Fair Upon the Tor #20 (updates Mondays)

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Then so you will,” said Samarkarantha.

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

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

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

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

Samarkarantha nodded.

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

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

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

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

She sank into the hot bathwater then.

It was very good.

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

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

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

She said nothing, letting it speak.

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

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

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

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

“Return to us our potencies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair Upon the Tor #19 (updates Mondays)

Caewen gave into a mass of unpleasant thoughts as she returned, going via the market, and eventually, back to Samarkarantha’s tent. She stumped through the cold, muddy grass, feeling each heavy tread of her feet.

The thickness of storm-cloud that had been lying over the world was finally deciding to give up some of its rain, though it was still an inconstant and fickle drizzle, never quite deciding to grow into the heavy wet droplets that the clouds promised. Instead of soaking her, the airy mist fringed her skin, hair and clothing with a haze of cold moisture, making her chilled, deep inside. Her woollens, with their moth-holes and wispy strands, gathered a halo of damp that glowed under lantern-light and itched her skin.

At Samarkarantha’s tent she stopped to look up into the sky, at the churn of clouds and the few peeking stars beyond. Someone, somewhere was singing an even-song, and it was beautiful. A high clear intonation, fit to call blessed spirits down from the moon, or celestial maidens out of their thrones in the stars. There was beauty here too, she reflected. Madness. Strange old laws. Ugliness and fear-wrought things. But also beauty. She would take her mind back to that. Look for the beauty in the world. It is there, she thought, a person only has to see it.

She felt calmer then. The cool air had eased her temper, and there was some tranquility in her thoughts, as she pushed the tent open, as she heard friendly voices, and smelled food and incense.

“Caewen!” It was Keri. She jumped up from where she had been sitting beside her brother. She crossed the space between them at speed but slowed down enough to avoid knocking Caewen over. “I don’t know how to thank you,” she said, and hugged her with a solid grip of an embrace. “My stupid brother would be dead,” she said then, quieter.

“How is he?”

“Resting. Keru will live.”

“I did the running,” said Dapplegrim, behind them.

“Yes.” Keri sounded both amused and irritated. “And I’ve already told you I’m grateful for it.”

“I just want to put it out there. Hurm. There wouldn’t have been any saving without me. Me. Dapplegrim. The nasty shadow demon horse,” though as he spoke, he was looking sideways at Peloxanna, where she was relaxing with a cup of wine in the corner, eying everyone in silence. She snorted, a tiny, ladylike noise.

Samarkanatha was still seated in his place near the middle of the tent. “Your horse does not merely talk, it is talkative. I hope it knows to be quiet while a person is trying to sleep.”

“Oh, Dapple just likes the attention when he can get it.” Caewen tried on a smile, though it was a touch wan she suspected. She stepped over to Dapplegrim, reaching out and scratching him behind the ears. He grinned, showing all his sharp teeth. She then walked with Keri over to a pile of cushions near Keru. He was stretched out on his back, sound asleep. They sat down. It felt good to be off her feet.

Outside, the wind was rising by degrees. A few straggling lashes of rain crossed the roof of the tent, making it ripple along the underside. Somewhere, far away, thunder grumbled. A few spare moments passed and then the torrent descended. Rain rammed the roof and the earth outside in cold spears. The air temperature noticeably dropped, so that the light down of hairs on Caewen’s arms and legs and the back of her neck prickled up. She pulled off the damp wool jumper and draped it over a table to dry.

It was then that she noticed Peloxanna watching her.

“What?” said Caewen.

But the lady just tilted her head and let her eyelids hood over those golden eyes. “It is like you were raised in a cellar.”

“People keep saying that,” muttered Caewen.

Samarkarantha cut them off. “Ahem. How was your walk? Did it help you put your thoughts in order?”

“Yes. More than I expected. I ran into Fafmuir. We had an interesting exchange.” She related the conversation, and told them about how she had found Fafmuir talking to the supposed assassin. She told them that she was undecided how much of the old man’s words she trusted. Finally, she asked, “Did you know that the triple goddess of this hill demands sacrifices? Human sacrifices?”

“If you refer to the way in which the maze takes walkers from time-to-time,” replied Samarkarantha, “then, yes. We are aware of that. The Lady Pel and myself are not in support of this practise. It is barbaric.” He threw a glance at Peloxanna, who continued to lounge where she was, like a golden cat, and did not take her eyes from Caewen. “But, we are acquitted to it, for the time being.” He gave out a huff of a noise, followed by considered, self-regarding silence. “There is some truth in the belief that we wizards would not come together at all, if there was no guarantee of godly punishment for those who might transgress the old laws. It is fair to say that many–not all–but many of we whom tread the pathways of spellcraft, the art and the way of charms, many of us, are driven by a desire for power, greater and greater, without limit. There are some of us who live in absolute terror of what their fellow magicians might stoop to, in order to steal secrets or treasures.” He allowed himself a moment to take a drink before continuing. “So, yes. It is not in the way of my people to offer human lives to any god or spirit. And yet, this is an old law, and the seven year moot has been thus for a long many years. It is difficult to see an end to it.”

“Keri,” what do you think? Aren’t you worried about walking the maze? Aren’t you worried about vanishing?”

“I was,” she confessed, “but I did the maze and was granted my magehood back at the last moot. I was still a girl, but I did it, and came through alright.” She shrugged. “I guess it wasn’t so bad, looking back. It’s not difficult. And we’re only here for this moot because Keru is going to walk the paths tomorrow. He not much of a magician, but boys will tend to get grand ideas about themselves.”

“So aren’t you worried for him then?” She looked at Keru, snoring gently in his half-enchanted sleep. “I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying he seems likely to charge into trouble. If there’s trouble to be found.”

“Oh, but Keru’s safe. Of course he won’t be taken.”

“Why?”

“Did old Fafmuir not explain?” said Samarkarantha, uncomfortable.

There was an tense absence of words around the group that grew more tense as it drew out. Finally, it was Peloxanna who spoke. “What they don’t want to tell you, is that only young woman and girls are taken by the maze. Not boys. Not men. And if you have given birth to a child, you are safe too. So, maybe, if you are afraid, Caewen, well… maybe you should get yourself with a screaming little brat, and come back seven year’s hence. You’d be safe enough then.” She followed this with a feline smile. “I’m sure if I asked around I could find some fellow who would lower himself to helping out in that respect.”

Caewen didn’t rise to Pel’s taunt. She was too angry. “What? The maze only takes young women? How can any of you stand for this? It’s… that’s…” she grasped around for words, but said int he end, limply, “Well, it’s not fair, is it?”

The people around the tent remained silent. Samarkarantha shifted and looked at his knuckles. Keri seemed embarrassed. Only Lady Pel was smiling, a nasty, small smile.

The rain was falling heavier now. A storm was coming down outside. The ground would be mud by morning.

“That’s so much worse,” said Caewen. “It’s bad enough to let the goddesses take human life. But the rotten old wizards and all the foul old men of this place never even had to take any risk at all? Fafmuir told me he walked the maze when he was young, and he said it wasn’t so bad… but of course it wasn’t bad for him. He was never under any threat.” She sat a little more upright, scowling. “What happens if there are no young woman wanting to walk the maze-ways? Do they force some girl to go in, to satisfy the bargain?”

“Well,” said Keri, “that hasn’t happened–not in a very long time–so far as I know. There’s always someone who wants a grasp at magehood. Always a lot of someones. Boys and girls. Male and female.”

“So, then, I don’t suppose you will be walking the labyrinth tomorrow?” said Pel, her voice a subtle purr. “It seems that you object.”

Caewen hunched up her shoulders. She frowned at the ground, and picked at one of the holes in her clothing that the moths had left her. “No. Well. Yes. I promised someone I would speak at the moot, and to speak I have to walk the maze first. Unless Fafmuir was being deceitful on that count too?”

