Fair Upon the Tor #38 (updates Mondays)

She waited, anxious, for a few moments after her other-self vanished. Half-expecting to hear a scream, or a terrified yell, and completely at a loss as to what she would do if her double were to cry out for help, Caewen persisted in waiting, just a little longer, a bit longer still. But there were no cries for help. There were no sounds or signs of the double at all. And though the treed dell was small, the double-self did not emerge from the other end of it. Eventually, Caewen accepted that unless she followed the double into the wooded dell herself, she was not going to see or hear anything more of the vision… thing… phantom… or whatever it was

She forced a shrug, and, with effort, she tried to feel nonchalant about this.

It was, after all, surely just some fevered illusion born of this place, anyway? Definitely. Just a phantom… or ghost of the brain, dredged up from the dark oceanic under-thoughts of the mind. Just a thing woven from her own secret fears concerning how the world looked on her, and placed her, and considered her.

Surely.

Casting a quick glance along the clear path, she took the last few paces back to its relative safeness and surety. With a shake of her head, she turned over more thoughts. Strange phantoms, indeed. Living ghosts. Memories and fears, made real. Though, to what end? Looking about, she saw the outlines of the maze walls, all around her in the near distance, and squirming in wormlike patterns up the hill slope, a mass of curdled lines, grey against the blackness of the tor. Much farther up the flank of the tor, some fires were now being lit. Small and flickering, remote. She felt cold, alone. With a leaping, throat-clawing desperation she wanted to be beside a warm fire. Away from this maze. Away from the gathering night. Away from the weird hauntings of the pathways.

As she trudged the ridge of the grassy embankment, stepping lightly along her open trail, Caewen did wonder if it really had been such a good choice to follow her curiosity through the door into this other place. “I ought have just kept on walking the maze out there,” she said to herself, though not with much conviction, and not with much of a sense of self-accusation either. After all, she thought to herself, she had just spoken to a mirror-self that seemingly had no purpose except to the take foolish risks out of a misguided sense of the invulnerable heroic.

Either the magic of this place had a sense of irony, or her own unconscious did. Either way, it didn’t strike her as amusing, and it all felt rather on the nose.

She quickly passed the place where the two paths reformed, and looked back one last time at the dell. Darkness as thick as midnight clung to the trees, and the roots, and under the leafy boughs. There was still no sign of the other, mirror Caewen. So, what more could she do then?

Certainly not wait about all night, watching the stars spin.

Onward then, to follow the path and see where this tangled mess led to next.

Her bare dirt track ran downhill, and then in and out of a handful of small, walled-in squares, all empty except for signs of having once held gardens. No other branchlets broke off these small squares, and there remained just the one gateway out of each, into the next. This part of the maze was not very mazelike at all. Just one long straight road disguised as something more convoluted.

“Hmph,” she said aloud, half a snort. Just like the maze out there, she thought. Just like a walk through life. Seemingly full of choices, and twists and turns, but really rather more direct than most people want to admit, running without much digression from start to end.

The pathways in the courtyards drew her along, and at length, deposited her outside one large doorway, lit from within by the umber glow of fire. The rock walls here were more finely cut, but were jumbled, as if they had been taken, stone-by-stone out of a castle or great city, and reassembled in odd, ill-fitting rows. Shades jumped in the uncertain flame-light. She could smell woodsmoke, and she peered into the next space only tentatively, scrunching her nose against the prickly grey fume-scent. It seemed a touch too coincidental that she had just been wishing for a fire, and now, here she was at a doorway that promised a fire beyond.

No immediate rustle or mutter of voices met her. Well, perhaps that was a good sign? Maybe the maze was done with her, and was going to allow her to find a way to an exit.

But when she stepped through the door and looked round, she felt a sigh ride through her, and her shoulders sagged. Another one.

He was sitting, hunch-shouldered on a stool made of rock, decorated all over with weird carvings. The rock looked raw and old, and, strangely, there was a little moat of water around him, as if he was trapped by it. In his hands he held the hilt of a sword that was ludicrously too large and too long. It was a sword fit for a godlike giant–magnificent, decorated with red-gold scrollwork and creatures, and three times taller than the boy. The boy himself was rather skinny, rather pimply and a bit sad looking, in a self-pitying kind of way. He would have been about Caewen’s own age, she guessed.

Taking a moment to look around, Caewen could not at first locate the fire, though the air was throaty with smoke. She walked a little way into this squared off yard, and thought for a moment she had found the reflection of the fire, only it wasn’t a reflection. The fire seemed to be burning underwater in the miniature moat, and the smoke was coming off the water, like mist off a mountain loch.

The boy still faced away from her.

“Hello,” she tried.

He started, and looked up with eyes that had a washed-out quality. It was only now that she noticed he was wearing a simple coronet made of raw white gold, polished to the point of being a high silver-white spectre of reflections. The fire’s flickers ran along the crown’s edge, and jumped in the boy’s eyes and tripped down the long, unwieldy length of sharp steel he so clumsily grasped the hilt of.

When he spoke, his voice sounded as snivelly as his expression looked. “I didn’t see you there. What do you want?”

“Oh. Um. I guess I was expecting you to tell me all about how the moot is in danger, and how you must save it.”

A flustered snarl. “How did you know that? It is the greatest of my secrets.”

She fought hard to not roll her eyes. “Call it a wild guess.” With a tilt of the head, and a frown, she asked, “So how are you planning to save the moot from this terrible danger then? With that sword of yours? It doesn’t look a very practical weapon.”

Fair Upon the Tor #37 (updates Mondays)

She left him then, and kept walking the path, past the dead tree, eventually reaching the other side of the enclosure. As she went, the sounds of his angry, under-breath muttering trailed along with her, like dust pulled in the wake of a passing wagon.

Once Caewen was away from the grass-covered mound, the words dimmed off into faintnesses, and then were gone. Those tall, harshly hewn and carven walls, that had made a wide encirclement of the tree and hillock, crept back in, closing on either side of the path, forming into a narrower way once more. The trackway ran on between the walls, and with no other way to go, she followed it, looking around, listening, wondering. A good few minutes of walking passed her by, before the way widened again, and spilled her into another scene of eerie grassy wilderness, all lit white, and zinc-hued in the gathering moonlight. Moths were rising out of the thick, rank leaves, fluttering silent circles, ghost-pale in the dusk cold air. Just a little way ahead, the path split in two, and then ran parallel on these two prongs. For a span of a good few hundred paces at the least, the two dirt tracks lay seemingly side-by-side. This was odd. Why have two paths alongside each other? She hunted up the length of them with her eyes.

The path to the left did eventually ease off downhill and then plunge into a small but thick and shadowy wood. The path on the right just curved itself off and away: skirting the dark wood, and taking an easier, more open way. Far ahead, on the other side of the wood, the two paths rejoined. There seemed no reason to take the lefthand path at all… unless a person actually wanted to trudge into a tangled and airless little wooded dell. Caewen didn’t take long to decide which path to choose. She was happily moving at a quick step on the open, clear way, when she saw a figure moving with the same speed towards the dark forest, off to her left.

