Fair Upon the Tor #30 (updates Mondays)

“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.

Fair Upon the Tor #29 (updates Mondays)

As they went, Keri mused aloud, losing herself in half-words and half-memories, “Old Magess Quinnya. That one was a bit of a battleaxe. Always angry about something. Go there. Stand here. No, stand there! And stop looking at me like that. And don’t be so smug.” Keri affected a high, nasal tone–a sort of cultured and rangy nose-voice, throughout this mock rattling of instructions.

But no sooner had Keri finished, than they were all forced to a jolting stop: a discomfortingly similar nasal tone lowered itself out of the air, perching itself atop and around Keri’s parody, leaving an embarrassed silence, tattered. “If that is supposed to be a player’s pigwiggenry of me, it is poorly done, and you would be well advised to quit while you still have both arms, both legs, both eyes, a tongue and two ears.” The woman manifested out of nowhere. There couldn’t have been anywhere for her hide, and yet she was standing before them: tall, with hair as grey as wool in stormy light, and a face sketched out by long, chalky and hard lines. She wore a dress that seemed to be made out of rags and ribbons of black, white and grey. This old hard looking woman took a handful of quick strides towards them, closing the distance to an uncomfortable closeness. As she swung her legs, one ahead of the other, uphill, her dress of fragments and strips swayed and trailed. Each white ribbon danced in the morning light, lustrous. When Caewen recovered from her immediate surprise, she took advantage of the moment’s pause to look at this strange visage more carefully, noting that the white ribbons were marred by small black, scratchy lines of runes.

“Ah, Magess Quinnya.” Keri attempted a smile, but her whole face looked clay-baked. “Just a bit of harmless joking.”

“That so?” said Quinnya, eyeing her. “If I recall correctly–and in all truth, I never recall incorrectly–you walked the maze last moot, young little one. Seven years hence. What are you doing here? You cannot walk the maze twice, and I cannot let you. No matter how much I might wish certain folks might vanish in the maze, well?”

Keri’s head bobbed as she assumed an more polite and conciliatory tone. “My brother, Keru, presents himself to walk the maze, and claim the title, privileges and obligations of magehood. As so too does this other, too.” She indicated with a hand. “Caewen of Drossel,” after a pause, and seeming to decide that something more was needed she said, “A recent friend.”

“Hmmmmgrm.” The sound was like a rubbing of pebbles deep in the woman’s throat. Her storm-flecked eyes shot first to Keru, then to Caewen, then to Dapplegrim, where they rested for a good few flutters of seconds. “Now, I have this brother of yours, Ke-ru, on my lists, but I have no forward notice of this other… hrm, hrm, one, at all. Late entrance without notice cannot be accepted.”

“What?” said Caewen. But as she spoke, she twitched, then looked over her shoulder. Again, she was sure she had heard a burst of laughter of the sort that children make when they are up to some minor mischief hidden from adults. She was certain

“I said,” repeated, Quinnya, “if you will bother to look in my direction–that your late entry is without sufficient prior notice and therefore cannot be accepted, well? You must be on my list to walk the maze. You are not. Therefore you shall not.”

“But that was never a rule in the past,” said Keri.

“Rules change. As it is my privilege and position to make the rules, it is also, therefore, my pleasure to change the rules.” She looked Caewen up and down, critically. “Pigsty boots and a farm-girl dress? This farmyard muck-raker, straw-pitcher… pale-fetcher… oat-chaffer… this, this, personage… well, she will have to wait until the next moot.” Then, to Caewen, she pitched her voice into a high, false sugary slant. “Of course, I can note your name down now, if you find that convenient? Always good to get in early, after all.” Her smile was fog-thin and might as well have been smeared with honey and ashes. “Well?”

“I don’t… that is…”

A whisper at her shoulder. A young woman’s voice. Sweet. Delicate. Distant and resonant. “Ask her to look again.”

“Uh,” said Caewen.

