Caewen gave into a mass of unpleasant thoughts as she returned, going via the market, and eventually, back to Samarkarantha’s tent. She stumped through the cold, muddy grass, feeling each heavy tread of her feet.
The thickness of storm-cloud that had been lying over the world was finally deciding to give up some of its rain, though it was still an inconstant and fickle drizzle, never quite deciding to grow into the heavy wet droplets that the clouds promised. Instead of soaking her, the airy mist fringed her skin, hair and clothing with a haze of cold moisture, making her chilled, deep inside. Her woollens, with their moth-holes and wispy strands, gathered a halo of damp that glowed under lantern-light and itched her skin.
At Samarkarantha’s tent she stopped to look up into the sky, at the churn of clouds and the few peeking stars beyond. Someone, somewhere was singing an even-song, and it was beautiful. A high clear intonation, fit to call blessed spirits down from the moon, or celestial maidens out of their thrones in the stars. There was beauty here too, she reflected. Madness. Strange old laws. Ugliness and fear-wrought things. But also beauty. She would take her mind back to that. Look for the beauty in the world. It is there, she thought, a person only has to see it.
She felt calmer then. The cool air had eased her temper, and there was some tranquility in her thoughts, as she pushed the tent open, as she heard friendly voices, and smelled food and incense.
“Caewen!” It was Keri. She jumped up from where she had been sitting beside her brother. She crossed the space between them at speed but slowed down enough to avoid knocking Caewen over. “I don’t know how to thank you,” she said, and hugged her with a solid grip of an embrace. “My stupid brother would be dead,” she said then, quieter.
“How is he?”
“Resting. Keru will live.”
“I did the running,” said Dapplegrim, behind them.
“Yes.” Keri sounded both amused and irritated. “And I’ve already told you I’m grateful for it.”
“I just want to put it out there. Hurm. There wouldn’t have been any saving without me. Me. Dapplegrim. The nasty shadow demon horse,” though as he spoke, he was looking sideways at Peloxanna, where she was relaxing with a cup of wine in the corner, eying everyone in silence. She snorted, a tiny, ladylike noise.
Samarkanatha was still seated in his place near the middle of the tent. “Your horse does not merely talk, it is talkative. I hope it knows to be quiet while a person is trying to sleep.”
“Oh, Dapple just likes the attention when he can get it.” Caewen tried on a smile, though it was a touch wan she suspected. She stepped over to Dapplegrim, reaching out and scratching him behind the ears. He grinned, showing all his sharp teeth. She then walked with Keri over to a pile of cushions near Keru. He was stretched out on his back, sound asleep. They sat down. It felt good to be off her feet.
Outside, the wind was rising by degrees. A few straggling lashes of rain crossed the roof of the tent, making it ripple along the underside. Somewhere, far away, thunder grumbled. A few spare moments passed and then the torrent descended. Rain rammed the roof and the earth outside in cold spears. The air temperature noticeably dropped, so that the light down of hairs on Caewen’s arms and legs and the back of her neck prickled up. She pulled off the damp wool jumper and draped it over a table to dry.
It was then that she noticed Peloxanna watching her.
“What?” said Caewen.
But the lady just tilted her head and let her eyelids hood over those golden eyes. “It is like you were raised in a cellar.”
“People keep saying that,” muttered Caewen.
Samarkarantha cut them off. “Ahem. How was your walk? Did it help you put your thoughts in order?”
“Yes. More than I expected. I ran into Fafmuir. We had an interesting exchange.” She related the conversation, and told them about how she had found Fafmuir talking to the supposed assassin. She told them that she was undecided how much of the old man’s words she trusted. Finally, she asked, “Did you know that the triple goddess of this hill demands sacrifices? Human sacrifices?”
