Fair Upon the Tor #59 (updates Mondays)

It turned out that neither Samarkarantha nor Pel were back at the tent by the time Caewen and Dapple returned. Keri had slumped over on herself, asleep in a curled-up ball next to her brother. Both of them were snoring lightly in a sort of rising and falling off-melody together. They had left all the candles and lanterns burning, which seemed wasteful, though Caewen was grateful for the light. It had made finding the tent so much easier, with the glow from the inside.

She felt her muscles ache as she looked around, wondering. A slight tightening crossed her brow. Her eyes were sore from lack of sleep. There was still a dull pain in her mouth from casting the fey-stroke earlier, though mostly she only noticed it when she turned her mind back to the maze and what happened there. She felt overwhelmed by exhaustion. With barely a tangible thought in her mind, Caewen shrugged off her woollen jumper, let her shoulders slacken, and pulled off her belt, farm boots and her linen dress, leaving herself in undergarments; immediately, she felt the chill of the night air. Speaking softly, so as not to wake Keri or Keru, she said to Dapple, “I wonder if we should ask the biloko where their master has gone? It seems odd for both Pel and Samarkarantha to be out, tonight of all nights.”

Dapplegrim had pushed his head through the flap of the tent, but as he wasn’t be able to fit inside, had to satisfy himself with stopping at the shoulders. “Hrrm. Yes,” he agreed. “Odd.”

But the little woody faced creatures were nowhere in sight either. Presumably they were asleep, or resting, or maybe just hiding behind curtains or cushions? Caewen called to them tentatively. “Hello?” she said. “Bell demons? Are you there?”

A small, sour face, fringed by a waft of tussocky hair appeared in the shadows near some of the magician’s travelling chests and pillows. “Yes, what asks thou, fleshling of blood, mortal creature?”

“Where is Samarkantha? Is he out doing something, do you know? Or is he sleeping in the back of the tent somewhere?”

“Gone out,” hissed the creature. “Gone out with the Lady Pel. Told us, stay here, wait here, watch here, look after guests.” A snarl, and the face vanished.

“Polite little nasties, aren’t they?” said Caewen.

“No more or less than most fettered demon-things.” Dapplegrim yawned and all his sharp teeth shone ivory-yellow in the lamplight. “I’m going to fold up my legs and sleep outside beside the flap.”

Caewen was half-distracted, but said, “I thought horses sleep standing up. You hardly seem to. Sometimes, I mean. But usually you sleep lying down.”

“Only half horse,” muttered Dapplegrim, and he pulled his head out of the tent.

Yawning herself now, Caewen blew out all but one of the oil lanterns. Each snuffed flame left thin trails of brown-black smoke curling that looked like the eddies of a tannin-laced river. In the gloom, Caewen pulled back the flap of her bedroll and crawled inside. The fabric was cold against her skin, but it warmed from her body heat soon enough. She was so tired. She relaxed almost without being conscious of it, and she slipped into the wide open mouth of endless, depthless darkness.

###

Caewen had no idea what time it was when she woke. It was still dark–that much she could see–and the one lamp she had left burning for Samarkarantha and Pel was still giving out its small pallid seepage of light into the sleepy tent. For a moment Caewen wondered what had woken her, but then it came again: a long, wailing anguished cry composed of several creaking voices together.

“What the–?” she said, getting up to an elbow and trying to understand what was happening. Was a ritual happening noisily outside? Or some other night-worshipper ‘celebration’, for lack of a better word? No. Caewen realised that the cries were from inside the tent. Keri was getting up too now, hurriedly, a look of confusion on her face. “What’s going on?” she muttered, groggy.

“I have no idea.”

The noise was coming from the back of the tent, and Caewen stumbled upright, still half-asleep, found her way around pillows and low tables whilst managing to knock her shin into something hard just once. Wincing from the sharp pain, feeling anger rising a little, she pulled aside the drapes at the far end of the tent and said loudly, almost to the point of yelling, “It’s the middle of the night! What in all the Clay-o-the-Green do you think you are you doing?” Her eyes were full of the grit and haze of sleep. Her tongue felt grasping. Her head was full of nothing but soggy thoughts. She blinked. It was the biloko. They were huddled in a miserable ball together, half-upright on the ground, snivelling and shrieking. Weird snot, like the exudate of rotting forest logs was running from their noses. Their eyes were weeping a thin, translucent amber. One of them turned its piggish gaze to her, and she could see a faint pained light in the wetness of its orbs. “The master of the bells,” it said, low and wheezing, almost to the point of a lament. “The master of the bells! He is injured! They are trying to murder him. What if they kill him?”

“Yes, yes, they’ll kill him,” said another of the creatures, its voice all self-pity and hatred. “They’ll take our bells from him and then we will never be free.”

“Never go home,” whispered the third. “the master has promised to free us. But some other mortal maggot will take the bells. And sell us.”

“And trade us.”

“And they will never free us.”

“Never–never–never,” they all wailed together.

“Someone is trying to kill Samarkarantha?” said Caewen, confused. She looked around, dumbly, as if somehow this murder would be taking place in the tent, and she just hadn’t noticed.

By now, Keri had walked up beside her, and Dapplegrim had been roused outside.

Keri blinker, confused. “What is going on?”

With a more certain and growing sense of foreboding, Caewen answered. “Apparently someone is trying to kill Samarkarantha. Right now.” She turned to the biloko. “Where is he? Who’s attacking him?”

“Don’t know,” they snivelled. “Don’t know!” and soon they were wailing wordlessly again.

Keri shook her head. She seemed to be trying to work through this. “So… so… what do we do?”

“I can’t think… wait… Dapple?”

“Yes,” he had pushed his head a little further into the tent.

“Can you find them? Samakarantha or Pel? By scent?”

“Let me sniff.” He vanished for a moment, and there was some sounds of hooves on wet grass and snuffling. But a moment later, he reappeared, saying, “No. There’s no hint of them on the air. Maybe if I had a trail. Droplets of blood. Or bits of torn cloth. Even a recent tread of boots. Something. But no, they’ve been gone too long and they are somewhere off distant. And remember, I’m half-horse,” he muttered, “not half scent-hound.”

“Then what?” said Caewen.

He snorted his own frustrated sound. “We wait.”

She turned to Keri.

“That’s all we can do surely,” she said. “I don’t see anything else for it. Just wait. And hope they are both able to look after themselves.”

“They ought to be. Hur. I don’t know about Pel, but Samarkarantha has a strong tang of magic about him. Enough to uproot buildings or sway the earth. He can look after himself.”

“Still, I don’t like it.” She frowned, and looked at the biloko. “What if he is overwhelmed? Or attacked by a yet more potent wizard? I don’t like just standing here, feeling useless.”

Keri threw her arms up. “And neither do I. None of us do. But do you have another suggestion?” She was clearly sore from being woken. “Should we just wander around in the night, looking aimlessly? Or asking the night-folks out there: hey there, have you happened to see a magician from the land of the gilt-earth and sun, by any chance? Wandering around. His very presence profaning the Festival of Uncreated Night?” She put her hands on her hips. “Why are we asking? Oh, no reason. Ho de hum, hum.”

“Hrmm,” said Dapple. “Best case, a crowd of night-folk think we’re mad. Next best case, they think we’re joking. Worst case, they think we’re serious. That will not go well.”

At length Caewen had to concede. She shook her head, saying, ‘No. You’re both right. We wait then.”