“Is the young pig-herder deaf, tongueless, or simple?” Quinnya spoke louder and more slowly. “Shall I write your name into the ledger for the next moot, well? Seven. Years. Hence. Understand?”

“Actually, would you mind checking again? Just to be sure.”

“I do not need to check. I have a mind wrought of steel and sprung copper.” She was clutching a small cloth-covered book in one hand and opened it to a page that showed a list of little twisting scribbles. “Here, look! You. Are. Not. Listed.”

“Yes she is,” said Keri, squinting. “That looks like Caewen of Drossel. It’s writ in redletter, which I don’t cipher too well… but that looks right. Isn’t that it, right there?” She pointed squarely at a little line of scrawl among a jumble of other, similar scrawls. Caewen couldn’t read a word of it, but feeling embarrassed, she just coughed and looked down at a patch of dandelion by her feet. Did everyone outside her village expect folks to learn letters, or was it just magicians?

The magess pinned the paper with a frowning stare, as if somehow the fabric of the page and the ink were responsible for the unforgivable crime of having shown her to be wrong about something. “Hmmmgmmm.” The noise was now a flutter of irritation itching her vocal chords.

Only after the hot, rash noises coming out of the magess’s lips had fallen to silence did Caewen dare speak. “Someone must have added me to the list? Fafmuir did seem to have an interest in my walking the maze. Maybe he added my name?”

Fair Upon the Tor #28 (updates Mondays)

“You heard about that too? Wasn’t it an accident?” Keru held his words for a breath after he said it, reflecting, then adding, “I didn’t hear much, I guess.”

Keri skipped her voice in over his. “Oh, brother, you do love the sound of your own voice. When you don’t have anything to say, you still say what you haven’t got to say.”

“I do, yes.” He smiled, boyishly.

“Sometimes I wonder how we can be related.” A smile belied any irritation. “Anyway, yes, I did actually hear something about that fire. I was, um, gossiping with a merchant down at the market. Wasn’t it some sect of priests and their minor godling? They had an oracle in the tent, but it was all burned to the ground, priests, oracle, tent and everything: all ashes and bones. They had pitched camp in the soothsayer’s market, down at the far end of the fair. It’s not too far past the other stalls. We could go and have a look around, you know, after the maze.”

“Yes.” Caewen nodded. “I think we should. Fafmuir mentioned it to me. You know… I’m not sure if he’s trying to prod me towards discovering something, or if he’s trying to tie me in knots, or, maybe there is nothing to him at all? Just words and nonsense. It feels as if there is an intent in him, but I don’t know what it is.”

Now it was Dapplegrim’s turn to snuffle and snort, and give out a low huff of a laugh. “He is an odd one, but he is before all else an achimage of the moot.” His voice ground itself away into old wild tones. “You can stand assured, Fafmuir is not made of mere words and nonsense, hurm, hur. No archimage ever uses words merely. An archimage will be plain with words no easier than a horse can toast crumpets.”

“I suppose you would know,” said Keru, laughing.

“But then, if he is trying to nudge me towards something, why be so cryptic about it? He could just set me to a task. He still has that obligation over me. Unless he’s trying to get me to do something without resorting to calling in favours?” She started then, and looked around, hunting, but saw nothing that wasn’t just low scrabbly trees, soggy grass and the heaped mass of the earth and rock and twisted thorn trees that was the tor, standing above them. Had there been a sound of children’s laughter? “Can anyone else hear that?” she asked.

“What?”

“Laughter,” said Caewen, looking around. “Giggling.” Maybe Fafmuir was about? Did he leave his tent with his wards in toe?

But the others agreed that they couldn’t hear anything. Dapplegrim seemed quite suspicious of the possibility. He looked at her quite hard with his dull red-on-black eyes. “I’ve a much better keenness of hearing that you,” he muttered. “There is no one laughing for some distance. Over the brow of the hill two drunk men are laughing at a rude joke. That’s the closest to laughter there is, and you could not hear that.”

