Confused, she looked around. A cave, rough and dripping with limestone fingers. Distant echoing droplets of water tapped the silence. Rich clay-smells of cave mud lay on the air. In the near distance, ancient looking images crawled over every surface; ochre, chalk and charcoal; hunters and huntresses; strange huge beasts that she did not recognise; weird gods and spirits. Everything was illuminated by a ruddy glow of a wood fire. Something that glittered–maybe it was fool’s gold, mica or some similar mineral–had been pressed into the ceiling to give an illusion of a starlit sky in the firelight.
She noticed then, for the first time, a figure who stood apart, silent, at the farthest end of the cave. The person was thin to the point of being skeletal, slathered thickly in body-paint–white and black–long hair in straggling, red-mud painted tangles. There were remote green flames where her eyes should be.
And then, it all changed.
The firelight remained, but it spilled now from a tidy, civilised hearth. The bare walls and ochre sprays and lines receded and grew themselves into flat surfaces, becoming dressed stone walls hung with tapestries that depicted royal hunts and enchantresses in all manner of far-flung costume. The sorceresses were all in the midst of various magical works, replete with staves, swords, bells and candles. The images of primeval shamanic magic were replaced by a more civilised depiction of enchantry. The floor lost its roughness too, and all the streaky dirt evaporated away, to be replaced with luxuriant rugs. And in the shadows, the figure who stood at the dim end of the cave altered as well. Instead of a withered and ancient corpse-woman, she grew tall, and straight-backed, she held herself proudly in the fiery glow, basking, young, arrogant, beautiful. Her hair was glossy yellow-gold, her dress, all red and silver in leafy patterns. She smiled and her blue eyes lit up in the fire’s light. Though as Caewen stared, trying to grasp what she was seeing, the woman changed again. She was suddenly dusky skinned, with almond eyes and rich brown hair like oiled teak, wearing a dress as black and spangled as a starry sky. Her features shifted again, and she was white-skinned with red hair and freckles, a dress of purest sea-green silk. Now, skin as black as obsidian, bright, striking eyes, beautiful lips, ruby-hued, and a dress made from cloth of gold, hung with diamonds; complex weaves of ruddy hair, and coppery gold skin; a gown of black and white furs, spotted in a pattern of rosettes; milky skin and hair of a bearish brown hue, dress in stripes of purple and silver. As Caewen watched, the woman changed, again and again. Dozens of faces, all of them beautiful, one after another, after another, all of them young, and all of them smiling knowingly.
“Welcome to our house under the tor,” said the woman who was a shifting sweep of expressions and colours. “We are the One who are the Many, who are the Three. You have met us before. Three times, one apiece for each of the Three Great Aspects.”
“Maybe am I dead. Am I dead?”
“No.” A chime-like laugh, that changed into something more base and deep, as her features changed to a new form. Her voice shifted range as her features moved. “You are no more dead than I am. I have suspended the ruin that the untethered magic did to your flesh. I have put a little of my breath into you too, while you slept, so that you will have something more in you than just your own heart’s blood in future.” A smile. “Should you want to work such arts again, though… I caution you, I have only put a very little of my living breath into you. Do not over-use yourself. There is some crust of resilience in you now, but you will break it if you plumb yourself too deeply with lines of charms and hexes.”
“So, I’m not dead?” She considered this. “Then, um, are you planning to keep me here?” Another suspicion was growing inside her, worming itself free. “The young women who vanish in the maze. This is what happens to them, isn’t it? They become you. Or a part of you? That’s what all these faces are, the ones who were here before me? They are the many that make the one. The one who is three, who is many. I see now. You’re not a solitary goddess exactly, are you? You’re more like a thing made up of hundreds of people. Spirits. Or ghosts.”
“We are not dead.”
“But I’m more or less correct, aren’t I?”
“Yes. Perceptive,” said the goddess in her ever-shifting vocal tones. She looked like a regal young woman now, her face proudly beautiful and her eyes shimmering with arrogance. But in a breath, she was younger, barely out of childhood, and had a wholesome, farm-girlish prettiness about her. Then she was a mahogany skinned enchantress, wearing hardly any clothing at all, just loops of gold beads and a few translucent sashes of silks. And now she was sturdy, hard, icy-lovely and her complexion was closer to grey than white, with iron-hued eyes, and she wore a heavy dress of blood red velvet.
A glance around. “Who was the other one then? The man who lifted me up in the maze?” She saw a handsome, but unchanging youth, a boy getting onto being an young man. He was lying asleep in a corner.
“We would otherwise grow lonely in the cold years between moots. We keep a companion to keep us company. He is the only male walker of the maze we have ever kept here. He satisfies our loneliness, when required. He is otherwise of no consequence.” She tilted her head. “I suppose, he also has the advantage of physicality. He can fetch what we cannot.” A slight curve of a smile spread over full purplish-pink lips. “But none of that is pertinent. For now, he sleeps. Tonight, he is not needed. Tonight we have other company.” That warm, sharply aware gaze smouldered again in her eyes as she smiled.
“So, are you going to keep me here?”
“If you wish. It is a choice, ever and always a choice, and it must be ever so. I cannot force it.”
“So… then… what if I choose to go?”
“Then you give up immortality, eternal youth, happiness, and great power. If you make that choice, we must compensate you, as the old laws are writ. Those who make up their mind to leave are permitted three questions in payment, which we will answer truthfully inasmuch as we are able. Though, be well warned: the other half of the bargain is that you may never tell another of what you see, feel, touch, taste, or hear in our home. You may not speak it. You may not write it. You may not communicate it by words, spoken or graven, nor by spell-wrought images of the mind, nor by notions sent upon the magician’s winged will into another head. If you whisper a word of this meeting, you will be struck dead by curse and elder law. So it is. So it ever was. So it ever shall be. This is the bargain, and the bargain is inescapable. No distance is great enough, no power of demon, god or cosmic horror can protect you.”
“I see.” She frowned. “That seems a fair warning.”
“Fair is fair,” said the goddess as her features altered again. “And there naught fairer than the fair lady who watches the fair upon the tor.”
“That being so, I choose therefore not to stay. There are matters that I have to settle. Promises, that I have made.”
She nodded. “That is how we presumed you would choose. Truth be told, it is a relief to us, of a kind. You would have been… a disruption in the minds of the many. You are…” a considered pause now, “abrasive. Rough of edge. But, be that as it may be, you are thus and therefore allotted the three questions, which we will answer honestly and fully, as much as we are able.” A cunning sort of half-smile spread on her face as she shifted from fair-skinned to dark, to brown and gold and pale again. “For we are she who stitches the seven bright threads made of last year’s noonday stars into the contents of an empty pocket. We are she who knows where the flames go when they blow out. We can tell you where birds go when it rains. Where beasts of portent live between portentous times. We can make fabric from dawn at midnight. We can weave cloth of moonlight in the afternoon. A green oakleaf taken from a tree in winter. A drop of blood from a stone. A snowflake from a desert. These things are not beyond us. But, some things are. Ask wisely, Caewen of Drossel. Ask wisely.”