That settled it. For now, all Caewen and Keri could do was sit down on the cushions, and listen to the abject misery of the biloko as they shrieked and wept. They waited. Dapplegrim pulled himself back outside and paced around near the entry to the tent. Occasionally he would say, “No sign of them,” and the biloko would renew their shrieking and weeping.

Fair Upon the Tor #58 (updates Mondays)

Hi everyone. I took a break from posting over the New Year break. Back into things now. I’ll be posting every Monday again for the foreseeable future, but will increase the rate of posting once I have written through to the end of the first draft. Getting closer now. Thanks for sticking with me.

###

He laid out the next card, and the next, announcing as he did: “The Journeyman Fool–The Maiden–The Great Burden–The Warder at the Gate–The Seer–The Seven of Weirds–The Tempting Lord–The Seeker–oh… um, Death doesn’t necessarily mean what people typically assume it does… and… Herself of Shadows.” He turned his head and said, “What an interesting array.”

“Very interesting,” said Caewen. The Journeyman Fool was dressed exactly as her doppleganger in the maze had been dressed. The card called The Great Burden showed a man carrying a great bundle of swords rather than one huge sword, and the Seer depicted a dead woman with no jaw.

Caewen asked about that last one.

“That? Oh, uhm-hm, it’s just religious iconography. Certain cults of seers are buried with their jaw cut off. I don’t know why.”

“Are they buried with a spinning whorl too?”

“Yes, now that you mention it. Have you been to such a funeral? They’re rare these days.”

“No. Just something I saw somewhere. What a very interesting array of cards.”

The man then proceeded to tell a very unlikely story about great riches, and marriage, and many bonny children and an ascent to some position of household power, or something. Caewen only half-listened. She had a strong sense that although the man apparently had a knack for turning the cards, but he had no idea how to read them.

When they were done, she thanked him, and she and Dapple left the tent.

“What was that about?” he asked. “You got all funny looking when he put your cards down. You don’t go in for that nonsense, do you? I mean, it’s not like there’s no truth in prognostication, but its a shifty truth, and changeable… and well, rather hazy too. It’s hard to know what any fortune told might mean. Hurm.” A rolling flick of his red eyes. “Even when there is real power lying behind it.”

“There was real power in his cards, wasn’t there?”

“Yes.”

“You could smell it, or taste it?”

“Yes. The air was curdled with the power. Like wet steam coming out of a bakery at dawn.”

“But he didn’t know how to read the cards did he. The cards were true, but that story he spun?”

“Nonsense.”

“Yes. I thought so.”

“Hur. Hurm. So that’s what was bothering you then? You were wondering if his telling was truthful?”

“No. Not that.” She paused. Looked down at the dark wet grass. “I ran into some things in the maze–I don’t know. Visions? Illusions? And they were in the same pattern as the cards. Or mostly the same pattern. Some things were missing or moved around a little, I think? It wasn’t exact.”

“Hurm,” said Dapple, but he didn’t seem to have anything else to add. “Well, that’s peculiar.”

“Peculiar doesn’t even start to describe it. Come on. If we walk down that way, we can avoid going past the Harper and his friend. The longer we’re away from them, the more I think you were right. There’s something decidedly off about those two.”

“I hate to say, I told you so, but… wait. No. Hur. I like saying that.” He snorted and thrashed his tail. “Told you so.”

“Dapple?”

“Yes?”

“A moment of seriousness.”

“If you insist.” He tossed his head, but his tone was more attentive.

“Fafmuir had one of those bronze fortune heads in his tent. What do you think that might mean?”

Dapplegrim seemed to consider this long and carefully. There were no quick jibes, not even a dismissive snort. “That would mean he is a very dangerous man. If it is a real brazen head, hrrum hur… such a thing is worth more than a small kingdom. Hur. Hereabouts, of course, the goddess protects, but every unscrupulous sorcerer for a hundred leagues would try to take it off him the moment he stepped away from the moot. Why, hurm, they’d be a murderous fight over who got first dibs on murdering him. He certainly must have killed a… a personage.. or something… of great power to get his hands on a brazen head in the first place… such things are not so or given up freely. Hurrrm. And to keep it! To defend his treasure against thieves. He would need to make short work of a lot of upstarts and assassins. He would need to build a reputation.”

“A person not to be trifled with.”

“Indeed. Hrmm.”

“I’m starting to wonder about Fafmuir.”

“Only starting to? I was wondering about him from the moment we met him. No one with so cheery a smile and such a pleasant whistle should be trusted.” As if to underline the point, he displayed his own grimace of sharp teeth.

As they walked, Dapple stopped, bent his neck down and bit at his front hock. “Hurm. Damn. He wasn’t lying about the bedbugs, anyway.”

She shrugged. “Ah well. They can fight it out with my infestation of wool-moths to decide who gets to rule the backpack.”

“True. True. Hurm.”

Fair Upon the Tor #56 (updates Mondays)

“What about a man in a grey cloak, sort of narrow and bullyish looking in the face, white hair? You didn’t happen to see someone like that before the fire started? Or after, I suppose.” This was as close a description as she could manage of the assassin that Fafmuir had spoken of. She had seen him only from a distance.

Harper shook his head.

“I certainly don’t recall anyone of that description,” said the Old Riddler. “Here, would you like to share some wine? It is a very heady vintage, from very far away, harvested very long ago. It is marvellous.”

Harper slipped back into a indolent smile, not unfriendly “My friend exaggerates, but it is true that you’ll never taste its like in all the living world.”

She wondered, would it be impolite to decline? She risked it, saying as warmly as she could manage, “No thank you. I’d rather not be tipsy when walking back among the night-folks.” She gave them a slight nod of a bow. “Apologies if I offend.”

The Old Riddler frowned. “Oh no. No, no indeed. I suppose that is sensible.”

“Very true,” added his companion. “Prudent. Luckily for us, we plan to go nowhere and do nothing before the dawn. We shall celebrate the night in our own quiet private way.”

“Quite right. None of this nonsense with bonfires and deaths. Whatever makes them think that Herself of the Night would want souls sent to her? Doesn’t she have enough matters to look after without a throng of needy ghosts too?”

“Hrmn,” said Dapplegrim in a sudden, considering way. “Hrmmm. How true.” He was looking at the Old Riddler with a peculiar gaze. “You know, Caewen, I saw a card reader up the way who I liked the look of. Let’s go have our cards read, eh. That would be fun. Hrm.”

“Can it wait a minute?”

“A minute, maybe, hrrmmm, but not much longer than that.” He paused, and then said, “Why are you called the Old Riddler? Harp-strumming boy there: I can see his name plain as day… so to speak, but why the Old Riddler?”

“Oh, well,” he seemed almost abashed. “I like to make up riddles. That’s all. It’s a pastime of mine.”

“And much less dangerous than looking into things,” said Harper, with a slight smile. He thumbed a few more of his beautiful notes from the harp. There was an otherworldliness to each rise and fall of the chords.

“What sort of riddles do you like to ask?” said Dapple. His tone was quite suspicious now.

“Oh, well, the usual sort. Lately, I’ve taken to starting my riddles with an elephant. An elephant is a very riddle-worthy animal, you see. Very riddly.”

“How so?” said Caewen.

“Ahem. I am an elephant in winter. I am a bear in summer. I am a gosling in spring. What am I?”

Caewen considered the riddle. She turned it over, looking at it, before smiling, and saying, “A head of hair. Grey in old age. Brown in middle years. Downy as a babe’s head of hair. But you have to know that elephants are grey to answer that, or that bears are brown.”

“And also the downiness of goslings,” added Harper. “A most unfair riddle, in my opine.”