If she had been catching sounds of children, they were gone now.

“I couldn’t no. I guess I was mistaken.”

“As for Fafmuir,” said Keri continuing her train of thought, “who can understand the minds of great wizards? Unfortunately, insanity threads itself alongside magic. That’s why it’s sensible to only learn a little in the way of charms and spells, old secrets, runes and suchlike. The deeper secrets will drive a person mad, in the end. There’s a reason some superstitious folks think wizards and witches are a wholly different race of being. Not human at all. Workers of miracles and magic end up changed in strange ways.” As Keri finished, she looked up, huffed, and said, with a note of pleasant foreboding, “Ah! Here we are then. The entrance to the maze. There’s a few people waiting to enter. We’re not too late then. That’s good. I wonder if old Quinnya is still in charge of the entrance?”

The view ahead was of a wide, shallow depression, running smoothly like a half-funnel towards the base of the tor, and then up to a wall of tall flat-faced stones that formed a sort of rampart against the green turf. Beyond the wall stood a jumble of stone, mossy heaps, and just visible wall-tops, disappearing into a web of half-glimpsed tunnels. The maze itself, visible in a few straggling pieces and peaks. The huge, primitive entry into the maze took the shape of a rough arrangement of uprights and one massive lintel that had been hauled into place by some ancient people. This set of stones formed a heavy, lichen-crusted doorway, softened by darkness and cobwebs behind and within. Carvings ran rankly all around that passageway, thick as weeds and twice as tangled: abstracted whorls, sweeps and lines, and primitive human figures too–though the distance was too great to make out details.

Downhill and across the grassy open slopes, were scattered smaller stones–misshapen and dwarfish looking–arrayed in rough lines. These looked as if they demarcated some forgotten processional concourse that had its origin off at the far end of the broad gully.

Nearer the maze entry, a milling of magicians, servants and attendants were gathered into small and clumpy flocks. They groups seemed to be keeping themselves well apart. There was little mingling among those who planned to walk the way, apparently. In Caewen’s assessment it wasn’t insanity that ran deep alongside magic, it was suspicion, and perhaps also guilt: for one tends to circle around the other, pairwise.

Caewen and her companions cut a quick decent downslope, into the gully, swishing noisily through the thickest patches of green. The expanse they strode into turned tufty with dandelion, clover, ragwort and cat’s ear. It had a weediness that settled against the part of Caewen’s mind that still dwelled on the work of running a farm. The dandelion and cat’s ear were useless for sheep or cows, and the ragwort was poisonous. These were not fields that any farmer had tended for long ages.

Fair Upon the Tor # 27 (updates Mondays)

“They must have walked paths I didn’t. For me, it was mostly just half-carven, unfinished stone walls.” Her brow knit, memories chased themselves around in her eyes, and she looked much more serious. “There were etchings on the walls, in places. Strange letters, but I couldn’t read them. A few rude faces carved in the stone. Some grasses and the odd sapling.” She concentrated, seeking inwardly, back through the short seven years since she was in the maze. “The walls were formed of the same rock that makes up the spurs hereabouts. What is that, limestone?”

Caewen wasn’t sure, but Dapplegrim, who had been trailing silently after the three of them, snuffled and declared himself abruptly knowledgeable about rocks. “It is most definitely limestone. H’m. Full of shells, if you look. From a long time ago.” His tail swished. “From before people. From before the wars of the goddesses. From a very long time ago. It takes a long age for fragile things to turn rock hard.” He cast a glance at Caewen then, his red eyes gleaming dully. “Even under great pressure.”

“And yet you know this how?” said Keru, amused. “How indeed? You’re not so old as that. And don’t lie to me.”

“Spirits remember. Spirits talk.” Dapplegrim threw his head around. “This was all a sea once, this place. If you dig deep enough there are still watery spirits here, deep, deep down, but they have tunnelled into the soil, into the wet caves far beneath, looking for darkness and coldness. The sorts of spirits who swam in the sea before there were humanfolk or gods are not the sort of spirits that like daylight and airy breezes.”

