a quick glance over the flame-lit hillside, to Sgeirr, who was standing in a ruddy glow of light, fuming to look at now, her cheeks bright red, her eyes thin slits of rage. She must have guessed the reason that her companions had not emerged. Past her, the lion and the old icy magician-king had since stood up, and were now departing. It seemed they did know when there was no reason to remain waiting. They knew the two men were dead. anyone who watched them walk off knew the truth of it. But Quinnya just made a clucking noise at the back of her throat. “When a princess of a powerful kingdom–who comes of a long line of respected sorcerers–when she complains to me of falsehoods and trickery, I take the complaint seriously. As I must.” She looked at Caewen and her friends. “When some sorry excuses for half-wit witchingfolk present themselves, I do my best to steer them onto paths that are less likely to lead to untimely death. Though I can’t say I’ve done much to help you, have I? I did try.”

“Help us?” said Caewen. “You’ve insulted, belittled and done nothing but put walls the way.”

“And if you had delayed yourself by seven years, you would be older, wiser, and at this moment, you would very likely not have a deadly enemy wanting your head on a plate, young lady. The three of you–“

“–four,” interrupted Dapplegrim, with a snort.

“Four. Fine, yes. Four. The four of you have some serious enemies now. I don’t know how you conspired to murder two prentice magians in the maze without invoking retribution, and to be frank, I don’t want to know.”

“Actually,” Keri started, “it was those two who–“

“Uh uh uh uh uh… I said I don’t want to know.” A long draw of breath. “Now, if you will gather yourselves up, your friend here needs his rest, and you need to be out of the night. For payment, I ask nothing. I am bound to help, as I said.” She nodded at the darkness. “The Festival of the Uncreated Night has already begun, and our dear and lovely Princess Sgeirr will no doubt be wracking her head for ways to have you lot dead before dawn. Am I clear on this?”

None of them answered. Caewen looked at the ground, and scuffed a toe of her shoe through a rank tuft of grass.

“Well?” said Quinnya.

“Yes,” they muttered, except for Keru who seemed too giddy from blood loss to understand quite what was happening. He just craned his head back and said, “I feel like my toes are all made of sparkles.”

Quinnya looked at the sky. “Fine. Get along with you. I don’t want to hear anything more of you, not any of you. If you go about breaking more rules, and if the Goddess does not see fit to punish you for some reason, it will fall to an officiator of the moot to carry out justice upon you. Given my luck of late, I expect it will probably be me. That would be unpleasant for me.” She paused a moment, then added, “though not nearly so unpleasant as it will be for you.”

Fair Upon the Tor #51 (updates Mondays)

Caewen could not bring herself to be angry. She felt only flat, worn out, coldly irritated. “There was no cheating.”

Quinnya said nothing, but stared in her off-kilter way, as if by staring she would force Caewen into some sort of blubbering apology and confession.

“If there is nothing else?” said Caewen. “I would like to go to my friend. He’s just come out of the maze, from the looks of it, and–“

“Yes. There is. One thing else,” snapped Quinnya. “He must stay here. On the outside of the line of flames. I have already warned him twice. This makes the third.”

“Fine, fine.” Caewen turned to Dapplegrim. “You don’t mind waiting a moment longer? We’ll get the greeting done quickly, and have Keru back here, then back to the tent.”

Dapplegrim snorted, not taking his eyes off the iron-grey magess. At this Caewen suppressed another irritated sigh. She said to him, “Alright then. I’ll take that as an indication that you are not going to try and eat Lady Quinnya.”

To this the old mage simply narrowed her eyes. “Oh no, please let him try.”

Caewen walked away from them both, shaking her head. Does magic drive people insane? What was the matter with all these wizardly sorts? It really was as if casting spells made people odd in the head. And maybe it did? The only other magician she knew at all vaguely well was Mannagarm, and he had never seemed totally collected and sane. The winter-warlock Vespertine had not been right in the head either, in her opinion… although he had done a better job of faking a sane mind perhaps. Or maybe, she realised–well, perhaps she had it the wrong way around? Maybe it was only borderline lunatics who thought spellwork was an awfully good idea in the first place? That made as much sense as the other possibility.

The grass was turning damp under the expanding night, and the long sweeping reflections of blazing red cast from torches and fires danced out before her. Keri was already at her brother’s side, and there did seem to be something wrong. Keru was bent forward, and it looked like he was relying on his sister to stand. When Caewen reached them, she found herself speechless, first with shock, then anger. Blood, thick and reddish black in the dim light, caked Keru’s face and neck, and several savage gashes cut his arms and right shoulder, visible through the hacked rents in his clothing.

“Hello,” said Keru, smiling. His teeth had caught some small trickles of blood between them. “Sorry I took my time. Ran into someone who thought I’d be better off staying in the maze.”

Keri had a smouldering fire in her voice. “It was that two bastards, Sgeirr’s retainers. The Modsarie. They attacked him.”

“But I got away,” said Keru. He tried to straighten up, but had difficulty. His eyes looked like they were swimming, and his skin seemed bloodless under the dark tan of his complexion. He gave Caewen an odd look, and said, “Hey there. You’re looking lovely.”

His sister snapped at him. “Oh, shut up, Keru.”

The boy shook his head, dizzily.

Keri then said, “He’s lost a lot of blood. We need to get him to the welcomers quick, and then to someone with the healer’s knack, right away. These rags are barely holding the bleeding.” She was right. Keru had torn strips from his tunic to bandage the worst cuts, but the redness was welling out, like a thick juice from rotten fruit.

“Come on,” said Keri. “Get on his other side.”

Caewen lifted Keru’s right arm, and eased her shoulder under it. Together, they managed the long, uphill walk to the stone dais where the talking lion and the old icy man were seated, silent, watchful. Neither of them bothered to try and tempt Keru to their side in the endless war. They seemed to implicitly expect that the Forsetti would go their own way, and they spun out neither argument nor enticement. The lion only said, “Peace be upon you,” and then, “go and speak to Quinnya before you go.”

“Must we?” muttered Caewen, but Athmis growled low in this throat, rumbling a sound that seemed to assure that yes, this was required.

Of course Quinnya was not hard to find. She was still standing beside Dapplegrim, her arms folded, and her hard eyes full of a cold, stormy light. As the three of them hobbled towards her, they left a trail of crushed grass and bloody drops.

