Fair Upon the Tor #20 (updates Mondays)

Dapplegrim stirred. “H’m. Caewen? Couldn’t you just say what you have to say to one of these others? Any of them will do, and then they can talk at the moot, and we’re all done. Then we could up hooves and leave. I don’t like being around so many magicians.” He shook himself, and a shiver ran down his black-grey flanks. “It makes my skin crawl. They’re creepy.”

“Sometimes, Dapple, I really don’t know if you are joking or serious.”

“What?”

“I will convey a message, if you wish it,” said Samarkarantha. Pel glared at him, but he ignored her. A few light creases marred his brow. He waited.

Caewen thought this through, turned it over in her mind. “No,” she said. “I promised to speak myself, and so I will. It wouldn’t honest to the promise otherwise.”

“Then so you will,” said Samarkarantha.

The conversation turned thinner and more pattering then, dipping in and out of a few topics of no particular consequence. Where to buy good cloth in the market. The better handles of beer to be had for a few coins. The sort of thing that people fall back on when they feel it is polite to carry on a conversation with strangers, but are uncomfortable. Caewen was finding herself increasing aware of the damp in her clothing. The water had soaked itself down to her skin. Her leggings were wet right through to the toes inside her big farm-boots. Finally, after she started squirming slightly, Samarkarantha noticed. “You are cold. And soaked. You should not sit in wet clothing. There is a bath behind the curtains. I will order my un-belled biloko to fill it, and heat the water.” He rang the little gong again. The chiming note clung to the air like a frisson of sunlight, fading. As the sound receded, the three tusk-mouthed, snouted and woody faced creatures emerged from behind the curtain. Samarkarantha gave them a short command in his homeland tongue and they turned and retreated back behind the thick hangings. “They will fetch water and pour it, and stoke coals for warmth. You need not fear them, they’ve no power to harm you.”

It hadn’t occurred to her that Samarkarantha would have a bath hidden behind the folds of the rich curtains. In Caewen’s sphere of experience, a hot bath was the sort of thing empresses indulged in. Or princesses in bogey-tales. She had never been anywhere near such a thing, and she was immediately curious. “Alright.” She got up, feeling the wet clothing suck and draw at her skin. The smell of wet wool was becoming a stink of damp lanolin. Some quick digging around in her pile of saddlebags, and she was able to pull out dry clothing. She passed Pel on her way across the tent, and caught a close, ferocious look. Caewen wondered what must have happened to Peloxanna to motivate such dislike. She wanted to stop and explain, again, that her whole family, and all her cousins, and village, and everyone in Drossel were, by necessity of living in the borderlands, quite neutral in the ceaseless conflict of the two great goddesses. She wanted to say again: I am no night worshipper. I’m no sun worshipper either. I don’t have a stake in this.

But she didn’t. She saw no point. Peloxanna would not want to listen, and there was no way to make her.

Instead, Caewen, tried a small smile, and found that it ran aground on that hard yellow gaze. Pel’s irises were so bright in the lamplight that they looked the colour of daffodils. So, getting nothing in return but more cool anger, Caewen shrugged, and walked over to the curtains. “Through here?” she asked.

Samarkarantha nodded.

On the other side of the curtains, the biloko were already busy. One of them was pouring water into a huge iron tub that was decorated with motifs of lions and a some manner of spiky creature that looked like a giant hedgehog with a long snout. Another of the biloko was coming into the tent with a pail of water, while the third was kindling coals to life under the tub. This last one was chanting in rising and falling cadences, the language wild and eerie. It must have been a charm to speed the heating of the water. Trickles and low lines of steam were already roiling over the water’s surface.

Caewen peeled off her clothing without even thinking about the biloko. They gave off such an alien strangeness, that it was unclear to her whether they had a concept of male and female, let alone any notion of propriety. Her clothing came away in the sticky, bunched-up, damp masses that tend to accumulate once fabric gets really wet. Her skin felt immediately freer and more pleasant once the wet cloth was off her. She looked around for a drying rag, but found only some richly embroidered soft material that was cut into rectangles and hanging near the bath. Each of these soft strips was long and quite narrow, and she thought perhaps the intention was to wrap a piece around yourself. She asked through the curtain if she was to use the hanging cloth rectangles to dry herself afterward, and heard back, “Yes, certainly.”

Pel followed this by saying, loudly, “They are called towels.”