Keru’s smile played up around face. “Done a lot of wandering through dark wet tunnels yourself, have you?”

“Some,” replied Dapplegrim, but he didn’t elaborate, choosing instead to flick his ears and set a frown on his skullish face. “So you and Caewen will walk this maze? Then what? How long until Caewen can speak her piece, and her and me can leave this rotten mound of cunjorers and tricksleeves?”

With a slight shake of her head, Keri spoke, her words lighter than the lingering mists that still faintly roused and stirred in the cold hollows of the morning landscape around them. “Who knows? You have to take a lot to speak, and the lot could come up anytime. Could be later today. Tomorrow, or later still even, after the festivals.”

“What festivals?” Caewen had been thinking about the maze, but also, in flickering half-moments, about Fafmuir, about dead boys crushed by cages, and burnt tents. She came back to her focus as Keri turner her face towards her.

“The celebration of Uncreated Night, Firstborn Day, the Living Flames and the Dead Ashes. Four festivals strung out in a row, but it’s not as exciting as it sounds. I was bored and disappointed seven years ago. Went to bed early both nights. It’s all very…” she waved a hand… “rigid and formal. A touch too pious, for my tastes, anyhow.”

Her brother gave out his opinion, as he was wont to do. “I’d say very much too pious from everything I’ve heard. Getting towards a sort of fool-sacred. When does it start? Tonight?”

“Tonight would be the Festival of the Uncreated Night, yes.” Keri nodded. “Tomorrow is the Day of the Firstborn Daughter, the Day Queen. Then, the evening is the Time of the Fires for the Living, and in the small hours, the Red Ashes for the Dead. Flames for the living; embers for the dead. The fire-priests build up huge bonfires and let them burn down. Supposedly, the good dead come back to sit by the embers, but I slept through it all last time. I’m not much in the mood to talk to ghosts this time either, bad or good.”

“M’m,” said Caewen. “So there’s a series of self-important sounding festivals. That would fit. The magicians of this moot never do cease to surprise with their talent for being a little more uppity about themselves.”

A light curve of a smile touched Keri’s mouth, and ran up into her eyes. “I’m afraid it does often seem that way. It rather goes with the job, I expect.” A shrug. “Being magicians, and all.”

“Yes.” Caewen looked away, past her companions, at the tents passing by, at the bright morning sky full of mist of cloud in full, soft light, at the trees and the hills beyond them. “I’ve been thinking also about that escaped wurum. Here. I’ve a question… Keri, Keru: did you know the boy was a serpent-talker? He came from some lineage that could talk to wurums and dragons, snakes, and other things too, probably. Fafmuir told me.”

“I didn’t” said Keri. “But what of it?”

“Does’t is strike you as awfully convenient?”

“In what way?” she said.

“Well, I mean, think about it. Right there, we had a person who could have simply told the wurum to go back into its cage, or asked it nicely to go to sleep, or I don’t know, whatsoever he wanted it to do. But he was killed the very moment the wurum got loose.”

Keru snorted and puffed out his cheeks. “I would have described it as awfully inconvenient.”

As her head nodded in slow, thoughtful agreement, Keri said, “Inconvenient for us, but convenient for anyone who wanted a rampaging wurum. You think it wasn’t an accident then?”

“I’m just about sure that it wasn’t an accident. Only, I’m not sure to what end. There’s something murky going on here. I feel like there are shapes flashing just out of sight, like white-bellied eels coiling just under the surface of a muddy creek. A glimpse here. A rush of a shape there. But I can’t see the whole of it yet.” She sniffed the cold air through her nostrils, feeling the chill in her head and down the inside of her windpipe, turning her breath over, and puffing it out in one irritated whisper. “I want to go and look at the tent that burned down too. I think I must. I need to know what happened there.”

