The stars above were bright nail-heads sunk deep in a soggy dark sky. A ghost of the day’s receded sun still draped itself across the western horizon. A few trails of high cloud showed up gleams of orange and gold, cast from somewhere beyond the rim of the world. There were people scattered around, but not many. They were almost outnumbered by the torches on polished dark wood poles and fires, lit in low braziers. The earth, the people and the hillside were all in shadow.
Looking around, the whole of the immediate landscape was one broad and shallow impression, pushed into the size of the tor, as if by the heel of a gigantic hand. Up above, Caewen could see paths tracing the black-green mass of the tor, and the summit above that, tearing at some foggy strands of cloudiness. She turned around to try and understand how the shallow corrie related to the maze. Behind her, both left and right, stretched a horseshoe shaped expanse of the grey, gritty stone walls of the maze, spreading like wings of a huge, heavy bird, and encircling the depression on the hillside. Doors lined the wall, studding the whole length of the half-circle. There were a lot of them too. Far too many to count at a glance. Above each door was carved a device of some sort or other, trees, clouds, stars, and other more esoteric shapes. Presumably these were exits from the maze, and the carvings were symbolic in some way. Maybe relating to the path taken through the maze?
As Caewen stood there, feeling more than a little disorientated, trying to work out her bearings, a cry went up from the thin crowd. More than one voice shouted aloud, all raised in what sounded like wordless surprise, even amazement. A moment later, a figure detached herself from the milling knots of bodies, and ran in long-limbed bounds down the slope. “Caewen! Caewen! You’re alive!”
It was Keri. She practically hit Caewen in mid-air and wrapped her arms around her. “Where’s Keru?” she panted. “Isn’t he with you?” She looked over Caewen’s shoulder.
“No. Didn’t he emerge ahead of me? I was in the maze for hours, or it felt like that. He must have long since come out of the place.”
“Gods of fern and earth-oven. He’s not with you?” She bit her lip, and it looked like she was going to have to stop herself crying. “I thought he must be with you, that maybe you chanced on each other in the maze. It was all I could think of.” Her tone darkened. “Has the maze kept him then?”
“No,” Caewen was about to tell her that the goddess of the tor only keeps young women, only by choice, and that there had been no sign of Keru in the house under the tor anyway, but she remembered the warning. “I mean. I can’t say how I know, but I know the maze hasn’t taken him.” She trailed off embarrassedly. Keri pulled away. She gave Caewen an awkward stare. “I was certain my brother had to be with you. He isn’t. What’s happened to him?”
“I don’t know.”
Keri swallowed hard, but pulled herself taller, fixed her expression, and turned her face away, rubbing the back of a hand across her eyes. “We can’t think about it right now. You have to go stand before the welcomers and proclaim yourself. I wonder what they’ll say?”
“They meet new magicians who have completed the maze. They will ask you for your allegiance, night or day, or other.”
“Other then, I guess. Is that all? That shouldn’t take long.”
“But don’t you–?” Keri shook her head. “No, of course, you wouldn’t know. There are twenty-five doors out of the labyrinth. The Twenty-Four Doors for the Hours, which mark out the hours of the day, are the common doors, and then there is the twenty-fifth: the Lockshut Way. You came out by the Lockshut. No one comes out by the shut door, or at least, not in a hundred years has anyone come out that way. How did you find it? What was behind it? The story is that anyone who comes out of the shut door is destined to sit on the Broadtable, destined to be one of the great magians of all the orders.”
“That doesn’t sound likely,” said Caewen, now feeling deeply uncomfortable. “And besides, I don’t go in much for prophecies. I’m starting to doubt the truthfulness of omens and seers in general, truth be told.”
“Still, it’s unusual though. Come on, Caewen. The welcomers will be waiting.” A glance back at her. “And you will have to tell me what was on the other side of the door. I can’t imagine what you saw there.”
“Nothing much to speak of,” said Caewen quietly. She added, with discomfit, “It was just a way in the maze. Nothing special.” The lie rankled her, but she had to believe that the goddess had been truthful about the ban against telling anyone about her house, or the taking of souls.
As they walked up the shallow incline, Caewen spotted Sgeirr. The princess-sorceress was standing off to one side, looking troubled to the point of pensive. She was keeping well to the shadows, away from any torchlight, and fingering the hilt of that broad dagger she had sheathed to her hip. So, Sgeirr had come through the maze safely enough then? She would be wondering what happened to her two followers, no doubt. Caewen toyed briefly with the idea of telling her exactly what had happened, but thought better of it. The memory alone made her feel sick, and she didn’t want to be known for that sort of magic, nor did she think she would actually get any pleasure out of telling someone that their companions were dead.
Keri saw her too, and nodded in the general direction, but just a fraction, clearly trying to keep her movement subtle. “That Sgeirr… her two lackeys haven’t come out of the maze either. Something strange has happened today.”
Caewen now had to consider whether she could be honest with Keri about this, and said, after tentatively wetting her lips a fraction, “Actually, I do know what happened to them at least. They attacked me in the maze. I defended myself.”
Keri stoped, nailed to the earth in her half-step. She stared, eyeballs wide, unblinking. “But… but the goddess will punish you. No attendee of the moot can take the life of another. Not ever.”
“As things resolved, that won’t be a concern. The goddess will not punish me.”
“How do you know?”
A hard bite of her breath, then Caewen said. “I’m sorry. I can’t say. I’m not trying to be mysterious. I just can’t say. Certain things happened to pass that I cannot speak about. I was forbidden.”
Keri was quieter after that, casting suspicious, sideways glances at Caewen, as if trying to unravel what she was seeing. “I haven’t known you very long, Caewen, but you don’t seem like the sort of person who just lets themselves be ordered about. There’s more to this than just a simple instruction, isn’t there?”
“Yes. That would be the situation. I can’t elaborate though. I wish I could, but I can’t.”
They were nearly at the top of the small depression, Caewen heard another familiar voice call to her. “A’halloo! Caewen!” It was Dapplegrim. He had broken into a prance, like a foal, back and forth just on the other side of the outermost line of fires. “They won’t let me into the enclosure, on account of not being a magician. If you can believe it? Stupid wizards. Great to see you! Keri was worried, but I wasn’t.”
Keri smiled, small, concealed by a turn of the head. “He was worried sick. Caewen this. Caewen that. I thought he’d never shut up.”
Caewen waved. “It’s alright. I’m alright.”