“A’hey there!” she called. Waving her hands, she called out again, “Halloo!”

The figure, who seemed to be of about her own height, and of a slender frame, turned to look, and waved back. With posture and countenance much more friendly than the young Mannagarm, the person called back, and it was the voice a young woman that carried over the grass to Caewen. “Hello there, to you.” An odd familiarity, and an odd, quare sense of discomfit flitted across the grass with those words also. A tautening of her skin jumped along the back of he neck, in the hollows of her knees, down the back of her hands. The voice was familiar.

The two of them left their respective paths, crossed the grassy ground and met halfway. As they drew closer, Caewen felt her unease unfold and enlarge. Once they were at a conversational distance, it was unmistakable. She could no longer tell herself anything else. Caewen was clearly looking at her own self, reflected back at her. True, this mirror self was dressed in some manner of outlandish outfit, like a court fool, in green and red, and, yes,  she carried nothing but a stout walking stick: but, her own smiling face was gazing back at her, clear eyed, and, to Caewen’s way of thinking, wearing an expression that was more than a bit irritatingly naive. Even perhaps, slightly vacant.

“Why, hello there, fellow traveller,” said the mirror Caewen in red-and-green, apparently either unperturbed by, or unaware of any resemblance. “Are you walking around the woods then?”

“Um.” Caewen collected some words together in a basket of thoughts, and tried to find a way through this conversation, “Yes, yes… I guess I am. It looks like you were about to walk straight into the dell.” She looked at the dark wooded gully, all tangled, all shadowed, and overgrown with low scrabbly ferns, scrub, and clawing trees. A stirring of noises of unseen and wild things was drifting out of the woods too. Unpleasant things were waiting in there. “Shouldn’t you consider taking the open path? I mean, the way I’m walking is much clearer, and surely less dangerous?”

“H’m, that might be true.” The mirror-self furrowed her face up in a way that Caewen recognised from the inside. She did that herself when she was thinking seriously about a problem. It was disconcerting. Hearing herself speak. Watching her facial expressions dance, and wrinkle, and jump about in fits of idle thought. “I’m taking this path into the woods because the moot is threatened, and everyone will be slaughtered if someone doesn’t do something about it.” The other Caewen looked at the forest, and bit her underlip. Another of Caewen’s own habits that she was not always totally aware of. “It will be a bloody slaughter, if nothing is done. But, rumour has it that there is a treasure hidden in those woods, and whoever owns that treasure will be able to restore peace, and save everyone, and the whole of the moot will be rescued, and the whole of everything else too maybe. And so, into the dark woods is where I must go.”

“But there might be nothing at all hidden in that little wildwood though, surely? I mean, it’s not even very big. And I can hear beasts in there. Look!” She pointed. “You can see shapes moving in the leaves. It’s a foolish risk… for what? A possibility of some mysterious treasure? What makes you think these rumours are even true?”

“Well, if I were hiding a wonderful treasure, it is the sort of place I’d hide it. Only stands to reason, if you think about it. Put it somewhere creepy and uncanny where no one much would want to look for it.”

“I suppose,” she conceded. A glance again at the dark woods, and back at this other self, standing before her, armed only with a stout walking stick. “I don’t suppose I could convince you to walk with me around the forest?”

“Oh no. I can’t take the safe path. That just isn’t for me.”

“It wouldn’t be, would it? H’m. If only Dapple were here now. He would be laughing himself into fits. Me, arguing with myself, trying to convince myself not to go into dangerous places.”

“Oh yes.” Her eyes lit up and a smile that was full of joy and memories broke over her face. “He would laugh so, wouldn’t he? Good ol’ Dapplegrim.”

“You know you’re me then?”

“Oh yes, of course.”

“And it doesn’t trouble you?” asked Caewen.

“Why would it? Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we each had a Dapplegrim? We’d be quite the sight then.”

“You’re making me uncomfortable.”

A genuine look of puzzlement came of the mirror Caewen’s face. “How so?”

“You just are,” Caewen said. “Here, listen a moment, if you will? Can you tell me what is threatening the moot. That phantom who called himself Mannagarm said the same thing. The whole moot is in terrible danger–or something–but from what?”

“Oh no, of course I can’t tell you that. It would be against all the rules.” She kicked at the ground and looked a touch embarrassed. “And, to be honest, you really ought have worked it out by now. You already have all the necessary lines of the riddle. You just need to put them together.” More proudly, she added, “Like I did.”

Caewen folded her arms. She could feel her face solidifying into an unpleasant scowl. “You’re not helpful.”

Her doppleganger just laughed. “It takes one to know one.” She gave out a small sketch of a bow, followed by another of her broad smiles. “Now, if you excuse me, I need to be off on my way. I’ve a treasure to find, and a whole mootful of sorcerers, witches, wizards and suchlike to save from certain death.” She tipped her red and green hat, and turned her back to Caewen, and strode back to the path that led into the darkness of interlarded trees. With a cheerful, somewhat artless whistle, she strolled into the murk of the forest. Within moments she was lost to sight.

Was that how other people saw her? She wondered about it. Or was this how she was afraid she saw herself? Or was it some apparition drawn from some other time and place? Had she been actually talking to herself, or just to a semblance of herself? And that whistling was not pleasant. She would have to ask Dapplegrim to tell her honestly if she needed to practise her own whistle. Surely, she whistled better than that.

Distractedly, she tried a few notes, considering them, and soured on the sound of them. Maybe her ability to hold a tune was that bad?

Fair Upon the Tor #36 (updates Mondays)

The Faer creature who called herself Moggie Moulach grinned, wide and sharp and plaque-stained yellow. “Good. The incurious never find out curious things. Shall I walk you to the door? I cannot go beyond it, unfortunately, but you will find the way easily enough from here, aye.”

“I suppose you might.” Caewen let herself fall into a slow rhythmic sort of stroll, down among the twisting, silent-shrieking carvings with their madness stretching between the stars, and then to the point at the wall where the door stood. Moggie came after her, ambling and scuffling along, her tail leaving a twisting snake-like mark in the grime and dust.

Giving the door a push, Caewen found that it gave way only under strain. It crunched against the stone flag it was set on, as if it had settled over a long time, contorting into a shape it was never meant to inhabit. “It just looks gloomy. Like a woodshed full of cobwebs.” Darkness welled up in front of her, and she searched it, sniffing at the wet damp, at the hints of mossy rot and long undisturbed earth. “What lies beyond?”

“Aye, well, that would be the curious thing. What you find will very much depend on what you are. I cannot tell you more, for I do not know more.”

“That would be about right.” She allowed herself one small, irritated smirk. “Well, I suppose after all this is done, Dapple will thrash me with a string of knotted words for having taken such a risk on behalf of… well… whatever you and your folk are exactly.” The snorting sound she then made at the back of her throat made her want to cough. She sputtered, mock incredulous: “You did what, on the advice of who? Just to see what was on the other side? Hur! Hurm! Reckless!” She gave a shrug. “But, nothing chanced, nothing won. As is said.”

