Fair Upon the Tor #23 (updates Mondays)

The lightning that broke the grey sky was more of a dead yellow than silver. Each brilliance cracked and flickered further off, sneaking away behind ridges of hilltops as the storm passed into the westward and south. The rain that had poured for several hours diminished, faltered and ceased. Yet, for a long while afterwards, the pattern of droplets still studded the air: tree, fern and leaf, stick, log and rock were all wet and running with rain. Down in the valley below, lights of tents stood stark, red, gold and yellow, against mist-dappled airs.

Although most of the gathering slept, there were some few scattered voices raised night-songs. Now that the rain had ceased, the more nocturnal of the wizards and other weird folk were stirring themselves into the open–coming out of their tents, and going about new business in the dark hours. Their words and greetings to one another were dim and distant.

All this was visible from an empty grass-thick browline of earth that stood to the north of the tor and fair, just far enough from Crow Hall Wood to fall out of the shadows of those trees. Atop this lonely ridge, no living creature moved or stirred, not a rat or mouse, moth, owl or gnat. The expanse of heavy wet grass was untrod, thick with a few tussocks, some low raggedly wind-torn hawthorns, broken logs, rocks. Nothing else.

But then a movement curled on the air. It was like a spiderweb twisting with the wind, and lighting up with a faint glow, coalescing and unravelling. Out of this faintness of form grew a more substantial shape: an old woman, or something like an old woman, bent near to double and wrapped up heavily under coarse, unpleasant brown hemp clothing. Her face was protrudent almost to the point of seeming goatlike and her ears were unusually large. Trailing from her skirt, there was a tangle of something long, that looked for all the world like a hairy tail, dragging in the mud. Stranger still, her left arm hung much longer than the right, and was covered all over in a coarse, wiry hair. She raised her blotchy yellow eyes to her surrounds, and looked about, as if expecting to see someone else atop the empty brow.

She remained alone for the time it took three flashes of lightning to etch hard gold into the southwest.

Then, to her right a tendril of red appeared, and it flickered, then grew almost like red roots growing out the air, descending, or a veinous network full of pumping, living blood, without a body. Soon, a creature had formed out of this mass too. It was androgynous, neither clearly male, nor female; also ancient, also bent and malformed; its face ugly, set with bulging eyes and a gash of a mouth full of squat yellow teeth. Just as with the other entity, this one had a left arm that was oddly marked, though the marking was more uncanny. Red wetness dribbled down the creature’s left arm, snaking and twining, until the whole of the left hand was red, as if dipped in fresh blood. Fresh blood could not be the actual source of it though, as the running sheet of bright red showed no sign of drying or ceasing. It just continued to bleed in a trickle down the creatures left fingertips, drip, drip, into the earth. “Well met, sister,” said the creature with the red left hand.

“Well met, sibling,” said the old bent woman with the hairy left hand.

They stood wordless then, searching the air, sniffing.

“Wet night,” observed the woman with the hairy hand.

“Storm’s been through,” agreed her sibling. “Better weather tomorrow.”

“That’ll be nice then,” she answered, then said, “Ah, he approaches us by land and not by wind or raindrop.”

Coming up the hill was a tall shadow and in the midst of this tall shadow, there seemed to be a giant, muscular, curved form, full of hard flesh, striding powerfully. It’s eyes were the dim fires of lights a thousand ells out to sea, drowning in darkest fog. It looked like a demon out of the elder age of the world, but as it neared, it diminished, growing smaller and smaller, even as the shadow around it grew thicker and larger, rising up, like wings rising up. This continued until the creature arrived at the gathering as a withered old man, bent, bearded with a grey lichenous rot-tangles, white-skinned and eyes nothing but hollows, filled with cobwebs and shadows and dim drowning light. His left arm hung uselessly at his side, shrivelled right down to the bone so that waxy skin was stretched over a dead frame of joints.

“Well met, sister,” he said to the old woman with the hairy arm, and “Well met, sibling,” he said to the creature with the red-blood hand.

They both song-voiced at once, “Well met, brother.”

He cleared his throat then and said, softly. “Let the old words be spoken so that we three know that each of us is true and not an imposture sent. I am one such as he who was killed in the field of birds.”

The old woman with the hairy arm then murmured, “And 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.”

They turned to look at the third in their company. The red-handed creature whispered, “And I am one such as them who was strangled with a leather cord and sunk deep in brackish bogs.”