By this time the bath was getting towards full, and the steam was clouding up in pleasant puffs. When she went to the bath’s rim, intending to get in, she found that the biloko stopped their work and looked at her, rather more fixedly than seemed appropriate. But their gaze was clearly not desirous, rather, it seemed something closer to the stare of a curious animal. Not sure how much wariness was justified, she stared back at the three creatures, but found that the biloko just remained unmoving, limp-limbed, gawping. So without any further hesitation, she climbed into the hot water, splashing and sloshing it about. Yet, all the while, she kept half-an-eye on the small, woody-skinned creatures with their deep-set pig’s eyes.

She sank into the hot bathwater then.

It was very good.

Caewen allowed herself relax for the first time in what felt like forever and ever. Soaking into the water for long minutes, she could feel her breathing slow and grow gentler. On the other side of the curtain, the conversation continued pleasantly, and she caught some words of it, from time to time. Above her, the canvas roof drummed and rippled, as blasts of rain came down. Now and then, a flash of yellow-blue lightning filled the whole ceiling with translucent brilliance, and thunder stirred and rolled. It was so very good not to be out in this weather. Not everyone at the moot would have a tent. She didn’t own one, after all. Maybe she should buy a canopy or tent at the market? Could Dapplegrim carry a tent? Maybe a small tent. Not like this huge thing, with hot baths and cushions and little square tables and hideous servants from distant jungles.

The warmth of the water was lulling her into drowsy inattention. As her muscles unknotted and loosened, she tried to think through the next day, but found her plans muddled. Walk the maze? Ask some questions about that tent that caught on fire? She was curious about that now. Other things too. Definitely some other things.

She jolted silently, as she came awake. A light sharp scratch at her upper arm had woken her. To her right, one of the biloko had scuffled up very close. The other two were behind it, hanging back, watchful. The one that was beside her peered into her face, and it spoke. Its voice was like two pieces of old dead wood rubbing together in a wet forest. “Have pity on us, enchantress. Grant mercy upon us, mistress of sorceries.”

She said nothing, letting it speak.

It went on, waving his too-long, too-thin fingers in a hurry-less pattern. “We are servants of the Goddess of Night and Moonlight, just as you are, winter-witch. We sing her songs and her praises in the darkest reaches of the jungles. But all around us are the sun-worshippers. The day-hags. They enslave us. They take our bells away, our blessed bells of power, and they make us be servile for them.”

“And do laundry,” hissed one of the other biloko, like wind through thick waxy leaves dripping green water.

“And scrub pots and dishes,” snarled the last of them, like moonlight on a forest floor.

“Our bells are in a chest that we may not touch. Take them out, fetch them to us, give them to us.” The thing pointed at a wooden strongbox that sat at the foot of a large sleeping frame, off to one side. This was presumably where Samakarantha made his bed each night.

“Return to us our potencies.”

“And we will serve you and be your servants, and grateful, untold and everlasting.”

“And what else would you do, if I freed you?”

“We would murder the filthy sun-magician who ensnared us. Murder him dead. Dead like bones. Dead like gristle. Dead like marrow chewed up by hyaenas in the blessed dark night.”

“Then I cannot,” she told him. “Samarkarantha has been kind to me. I will not repay kindness with treachery.”

“Then you are no lady of the night. No true sorceress of our glorious and most beautiful mistress would let her children suffer so. She who is the mother of all things will curse your name, and spit poison into your blood and soul.”

“No. I’m not a true sorceress of anything. You’re right about that.”

“Then, hark to us. Hark! We will be freed eventually. One way, or another.”

Another of them spoke. “We live an eternity.”

The third hissed. “And when we are free, we will remember you and your morality.”

“We will come for you and kill you dead. Like bones. Like meat. Like marrow.”

“Marrow to be chewed by hyaenas in the blessed dark night.”

She shrugged. “I suppose you may live an eternity but I won’t. I expect I’ll be a long time dead before you come looking for me.” They retreated into the shadows then, whispering and snivelling to themselves. She looked away but thought about what they had said. Caewen did not much like slavery. Whether it was humanfolk, spirits, or gods who were the slave-keepers, or the enslaved. “I will speak to Samarkarantha on your behalf,” she said, softly and into the darkness. “I’ll tell him that I think he shouldn’t be keeping servants against their will.”

They snarled as one, and retreated yet deeper into darkness, huddling together in a miserable mass of arms and legs and woodlike skin and grasslike hair.