“As is said,” agreed Moggie. “Good luck, then.”

“Thank you. Assuming I make it out of this accursed maze alive, assuming we ever cross paths again, I’ll let you know how this all works out.”

“Please do.”

Caewen turned herself fully to the doorway and with one measured stride, she passed within.

###

At first, it was like passing through cobwebs, curtains and curtains of them. The air grew darker, cloying to feel against the skin, and it was hard to breathe. Then, without warning, the thin and fibrous murk fell away and Caewen was standing on a grassy open span. At first, she thought she’d need to pat herself down, but the webs, if that is what they had been, appeared to have dissolved completely off her skin and clothing. There was no trace of the congealed stuff that had been making it hard to breathe a moment ago. She looked around, wondering what this place was. There were walls, but they were some distance off, so that she seemed to be in a sort of enclosed garden, and not the small, nasty and cramped labyrinthine ways that she had been walking through until now. Overhead, the stars were definitely coming into their own full glory, and there was a distinctly silvery sheen to the air and the grass.

Looking around, she identified what seemed to be a path worn into the grass, and followed it with her eyes, seeing it climb, and rise, and, presumably, meander towards some other way out of this wall-encircled space. With no other obvious course to take, she decided to follow the trail. There was, she supposed, no reason not to.

Moving her feet against pebbles and chalky soil, Caewen climbed the rise, and as she did, she slowly became aware of a muttering noise from ahead. At the top of the hill she found herself presented with a strange sight: there was an old dead tree and two round objects, glowing bright with silvery light, which seemed to be caught in the branches. A young man was walking around and around the base of the tree, mumbling to himself.

“Hello there?” said Caewen, hesitant. Was this one of the other postulants, walking the maze? Or someone else entirely? Other than the Faer woman, she hadn’t seen so much as a trace of any other person in the maze.

He looked up at her, with a swift, aggressive jolt of the head, and Caewen felt a twisting frisson of recognition. His face was much younger, not yet wrecked and broken by a bad life. There were no liver-spots on him, no trenches of wrinkles, and his eyes even held a small note of the hopefulness of youth. And yet, it was unmistakable. This was Mannagarm. A young Mannagarm, yes, but it was the warlock-chief of Drossel, nonetheless.

“What are you gawping at?” he spat, full of his same relentless vinegar and snarl.

“I just… I’m sorry. I thought you were bound by the Wisht… and… well, dead.”

“I am dead, you fool-of-a-straw-ninny.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

“Why, that ought be obvious.” He stood back from the tree, folding his arms, and very nearly growling out his next words. “The moot is in peril, awful, nasty danger. There’s a terrible threat, oh yes there is, and everyone… every last one of you is going to be dead if nothing is done about it. If I could only get these two moons out of this tree, then I’d have the power to meet the threat. I could restore peace to the moot, and then they’d have to let me in as a proper magician, wouldn’t they?” He turned his attention back to the tree. “But how, how?”

Caewen looked more carefully at the silvery-white orbs. He was right. They were two duplicates of the moon, caught in the tree like airy dandelion fluff, blown there by the wind and snarled up in the twigs. “I might help, if you like? I could push you up into the tree?”

“What? You must think I’m a fool. Don’t you come near me. You killed me once, already. I’m not going to let you murder me again. That’s what you want. I know it is. Sneaking about. Planning my murder. You’d think killing me once would be enough. But on no, not you. Oh look, there’s Mannagarm. Quick. Better kill him even though I did that already. Mgrrm. M’n.” Eyes narrowing, he said, “Get yourself away from me.”

She started to protest, but within the same breath she saw the impossibleness of arguing with a ghost, or delusion, or trick-of-magic, or whatever this vision was. Caewen took a breath to steady herself, caught a whiff of him as she did, and was struck by how real and earthy he smelled. His body scent was of unwashed salt-sweat and raw wool. He seemed real. But no. He could not be. The shade of Mannagarm haunted a place very far from here. Whatever this was, it was not him. With a shake of her head, Caewen edged around the barren tree. “I mean you no more harm than I ever meant you. It was you own greed that killed you. Your own desire for power.”

“Urrrgh. You just keep telling yourself the pretty lies, then. A person knows when they’ve been murdered. A person remembers.”

“Goodbye, Mannagarm. I wish you good luck with getting your moons out of the tree. May it help you in whatever way it can.”

Fair Upon the Tor #35 (updates Mondays)

“Best not be touching those carvings. Not unless you want to spend the rest of your life listening to the voices and songs of them things that dwell in the icy voids between the stars. Of course, some folk do.” She looked up, frowning, as if she could see shapes moving high above in the evening sky. “They are ancient, them things that stir, half-awake, out there, in endless, lifeless cold, and they do speak of deep secrets, and magics, and truths.” Forming a gap-toothed sneer of a grin on her face, she said, “But their voices are the voices of madness also.” The creature then puckered up her unpleasant looking mouth. “Me? I wouldn’t want to know what those things think of you, or me, or this great green earth. It cannot be good to know such things. Better to continue in pleasant ignorance.”

Caewen managed to articulate a few clumsy half-thoughts through a mind that still felt bloodless and deadened. “Who are you?” she asked. It was true, she realised: an inhuman sense of coldness had seeped out of the stones and into her prickling flesh while she had been looking at the carvings. She glanced at the patterns once more, and regretted doing so. The feeling laced back into her mind, again, that terrible coldness. But, when she screwed her eyes tight and looked away, the awful mad, itching iciness started to recede much faster. She was able to take a deep and steadying breath. With forced calm, Caewen said, “Do you belong to the goddesses?”

“Me? Goodness, no. I am one such as she who died in the sea cave, and had my head cut away and placed in darkness under the earth. But that’s rather a lot to remember. Call me Moggie Moulach.” She scuffled closer, huffing as she came, lifting the leading hem of a ratty old dress of rough woven hemp.

“What are you then?” said Caewen. She took an almost involuntary step backwards. If the carvings gave off a sense of palpable wrongness, this strange bent creature was just about as bad–though the uncanny sensation was at the same time, wholly different. Where the carvings felt cold, dead and remote, full of an inscrutably vast perspective, this hobbling things had a warm deadness to her. Like a body mouldering in a muddy grave of leaves. Caewen’s flesh pricked up like a goose’s as she looked at the creature. Her marrow flashed with small flicks of warning and unease. “You can call youself whatever name you want, but… what on earth are you?” She took another backward step, knowing that it must look impolite, but not caring if she insulted the thing that was shuffling nearer. She simply did not want to be close to her, or it, whatever the creature might be.

“Not on earth, but under it, mortal lass. As I said, I am Moggie Moulach, and Moggie Moulach is what I am. As to my kith and kindred, it is not entirely within your ken to know entirely what I am, though you would call my folk, Faer.”