Samarkarantha shook his head. “No. On that, he was plainspoken and honest. It is the rule of the moot. Only accepted and sworn magi may get up on the stump and speak. Of course, whether anyone will listen, that is another matter. Magicians like to sound wise more than they like to listen to wisdom.”

“The maze is something I’ll have to risk then.”

Fair Upon the Tor #18 (updates Mondays)

“Oh, it’s not all so terribly perilous as that. The maze-walking is mostly ceremonial, you see. A representation of the twisting path of life. It’s easy, really. We’ve all done it. I did it, when I was much younger. There is only one entrance, true, but the maze has many out-ways. Much as does life. We are all born of a mother’s womb, but life may take us upon different paths, and to different exits.” A friendly, forthright tone crept up in his voice. A spiderweb of wrinkles creased his face. “There will be other supplicants walking the maze tomorrow. If you present yourself at the carven gate, they’ll give you a numbered lot, and call you at your appointed time.”

“And then what? I just walk around until we find a way out?”

“Well. More or less.”

“More or less?” she asked.

He cleared his voice, sounding less comfortable. The lump of his throat bobbed. “Very rarely, you see, and it is very rarely, a person does not, as it were, actually come out the other end. The local divinities of the tor do require a payment for their benediction upon this place, and the moot, and the gathering. Usually, it is no more than one life per moot, but the Three Who are One, well, they can be inscrutable and moody. In some moots, several maze-walkers vanish. In other moots, everyone passes through the labyrinth safely, dandy as you like.”

She considered this new piece of information, and felt heat rising at her collar, and a prickling against the skin of her hands and arms. She felt a hard anger mottling and spreading inside. “The goddesses of this place demand sacrifices? Of people?”

“If you insist on framing it like that, yes. It is a payment. An exchange. A very ancient one.”

“And for what exactly? Watching over you? I haven’t seen the goddesses actually do anything. That is, other than baking bread and leaving old men to die in hovels.”

He stared intently at her, apparently picking his next words carefully. “At some point, you will need to explain what you mean by that. You are a strange one. But… as regards them who watch, the Three Ladies do indeed watch over us here, but their work is to protect us from ourselves. They ensure the old laws of the moot are upheld. They ensure that peace is maintained whilst the moot gathers. You must remember: magicians from all over the world come here, to this misery of a spur, in the midst of wilderness and nothing. And they come here with a mind to connive, deal, bargain, entrap, outwit and outflank each other. Can you imagine the insanity if there was not a firm, unbreakable rule of peace upon this place? Magicians are nothing if not quarrelsome.” He tutted. “Half of them are half-mad, and the other half simply don’t half-like each other.” He turned her a small, playful smile. “Without the governing hand of the three goddesses, and the promise of retribution for the breaking of laws, this moot would devolve into murder, fast.”

“And what are you then? Half-mad or half-unfriendly?”

“Oh, you must allow for complexity.” He winked. “I may be a little of both. We are not simple creatures. We are all a mess of passing moods, prejudices, engrained habits, irrational wants and fears, whims and wishes. A person may have many troublesome qualities. There is no reason to lack ambition and limit oneself to just the one unpleasantness.” He smiled, then sputtered, “Oh, stop looking so serious. I’m joking.” He rolled his eyes then.

“You’ve an odd sense of humour.”

“You’ve an odd sense of seriousness,” he countered.

They were drawing closer to a large but otherwise plain canopy, with flowers growing in cut barrels arranged outside it. A noise of quiet birdsong moved inside the tent, and well before they stopped, Caewen had a strong sense that this was Fafmuir’s lodging. As they arrived at the flower barrels, he went up to a flap and pushed it open. “Ah, all my children are well then.” She looked over his shoulder and saw birds flitting around the inside of the tent, a few were brightly feathered, but most were small, drab, speckled and mottled. They were the sorts of small beige bird that hides in the ferns and bushes and hunts spiders. All of them were singing softly and sweetly. On the floor of the tent, several children were playing underneath this canopy of canvas and birdsong. There were clearly no blood relations to Fafmuir among the children. They were drawn from all manner of cast and build. None of them would have been any older than ten, Caewen thought, though this was only a guess. They all jumped up, delighted, when they saw Fafmuir.

“Unci Fafmy,” one of them yelled.

Another, a young girl, ran towards him, colliding into his knees with a ferocious hug.

Fafmuir scrubbed her on her head, mussing up her hair as he said, “How are we all doing then? No mishaps I hope?”

A ringing chime of voices answered, happily.

Caewen looked over the children then asked, in a low voice, “Apprentices?”

“No. Orphans. Of a sort, at least. Over the years, I have got myself a reputation for taking in children who have developed, erm, a ‘talent’ that has made them unwelcome in their homes.” He spoke much more quietly, when he said, “Some of these children are extraordinarily dangerous when they lose control of themselves. Little Egalia here had a penchant for conjuring spirits and transmutation of flesh that is altogether too skilful for her age. Clent over there can prise open a path into one of the voids that exist between worlds when he is upset; shadows and serpent-shades of darkness creep out and swarm the earth around him if he has a tantrum. The little boy with the black curly hair is Drangut. He has a talent for sorcery of leaf and tree. If his tears wet the earth, they sprout thorny vines that strangle whatever, or whoever, has upset him. So, I take in children who have developed an innate and blood-born talent for sorcery, but lack the control and discipline of an adult understanding.” More quietly, he said, “If not for me, most of these children would otherwise meet an grisly end by strangling, or drowning, or burning on a pyre. Some of them have killed their own families without any comprehension of what they did, or how. Most have nightmares.”

“I didn’t know there were such children,” said Caewen.

“They are rare. Old bloodlines of magic trickle down to us through the years. Natural talents for a gimmick or spell rear up every now and then.”

“Oh. Like the dragon-tongue who was killed when the cage fell. He could speak to dragons by ancestry. Didn’t you say that?”

“Yes. Like him.” He held onto that thought for a moment, before hurrying it away and saying, “But, someone has to look after these children, and often enough, that someone is me.” After a pause he said, more thoughtfully, “You see? I am not such a monster after all. Just an old man trying to do his best by the world.”

She looked around the tent with the playing children and the songbirds flitting overhead. Maybe she was judging old Fafmuir unfairly? She counted eight children of various ages. The oldest of them might have been getting onto twelve. That one looked more serious than the others, and seemed to have been looking after a toddler who was stumbling around at his feet. He threw a half-smile to Fafmuir and said, “Evening, Lord-Magi. We’re all fine and well.”

“Isn’t it dangerous to leave them alone?”

“No. No. I have wards and a spells bound tight on this tent. The flitting and voices of the songbirds hold my magic firmly. These wayward children of mine would have a hard time working any magic in her. Even a great arch-wizard would have a hard time of witching work under this canopy.”

“Hm,” she said, paying only scant attention, looking around the tent. It was well appointed with small beds and cots, rugs and furnishings. In one corner was an oddly shaped brazier that seemed to be a tripod-legged bowl of coals with a rudely shaped brazen head emerging out of the midst, like a swimmer coming up through sun-glinted waters for a breath. The rest of the light and warmth came from hanging lanterns in the shapes of flying birds.

“Well, Caewen, thank you for the walk and the conversation. I should be retiring, I think. And you should too. You ought to get a good night’s sleep. After all, if you decide to walk the labyrinth tomorrow, you will want to be rested.”

“About that… I don’t think I have any good reason to walk the maze. I’ve only come to the moot to keep a promise. I will say my piece at the moot, and then I’ll be done with all of this madness. I didn’t come here to become a magician. I don’t think I should like to be one, to be honest. It seems to turn people’s minds, a bit. No insult intended.”

“None taken. I’m quite aware of my peculiarities.” He smiled his gnomish smile. “But, I have to conjecture that, ah, well… I am sorry, but I think you do have a reason to walk the maze. Only oath-sworn magicians are permitted to speak at the moot. If you want to address the gathering, you will have to walk the maze first, swear to keep to the old laws, and only then will you be allotted a time to speak.”

