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.

Fair Upon the Tor #10 (updates Mondays)

“But wurum poison,” said one of the women with books and donkeys, “it’s not easy to cleanse.”

“I don’t know about poisons,” said Caewen, “but we know how to hurry.” She climbed up into Dapple’s saddle so fast that she almost slipped off the other side, then steadying herself, she turned to Keri and said, “Pass him up. No beast with four legs is faster than Dapplegrim. We will hurry.”

Keri didn’t seem able to build words from thoughts, but she managed a nod and heaved her brother up until Caewen was able to drag him over the saddle like a stolen bag of grain. “On, Dapple!”

Dapplegrim erupted into a stride that left them all airborne for a moment. Hooves churned up wet soil where they landed, and then they were galloping. The grass underneath them lost its detail, turning into streaky blurs. Air whistled and stung. Travellers looked up at them, startled, scrambling to get out of the way or throwing spits and curses, waving fists. All of a sudden, on the left, the line of the Modsarie appeared. Caewen couldn’t quite resist the temptation. As they passed the Lady Sgeirr at a terrifying blur of speed, Caewen reached out and tapped the woman on the back. The impacted was enough to send a stinging jolt up into Caewen’s arm. She said, “Ow,” without thinking. But the swipe surprised the Modsarie lady with much more force. It was enough to unseat her. She flailed as she went over, shrieking, undignified. Caewen felt a little undignified herself, as she grinned and heard the yells and loud vows of revenge from all the Modsarie. She felt bad about feeling good, but pushed down the thoughts.

“Faster,” she said, as they tore onward. “Swifter and faster.”

“Hur,” replied Dapplegrim. “Maybe next time you can run, and I can ride?”

Caewen smiled. “There’s that wit of yours.”

The crowds, horses, wagons and oxen started to thicken, until their headlong rush was getting to be dangerous, for themselves and for others. Dapplegrim eased into a slower pace. Looking around, tents and market stalls were now scattered across a the wide green space. The road had lead them to a hollow where two low hills rose, one to either side, whilst in the near distance, the foggy, rock-strewn flanks of what must presumably be the Sorcery Tor rose sheer into the cloud of evening. Caewen didn’t take much notice of the landscape, just dimly noticing that there were some torch-light flames on the smaller hills and a few on the the great tor too. All around the flanks of the hills, and spreading across a wide, flat space, was a town of tents: stripped and chequered, dyed, plain and rustic, with peaks, or arches, or patterned fabric gables: there were almost as many constructions of canopy as there were canopies.

“Ho, there,” Caewen called down to the crowd, many of whom had backed away from her more than slightly. It was only sensible. Dapplegrim had come close to ploughing down more than one person. “Ho, there,” said Caewen again, exhausted and frantic. “Is there a healer near? Anyone with the herb-clever? Anyone at all?”

A tall fellow with bronze skin and rust-coloured eyes pointed to a collection of tents that stood a little way up the flank of the left hill. “Healer’s camp’s up there.”

“But you can’t go riding through folks,” said a woman in an outlandish red and green costume that seemed to be mostly made of feathers. “The moot will be getting you up on trial for that, yes. You get right down now, yes. No riding folks down.”

Caewen was already running her eyes over the heads of the crowds, up the flank of the hill to a place where the crowd was as thick as a market in springtime. “We’ll be an hour picking a path through that,” she said. “Gods of shear and plough.” She couldn’t see how Keru would survive long enough to reach the healer’s market. He was losing what was left of his healthy skin colour fast, and turning into a sort of blotchy brown-black-grey. “I guess there’s nothing else for it then. We’ll yell and make a noise. People will get out of the way. They will have to. If some wizard judges don’t like it, then blast them, one and all.”

Dapple had begun to trot forward when a friendlier, low, base voice cut out of the crowd. “Or perhaps I might assist?” They looked. It was an elderly man. He was walking towards them, carrying himself with a gentle rolling gait, like a pelican with a beak full of fish. He had a head going onto bald, a broad, twinkling, gnomish kind of smile and the sort of stout tub that comes from liking good food, or good drink, or more probably both. His beard, not long, but round and profuse was almost the size of his moon-shaped face. “I know a few tricks in the way of blood-cures.” He seemed uncomfortable making such a bold claim, adding, “You know. If one may pipe one’s own tune.”

“Yes,” said Caewen, a little desperately, “One may.” She climbed down, hauling the now limp and blank-eyed Keru with her. There were salt-stain spots of blood in the whites of his eyes. He was breathing, but only just. The swelling had found its way to his throat, and half his face was swollen beyond recognition. A painful puffiness was spread over his chest under his tunic too. His skin where Caewen touched it was fever-hot, uncomfortable to feel.

“Here, here,” said Caewen. She laid Keru out as carefully as she could on the trampled grass. “He was stung by a moor wurum.”

