Fair Upon the Tor #59 (updates Mondays)

It turned out that neither Samarkarantha nor Pel were back at the tent by the time Caewen and Dapple returned. Keri had slumped over on herself, asleep in a curled-up ball next to her brother. Both of them were snoring lightly in a sort of rising and falling off-melody together. They had left all the candles and lanterns burning, which seemed wasteful, though Caewen was grateful for the light. It had made finding the tent so much easier, with the glow from the inside.

She felt her muscles ache as she looked around, wondering. A slight tightening crossed her brow. Her eyes were sore from lack of sleep. There was still a dull pain in her mouth from casting the fey-stroke earlier, though mostly she only noticed it when she turned her mind back to the maze and what happened there. She felt overwhelmed by exhaustion. With barely a tangible thought in her mind, Caewen shrugged off her woollen jumper, let her shoulders slacken, and pulled off her belt, farm boots and her linen dress, leaving herself in undergarments; immediately, she felt the chill of the night air. Speaking softly, so as not to wake Keri or Keru, she said to Dapple, “I wonder if we should ask the biloko where their master has gone? It seems odd for both Pel and Samarkarantha to be out, tonight of all nights.”

Dapplegrim had pushed his head through the flap of the tent, but as he wasn’t be able to fit inside, had to satisfy himself with stopping at the shoulders. “Hrrm. Yes,” he agreed. “Odd.”

But the little woody faced creatures were nowhere in sight either. Presumably they were asleep, or resting, or maybe just hiding behind curtains or cushions? Caewen called to them tentatively. “Hello?” she said. “Bell demons? Are you there?”

A small, sour face, fringed by a waft of tussocky hair appeared in the shadows near some of the magician’s travelling chests and pillows. “Yes, what asks thou, fleshling of blood, mortal creature?”

“Where is Samarkantha? Is he out doing something, do you know? Or is he sleeping in the back of the tent somewhere?”

“Gone out,” hissed the creature. “Gone out with the Lady Pel. Told us, stay here, wait here, watch here, look after guests.” A snarl, and the face vanished.

“Polite little nasties, aren’t they?” said Caewen.

“No more or less than most fettered demon-things.” Dapplegrim yawned and all his sharp teeth shone ivory-yellow in the lamplight. “I’m going to fold up my legs and sleep outside beside the flap.”

Caewen was half-distracted, but said, “I thought horses sleep standing up. You hardly seem to. Sometimes, I mean. But usually you sleep lying down.”

“Only half horse,” muttered Dapplegrim, and he pulled his head out of the tent.

Yawning herself now, Caewen blew out all but one of the oil lanterns. Each snuffed flame left thin trails of brown-black smoke curling that looked like the eddies of a tannin-laced river. In the gloom, Caewen pulled back the flap of her bedroll and crawled inside. The fabric was cold against her skin, but it warmed from her body heat soon enough. She was so tired. She relaxed almost without being conscious of it, and she slipped into the wide open mouth of endless, depthless darkness.

###

Caewen had no idea what time it was when she woke. It was still dark–that much she could see–and the one lamp she had left burning for Samarkarantha and Pel was still giving out its small pallid seepage of light into the sleepy tent. For a moment Caewen wondered what had woken her, but then it came again: a long, wailing anguished cry composed of several creaking voices together.

“What the–?” she said, getting up to an elbow and trying to understand what was happening. Was a ritual happening noisily outside? Or some other night-worshipper ‘celebration’, for lack of a better word? No. Caewen realised that the cries were from inside the tent. Keri was getting up too now, hurriedly, a look of confusion on her face. “What’s going on?” she muttered, groggy.

“I have no idea.”