The dead-armed one with the pall of shadow nodded. “Then we are all who we are. That is good. Long years have split us, and we have gone asunder, searching. This hour was appointed to reconvene. What news have you both? For I have none. The rumours have led me to naught in the west and south.”

“And this is true for me also,” said the creature with the red hand. “In the east I have found nothing but empty lies and false fears. What of you, sister? Have you found truth at the end of tales?”

She looked at them with his discoloured ochre-tinted eyes and said in a low rattle of a voice. “Aye, but for me, I have found out something more wondrous and more terrible. In the north. One of the Sorthemen has it, or a part of it at least.”

The other two drew in hard hisses and gasps.

“It is true then,” said red-hand. “It has been found. And in Sorthe? That land was scoured a thousand times over. It cannot have been there.”

“I did not claim it was,” said old woman hairy-hand. “I said only a Sortheman has it now. I do not know where he got it from. It is one of the Princelings of Sorthe.”

“That would explain the absence of the four prince-magicians of Sorthe then,” said dead-hand, from inside his pall of shadows. “Steps must be taken. The Sorthemen are savages. They cannot be allowed to make use it. Not ever. Such use would break the world.”

“Or he might give it to another?” suggested the blood-red hand. “That might be worse. Is it true that Him of the Pied Cloak has come out of the farthest north?”

The hairy-armed old woman nodded, a short, curt nod. “Aye and aye again.”

“That would be worse,” agreed dead-hand. “What then to do? We cannot leave this be. A strange sickly filth of lies has entered all the world’s oracles. They cannot be consulted, not with any trust to truthfulness. The Old Lady of Embers is missing, and you both know what that may well mean.”

They both nodded, sagely, worry on their strange, animalistic faces.

“Can we call on any of the Courts of the Faer? Have we any allies left there?”

Now red-hand shook his head. “Nay. I went about and sought out our kin. They are tangled up in their own plots and schemes. The whole of the world is tied into knots by false prophecies and baseless foretelling. No help will come from that quarter.”

“So then, it is to us that the matter falls.” Dead-hand sighed and looked down at the view of tents and lanterns. “The three Goddesses of this place will stop us the moment they think we have plans to interfere with the moot. It is their sole duty. No pleading or cunning words will avert their wrath.”

“Then we must be quiet as mice,” said old hairy-hand.

“And quick as hares,” said him of the blood-red fingers.

“Or else dead as a rotting sheep,” said the one with the withered arm. Laughter rung from him then, like air from old broken billows. “More dead than we have ever been.”

“So then,” muttered the old lady with the hairy hands and dragging tail. “Let us make some plans.”

The other two said “Aye,” and they fell to whispers amongst themselves. Lightning spat and shot more distantly, and the clouds gradually uncurled themselves, and cleared away to let free a few weak stars. As a storm-drenched night slid into a cool, rainless pre-dawn, the three dark shapes on the hilltop bent heads together and spoke in hushed secrets.

By way of apology

It doesn’t look like I’ll have an illustration up for last Thursday. My excuses are divided three ways and evenly among new parenthood, a fairly heavy lecturing load last week, and ‘scheduled maintenance’ on the host servers, which seemed to shut down my ability to post for most of the week. By way of offering up something else, pasted below is a link to a couple videos recorded at the Sussex Folktale Centre. I have no connection with this centre, and found the links via Terri Windling’s rather wonderful blog. They are exactly the sort of obscure thing that is hard to find, except by accident. Well worth watching.

A link to the videos here.

Fair Upon the Tor #22 (updates Mondays)