She shook her head, and looked skyward, before saying, “Put him down. I am bound to help those who come out of the maze, hale or injured, though it is few enough who are fool enough to get themselves this injured. What did you do? Try to climb over the walls to find a quicker way through? I expect you discovered that the maze dislikes clever clogs.”

“No,” wheezed Keru. “Attacked.”

At that Quinnya stopped, and her face froze into a closed waxy visage. “Attacked by what?”

“By whom, you mean,” said Keri as they lowered her brother to the grass. “It was those two retainers of Sgeirr.” She sniffed, and wiped some of her brother’s blood from her hands. “But they are dead now, so that is that.”

“Are they now?” asked Quinnya.

“They are.” Perhaps Caewen was a little too definite in answering. The old magess looked at her oddly, before arranging herself beside Keru and kneeling down. She lifted one of his eyelids and then the other, felt his right hand, and placed her hand over his heart. “There’s a lot of blood gone out of him,” she said, but followed this with a quieter, “Yet he will live. He is young and strong. Here now…” She fetched a small glass vial out of a pouch, held it up to the night sky as if trying to peer through it against darkness and clouds, then uncorked it. A smell of wet flowers suffused the air. “On it goes,” Quinnya said, tipping the bottle upside-down, and dashing droplets of a silvery grey liquor into Keru’s wounds. He winced.

Fair Upon the Tor #50 (updates Mondays)

As she turned to go, she felt their eyes on her back, along with the stares of those wizards and witches who were still lingering at the fringes of the space. There were muttered whispers, coughs and questioning stares. Caewen and Keri started off towards Dapplegrim. “Is it unusual? Not taking a side?”

“Reasonably, yeah. Most people want the safety of one faction or the other, even if only in some vague way. I suppose because you came out of the Locked Door, people thought you might make more of a show of things too. That was rather understated.” She threw a sideways glance. “Of course, you’re on your own now, too, without allies. Anyone might have a go at you.” A slight frown. “Outside the moot of course. I wonder what has happened to Keru? Curse the shrine, the blood and the ochre. And curse Keru too if he’s just dawdling.” She was sounding afraid and frustrated. “Where is he?”

Caewen frowned too then, and tried to think what to say. “You know, it may not be a terrible thing if he takes a long time to walk the maze. I mean, it sort of seemed to me that the maze was a kind of symbol for life. Maybe that sounds stupid… but I don’t know. If he takes a long time to walk the maze, maybe that only means he’ll live to a ripe old age? It makes sense to me.” She looked over her shoulder. “The big pussy cat and the king haven’t moved. They’re still waiting. They would know if there was no point in waiting any longer, wouldn’t they?”

“Pussy cat?” Keri’s eyes lit up. She pinned down a laugh, trying not to let it squirm free. “Caewen, that’s a Sakhmis.”

“He said that. Is that the name of the kind of cat? I mean, he’s obviously some sort of huge magical moggie, but are there others like him?”

Keri laughed out loud now, not able or willing to suppress the amusement. “Huge magical moggie? Oh, multitudes of the fern and tree: if only he could hear you say that. I’d love to see his reaction.” She seemed to be appreciating the distraction, and gave out a happier sigh. “It’s not a giant house cat. A Sakhmis is a strain of lion, but bigger, and possessing the power of speech. We have wolves and bears around these hills that are like that. Speaking wolves and thinking, talking bears. Far more dangerous than the usual sort of wolf or bear. A Sakhmis is the same; a talking, thinking lion, and far more dangerous than an everyday lion. Which is itself very dangerous indeed.”

“Oh. I see.” She tried to remember what lions were supposed to look like. “Yes. Lions. I’ve seen pictures carved on goblets, and in embroideries too, I think. I imagined a lion would look different. I don’t quite know how… just different.”

“Goldsmiths, scrimshaw cutters and cloth-stitchers probably aren’t the best sources for discovering out how a thing looks. I mean, think how is a raven usually depicted? …or a dog? …or a goat? I don’t think you could tell a raven from a sparrow, just from an etching, or a bit of embroidery.”

“That’s true enough.”

They were nearing Dapplegrim now. He was twitching and stamping one hoof. Although he was clearly making an effort to hold still, he couldn’t control his ears, and they swivelled back and forth eagerly. His left hoof had left a trail in the gritty soil.

“Hello there, Dapple,” said Caewen and she went up to him and gave him a hug around his neck.

“Yes. Well. Hur. Hurm. Good to see you too. Was your time in the maze fun?”

“Oh, well, I don’t know if ‘fun’ is the right word, but it was interesting.” A moment of reflection. “Illuminating, anyway.”

“Apparently, she can’t tell us any more than that,” said Keri. “Apparently, there’s some sort of ban or promise, or something. Wink wink. Nod nod. All that stuff.” She sounded as if she were trying to make a joke, but there was still a strain undercutting her voice. Worry was still gnawing through her words.

“Oh, said Dapplegrim. I suppose you must have spoken to the goddess of the hill then? She will have made you promise not to talk about it. Don’t worry I won’t press any more. Not me. Oh no. Hurm. I know what’s what. Gods and goddesses are the worst for making folks promise to to keep secrets. Hur. Hur. Hurm. Bring me this. Sacrifice this other thing. Worship me every twelfth day out of twenty, except in Autumn, when you must worship on the first of the month too. But don’t dare tell anyone.” A ripple of his shoulders and flanks expressed a sentiment in the general remit of a shrug. “That kind of thing.”

“Ahhh…” Said Caewen, unsure if she could even acknowledge that he was in the right general area. “Maybe,” she said. “Do you know whether such bans need to be taken seriously?”

He nodded vigourously. “Oh, yes. Definitely, or at least, as long as you are near the tor. I mean, hurm, the goddess of this place is just a local earth divinity, right? Hurm. So probably her power will diminish at distance.” After a considered length, said again, “probably.”

“I don’t think I’m going to take the risk then. I’m just not going to talk about the details.” Just as she finished saying this, a few stray calls and hollers jumped up from the thinning crowd.

“Look,” yelled Keri, as she turned to the maze. She immediately broke into a run.

“Is it Keru?” said Caewen.