“Is that right?” said the man, his voice calm, giving out a sense of being somehow withdrawn within itself, considering, perhaps shy. His face jumped in and out of a fluster of seriousness and smiles. “How did a thing like that ever happen?”

Caewen tried to explain while the man looked into Keru’s eyes, touched fingers to his throat and prodded the flesh near the wound. As Caewen related everything, he said, “Ahmm… Ahmm… that so… ahmmm… I see. How ostensibly curious.” Once or twice he asked questions. “Who was the driver of the wagon?” She didn’t know. “The boy in the armour? Can you describe him again?” She did. “That’s interesting. A heir of the Drakkentunge. There are not so many of that bloodline left. A pity then.” He nodded and ahmmed some more.” He laid his hand over the wound as if he were feeling the warmth of it, judging how deep the injury went.

At last, Caewen said, “Can you save him?”

“Oh but I am.” He looked up with a quizzical smile and a funny little nod of the head. “Look. His colour is coming back. I think the inflammation is receding a little too. It had almost swollen shut his windpipe, though his heart would have stopped well before he suffocated, if you want the truth of it.”

“But how are you? I didn’t see you do anything?”

It was Dapplegrim who answered. “Old magic,” he murmured. “Strange, rich magic from somewhere far away.”

Fair Upon the Tor #09 (updates Mondays)

In the aftermath, it felt as if the world had slowed down. Time crawled through a few halting and fractured seconds, before urgency and noise and movement all fell back into place. The sister threw a cross sort of look at her brother and said, “What were you playing at? You stepped left when you should have moved right, and then you were on your arse in the mud. You nearly got yourself killed.”

He shrugged. “It all turned out fine. Just barely a few scratches. You worry too much.”

They both turned to look at Caewen and Dapple then. The girl gave them both an appraising look, up, down. “Thank you. I’m Keri Manutuwatu,” she indicated herself, “And this simpleton of a turehe is my brother, Karu.”

Before Caewen could answer, Dapplegrim piped up, “Oh, don’t mention it. Just doing our heroic job of, hurm, being heroic.”

“Dapple.” Caewen let slip her own exasperated part-sigh. She got down from the saddle and stowed her sword. “I don’t know if we were really much help. I think mostly we just avoided getting crushed.” As she walked over to the brother and sister, the small gathering of the Modsarie rode around the corpse of the wurum, their leader looking cooly at the corpse of the thing. She waved at one of her men, and he got down from his saddle, then crossed the distance to where the creature’s tail lay. Drawing his sword, he hacked off the stinger with three quick strokes.

The girl, Keri, raised her voice, “Hoy! What are you playing at?”

The Modsarie lady answered, quite level, quite calm. “The venom has uses. The stinger is worth good coin. Seems a pity to leave it lying about on the ground for any old bird-snarer to carry off.”

“Well that coin belongs to me and my brother. And maybe this girl too. And her strange horse.” She turned to Caewen. “What was your name?”

“Caewen.”

“Yeah,” said the brother, Keru. “This strange girl Caewen and her strange horse.”

“Dapplegrim,” said Dapplegrim.

The Modsarie lady didn’t answer. Instead she brought her mount a few trotting steps closer to Caewen, slowing, then stopping where she could look down at her. “As for you.” She shook her head. “What are you doing even mixing with these strange-bloods? Fern-eaters. Tree-worshippers. They aren’t properly of the Nocturnal Parliament, you know. These Forsetti… their bloodline isn’t even properly of the north. They are not of the Night Queen’s children.”

“And what does that have to do with me?”

The Modsarie lady blinked, confused. “You have northern blood in you. Cold magic is all about you, like a song in the night-time. You shouldn’t lower yourself to the company of these two. Come with us.”

Caewen kept her voice flat. “And yet somehow I find myself preferring their company to yours.”

The lady’s face showed a twist of emotion. She was shocked. “Do you know who I am? No? Obviously not.” She rearranged the fur trim of her collar and cloak. “I am the Lady Sgeirr, first daughter of Staru the Namenthird.” After a pause in which Caewen did not register any change in attitude or any note of surprise, the lady added, “Staru? King of the Dearg Modsarie and the Red Boglanders, Lord of the Twelve Rivers, Overseer of the Gathered Clans, High Master at the Temple of the Silts and Weeds.”

“Oh,” said Caewen. “That Staru the Namenthird.” She had, of course, never heard the name of the king of the Modsarie. Her home village was not exactly situated on a well-trod road. And, of course she had spent much of her early years in a root cellar hiding from the feeble, nasty old warlock Mannagarm in his house on the hill. What Modsarie visitors their little upland village had received were few, infrequent and never stayed long.

Keri took some steps forward, whirling her fighting-spear about her in a flickering, slow weave. “You’d best have your man drop that tail. It’s our kill. It’s our trophy to divide as we see fit.”

“And you will stop me?”

