“Oh, it’s not all so terribly perilous as that. The maze-walking is mostly ceremonial, you see. A representation of the twisting path of life. It’s easy, really. We’ve all done it. I did it, when I was much younger. There is only one entrance, true, but the maze has many out-ways. Much as does life. We are all born of a mother’s womb, but life may take us upon different paths, and to different exits.” A friendly, forthright tone crept up in his voice. A spiderweb of wrinkles creased his face. “There will be other supplicants walking the maze tomorrow. If you present yourself at the carven gate, they’ll give you a numbered lot, and call you at your appointed time.”
“And then what? I just walk around until we find a way out?”
“Well. More or less.”
“More or less?” she asked.
He cleared his voice, sounding less comfortable. The lump of his throat bobbed. “Very rarely, you see, and it is very rarely, a person does not, as it were, actually come out the other end. The local divinities of the tor do require a payment for their benediction upon this place, and the moot, and the gathering. Usually, it is no more than one life per moot, but the Three Who are One, well, they can be inscrutable and moody. In some moots, several maze-walkers vanish. In other moots, everyone passes through the labyrinth safely, dandy as you like.”
She considered this new piece of information, and felt heat rising at her collar, and a prickling against the skin of her hands and arms. She felt a hard anger mottling and spreading inside. “The goddesses of this place demand sacrifices? Of people?”
“If you insist on framing it like that, yes. It is a payment. An exchange. A very ancient one.”
“And for what exactly? Watching over you? I haven’t seen the goddesses actually do anything. That is, other than baking bread and leaving old men to die in hovels.”
He stared intently at her, apparently picking his next words carefully. “At some point, you will need to explain what you mean by that. You are a strange one. But… as regards them who watch, the Three Ladies do indeed watch over us here, but their work is to protect us from ourselves. They ensure the old laws of the moot are upheld. They ensure that peace is maintained whilst the moot gathers. You must remember: magicians from all over the world come here, to this misery of a spur, in the midst of wilderness and nothing. And they come here with a mind to connive, deal, bargain, entrap, outwit and outflank each other. Can you imagine the insanity if there was not a firm, unbreakable rule of peace upon this place? Magicians are nothing if not quarrelsome.” He tutted. “Half of them are half-mad, and the other half simply don’t half-like each other.” He turned her a small, playful smile. “Without the governing hand of the three goddesses, and the promise of retribution for the breaking of laws, this moot would devolve into murder, fast.”
“And what are you then? Half-mad or half-unfriendly?”
“Oh, you must allow for complexity.” He winked. “I may be a little of both. We are not simple creatures. We are all a mess of passing moods, prejudices, engrained habits, irrational wants and fears, whims and wishes. A person may have many troublesome qualities. There is no reason to lack ambition and limit oneself to just the one unpleasantness.” He smiled, then sputtered, “Oh, stop looking so serious. I’m joking.” He rolled his eyes then.
“You’ve an odd sense of humour.”
“You’ve an odd sense of seriousness,” he countered.
They were drawing closer to a large but otherwise plain canopy, with flowers growing in cut barrels arranged outside it. A noise of quiet birdsong moved inside the tent, and well before they stopped, Caewen had a strong sense that this was Fafmuir’s lodging. As they arrived at the flower barrels, he went up to a flap and pushed it open. “Ah, all my children are well then.” She looked over his shoulder and saw birds flitting around the inside of the tent, a few were brightly feathered, but most were small, drab, speckled and mottled. They were the sorts of small beige bird that hides in the ferns and bushes and hunts spiders. All of them were singing softly and sweetly. On the floor of the tent, several children were playing underneath this canopy of canvas and birdsong. There were clearly no blood relations to Fafmuir among the children. They were drawn from all manner of cast and build. None of them would have been any older than ten, Caewen thought, though this was only a guess. They all jumped up, delighted, when they saw Fafmuir.
“Unci Fafmy,” one of them yelled.