She looked at him blankly, and then, remembering the children, she did not swear like a lame-footed swineherd in a pigsty.

Fair Upon the Tor # 17 (updates Mondays)

“Yes, yes, holding a favour over you, but really? You must think me some sort of monster. I have no desire to extract any kind of horrid recompense.” He sighed. “For a wizard in my position, well, it is always useful to have a few favours up one’s sleeve. That is all.” He looked past her, passively, into the crowd. “Now, I have to get back to my lodgings. I can leave you here, brooding in the dark, and dreaming up suspicions, if you wish. Or you may walk with me, if you like. I’d be glad for the company, but it is quite up to you.”

She thought this over and said, “Alright,” though, as she spoke she folded her arms, narrowed her gaze. “I’ll walk with you for a bit.” She noticed that he did not ask her to go with him. A request, put directly, might have been construed as a favour, and despite a guileless, even jolly tone to his voice, the words had been carefully picked. It was difficult not to maintain a little of her steady brittleness towards the old magician.

He smiled at her, his look fringing on exasperation. “Oh, be glum then. Still, someone to talk to when out strolling is always appreciated. This way.” He half-trotted, half-waddled over the silver-lit grass, cutting a path uphill, towards a low shadow-green brow where the largest and most impressive pavilions stood. “I suppose you are sensible to wonder about me. I don’t take any deep umbrage over it. After all, it is rather a strange moot this year. It is your first year attending the wizard’s moot, isn’t it? You have that callow look about you.” He breathed out a huff of air, noisily. “Well, you’ve chosen to attend a moot that has quite its share of suspect things.” A glance upward, at the lowering sky. “Have you noticed that there are no draig-riders? The knights with their winged draigonets are absent. Indeed all four of the princes of Sorthe are noticeably missing, and they would usually come riding on royal draigonet beasts too.” He seemed to turn this over in his head, before saying. Now, it is true that Sorthelanders are inclined to their own machinations, so maybe there is murder and plotting afoot up north? It has happened before that the princes of Sorthe were too busy murdering each other to attend the moot… and yet, the Grand Old Lady of Embers is still missing. Cag-Mag Twelveshadows has turned up, late, and seems to be in a foul mood. I can’t get from her any reason why. I called on her tent, and she wouldn’t receive me. I had to actually accost her in the market to have some words. Whatever made her late, she is being tight-lipped about it. There was that accident with that caged wurum-o’-muirs. Also rather suspicious, to my mind.”

“It did happen all very quickly,” said Caewen.

“He looked at her oddly. “Oh, yes. Of course. I forgot. You were there, naturally. Your friend’s poisoning.”

“Yes. I saw the wagon roll past me. The cage seemed solidly tied down. Then, just a few moments later, it wasn’t.”

His brow furrowed. “Rather odd?” he said. “Doesn’t it seem?”

“I suppose so. Yes. I wondered at the time. But I don’t know how the creature could have got loose, except by accident.”

“Nor do I.” Though with a sly wink he added, “Well, unless you consider the possibility that accident may bleed into purpose. And magic might be involved. I mean, that sort of thing is rare, though isn’t it? It’s not like there’s several hundred magicians all gathered in one the place, all trying to out-wheedle each other. Is it?”

She glared at him.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be mocking, but it is all–as I have said–suspicious.” He waved a hand about, palm up. “A chain comes loose with no warning and a number of magicians are killed. And that’s not the only freak accident. Eight folk were killed yesterday when their tent caught fire. The flames spread extraordinarily fast, by all accounts. Almost as if the fire was fed by oil or spell. Here now.” A friendlier note returned, sliding into his voice. “I meant to ask. Are you planning to walk the maze? You are in time for it, assuming you did want to petition the moot for full and rightful magehood. You have a little magic in your blood.” He scrunched up his nose and pressed his lips into a line, as if he were considering whether he liked the smell of something dubious. “Cold feeling. Wintry magic. Not to my taste, as far as a cup of brew goes, but there are plenty of winter-witches about. You might join a coven, or something? Assuming you walk the maze without incident.”

“Um,” admitted Caewen, “well, that is, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Maze? Magehood? I’m sorry. I don’t know much about anything that goes on in a wizard meeting.” She shrugged her threadbare cloak up on her shoulders, rucking folds of linen right up to her earlobes. “Or anything much about the world, truthfully. Except when to plant swedes and cabbage, and how to set out a poison mash for granary rats.”

“Where did you grow up? In a root-cellar?” There was a joking light in his eyes.

“Well, actually, yes. More or less.” She tried to nudge a lighter tone into her voice, but did not succeed. The memory of damp and darkness, with a constant fear of the old witch-chief on the hill–the sense of oppression was still too fresh in her feelings and thoughts.

He arched a brow at her. “I see. One day, when we have more time and less mistrust between us, you will have to tell me that tale. Anyway. So. Well, yes. There is an rock-cut maze dug into the skirts of the great tor. No one knows for certain who built it. The maze-way has been here for time out of mind. Some of our very oldest surviving texts and chronicles claim that the labyrinth was here before people came into these lands. I have read one account in which the first people to come here found a race of hairy, squat things with catlike eyes living around the tor; performing unwholesome rituals; and so the people killed the creatures with spear and fire.” He made a sort of low, uncertain sound in his throat. “And perhaps that is true. Maybe a long dead folk did build the maze? Or maybe the three enchantress-goddesses of the tor caused it to be made with their arts, or their priesthood did, centuries ago? In any instance, the maze is a place special to magic. Enchantment and illusion curdle the air thickly there. The longstanding tradition of the moot is that anyone who wishes to present to the council; anyone who wishes to be avowed to the old laws and agreements of magic; sworn and recognised as a mage fullblooded; well then, such a person must first walk the labyrinth.” he winked. “And come out the other side.” He indicated towards the dark mass of the hill with a hand. “All supplicants to magehood will walk the dark ways, and find their own path to the glen of the roots and stump, up there, up on the hillside. The gateway into the maze is down at the base.”

“That doesn’t sound at all dangerous,” said Caewen, flatly. “You send children and apprentices into a tangle of bewitched tunnels? Alone?”

Fair Upon the For #16 (updates Mondays)

It wasn’t hard to shadow along after the little old magician. Even if he had looked her way, the crowd would have done a good job of hiding her. She watched him furtively, through gaps in the milling people. At a crossways in the market, Fafmuir stopped, cast a hard glance around himself and seemed to identify what he was searching for. He took off into an abrupt, straight line, directly up to a thin, stoop-shouldered man who wore a greasy leather skull-cap and drab workmanlike clothing. This skinny fellow, who looked like nothing so much as a travelling whitesmith down on his luck, raised a broom-thin arm, pointed and said something that was too quiet for Caewen to make out. The magician, Fafmuir, nodded and turned away, plunging into the crowd again, this time with a renewed energy. Caewen kept trailing him.

It was not long before she saw the wizard’s new destination. A rough and ready drinking canopy had been set up at this end of the market. There were barrels, tapped and giving out a sudsy looking beverage. Probably a cheap ale, given the sheepy, fatty stink and sallow-tan colour of the liquid. A good number of folk with mismatched faces were sitting around on equally mismatched furniture, drinking and talking, passing the time. One of them, she saw, sat by himself at the far end of things. The wizard Fafmuir immediately ambled towards the lone drinker, and as Fafmuir approached, the man looked up, shifting uncomfortably. Caewen studied him from her place of vantage. He was long-limbed, rangy and sat sprawled, legs wide. He was sitting in a way that village bullies sometimes do, making himself look as if he owned the air and space around him. He wore a splotched and old pale grey cloak. The hood was hauled forward, concealing his features. He wore black gloves too, so that almost nothing of his skin was visible. He looked familiar to Caewen, though she couldn’t place where she had last seen him. The thought niggled at her. She had definitely seen him somewhere recently, but where?