“Faerie,” said Caewen. “No goddess then, but one of the Faer Ones. Are you the kidnapper in the maze then?” Stealing people was something the Faer were well known for, at least in the bogle-tales of the mountains where Caewen had grown up. The Faer snatched away those they took a liking to: away under hills, and into strange otherworlds of grey warmthless light and endless dusk. So the stories went.

“Oh no. No, of course not. That’s them three goddess things, the lass-thievers. You must be careful of divinities. All confected to be a fairness of voice and complexion, but they run much fouler than worms and slugs down beneath the skin. Not like me.”

“I confess you strike me as uncanny on a different slant. Different, but the same. Dangerous through and through. If the goddesses are in their way foul, you are foulness’s self, surely.”

Spittle formed on her lower lip as she laughed. “Impolite. Direct. I like that.”

“I thought the Faer loved politeness.”

“Yeah, well, aye. Most of them. But I’m more honest. I wear my foulness proudly, you see. You know what you are dealing with, you talk to me. Course, that’s not true of all my folk.” She scratched at her nose using a claw-like finger on her hairy left hand. Then digging at the flesh on the inside of her left nostril, she seemed to find the itch she was after, sighed and added, “In my opine, it is lucky you ran across me, foul or not, and not some fairer looking beastie. Never trust creatures that choose to make themselves beautiful. There’s always some ulterior motive.”

“I suppose I have to agree. I have run into that sort of thing before.”

“Indeed?”

“The Wisht Folk, up and away north.”

“Ah. Them. Cousins to the Fane, but they made bad bargains, long ago, and now they have more than a little Faer blood in them, and slithering shadows too, and rot. Well and well.”

“Yet, I still have to wonder about a creature who choses to make herself weird and unpleasant. What is her ulterior motive?”

“Well, in my opine, such creatures are just being honest about how they see themselves. That is all.” She looked around. “This is growing tiresome. Now. Where were we? I’ve warned you not to touch the carvings of the nameless things that howl in the gulf between the stars. Aye.” She rearranged the hem of her ragged skirt. “So then, if I may be so bold, which way were you going to walk, from here onwards?”

“Just the way I was going.” Caewen indicated with a hand. The cleft they stood in was overrun to a riot with those convoluted carvings all up and down the walls, but it led, sure and straight into the near distance, where the way appeared to take a hard turn left. “There are no other ways to go.”

“Are there not now?” said the creature that called herself Moggie Moulach. She pursed her lips and frowned, then squinted and with a small huff, she said, “What about that door, then?”

Caewen started to say “What door?” but only got halfway through the question. When she looked she saw that there was indeed a door she hadn’t noticed before. How could she not have noticed it? It stood plainly the end of this straight length of crevice, just beyond where the cup and ring marks ended. Instead of turning left, she might push the door open and keep going straight on. Like everything in this place, it looked old and primitive: just a slab of wood on ancient hinges. Nothing decorative or remarkable stood out about it. Just a plain and very old door.

“Now where did that come from?” said Caewen at a whisper.

“It came from nowhere. ‘Twas always there… you just had to be told where to look. That’s all.”

“What is beyond it?”

“A more informative path. I cannot advise you past that, yeah or nay, whether good or ill, nor whether you ought take the veiled door… but you will certainly learn things from that path that you will not learn upon this path.”

Caewen took a couple hesitant steps down the crevice. The shadows were growing colder. A single large, wet star had already come out in the sky, promising a cold night. She tested her lips with the wet of her tongue, feeling the damp, and the chill. “Why would you help me? If this is help?”

“Ah, for the same reason that the Three Goddesses have taken an interest in you.” A long snuffle rattled through her hairy nostrils. “Think of the world as a great game of pieces, moving about, this taking that, that blocking this, always moving, outflanking, or being outflanked. Well, you, my charming mortal lass, as it turns out, are a free piece on the board–an uncommitted token, so to speak. Now, there are of course many such tokens; being all of them folks as are not a part of this machination or that one, but not all such pieces have the promise of being useful in the great worldly game. Frankly, my dear mortal lass, you have that potentiality. And so there is interest in you. From one quarter, or another, and another.”

“And what quarter are you in then? I didn’t think the Faer Folk took much interest in anything but their own revels and feasts.”

“Ah, such is true of the bulk of my kind, quite true, true. But… there are some of us who have longer term designs, and so we are rather in our own quarter, if you will accept that as an answer. Neither night, nor day, nor shadow, flame, nor waters, rains, storm, nor darksome earth. We hold to our own interests.”

“I have heard stories that the Faer Folk must speak the truth, and can never break oaths. Would you make a promise that you intend me no harm by sending me through some strange door in the maze?”

“And I’m sure you’ve heard that the Faer can be made to go away by throwing salt over your left shoulder, or walking sun-wise three times around a juniper bush, or by turning your stockings inside-out, or by tapping me with a wand made of twelve twigs of rowan bound up with a red ribbon, eh? I encourage you to try these things. You may find that the truth of the world is a vast long way from the fancies of tales.”

“Then why should I trust you at all? Why should I trust to the advice of some strange…” she searched for a word and finally just said, “thing, wandering about in this place?”

“Why? You only need one reason. Think on it: what should lie beyond that door, that the three goddesses of this hill desire to keep it concealed from mortal eyes? You could never have seen the way on your own. None who come here as walkers in the maze could have seen the way. It took Faer arts to reveal it to mortal eyes. That is a very well hidden door. So what does that mean, I wonder?” A predatory grin.

Caewen did turn to face the door then. Her brow knit, and she turned thoughts over in her head. “But what if–” she started and then said, “No, but it could be that–” and paused. “You twisted old wretch. I’m curious now, and I can’t help myself.”

Fair Upon the Tor #34 (updates Mondays)

“By what?” asked the old magess. Her wooly hair was making a dark cloud around her, so that her skin stood out, pallid against it. Night’s shadows were deepening the lines of her face.

“Just some voice on the air. I suppose this place is rife with them. Being a meeting of wizards, and everything.”

“A you a complete fool?” The magess shook here head. Seeming to soften a moment, Quinnya said, in a lower, less harsh voice. “Be careful. Voices on the air are not to be trusted. Not anywhere, and especially not here.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she replied, perhaps a little more sarcastically than she’d meant. Caewen tried to return some warmth to her voices as she said, “H’m. Sorry. Yes… thank you.” She turned to the maze. “So, do I just walk in then? There’s nothing more to it?”

“Nothing more than that, and nothing less. Walk into the shadows, find your way through the twists of the maze, discover your own and personal way out. You may find things along the way. You may not. It is always different.”

Feeling a prickling tenseness, a small wave-lap sense of resignation, Caewen nodded, and said for her own benefit, “There’s no point in waiting about then.” She took a few tentative steps towards the maze, passing under the massive lintel rock. She could have reached out and touched the damp pads of moss, the way was so narrow. Stringy roots hung from the crevices in the walls too, and scrabbly old gnarled thorns stood over the wall-tops on either side, darkening her already dim view ahead. She looked back, saw Quinnya watching her, tried a smile that was met with only a long cold expressionless glare.

