“Hello there,” said Caewen. She introduced herself then, and Dapplegrim too. He smiled his own sharp grin.
The young woman had quite the singular appearance to Caewen’s eyes. She blinked green cat’s eyes and ran a hand under hair like red snakes, clearing the locks away from her face. Her skin was dark, almost black, and twinned all over with tattoos that nearly matched the flame red of her hair. “Greet-good to you,” she said, voice low. An awkward smile followed. “Are you local? How are you standing this coldnessy? Always shivers, here.”
“I guess I was born to it.” Caewen was close enough now to more clearly see the animal that the woman was feeding. It was winged and serpentine, a sort of small draconic thing: though it had long, feathery scales at the fringe of its wings and its tail tip. “Oh.” Caewen was intrigued. “Is that a baby dragon?”
Laughter rung from her. “No, barbarian. No dragon. This is puk-drakeling only. Small beast. Good for housepet. Catches mice and little grain-thief birds, if sing the right song.” Her voice rose then into a piecing lilt–a twist of notes, harsh, full of meaning without words–it danced from her tongue, and the small winged creature arched its neck, reared and took off, flapping madly. It vanished into the nearest stand of old trees and underscrub. And only a few moments afterward, it returned, bursting out of a wall of leaves with a dead hedge sparrow in its claws. She laughed again, as it circled her, and once the small dragonish thing landed on her wrist, she took some of the sparrow blood on a fingertip and tasted it against her tongue tip. “Must partake of the food first. Elsewise, puk-drakeling will think he is the dominance. He is not.” She shot Caewen a hooded, emerald glare.
The sparrow was still twitching as the puk-drakeling manoeuvred it headfirst and then swallowed it, gulp at a time, like a lizard. Caewen tried not to let herself look disturbed by this little show of falconry. She didn’t enjoy watching something get swallowed alive, even if it was just a sparrow. Her dance with the wurum could easily have ended that way too, after all, and she experienced a brief harsh pang of imagining herself being swallowed, head-first, still able to twitch but not much else.
“Um,” she tried. “You are walking the maze?”
“Yes. I am the next. And you are after me. My name is Leske.” She looked at Dapplegrim. “And this is a bond-demon, then, yes? Powerful demon. Good bindings to you then?”
“After a manner of speaking,” said Dapple.
Caewen laid a hand on Dapplegrim’s neck. “Ah, well, Dapple is rather his own demon, and he is only part demon at that.”
Leske stared with a look of puzzlement, then threw her head back and laughed. Whatever it was that was funny, Caewen couldn’t decipher. In that moment, the young woman with the dark skin and red tattoos looked a little too much like her pet, mouth wide, flesh of the inner mouth and tongue red-pink, ready to swallow smaller, weaker prey.
They were saved from the growing risk that the conversation was about to mire itself into something quite uncomfortable when Quinnya called out Leske’s name and the young woman smiled a last time, saying, “I am called. I go. You go after me.” She whispered something to her little winged creature, and it took off, spiralling upwards, and shooting off towards the maze and over it, uphill.
“No pets in the maze,” said Dapplegrim, glumly.
“I suppose she sent it on to meet her on the other side. Look, Dapple, did you want to go and walk the other path around the maze-way too? It can’t be very much longer before I’m called, and I don’t know how long it takes to walk through or around. Through must vary, I guess.”
He dragged a furrow through the soft turf with a hoof. His skullish face developed some lines of worry. “I don’t know if I trust Quinnya not to keep you waiting here for hours yet, just out of spite. You might be standing around in the cold for a while.”
“I might.” She shrugged. “But that would keep Quinnya standing around in the cold too, and I can’t see herself doing that to herself for very long. Either way, I’d rather see your face on the other side when I get out of this thing.” She leaned over and gave him a hug around his neck. “See you soon?”
“Hur. Hurm. Sure.” He turned and trotted off then, stopping once to look back with scrutinising eyes that lit up the evening air and cast a faint red pallor across his bone-thin face. As if he suspect that she had some other motive for sending him away. “Don’t dawdle.”
“Why would I?”
She watched him go then, and felt alone. It was just her and the cold and the silence now. Waiting to have her name called. A glance over at the large and looming doorway. Had it been purposely built out of those massive slabs of stone to look intimidating, godlike, primeval? Probably.
Quinnya was standing beside the door without making any obvious move to invite Caewen, or even to check that Caewen was still there. Her hard face was turned downward, her brow half-hidden by the mass of the iron-wool hair of her head. Surely Quinnya wouldn’t want to stand around all night. Caewen felt the first stir of a shiver from the cold. Surely. Just wait patiently. Wait, wait… walk the maze. Speak at the moot. Be done with this.
Maybe she oughtn’t have asked Dapplegrim to leave. She might have been wrong about her suspicion. She cast a glance around the grey and grassy turf, then back to look at Quinnya. The old woman still gave off no sign of movement.
It was then, as she was watching Quinnya, waiting warily, that a brush of laughter, almost palpable, passed by her leg. Caewen spun, eyes open and staring hard, taking in all the detail of empty grass and cold blue evening shadows. More childlike laughter and small voices pipped up around her. It all seemed to come up from the soggy ground. “I knew I heard you,” she said. Caewen took a step, wishing that she had thought to bring her sword after all. It hadn’t seemed necessarily this morning in the bright sun.