The old wizard stopped squarely in front of this lanky, stand-offish man. Planting himself directly in the drinker’s line of sight, Fafmuir continued to whistle his bird-songs, stringing out the last few notes into a irritating tenseness. While Fafmuir was whistling, the man in the cloak simply sat still and waited, looking increasingly uncomfortable. When the song finished, old Fafmuir cleared his throat, his face expressionless. They had words then, or at least Fafmuir did. He seemed to start off friendly enough, but grew angry quickly, his face colouring as he spoke. Finally, he waved a hand at the hooded man, and it was a disdainful, dismissive gesture. The man in the pale cloak stood, his whole body clearly bristling. He hunched his shoulders and scuffed away into the darkness. He went off in such a wretched huff that he left his drink behind, mostly untouched.

Caewen heard Fafmuir say, briskly, and seemingly to himself, “Ah, and be gone with you!” She waited. He still had his back turned in her direction, and had not yet seen her. She might have tried to slip away, and perhaps she easily could have twisted off into one of the dark recesses of the night market, behind some tent or awning. She decided not to. She was too curious, and maybe, perhaps, also a little too drunk still for her own good. And still annoyed with Fafmuir from their earlier encounter.

She moved quietly into the open space in front of the drinking yard, and put herself right in old Fafmuir’s path as he made his way back the way he had come. He did not see her at all, and actually, he had to pull up short to avoid walking right into her. At first he said, “Excuse me,” in a soft voice, but looked again, and recognised her. “Oh. It’s the young woman with the poisoned friend and the demonic horse. Wotcha,” he said, amiably. His smile, which never quite did seem to fully leave his face, broadened.

“What was that all about?” she asked. “Are you in the habit of going around threatening people?”

“What? Oh? Him?” He gave a soft under-breath chuckle. “No, no. You’re mistaking threats for warnings. I was talking to him sternly, oh yes, but stern would be only a light ticking-off for that one. He is a well known and reputed assassin. People call him Master Squint. I don’t know his real name. No one does.” He shrugged, and his face passed through a funny little twisted expression. “I heard rumours that he was drifting around the moot, and went to find him. If an assassin such as Squint is in a place, it is sensible to consider the possibility that he is being paid to be there. It is sensible to tell him that he is known, and he is being watched, and, furthermore, if he is on a ‘job’, such as it may be, he ought to quit it, and leave.” His smile slipped for a moment into a gusting moment of cordial seriousness. He sounded as if he was giving advice to a younger relative as he said, “Best not get involved.”

“Really? And who appointed you overseer and constable of the moot then?”

He seemed at first flummoxed, then, with a look of realisation said, “Oh, you meant that rhetorically?” His small, gnome-like grin returned. “You don’t know my position?” His laughter was small and inward sounding. “Why the peerage did, of course. I was voted to the Broadtable out of the factions devoted to Our Lady who is the Light of Day, and quite comfortably.”

She had to step through this in her head. “Hold on,” she said. “You mean by that…? You’re on the Broadtable? You’re one of the high magicians who govern this…” she waved a hand to try and take it all in, “this… this… mangle of nonsense.”

“Yes, young lady, I quite certainly am a governor of this mangle of nonsense, as you put it. I hold the position of Archimage to the Broadtable. I am one of three representatives of the Dynasty of the Goddess of Light.” He sighed. “Look here now. Perhaps we have got off on the wrong foot? I didn’t mean to put such a scare into you, but it seems I have. I really do seem to have frightened you half-to-thinking I’m some sort of terror.”

Caewen folded one arm over the other, and looked at him flatly. “I suppose you have, yes. By holding an obligation over me. An obligation that is worth a life, as you put it… well, you’ll forgive me for being mistrustful.”

Fair Upon the Tor #15 (updates Mondays)

“Drossel,” she said, taking the biscuits. She sniffed them, and the hot waft of air made the inside of her mouth water. “Smells good,” she said.

“Drossel, eh? North of here. I’m born and raised in Bernoth, me’self. These are a tradition in Bernoth.” She indicated the biscuits with a nod. “Hot Bernoth knobs. Best dainty in all these hereabout lands.” She smiled wryly. “And don’t give me no lip about baker’s knobs. It’s a joke everyone thinks is funny once, and I heard that joke a lot more than once. They’re called Bernoth knobs, and that’s the end of it. No jibes meant.”

She wasn’t sure how to take that. With a slightly embarrassed smile she said, “Thank you,” and stepped away. “It’s nice to hear a friendly voice here. It’s all so strange.”

“Yes, it would be, wouldn’t it dearie? Here, I did have a question for you though.”

“You did?” said Caewen through a crumbly mouthful of hot biscuit. It was sweet and salty, and had an undercurrent of a spice she’d never tasted before. Looking around, she realised that there was no one else in line behind her. She and the baker-woman were alone.

“Yes, Caewen of Drossel, I did. Now, what I wanted to know, dearie, is why did you turn down the offer of the Deathly One? It was quite the big lump of power to reject, and quite an honour to snub.”

The crumbs turned dry in her mouth. She swallowed what she had been chewing, and tried to gather her thoughts. The woman raised an eyebrow and started to tap time with her fingers on the table.

“Well? Are you mute all at once?”

“May I know your name, before I answer? Seeing as you seem to know mine.”

“Does it matter?”

“I think it may, yes.”

“Hmmm. And maybe it would.” She shrugged, dusted some flour over the table, and started kneading out a lump of dough. There is Herself of the Deathly, who you have met. And there is Herself of the Quickening, who brings about newness and life. And there is Herself of the Everlasting. That latter one, she is concerned with the preserving, the flourishing, the growing of things, the nourishing of things.” She thumped the dough down. “She likes them that nurture and grow. How is that biscuit, by-the-bye?”

“Very good,” said Caewen. It was. “What is the flavour? I’ve never had the like.”

“Tawny cinnum. It’s ground out of a nut that grows in hot jungles a long way from these cold climes. It is very expensive. But old lady Baint, who runs this little bakery-tent, she knows that sometimes good things take time, and expense, and genuine sacrifice. Even little cakes. If they are to be worth eating.”

“It is very nice. I will have to thank missus Baint when she is back in her own head, I think. I haven’t ever eaten anything that tastes quite like this.”

“Well, old Baint knows her work. Makes a good dough. Bakes a good biscuit. She is one of my people.” There was a flicker in her eyes, then, like light passing over a dark pool at the bottom of a glen. “Now, enough of the chit and the chat. I have been polite. You haven’t, I dear say. Need I remind you that I put a question to you?”

“Yes. That is true. You did. But everyone seems to be putting questions to me. I have a hard time keeping track of it all.” She took another bite of a biscuit as she considered her answer. She was not actually very sure what to say. It simply hadn’t seemed like a good bargain. To take power, but end up like the old man in the woods, mad, possessed, owned by some other, more elder voice. Finally, she shrugged and said, “My gut told me not to take it. It just didn’t seem that it’d turn out well for me. And besides, I don’t want power, not like that, not if it means always looking over my shoulder, or having to work awful bloody murder at the whim of some…” she waved a hand, “Spirit, goddess, whatever she is.” Then she added. “Whatever you are.”

“Hmmm. So and so, then. So and so. Well, I was curious. I will visit you more properly, in time. In a form that is more bodily my own. I may have more questions, even. For now, this will do. I imagine my other sister will wish to speak with you too. We were both quite curious about what our Bleak Sister saw in you, after all.” She fixed Caewen with a narrow, hard glance. “I don’t know if I see it myself, but I suppose there might be something there.” Then, the subtle light in her eyes fluttered away, like moths receding into shadow, and the baker-woman was left behind, blinking, a muddle of confusion lining her face. “What? Oh my. I seem to have had a turn.” She leaned against the table.

“Are you alright?” said Caewen.

“Oh, yes. Yes, luv, thank you.” She looked at the hot biscuits in Caewen’s hands, and then down at the collection of coins that she had on the table in front of her. “Now, how’s that for forgetful? I don’t even remember taking your coins, or dolling out your bready knobs. I am getting old. How are thems, the biscuits?” She brushed the coins into a purse, and shook her head.