“Wise words from savage mouths,” said Pel, softly. She eased up with the roughness of her fingertips. The rain threshed over the tent roof. The cooling embers gave away a little more of their ruddy light and deep soft shadows grew. “I was a happy child. My home is away in the east, past the Elradian Deserts, which are spoken of like a myth in these lands. Actria. Actria. It is a beautiful land, my home, though I do not think you would see the beauty. You people, I think you are mad for your love of green hills, and wet oaks, grey rocks and cold mosses. Actria is a land of hard gold and amber soils, cliffs and crumbling rocks. Ochre in a dozen shades, from white to flame red. The great Vasqu runs through it, and brings floods that wet the soils for crops every year. The sky is like cut turquoise, and there is turquoise in the earth too. So much, that you can kick it out of the ground in some hills. Gold like grains of rice tumbles in the currents of the Vasqu. And yet, it is a long way from perfect, my home, my Actria. In the north of Actria is a wilderness of airless grey forest, dry, without rivers or streams. Hardly any animals live there, but deep, deep in the forest is the City of the Bloodied Lady. The people of that place are some of the last scions of ancient Zenothia, Empire of a Thousand Darknesses and Blood Red Moons. Zenothia ruled over a bloody aeon. It stood a thousand years, and was overthrown a thousand years ago. But in the City of the Bloodied Lady they look back to their ancestry to Zenothia, and practise the old magic of the old cancerous empire. Divinations from living entrails, blood-rituals and death magic. They believe that a person can be made to speak prophecy only at the cusp of death. In their belief, a prophecy is all the more potent, if the mind has already be pushed to madness. So they think. So they think.” She rinsed her hands off in the water of the bath, and got up to dip some clean water out of a barrel with a brass pitcher, pouring it over Caewen, running it down her neck, shoulders and back, rinsing away the suds. It was cold, and left her shivering. “You ask, what happened to me? Just the same as what has happened to many whose towns and villages are a little too far north, a little too close to the edges of that dismal forest. Too many Actrian towns have walls that are not in good repair, or bells of alarm unused to ringing, stiff on their ropes. I hid in the vineyard, but I saw them come and take my family. My two younger sisters, my older brother, mother and father. They took my uncle too, and his family. A hundred others too, driven north, for blood-rites and other uses.”

“Why hasn’t your people put an end to this city then? You must have soldiers.”

“Many satraps, over many years, have taken armies north. None have returned. The City of the Bloodied Lady has magic at its call, weird beasts, and fell sorceries. They are not easily cast down by spears and cavalry.”

“But they might be by magic, if a person sutdied it deeply enough?”

Pel looked her in the eye, knwoingly. “Yes. That thought has occurred to me.”

“Mm. So, what happened to you then? After the raid?”

“I swore I would never be in a place where people like that could reach an arm into my heart and pluck it out. So I gave myself as an apprentice to the water temple at Tictisoquanna, and it came to be that I had a reasonable talent for the arts and ways of the the enchantress, and so I was trained.” She grew so quiet that even her breathing seemed to have stopped. “Tell me, Caewen of the north, where the darkness rules, and night demons wander, do you know of a way to bring low a city of blood and darkness, sorcery, ghosts and terrors, all of them night-worshippers, though and through?”

“No,” said Caewen. “That is beyond anything I know.” After a moment’s breath she added, “I would tell you if I knew such things.”

“Well, it never hurts to ask, I suppose.” Pel got up, rolled her shoulders a little, and recomposed herself into her hard, feline attitude. “You should rinse, dry off and come back to the main vestibule to sleep. Others may want to use the bath too, and you have been in here longer than is strictly polite.” She swished her way back through the curtain then, pausing only to pick up a few woven blankets from a table on her way.

After Pel was gone, Caewen spent a solid minute just staring into hollow air, listening to the rain, thinking. As she got out of the bath, she shot a glance at the biloko and said to them, “There world really is full of miseries, isn’t it?”

Their reply was a series of unhappy rattles and hisses in their throats.

Illustration 012 (updates Thursdays) (kinda)

Just another sketch from the sketchbook this week. Apologies for the lateness too. The newborn, just four weeks old today, and some visiting family have been occupying time.

This is my ‘faces in rocks’ page of sketches, which was a companion to the ‘faces in trees’ I posted earlier. Both sets of sketches were intended to try and break me out of sketching the same sorts of faces over and over again, reaching out, into something new, physiognomically speaking.

Fair Upon the Tor #21 (updates Mondays)

It was difficult to find a mental path back to her cosy sphere of relaxation, with the biloko standing there, hissing their small sad noises. She supposed that she could have told them to be quiet, and maybe they would even have obeyed her, but the thought of giving them commands made her feel damp and cold inside. The decision soon made itself up in her mind; the best thing to say was nothing. Instead, she sank into the hot water, tried to block out the noise of the angry biloko, and listened to the rain. Eventually their unhappy pipes and trebles faded off into fragmented breathing. A fragile quietness resumed. Time passed, and the steam rose. The glow of the embers below the tub started to fill up the space in the tent, reddening the air as the rain drummed on the fabric above. She had thoroughly lost track of time when the curtain ruffled, and a familiar, irritated voice said, “Are you not done in there yet?” It was Pel.

“Sorry. I was just soaking.”

“Can I come in? I need to collect some things.”

Caewen felt a bit exposed in the water, but the sides of the bath were tall, and she was able to sink down a bit. “Yes. Please do.”