The Old Riddler laughed and rocked back in his seat on the stool. “Good, good,” he declared. “It is clearly and obviously not very unfair, though, as you got it quick, didn’t you? There is nothing that delights me as much as a person who can place a quick wit upon one of my riddles, and then crack it open. You have some talent there, young one.”

His companion smiled a thinner, more foxish smile. “Except for when a person cannot crack one of your riddles. That delights you the more, I would say.”

The layers of fat, whiskers and laughter lines that made up the Old Riddler’s face fell into a moment of serious fixation. “Now that is true. That is true. You know me well. Like a brother.”

A note struck then from the harp, clear and honeyed. “That I do.”

“I’ve another for you though,” said the Old Riddler, a gleam dancing across his gaze. “How about this. My voice is an elephant. My skin is a cameleopard. For a name, you may stand back-to-front and call me the ancient wife. What name for me?” His cheeks heaved up into rosy hillocks above chin and jaw. “Well?”

“Give me a moment,” she said, feeling a bit of irritation at his sudden impatience. “Now, you said a voice of an elephant. A skin of a camel-leo-pard, although I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s a–” started Harper.

“No hints! No hints!” The Old Riddler nearly yelled this. His eyes were bright and large.

“M’m. Yes. No hints.” As she spoke the Harper’s blue-grey eyes narrowed, and she had a sudden sense that she ought to be polite to him. “Ah. Though I’m grateful for the kindness of the thought, Lord Harper.”

“Lord,” snorted the Old Riddler. “Him? A lord. A long way from lord, is he.” More snorted laughter.

“Well, if you’d let me think. Old woman. Back-to-front. Ah. I have it. A herald.”

Now it was Harper’s turn to laugh. He threw his head back so that his silver-pale hair swayed in quick moving locks. “You’ve met you match, old man. She’s onto you and your tricks.”

“Quiet, you.” Though he seemed more good humoured, when he said to Caewen. “A herald, yes, but you might have guessed. Explain it for me so that I know you worked it out.”

“I don’t see how I could have guessed without working it out: but, well, a herald has a trumpet or horn, and elephants give out a great trumpet noise when they are fighting dragons, though I only know that from stories…” She shifted a foot, and said, more softly, “I confess that I don’t know what a camel-leo-pard is. But the ancient wife is an old woman, but backwards. Woman old didn’t seem to be anything, but her old, is close enough to sound like herald. But, like I said, I didn’t understand the middle bit.”

It was the Harper who replied. “Ah, but that’s his mean trick. Unless you knew both that the official badge of station for heralds in Fraenkish lands is a long gold chain on sable, and that a cameleopard is sort of long-necked beast with gold and black spots, you couldn’t guess the middle. Rather another unfair riddle, if you ask me.”

“But no one is asking you,” said the older man, his face now bent into an intrigued smile. Still, still, she did guess the most of it. I have more riddles that start with elephants. How is an elephant like a calf’s skin?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“They’re both unfailing in their memory.”

“No, I don’t understand that one. Is it because you can’t sew leather without making big holes? I don’t know anything about elephants though.”

The Harper breathed a long stray sigh. “He is being mean-spirited with his clues. Vellum is made from calf’s skin, and vellum makes up pages in books. Letters on pages do not forget. Elephants also do not forget. Or so the fables say. I can’t vouch for it.”

“One more one more, I want to give you another chance.”

“We’re leaving,” said Dapplegrim, his voice hard.

“What?” said Caewen.

“Now.” He was glaring. With a snort, he pushed his head into Caewen and shoved her away from the two men.

“What are you–?”

But he addressed the two men. “I don’t know what you are, but you are not mortal magicians, that much is clear to me. I don’t know what happens to those who answer three of your riddles, Old Riddler, but I assure you: we maybe foolish, but we are not foolish enough to answer another riddle. Goodnight to you both. Hurm!”

The Old Riddler looked affronted, a touch on the worse side of sour.

Harper on the other hand played with some drifting notes, smiling, as he said, “You malign us, little demon of flesh and shadow. And you misjudge. If we had uses for you and your mistress, you would not stop us by simply walking away. We would not permit it. So, be glad that you have misjudged, and we are kinder souls than you think.”

“Hurm! Kind? Indeed. Come on, Caewen. Now. Don’t even talk to them. Don’t even look at them. Not either one of them.”

Caewen let herself be nudged away. As she glanced back, she saw that both of the men were watching her. “What are you doing? They seemed friendly enough, and the younger man, Harper, he was rather, um, comely too. I mean, he was nice to talk to. And look at.”

“Listen to yourself!” He nearly snarled the words. “Those were not men. I don’t know what they were. Elder spirits. Gods. Demons. Monsters. But they were definitely not men. It would have been very dangerous to answer a third and last riddle. You’re lucky you stumbled on the one about memory. Gods and goddesses, but that one was easy too.”

“No it wasn’t.”

“Only because he assumed you were lettered. Anyone who knew their ciphers would know at once that calf skin makes vellum, and vellum makes books. He wanted you to answer his riddles. Hrm. Most every sorcerer worth their salt is lettered. You’re luck you’re an ignorant bumpkin.”

“And also not a sorcerer.”

He didn’t even glance at her as he said, nonchalant, “Says the woman who killed two mean dead with raw magic not more than a few hours ago.”

“What–?” She floundered on her words. “How–?”

“Look at me Caewen. Really look at me. Do you honestly think I wouldn’t be able to smell the tang of blood, the whiff of death-magic, the fragrance of a fey-stroke? I could track you halfway across the moot from the stink of the spellwork. I bet that talking magician lion could smell it too. I guarantee it. He’ll be watching you closely now, I reckon. Hurm. Maybe those two things pretending to be men could smell it too. That might explain their keen interest in you.”

“Oh.”

Dapple looked around. “Now, let’s go and get our cards read somewhere.”

“What? I thought you were just making an excuse to leave.”

“Of course I was, but it is unwise to outright lie to beings whose reach and powers are unknown. We will have our cards read, thus walking the line of truth. Hrm. You have a thing or two to learn about dealing with arcane beings.”

“I see.” She looked back. “They’re still watching us.”

Fair Upon the Tor #55 (updates Mondays)

They left the bonfire circle and kept going. Soon enough they had left behind the lilting songs of the night-worshippers, and found what appeared to be the edge the fortuneteller’s market. Most every tent was hung with signs replete with mystical eyes and weird symbols, stars and hands held upright to show a decorated palm. The market was brisk given the hour, even lively, but not anywhere near as noisy as the market-stalls they’d passed earlier. Those selling their arts here did not hawk loudly, but sat within their tent awnings awaiting custom. “I suppose it doesn’t befit mystery to be too raucous,” said Caewen.

“True enough. Hrm.”

It didn’t take long to find the burnt space where a tent had clearly been standing until recently. A large blackened area marked out a rough oblong shape where oily ashes sat cold on the ground. Caewen and Dapplegrim walked over to it, and took in the scene, but there was little enough to see. Just a big burnt area.

“Well,” said Dapplegrim. “This is exciting. I’m certainly glad that we walked the whole way through the crowds celebrating Old Night and Chaos to stand beside a patch of burnt grass. Hurm.”

“Hush you.” Caewen took a few paces around the burnt space. “Do you smell anything?”

“Burnt canvas,” he sniffed, “But burnt human fat and marrow and flesh too. And cooked snake, or something very like a snake. The corpses were all carried away…” another huff of air through nostrils, “Hurm… about a day ago.”

“The fire will have happened sometime before that then.” She slowly traced her way down the edge, thinking over what she was seeing. “There are other tents nearby. Yet, the fire seems to have been quite restricted. It didn’t spread at all.”