Dapplegrim squinted his deep black eyes. Red-gleams shot through them. “Yes. He’s coming out from one of the middling twilight doors. Clearly not planning to make alliance with Day or Night either, given his door of egress. Hur. Hur. Hurrrm.”

“Come on then,” said Caewen, but as she started after Keri, a tall, angular figure moved to block her, seeming almost to leap out of nowhere. A familiar hard voice, like iron being dragged over stone said, “Not him!” After an almost snarl-like huff, she added, “And you! I want a word with you, if you will deign to speak with me, oh so very important, lady magician.” In the evening gloom and uncertain flicker of firelight, Quinnya’s grey hair was wrought into a wiry storm shot with white glistenings like lightning. Her eyes, sharp and brutally intelligent, fixed on Caewen. Her black dress with its white linen strips pinned to it, stirred and lulled gently against the low cold breeze on the hillside.

“Oh, sons and daughters of Old Night and Chaos.” Dapplegrim rolled his eyes. “Quinnya again. Hello, Quinnya. Nice to see you.” Then, in a whispered aside that was clearly audible. “Actually, it’s not nice to see her. She’s been very rude to me. It was her who stopped me going down into the hollow. Nasty old… hurm… hur… rule-follower.”

“Well, if that is the worse your talking demon-donkey has to say about me, I am complimented. I am old. And the world, such as it is, allows only the sensible to live to old age. I’ve been called worse things than nasty. And yes, I follow the rules.” She turned her glare on Caewen, “which you, it seems, do not. How precisely did you cheat your way onto the path of the great door, well?”

Fair Upon the Tor #49 (updates Mondays)

The two of them, Caewen and Keri, wove a path among the torches and open fires, coming at last to a slight raised knoll atop which there was a small sweep of stone carved into a platform. On this plinth, facing them, were two strange creatures. On their right sat a withered old man, skin all silvery white, eyes grey-blue. A thin frown puckered his lips and his face was pinched into a web of hard lines. The clothing he wore was elaborate, all grey and steel-blue, shimmering like kingly robes, and he wore a crown of black, studded with white burning diamonds. For a confused moment Caewen thought she was looking at the Winter King. This hard, ice-eyed old man with an inscrutable expression was what she imagined the mysterious entity to look like. But the Winter King, whoever or whatever he was, would not be sitting in a frail wooden chair, on a stone dais, greeting people emerging from the prentice’s maze. Or at least, she could not imagine any way in which such a being would be sitting here and not be the stuff of rumour throughout the moot.

Her gaze still somewhat suspiciously lingering on the man dressed in kingly, pale finery, she looked over at the other welcomer. This one was not human at all, nor anything like a human. It was some manner of huge cat, with ruddy fur and a mane of dark, almost charcoal hair around its long, drawn feline visage. A cunning gleam of intellect stood bright in the creature’s eyes, and it made huge deep rumble of a noise in its throat as it eyed her back. Flopping one massive paw over the other, it took a moment to casually lick its fur before saying, “Peace be upon you, supplicant, now risen to full magehood. I am called Athmis the Sakhmis. I am the Day-Greeter.”

A wheezing hiss of a voice then escaped the seated old man, though his lips barely parted. A sound like cold wind in northern pines. “And I am the Night-Greeter, whose name is Hwala, who rules the Woerns.”

They seemed to expect her to speak then, and both looked at her silently, appraisingly.

“Caewen of Drossel,” she ventured.

The gigantic cat shifted its huge body. Long and fat and round like a sausage, it lazed on the stone plinth, looking out from hooded eyes. “The Honour, the Presence, the Heaven-born is with you, O’ Caewen, she who is of Drossel. Thou art surely both heavenly and unsurpassable, for you have passed through the Heart Door, that portal which none do easily pass. Do you yet behold the mystery that is creation? Have you seen the right and the wrong of it? For, we must ask, whom do you serve? I see no coldness or darkness in your soul except that which you have chased away, and made go elsewhere. A demon that once lived inside you, I think. Yet, I smell only warm grass and meadow flowers on your breath. Are you not a creature of daylight? Are you not willing to swear to Our Lady of the Sun?”

“Bah!” spat the withered, frozen king. “You have a northern cast about your features, and you go about with a night-creature, through and through, that demoniac horse-thing of yours. There is icy sorcery in your blood too. Your spirit has indeed cohabited with a spirit of the winters, and though it is not in your flesh now, it has left stark traces. Surely you are among the loyal servants of Old Night and the Queen of Stars and Mysteries? Swear to it, and be welcomed.”

“No,” said Caewen.

The huge maned cat smiled, but she shook her head.

“No, for you too. I am not on either side. I want no part in your endless bickering war. Yes, I do come from the north, but not from so very far north as you guess. Drossel is a small village in the borderlands. We’ve a long memory of armies going this way and that. Drossel has been burned to the ground a dozen times, as the stories go. Both by armies marching north under the banner of the fiery sun, and by armies marching south under the stars and the moon. Your war has brought my family, and my ancestors, my home, nothing but misery. And much of that. I want no part of you, or your thrice-fool war.”

“You pick the third way then?” said the old king, with one eyebrow raised at her.

The cat snorted. “That is the hardest of the paths. If you choose the path of the sun, then I am here to greet you and teach you, protect and instruct. If you choose the path of the moon and stars, then my counterpart, peace be upon him, is here to do the same. But, the other path: that is the path of fires and shadows, green leaves, wild beasts and ocean waves. No one is here to greet you. For those are wild things that will not be ruled, or rule, or form alliance. That is the lonely way.”

“Don’t worry,” said Keri, behind her and at a low whisper. “I choose the way between too. All my people do. We have never taken a side in this either.”

Caewen let herself speak, quietly. “So then there is no one to greet me, or teach me. I’m no worse off than I was before.”

The pallid cold king nodded. “That is true enough.”

“Indeed it is,” rumbled the cat.

“So, may I go now?”

They both gave a slight nod.

Fair Upon the Tor #48 (updates Mondays)

The stars above were bright nail-heads sunk deep in a soggy dark sky. A ghost of the day’s receded sun still draped itself across the western horizon. A few trails of high cloud showed up gleams of orange and gold, cast from somewhere beyond the rim of the world. There were people scattered around, but not many. They were almost outnumbered by the torches on polished dark wood poles and fires, lit in low braziers. The earth, the people and the hillside were all in shadow.