Peloxanna pushed her way through the curtain with a scratchy sounding sigh. She glanced past Caewen, uninterested, but looked back again, her brow lining. “Haven’t you even washed yourself yet?”

“Washed myself?” She looked down. “I’m in the water. What more washing can I do?”

An expression of frustration fomented, then leapt and dashed through Pel’s eyes. “There are no suds in the water. You’re haven’t even picked up a piece of soap.”

“Soap?” said Caewen, looking around.

Pel walked over to her, picked up a rose-tinted, unevenly shaped lump from a side-table, and thrust it towards Caewen’s face. It finished up poised right in front of her nose. “Soap, you barbaric yokel.”

Skin prickling, heat rising in the base of her skull, Caewen scowled back. A tension ran up and down the length of her arms. “I know what soap is. We make soap. I just wouldn’t use soap on my skin. It’s for washing hard linens. It would burn skin, wouldn’t it? Soap is caustic. I’m not an idiot.”

“What in the name of all twelve deserts of the world…? What kind of soap do you people make?” Pel seemed to deflate then. The energy went out of her. “By the temples of flame and water, I think your whole village must be nothing but mud-huts and hovels. It’s like talking to a badger. Do you people live with animals in your houses too?”

“Only when it is cold out,” said Caewen, ruefully. “In winter. Or if the spring turns harsh, the lambs have to come indoors. Otherwise, they’d freeze to death.” After a pause. “Wouldn’t they?”

“Or your could build barns.”

“We have barns! Of course we have barns. But a barn has no hearth fire,” said Caewen. “If you leave a newborn lamb in a warmthless barn, under a hard frost, it’ll be dead by morning, and then the ewe will be all a-kilter and miserable. Bleat, bleat bleat. On and on.” The breath she took was hard to keep steady. “Look, I’m not some bogle, wearing pelts, or living in a hole dug out of the ground,” she waved a hand, angry, “…eating moles and earthworms.”

“Well, you’ve certainly fooled me. Here, lean forward. You haven’t even wetted your hair, or combed it. I honestly don’t know.”

Caewen obeyed, feeling the unpleasantness lining her face and cords of irritation, like hard twisted strings, running through her. Pel sat behind the bath, on a stool, then splashed water into Caewen’s hair. She then emptied some of a bottle of liquor onto her head. It smelled faintly of rosehips. Then, Pel started lathering the stuff in, more roughly than was strictly required in Caewen’s opinion.

She was trying to shepherd some calmness together inside herself, but her blood only felt hotter and angrier with the passing moments. She shut her eyes, stopped the thoughts. The raking of Pel’s fingers on her scalp was sharply unpleasant, but she tolerated it. As she listened to Pel breathing in short, irritated puffs, she came back to wondering why the woman was so enraged at her. Finally, she asked, “Pel, why are you angry with me? I haven’t done anything to you.”

Pel pulled at Caewen’s hair, causing a sharp bite of pain at the scalp. “What makes you think I’m not angry at everyone?”

Caewen was about to say something mean-spirited, but took a breath, stared into the rippling and now quite pink-and-yellow foamy water, and instead, said, “I’m sorry. For whatever it is that happened to you. I’m sorry for it. But it can’t have anything to do with me. Being angry with some random stranger from the north doesn’t make sense to me. And it isn’t fair, either. We’re not all night-worshippers, and most night-worshippers I’ve met were decent people, besides. No more or less decent than most folks, anyway.” She held onto a silence for a moment, allowing Pel to say something, anything, but got only another equal and balanced silence in return. That, and the continued rough ministering of fingers against her skull. She tried another tack. “I grew up in a village that was ruled by a nasty old warlock. Mannagarm, by name, and just as filthy and dirty an old man as you can imagine. Everyone in the village was afraid of him, and he was afraid of everyone. He took people from the village to be his servants, and he killed folk’s wits with magic, and he stole people’s dreams, and made them into dull beasts that could barely remember their own names.” She twisted a little to look at Pel. “But you know what? He wasn’t a worshipper of Old Lady Night. He wasn’t a worshipper of the Day Queen, neither. He wasn’t out for anyone or anything, but for his own self. And he was quite capable of being malicious all on his own. I’m not in any divine camp either. I’m not thrown in with one goddess or the other. I’m doing my best to be a halfway good person, all on my own.”

“And what happened to him?”

“Mannagarm? He got what he deserved. Maybe worse than he deserved. But you know what? I don’t hate him, not anymore. I did, I think, and for a long time. I was definitely afraid of him. My brother and me had to hide in a cellar for most of our lives,” she didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with Pel, and giving up a little bit, she added, “Oh, I don’t know. There can be a time for anger. But it has to pass. Otherwise you become the anger. Nothing but anger all the way down.”