“Very good,” said Caewen. “Thank you. I like the spice.”

“Well, I do put effort into the baking. As my mother used to say. If it falls to you to bake bready knobs for a living, you might as well bake the best darned bready knobs that there are.” She smiled. “I’ll be here throughout the moot. You want Bernoth knobs, you know where to find me.”

“I do. I will. Thank you, again.” Caewen walked away. She was still hungry, and greedily chewed her way through the rest of the biscuits. The sugar and the buttery, bread-yeast flavour calmed her angry complaining gut. Chewing and swallowing, picking out another of the small breads, she subsumed herself into the bodily experience of it, a distraction from her other dance of worries. For a few moments she had some peace in her head. Only when she was done, licking crumbs and slick grease from her fingertips did she think her way back to the strange goings on, the goddesses, apparitions, or whatever they were, that were haunting her. She rattled a hum around in her throat as she walked, wondering.

Strange spirits. Strange omens. Strange magicians. Rumours and more rumours. She looked about, at the stalls, the glowing lights, the weird market fair. Strange place.

So what did it all mean? One spirit in the woods. Another one here, possessing an elderly baker? The local divinities of the tor were clearly taking an interest in her, but why? Maybe they took an interest in everyone? Maybe they appeared often? She needed to ask around. Find out. Her shoulders rose and fell as she breathed deeply, taking in air, trying to push the thoughts out of her mind. In every yarn she had ever heard spun, spirits and gods were dangerous things. Capricious. Faithless. Often cruel. Her own experience seemed to confirm this. She wanted nothing to do with any such powers, but, she worried that she might not have much choice in this.

She was nearly half-way back to the russet and white tent where she had left Keru and Dapple with their host, when she noticed a familiar, nearly bald, round head bobbing along in the crowd. He was facing away from her. She was able to fix the back of his head with a stare, without needing to feel self-conscious about it. It was the old magician Fafmuir. He was walking along in his waddling, friendly little gait, hands clasped behind his back. Even across the distance, with people moving between them, she could hear him whistling in his beautiful, rounded and crisp whistle. He sounded so much like a songbird it was unsettling.

Caewen watched him amble. She wondered if she was imagining it, but it did seem as if he was going somewhere, quickly. It certainly looked as if he had a hidden purpose in his ramble. As she watched, she grew more certain of it. He was definitely going somewhere, cutting through the crowd. She felt a strong twinge of attentive interest. Where was he going in such a hurry? She rubbed the back of her hand across her lips, scraping away fine crumbs and the last grease of butter. With narrowed eyes, she moved after him, following.

Fair Upon the Tor #14 (updates Mondays)

Standing up suddenly had perhaps not been the best idea. Caewen realised this as she swayed a little. She was dizzy. The drink was stronger than she had thought. “I need to apologise again,” she held herself steady, struggling to keep words together as her head pulsed with the thud of her own blood. “Your magicianiness. I think I need to take a walk in the air. My head is, um, foggy.” Dapplegrim started to get up too, but she waved him back down and said. “No. Dapple. Someone should stay in case Keru wakes before his sister gets here. Will you please? Watch over him for me.” She started weaving a path towards the cut in the fabric that was the tent’s egress. Wind was sneaking into the tent, flapping the entry-fold gently, and chasing the candleflames around on their wicks. The light was throwing seasick shadows into among the cushions and low tables.

“Hurm. Hur. Are you sure?,” said Dapple. “I don’t know if it’s safe for you alone out there.”

She scrunched up her face in a dismissive frown and tossed her hair about with one shake of the head. “I won’t talk to anyone, or buy anything, or whatever.” I just need a breath of air. That’s all. I’m sorry. I’ve never been a heavy drinker, and the wine had got to me. A little.”

“Hurm. Well, if you are more than an hour, I will come looking for you.”

“Alright.” She smiled. “It’s nice to know you care.”

He huffed and snorted. “Care, hrmm. Care, might be stretching it.”

“Of course,” said Caewen, as she threaded a way toward the tent’s opening. She passed Peloxanna in her embroidered and woven silks, her cloak of feathers, blue-green and gold-tipped, hanging about her shoulders. “I am sorry,” Caewen said again. The wine was making her candid. “Really. I don’t like to be at odds with people. I find it upsetting.”

But Peloxanna just gave her a cool, gold-iris stare, blinking once, with a nonchalance that seemed perhaps a little too practised. Her voice was low, almost a whisper. “Out of respect for Samarkarantha, I will see that there is goodwill between us. But this I do only, out of respect for Samarkarantha. Do not mistake charity for naivety, northlinger. If there is darkness in your thoughts, it will out, and I will be watching you.”

Caewen just sighed. She let herself out, feeling the night air wash into her face. It was chilly under the evening sky, getting onto real cold. A crisp wind was rushing down out of the highlands to the west. A few damp stars were struggling to push their light through piles of cloud, and the moon was nowhere in sight. It would have been an empty, dark dusk, except for the soft lights that were just now appearing all over the valley. The tent encampments were dotted with torches and oil lamps. Down in the shallower bowl of the valley was a spreading flowerbed of a hundred other, eerier lights, arrayed in golds, ambers, reds and yellows. Caewen set out on a path towards this mass of lights. After a little distance, she came to the first of them and discovered they were some sort of candle-lantern encased in a coloured translucent material that she didn’t recognise. It might have been dyed silk, or perhaps some sort of hard, glassy paper? From the direction of the central mass of lights, a noise of voices, laughter and music drifted to her. The sounds chased over the wet sombre grasses. She took a hard long breath into her lungs, felt her ribs expand, and decided that it felt good. The cold was clearing her head already. She walked carefully, making sure not to trip on the uneven sods and tuffets. At the edge of the place where the softly coloured lamps grew thickest, she discovered the boundaries of a twilight gala, with stalls and tables scattered about, people milling in a hundred strange and foreign garbs, and smells of food wafting, music, and laughter. Most, but not all, of the stallholders were human. She tried not to stare at the other weirder folk, but found it hard to keep herself from gawping. She stole snatches and little glances at the sights as she walked. She passed some odd dwarfish little men with skin that looked soot-stained and leathery, and eyes of a luminous green–she saw a stern-faced troupe of fragile, pale people with ears that ran up to a point. Their hair was a lustrous lichen-grey, their eyes entirely sky blue, without pupils or whites–at another tent a talking vixen fox was animatedly advertising the rabbit skins she had piled up on a low table in front of her–after this, Caewen saw a stooped old hag with grey-blue skin, puckered black tattoos, and a harsh, icy voice. The crone was offering to swap miseries and sorrows for delights. Caewen hurried past–and now, a dozen mice, standing on a high, round table, wearing cloaks and swords, standing upright like people, and selling what looked like acorns made of silver. Their voices were quiet peeps, and she would need to have leaned right down low, just to hear them–a wizened old man with soft grey-pink skin was selling bright crimson crows that sang with human voices–another man was selling what appeared to be inanimate statues made of clay, except that when Caewen glanced at them she saw one statue blink–then there were musical sounding bells growing out of saplings in clay pots–delicate crystals full of sparkling dancing imp-shapes at another stall–a huge figure made of shadow, only when Caewen looked at it from behind, she saw a little, shrivelled old man at the heart of the darkness. Even more odd, he seemed to grow smaller as Caewen moved away from him, while his shadow seemed larger–there were bottles of churning, weird colours and liquors on makeshift benches–miniature stone horses made of a brilliant green stone that shone like fire–and all manner of entertainers too, jugglers, fire-dancers, singers, minstrels, and more and more. It was a wild and eerie night-market.

So much of it was enticing. Caewen found herself wanting to stop and touch things, or pick a delicate piece up, or breath in the smells from perfumed flowers, but she knew better than that. With an uptight, fixed rigidity, she did not talk to anyone, nor offer to buy anything, nor sell anything by mistake. She kept herself perfectly silent, perfectly watchful. She kept herself, perfectly to herself.