A voice called out to her, “Almost as if there was magic at work?”

She turned around. Across the way, two men sat outside a smaller tent, watching. One was young, with harshly angular but handsome features, and sandy hair, worn long. He was dressed richly in black and white, with intricate knotwork patterns along the hems of his tunic and cloak. In one hand he had a small harp that seemed to be carved from a single piece of jet coloured wood. He had a sword, and that had a hilt of similar black wood, strung around with blood red ribbons. Beside him sat an older, and somewhat more rotund man, with a whiskery face and bright orange and black clothing, patterned in intricate woven scrawls.

It was the younger of the two men who had called to her. He beckoned, and spoke again: his voice was oddly harmonious, with deeper currents of hints and promises running through it. “The flames spread quick and killed everyone inside within a minute or less. We heard the yells and cries from here, but could do nothing.”

“Were you looking to consult.” said the other, man, his voice jolly and more rounded in tone. “We two are not soothful sorts, unfortunately, but we could suggest a name or two.” He picked up a gilt cup from a low table that had been set out before them, and took a drink.

Caewen and Dapplegrim exchanged looks and walked over, slowly. “No. That’s alright,” she said. “Did you see how the fire started?”

“Questions, questions,” said the younger man. “But first, names, or so-callings, or at least, indications of personhood, taking after some manner or another. A gesture. A whisper. Seven steps of a half-forgotten dance. A painted icon, offered, in gilt and scarlet.” He smiled and struck a note from the harp. “I have many names, of course, but here I am called Harper. And my none too serious friend generally goes by the Old Riddler.”

“I’m Caewen and this is Dapplegrim.”

“Giving away your birthname so casually?” The Old Riddler then turned over those warm, round tones over in his throat, chuckling. “You are either very powerful, or very foolish.”

“Or both,” said Dapplegrim. “We tend to advise people that one can be both.”

“That is true,” agreed the young man who called himself Harper. “What was your interest in the Brotherhood of the Runic Serpent?”

The attractive harper with his aware, searching eyes and rich voice was making Caewen feel uncomfortable. She started playing with the edge of her belt buckle, then to be less obvious moved her hands out of sight. How much honesty could she risk with these too. There seemed no point in being outright deceptive, but equally no reason to tell them too much of herself or what she was doing. Her right hand found a safe place in her purse, and fidgeted with the coins and trinkets there. “We’re just looking into the fire, that’s all. There have been some deaths around the moot. It seems odd is all.”

“An investigation? How exciting. And you are appointed as–?” said the Old Riddler.

“No one and nothing. Just looking into things.”

“That is a dangerous pastime.” The young man gave her a grave look, as if he were trying to decide if she were lying to them. His eyes were pale, like moonlight and cloud. He was clearly of the northern lands, beyond the borderlands of the night. How far north, she wasn’t sure. “Hm,” he said, in the end, perhaps coming to a conclusion, but keeping it to himself. “There have been some deaths. We have noticed it too. There was the worm that got loose. And the killing of the snake-speakers here. A draig-rider and his mount were both slain over on the far side of the moot yesterday, under rather odd circumstances. They both just slumped over and stopped breathing. Almost as if they had been poisoned, or killed dead with sorcery. But who would risk that? Surely the goddess of the tor would exact justice.”

“Surely,” agreed Caewen.

“It’s all rather odd,” said the Old Riddler. “You know, I saw the fire start. It was as if a spell had been put on the tent from afar–but again–who would be mad enough to do that? And why, in all the Clay-o-the-Green, our benevolent goddess hasn’t done something about it, I do not know.” He put rather too much emphasis on benevolent, as if he was making a joke at the goddess’s expense.

“Did you see anyone about here at all? Anything suspicious?”

They both shook their heads.

Harper spoke then, saying quietly, “No, I’m afraid not. I didn’t feel anything either, and I’ve a good sense for when something untoward is happening. It would take an ancient and potent sort of magic to veil mischief from me, but I wonder if that is the truth of it? Someone or something is going about under some mechanism of concealment,” he mused.

Fair Upon the Tor #54 (updates Mondays, usually)

“Yes. But I don’t expect we’ll be long. I just want to wander over to the fortuneteller’s market, take a look around–that’s all–oh, I meant to ask, uhm, you don’t know where the market is, do you?”

“You are hopeless. You really would be happy to just wander around the whole of the moot until you stumble in the right direction, aren’t you?” She sighed. “Look, don’t pull a face. The fortunetellers are usually on the far side of the vendor’s market stalls, just to the north of the hill.”

“Thanks.” With a wave of one hand, Caewen left the tent, and then she and Dapplegrim walked northward, picking a line among the tents until they found a more open way ahead.

There were a few people going this way and that. Most of them had a northern cast to their features, and at least some likely haled from very far north: they had the look of the night-creature about them: a dead white pallor to the point of silveriness, with washed-out eyes and hair in shades of faint grey, straw, dishwater. One old bearded man, naked except for a loincloth, was walking in a staccato, jumping manner through the moot. His skin was leprous, and he was ruinously skinny everywhere except for his belly, which formed itself into a big round pot. He had a small crowd following him, and seemed to be pacing out some manner of ritual path, going with jumping, halting steps, and stopping every few feet to dance with his own moon-cast shadow. Behind him, the trailing crowd sang in low, murmuring voices.

Caewen and Dapplegrim waited for the procession to pass, then hurried off down another way.

Despite the potential for danger, Dapplegrim seemed to be enjoying himself. He breathed in and said, “Hurm. Good to be out walking again. Just the two of us. Things have been a bit crowded, lately, hur, hurrum.”

Caewen looked at him, sidelong. “Why, Dapple. Are you jealous of my spending time with others?”

“No. Of course not. Nonsense. I mean, why would I be jealous? That’s foolish. Hurm. I mean, yes, you are somewhat easier to get along with than most of the sorcerers and such-folk I’ve spent my years with over the centuries. So, you know, hurm. There is that.”

“I see,” said Caewen, smiling. She paused and slipped her hands to her hips, looking around. “Which way to the fortunetellers from here do you think?”

“If it’s arranged as it was last time I was here, it should be over that way.” A nod towards a mass of close-pitched tents. He then squinted up at the big bright moon and the cloud-mottled stars. “Though that was a long time ago. H’r, hurr. Things may have changed.”

They skirted the edge of the market stalls where traders were hawking their charms and curios, talismans, potions and nostrums. Caewen noticed the giant woman she had seen on the road. There was also a scattering of the little hunch-shouldered, hairy and long-limbed Nibelung too. They were going from stall to stall, scrutinising everything with hungry eyes. Presumably, they were still looking for their lost ivory box.

Past the market, the tents grew thinner for a span of a few hundred feet. Some bonfires had been piled up and lit here, and a man in a robe that looked as if it had been woven of starlight and shadows was standing in the midst of the deep orange glow. As they drew nearer it was possible to hear him calling to passersby in what turned out to be a surprisingly high and sing-song voice. Caewen stopped to listen, and put a hand on Dapplegrim’s flank so that he would notice she had stopped, and slow too. He huffed as he turned to her. The man seemed to be preaching about the virtues of the night. “I’d like to listen for a moment,” she said.