Looking around, the whole of the immediate landscape was one broad and shallow impression, pushed into the size of the tor, as if by the heel of a gigantic hand. Up above, Caewen could see paths tracing the black-green mass of the tor, and the summit above that, tearing at some foggy strands of cloudiness. She turned around to try and understand how the shallow corrie related to the maze. Behind her, both left and right, stretched a horseshoe shaped expanse of the grey, gritty stone walls of the maze, spreading like wings of a huge, heavy bird, and encircling the depression on the hillside. Doors lined the wall, studding the whole length of the half-circle. There were a lot of them too. Far too many to count at a glance. Above each door was carved a device of some sort or other, trees, clouds, stars, and other more esoteric shapes. Presumably these were exits from the maze, and the carvings were symbolic in some way. Maybe relating to the path taken through the maze?

As Caewen stood there, feeling more than a little disorientated, trying to work out her bearings, a cry went up from the thin crowd. More than one voice shouted aloud, all raised in what sounded like wordless surprise, even amazement. A moment later, a figure detached herself from the milling knots of bodies, and ran in long-limbed bounds down the slope. “Caewen! Caewen! You’re alive!”

It was Keri. She practically hit Caewen in mid-air and wrapped her arms around her. “Where’s Keru?” she panted. “Isn’t he with you?” She looked over Caewen’s shoulder.

“No. Didn’t he emerge ahead of me? I was in the maze for hours, or it felt like that. He must have long since come out of the place.”

“Gods of fern and earth-oven. He’s not with you?” She bit her lip, and it looked like she was going to have to stop herself crying. “I thought he must be with you, that maybe you chanced on each other in the maze. It was all I could think of.” Her tone darkened. “Has the maze kept him then?”

“No,” Caewen was about to tell her that the goddess of the tor only keeps young women, only by choice, and that there had been no sign of Keru in the house under the tor anyway, but she remembered the warning. “I mean. I can’t say how I know, but I know the maze hasn’t taken him.” She trailed off embarrassedly. Keri pulled away. She gave Caewen an awkward stare. “I was certain my brother had to be with you. He isn’t. What’s happened to him?”

“I don’t know.”

Keri swallowed hard, but pulled herself taller, fixed her expression, and turned her face away, rubbing the back of a hand across her eyes. “We can’t think about it right now. You have to go stand before the welcomers and proclaim yourself. I wonder what they’ll say?”

“The welcomers?”

“They meet new magicians who have completed the maze. They will ask you for your allegiance, night or day, or other.”

“Other then, I guess. Is that all? That shouldn’t take long.”

“But don’t you–?” Keri shook her head. “No, of course, you wouldn’t know. There are twenty-five doors out of the labyrinth. The Twenty-Four Doors for the Hours, which mark out the hours of the day, are the common doors, and then there is the twenty-fifth: the Lockshut Way. You came out by the Lockshut. No one comes out by the shut door, or at least, not in a hundred years has anyone come out that way. How did you find it? What was behind it? The story is that anyone who comes out of the shut door is destined to sit on the Broadtable, destined to be one of the great magians of all the orders.”

“That doesn’t sound likely,” said Caewen, now feeling deeply uncomfortable. “And besides, I don’t go in much for prophecies. I’m starting to doubt the truthfulness of omens and seers in general, truth be told.”

“Still, it’s unusual though. Come on, Caewen. The welcomers will be waiting.” A glance back at her. “And you will have to tell me what was on the other side of the door. I can’t imagine what you saw there.”

“Nothing much to speak of,” said Caewen quietly. She added, with discomfit, “It was just a way in the maze. Nothing special.” The lie rankled her, but she had to believe that the goddess had been truthful about the ban against telling anyone about her house, or the taking of souls.

As they walked up the shallow incline, Caewen spotted Sgeirr. The princess-sorceress was standing off to one side, looking troubled to the point of pensive. She was keeping well to the shadows, away from any torchlight, and fingering the hilt of that broad dagger she had sheathed to her hip. So, Sgeirr had come through the maze safely enough then? She would be wondering what happened to her two followers, no doubt. Caewen toyed briefly with the idea of telling her exactly what had happened, but thought better of it. The memory alone made her feel sick, and she didn’t want to be known for that sort of magic, nor did she think she would actually get any pleasure out of telling someone that their companions were dead.

Keri saw her too, and nodded in the general direction, but just a fraction, clearly trying to keep her movement subtle. “That Sgeirr… her two lackeys haven’t come out of the maze either. Something strange has happened today.”

Caewen now had to consider whether she could be honest with Keri about this, and said, after tentatively wetting her lips a fraction, “Actually, I do know what happened to them at least. They attacked me in the maze. I defended myself.”

Keri stoped, nailed to the earth in her half-step. She stared, eyeballs wide, unblinking. “But… but the goddess will punish you. No attendee of the moot can take the life of another. Not ever.”

“As things resolved, that won’t be a concern. The goddess will not punish me.”

“How do you know?”

A hard bite of her breath, then Caewen said. “I’m sorry. I can’t say. I’m not trying to be mysterious. I just can’t say. Certain things happened to pass that I cannot speak about. I was forbidden.”

Keri was quieter after that, casting suspicious, sideways glances at Caewen, as if trying to unravel what she was seeing. “I haven’t known you very long, Caewen, but you don’t seem like the sort of person who just lets themselves be ordered about. There’s more to this than just a simple instruction, isn’t there?”

“Yes. That would be the situation. I can’t elaborate though. I wish I could, but I can’t.”

They were nearly at the top of the small depression, Caewen heard another familiar voice call to her. “A’halloo! Caewen!” It was Dapplegrim. He had broken into a prance, like a foal, back and forth just on the other side of the outermost line of fires. “They won’t let me into the enclosure, on account of not being a magician. If you can believe it? Stupid wizards. Great to see you! Keri was worried, but I wasn’t.”

Keri smiled, small, concealed by a turn of the head. “He was worried sick. Caewen this. Caewen that. I thought he’d never shut up.”

Caewen waved. “It’s alright. I’m alright.”