The noise was coming from the back of the tent, and Caewen stumbled upright, still half-asleep, found her way around pillows and low tables whilst managing to knock her shin into something hard just once. Wincing from the sharp pain, feeling anger rising a little, she pulled aside the drapes at the far end of the tent and said loudly, almost to the point of yelling, “It’s the middle of the night! What in all the Clay-o-the-Green do you think you are you doing?” Her eyes were full of the grit and haze of sleep. Her tongue felt grasping. Her head was full of nothing but soggy thoughts. She blinked. It was the biloko. They were huddled in a miserable ball together, half-upright on the ground, snivelling and shrieking. Weird snot, like the exudate of rotting forest logs was running from their noses. Their eyes were weeping a thin, translucent amber. One of them turned its piggish gaze to her, and she could see a faint pained light in the wetness of its orbs. “The master of the bells,” it said, low and wheezing, almost to the point of a lament. “The master of the bells! He is injured! They are trying to murder him. What if they kill him?”

“Yes, yes, they’ll kill him,” said another of the creatures, its voice all self-pity and hatred. “They’ll take our bells from him and then we will never be free.”

“Never go home,” whispered the third. “the master has promised to free us. But some other mortal maggot will take the bells. And sell us.”

“And trade us.”

“And they will never free us.”

“Never–never–never,” they all wailed together.

“Someone is trying to kill Samarkarantha?” said Caewen, confused. She looked around, dumbly, as if somehow this murder would be taking place in the tent, and she just hadn’t noticed.

By now, Keri had walked up beside her, and Dapplegrim had been roused outside.

Keri blinker, confused. “What is going on?”

With a more certain and growing sense of foreboding, Caewen answered. “Apparently someone is trying to kill Samarkarantha. Right now.” She turned to the biloko. “Where is he? Who’s attacking him?”

“Don’t know,” they snivelled. “Don’t know!” and soon they were wailing wordlessly again.

Keri shook her head. She seemed to be trying to work through this. “So… so… what do we do?”

“I can’t think… wait… Dapple?”

“Yes,” he had pushed his head a little further into the tent.

“Can you find them? Samakarantha or Pel? By scent?”

“Let me sniff.” He vanished for a moment, and there was some sounds of hooves on wet grass and snuffling. But a moment later, he reappeared, saying, “No. There’s no hint of them on the air. Maybe if I had a trail. Droplets of blood. Or bits of torn cloth. Even a recent tread of boots. Something. But no, they’ve been gone too long and they are somewhere off distant. And remember, I’m half-horse,” he muttered, “not half scent-hound.”

“Then what?” said Caewen.

He snorted his own frustrated sound. “We wait.”

She turned to Keri.

“That’s all we can do surely,” she said. “I don’t see anything else for it. Just wait. And hope they are both able to look after themselves.”

“They ought to be. Hur. I don’t know about Pel, but Samarkarantha has a strong tang of magic about him. Enough to uproot buildings or sway the earth. He can look after himself.”

“Still, I don’t like it.” She frowned, and looked at the biloko. “What if he is overwhelmed? Or attacked by a yet more potent wizard? I don’t like just standing here, feeling useless.”

Keri threw her arms up. “And neither do I. None of us do. But do you have another suggestion?” She was clearly sore from being woken. “Should we just wander around in the night, looking aimlessly? Or asking the night-folks out there: hey there, have you happened to see a magician from the land of the gilt-earth and sun, by any chance? Wandering around. His very presence profaning the Festival of Uncreated Night?” She put her hands on her hips. “Why are we asking? Oh, no reason. Ho de hum, hum.”

“Hrmm,” said Dapple. “Best case, a crowd of night-folk think we’re mad. Next best case, they think we’re joking. Worst case, they think we’re serious. That will not go well.”

At length Caewen had to concede. She shook her head, saying, ‘No. You’re both right. We wait then.”

That settled it. For now, all Caewen and Keri could do was sit down on the cushions, and listen to the abject misery of the biloko as they shrieked and wept. They waited. Dapplegrim pulled himself back outside and paced around near the entry to the tent. Occasionally he would say, “No sign of them,” and the biloko would renew their shrieking and weeping.