Near the far end of the market, she ran into a small group of hairy men and women, bent, hunch-backed with long thick-knuckled hands, bulbous eyes and protuberant lips. They wore raw hides and furs, but their belts were finely tooled leather, and the daggers and hammers they carried were so finely wrought they might have been objects fit for princes, kings or a more modest sort of god. This gave them a strange appearance. Whilst they mostly looked like broomcutters and dirty beggars, the hammers they had at their belts were made of gold or silver, and crusted with gems. One of these hunched creatures looked directly at Caewen, and ambled towards her. She watched him come. His gait was bow-legged, rolling. “Greetings to you, fine mistress. If I may have a moment, a word, a breath?”

Having been staring at the little man, she could not pretend not to have seen him. “Aye. You may.”

He bowed, deeply, scraping the ground with the small straggle of his wiry beard. “Good luck to you then, and bounty too.” Coming up, he snuffed air out through his nostrils and asked, “Have you, by chance, seen anywhere in this market, or this moot, a small box. Perhaps for sale? Or perhaps not. It would be made of sea-ivory, tooled all over with roses and thorns? There is a carved goat leaping on the lid.”

“No,” she said, truthfully, for she had not. Remembering the tales she had bought from the rumourmonger, she asked, “Are you one of the Nibelung?”

“The Nibelungr, yes. I am Farli, get of Fjalarr.” He bowed again, just as deeply, and his tone and habit had a sort of obsequious, frail edge to it. The fawning tone seemed like thin ice covering a deep chasm.

Caewen placed words carefully, like pieces in a game of stones-and-cheques. “I am sorry for your loss. No. I have not see your little ivory box.”

His face brightened. The thick lips curved into a smile, and his hairy cheeks hitched themselves up. “Yes. Our little box. It is ours, and well you remember that, and tell other folks to remember it too. It was stolen, and we will have it back. One way, or another, yes.”

“Very well. If I see it, I will remember that you asked after it.” She was careful with her wording. She did not want to accidentally promise anything she might not be able to do. It seemed safe to promise that she would remember the Nibelung. “May I go?”

“Yes. Of course, fair one. Go on your way, yes.” His smile was unctuous. His teeth, when they flashed behind his lips, proved to be long, sharp and yellowed by fuzzy plaque.

She turned, hurrying off while trying to not look like she was hurrying. The empty knot in her gut left by several cups of wine and nothing really solid was growing increasingly demanding. There must be food to eat here? Something to buy that wouldn’t be a risk? Just plain old food. Even magicians must eat, surely? She glanced over her shoulder and noticed that the small hairy man was still watching her, his head crooked almost comically. He didn’t seem to mind that she saw him watching, and he smiled, waving once, with a clawed hand that had too-long fingerbones and thick joints. She felt a shudder pass through her muscles, her tendons, through the underneath of her skin.

She turned away. Alright, Caewen thought. First, find something to eat. The need to eat was definitely making her light-headed. She had good coin, after all. She would just look carefully before she spoke to anyone. Circling around some food stalls, like a wasp circling an open jar of preserved fruit, she settled on a woman selling plain-looking biscuits. “Bernoth knobs,” called the woman in a low sing-song voice as she worked, serving piles of hot, round biscuits one moment, taking coins or tending her squat portable oven the next. Caewen had got to be quite mistrustful by now. She watched the people in front of her, counted out what they were paying, and when she gathered herself up, and walked to the front of the stall, she offered the same price. “There’s a dear lass,” said the baker-woman, nice local lass. Where’re you from then?”

Fair upon the Tor #13 (updates Mondays)

“Yes.” Caewen tasted the wine. It was very sweet. Almost sickly so, but she smiled politely and took another drink. It had a strong bite. “Alright then. Let me see.” She considered where to start, and after accepting some dates and goat cheese, she said, “Well, Dapple and I were on the road, not far off, a little way north of here–“

“Wait, wait, no. That will not do. Go back further. Start nearer the start.”

“Oh. Um. If you like. A little while ago we were set upon by a storm and were driven to a tower in the woods. It turned out the tower belonged to a sorcerer and–“

But she was cut off again. “Hold a moment. We?”

“Dapplegrim and me.”

“No. I want to hear the whole of the tale. Tell me how you two met. Allow me to behold the mystery of the whole tale.”

“That far back? Well, alright. In my home village there was a warlock named Mannagarm.”

-oOo-

She was not very good at telling stories. She mixed some bits up. She was sure that she made some parts, which ought have been interesting or exciting, unutterably dull instead. And the parts that should have been skipped over, quick and easy, she laboured with, making too much of them, or muddying it all with too much detail, or rendering everything vague with too little. Finally, after talking for an hour, her voice fell to silence. Her tale had arrived here, at the tent. “And then we were here,” she said. “Taken in by a magician from a distant land.”

“Myself,” said Samarkarantha. “It is good to know a little one’s own role in other people’s tales. It helps one find one own’s centre. It helps see the self from the outside.”

She drained off her cup of the wine. It was her third. It had started to taste quite good. “So, why have you taken us in?” she asked, directly. “What do you want out of it?”

He threw his hands wide, expansive. “What makes you think I want anything?”

She laughed, loudly, then trying to cover up her mirth, she suppressed the laugh into a murky giggle. An embarrassed heat crept itself through her face. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I am starting to think,” and here she paused, trying to work out what she wanted to say. “Well, I suppose, that everyone wants something. Especially magicians. Especially here.” The wine did seem quite strong.

“That may be so, but what I want is of no concern, and of no harm to you, or your friends. There are many factions with the dynasties of the magical. Though old Fafmuir and myself are of the same dynastic encompassment, so to speak, we are heirs of different legacies. I watch and I listen, to find out what others are, hm, up to. So speak.” He waved a hand. “As the jackal watches. As the jackal listens. And so do I.” He shrugged. “There have been–” he trailed off. “How do I word it? Disturbing nuances in the oracles. Strange pre-seerings, and odd. Weird voices that have not spoken in a hundred years are whispering in jungle groves. Bloody sigils have appeared on the walls of the smoke-caves of Tkiluki. The Devil-Temple of Shru Nithur is flocked full of talking monkeys again, and those grey monkeys of Shru Nithur have not spoken a word of prophecy in years. Words are seen in the clouds. Flights of birds spell out strange foretellings. It is all very disconcerting. So, I have come to the great convocation of the magical to listen to as many stories as I can. To pay attention.”

“Stories,” said Caewe. “Tales.” She considered this as she spoke. “There is magic in names, but a story is like a name spun out over a long time, with more depth. A long name. Does that have something to do with your magic then? Stories?” She wondered momentarily, through the fog of the alcohol whether she had made a mistake reciting her whole story to him honestly. She felt suspicion trickle into her mind. “Is your magic done through stories?” She asked, rather more bluntly than she had meant.

He grinned, but all he said was, “Your observations are astute.”

She didn’t know what to make of that. Had she put herself in more danger then? She couldn’t tell, and for now, it seemed more sensible to stay calm and chase some more answers. What he had said about omens struck her, and it knocked around in the back of her mind, like a bat caught inside a house. “What disturbing omens exactly?” As a part of her own tale, she had described Tamsin and the Winter King already. She circled back to this now. “Is this to do with what Tamsin saw, do you think? The armies in the north?”

He shrugged. “Maybe. I do not yet know for certain, but one of my guesses runs along that road. Yes.” Before he could say any more, the entrance to the tent ruffled as a hand brushed over it. A faintly familiar voice said, “Samar? Are you in there?”

“Enter, with peace.”