She walked into the maze.

###

The ways were cramped and twisting. The walls on either side were roughly hewn from old living stone, and the half-patterns of ancient adzes and chisels showed up in the last light of the evening. A red glow from the sun was touching the tops of the walls now and painting sparks against the leaves of the scrubby trees that grew haphazard from the wall tops and overhangs above.

To begin, it seemed to Caewen that there was little enough to distinguish one narrow corridor from another. The air was cold and damply uncomfortable. Occasionally she found a small, carven flight of stairs. Once, she crossed a bridge that spanned an expanse of still, reed-choked pond. She searched around the rim of the pond and found that it had been cut into the stone. Was it decorative once, long ago? Or a reservoir for drinking water? Whatever its original purpose, it was a home only for a few sad sounding frogs now. The winter chill reduced their calls to a few scattered eruptions. She recognised them as striped marsh frogs, a sort that call all year round. After deciding there was nothing special about the pond, she moved on, leaving it behind. After the bridge she found a series short tunnels, burrowing in and out of the hill. Caewen followed the ways, picking left or right by whim. Nothing stood out to recommend one dark path over another. But, always, the narrow ways did curl uphill, drawing her by obscure approaches towards the tor’s peak.

The strangest thing in all this–and it took her some time to realise it–was that there seemed to be no dead ends. Every pathway appeared to go on forever, and, quite frequently, a way she as walking split itself into two or three new branches. Soon, it was hard to imagine how so many curling maze-ways could be crammed into the same space of the hillside.

Caewen moved on through cramped tunnels and narrow clefts in the stone, in relative silence. There were no sounds to accompany her, but the under-hush of wind in the branches, rattling and rustling, and her own footsteps against the gravel and clay surface. She tried scuffing her feet a few times, making arrows on the ground, but finding that she never came back across any of the markings, she gave up on that too eventually. It all just seemed to go on and on.

Suddenly, she had a thought that put a slight chilling effect into her blood: the maze did feel like a length of lifespan. You went forward. You went this way. You went that. You made the best choices you could, given what you knew, and what you had to hand, but in the end, it was mostly about following the path ahead of you, hoping for the best, and eventually, finding yourself at a way out of it all.

She had got so used to the feeling of sameness that when she did walk through a cleft and into a wider, more open space filled with carven walls, Caewen stopped short, and was taken aback for a moment. The walls were incised deeply with circles and rings. She ran her eyes over the nearest protuberance of stone. They looked something like the cup and ring marks that sometimes were cut into old outcrops of rocks in wild places. Very old symbols of a forgotten people, for a forgotten purpose. But these were more intricate, more heady somehow. The spirraling shapes cut into the stone almost seemed to move of their own accord, circling around themselves, and Caewen felt a little bit ill in her stomach as she looked. A disturbing sense of movement played up in her mind, while at the same time she found that she wanted to touch the spirals. Feeling a repulsion, she found herself reaching out, nonetheless, stretching her fingers towards a group of seven cup marks, run around with rings upon rings upon rings upon…

“I wouldn’t.”

The voice broke her from the draw of the carvings. She shook herself free, gasping, and feeling a terrible pain in her neck and shoulders, as if she’d twisted herself down to pick up something, and pulled muscles doing it. Stumbling, Caewen increased the distance between herself and the rock wall, before looking around to see who had spoken.

It was a woman–or something like a woman–only, short, squish-faced, black eyes, shining, a large-nose, with hair like rotten brown broom growing on a heathy moor. She was hunched, and her left arm hung strangely at her side. It was covered with a mat of thick and wiry hair, right down to the fingers and knuckles. When the creature moved, she revealed a hairy tail dragging behind her too.

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Arising out of a subtle drift of mixed colours and shapes, the last of the three arrived. She was young, wonderfully beautiful, and hugely round in the belly: fully pregnant, apparently ready to drop a child any day, from the look of her. The woman let a serene sort of smile cross her face, she tilted her head and blinked her blue-stained eyes. “Now, is this a way to greet a goddess? You were rude to my sisters, but must you be impolite with me too? Uncouth.”

“Some goddesses you lot are. Murdering old men. Stealing the bodies of bakers. Sneaking about in the twilight like… like… I don’t know what. A magical ferret.” She scowled.

“Most postulants to the maze would abase themselves before a manifestation of just one of we three sisters. Most supplicants would count themselves blessed to hear my children laughing and playing, even just the once… a sound to haunt dreams and keep treasured and precious in the beating of the heart, for ever and ever. It would warm your old years, in your toothless, wrinkled agedness, if you would but let the laughter into you… Acknowledge it. Accept it. Be joyful of it.”

“No. I’ve had quite enough of old spirits of the earth worming a way into my mind.”

“I suppose that is true enough. I can taste that which was once inside your blood and sinew. Perhaps he left you frozen inside? Perhaps there is nothing warm and loving left in you to welcome in the laughter of children?” She tilted her head, curious. “Perhaps.”

“H’m. I’m warmer and more alive than you, I suspect. You can call yourself a goddess if you like. As for myself, I don’t know if there is much difference between you and a forest-imp, besides aggrandised names and ranks.” She waved a hand. “And whatnot.”

“Dangerous words,” whispered the goddess. But she laughed the moment after she said it, clear and pretty. As she did, she laid her hands gently on her belly, the way pregnant woman will sometimes do. Lowering her gaze, she said then, “It’s a brave mouse that snarls at a she-fox. A brave moth that flutters in the face of the nightjar.”

“Brave, or just plain tired of games. Sometimes a person isn’t brave. Sometimes a person is simply utterly worn out with fear and worry. Eventually, even a mouse gets sick of paws landing, this way and that.” She looked around. Quinnya was paying no attention to her. “Can’t they see you?”

“They cannot. Although, magicians often talk to unseen voices. It won’t seem strange to any of them. Weird things beset weird people.”

“That so?”

“That is so.”

“And your children?” She looked around. Now that she knew what to look for, she could just see the stirrings upon the grass, whisking over it, in little trailing lines. Small disturbances that betrayed a passing of something light-footed and airy. “Here now…” A frowning sensation passed over her lips. “Children require fathering.”

“What an impertinent point to raise. My sisters are right. You are delightful.” She tilted her head the other way, as if appraising goods. “But you also chafe. You are prone to be irritating. That will not do.”

“And yet you are refusing to leave me be.” Her fists clenched and re-opened. Hot and cold tinglings ran down her skin. “What is your purpose?”

“Ah. And that is another impertinent question, but, it is a question that follows old laws and rules.  The winter demon that was in your heart must have left some lore there. That question was well phrased, and it cannot easily be turned aside. Our purpose? Let me see. Our purpose is the keeping of the peacefulness of the tor, the moot, the accord. This hill–this was where the two great goddesses called truce, spoke each to the other in conciliatory whispers, made peace and made love. Did you know that?”