Fair Upon the Tor #26 (updates Mondays)

A small, silent and mutual regard teased out between the two of them then, but it twisted upon itself and became uncomfortable. Caewen felt self-conscious. She looked away, down at her feet, at the wet, dewy grass and the places where the night’s spiderwebs lay like jewelled nets over it. When she had gathered her thoughts sufficiently to meet Samarkarantha in the eye, she did, briefly, and found that he had not broken off his gaze. He was looking at her levelly, as if trying to study the details of her face, jaw, neck. Now squirming with discomfit, she coughed and waved to Keri and Keru. “Hey there. Shouldn’t we be going?”

They stopped trying to give each other welts for long enough to turn to her. Keru was clearly still slow and uneasy on his feet after the poisoning and yesterday’s close call. Although the bruises didn’t show strongly against his nut brown skin, there were still quite a few purplish lines visible against the dark tan of his bare chest and arms. Caewen wasn’t sure if the bruising was from yesterday’s dealings with the wurum or today’s dealing with sparring. His sister looked comparatively unscathed. Even as Keru replied, full-voiced, “Finally! Yes. Let’s go!”, a sweep of his sister’s short spear caught him on the back leg and clipped him neatly into a fall that landed him rump-in-mud. “Ow. That was not fair,” he muttered.

“All is fair in battle, little brother.” She shook her head, and placed a hand on hip, frowning at him. “You are too distractible. Keep your mind on your opponent, or you will end up with a knife in the gut or an axe in the skull. Get it?”

“Yeah, if you say.”

When she reached down to help him up, he made a quick jolt of a movement and tried to pull her into the wet grass. She was too quick, stepping lithe to one side, and he was back in the mud again. Instead of being offended he laughed, raucously, loud and long.

With a shake of the head, Keri muttered, “Well, at least you’ve a good humour about your repeated comeuppance from your big sister. Caewen’s right though. We should be going.”

He got himself up to his feet. “Sounds good to me. Better than another hiding from you.”

“Will you come too?” Caewen asked Samarkaratha. “We could both use the moral support I expect.”

“No. I have other matters to attend to. Pel is already out in the market making inquiries on my behalf. She will be back soon and we will have things to discuss. Go with grace and good fortune, Lady Caewen, and you too young warriors Keri and Keru. Peace be upon you, and peace go with you.”

“Thank you,” said Caewen, rising. “I hope it is, and it does.”

-oOo-

Keri led them to the maze entrance by memory, with only a couple digressions up the wrong slope, or down some blind laneway of tents. She strode half a pace out in front, animatedly talking about what she remembered of the labyrinth. Evidentially, there was no rule against describing the maze, as remembered, although Keri hedged her advice. “But keep in mind that everyone remembers it differently. The maze changes and twists on itself. In some places, the air is so thick with magic, it almost sparkles. You can feel it like a thrumming on the skin. The ground shifts as you walk. The pathways are inconstant… mutable.”

Caewen arranged questions in her head and brought them to bear, one after another. “Keri, did you meet anything in the maze? Are there… I don’t know… creatures? Spirits? Are we likely to run into other people walking the maze? Does everyone go in at once?”

It was actually Keru who gave the first response. He and his sister had clearly gone over this many times, and he spoke with an assumed, half-casual authority. “They send you in one at a time. I don’t know about creatures though. There are stories of visions and things, but not anything like, well you know, a boggart or a wurum” He glanced over at his sister. “You never saw anything like that did you?”

“No.” Keri shrugged. “Some people do tell stories about phantoms in the ways. But maybe that’s just tricks of the eye. Or harmless illusions? Or lies and boasts?” A shrug. “I didn’t see anything besides endless grey walls.” After a moment, she did add, stretching out her words, “I guess I should say… I did hear things. Voices in the walls. Far off singing, the words not altogether human. But the voices never grew loud, never drew close, and I didn’t go looking for them.” As if remembering her brother, she added, “And Keru, if you are thinking about chasing phantom voices: do not. I know you’d think it would be a bit of fun, but the maze is not a child’s plaything. Just walk the paths, find a way out, leave. Don’t linger or tempt the maze to act against you.”