Fair Upon the Tor #20 (updates Mondays)

Dapplegrim stirred. “H’m. Caewen? Couldn’t you just say what you have to say to one of these others? Any of them will do, and then they can talk at the moot, and we’re all done. Then we could up hooves and leave. I don’t like being around so many magicians.” He shook himself, and a shiver ran down his black-grey flanks. “It makes my skin crawl. They’re creepy.”

“Sometimes, Dapple, I really don’t know if you are joking or serious.”

“What?”

“I will convey a message, if you wish it,” said Samarkarantha. Pel glared at him, but he ignored her. A few light creases marred his brow. He waited.

Caewen thought this through, turned it over in her mind. “No,” she said. “I promised to speak myself, and so I will. It wouldn’t honest to the promise otherwise.”

“Then so you will,” said Samarkarantha.

The conversation turned thinner and more pattering then, dipping in and out of a few topics of no particular consequence. Where to buy good cloth in the market. The better handles of beer to be had for a few coins. The sort of thing that people fall back on when they feel it is polite to carry on a conversation with strangers, but are uncomfortable. Caewen was finding herself increasing aware of the damp in her clothing. The water had soaked itself down to her skin. Her leggings were wet right through to the toes inside her big farm-boots. Finally, after she started squirming slightly, Samarkarantha noticed. “You are cold. And soaked. You should not sit in wet clothing. There is a bath behind the curtains. I will order my un-belled biloko to fill it, and heat the water.” He rang the little gong again. The chiming note clung to the air like a frisson of sunlight, fading. As the sound receded, the three tusk-mouthed, snouted and woody faced creatures emerged from behind the curtain. Samarkarantha gave them a short command in his homeland tongue and they turned and retreated back behind the thick hangings. “They will fetch water and pour it, and stoke coals for warmth. You need not fear them, they’ve no power to harm you.”

It hadn’t occurred to her that Samarkarantha would have a bath hidden behind the folds of the rich curtains. In Caewen’s sphere of experience, a hot bath was the sort of thing empresses indulged in. Or princesses in bogey-tales. She had never been anywhere near such a thing, and she was immediately curious. “Alright.” She got up, feeling the wet clothing suck and draw at her skin. The smell of wet wool was becoming a stink of damp lanolin. Some quick digging around in her pile of saddlebags, and she was able to pull out dry clothing. She passed Pel on her way across the tent, and caught a close, ferocious look. Caewen wondered what must have happened to Peloxanna to motivate such dislike. She wanted to stop and explain, again, that her whole family, and all her cousins, and village, and everyone in Drossel were, by necessity of living in the borderlands, quite neutral in the ceaseless conflict of the two great goddesses. She wanted to say again: I am no night worshipper. I’m no sun worshipper either. I don’t have a stake in this.

But she didn’t. She saw no point. Peloxanna would not want to listen, and there was no way to make her.

Instead, Caewen, tried a small smile, and found that it ran aground on that hard yellow gaze. Pel’s irises were so bright in the lamplight that they looked the colour of daffodils. So, getting nothing in return but more cool anger, Caewen shrugged, and walked over to the curtains. “Through here?” she asked.

Samarkarantha nodded.

On the other side of the curtains, the biloko were already busy. One of them was pouring water into a huge iron tub that was decorated with motifs of lions and a some manner of spiky creature that looked like a giant hedgehog with a long snout. Another of the biloko was coming into the tent with a pail of water, while the third was kindling coals to life under the tub. This last one was chanting in rising and falling cadences, the language wild and eerie. It must have been a charm to speed the heating of the water. Trickles and low lines of steam were already roiling over the water’s surface.

Caewen peeled off her clothing without even thinking about the biloko. They gave off such an alien strangeness, that it was unclear to her whether they had a concept of male and female, let alone any notion of propriety. Her clothing came away in the sticky, bunched-up, damp masses that tend to accumulate once fabric gets really wet. Her skin felt immediately freer and more pleasant once the wet cloth was off her. She looked around for a drying rag, but found only some richly embroidered soft material that was cut into rectangles and hanging near the bath. Each of these soft strips was long and quite narrow, and she thought perhaps the intention was to wrap a piece around yourself. She asked through the curtain if she was to use the hanging cloth rectangles to dry herself afterward, and heard back, “Yes, certainly.”