“What? Wait. What was that last thing you said?”

“Troves must be sealed. With blood. Or with death. Or with procreative acts. Or with love. Even if that love is loose-woven and ill-at-ease, symbolic only. The two goddesses could not truly love one another. There was too much pain and blood, loss, grieving and betrayal for that. And thus the pact was sealed in ritual only. Oaths made lightly are like mayflies dancing on a deep, dark pond. They do not last long. And yet, and yet, and yet… we three were left to keep the peacefulness of the tor and the accord. And that is our purpose. That is my purpose.”

“So, you are keepers of the peace? Between the two factions? Sun and moon. Day and night.”

“In some measure, more or less. Yes.”

“And your interest in me is what exactly? I cannot think that’d I’d be much help stopping a war. Oh,” she said. “But that was why I came here. It was my whole reason for coming here. I made a promise to speak at the moot, and try and get everyone to see some sense. Your interest as always going to fall on me. As soon as I promised to speak against a war…”

“We three heard your oath echo from a long way off. It is good that you work to keep it.”

“Or else?”

“You would be punished.” A momentary smile. “After all, you placed yourself within our sphere of interest, willingly and without lien or duress. We have a right over you. But… and yet, and yet, Cessation spoke first with you, and found you would not do her biding. Provenance spoke then with you, and found you obstinate. Inception speaks last with you, and finds you unpleasing to her thoughts, and an irritation to her mind. Whether you will do her bidding, she does not know for Inception does not bid others. She but allows them to act on her behalf.” There was that small knowing smile again. “But, we three agree that we three have our purpose, and so too do you. You are disobedient in the face of great power. That is both the good and the ill of you. Only time will tell if the good and the ill will go well with you.” Her smile was now a minnow-flash in sunlight. “We have spoken enough. Goodbye to you for now, Caewen of Drossel. The three have looked upon you, and found you wanting for their immediate uses. You will have other uses, we suspect… in the longer scheme of things… and we will talk upon that, ourselves, one among three, among one, among many. Before this moot is done we will have come to a final decision concerning you.”

“I see. Best be off with you then.” She frowned as she said it, almost to a scowl. “I certainly don’t need you adding to the mess of things.” She waved a hand. “Go, then.”

She laughed, pitching her tone upwards, into the grey limned sky. Already fading, she said, “You are an impertinent farmyard donkey, and imprudent.” With an almost hungering look on her face, she added, ghostly, “We three watch. We three wait. I take my leave of you, Caewen of Drossel, farm-ass and lumpish fool. Impertinent one. Disobedient one. Unwilling one. You’ve a keen talent for abrasiveness. I hope it doesn’t lead you into too deep a patch of briar-rose and thorn.”

And then she was gone.

Caewen was alone. She experienced a feeling something like coming up from deep underwater. A light pressure that had been on her ears, and which she had barely been aware of, released, and there was a sensation of being able to breath again, even though she had been breathing perfectly well the whole time she had been in conversation.

As she gathered her breath back within herself, she heard her name being called. Caewen turned. It was Quinnya, her storm-grey eyes lit with irritation. “Caewen of Drossel! I will not call again, well? If you do not enter the maze this moment, then your moment will be past. A seven year wait, then. You want that, well?”

“Sorry,” muttered Caewen, as she walked over, more than a little sheepishly. “I didn’t hear you. I was distracted.”

Fair Upon the Tor #32 (updates Mondays)

“Hello there,” said Caewen. She introduced herself then, and Dapplegrim too. He smiled his own sharp grin.

The young woman had quite the singular appearance to Caewen’s eyes. She blinked green cat’s eyes and ran a hand under hair like red snakes, clearing the locks away from her face. Her skin was dark, almost black, and twinned all over with tattoos that nearly matched the flame red of her hair. “Greet-good to you,” she said, voice low. An awkward smile followed. “Are you local? How are you standing this coldnessy? Always shivers, here.”

“I guess I was born to it.” Caewen was close enough now to more clearly see the animal that the woman was feeding. It was winged and serpentine, a sort of small draconic thing: though it had long, feathery scales at the fringe of its wings and its tail tip. “Oh.” Caewen was intrigued. “Is that a baby dragon?”

Laughter rung from her. “No, barbarian. No dragon. This is puk-drakeling only. Small beast. Good for housepet. Catches mice and little grain-thief birds, if sing the right song.” Her voice rose then into a piecing lilt–a twist of notes, harsh, full of meaning without words–it danced from her tongue, and the small winged creature arched its neck, reared and took off, flapping madly. It vanished into the nearest stand of old trees and underscrub. And only a few moments afterward, it returned, bursting out of a wall of leaves with a dead hedge sparrow in its claws. She laughed again, as it circled her, and once the small dragonish thing landed on her wrist, she took some of the sparrow blood on a fingertip and tasted it against her tongue tip. “Must partake of the food first. Elsewise, puk-drakeling will think he is the dominance. He is not.” She shot Caewen a hooded, emerald glare.

The sparrow was still twitching as the puk-drakeling manoeuvred it headfirst and then swallowed it, gulp at a time, like a lizard. Caewen tried not to let herself look disturbed by this little show of falconry. She didn’t enjoy watching something get swallowed alive, even if it was just a sparrow. Her dance with the wurum could easily have ended that way too, after all, and she experienced a brief harsh pang of imagining herself being swallowed, head-first, still able to twitch but not much else.

“Um,” she tried. “You are walking the maze?”

“Yes. I am the next. And you are after me. My name is Leske.” She looked at Dapplegrim. “And this is a bond-demon, then, yes? Powerful demon. Good bindings to you then?”

“After a manner of speaking,” said Dapple.

Caewen laid a hand on Dapplegrim’s neck. “Ah, well, Dapple is rather his own demon, and he is only part demon at that.”

Leske stared with a look of puzzlement, then threw her head back and laughed. Whatever it was that was funny, Caewen couldn’t decipher. In that moment, the young woman with the dark skin and red tattoos looked a little too much like her pet, mouth wide, flesh of the inner mouth and tongue red-pink, ready to swallow smaller, weaker prey.

They were saved from the growing risk that the conversation was about to mire itself into something quite uncomfortable when Quinnya called out Leske’s name and the young woman smiled a last time, saying, “I am called. I go. You go after me.” She whispered something to her little winged creature, and it took off, spiralling upwards, and shooting off towards the maze and over it, uphill.

“No pets in the maze,” said Dapplegrim, glumly.

“I suppose she sent it on to meet her on the other side. Look, Dapple, did you want to go and walk the other path around the maze-way too? It can’t be very much longer before I’m called, and I don’t know how long it takes to walk through or around. Through must vary, I guess.”

He dragged a furrow through the soft turf with a hoof. His skullish face developed some lines of worry. “I don’t know if I trust Quinnya not to keep you waiting here for hours yet, just out of spite. You might be standing around in the cold for a while.”

