“Between night and day?”
“Them two?” A wave of a hand. “Ah, yes, of course, but they’re always fighting anyway. No, it’s not all about the Goddess-Queens of Brightness and Darkness. There are the multitudes of the third dynasty too. They need to talk and moot just as much, probably more so, because they actually bother to listen to each other. Grievances among the third dynasty stand a real chance of being resolved here. We are not all of us divine fanatics. Yet, the fire-workers and the parliament of stones, the shadows and the snows, the rain, the woods or the ocean… well might they descend into bickering and wars if there were no way to resolve petty arguments peacefully. If those two celestial goddesses want to endlessly fight, like a couple spinster sisters in a hovel, so be it. But rain cannot fight with earth. The ocean cannot fight with air. It cannot be allowed. The consequences for all living and growing things would be disastrous.”
“That does sound rather bad.”
“Rather bad? Rather bad? Humph! That is rather understating the matter. The importance of the third dynasty for the continued peaceful turning of the seasons, growing of crops, and the health of herds, woods and waters is rather under-appreciated.” A formal sounding sniff. “To put it mildly.”
“So, you’ll help us?”
“Erm. Maybe. What is it you wanted again?”
“Just directions to the place where Letha has her tent.”
Quinnya stared into the sky a moment, raising her gaze and pointed chin alike upwards. “But you might be tricking me. You might be planning to murder poor Letha yourself. Maybe you are the assassins, well? Did you think of that?”
Dapplegrim rolled his red glinting eyes. “Oh, brother! Please. Then come with us and see that we are not. Frankly, I’d be happy to have you along. You’re an officiator of the moot, after all. Them mad and merry night-revellers will have to leave us alone, proper like, so long as you’re with us. Hurm.”
“Probably,” said Quinnya. “Probably. Ermmm. But what if I am the assassin? Have you thought of that?”
“Are you?” asked Caewen.
The magess seemed to consider this a moment and said, carefully, “No, I don’t think so. But one can never be sure about these things.”
Caewen tried to put on a smile. “Ah. Well, yes. That’s good enough for me.”
“Very well then. Shall we?” She didn’t wait for an answer, but turned to her left and marched off downhill.
“Um,” ventured Caewen. “Don’t you want to put on a dress? Or tie up your hair? Or get some shoes?”
“When you reach my age, lass, you will find you care a great deal less about appearances. And these slippers are quite comfortable, thank you very much. I am quite contented with my current garb, raiment and attire.”
Caewen looked at Dapplegrim. She shrugged. “Alright then.” And they hurried to catch up.
They arrived at a small, rather humble looking round-tent. It was made from some kind of animal hide; each pelt of a striped brown, black and golden yellow. The zigzag appearance of the skins stitched together at haphazard angles gave the tent a sort of mad aspect in the moonshine. As they drew nearer, it became possible to see that the flap was unlaced and blowing gently in the wind. It made a tap, tap, tap noise as one corner slapped back against the tent wall.
“Hello?” said Caewen, not wanting a repeat of the confusion at Quinnya’s tent. “Letha? Are you in there?” Silence. “Dapplegrim?” she asked.
He drew in a long sniff. “Blood. A lot of it.”
“Useful horse,” mused Quinnya, giving him a sidelong look.
They moved into the shadowy recesses of the canopy. A single candle was guttering against the wind inside. There was a tear in the back of the tent. It was through this gap that the cold breaths of air were sneaking in to play with the candle-flame. The only other light was the moon’s glow, which held itself in a ragged and shifting shape against the skin ceiling: a dull round circlet of white-stained stripes that moved as the tent’s roof rose and fell with the wind. It took Caewen’s eyes a moment to adjust. But as soon as her sight grew used to the dark, she blinked and fought an urge to look away. Letha was stretched out, staring at the ceiling, back arched awkwardly in the middle of the tent. A long gash had opened up all of her throat. The cut was so deep that a glint of white was visible inside the wet red. Presumably, neck bones. Near Letha’s feet lay the dead body of her pet drakeling, its neck wrung at an angle that no living creature would survive. Whoever had done this had evidently been quick, brutal and thorough. They had wanted both Letha and her pet creature dead.
Quinnya walked over to the body, knelt down and shook her head, at the same time letting out a long low heave of a sigh. “Well, you weren’t lying. She’s been dead a while though. Several hours, I’d say at a guess. Stone cold to touch. The blood’s all clotted to a brown tack. You can see she’s stiffening a little too. The rigidity of death is setting in.”
Caewen edged around the body, trying not to look at the dead staring eyes, and failing. That she had been speaking with Letha only a matter of hours ago, that this was the same young woman, dead… she tried to force the thoughts from her mind, to shove aside the gathering twists of shock and disgust, the stunned sense of horror, but managed only to make herself feel queasy. Her fingertips prickled hot. A twisting funnel of coldness danced in her gut. She crossed the rest of the space quickly, occupying her thoughts by moving to the torn skins at the back of the tent. She peered out through the rent, then touched a finger to its edge. “This is frayed. Someone cut their way in. Maybe Letha was asleep? Or her back was turned?” She checked the wet earth outside. “I don’t see any footprints? Dapplegrim, you’ve keener eyes and nostrils.”
He trotted through the tent, stepping over Letha as if she were a log in a forest. His nonchalant step across the dead girl gave Caewen a twinge of discomfit, though she covered it up by frowning and looking back outside, into the night, then hugging herself as if cold. “Can you see any tracks, Dapple?”
“No,” he said, peering at the ground. “But I can smell her blood.” His nostrils flared. “The murder was not clean. Hurm. The killer got spots of blood all over themselves. I can track the scent of it.”
It was Quinnya who asked, “Can you really smell a spray of blood on clothing so clearly?”
He grinned, craning his neck around, looking her in the eye. “A half of my parentage very much enjoys tracking the smell of blood. So, yes, I can scent it well enough, hur.” He then paused a moment, holding his words carefully, before saying, “But there is another thing.”
“Whoever killed that woman and her pet left no body odour. Inside the tent, here, there is only the smell of the blood, and the lived-in stink of skin, clothing, oils, hair, a salty undertone of the dragonet. Only the girl, her pet, and death. Nothing else.”
Caewen screwed up her forehead in a frown. “What kind of creature would leave no scent?”
Quinnya made a hard, thrumming noise. “A magical construct? A ghost. A spirit. Maybe a god..?”
Dapplegrim snorted. “Hurm. But then I ought to be able to smell the curdling after-hints of the thing’s magic, shouldn’t I? There’s none of that, neither. And it’s not a phantom.” He sniffed. “A ghostly thing wouldn’t get blood on it, would it? Whatever killed that girl was solid enough. There is just a… well, hur, I suppose the only way to put it, is there is an absence. It feels as if there was a smell perhaps, but it was cut out of the air. Or it’s concealed behind the air itself?”
“Is that possible?” said Caewen. “And how?”
“Hur. How should I know?”
Quinnya frowned. “But it is a good question.”