“Have you not embraced the true, old path?” he sang. “Think upon all the gifts of the night. Think upon the pleasures of the night, and tell me that the Uncreated Night is not the highest and most wondrous of all who are heavenly. The night is the mother of all things, of gods as well as of men. She is the mother of darkness, yes, but also of day and of light, of fate, of sleep and death and dreams, of discord and hardship, of hunger and fear, of sickness, revenge, laughter, song and trickery, and of feasting too, and so too of the joyousness of rest. The night is for taletelling. The night is for the singing of songs.” He took a breath, holding his arms wide, it seemed almost that he wanted to gather the darkness to him. To embrace it. “And tonight, yes, tonight, we rise up and celebrate her elder majesty, her trueness, her ancient wisdom, the Uncreated Night. Let us sing her praises, aye! For is not darkness and the night, so like the earth itself, the very cloth and fabric of motherhood? Night is the womb of womanhood, the womb of night is the womb of all who breath. The vast womb of Uncreated Night, aye and aye! But you may ask, is not the day also glorious? Yes, and yet that is still the glory of night. For out of night is born day, as the babe is birthed out of the mother. Every dusk, the day dies and night resumes, for night is eternal and gives her life to make the daylight renewed each dawn. The worshippers of the Brightness Daughter are but followers of a lesser goddess, and that is the very truth of it.” He seemed to be getting into his stride now, raising his voice as he spoke. “For, think also upon all that happens in the nighttime: birds break from their shells at night. Sheep and kine give birth at night. So too with people. And does not fear itself create unfear, and thus mark for us release? Night, the uncreated and immortal creator of all things, mother of fear, mother of courage; she marks us also for release from fears, if we but embrace her.” He grinned widely, almost drunkenly, and pulled a ribald sort of expression. “And is not consummation of marriage almost universally in the night-time? In the night season, as they say? For in the night is the power of creation, of birth, of love and aye, aye, also of sex.” He seemed to be reaching a sort of crescendo. “Sing with me! For the nighttime is the felt presence of the deity. Oh, you restless and erring spirits of sea, shadow, earth, fire and air, return to the realm of the night and rejoice! For the goddess at the first dusk of time, the woman who was not created, but who creates: she is the thrice-great, the night-being, the flesh of night, and night-inspired, she is performing for us, dancing, singing in the night, and we will hear her, if we but listen. For the night is peaceful, tranquil, and calming, and her voice carries sweetly. It is only the day that is frenetic, dazing, dizzying. Turn ye aside from the hateful eye of the day, aye! Eternal darkness and rebirthing day, turn upon the turn of hours, and night returns and returns, for the Night Queen loves her children, and she is everlasting, and thus we are, all of us, everlasting too, but only through her love.” He reached up, skyward then, and started to sing in his high, lilting voice, the words in a language that Caewen did not know.

“Come on,” said Dapplegrim. “I think we should get moving again.”

Caewen looked around. There were shadowy figures at the edges of the fire-lit area, moving about and singing a whisperous song in echo of the preacher. They were looking over those watching the orator with a rather too keen an interest.

Dapple sniffed. “They usually ask first, but not always. They will want to feed their great fires before dawn.”

Caewen felt a tremor run twisting through her. “But wouldn’t the Lady of the Tor intervene?”

“Sacrifice is not murder, hur, hr, hrmmm. Every god and goddess knows that. Or has convinced themselves of it, anyway. And the worshippers would not see it as a hurt either. After all, they are sending souls to live forever in the palace of the stars and the moon. Who wouldn’t want that? Hurm.”

“Me, for one.”

“And me too, hur, but the question is rather more rhetorical for them lot. Come on.”

“Rhe-tori-what?”

“It doesn’t matter. Come on.”

Fair Upon the Tor #53 (updates Mondays)

They managed to get Keru on top of Dapplegrim, and together they walked along slowly, making their way first out of the shallow corrie, then down the wending hillside way. Caewen and Keri walked on either side, supporting the boy so that he didn’t fall. As they trod along, a few magicians did overtake them at a faster pace, but no one seemed to be following them, or for that matter, taking any notice at all.

“You know,” said Keri, as they descended a long and sweeping curve in the path, “I was thinking… maybe the reason that you weren’t punished for killing those two men, was that you were the punishment. The goddess might have worked justice through you? You know, in retribution for what they did to Keru.”

“Hurm. Could be,” said Dapplegrim. “Gods and goddesses are lazy. They do like to have others do their work for them. Go do this. Go do that. Oh, they dress it up as sacred quests, but mostly they’re just getting some chores done. Hur.”

But Caewen, just said, “H’m.” She looked out into the open air, over the rolling hills and darkness. They were a third of the way up the tor, and had a clear view across the camps of people gathered for the moot, the torches and lamplight, the glowing tents, pavilions and lean-tos, all aflame-seeming, like some vast ember-heap strewn among the black and shapeless spaces.

“Do you think Samarkarantha will be happy to see us back–given you’ve not taken a side? I mean, I was already neutral in things,” said Keri, ruminating, “but maybe he thought you or my brother might go over to his side? He’s in the camp of the Brightness Queen, after all.”

“H’m,” said Caewen.

Keri looked at her, expression growing cross. “Caewen. What is wrong with you?”

“Oh, yes, sorry. I was listening. Just distracted.” She tried an apologetic smile, saying, “I expect Samarkarantha will be fine. He offered us a place to stay, no matter what. I think he’ll keep his word. He doesn’t seem like the sort to break it. And besides, it’s not like we’ve decided to worship Old Night and Chaos, is it? We’re just trying to keep out of things.” She looked down, at the ground, wondering aloud to herself now. “I was wondering though–maybe it would still be safe to walk about a bit tonight? I want to visit the fortuneteller’s market after we get Keru back. Sooner, rather than later. I’d prefer not to leave it for tomorrow.”

“Why?”

Well, thought Caewen, the Goddess of the Tor had said, look to the oracles, and there was a sense of urgency to all the warnings in the maze… but she couldn’t explain that in so many words. It turned out that being saddled with a divine geas could unreasonably restrict conversation, and annoyingly so. “Um. There was that burnt tent, you see, and the dead soothsayers… Fafmuir seemed to think they had something to do with the wurum that escaped. Well, he seemed to hint at it, at least.”

“That serpent-thing we killed?”

“Yes, that’s the one.”

“I don’t see how,” said Keri. She shook her head. “I can’t go with you, I’m sorry. I need to look after Keru tonight. This is twice in two days that my little brother has nearly got himself killed. First the poison, now blades in the maze. I can’t leave him alone tonight. I really can’t. If I did, I’d probably come back and find a dragon trying to eat him.” She rolled her eyes. “Or something worse.” She did her best to pull a face that suggested a joke, but it was a thin effort. A rather defeated shrug followed. “Anyway, I don’t want to be out tonight either. Wandering about during the Festival of the Uncreated Night is not my idea of a fun evening, or a safe one. The night-worshippers go a bit mad during the festival. And frankly, they don’t really have excellent self-control at the best of times.”

“I’ll come,” said Dapplegrim, craning his head. “I could use the walk. Getting a bit cramped, sitting around all day, you know. Hur. Need to stretch my hocks.”

“Alright. Good. Dapple and me’ll go then.” She followed this by asking, “But what exactly happens in the festival? People keep talking about it, but I don’t know a thing about it. Is it really dangerous? It’s just a celebration, isn’t it?”

“Depends who you ask, and who you are,” answered Keri. “I mean, if you were one of the night-worshippers I’m sure it’s not very dangerous.”

“That’s not entirely true,” said Dappelgrim, brightly. “They sometimes sacrifice their own.” After a considered moment, he did add, “though they usually ask first. I mean, it’d be voluntary, typically. Hrrum.”