“I might.” She shrugged. “But that would keep Quinnya standing around in the cold too, and I can’t see herself doing that to herself for very long. Either way, I’d rather see your face on the other side when I get out of this thing.” She leaned over and gave him a hug around his neck. “See you soon?”

“Hur. Hurm. Sure.” He turned and trotted off then, stopping once to look back with scrutinising eyes that lit up the evening air and cast a faint red pallor across his bone-thin face. As if he suspect that she had some other motive for sending him away. “Don’t dawdle.”

“Why would I?”

She watched him go then, and felt alone. It was just her and the cold and the silence now. Waiting to have her name called. A glance over at the large and looming doorway. Had it been purposely built out of those massive slabs of stone to look intimidating, godlike, primeval? Probably.

Quinnya was standing beside the door without making any obvious move to invite Caewen, or even to check that Caewen was still there. Her hard face was turned downward, her brow half-hidden by the mass of the iron-wool hair of her head. Surely Quinnya wouldn’t want to stand around all night. Caewen felt the first stir of a shiver from the cold. Surely. Just wait patiently. Wait, wait… walk the maze. Speak at the moot. Be done with this.

Maybe she oughtn’t have asked Dapplegrim to leave. She might have been wrong about her suspicion. She cast a glance around the grey and grassy turf, then back to look at Quinnya. The old woman still gave off no sign of movement.

It was then, as she was watching Quinnya, waiting warily, that a brush of laughter, almost palpable, passed by her leg. Caewen spun, eyes open and staring hard, taking in all the detail of empty grass and cold blue evening shadows. More childlike laughter and small voices pipped up around her. It all seemed to come up from the soggy ground. “I knew I heard you,” she said. Caewen took a step, wishing that she had thought to bring her sword after all. It hadn’t seemed necessarily this morning in the bright sun.

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For a time then, there was nothing for it, but to wait. So they chatted idly, watching as magicians-to-be were called, one after another, into the maze. Out of an urge to make conversation and pass the time, Caewen asked Keru and Keri why they wanted the status of magehood when neither of them seemed very inclined to magic. She had seen neither of them so much as talk about a charm or talisman. They told her that they came from a long line of sorcerer-chieftains. The family would consider it unthinkable not to attend the moot and walk the paths. “Early on,” said Keri, “when our people first washed up on the cold stony shores along the Foresetti woodlands, we were mistrusted, feared, oft attacked. But the moot has a rule that all comers are welcome. Our sorcerers and ghost-talkers were welcome here. It was the first point of acceptance in a strange land. All the old sorcerer families still walk the maze, even if they have little enough sorcery in the family any longer. It’s tradition, I suppose.”

Keru added, “And you know, a bit of fun too. Travel. See the moot. Walk the maze. People talk it up as dangerous.”

“Well,” suggested Caewen, “it sort of has been that.”

Dapplegrim just snorted out one, “Hurrrm,” in agreement.

About an hour passed before Keru’s name was called. They all got up, and walked with him down to the maze entry.

“Just him,” said Quinnya with a low, hard-lipped tangle of breath. The storm-cloud black and sleet-white of her ribbons and tatters stirred and moved as she spoke. She pointed at Caewen. “You are last, and your horse-thing cannot go with you, naturally, in case you were planning on it, well? One of the earlier supplicants, an upstanding young woman of clear potential warned me about you and your horse-creature. The rules are firm. No familiars, demons, spirits, no enslaved faer folk, no totemic beings, or gods, be they great or small, may be taken the maze. Only the mortal supplicant may enter.”

“Hurm. Hur. Hurrrr.” The pinpoint red lights in his cloudy black eyes flamed brighter. “I’m no enslaved spirit or demon.”

“And what are you then?” Quinnya raised herself stiffly, straightening her back and tilting her nose. “A talking pony? A cursed toy horse? A shrunken, skinned dragon who lost his wings?” A huff of irritation from her. “No pets either.”

“Pet. H’rm. Hur. Hurm. A friend, is what I am. I’ll not be happy if something unpleasant happens in there.” His sharp teeth shone. “Best remember that I am no magician, lady magess. I am not bound by the rules of this place.” His grin deepened. “I can murder whomsoever I like.”

“That is supposed to frighten me? I’ve been threatened by worse than you in my time. I’ve seen worse. I’ve scraped worse off the bottom of hobnails.” She waved at Caewen. “The other one, the Forsetti boy, he will go through now, but you must wait. Go away somewhere. I’ll call you when I’m ready to call you. As I said, you are last in line. That’s all you need to know. You can go away and eat griddle scones and strawberry jam for all I care.”

Keri gave her brother a quick hug, extracted a promise from him that he would be sensible and not do anything stupid, then let him go. He laughed, performing a dismissive little shrug before turning to the tall moss-crusted and damp-strewn doorway, and then walking directly into the darker space beyond. Soon enough, he turned a corner and was lost to sight.

An uneasy sense of foreboding came over Caewen then. She thought, perhaps, it was nothing more than nerves of the unknown, and shook herself free of it. “Did you want to sit down again?”

“Actually, would you mind if I walked by the old straight road to the maze end? I think I would like to be there when Keru comes out from the maze. He’ll probably have managed to trip over, graze himself, or something such thing that will give him a nice bit of hurt that he can make a fuss about.” She seemed to chew on some indecision before saying, “He’s tall for his age, and not as old as he looks. He’s still in that foolish space, where boys act like yearling calves and think they can’t be hurt by anything.”

“You go. Dapple will keep me company.”

“Thank you.” She grabbed Caewen by the hand, briefly, applying pressure to the fingers in a tight, warm squeeze, then hurried away. As she walked her face was turned down, taking in only the grass.

“Dapplegrim?”

They were moving away from the door now, looking for a place to wait out the next span of minutes, hours or longer. “Was that true? What you said about the rules not applying to someone who isn’t a magician?”

“Old Mannagarm used to wring his guts out about it. He was cheated by a merchant at the moot he went to, years and years back. He had no way to get back at the fellow using the laws of the moot. The laws only apply to workers of magic. Of course, it works both ways. If the old witching-man had got his own back through dark spirits and evil spells, well… there was nothing to protect that merchant either. It’s a foolhardy soul that comes to the moot intending to get the best of wizards.”

“What about an intermediary then? If Samarkarantha sent his little grassy-haired creatures out to steal or kill, would the judgement come back to him.”

Dapple fumed air in and out of his nostrils. “I think so, yes. I don’t know for certain, but anything in your power, a spell-thralled servant, a spirit, demon or faer creature: it would be viewed by the three goddesses as an extension of the spellworker. At least, I’m guessing. Why do you ask? You aren’t thinking of sending me off to do something unscrupulous. I’m usually all in favour of unscrupulous things, but remember: I did pass to you from Mannagarm under old laws of exchange. I suspect the goddesses would look unkindly on using me as a means to doing murky work.”

“It’s not that, no. I suppose I was wondering about using a cat’s paw. There’s that man who Fafmuir said was an assassin. What if he was hired by a magician?”