The cloth stirred aside and Caewen saw that the woman who stepped into the ruddy half-light of candles was the same who had told her off for riding into the crowd earlier, the one wearing the strange outfit of feathers in blues and greens. She stopped short when she saw Caewen, saying something that sounded like an oath in some foreign tongue. When she turned and saw Dapplegrim, smiling at her from the darkness beside the entrance, she yelled aloud, “Akalu! Mbele ti fo effur! Are you mad, Samar? Why do you have these… these… night-demons in your welcome?” Her habits of speech and accent were similar to Samakarantha, but the woman looked quite different to him. Where he was as dark as blue-back jet in shadows, she was honeyed in her skin, hair and her eyes. The latter were an arresting, bright, yellow-gold. “You have night-worshippers in your tent? Look at her!” She pointed at Caewen. “Have you invited her to stay here? She’ll be awake all night drinking swine blood and howling at the moon.” The lady shot Caewen a dirty sneer of a look, and rested her hands on her hips.

Caewen sat upright. Her head was more than a little dizzy from the wine. She put the empty wine cup down. “Hey! How dare you? I don’t drink blood. I don’t howl at things. And I do not worship Old Night and Chaos, if that’s what you think. None of my folk do. We–” She felt herself fuming, heat rising up her neck. “We live between the shadow and the sound. My village is neither properly in one camp, or the other. And a good thing too. You lot, all you lot. Night magicians. Sun witches. You’re all mad.”

But the woman just fixed her with a cool and calm gaze and pointed now at Dapplegrim. “You are riding around on a thing that is half night-demon! I am not an idiot!”

“I’m half-horse,” said Dapplegrim.

“What?” said the woman.

“What?” said Caewen.

“I’m half-horse too.” Dapplegrim snorted, his nostrils flared and his tail flicked as if to emphasise his horsiness. “Everyone is always obsessed about my father, night-demon this, high-lord of shadows that, master of the foul revels of the darkness soaked forests of benighted Ghortain, or something, something. But no one ever stops to think, maybe, old Dapplegrim, maybe he actually would like to eat hay and run around in the grass for a bit, time to time. I mean, I’m not entirely demonical, am I?”

“It talks?” said the woman.

Caewen said, confused. “High-lord of what? I thought you didn’t know anything about your father?”

Dapplegrim rolled his eyes. “Is this really the time to discuss whether my father might, or might not be, a dark lord of chaos-shadowed lands? The important thing is that I’ve almost literally never eaten anyone.”

“A cease to this!” It was Samakarantha. “He had raised a hand, and his fingers twisted into an odd shape, a gesture that made Caewen feel sort of queasy, just looking at him doing it. He then said. “Once upon a time there were three persons who bickered and bickered. And they bickered so much, that the spirits grew sick of it, and so the spirits took their voices away until they learned to be civil and live peacefully.” His words had a dull thudding echo to them. The sounds seemed to come from somewhere deep and brassy inside the thin, frowning man.

Caewen tried to speak but discovered that nothing came out of her mouth other than a low wheeze, like wind coming out of a deflating billows. Dapplegrim and the other woman seemed to also be discovering that they couldn’t speak either. They both made small, angry wheezing noises then stopped, fuming and glaring at Samarkarantha.

“This is my tent and household, and I will entertain whomever I wish, Lady Peloxanna.” He threw the woman an unimpressed gaze. “And I am not an idiot either. I would not have persons or beasts in my company that were a foulness, or a danger to me. I know how to judge fair from foetid.” His hand twitched, and his fingers flicked again. He performed another odd gesture. “And so it was that the three argumentative fools learned the value of silence and they learned peacefulness. The spirits returned their voices to them, but the bickerers knew that if they should fall to argument again, the voices would be snatched away, this time forever.” Caewen wasn’t sure she could have mimicked his movements of finger and hand as he moved them. It looked a little bit like he was stitching the air with an invisible needle and thread. She could not have copied him. Not even if she had tried right there and then to follow his movements with her own. There was something too boneless and fluid in them. His hand seemed to be moving not just up and down, forward and back, but somehow in and out of another, deeper and hidden direction. “So be it thus, your voices are restored,” he said, “and you will use them to apologise, and then to talk, as my guests.” Noise and soft hums of words came back to Caewen’s throat. The other two cleared their voices, and all three of them looked at each other in silence, awkwardly.

“Alright,” said Caewen. “I don’t think I offered the first insult, but I’ll offer the first apology. I’m sorry.” She was fuming inside, but forced herself to say, “I should have been more polite.”

With more than a small edge of reluctance, the woman ruffled her blue and green feathers up until she looked something like and angry peacock, and said, “And I ought have been more civil. I insult the hospitality of Samarkantha. I apologise too.”

They looked at Dapplegrim, but he just scuffed a hoof and said, under his breath. “Hurm. Well. Sorry. Yes.”

Fair Upon the Tor #12 (updates Mondays)

It was the thin tall man dressed in white linens, writ all over with strange letters. He was standing near enough to be standing over her. His complexion was dark, much darker than the Forsetti, so that he was almost a blue-black. He smiled. “Peace be upon you,” he added, seemingly by way of greeting. With a slight bow, he held a hand over his heart, then smiled and said, “Old Fafmuir is a man of straightforward bargains. He would only take your soul. After all, you are she who he made the bargain with, are you not?”

She had to work through that last thing he said for a moment, just to be sure she understood it. “Yes,” she said, slowly, drawing out the sound. “How very fair of him, then. And who are you?”

His smile broadened. “I am him they call Samakarantha, born of Mtawu and the Gold Dales.” He shrugged. “You will not have heard of my homeland. Very far off. South and east a long way.” He gestured in what was presumably a vaguely south-easterly way, then added. “But I wouldn’t worry about old Fafmuir too much. He likes to make himself seem mysterious, does he not? But he is reasonable man underneath all his peculiarities and musings. Or as reasonable as we magus-folk ever are.” Pausing, he said, “I and some friends have a tent nearby, if you wish to rest? Your companion is unwell still. He would benefit from a warm place to sleep.”

“For what cost?” said Caewen and Dapplegrim in unison.

But Samakarantha waved his hands and said, “Ah, I see you are learning the ways of the workings of wizards. I offer this free and without obligation or debt. It is customary, among my people to offer hospitality thus.” He strung out a thread of uneven silence, before saying, at lenth, “Although, I am curious to hear your story, for it must be some story. So perhaps, if you do feel obliged you can pay me with that?”

“That seems fair.”

“There’s nothing more to the offer?” said Dapplegrim.

“Nothing more,” replied Samakarantha, his smile turning serious.

“Very well.” Caewen helped Keru to his feet, and followed after the dark man in his flowing robes. Dapplegrim paced after them, his nose down and eyes flaring with a dim red glow. Not far off, they came to a tent with russet and white stripes. Samakarantha parted the tent, and inclined his head, indicating that they enter, although when Dapple tried to, the magician stepped in his way and, his voice, dipping in and out of an uncomfortable tone, asked, “Is your… creature, house-broken? It will not foul the rugs?”

Dapplegrim answered for himself. “I am quite house-broken, sun-wizard. Or tent-broken. Or whatever. And you will let me in, or you will have a broken house. Ot tent. Or whatever.”

Samakarantha seemed to hold in his appraisal for a moment before he chuckled a long, low belly laugh. “You beast is amusing. I see why you keep it, despite perhaps…” another wave of the hand, this time at Dapplegrim’s somewhat skullish features, “aesthetic questionableness.”

“Hur. Beauty is to the eye, what it is to the mind,” Dapple snorted.

“Ah!” said Samarkarantha. “An educated horse. That is a quote of the philosopher Erithrostle, anciently of Heriphinere, Lost to Waves.”

“I suppose it may be,” said Caewen from inside the tent. “Dapple has been in the service of many over the years, and he has better knowledge of the world than me.” She was supporting Keru over a shoulder and casting around, trying to work out where to lay him down. “And, Dapplegrim, please don’t fuss. Just come in and sit down somewhere.” She sighed, frustrated. Everywhere seemed to be a mass of pillows, rugs and low tables. The air smelled faintly of a sweet, peppery scent, with oiled undertones. Small trickles of white smoke rose from an incense burner sitting on one low table. She said, without paying much attention, her voice directed at Samarkarantha, “You know, sometimes I think Dapplegrim is mostly all questionableness, but he won’t knock things over or leave manure on the floor. Not without intending to.”