“If you refer to the way in which the maze takes walkers from time-to-time,” replied Samarkarantha, “then, yes. We are aware of that. The Lady Pel and myself are not in support of this practise. It is barbaric.” He threw a glance at Peloxanna, who continued to lounge where she was, like a golden cat, and did not take her eyes from Caewen. “But, we are acquitted to it, for the time being.” He gave out a huff of a noise, followed by considered, self-regarding silence. “There is some truth in the belief that we wizards would not come together at all, if there was no guarantee of godly punishment for those who might transgress the old laws. It is fair to say that many–not all–but many of we whom tread the pathways of spellcraft, the art and the way of charms, many of us, are driven by a desire for power, greater and greater, without limit. There are some of us who live in absolute terror of what their fellow magicians might stoop to, in order to steal secrets or treasures.” He allowed himself a moment to take a drink before continuing. “So, yes. It is not in the way of my people to offer human lives to any god or spirit. And yet, this is an old law, and the seven year moot has been thus for a long many years. It is difficult to see an end to it.”
“Keri,” what do you think? Aren’t you worried about walking the maze? Aren’t you worried about vanishing?”
“I was,” she confessed, “but I did the maze and was granted my magehood back at the last moot. I was still a girl, but I did it, and came through alright.” She shrugged. “I guess it wasn’t so bad, looking back. It’s not difficult. And we’re only here for this moot because Keru is going to walk the paths tomorrow. He not much of a magician, but boys will tend to get grand ideas about themselves.”
“So aren’t you worried for him then?” She looked at Keru, snoring gently in his half-enchanted sleep. “I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying he seems likely to charge into trouble. If there’s trouble to be found.”
“Oh, but Keru’s safe. Of course he won’t be taken.”
“Did old Fafmuir not explain?” said Samarkarantha, uncomfortable.
There was an tense absence of words around the group that grew more tense as it drew out. Finally, it was Peloxanna who spoke. “What they don’t want to tell you, is that only young woman and girls are taken by the maze. Not boys. Not men. And if you have given birth to a child, you are safe too. So, maybe, if you are afraid, Caewen, well… maybe you should get yourself with a screaming little brat, and come back seven year’s hence. You’d be safe enough then.” She followed this with a feline smile. “I’m sure if I asked around I could find some fellow who would lower himself to helping out in that respect.”
Caewen didn’t rise to Pel’s taunt. She was too angry. “What? The maze only takes young women? How can any of you stand for this? It’s… that’s…” she grasped around for words, but said int he end, limply, “Well, it’s not fair, is it?”
The people around the tent remained silent. Samarkarantha shifted and looked at his knuckles. Keri seemed embarrassed. Only Lady Pel was smiling, a nasty, small smile.
The rain was falling heavier now. A storm was coming down outside. The ground would be mud by morning.
“That’s so much worse,” said Caewen. “It’s bad enough to let the goddesses take human life. But the rotten old wizards and all the foul old men of this place never even had to take any risk at all? Fafmuir told me he walked the maze when he was young, and he said it wasn’t so bad… but of course it wasn’t bad for him. He was never under any threat.” She sat a little more upright, scowling. “What happens if there are no young woman wanting to walk the maze-ways? Do they force some girl to go in, to satisfy the bargain?”
“Well,” said Keri, “that hasn’t happened–not in a very long time–so far as I know. There’s always someone who wants a grasp at magehood. Always a lot of someones. Boys and girls. Male and female.”
“So, then, I don’t suppose you will be walking the labyrinth tomorrow?” said Pel, her voice a subtle purr. “It seems that you object.”
Caewen hunched up her shoulders. She frowned at the ground, and picked at one of the holes in her clothing that the moths had left her. “No. Well. Yes. I promised someone I would speak at the moot, and to speak I have to walk the maze first. Unless Fafmuir was being deceitful on that count too?”
Samarkarantha shook his head. “No. On that, he was plainspoken and honest. It is the rule of the moot. Only accepted and sworn magi may get up on the stump and speak. Of course, whether anyone will listen, that is another matter. Magicians like to sound wise more than they like to listen to wisdom.”
“The maze is something I’ll have to risk then.”