Fair Upon the Tor #47 (updates Mondays)

At length, she said, quietly: “Here is my last question, though it is not for my sake.” One long draw of breath. Now, she had to remember all the details. “Far to the east,” she started, “there is an Empire called Actria. I am told that they have long been threatened by a cult of priests who live in a place called the City of the Bloodied Lady. Someone I met wished very fervently to know how the City of the Bloodied Lady might be overthrown, and the cult cast down. Can you tell me how that might be achieved?”

“Difficult. It is at a great distance, and my vision is unclear at such leagues of lands and oceans. And worse, the city of which you speak is encircled, round and round, with ramparts of magic, defended by eerie beasts and necromantic constructs.” A long pause elapsed, before the goddess said, “But we know of a way. East of Temask and south of Caithroth is the Sorokorathian Desert. At the heart of the sands are twelve ancient pyramids. Equidistant among the pyramids lies a hidden chamber. It is under a sandstone statue in the shape of a gryphon half-buried in sand. In this chamber is a spear. This spear was made from the backbones and teeth of a murdered god. It rattles and hisses with a desire for blood, and its powers are terrible. In times long past, the spear of the sands had an enmity for the dark spirits that rule in The City in the Grey Dry Woods, that which you called the place of the bloodied lady: and the dead-god spear would seek the destruction of that city, if it could. Any who carries that spear to the gates of the grey, dry city will certainly bring the occultists and priests to their knees.” Her changeful eyes glinted as she looked at Caewen. “But it is a terrible weapon to unleash upon the world. It was buried and forgotten for good reasons, for the bloodlust of the spear will not be sated with a few dozen deaths, or a few hundred. Still, you ask this for another. It is rare, but not unheard of for a questioner to ask for something on behalf of another.”

“I felt sorry for her.”

“Nonetheless, it is admirable to expend a question thus.”

“Does that mean I might get another question?”

A long flicker of a laugh. “No. When the fault is mine, another question may be permitted. When the decision is yours, however selfless, the decision remains yours.”

“Worth asking, though, I suppose.”

“Questions usually are.”

“So what now?”

The goddess indicated the far end of the cave with a stretched hand. “Now, you leave. We have spoken, and I have answered your questions, as is fit payment for the turning aside of eternalness. You will find an egress away and down there…” Her words were accompanied by another flick of her fingers in the general direction. “Down at the farthest end of my house. The path thereafter will lead you out of the maze, to the point on the hillside where those supplicants who walk the maze emerge.”

Caewen started to leave then stopped herself. A scatter of worried thoughts chased through her mind like a swirl of midges on a hot buzzing Summer’s day. “What if I fail? What if the threat to the moot comes to fruition? Will you interfere?”

“No. I cannot. I am forbid. But I will not be destroyed either, only those who attend will be killed, the earth burned and ruined. In time, a moot will reform, and in time, sorcerers, witches and wizards will gather here again. That is certain, for the attraction of Sorcery Tor is powerful. It might take years. “She shrugged. “But I am everlasting. I abide, while the day and night turns.”

“I suppose you do. Well, I guess I should say, thank you. And goodbye. I don’t think I’ll be seeing you again.”

She shook her head, and her eyes, at the moment changing from a brilliant blue to a dark, deep black, shone. “No. I do not foresee us meeting again.”

Caewen walked away from the goddess, and into the more shadowed reaches of the space. She had only her footsteps for company, yet felt strangely comforted and whole, as if she had found a piece of herself that had been missing since she was very young. She took a moment to examine this feeling, but could not quite fathom what it meant, so put it aside to consider later. Once she was past the rugs and tapestries, candles, cushions and low soft chairs, she felt a cold rustle of wind against her eyelids, chilling her cheeks and lips. It was dark ahead, and she could not see the way out. Stretching her fingers forward, she groped into the blackness and found, eventually, a wet cold stone surface. Feeling her way along, a narrow rift in the stone appeared, and she was able to squeeze herself into and through this narrow, twisting passage.

Sudden grey light met her eyes as she emerged into a dull square-walled enclosure that was open to the sky. Ahead of her was a single door, tall and wide, hinged on old rusty looking plates of metal. At the door, she tested it, and found that there was some give. Just before she pushed through, Caewen did glance back and found that the crevice in the rock was gone. Maybe it had healed itself over while she had been looking away. Maybe it was shrouded with illusion. Maybe it had never really been there at all. In any instance, there was no going back.

She gave the door a shove and emerged into an eye-squinting blaze of torchlight and night-fires.

Fair Upon the Tor #46 (updates Mondays)

Caewen nodded and considered her options. She might ask whether Fafmuir could be trusted, or what Fafmuir was up to, assuming he was up to anything. Or she could ask why that assassin was at the moot. Perhaps, who hired the assassin? Although, that would be a wasted question if he had not been hired but was merely working to his own ends. For that matter, she still wanted to know whether someone was responsible for letting the wurum out of its cage? Or had that really just been an accident? And then, there were all the strange warnings from the phantoms in the maze. She might ask: why is the moot in danger? What threatens it? Or, who is the Winter King? Or, what is the Winter King? Or, is the Winter King threatening the moot? Or, why is he gathering armies? Wait. She didn’t truthfully know if he was building armies. She only had Tamsin’s word for it, and Tamsin was dead, and who knows how honest she had been. If the Winter King is planning war, then how can he be stopped? Can he be stopped? What could she say to convince the moot that there is a serious threat?

She turned all these questions over in her head, examining each one, thinking through the implications of each of them. Finally, she wetted her lips, then said, slowly and carefully, “How might I save the moot from its current danger?”

“Ah,” replied the goddess. “There are several ways. You might save the moot if you could convince everyone to flee before the last day of the gathering. You could find the pale assassin and stop him from undertaking the last of his tasks. You could find a person, mage, spirit or being who has a power of speech that would allow for calming or assuaging of serpents, dragonets, drakelings, wurums and the suchlike, but they are now in short supply hereabouts.” A smile. “You could recover the sea ivory box that was stolen from the Nibelungs and return its contents. You could steal all the treasures and gifts of the moot’s last day and remove them from harm’s sphere. Those would be the most straightforward paths visible to us. For though we do not know the precise details of all the trackways in the woods of time, those are somewhat clearer.”

