Although it had been only the smallest sort of spell, the effort left her fighting for air, and feeling dizzy again too. Her right arm throbbed with an angry, hot pain. The magic had killed bits of her as it wove itself through meat, bone and tendon… small bits, certainly, perhaps no worse than what she might suffer in a serious but mundane accident: slamming into a rock wall, falling from a horse, being splashed with drops of boiling water. That last comparison stood out bold in her mind. It did feel like a mild burn had crawled the whole way from fingertips to shoulder. She closed her eyes and considered the pain. The injury would heal. Her right arm was painful to move, but that was still better than being at the mercy of the strange phantoms of this place.
She stretched her fingers, and made a weak fist. Not useless, but not useful either.
It was then, as she was considering the damage that even this tiny and minute parcel of magic had done to her, that she heard a thump. She snapped her eyes wide, alert. It was the sound of a footfall halting unexpectedly. She looked around, worried. That did not sound like any illusion.
Looking everywhere at once, wildly, she saw them. At the end of one of the adjacent lines of the maze, two men were standing, quite still, and staring in her direction: it was the two sallow-skinned Modsarie who had gone into the maze with Sgeirr. They were close together, looking squarely at her, and wearing their own startled expressions. They clearly had not been expecting to run into her, but as the second rolled over, their looks changed to a nasty, delighted anticipation.
The taller one, who had a more angular face and a big hooked nose said, surprise still strong in his voice, “Here now. That’s the slattern from before. The one who knocked the lady from her horse.”
The shorter man pulled a vicious looking hand-axe out of his belt and nodded. “Lucky us then.”
All right then, thought Caewen. Best run.
She didn’t have time to pick a likely looking path, but took off at a hard, foot-paining sprint. The sounds of a pursuit rose quick behind her, thumping boots and heavy dull wheezing breath. Neither of the two would be mages seemed to be in good shape. It was possible that she might be able to simple outpace them, if she kept her head and saved her reserves. As long as she was able to keep ahead of that axe, or whatever else they carried, she was safe. Rather than panic and exhaust herself, Caewen risked a glance over her shoulder to set a pace against the two men. They were both huffing out their cheeks, and even in the dim light of evening, a cherry glow was spreading across both faces.
Returning her attention to the path ahead–after all, tripping in the gloom would be sufficient to get her killed–she sought left and right, hoping to spot a branch that led to a likely looking portal or door. The maze must be near done with. She had been walking for so long already. As she ran, Caewen noticed something that started to niggle and worry. She was passing obvious blind-ended corridors now, dead ends in the maze that up until now seemingly had no dead ends. Was the maze changing because she was being pursued, shifting to put her in danger? Or was it just that coming to the end of the maze also meant arriving at dead-ends in the way forward? Although her capacity for thought was being eroded by the punishing headlong dash, the echo of life struck her. In old age, more options are cut off. So was she simply now in the more ‘elderly’ part of the maze, where life’s options diminish?
She swore with an angry out-breath as she turned a corner and saw a tall, flat wall ahead of her. There were still options though, a path heading off to the right, and two paths to the left. Taking the first lefthand path, she turned some more corners and found another dead end. Another very narrow way cut through the wall at an angle, and she took it, but ran directly into an expanse of raw stone that was just barely chiselled into an upright surface. Although the walls were not completely smooth, but they didn’t offer much in the way of hand-holds. She wasn’t going to climb out. That was clear. A hunt around the ground. There were no stones, but she did find a rather pathetic branch. It was something at least, and she took it up in her hand, hoping that it might look more like a weapon than a piece of dry kindling in the poor light.
The two men when they rounded the corner gave out puffs of exhaustion, and a sweaty cloud of hot vapour from their brows and exposed arms rolled off them. Steam was visible in the cooling air. The run had weakened them, and Caewen considered attacking, or charging and trying to shove past them, then run off, back the other way. It only took her a moment to decide that a frontal attack was a good way to die. Yes, they were worn out from the chase, but they were both wide-shouldered, stout-legged, and together they occupied the whole of the narrow way out from the dead-end corridor. Getting past them with only a stick for a weapon was not going to happen.
“Here now,” said the taller one, “why you so shy, eh? Running like that. Enough to make me think you don’t like the looks of us.”
The shorter man seemed much less able to articulate words, and through a few trembling huffs he managed to say, ‘S’right.” He bent over then, and for a moment looked like he was going to be sick.
“The Three Goddesses are watching this place,” tried Caewen, her mind racing. “They’ll punish murder.”
“Maybe,” said the taller one, “But the Princess Sgeirr will punish us worse if she finds out we had a chance to do you for it, and let you go.” He sniffed. “And she has her ways of seeing things. They all do, them royal folk of the house.”
“So, be your own man then,” tried Caewen. “Finish the maze and go out there, and walk away from her. You’ll both be mages, once you’ve walked the maze. Why do you need her, then? You can avoid the wrath of the Three Goddesses and just walk away from Sgeirr.”
But he shook his head. “Maybe, maybe, if you could offer me something, riches or a nice castle of me own. Maybe. But, no… Sgeirr would find us in the end, and she’d get her revenge. The royal house is like that. Rather set on revenge.”
Caewen edged back, pushing her shoulders into the wall. After a moment of her staring at them, and them staring at her she said, “So what then? You’re just going to kill me?”
“Looks that way.”