Dapplegrim smiled with his strange horse-face and pushed past Samakarantha.

“I see,” said their host.

As it turned out, Dapplegrim was barely able to fit under the canvas ceiling anyway. He had to get down on his haunches near the door. There would have been barely any space for him to lie down among the jumble of tables and pillows.

Once Caewen had made sure Keru was settled, she said, “Wait. I’m an idiot. How will Keri find us?”

“Keri?”

“Keru’s sister. She is along the road somewhere. I don’t know how far off she is. Some way, I guess. We galloped off ahead of her to get help for Keru.

“Ah. More company then.” Samakarantha smiled. “Luckily, I am one who enjoys human company, conversations and all the trappings of wit and banter. Tales from far lands. Jokes. Clever little asides. I am happy to have another guest, if one more is to be welcomed.” He reached over for a small gong and knocker that were hanging on ribbons from a nearby tent-strut. The note he struck was clear and pure, taking a long time to fade. Curtains at the far end of the tent stirred and three creatures, dwarfish in stature, crept out from behind the folds of cloth. Caewen stood up and put a hand on her sword. Dapplegrim snarled. Keru didn’t react, but this was presumably because he was already asleep. Being saved from near-death was exhausting, it seemed.

The creatures were only roughly human, with red and grey brindled skin, and instead of hair, they had something that looked like dead summertime grass growing from their scalps and in tufts from under their armpits and down their chests. Their wrinkled faces had the sort of hard look of carved wood that had been left out in the weather, and their mouths were jutting snouts full of teeth and tusks. One of them spoke, its voice soft, like rain falling through a canopy, “Ekulu ti fo olarumila?

“Tasu, tasu,” said Samakarantha, shaking his head. He pointed at the door. “Ethiit, ti ifi ifi. Atha!”

The three creatures bowed and shuffled to the tent doorway, disappearing through the flaps of canvas.

“Are those demons?” said Caewen, still standing.

“Asks the woman who rides a creature that would make most people run off, trailing wet dribbles of fear behind them?” Samakarantha laughed. “You have strange notions of what to be afraid of. Those were my biloko.” Then said, “Wait, no. That will be confusing. It is Eloko if there is one. Biloko is there are many. And yes, they are a sort of demon of the forest in my homeland, but they are under my sway, fully and properly. I took their bells away from them, and locked them up with words and charms and stories. You need not fear them. I have told them to go and find your friend. They will know her. They have their ways of knowing things.” He stretched himself a little, rolling his shoulders. “In the meantime, let us pass around some food and drink. Here. I’ve a little of the red-black wine of my country, if you would like to taste it?”

“I suppose so,” said Caewen. She took her fingers away from the hilt of her sword, and eased herself down, cross-legged into a pillow.

“Good then.” He poured out the wine. Passing the cup he added, “I would most certainly like to know your story. You and your horse-thing are intriguing to me.”

Fair Upon the Tor #11 (updates Mondays)

“Your speaking demon-servant is right. I learnt this particular art in the court of the Emperor-Magi in the lands of the Sungilt Stone. Far away, yes, over seas, in the blessed lands of the south where the summer reigns long and sure, and the days are bright.” He seemed to gather up some concentration then. “That is how it is put in the stories, I think?”

“But what are you doing? You don’t seem to be doing anything.”

He chuckled. “Magic, true, deep magic, isn’t made of chants or glyphs, spirit-dances, knots  tying up the wind, or little witching dollies. Old deep magic is thought, breath, heartbeat.” A shadow of a frown. “Hush now, please. I have to concentrate for this bit.” His breathing grew a little harsher, hissing through his teeth, like storm winds gathering in a distant rocky place. It seemed like he was in pain, but as each breath became harder for him, Keru looked a little bit more alive, until the boy’s eyes began to muster flicks and blinks. Without warning, the old magician grunted out a long, groaning “Urnnngggh,” and wrenched his hand away from Keru. The old, frail palm was patched with discoloured skin, grey and black and lumpish.

“Oh!” said Caewen, though she choked herself off from saying anything more. She didn’t know what might distract him.

He grit his teeth and actually snarled for a moment at his own hand. Dimly, Caewen was aware that a small crowd of gawkers had gathered around them. A few under-breath words and murmurs shuffled through the onlookers. There was more than one sound of someone making an impressed huff or whistle. A few heads nodded appreciatively, as if this were a show. The blue-grey blotch started to move along the skin of the old man’s wrist, then along his arm. It was not spreading, but creeping along under the skin. Once it left his hand, the fingers, then the palm, flushed again with healthy blood and colour. The blotch moved until it disappeared under his sleeve, then there was a minute in which the old magician sniffed and breathed hard enough to turn red in the face. Finally, the discoloured blotch reappeared, and it crept up his neck and into his throat. At about half-way up the neck, it started to sink inward. The greyness just sort of disappeared down into the skin, into the flesh, vanishing deep into his throat. Eyes bulging now, breath wild, he snorted and hacked, and then he made a gut-prickling retch of a sound. His cheeks puffed out. He spat a wet wad of something that looked like off-green tar into the grass. Where it landed, the grass sizzled, smoked and withered until it was ash. People moved away from the charred space. A few of them applauded.

After a long draw of breath, he fumbled about his belt, found a water gourd and glugged from it, washing his mouth out, then spitting stringy green saliva onto the ground. These second and third spits were less searing than the first glob, but the liquid burned the grass a little, all the same. After a few more times doing this, swilling water around his gums and tongue, spitting, swilling, he seemed to decide he was done, and got to his feet. He trembled a little. “Uh,” he said, “there’s a thing I wouldn’t want to do twice in one day. Awful stuff.”

Keru was coming back to his senses. His breathing seemed more normal and his eyes were opening, coming alert a little, if still confused and foggy.

“Thank you,” said Caewen. “Thank you so much. I don’t know what to say.”

“Well,” said the old man, “there is the matter of payment, of course.”

“What?” said Caewen.

“Yes,” said Dapplegrim, a note of deeper menace in his voice. “What?”

The old man raised his palms in a conciliatory sort of way. “I have saved a life for you. Yet we had not agreed on a price. By the rules of the moot, I can make a claim. Now, I cannot be unreasonable, but the Broadtable would, I think, agree to any price up to and including the value of a whole and entire life, healthy and well-lived. Which is what I have, after all, restored.”

“We didn’t agree to anything like that,” said Caewen. “How can you–“

He flickered one of his pleasant, friendly little bald gnome smiles. “It is within my right to request. It is within your right to refuse, but I warn you, if this is brought before the Broadtable, they will judge in my favour, and they may well impose penalties that are much more unpleasant than anything I would ever ask of anyone.”

“What do you want then?” said Caewen, a twisting twin-ribbon of anger and burgeoning fear in her chest and throat. What if she tried to escape on Dapplegrim? He was quick. They would probably get away, but then they would never address the moot. And then what? Tamsin’s death really would have been for nothing. Caewen’s word would be broken. Coldly, she asked again, “What is your price?”

He took in a flummoxed little breath. “I hadn’t actually thought that far ahead.” He took a step away, locking his hands behind his back. “Let us call it a standing debt of obligation. Be well assured though, I will think of something. When I do, I will call on you.” He turned enough to give a slight nod of a bow. “Until then, Caewen of Drossel, I bid you pleasant and fond leave-taking.” With a tap of two fingers to his head he added, “Wotcha,” as he moved off.

As the old magician wandered away, he took up a cherry whistle that sounded half-way between a flute and a dawn birdsong.

Caewen and Dapplegrim watched him recede into the crowd. When he was gone, Dapplegrim said, voice low, “Did you tell him your name?”

“No,” said Caewen. “No, I did not.” She looked down at Keru, who was still on his back, his expression confused getting onto drowsy. “It’s alright now,” she said and knelt next to him. “At least I think so. Assuming the strange old wizard doesn’t want our souls or something.”

“Just your soul, I imagine.”

She looked up.