Another, a young girl, ran towards him, colliding into his knees with a ferocious hug.
Fafmuir scrubbed her on her head, mussing up her hair as he said, “How are we all doing then? No mishaps I hope?”
A ringing chime of voices answered, happily.
Caewen looked over the children then asked, in a low voice, “Apprentices?”
“No. Orphans. Of a sort, at least. Over the years, I have got myself a reputation for taking in children who have developed, erm, a ‘talent’ that has made them unwelcome in their homes.” He spoke much more quietly, when he said, “Some of these children are extraordinarily dangerous when they lose control of themselves. Little Egalia here had a penchant for conjuring spirits and transmutation of flesh that is altogether too skilful for her age. Clent over there can prise open a path into one of the voids that exist between worlds when he is upset; shadows and serpent-shades of darkness creep out and swarm the earth around him if he has a tantrum. The little boy with the black curly hair is Drangut. He has a talent for sorcery of leaf and tree. If his tears wet the earth, they sprout thorny vines that strangle whatever, or whoever, has upset him. So, I take in children who have developed an innate and blood-born talent for sorcery, but lack the control and discipline of an adult understanding.” More quietly, he said, “If not for me, most of these children would otherwise meet an grisly end by strangling, or drowning, or burning on a pyre. Some of them have killed their own families without any comprehension of what they did, or how. Most have nightmares.”
“I didn’t know there were such children,” said Caewen.
“They are rare. Old bloodlines of magic trickle down to us through the years. Natural talents for a gimmick or spell rear up every now and then.”
“Oh. Like the dragon-tongue who was killed when the cage fell. He could speak to dragons by ancestry. Didn’t you say that?”
“Yes. Like him.” He held onto that thought for a moment, before hurrying it away and saying, “But, someone has to look after these children, and often enough, that someone is me.” After a pause he said, more thoughtfully, “You see? I am not such a monster after all. Just an old man trying to do his best by the world.”
She looked around the tent with the playing children and the songbirds flitting overhead. Maybe she was judging old Fafmuir unfairly? She counted eight children of various ages. The oldest of them might have been getting onto twelve. That one looked more serious than the others, and seemed to have been looking after a toddler who was stumbling around at his feet. He threw a half-smile to Fafmuir and said, “Evening, Lord-Magi. We’re all fine and well.”
“Isn’t it dangerous to leave them alone?”
“No. No. I have wards and a spells bound tight on this tent. The flitting and voices of the songbirds hold my magic firmly. These wayward children of mine would have a hard time working any magic in her. Even a great arch-wizard would have a hard time of witching work under this canopy.”
“Hm,” she said, paying only scant attention, looking around the tent. It was well appointed with small beds and cots, rugs and furnishings. In one corner was an oddly shaped brazier that seemed to be a tripod-legged bowl of coals with a rudely shaped brazen head emerging out of the midst, like a swimmer coming up through sun-glinted waters for a breath. The rest of the light and warmth came from hanging lanterns in the shapes of flying birds.
“Well, Caewen, thank you for the walk and the conversation. I should be retiring, I think. And you should too. You ought to get a good night’s sleep. After all, if you decide to walk the labyrinth tomorrow, you will want to be rested.”
“About that… I don’t think I have any good reason to walk the maze. I’ve only come to the moot to keep a promise. I will say my piece at the moot, and then I’ll be done with all of this madness. I didn’t come here to become a magician. I don’t think I should like to be one, to be honest. It seems to turn people’s minds, a bit. No insult intended.”
“None taken. I’m quite aware of my peculiarities.” He smiled his gnomish smile. “But, I have to conjecture that, ah, well… I am sorry, but I think you do have a reason to walk the maze. Only oath-sworn magicians are permitted to speak at the moot. If you want to address the gathering, you will have to walk the maze first, swear to keep to the old laws, and only then will you be allotted a time to speak.”
She looked at him blankly, and then, remembering the children, she did not swear like a lame-footed swineherd in a pigsty.