As they went, Keri mused aloud, losing herself in half-words and half-memories, “Old Magess Quinnya. That one was a bit of a battleaxe. Always angry about something. Go there. Stand here. No, stand there! And stop looking at me like that. And don’t be so smug.” Keri affected a high, nasal tone–a sort of cultured and rangy nose-voice, throughout this mock rattling of instructions.
But no sooner had Keri finished, than they were all forced to a jolting stop: a discomfortingly similar nasal tone lowered itself out of the air, perching itself atop and around Keri’s parody, leaving an embarrassed silence, tattered. “If that is supposed to be a player’s pigwiggenry of me, it is poorly done, and you would be well advised to quit while you still have both arms, both legs, both eyes, a tongue and two ears.” The woman manifested out of nowhere. There couldn’t have been anywhere for her hide, and yet she was standing before them: tall, with hair as grey as wool in stormy light, and a face sketched out by long, chalky and hard lines. She wore a dress that seemed to be made out of rags and ribbons of black, white and grey. This old hard looking woman took a handful of quick strides towards them, closing the distance to an uncomfortable closeness. As she swung her legs, one ahead of the other, uphill, her dress of fragments and strips swayed and trailed. Each white ribbon danced in the morning light, lustrous. When Caewen recovered from her immediate surprise, she took advantage of the moment’s pause to look at this strange visage more carefully, noting that the white ribbons were marred by small black, scratchy lines of runes.
“Ah, Magess Quinnya.” Keri attempted a smile, but her whole face looked clay-baked. “Just a bit of harmless joking.”
“That so?” said Quinnya, eyeing her. “If I recall correctly–and in all truth, I never recall incorrectly–you walked the maze last moot, young little one. Seven years hence. What are you doing here? You cannot walk the maze twice, and I cannot let you. No matter how much I might wish certain folks might vanish in the maze, well?”
Keri’s head bobbed as she assumed an more polite and conciliatory tone. “My brother, Keru, presents himself to walk the maze, and claim the title, privileges and obligations of magehood. As so too does this other, too.” She indicated with a hand. “Caewen of Drossel,” after a pause, and seeming to decide that something more was needed she said, “A recent friend.”
“Hmmmmgrm.” The sound was like a rubbing of pebbles deep in the woman’s throat. Her storm-flecked eyes shot first to Keru, then to Caewen, then to Dapplegrim, where they rested for a good few flutters of seconds. “Now, I have this brother of yours, Ke-ru, on my lists, but I have no forward notice of this other… hrm, hrm, one, at all. Late entrance without notice cannot be accepted.”
“What?” said Caewen. But as she spoke, she twitched, then looked over her shoulder. Again, she was sure she had heard a burst of laughter of the sort that children make when they are up to some minor mischief hidden from adults. She was certain
“I said,” repeated, Quinnya, “if you will bother to look in my direction–that your late entry is without sufficient prior notice and therefore cannot be accepted, well? You must be on my list to walk the maze. You are not. Therefore you shall not.”
“But that was never a rule in the past,” said Keri.
“Rules change. As it is my privilege and position to make the rules, it is also, therefore, my pleasure to change the rules.” She looked Caewen up and down, critically. “Pigsty boots and a farm-girl dress? This farmyard muck-raker, straw-pitcher… pale-fetcher… oat-chaffer… this, this, personage… well, she will have to wait until the next moot.” Then, to Caewen, she pitched her voice into a high, false sugary slant. “Of course, I can note your name down now, if you find that convenient? Always good to get in early, after all.” Her smile was fog-thin and might as well have been smeared with honey and ashes. “Well?”
“I don’t… that is…”
A whisper at her shoulder. A young woman’s voice. Sweet. Delicate. Distant and resonant. “Ask her to look again.”
“Uh,” said Caewen.
“Is the young pig-herder deaf, tongueless, or simple?” Quinnya spoke louder and more slowly. “Shall I write your name into the ledger for the next moot, well? Seven. Years. Hence. Understand?”
“Actually, would you mind checking again? Just to be sure.”
“I do not need to check. I have a mind wrought of steel and sprung copper.” She was clutching a small cloth-covered book in one hand and opened it to a page that showed a list of little twisting scribbles. “Here, look! You. Are. Not. Listed.”
“Yes she is,” said Keri, squinting. “That looks like Caewen of Drossel. It’s writ in redletter, which I don’t cipher too well… but that looks right. Isn’t that it, right there?” She pointed squarely at a little line of scrawl among a jumble of other, similar scrawls. Caewen couldn’t read a word of it, but feeling embarrassed, she just coughed and looked down at a patch of dandelion by her feet. Did everyone outside her village expect folks to learn letters, or was it just magicians?
The magess pinned the paper with a frowning stare, as if somehow the fabric of the page and the ink were responsible for the unforgivable crime of having shown her to be wrong about something. “Hmmmgmmm.” The noise was now a flutter of irritation itching her vocal chords.
Only after the hot, rash noises coming out of the magess’s lips had fallen to silence did Caewen dare speak. “Someone must have added me to the list? Fafmuir did seem to have an interest in my walking the maze. Maybe he added my name?”