As she turned to go, she felt their eyes on her back, along with the stares of those wizards and witches who were still lingering at the fringes of the space. There were muttered whispers, coughs and questioning stares. Caewen and Keri started off towards Dapplegrim. “Is it unusual? Not taking a side?”
“Reasonably, yeah. Most people want the safety of one faction or the other, even if only in some vague way. I suppose because you came out of the Locked Door, people thought you might make more of a show of things too. That was rather understated.” She threw a sideways glance. “Of course, you’re on your own now, too, without allies. Anyone might have a go at you.” A slight frown. “Outside the moot of course. I wonder what has happened to Keru? Curse the shrine, the blood and the ochre. And curse Keru too if he’s just dawdling.” She was sounding afraid and frustrated. “Where is he?”
Caewen frowned too then, and tried to think what to say. “You know, it may not be a terrible thing if he takes a long time to walk the maze. I mean, it sort of seemed to me that the maze was a kind of symbol for life. Maybe that sounds stupid… but I don’t know. If he takes a long time to walk the maze, maybe that only means he’ll live to a ripe old age? It makes sense to me.” She looked over her shoulder. “The big pussy cat and the king haven’t moved. They’re still waiting. They would know if there was no point in waiting any longer, wouldn’t they?”
“Pussy cat?” Keri’s eyes lit up. She pinned down a laugh, trying not to let it squirm free. “Caewen, that’s a Sakhmis.”
“He said that. Is that the name of the kind of cat? I mean, he’s obviously some sort of huge magical moggie, but are there others like him?”
Keri laughed out loud now, not able or willing to suppress the amusement. “Huge magical moggie? Oh, multitudes of the fern and tree: if only he could hear you say that. I’d love to see his reaction.” She seemed to be appreciating the distraction, and gave out a happier sigh. “It’s not a giant house cat. A Sakhmis is a strain of lion, but bigger, and possessing the power of speech. We have wolves and bears around these hills that are like that. Speaking wolves and thinking, talking bears. Far more dangerous than the usual sort of wolf or bear. A Sakhmis is the same; a talking, thinking lion, and far more dangerous than an everyday lion. Which is itself very dangerous indeed.”
“Oh. I see.” She tried to remember what lions were supposed to look like. “Yes. Lions. I’ve seen pictures carved on goblets, and in embroideries too, I think. I imagined a lion would look different. I don’t quite know how… just different.”
“Goldsmiths, scrimshaw cutters and cloth-stitchers probably aren’t the best sources for discovering out how a thing looks. I mean, think how is a raven usually depicted? …or a dog? …or a goat? I don’t think you could tell a raven from a sparrow, just from an etching, or a bit of embroidery.”
“That’s true enough.”
They were nearing Dapplegrim now. He was twitching and stamping one hoof. Although he was clearly making an effort to hold still, he couldn’t control his ears, and they swivelled back and forth eagerly. His left hoof had left a trail in the gritty soil.
“Hello there, Dapple,” said Caewen and she went up to him and gave him a hug around his neck.
“Yes. Well. Hur. Hurm. Good to see you too. Was your time in the maze fun?”
“Oh, well, I don’t know if ‘fun’ is the right word, but it was interesting.” A moment of reflection. “Illuminating, anyway.”
“Apparently, she can’t tell us any more than that,” said Keri. “Apparently, there’s some sort of ban or promise, or something. Wink wink. Nod nod. All that stuff.” She sounded as if she were trying to make a joke, but there was still a strain undercutting her voice. Worry was still gnawing through her words.
“Oh, said Dapplegrim. I suppose you must have spoken to the goddess of the hill then? She will have made you promise not to talk about it. Don’t worry I won’t press any more. Not me. Oh no. Hurm. I know what’s what. Gods and goddesses are the worst for making folks promise to to keep secrets. Hur. Hur. Hurm. Bring me this. Sacrifice this other thing. Worship me every twelfth day out of twenty, except in Autumn, when you must worship on the first of the month too. But don’t dare tell anyone.” A ripple of his shoulders and flanks expressed a sentiment in the general remit of a shrug. “That kind of thing.”
“Ahhh…” Said Caewen, unsure if she could even acknowledge that he was in the right general area. “Maybe,” she said. “Do you know whether such bans need to be taken seriously?”
He nodded vigourously. “Oh, yes. Definitely, or at least, as long as you are near the tor. I mean, hurm, the goddess of this place is just a local earth divinity, right? Hurm. So probably her power will diminish at distance.” After a considered length, said again, “probably.”
“I don’t think I’m going to take the risk then. I’m just not going to talk about the details.” Just as she finished saying this, a few stray calls and hollers jumped up from the thinning crowd.
“Look,” yelled Keri, as she turned to the maze. She immediately broke into a run.
“Is it Keru?” said Caewen.
Dapplegrim squinted his deep black eyes. Red-gleams shot through them. “Yes. He’s coming out from one of the middling twilight doors. Clearly not planning to make alliance with Day or Night either, given his door of egress. Hur. Hur. Hurrrm.”
“Come on then,” said Caewen, but as she started after Keri, a tall, angular figure moved to block her, seeming almost to leap out of nowhere. A familiar hard voice, like iron being dragged over stone said, “Not him!” After an almost snarl-like huff, she added, “And you! I want a word with you, if you will deign to speak with me, oh so very important, lady magician.” In the evening gloom and uncertain flicker of firelight, Quinnya’s grey hair was wrought into a wiry storm shot with white glistenings like lightning. Her eyes, sharp and brutally intelligent, fixed on Caewen. Her black dress with its white linen strips pinned to it, stirred and lulled gently against the low cold breeze on the hillside.
“Oh, sons and daughters of Old Night and Chaos.” Dapplegrim rolled his eyes. “Quinnya again. Hello, Quinnya. Nice to see you.” Then, in a whispered aside that was clearly audible. “Actually, it’s not nice to see her. She’s been very rude to me. It was her who stopped me going down into the hollow. Nasty old… hurm… hur… rule-follower.”
“Well, if that is the worse your talking demon-donkey has to say about me, I am complimented. I am old. And the world, such as it is, allows only the sensible to live to old age. I’ve been called worse things than nasty. And yes, I follow the rules.” She turned her glare on Caewen, “which you, it seems, do not. How precisely did you cheat your way onto the path of the great door, well?”