“H’m. Some of that is mysterious to me, but some of the things seem easier than others. Here is my second question then, what is in the Nibelung’s stolen box?”

“That is beyond our sight. The weaves do not permit us to see within the box, for it is well-warded and guarded against all unnatural senses, be it sorcerer’s sight, scryer’s arts or clear visions. We cannot answer precisely. We know only that it was stolen, and danger might be averted if it were returned. We have given that answer already, therefore you may ask another question.”

Caewen gave the hue-shifting goddess a quizzical look. “That’s awfully nice of you. I thought creatures that answer questions in threes are more jealous of their answers than that. They always are in stories.”

“Do not always believe stories. Stories are lies.”

“Very well then. Here’s is my second question then, if this is still my second question–“

“It is.”

“What would you tell me, if you wanted me to fix this whole mess: the moot in danger, the Winter King, armies massing, all of it.”

“Clever.” Her face shifted as she smiled. “Perhaps we were too hasty. You might have provided more diversion than irritation. Nonetheless, what is done is done. I would tell you simply these three things: look to the oracles, for the oracles have been poisoned. Then, look to the north, and seek the Seeress of the Great Grey Mountain, for she knows more than I can see at such distances. My sight over such vast spans is murky and reduced in clarity. Third, it is not the moot, nor the Winter King, nor any other petty things you should be concerned about. If I wanted you to fix this whole mess, as you put it, I would advise you this: listen and listen close: A lost thing that was thought shattered and destroyed has been unearthed. Though it is only fragmentary, it is of an elder age and is powerful beyond the dreams of mortals, and beyond the notions even of most gods. This broken potency is not yet in the hands of the Winter King, but he will have it soon enough if he is not prevented. If the shattered power were to fall into his grasp? Would it be for the good or the ill? I cannot say, not with certainty, but with that power, he would have it in his craft to change the world to his liking. It would go badly for those who would not love his mastery over all things. So, find the prince Athairdrost. He has what you must take and keep safe, if you wish to ‘fix this whole mess’, as you say.”

“Athairdross… Athairdross…” she frowned. “That was the name of that phantom in the maze, the boy with the great sword that he could not lift.”

“Of that, we can say nothing unless you phrase it as a question.”

“No. It’s not a question. I have a question left though.” Ideas and thoughts raced in her skull, skittering around and leaving sparking trails of words. One more question.

Fair Upon the Tor #45 (updates Mondays)

Confused, she looked around. A cave, rough and dripping with limestone fingers. Distant echoing droplets of water tapped the silence. Rich clay-smells of cave mud lay on the air. In the near distance, ancient looking images crawled over every surface; ochre, chalk and charcoal; hunters and huntresses; strange huge beasts that she did not recognise; weird gods and spirits. Everything was illuminated by a ruddy glow of a wood fire. Something that glittered–maybe it was fool’s gold, mica or some similar mineral–had been pressed into the ceiling to give an illusion of a starlit sky in the firelight.

She noticed then, for the first time, a figure who stood apart, silent, at the farthest end of the cave. The person was thin to the point of being skeletal, slathered thickly in body-paint–white and black–long hair in straggling, red-mud painted tangles. There were remote green flames where her eyes should be.

And then, it all changed.

The firelight remained, but it spilled now from a tidy, civilised hearth. The bare walls and ochre sprays and lines receded and grew themselves into flat surfaces, becoming dressed stone walls hung with tapestries that depicted royal hunts and enchantresses in all manner of far-flung costume. The sorceresses were all in the midst of various magical works, replete with staves, swords, bells and candles. The images of primeval shamanic magic were replaced by a more civilised depiction of enchantry. The floor lost its roughness too, and all the streaky dirt evaporated away, to be replaced with luxuriant rugs. And in the shadows, the figure who stood at the dim end of the cave altered as well. Instead of a withered and ancient corpse-woman, she grew tall, and straight-backed, she held herself proudly in the fiery glow, basking, young, arrogant, beautiful. Her hair was glossy yellow-gold, her dress, all red and silver in leafy patterns. She smiled and her blue eyes lit up in the fire’s light. Though as Caewen stared, trying to grasp what she was seeing, the woman changed again. She was suddenly dusky skinned, with almond eyes and rich brown hair like oiled teak, wearing a dress as black and spangled as a starry sky. Her features shifted again, and she was white-skinned with red hair and freckles, a dress of purest sea-green silk. Now, skin as black as obsidian, bright, striking eyes, beautiful lips, ruby-hued, and a dress made from cloth of gold, hung with diamonds; complex weaves of ruddy hair, and coppery gold skin; a gown of black and white furs, spotted in a pattern of rosettes; milky skin and hair of a bearish brown hue, dress in stripes of purple and silver. As Caewen watched, the woman changed, again and again. Dozens of faces, all of them beautiful, one after another, after another, all of them young, and all of them smiling knowingly.

“Welcome to our house under the tor,” said the woman who was a shifting sweep of expressions and colours. “We are the One who are the Many, who are the Three. You have met us before. Three times, one apiece for each of the Three Great Aspects.”

“Maybe am I dead. Am I dead?”

“No.” A chime-like laugh, that changed into something more base and deep, as her features changed to a new form. Her voice shifted range as her features moved. “You are no more dead than I am. I have suspended the ruin that the untethered magic did to your flesh. I have put a little of my breath into you too, while you slept, so that you will have something more in you than just your own heart’s blood in future.” A smile. “Should you want to work such arts again, though… I caution you, I have only put a very little of my living breath into you. Do not over-use yourself. There is some crust of resilience in you now, but you will break it if you plumb yourself too deeply with lines of charms and hexes.”

“So, I’m not dead?” She considered this. “Then, um, are you planning to keep me here?” Another suspicion was growing inside her, worming itself free. “The young women who vanish in the maze. This is what happens to them, isn’t it? They become you. Or a part of you? That’s what all these faces are, the ones who were here before me? They are the many that make the one. The one who is three, who is many. I see now. You’re not a solitary goddess exactly, are you? You’re more like a thing made up of hundreds of people. Spirits. Or ghosts.”

“We are not dead.”

“But I’m more or less correct, aren’t I?”

