It was about a half hour later when Dapplegrim’s voice roused, jolting Caewen back to full wakefulness, “Ho! Hurm! They’re back! Caewen! Come! Quick.”
She jumped up, dashed for the outside, and pushed through the fabric into cold air and cloud-strained moonlight. Keri was close behind her. Both of them were still only mostly dressed, but wide awake, having spent an endless-seeming span listening to the biloko cry and whimper. Even Keru had stirred from sleep a bit, turning and thrashing, before slipping back into his restless, exhausted slumber.
Outside, a light drizzle had started up, so that Caewen felt the pricks of small hard cold spots as she stood: sparks of ice against bare shoulders, face, throat and arms. Dapplegrim was swishing his tail agitatedly, staring off into darkness.
“Where?” she said.
“Over there. Coming this way, by that big green tent.”
They all started off in the direction and soon spotted Samarakantha. He was hobbling towards them, supporting a limp and sagging Pel. They were both welted all over by awful bruises, and their skin was streaked alike with thin but bloody rake-marks. It looked as if they had been attacked by a swarm of small, sharp cutthroat razors.
Samarkarantha started and raised a hand, defensively, before recognising his guests and relaxing.
“Oh, you,” he said, barely forming the words. “Kindly be your hours, days and year. And peace be upon you.”
“And the same to you and yours,” said Caewen. “Whatever has happened, you’re safe now. The tent is nearby. Come… we’ll help.”
He blinked a few times, as if trying to clear sweat out of his eyes, and gave a nod of understanding. “Yes, good, Yes. Thank you. Thank you so much. We were attacked.”
Caewen put an arm around Pel, and Keri went to help support Samakarantha. He looked like he was barely keeping himself upright.
“By what?” said Caewen.
“Not now.” He winced, and screwed his eyes tight against a rush of pain as he moved. “Inside. Inside first.”
They moved a barely conscious Pel to a heap of pillows and laid her down gently. Wherever her gold toned skin wasn’t purpled and greyed by bruising, it was bloody from the streaky claw marks.
“What happened to you? What attacked you?” asked Caewen again.
Samarkarantha only muttered and shook his head. He eased himself to his knees beside Pel, closed his eyes and began to speak. As he did, the biloko crept out of their shadows and their misery, and crawled towards him, fawning, reaching out with groping hands, touching his legs and feet. He spoke as they whimpered. “There was once a young woman,” said Samarkarantha, “whose name was Peloxanna the Actrian. She was very brave, elegant and lovely, but most of all brave, for she went along with a foolish wizard to look after some treasures. Someone did not appreciate this. The two of them were attacked by someone… something.. and she was injured terribly. But Pel was strong. Pel was hale. Pel did not succumb to the bleak magic.” His voice grew in strength and gathered into itself a sort of resonance. A diamond-like perfect echo of itself. “She fought, and she outfought the killing curse. The magic did not kill her. It could not kill her. Peloxanna was too strong.” As he spoke a healthier flush returned to Pel’s face and neck, and some of the bruises seemed to diminish. Her face, which had been wrenched into a rictus of hard pain, relaxed, and her feline eyes opened briefly, taking in the tent and the lamplight, Samarkarantha’s face. She blinked, and managed to say through dry lips. “Are we safe? Are they gone?”
“We are safe,” he answered. “This tent has fine wards upon it. They will not cross the boundary.” She started to say something more, but he hushed her. “No, no. Rest for now. Rest.” Her eyes fluttered closed and she slumped into a loose-limbed sleep.
He looked around then and saw Keru. “Seems you’ve fared as badly as we did tonight. How is your brother? He looks badly hurt.” He began to inch towards Keru, though the effort clearly left him in agony, and his biloko were trying to stop him.
They were hissing, “No, no, master of bells, save your strength.”–“No more of the arts.”–“Please, be kind to yourself. Please!”
But it was Keri who stopped him, saying, “He will recover. There are already healing arts upon him. There’s no need for you to exhaust yourself more.” She grew sterner in her voice. “And you need to rest. Honestly, you’re near as beat up as Pel.”
He nodded, and sagged down to the floor. “I am.”
“Now, tell us what happened?” said Caewen.
“Pel brought me a rumour, back, earlier today.” He coughed and blood came out the corner of his mouth. “Someone lurking around the Tent of Gifts. You walked in on us discussing it this afteroon.” Another deep, rattling cough. A thin smile. “You’re not the only ones who have noticed that matters are strange in the moot. Pel has been going about secretly on my behalf, asking questions, looking, prodding, listening. We have grown certain that an unknown someone or something has been sneaking about the moot. This person, or thing–whatever they are–was near the Tent of Gifts, yesterday and in the evening. We went looking. Thought we might stand watch, if it was called for. Then, attacked.”
“By who? By what?” said Keri.
He shook his head. “Dark magic. Black birds made of death magic, cold and terrible.” A shiver ran down his face. “Foul things.” His focus detached and wavered then, as he remembered.
Caewen shook her head. “But surely that’s not possible. The goddess of the tor would want retribution. She wouldn’t allow it.”
“The three who are one have abandoned the moot,” whispered Samarkarantha. “That much is now clear to me now. How else could these murders be allowed? How else could we be attacked with dark witchery and curse-sendings, without reprisal, without justice?”
“No, she hasn’t.” Caewen winced as soon as she said it. Both Samarkarantha and Keri looked at her, questions in their eyes. Dapplegrim, from the flap snorted. She wetted her lips, looked down at the ground, and said, “I mean… I can’t tell you why–I’m not allowed to–but I know for certain that the goddess is still watching over the moot. Something else is amiss. Something is hiding these killings from her. Hold a moment, you must know about all the other murders too then?”
“Yes. We were aware. In fact, we thought your Keru was a possible victim that had not been quite cleanly killed. That’s why we took you in.”
“To protect us?” said Caewen.
“That… yes. And, we thought the murderer might come back for you.”
“Oh,” said Keri, realisation dawning in her voice. “I don’t know if I like being treated as blood smeared on a hook.”
He only shrugged. “And to protect you. Well guarded bait, if you like. But Pel and I have also understood that there is a pattern to the killings, yes. Serpent-speakers, dragon-tongues, snake-charmers.” He shrugged. “We don’t know why.”
“H’m.” She focused her thoughts inward, considering. “How might a person avoid the gaze of the threefold goddesses?”
Samarkarantha looked at her. “There would be ways, but they are either rare or dangerous, or both. And even if one or more magicians were to shroud their flesh from her sight, the spellwork itself could never be hidden from her. She is a goddess of magic, and no magic can be hidden from her. If the bleak arts were used: she would know.”
“And yet, it seems she does not.” Caewen stood up, and took a few brief paces, trying to think. “Black birds? Like crows?”
“Maybe. I didn’t see them clearly. It was dark and there were dozens of them, maybe more. We barely escaped.”