Fair Upon the Tor #25 (updates Mondays)

“In what way are you evil?” she said, putting playfulness into her tone.

“Do not ask questions that will lead to unpleasant answers,” said Samarkarantha. “One way that we restrain the demons of the heart is to play our own little mind games, ignore the tempting voices, pretend the words are weak, or bare whispers and ghosts. It is true that sometimes acknowledging a demon can clear it out of the mind.” He shrugged. “On the other hand, sometimes it only brings the beast to the surface.” His eyes gleamed then in the white, pale morning light, and his teeth seem brighter and harder than they had been.

She held his gaze only for a short moment before finding it uncomfortable, and looking back to Keru and Keri moving gracefully across the ground. The morning light was still rising and the sun was a white phantom of brilliance beyond hills and clouds. The trees in the distance, fringing the ridges of low hills that surrounded the tor, all looked flat and without depth, as if they had been beaten out of a piece of bronze stoked to white heat. But it was a cold brilliance. Fog lay in the dips of the green hills and dew sparked in long lines up grassy slopes. She could see the thin lines of spiderwebs too, woven in the night and netted over grass, alight in the sun, fragile and ready to blow away with the day’s first real breath.

“I did want to say another thing too. Your biloko spoke to me last night.”

“Oh? Did they now?”

“They did. They begged me to let them go. There’s a chest, and they wanted their bells back. They know the bells are in there, and they want them. You should know they are trying to get free. And, maybe you shouldn’t be keeping them? I don’t want to be impolite. You’ve been very kind to me and Dapplegrim, but… it’s just…”

“You don’t approve?” said Samarkarantha, with an arch of one brow.

“No. I suppose I don’t.”

His face lost its expressiveness for a moment, passed into a cloudy look, but came back to a smile, after a moment. “I don’t know if I approve either. I caught them, and took away the bells that is their power and their magic, and made them into slaves, and I did all this when I was a much younger man. Much more rash. Far more arrogant. I am less sure of myself now.”

“So why keep them? Surely they’ll find a way to get their bells out of that chest, eventually.”

In a tone of warning, Dapplegrim added. “Creatures of old magic do not like to be kept as prisoners. Such beasts can be patient, but they’ll get their revenge in the end. Believe me, I know.”

“Ah, but they will not. My biloko cannot ever be free without their bells, and I confess that I have mislead them. There are no copper bells of power in the chest. The chest is empty.”

“Oh. Then why would you want them to think the bells are in there? Have you hidden them somewhere else?”

“He shot a glance to the entryway of the tent and gave out a small, sad sound. “I was hasty in my youth. Overproud of my art. Their bells are not hidden. The bells are gone. They have been melted and reformed anew. The biloko will never be freed. They can never be freed without their bells. They are eternally bound.”

After a pause, Caewen and Dapple said at the same time. “The gong.”

“Yes. But if the biloko ever knew this, they would be driven mad. So, I keep the truth from them. Sometimes, it is the container that is important. Sometimes the object within is nothing but misdirection and trickery.”

“Hurm,” said Dapplegrim. They turned to look at him. With a flick of his ears he said, “Sounds like one too many magicians I’ve known. All frippery and garnish, nothing inside.”

“I hope you find that some of us have a little more pith to our core?” Samarkarantha’s smile returned, broadening.

“A little. H’m. Somewhat.”

The thwack and click of the wooden staves was the only sound for a while. Caewen spent some time focused on the food in front on her. “I suppose I ought to be going along to the labyrinth now. When are we expected there?”

“Soon. Yes.” A nod towards the sparring siblings. “Keru was only waiting for you to rise. Otherwise he would have been off to the maze an hour ago.”

“Oh. I hope I haven’t made him late. Do you get in trouble for being late?”

The slightness of the shrug that passed through Samakarantha’s frame could easily have been mistaken for a breath of wind stirring his clothing. “Not in trouble with the Three Who Are One, they who oversee the maze-ways, no. Some petty official of the moot may be angry, but the goddesses are goddesses all the same, even if they are minor and rather local to the tor. And goddesses are timeless, are they not?”

“I suppose that would be true.” Her glance fled from the half-finished breakfast, dancing momentarily to the skullish features of Dapplegrim. “Can Dapple go with me?”

“No. You must walk the maze-ways alone. He may pass by the old winding path and meet you at the far end.”

“If I come out the other end?”

“I have a faith that you will.”

“And why is that?”

His face wore its expression steadily, growing more sombre, more serious by small notes only. “There was once a man who learned about the magic in stories, and he learned that a name is just a story told in a few small syllables, and he learned that a story is a name strung out long and twisting, and full of trivial points of fact. This man learned that he could work magic by telling stories. He learned that he could learn a lot by listening to stories. One day a young lady told him all about herself, and so he learned a great deal about her. He learned the things she knew about herself, but he also listened to the silences between words, the unspoken gaps, the sighs and the irritated huffs of noise, and he learned some things that the young woman did not herself yet know. He learned that she will either come through the maze, or not. And he learned that her fate within the close-bound and twisting walls will be one of her own free choice. More than that, he does not know. But he trusts that she will choose well.”

“Then this man has a great deal more trust in her than she does herself.”

“As the man has said, he knew some things about her that she did not know. He had reason to trust.”

“M’m,” said Caewen. “Is that so?”

“It is so.”