“Yes. Perceptive,” said the goddess in her ever-shifting vocal tones. She looked like a regal young woman now, her face proudly beautiful and her eyes shimmering with arrogance. But in a breath, she was younger, barely out of childhood, and had a wholesome, farm-girlish prettiness about her. Then she was a mahogany skinned enchantress, wearing hardly any clothing at all, just loops of gold beads and a few translucent sashes of silks. And now she was sturdy, hard, icy-lovely and her complexion was closer to grey than white, with iron-hued eyes, and she wore a heavy dress of blood red velvet.

A glance around. “Who was the other one then? The man who lifted me up in the maze?” She saw a handsome, but unchanging youth, a boy getting onto being an young man. He was lying asleep in a corner.

“We would otherwise grow lonely in the cold years between moots. We keep a companion to keep us company. He is the only male walker of the maze we have ever kept here. He satisfies our loneliness, when required. He is otherwise of no consequence.” She tilted her head. “I suppose, he also has the advantage of physicality. He can fetch what we cannot.” A slight curve of a smile spread over full purplish-pink lips. “But none of that is pertinent. For now, he sleeps. Tonight, he is not needed. Tonight we have other company.” That warm, sharply aware gaze smouldered again in her eyes as she smiled.

“So, are you going to keep me here?”

“If you wish. It is a choice, ever and always a choice, and it must be ever so. I cannot force it.”

“So… then… what if I choose to go?”

“Then you give up immortality, eternal youth, happiness, and great power. If you make that choice, we must compensate you, as the old laws are writ. Those who make up their mind to leave are permitted three questions in payment, which we will answer truthfully inasmuch as we are able. Though, be well warned: the other half of the bargain is that you may never tell another of what you see, feel, touch, taste, or hear in our home. You may not speak it. You may not write it. You may not communicate it by words, spoken or graven, nor by spell-wrought images of the mind, nor by notions sent upon the magician’s winged will into another head. If you whisper a word of this meeting, you will be struck dead by curse and elder law. So it is. So it ever was. So it ever shall be. This is the bargain, and the bargain is inescapable. No distance is great enough, no power of demon, god or cosmic horror can protect you.”

“I see.” She frowned. “That seems a fair warning.”

“Fair is fair,” said the goddess as her features altered again. “And there naught fairer than the fair lady who watches the fair upon the tor.”

“That being so, I choose therefore not to stay. There are matters that I have to settle. Promises, that I have made.”

She nodded. “That is how we presumed you would choose. Truth be told, it is a relief to us, of a kind. You would have been… a disruption in the minds of the many. You are…” a considered pause now, “abrasive. Rough of edge. But, be that as it may be, you are thus and therefore allotted the three questions, which we will answer honestly and fully, as much as we are able.” A cunning sort of half-smile spread on her face as she shifted from fair-skinned to dark, to brown and gold and pale again. “For we are she who stitches the seven bright threads made of last year’s noonday stars into the contents of an empty pocket. We are she who knows where the flames go when they blow out. We can tell you where birds go when it rains. Where beasts of portent live between portentous times. We can make fabric from dawn at midnight. We can weave cloth of moonlight in the afternoon. A green oakleaf taken from a tree in winter. A drop of blood from a stone. A snowflake from a desert. These things are not beyond us. But, some things are. Ask wisely, Caewen of Drossel. Ask wisely.”

Fair Upon the Tor #44 (updates Mondays)

He mistook her tone. “That’s better,” he cooed. “You be respectful.”

It grew in her, feeling something like an urge to retch. There was a point of no return where the spell was coming out of her, and no amount of holding it back would help. It was like giving birth to a dirty flooding swamp. “Run,” she whispered under her breath, then louder: “run, run, run, runrunrunrunrun…” She yelled then, enraged at their sudden, dull, blank stares, their stupid failure to grasp what was about to happen. “Cretins! Run!”

The taller man seized upon a sudden expression of, first wonderment, then realisation. A flicker of real terror crossed his eyes. Maybe he did know enough about the art to see that something powerful was curdling around inside Caewen, that she was barely holding it back. He spun on the balls of his feet, and took off at a run. Meanwhile, the shorter, and clearly stupider, of the two men just put his hands on his hips and started to scold her again. “Here, now, if I have to put a slap across your cheek, then I’ll–“

He never finished. The fey-stroke broke loose.

It arose out of her, tearing through her blood and mind, uncontrolled and unmastered. The raw spell churned upwards, uncoiling and rising on uncanny wings. It gained a sort of living potency all of its own, turning itself into weird patterns of murk and light, as it stretched itself, just like a hawk stretching vast wings after too long cramped in a falconer’s mews. The prey caught its attention then, and the spell leapt and pounced. The short and hefty fool was caught unawares. He had only a second to blink in confused fear before he was bent backwards by the force of it. His eyes changed colour instantly, turning bright red. It was not that he bled from his eyeballs, not exactly, rather, his eyes simply lost their whites as all the vessels inside him broke open. He toppled backwards, making a sickening squelching noise.

Behind him, his friend was now at a full sprint, and nearly at the first twist in the maze. But there is no outrunning hungry magic. The fey-stroke was faster, and it caught him and tipped him over.

When Caewen regained some of her senses, she found herself staring at two crumpled bodies in front of her, both of them bleeding like a pair of mice crushed under a boot-heel.

The spell had killed, them, thoroughly and remorselessly, but as she lurched forward, and fell to her knees, she knew that it had killed her too. She had no pool of old power to draw on for the magic. Too much of her own life had been used up by that spell. Coldness and deadness ran through her flesh in thick rancid cords, so that, shaking all over, she collapsed sideways, and could do nothing better than slump herself into the wall for support. The shivering grew to spasms. She felt colder and colder. Ice strung itself out as pearls in her blood, fingertip to toe. Soon, it was difficult to breath. Before even a handful of seconds passed, she wanted to give up. Just let it all go. Give it all away. Forget about life. Forget about Dapplegrim, and Keri and Keru, and the moot, and the Winter King, whoever he was. Just let the pain flow out, along with her life’s blood. Let death in. Let life out. Be done.

It was as she was sitting there, collapsed, going deeper into the greyness, that she heard new footsteps approaching. A thin shadow fell over her, and though she tried to see who it was, her eyes refused to focus. “Who–?” she tried to say more, but only managed to murmur that single wheezing word again. “Who?”