“That might work? Gods and goddesses, even the ones who want sacrifices of gold and bronze don’t really have a good grasp on monetary exchange. It’s sort of outside their sphere of understanding. Although, I don’t really know, truth of it. So, maybe, yes.”

“I wonder then.” She looked around. The crowd waiting at the gate was thinning. As would-be mages filed into the dark door, one after another, their friends, retainers or servants also drifted away. Presumably to meet them on the other side of the maze. Finally, the shadows of afternoon gauzed out into shadows of early evening and there were only two supplicants left. Caewen and one other young woman, of outlandish dress and strange foreign appearance. The woman was alone except for some small creature of a pet she seemed to be feeding out of her cupped hands. As they were the last two waiting, and as the other young woman had no one with her, Caewen tried a friendly smile, and finding it returned, she walked over, Dapple loping along behind her, head low, red-black eyes aglow.

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“Or… maybe Samarkarantha?” said Keru, himself puzzled. “He could he have sent a note ahead of us? Or his little woody faced servant things might have come in the night? That was clever of him–if he did it–he does seem to always be thinking ahead with things. Could’ve been him? I guess.” He didn’t sound much as if he had convinced himself.

Quinnya fell quiet. For a time she did nothing but focus on the page, screwing up her face, winking both her eyes in rapid succession. Perhaps she thought that if she wetted her eyeballs enough the offending line would simply go away. Then, evidentially reaching the conclusion that the name Caewen of Drossel was stuck where it was, and she could do no more to shift it than she could shift rock or river, she sputtered, “Fafmuir? Samarkarantha? What? Those fools. No. No. Nonsense. It is writ in my handwriting, and I do not recall it. I would recall.” Peering closer, her teeth grit now into a hard, yellow-stained line. She said, “Mnh. But I don’t recall… and how very strange is that, well?” Her gaze lit up with a lightning-glow of thought. Her eyes flicked up, and set on Caewen. “And yet, not through any mortal art, nor magic, nor cunning can this ledger be altered by any other than me.” On her next breath she seemed to come to a point of understanding. A quizzical little humorous light clouded her eyes, then spread downward, overtaking her lips and her off-white teeth. She looked around then, at the landscape, the air and the sky, squinting all the while as she did. “No mortal art. I see. Well, you may have got yourself a entry token into the maze today, but I wonder if you will get yourself out again, well? If Themselves Who Watch have added your name to my list, then, well, they will have done so with a purpose. And their purpose is seldom at alignment with the lives of we lowly mortals. I would wish you good luck, but I don’t think luck will help you much. Not one way. Not the other.”

She turned her nose up then, and with a sniff that seemed to Caewen a little too practised, she turned, and walked off towards the great stone gates. They watched her go, until at last Keru said, “What an old she-goat.” He turned to Caewen. “Don’t you worry about that. She’s clearly just mad that she’s forgotten about you. I bet it was Samarkarantha.”

Keri snorted a laugh. “Well, either way, that is the Quinnya I remember. She hasn’t changed any more than the oaks on the hill have changed. Come on. Let’s go down to the green and wait. Your names will be called. We have to wait until then. Nothing else for it.”

They couldn’t sit in the grass; it was still too wet with dew from the night, and chilled all over by a faint humid out-breath of coldness from the living green blades. A few low stones that did not seem to be part of the processional way peaked here and there, and, once Keru, Keri and Caewen were all quite sure no one was going to be angry about it, the three of them sat down, making themselves as comfortable as they could on the low slabs of gritty surfaced rock. The air smelled of coldness and dew and wet soil. Dapplegrim stood behind them, lurking, glancing around, now and then tearing at the grass, ripping it, chewing, eating distractedly.

“Oh, mlooth, ith our frienths from the wurum.”

“What was that?” said Caewen.

Dapplegrim swallowed a mouthful of grass. “Over there. It’s ours friends, the Modsarie. The kelpie fondlers. What was their lady princess’s name. Sgeirr?”

“Kelpie, what?” said Caewen.

Fondlers,” answered Dapplegrim.

She shook her head. “I’m not going to ask.”

They all looked over, squinting. Dapplegrim had remarkable sight, but Caewen could make out the shapes of four people dressed in the Modsarie fashion, standing near the maze gate. It wasn’t all of the Modsarie contingent, just a few… the young, chieftainess Sgeirr was standing in her arrogant, haughty way, hands on hips, sneering at everything that she wasn’t scowling at. After a moment, the Modsarie seemed to notice Caewen and her friends for the first time too. Presumably they saw Dapple, who was hard to mistake for anything other than himself. When the chieftainess turned to look at them, Sgeirr’s general appearance and countenance became still harder. She gave them an irritated glare. Sunlight flickered across her distant eyes and lit up the rivermud green of her clothing. After the prickly moment passed, Sgeirr hunched her back, turned away again, and seemed to start up a renewed conversation with her companions, looking back over her shoulder every few moments.

“Dapple…” said Caewen. “Can you–?”

“No.” He twitched his ears forward. “I can make out the words, but she’s speaking in the native tongue of Modsaire. I don’t know it.”

After a while the Modsarie were called and Sgeirr and two of her retainers walked over to the great stone gates. They were beckoned over by Quinnya as a group, and they spoke to her at the doorway. Although they gathered about in a loose huddle near the door, they were seemingly directed to enter the maze one-by-one. Sgeirr went first, and the others made a show of saluting her and kneeling. The performance took a tedious few seconds and gave the impression that had trumpets been available, these would have been called for. A few of the magicians who were standing nearby seemed amused by the show, but not overly impressed. Caewen wondered the Modsarie were aware that some of the more urbane looking magicians were hiding smiles behind sleeves.

About ten minutes after Sgeirr had vanished into the dark doorway, the shorter of the two men was called by Quinnya, and then the third, and then the last of them. As the last man entered the shadows, he paused on the threshold and cast a glance back at Caewen. She was still watching, intently, so she saw him fingering a hand up and down the length of a short war-axe at his hip. He was otherwise wearing the same green-brown woollen robes as the others in his band, and the axe would not have been visible at all, except that he absentmindedly ran a palm on it.

“Did the others have weapons?” she asked.

“Maybe. I don’t recall,” answered Keri.

Keru seemed to have been paying more attention. “I think the other fellow, the one with the beard, he had a short sword. And didn’t Sgeirr have a knife? Or a knife scabbard anyway. A big, broad leaf-bladed thing. Sort of old fashioned?”

“I didn’t notice,” said Caewen, now wishing that she had been paying closer attention. “It would be punishable, to try and murder someone inside the maze, wouldn’t it? As with the rest of the moot? Right? The rules still apply?”

“Actually, that… I’m not sure.” Keri gave her an apologetic half-smile. “I don’t know if anyone is sure how deep the rules lie in there. There are the disappearances, after all. And there are always rumours of other deaths and murders in the maze too… but proof is hard to come by. Maybe it used to happen, a long time ago, and the goddesses increased their watchfulness?”

“Could be,” said Caewen, doubtful.