Pel followed this by saying, loudly, “They are called towels.”

By this time the bath was getting towards full, and the steam was clouding up in pleasant puffs. When she went to the bath’s rim, intending to get in, she found that the biloko stopped their work and looked at her, rather more fixedly than seemed appropriate. But their gaze was clearly not desirous, rather, it seemed something closer to the stare of a curious animal. Not sure how much wariness was justified, she stared back at the three creatures, but found that the biloko just remained unmoving, limp-limbed, gawping. So without any further hesitation, she climbed into the hot water, splashing and sloshing it about. Yet, all the while, she kept half-an-eye on the small, woody-skinned creatures with their deep-set pig’s eyes.

She sank into the hot bathwater then.

It was very good.

Caewen allowed herself relax for the first time in what felt like forever and ever. Soaking into the water for long minutes, she could feel her breathing slow and grow gentler. On the other side of the curtain, the conversation continued pleasantly, and she caught some words of it, from time to time. Above her, the canvas roof drummed and rippled, as blasts of rain came down. Now and then, a flash of yellow-blue lightning filled the whole ceiling with translucent brilliance, and thunder stirred and rolled. It was so very good not to be out in this weather. Not everyone at the moot would have a tent. She didn’t own one, after all. Maybe she should buy a canopy or tent at the market? Could Dapplegrim carry a tent? Maybe a small tent. Not like this huge thing, with hot baths and cushions and little square tables and hideous servants from distant jungles.

The warmth of the water was lulling her into drowsy inattention. As her muscles unknotted and loosened, she tried to think through the next day, but found her plans muddled. Walk the maze? Ask some questions about that tent that caught on fire? She was curious about that now. Other things too. Definitely some other things.

She jolted silently, as she came awake. A light sharp scratch at her upper arm had woken her. To her right, one of the biloko had scuffled up very close. The other two were behind it, hanging back, watchful. The one that was beside her peered into her face, and it spoke. Its voice was like two pieces of old dead wood rubbing together in a wet forest. “Have pity on us, enchantress. Grant mercy upon us, mistress of sorceries.”

She said nothing, letting it speak.

It went on, waving his too-long, too-thin fingers in a hurry-less pattern. “We are servants of the Goddess of Night and Moonlight, just as you are, winter-witch. We sing her songs and her praises in the darkest reaches of the jungles. But all around us are the sun-worshippers. The day-hags. They enslave us. They take our bells away, our blessed bells of power, and they make us be servile for them.”

“And do laundry,” hissed one of the other biloko, like wind through thick waxy leaves dripping green water.

“And scrub pots and dishes,” snarled the last of them, like moonlight on a forest floor.

“Our bells are in a chest that we may not touch. Take them out, fetch them to us, give them to us.” The thing pointed at a wooden strongbox that sat at the foot of a large sleeping frame, off to one side. This was presumably where Samakarantha made his bed each night.

“Return to us our potencies.”

“And we will serve you and be your servants, and grateful, untold and everlasting.”

“And what else would you do, if I freed you?”

“We would murder the filthy sun-magician who ensnared us. Murder him dead. Dead like bones. Dead like gristle. Dead like marrow chewed up by hyaenas in the blessed dark night.”

“Then I cannot,” she told him. “Samarkarantha has been kind to me. I will not repay kindness with treachery.”

“Then you are no lady of the night. No true sorceress of our glorious and most beautiful mistress would let her children suffer so. She who is the mother of all things will curse your name, and spit poison into your blood and soul.”

“No. I’m not a true sorceress of anything. You’re right about that.”

“Then, hark to us. Hark! We will be freed eventually. One way, or another.”

Another of them spoke. “We live an eternity.”

The third hissed. “And when we are free, we will remember you and your morality.”

“We will come for you and kill you dead. Like bones. Like meat. Like marrow.”

“Marrow to be chewed by hyaenas in the blessed dark night.”

She shrugged. “I suppose you may live an eternity but I won’t. I expect I’ll be a long time dead before you come looking for me.” They retreated into the shadows then, whispering and snivelling to themselves. She looked away but thought about what they had said. Caewen did not much like slavery. Whether it was humanfolk, spirits, or gods who were the slave-keepers, or the enslaved. “I will speak to Samarkarantha on your behalf,” she said, softly and into the darkness. “I’ll tell him that I think he shouldn’t be keeping servants against their will.”

They snarled as one, and retreated yet deeper into darkness, huddling together in a miserable mass of arms and legs and woodlike skin and grasslike hair.