The shape bent low over her, and a young man’s voice that she did not recognise said, “That was quite something. Herself will want to speak with you.” He sounded oddly friendly. “Quite something indeed.”

She lost her grasp on consciousness. The last sensation she knew was being lifted up from the ground by two hands and firm arms.

###

Caewen came back to herself. She felt nauseous, dizzy and stuffily warm all at once. Sitting upright–with pain–she yelled, aloud, “Run!” But then she squinted into the fire-lit air, and remembered that it was already too late for the two men, and too late for herself. The spell had already done its work.

So, was she dead then?

She poked herself with a knuckle.

Apparently not.

Fair Upon the Tor #43 (updates Mondays)

The shorter man spoke up then. “We could have some fun first. She’s not half-bad to look at.”

The other one screwed up his face in a knot. “Don’t be an idiot. If she’s here, it’s cause she’s witching a-training, right? She’s dangerous, right, weapons or none.” He then cast a quick, wary look at the stick she was gripping tight in white knuckles. “Look. I’ll hold her down, you open her neck. Quick and clean. No messing around. Then we get gone. Might be the Three Who Watch won’t even see.” He sniffed, and ran a finger up to rub his angular nose.

Short-and-hefty shrugged. “S’right, I guess. Still–we’re in the maze, and all we’ve ever done is stitch together some simple-hexes and throw the runes and the bones. I mean, she might not be dangerous.” He sounded petulant. Like a toddler with a toy taken away.

Caewen could barely believe they were having this conversation in front of her. A quick look around at the walls. Maybe, just maybe, she could climb to the top, if she got enough of a run up? No room for that though. So what then?

Tall-and-broad turned and snarled out: “And I said, no! We do this quick. We do this clean. That is that. And that is final, right?”

“Yeah?” The shorter man was turning red again, but this time it was anger pumping hot blood into his skin. “Who made you lord high king of me, eh? What if I don’t want to follow your orders? We’re both proselytes to the Deathly Waters, if you have forgotten. I got as much right to what I want, as you got to–“

At that moment a thought occurred to her. “Excuse me?” said Caewen, extending the branch out in front of her, pointing it. “Now, I didn’t want to stoop to this. After all, the goddesses probably are watching, but you know, if it is self-defence–would they seek retribution?” She shrugged. “I can take that risk.”

They both blinked at her. Short-and-hefty scoffed. “You’re threatening us with a stick? I got an axe, missus. Now, shut your mouth, else I’ll take time to bleed you out slowly, and drown you with your own blood, fathom me, s’right?”

“A wand.”

“What?”

“A wand, no mere stick. This is the Wand of Drossel, ancient and powerful artefact handing down through long years, from witch-to-witch of Drossel.”

The two men squinted. “I don’t get any sense of the eerie off it. There’s naught uncanny in that.”

A scoff from the other one. “It’s just a piece of kindling, that is.”

“Some of the most powerful tools of the art hide themselves,” she warned them. “This is one that is very well hid.” Her warning about powerful artefacts keeping themselves concealed was true enough. Lucid details floated in her mind, leftovers from the knowledge that Jack-in-the-Mist had left in her skull. She could still rattle off his elder lore, if rather vaguely. And, well, sure, this stick was of course actually just a stick, but it could be a potent and ancient wand of magic. The two men couldn’t know for certain. She tried to sound confident as she said, “Come a step close and I’ll put the fey-stroke on you both.”

The men visibly paled.

They knew what a fey-stroke was then. Caewen herself was just barely dredging and sifting through memories, hauling words out of her own dark lake of half-recollections. As she took a long, steadying breath, she focused on what she could remember. If she might pull out some convincing detail… so a fey-stroke was a charmed attack. Yes, good. Named for the fane-folk who favoured it. Alright. Maybe mention that then, too. She concentrated. Such an attack did not break the skin, but shredded the interior of a person or beast, turning them into a muck of blood and blasted organs, held together in a sack of skin. Now she felt herself wanting to blanch. Maybe she’d gone a too far, in threatening this particular magic? If they didn’t believe her, they might take badly to being threatened so gruesomely. Her fingers were starting to tremble. Her gut was clenching up in trepidation. So, what else could she pull out of the shadows of her memories? The fey-stroke was almost always lethal, if not immediately, then eventually. How much good was any of this going to do? Were they going to believe her?

The thought of being caught in such a charm had clearly stuck itself into the imaginings of the two men. They blinked their eyes at her, their expressions more cautious, more watchful. Fixing her with calculating eyes, short-and-hefty finally said, “You’re bluffing. That’s no wand. It’s a stick. And you’re no great sorceress. If you were, you wouldn’t be walking the maze like an apprentice. And you wouldn’t be giving us warning. You’d have done us for it already. S’right.” He took a step towards her. “Maybe I will gut you quick. Maybe I won’t. But you are a lying little ha’groat cur. I know a lie when I hears it.” Another step. He was within two strides of her now.

“My last warning,” said Caewen. She tensed herself up. But she failed to even sound convincing to herself. Her words came out all high pitched, threatening to slip into a full blown and shrill panic.

Another prowling step.

He reached for her, grabbing the makeshift wand, and with a wrench, he pulled it out her her grip, and snapped it in too. “S’right,” he muttered, “me and my friend are discussing how long you’re going to take to die. You be a nice girl, and maybe it will be over quicker. Less painful.” He gave her a sickly smile.

But deep inside, Caewen knew that there was another problem now. This was a new, unexpected, but immediate problem. The reason she knew all about the fey-stroke was that Jack-in-the-Mist knew all about the fey-stroke, and he knew how to cast this rather unpleasant bit of magic. He knew the way that the voice must be intoned, the twist of the fingers, the careful directing and caressing of the flows and weaves of the old powers of life and death. She had dwelled too long on the nature of the spell. She realised with a shock that she had called the spell without meaning to, and it was answering her call, deep down inside her soul. Panic and fear was rising in her, like water swamping upwards, ready to over-flood a lonely green hill. She could feel it beginning inside her. Her fear of this ugly, squat-nosed man had swarmed her mind, and atop the fear floated a scum of knowledge. The spell was rising up from her gut, through her oesophagus and into her mouth. “Oh, bloody demons of the mountains,” she said, terrified, but no longer of these two men.

She was afraid of herself.