The two of them, Caewen and Keri, wove a path among the torches and open fires, coming at last to a slight raised knoll atop which there was a small sweep of stone carved into a platform. On this plinth, facing them, were two strange creatures. On their right sat a withered old man, skin all silvery white, eyes grey-blue. A thin frown puckered his lips and his face was pinched into a web of hard lines. The clothing he wore was elaborate, all grey and steel-blue, shimmering like kingly robes, and he wore a crown of black, studded with white burning diamonds. For a confused moment Caewen thought she was looking at the Winter King. This hard, ice-eyed old man with an inscrutable expression was what she imagined the mysterious entity to look like. But the Winter King, whoever or whatever he was, would not be sitting in a frail wooden chair, on a stone dais, greeting people emerging from the prentice’s maze. Or at least, she could not imagine any way in which such a being would be sitting here and not be the stuff of rumour throughout the moot.
Her gaze still somewhat suspiciously lingering on the man dressed in kingly, pale finery, she looked over at the other welcomer. This one was not human at all, nor anything like a human. It was some manner of huge cat, with ruddy fur and a mane of dark, almost charcoal hair around its long, drawn feline visage. A cunning gleam of intellect stood bright in the creature’s eyes, and it made huge deep rumble of a noise in its throat as it eyed her back. Flopping one massive paw over the other, it took a moment to casually lick its fur before saying, “Peace be upon you, supplicant, now risen to full magehood. I am called Athmis the Sakhmis. I am the Day-Greeter.”
A wheezing hiss of a voice then escaped the seated old man, though his lips barely parted. A sound like cold wind in northern pines. “And I am the Night-Greeter, whose name is Hwala, who rules the Woerns.”
They seemed to expect her to speak then, and both looked at her silently, appraisingly.
“Caewen of Drossel,” she ventured.
The gigantic cat shifted its huge body. Long and fat and round like a sausage, it lazed on the stone plinth, looking out from hooded eyes. “The Honour, the Presence, the Heaven-born is with you, O’ Caewen, she who is of Drossel. Thou art surely both heavenly and unsurpassable, for you have passed through the Heart Door, that portal which none do easily pass. Do you yet behold the mystery that is creation? Have you seen the right and the wrong of it? For, we must ask, whom do you serve? I see no coldness or darkness in your soul except that which you have chased away, and made go elsewhere. A demon that once lived inside you, I think. Yet, I smell only warm grass and meadow flowers on your breath. Are you not a creature of daylight? Are you not willing to swear to Our Lady of the Sun?”
“Bah!” spat the withered, frozen king. “You have a northern cast about your features, and you go about with a night-creature, through and through, that demoniac horse-thing of yours. There is icy sorcery in your blood too. Your spirit has indeed cohabited with a spirit of the winters, and though it is not in your flesh now, it has left stark traces. Surely you are among the loyal servants of Old Night and the Queen of Stars and Mysteries? Swear to it, and be welcomed.”
“No,” said Caewen.
The huge maned cat smiled, but she shook her head.
“No, for you too. I am not on either side. I want no part in your endless bickering war. Yes, I do come from the north, but not from so very far north as you guess. Drossel is a small village in the borderlands. We’ve a long memory of armies going this way and that. Drossel has been burned to the ground a dozen times, as the stories go. Both by armies marching north under the banner of the fiery sun, and by armies marching south under the stars and the moon. Your war has brought my family, and my ancestors, my home, nothing but misery. And much of that. I want no part of you, or your thrice-fool war.”
“You pick the third way then?” said the old king, with one eyebrow raised at her.
The cat snorted. “That is the hardest of the paths. If you choose the path of the sun, then I am here to greet you and teach you, protect and instruct. If you choose the path of the moon and stars, then my counterpart, peace be upon him, is here to do the same. But, the other path: that is the path of fires and shadows, green leaves, wild beasts and ocean waves. No one is here to greet you. For those are wild things that will not be ruled, or rule, or form alliance. That is the lonely way.”
“Don’t worry,” said Keri, behind her and at a low whisper. “I choose the way between too. All my people do. We have never taken a side in this either.”
Caewen let herself speak, quietly. “So then there is no one to greet me, or teach me. I’m no worse off than I was before.”
The pallid cold king nodded. “That is true enough.”
“Indeed it is,” rumbled the cat.
“So, may I go now?”
They both gave a slight nod.