###

They arrived at the white and ochre tent, but found no sign of anyone inside except for one of Samarakantha’s strange woody faced, grassy haired servants. The creature indeed seemed to have been expecting them, and was waiting for them. It breathed out in its hissing, rattling voice, “Be welcome, so says the master of the bells. Be at ease, so says he. Food is freely provended, so do we do.” A resentful snarl followed.

Keri and Caewen helped Keru onto a pile of cushions. He fell asleep immediately. In the light of the oil lamps he looked more peaceful than pained, despite his angry dark bruises and scabbing cuts.

With a slight sigh, Keri said, “Yeah, I’m staying put. Are you really sure you want to go out there?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” She looked around. “Though I will at least go armed this time. I was too casual today.” She frowned. “I guess I really didn’t expect trouble in the maze.” Another glance around. “And I wonder where Samarkarantha and Pel are? I wouldn’t have thought they would be out of the tent.” She had something to talk to Pel about too. A puzzled twinge strung itself through her thoughts. “If this really is a night for the night-worshippers, shouldn’t those two be here, inside, keeping safe?”

Dapplegrim had managed to push his head and neck through the tent flap. He huffed out a snort, which was presumably meant to be agreement. As Caewen went to fetch her sword from where it was standing against a wooden stool, Keri wrinkled her face into a sudden awkward expression.  “Wait a moment, you left your sword behind? I didn’t even notice… but then… how did you… that is, how did you kill the two men in the maze? They were armed. One of them had an axe.”

“Ah, well.” Caewen shifted uncomfortably as she looped the leather belt around her waist. “I’d rather not discuss it, if that’s alright? There’s nothing mysterious abut it. Nothing like that.” She turned over some words in her head before saying, “It would just be unpleasant to talk about. That’s all. Maybe later? Just give me a day or two.”

“Right. I see. Later then. Very well.” Keri looked as if she was a bit less certain of her new friend. She looked at Dapplegrim then too, and maybe she was wondering if there was something deeper and darker to Caewen than she had supposed. “Well, I guess I’ll see you both when you get back. I suppose.”

Fair Upon the Tor #52 (updates Mondays)

His eyes opened wide: jarringly awake and alert. “Ow! What in the all the earth’s fire–?”

“This is made the spit and blood of a sea-foam hydra.” Quinnya dribbled more of the stuff into his cuts. “Also, wine from vines in the gardens of the Temple of the Silver Dusk, ashes from the funeral pyre of a respected healer, and other more subtle ingredients. It’ll staunch the blood loss and do something to stave off mortification. After a good sleep you’ll find the cuts are more healed than they would be in the natural course of hours. Though you will find yourself with a few scars,” she added, indicating the gash above his left eye. “Lucky you’ve a thick skull, well.”

Despite the medicine, the grogginess of blood-loss was swift in regathering itself into Keru’s eyes. He was soon slurring his words again, sounding almost drunk as he said, “Smells sweet.”

Quinnya nodded. “Hmmm. It does.” She looked up then, first at Keru, then Caewen and finally over at Dapplegrim. “I was certain you were of the night-relam, given your companion there.”

“I’m in no-one’s realm,” she said.

“I can see that. I have eyes, and I have ears. I’m no fool. Which may not be true of you.” Hitching up her black dress, white strips of rune-marked fabric ruffling, she got up with a wince of middle-aged joints. “All of you might as well listen, though I don’t know if you will. My sorcery is the sorcery of the storm and wind, sky, squalls and lightning. I have no alliance either, not today, not tonight. The storm rages at noon. The storm rages at midnight. It has no allegiances. And my life has been a long hard road.” She chuckled, quietly. “I’ve a few striking scars of my own, though I keep them covered. But, I am also the officiator of the maze because I am neutral in all matters. I am trusted because of it.” She put away the bottle of the silvery dark wine and blood. “I have lived a long life only through the application of care and considered action. You–all of you–need to understand that you are nothing but trivial pawns in a great war, and yet, unaligned magicians are also a nuisance. A wild element in the vast games of the Sun and the Night Sky. If the great powers perceive a reason to expunge you, imprison, or execute: they will. Be assured of it. They will not pause for a moment.” She looked around at them. “You think me a nuisance too, well. But those who walk the third path would do well to follow my example. Do not cause a fuss. Do not kick waves from the shore. Do not draw attention from the magicians of night, nor of day. They will only find you aggrieving in the end, and eventually, you will be aggrieved by them.”

She cast a quick glance over the flame-lit hillside, to Sgeirr, who was standing in a ruddy glow of light, fuming to look at now, her cheeks bright red, her eyes thin slits of rage. She must have guessed the reason that her companions had not emerged. Past her, the lion and the old icy magician-king had since stood up, and were now departing. It seemed they did know when there was no reason to remain waiting. They knew the two men were dead. anyone who watched them walk off knew the truth of it. But Quinnya just made a clucking noise at the back of her throat. “When a princess of a powerful kingdom–who comes of a long line of respected sorcerers–when she complains to me of falsehoods and trickery, I take the complaint seriously. As I must.” She looked at Caewen and her friends. “When some sorry excuses for half-wit witchingfolk present themselves, I do my best to steer them onto paths that are less likely to lead to untimely death. Though I can’t say I’ve done much to help you, have I? I did try.”

“Help us?” said Caewen. “You’ve insulted, belittled and done nothing but put walls the way.”

“And if you had delayed yourself by seven years, you would be older, wiser, and at this moment, you would very likely not have a deadly enemy wanting your head on a plate, young lady. The three of you–“

“–four,” interrupted Dapplegrim, with a snort.

“Four. Fine, yes. Four. The four of you have some serious enemies now. I don’t know how you conspired to murder two prentice magians in the maze without invoking retribution, and to be frank, I don’t want to know.”

“Actually,” Keri started, “it was those two who–“

“Uh uh uh uh uh… I said I don’t want to know.” A long draw of breath. “Now, if you will gather yourselves up, your friend here needs his rest, and you need to be out of the night. For payment, I ask nothing. I am bound to help, as I said.” She nodded at the darkness. “The Festival of the Uncreated Night has already begun, and our dear and lovely Princess Sgeirr will no doubt be wracking her head for ways to have you lot dead before dawn. Am I clear on this?”

None of them answered. Caewen looked at the ground, and scuffed a toe of her shoe through a rank tuft of grass.

“Well?” said Quinnya.

“Yes,” they muttered, except for Keru who seemed too giddy from blood loss to understand quite what was happening. He just craned his head back and said, “I feel like my toes are all made of sparkles.”

Quinnya looked at the sky. “Fine. Get along with you. I don’t want to hear anything more of you, not any of you. If you go about breaking more rules, and if the Goddess does not see fit to punish you for some reason, it will fall to an officiator of the moot to carry out justice upon you. Given my luck of late, I expect it will probably be me. That would be unpleasant for me.” She paused a moment, then added, “though not nearly so unpleasant as it will be for you.”

Fair Upon the Tor #51 (updates Mondays)

Caewen could not bring herself to be angry. She felt only flat, worn out, coldly irritated. “There was no cheating.”

Quinnya said nothing, but stared in her off-kilter way, as if by staring she would force Caewen into some sort of blubbering apology and confession.

“If there is nothing else?” said Caewen. “I would like to go to my friend. He’s just come out of the maze, from the looks of it, and–“

“Yes. There is. One thing else,” snapped Quinnya. “He must stay here. On the outside of the line of flames. I have already warned him twice. This makes the third.”

“Fine, fine.” Caewen turned to Dapplegrim. “You don’t mind waiting a moment longer? We’ll get the greeting done quickly, and have Keru back here, then back to the tent.”