“Dull,” said Keru.

“And that’s all there is to it?” Caewen thought this over. It didn’t sound so terrible, but walkers in the maze did go missing. So there had to be something more threatening that voices and rumours. “Really, Keri, that can’t be all there is to it. People vanish in there.”

Fair Upon the Tor #25 (updates Mondays)

“In what way are you evil?” she said, putting playfulness into her tone.

“Do not ask questions that will lead to unpleasant answers,” said Samarkarantha. “One way that we restrain the demons of the heart is to play our own little mind games, ignore the tempting voices, pretend the words are weak, or bare whispers and ghosts. It is true that sometimes acknowledging a demon can clear it out of the mind.” He shrugged. “On the other hand, sometimes it only brings the beast to the surface.” His eyes gleamed then in the white, pale morning light, and his teeth seem brighter and harder than they had been.

She held his gaze only for a short moment before finding it uncomfortable, and looking back to Keru and Keri moving gracefully across the ground. The morning light was still rising and the sun was a white phantom of brilliance beyond hills and clouds. The trees in the distance, fringing the ridges of low hills that surrounded the tor, all looked flat and without depth, as if they had been beaten out of a piece of bronze stoked to white heat. But it was a cold brilliance. Fog lay in the dips of the green hills and dew sparked in long lines up grassy slopes. She could see the thin lines of spiderwebs too, woven in the night and netted over grass, alight in the sun, fragile and ready to blow away with the day’s first real breath.

“I did want to say another thing too. Your biloko spoke to me last night.”

“Oh? Did they now?”

“They did. They begged me to let them go. There’s a chest, and they wanted their bells back. They know the bells are in there, and they want them. You should know they are trying to get free. And, maybe you shouldn’t be keeping them? I don’t want to be impolite. You’ve been very kind to me and Dapplegrim, but… it’s just…”

“You don’t approve?” said Samarkarantha, with an arch of one brow.

“No. I suppose I don’t.”

His face lost its expressiveness for a moment, passed into a cloudy look, but came back to a smile, after a moment. “I don’t know if I approve either. I caught them, and took away the bells that is their power and their magic, and made them into slaves, and I did all this when I was a much younger man. Much more rash. Far more arrogant. I am less sure of myself now.”

“So why keep them? Surely they’ll find a way to get their bells out of that chest, eventually.”

In a tone of warning, Dapplegrim added. “Creatures of old magic do not like to be kept as prisoners. Such beasts can be patient, but they’ll get their revenge in the end. Believe me, I know.”

“Ah, but they will not. My biloko cannot ever be free without their bells, and I confess that I have mislead them. There are no copper bells of power in the chest. The chest is empty.”

“Oh. Then why would you want them to think the bells are in there? Have you hidden them somewhere else?”

“He shot a glance to the entryway of the tent and gave out a small, sad sound. “I was hasty in my youth. Overproud of my art. Their bells are not hidden. The bells are gone. They have been melted and reformed anew. The biloko will never be freed. They can never be freed without their bells. They are eternally bound.”

After a pause, Caewen and Dapple said at the same time. “The gong.”

“Yes. But if the biloko ever knew this, they would be driven mad. So, I keep the truth from them. Sometimes, it is the container that is important. Sometimes the object within is nothing but misdirection and trickery.”

“Hurm,” said Dapplegrim. They turned to look at him. With a flick of his ears he said, “Sounds like one too many magicians I’ve known. All frippery and garnish, nothing inside.”

“I hope you find that some of us have a little more pith to our core?” Samarkarantha’s smile returned, broadening.

“A little. H’m. Somewhat.”

The thwack and click of the wooden staves was the only sound for a while. Caewen spent some time focused on the food in front on her. “I suppose I ought to be going along to the labyrinth now. When are we expected there?”