Dapplegrim snorted, not taking his eyes off the iron-grey magess. At this Caewen suppressed another irritated sigh. She said to him, “Alright then. I’ll take that as an indication that you are not going to try and eat Lady Quinnya.”

To this the old mage simply narrowed her eyes. “Oh no, please let him try.”

Caewen walked away from them both, shaking her head. Does magic drive people insane? What was the matter with all these wizardly sorts? It really was as if casting spells made people odd in the head. And maybe it did? The only other magician she knew at all vaguely well was Mannagarm, and he had never seemed totally collected and sane. The winter-warlock Vespertine had not been right in the head either, in her opinion… although he had done a better job of faking a sane mind perhaps. Or maybe, she realised–well, perhaps she had it the wrong way around? Maybe it was only borderline lunatics who thought spellwork was an awfully good idea in the first place? That made as much sense as the other possibility.

The grass was turning damp under the expanding night, and the long sweeping reflections of blazing red cast from torches and fires danced out before her. Keri was already at her brother’s side, and there did seem to be something wrong. Keru was bent forward, and it looked like he was relying on his sister to stand. When Caewen reached them, she found herself speechless, first with shock, then anger. Blood, thick and reddish black in the dim light, caked Keru’s face and neck, and several savage gashes cut his arms and right shoulder, visible through the hacked rents in his clothing.

“Hello,” said Keru, smiling. His teeth had caught some small trickles of blood between them. “Sorry I took my time. Ran into someone who thought I’d be better off staying in the maze.”

Keri had a smouldering fire in her voice. “It was that two bastards, Sgeirr’s retainers. The Modsarie. They attacked him.”

“But I got away,” said Keru. He tried to straighten up, but had difficulty. His eyes looked like they were swimming, and his skin seemed bloodless under the dark tan of his complexion. He gave Caewen an odd look, and said, “Hey there. You’re looking lovely.”

His sister snapped at him. “Oh, shut up, Keru.”

The boy shook his head, dizzily.

Keri then said, “He’s lost a lot of blood. We need to get him to the welcomers quick, and then to someone with the healer’s knack, right away. These rags are barely holding the bleeding.” She was right. Keru had torn strips from his tunic to bandage the worst cuts, but the redness was welling out, like a thick juice from rotten fruit.

“Come on,” said Keri. “Get on his other side.”

Caewen lifted Keru’s right arm, and eased her shoulder under it. Together, they managed the long, uphill walk to the stone dais where the talking lion and the old icy man were seated, silent, watchful. Neither of them bothered to try and tempt Keru to their side in the endless war. They seemed to implicitly expect that the Forsetti would go their own way, and they spun out neither argument nor enticement. The lion only said, “Peace be upon you,” and then, “go and speak to Quinnya before you go.”

“Must we?” muttered Caewen, but Athmis growled low in this throat, rumbling a sound that seemed to assure that yes, this was required.

Of course Quinnya was not hard to find. She was still standing beside Dapplegrim, her arms folded, and her hard eyes full of a cold, stormy light. As the three of them hobbled towards her, they left a trail of crushed grass and bloody drops.

She shook her head, and looked skyward, before saying, “Put him down. I am bound to help those who come out of the maze, hale or injured, though it is few enough who are fool enough to get themselves this injured. What did you do? Try to climb over the walls to find a quicker way through? I expect you discovered that the maze dislikes clever clogs.”

“No,” wheezed Keru. “Attacked.”

At that Quinnya stopped, and her face froze into a closed waxy visage. “Attacked by what?”

“By whom, you mean,” said Keri as they lowered her brother to the grass. “It was those two retainers of Sgeirr.” She sniffed, and wiped some of her brother’s blood from her hands. “But they are dead now, so that is that.”

“Are they now?” asked Quinnya.

“They are.” Perhaps Caewen was a little too definite in answering. The old magess looked at her oddly, before arranging herself beside Keru and kneeling down. She lifted one of his eyelids and then the other, felt his right hand, and placed her hand over his heart. “There’s a lot of blood gone out of him,” she said, but followed this with a quieter, “Yet he will live. He is young and strong. Here now…” She fetched a small glass vial out of a pouch, held it up to the night sky as if trying to peer through it against darkness and clouds, then uncorked it. A smell of wet flowers suffused the air. “On it goes,” Quinnya said, tipping the bottle upside-down, and dashing droplets of a silvery grey liquor into Keru’s wounds. He winced.

Fair Upon the Tor #50 (updates Mondays)

As she turned to go, she felt their eyes on her back, along with the stares of those wizards and witches who were still lingering at the fringes of the space. There were muttered whispers, coughs and questioning stares. Caewen and Keri started off towards Dapplegrim. “Is it unusual? Not taking a side?”

“Reasonably, yeah. Most people want the safety of one faction or the other, even if only in some vague way. I suppose because you came out of the Locked Door, people thought you might make more of a show of things too. That was rather understated.” She threw a sideways glance. “Of course, you’re on your own now, too, without allies. Anyone might have a go at you.” A slight frown. “Outside the moot of course. I wonder what has happened to Keru? Curse the shrine, the blood and the ochre. And curse Keru too if he’s just dawdling.” She was sounding afraid and frustrated. “Where is he?”

Caewen frowned too then, and tried to think what to say. “You know, it may not be a terrible thing if he takes a long time to walk the maze. I mean, it sort of seemed to me that the maze was a kind of symbol for life. Maybe that sounds stupid… but I don’t know. If he takes a long time to walk the maze, maybe that only means he’ll live to a ripe old age? It makes sense to me.” She looked over her shoulder. “The big pussy cat and the king haven’t moved. They’re still waiting. They would know if there was no point in waiting any longer, wouldn’t they?”

“Pussy cat?” Keri’s eyes lit up. She pinned down a laugh, trying not to let it squirm free. “Caewen, that’s a Sakhmis.”

“He said that. Is that the name of the kind of cat? I mean, he’s obviously some sort of huge magical moggie, but are there others like him?”

Keri laughed out loud now, not able or willing to suppress the amusement. “Huge magical moggie? Oh, multitudes of the fern and tree: if only he could hear you say that. I’d love to see his reaction.” She seemed to be appreciating the distraction, and gave out a happier sigh. “It’s not a giant house cat. A Sakhmis is a strain of lion, but bigger, and possessing the power of speech. We have wolves and bears around these hills that are like that. Speaking wolves and thinking, talking bears. Far more dangerous than the usual sort of wolf or bear. A Sakhmis is the same; a talking, thinking lion, and far more dangerous than an everyday lion. Which is itself very dangerous indeed.”

“Oh. I see.” She tried to remember what lions were supposed to look like. “Yes. Lions. I’ve seen pictures carved on goblets, and in embroideries too, I think. I imagined a lion would look different. I don’t quite know how… just different.”

“Goldsmiths, scrimshaw cutters and cloth-stitchers probably aren’t the best sources for discovering out how a thing looks. I mean, think how is a raven usually depicted? …or a dog? …or a goat? I don’t think you could tell a raven from a sparrow, just from an etching, or a bit of embroidery.”

“That’s true enough.”

They were nearing Dapplegrim now. He was twitching and stamping one hoof. Although he was clearly making an effort to hold still, he couldn’t control his ears, and they swivelled back and forth eagerly. His left hoof had left a trail in the gritty soil.

“Hello there, Dapple,” said Caewen and she went up to him and gave him a hug around his neck.

“Yes. Well. Hur. Hurm. Good to see you too. Was your time in the maze fun?”