“Soon. Yes.” A nod towards the sparring siblings. “Keru was only waiting for you to rise. Otherwise he would have been off to the maze an hour ago.”

“Oh. I hope I haven’t made him late. Do you get in trouble for being late?”

The slightness of the shrug that passed through Samakarantha’s frame could easily have been mistaken for a breath of wind stirring his clothing. “Not in trouble with the Three Who Are One, they who oversee the maze-ways, no. Some petty official of the moot may be angry, but the goddesses are goddesses all the same, even if they are minor and rather local to the tor. And goddesses are timeless, are they not?”

“I suppose that would be true.” Her glance fled from the half-finished breakfast, dancing momentarily to the skullish features of Dapplegrim. “Can Dapple go with me?”

“No. You must walk the maze-ways alone. He may pass by the old winding path and meet you at the far end.”

“If I come out the other end?”

“I have a faith that you will.”

“And why is that?”

His face wore its expression steadily, growing more sombre, more serious by small notes only. “There was once a man who learned about the magic in stories, and he learned that a name is just a story told in a few small syllables, and he learned that a story is a name strung out long and twisting, and full of trivial points of fact. This man learned that he could work magic by telling stories. He learned that he could learn a lot by listening to stories. One day a young lady told him all about herself, and so he learned a great deal about her. He learned the things she knew about herself, but he also listened to the silences between words, the unspoken gaps, the sighs and the irritated huffs of noise, and he learned some things that the young woman did not herself yet know. He learned that she will either come through the maze, or not. And he learned that her fate within the close-bound and twisting walls will be one of her own free choice. More than that, he does not know. But he trusts that she will choose well.”

“Then this man has a great deal more trust in her than she does herself.”

“As the man has said, he knew some things about her that she did not know. He had reason to trust.”

“M’m,” said Caewen. “Is that so?”

“It is so.”

Fair Upon the Tor #24 (updates Mondays)

Caewen slept late, awaking groggy, unsure, and squinting against the light. The morning sun suffused the roof of the tent, setting the ivory and off-red fabric alight, like stripes of white and red forge metal, glowing. Her eyes felt gritty with sleep. She yawned as she got to her elbows, looking around. Everyone else had risen already. The bedding was empty. Just cold piles of blankets, some folded neatly, others in a more crumpled state. She listened. A distinctly wooden clicking and thunking was coming from immediately outside the tent. It was accompanied by an occasional rise and fall of voices. It sounded as if Keri and Keru were out there, involving themselves in whacking sticks together.

Caewen got up, looked around sleepily, and found a basin to wash her face, before pulling on her most clean clothing, then picking a path to the tent flap.

Outside, the sun made her blink and squint.

“Hur. Goodmorning, sleepyhead.” The familiar notes of Dapplegrim’s deep, gruff voice rose up. She found him sitting in the chill morning light, his legs folded in a quite horselike repose.

“Morning to you, Dapple,” she managed to mutter. Looking about, she saw that the Forsetti siblings, Keri and Keru were indeed sparring with those short flange-ended spears they called tine-hafts. That was the cause of the wooden clack, clack, whisk, clack. It was impressive to watch, even if the two of them were pulling their blows and seemed to be stepping through martial routines.

“Like a dance.” Samarkarantha looked her way and smiled. He sat at a small round table, spread with food and drinks. He nodded, indicated a seat beside him and turned his attention back to the pair. “Makes you wonder what is out there, in the world, beyond the shores we know.”

She agreed that it did make her wonder, and sat down in a spare seat. Her eyes fell immediately on some unleavened bread, dusty with flour. Beside the bread was an arrangement of various interesting coloured pastes. Strong aromas came off them. Some fruity, some savoury. “May I?”

“Yes, please. The measure of hospitality takes in the length of the dinner table as well as the length of the bunk.”

“Thank you.” They sat together in a companionable silence, watching the the long brown limbs of the two siblings, as they twisted, stepped, flurried blows at each other, retreated. “I always thought maybe the Forsetti came from the south, way back when. They’re darker skinned, like the people in the south. Sun-blest.”