“Oh, well, I don’t know if ‘fun’ is the right word, but it was interesting.” A moment of reflection. “Illuminating, anyway.”

“Apparently, she can’t tell us any more than that,” said Keri. “Apparently, there’s some sort of ban or promise, or something. Wink wink. Nod nod. All that stuff.” She sounded as if she were trying to make a joke, but there was still a strain undercutting her voice. Worry was still gnawing through her words.

“Oh, said Dapplegrim. I suppose you must have spoken to the goddess of the hill then? She will have made you promise not to talk about it. Don’t worry I won’t press any more. Not me. Oh no. Hurm. I know what’s what. Gods and goddesses are the worst for making folks promise to to keep secrets. Hur. Hur. Hurm. Bring me this. Sacrifice this other thing. Worship me every twelfth day out of twenty, except in Autumn, when you must worship on the first of the month too. But don’t dare tell anyone.” A ripple of his shoulders and flanks expressed a sentiment in the general remit of a shrug. “That kind of thing.”

“Ahhh…” Said Caewen, unsure if she could even acknowledge that he was in the right general area. “Maybe,” she said. “Do you know whether such bans need to be taken seriously?”

He nodded vigourously. “Oh, yes. Definitely, or at least, as long as you are near the tor. I mean, hurm, the goddess of this place is just a local earth divinity, right? Hurm. So probably her power will diminish at distance.” After a considered length, said again, “probably.”

“I don’t think I’m going to take the risk then. I’m just not going to talk about the details.” Just as she finished saying this, a few stray calls and hollers jumped up from the thinning crowd.

“Look,” yelled Keri, as she turned to the maze. She immediately broke into a run.

“Is it Keru?” said Caewen.

Dapplegrim squinted his deep black eyes. Red-gleams shot through them. “Yes. He’s coming out from one of the middling twilight doors. Clearly not planning to make alliance with Day or Night either, given his door of egress. Hur. Hur. Hurrrm.”

“Come on then,” said Caewen, but as she started after Keri, a tall, angular figure moved to block her, seeming almost to leap out of nowhere. A familiar hard voice, like iron being dragged over stone said, “Not him!” After an almost snarl-like huff, she added, “And you! I want a word with you, if you will deign to speak with me, oh so very important, lady magician.” In the evening gloom and uncertain flicker of firelight, Quinnya’s grey hair was wrought into a wiry storm shot with white glistenings like lightning. Her eyes, sharp and brutally intelligent, fixed on Caewen. Her black dress with its white linen strips pinned to it, stirred and lulled gently against the low cold breeze on the hillside.

“Oh, sons and daughters of Old Night and Chaos.” Dapplegrim rolled his eyes. “Quinnya again. Hello, Quinnya. Nice to see you.” Then, in a whispered aside that was clearly audible. “Actually, it’s not nice to see her. She’s been very rude to me. It was her who stopped me going down into the hollow. Nasty old… hurm… hur… rule-follower.”

“Well, if that is the worse your talking demon-donkey has to say about me, I am complimented. I am old. And the world, such as it is, allows only the sensible to live to old age. I’ve been called worse things than nasty. And yes, I follow the rules.” She turned her glare on Caewen, “which you, it seems, do not. How precisely did you cheat your way onto the path of the great door, well?”

Fair Upon the Tor #49 (updates Mondays)

The two of them, Caewen and Keri, wove a path among the torches and open fires, coming at last to a slight raised knoll atop which there was a small sweep of stone carved into a platform. On this plinth, facing them, were two strange creatures. On their right sat a withered old man, skin all silvery white, eyes grey-blue. A thin frown puckered his lips and his face was pinched into a web of hard lines. The clothing he wore was elaborate, all grey and steel-blue, shimmering like kingly robes, and he wore a crown of black, studded with white burning diamonds. For a confused moment Caewen thought she was looking at the Winter King. This hard, ice-eyed old man with an inscrutable expression was what she imagined the mysterious entity to look like. But the Winter King, whoever or whatever he was, would not be sitting in a frail wooden chair, on a stone dais, greeting people emerging from the prentice’s maze. Or at least, she could not imagine any way in which such a being would be sitting here and not be the stuff of rumour throughout the moot.

Her gaze still somewhat suspiciously lingering on the man dressed in kingly, pale finery, she looked over at the other welcomer. This one was not human at all, nor anything like a human. It was some manner of huge cat, with ruddy fur and a mane of dark, almost charcoal hair around its long, drawn feline visage. A cunning gleam of intellect stood bright in the creature’s eyes, and it made huge deep rumble of a noise in its throat as it eyed her back. Flopping one massive paw over the other, it took a moment to casually lick its fur before saying, “Peace be upon you, supplicant, now risen to full magehood. I am called Athmis the Sakhmis. I am the Day-Greeter.”

A wheezing hiss of a voice then escaped the seated old man, though his lips barely parted. A sound like cold wind in northern pines. “And I am the Night-Greeter, whose name is Hwala, who rules the Woerns.”

They seemed to expect her to speak then, and both looked at her silently, appraisingly.

“Caewen of Drossel,” she ventured.

The gigantic cat shifted its huge body. Long and fat and round like a sausage, it lazed on the stone plinth, looking out from hooded eyes. “The Honour, the Presence, the Heaven-born is with you, O’ Caewen, she who is of Drossel. Thou art surely both heavenly and unsurpassable, for you have passed through the Heart Door, that portal which none do easily pass. Do you yet behold the mystery that is creation? Have you seen the right and the wrong of it? For, we must ask, whom do you serve? I see no coldness or darkness in your soul except that which you have chased away, and made go elsewhere. A demon that once lived inside you, I think. Yet, I smell only warm grass and meadow flowers on your breath. Are you not a creature of daylight? Are you not willing to swear to Our Lady of the Sun?”

“Bah!” spat the withered, frozen king. “You have a northern cast about your features, and you go about with a night-creature, through and through, that demoniac horse-thing of yours. There is icy sorcery in your blood too. Your spirit has indeed cohabited with a spirit of the winters, and though it is not in your flesh now, it has left stark traces. Surely you are among the loyal servants of Old Night and the Queen of Stars and Mysteries? Swear to it, and be welcomed.”

“No,” said Caewen.

The huge maned cat smiled, but she shook her head.

“No, for you too. I am not on either side. I want no part in your endless bickering war. Yes, I do come from the north, but not from so very far north as you guess. Drossel is a small village in the borderlands. We’ve a long memory of armies going this way and that. Drossel has been burned to the ground a dozen times, as the stories go. Both by armies marching north under the banner of the fiery sun, and by armies marching south under the stars and the moon. Your war has brought my family, and my ancestors, my home, nothing but misery. And much of that. I want no part of you, or your thrice-fool war.”

“You pick the third way then?” said the old king, with one eyebrow raised at her.

The cat snorted. “That is the hardest of the paths. If you choose the path of the sun, then I am here to greet you and teach you, protect and instruct. If you choose the path of the moon and stars, then my counterpart, peace be upon him, is here to do the same. But, the other path: that is the path of fires and shadows, green leaves, wild beasts and ocean waves. No one is here to greet you. For those are wild things that will not be ruled, or rule, or form alliance. That is the lonely way.”

“Don’t worry,” said Keri, behind her and at a low whisper. “I choose the way between too. All my people do. We have never taken a side in this either.”

Caewen let herself speak, quietly. “So then there is no one to greet me, or teach me. I’m no worse off than I was before.”

The pallid cold king nodded. “That is true enough.”

“Indeed it is,” rumbled the cat.

“So, may I go now?”

They both gave a slight nod.