Samarkarantha shook his head. “No. Where they came from is not known to my people either, and we are merchants and travellers, wanderers and scholars across the deserts and the jungles. No. They are from some other place, islands, or another landmass, away in the ocean.”

“I wonder what else is out there? Why they left? I wonder if the war between the Ladies of Night and Day is also a strife their homeland?”

“Who knows? The Forsetti themselves might, but they never speak to outsiders about their home, or why they left. Perhaps they themselves have forgotten. It was several hundred years ago.”

“It was a long time ago. They’re northerners now, mostly. I’ve seen Forsetti eat fermented fish and stuffed sheep’s stomach.”

“And that makes one into northern folk?”

“Have you ever fermented fish and sheep’s stomach stuffed with mince, oats and spice?”

“No. I suppose I have not.”

She picked at the bread, tearing it up and using a blunt knife to spread a sticky, sweat purple jam on it. “Is Lady Pel about?”

“She had business elsewhere.”

“Hm. Samarkarantha, can I ask you a question?”

“A question may always be asked. If it will be answered, is less certain.

Dapplegrim snorted. “Hurm. And you say I talk in circles.”

“Dapple.” She frowned. “Hush.”

“It’s alright. I appreciate the beast’s humour. It is, what is the word?”

“Irritating,” said Caewen.

“Perhaps that too. I was thinking of brash. So, what was your question?”

After a pause, watching the brother and sister strike and parry, sweep and step, she said, “I spoke with Lady Pel last night. Do you think that the Night Queen is evil?”

He shifted in his seat, looked at his knuckles as he folded them on the table, but at last, he shook his head and said, “No. She is not evil. And the Queen of the Day is not good. Truthfully, there is no battle between good and evil except that which is inside all of us. People like to believe that good and evil are like a weft and weave of the cosmos, a hard truth outside, out there somewhere. But they are not.” He tapped his chest. “They are in here.”

“But the creatures of the night… blood-drinking bogey-beasts, boggarts and troldes, the restless dead, shadow things with scales of slime and darkness…”

“And have you seen all those things?”

“No,” admitted Caewen. “I’ve met with boggarts. They didn’t seem very evil,” she admitted, “more, just, I don’t know: a bit feral and impolite?” After a pause, she added, “I’ve met worse men. Mannagarm, for example. The old chieftain of my village. Gone now.”

“And so it is. And so they are.” Samarkarantha reflected inwardly for a moment, tilting his head down until his chin touched his chest. He then said, “Let me tell you of ogres. Have you heard of ogres?”

“Yes and no. They are cannibal men? Night creatures?”

“That is half-true. Ogres are a strain of huge flesh-eating giants. Sometimes as tall as two men atop one-another, thick and sinewy, with hard leathery skin and teeth like the mouth of a shark. We have none of your boggarts in the Golden Dales, but there are ogres. People call them obig, locally, and villages often pay them in sheep, and sometimes in people, to keep them satisfied and unruffled by hunger. But they are not like your pelt-wearing, savage boggarts. Ogres like riches: castles, cut from sandstone blocks, turreted and domed, with gold and red painted walls. They dress in finery: pelts of wild cats, silks, delicate brocades, cloth-of-gold. Nothing is too opulent. There are no she-ogres. Ogres breed more ogres by getting themselves on human woman. So they keep harems too. And, this final point is pertinent. They are monsters of the day, through and through. Ogres were made by The Queen who is Brightness in the elder-most age, when she wanted guards and soldiers for her wars against Night. But when she was done with them, she let them go free, and creatures made with no purpose but murder, fighting, eating and rulership do not make good neighbours. So, if you like, you can find evil in the ranks of the Queen of Day and Sunlight, too. Just as you will find evil in all hearts of all people and gods, if you look closely enough. No one is purely good, not the whole way through.”

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.

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.

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.”