“We just put down a wurum. The way I see it–if I were you–I would be much more concerned for my own skin than the gain of a few coins.” She moved into a fighting stance, the spear held at a poised angle in both hands.

“Perhaps,” said Sgeirr,” but, there were three of you, and now there are only two. Your chances are diminished.” Her lips curled into a smile. “Goodbye, Keri of the people who live in the forest shadows. Bird-snarers. Yam-worshipers.” Her tone mocked Keri’s words, echoing them back. “If I were you, I would worry more about the skin of your brother. It is gaining rather an ugly shade of grey-pruple about the edges.” Sgeirr pulled at the reigns of her horse and twisted its head around, making it stamp and whinny. “And you,” she said, “Caewen, wasn’t it? I do not forget insults. Prefer their company to mine if you will, but do not think I will forget it. We shall see how your choice of company works out for you.” Sgeirr turned and rode off, followed by her men. As she left, a quiet wheezing sound disturbed the new stillness. It was coming from Karu. They turned, looked and discovered he was on his knees in the mud. “Sister,” he said, “I do not feel well.” His fingers loosened and his fighting-spear fell to the blood-wet dirt. He swayed and slipped forward, plunging into the ground with a thump and a squelch. Even from a distance, it was clear that one of the scrapes on his arm–a shallow scratch that had been barely noticeable only seconds ago–was now weeping a sickly green liquid. His whole right arm was puffing up and the swelling was moving towards his neck.

“The stinger,” Keri said. She dropped her own spear and ran to him. “The stinger. Gods of wind and forest, Keru, Keru!” She grabbed at him and cradled him into her arms. “Keru. Look at me.”

Caewen went to him too, though she had no idea what to do about wurum poison. She had no idea about any poison. The idea terrified her. A slow, secret killer reaching for the heart. She looked around, trying to identify anyone in the milling crowd who might be helpful. Keri knelt down, holding wet sobs down, trying to prop her brother against knees. “Keru, Keru, you idiot,” she whispered, “don’t you dare close your eyes. If you close your eyes I will beat you around the head with a string of yams. Keru!”

Caewen looked over the crowd. “Is anyone here a healer? Does anyone have any herbals or bloodgeiys?” The three black-cloaked walkers who had escaping being crushed under the falling cage were gathered around their dead companions, lost in their own grief. They had dragged the short person in the gold dragon armour out from under the cage and pulled off his helmet. He was only a child, not the short adult that Caewen had assumed. The man who rode his boggart-palanquin was there behind them, although he had stopped eating his blackberries and the boggarts looked more sombre than sour. She looked around. There were two men in blue and gold robes. The man with the shock of dead white hair and a scald mark on his face and neck. Three women on donkeys with stacks of books tied to the saddles. “Is anyone skilled in the leech-work?” said Caewen. “Anyone?” No one answered, until finally, the blackberry-eater said, “None here. No. The best healers will be at the fair, by now, they will, with their shops. If you hurry…” but he did not finish the sentence, and looked uncomfortable. “Maybe. If you hurry.”

Fair Upon the Tor #08 (updates Mondays)

All around the upturned wagon, ruin and confusion stumbled and scattered itself everywhere. The cage had toppled directly onto several travellers, crushing them dead without a chance. Caewen tried not to look too closely, but it seemed to have been the procession with the dragon-armoured man and his taggers-along in robes. Two or three of the latter had escaped and were keening in a sort of high, mad shriek. Blood was spreading in the mud of the road, trickling into the ruts, mixing with grit. Severed limbs lay on the ground too. Caewen felt a retching wave rise in her throat, but she screwed up her eyes, looked away, and managed to bite back the twist of nausea. She tried then to take some bearings. The creature was thrashing and coiling itself into knots on the far side of the wagon. The sheen of its grey-green scales had an oily quality, and when the head came into view it was the head of no snake: long, tapering and ending in a hooked beak, the draconic skull sported a fringe of quills and a membranous crest. From her current vantage, the creature appeared to be fighting someone or something.

“Have you ever seen the like?” said Caewen. Feeling that she was gaping a bit stupidly, she shut her mouth and tried to square her shoulders.

“Yes. Of course.” Dapplegrim snorted. “I am hundreds of years old and have travelled all about the shadowy north. Mind you, this is an unusually large specimen. Wurums don’t usually grow so big. I wonder if someone has been feeding it?”

“Come on, then.”

“Are you sure you want to get closer. It looks like someone else might be handling it.” There did seem to be noises of fighting.

“Come on,” repeated Caewen.

“Alright. Alright.”

Caewen and Dapplegrim rounded the wagon, slowing their approach only to avoid stepping on what remained of the now very dead wagoner. When they came into direct view of the creature, the sight was strange enough to make Caewen pause as she tried to take it in. The two Forsetti she had seen earlier had dismounted, and taken into hand the short fighting-spears with flanged blades at the butt-end that their people favoured. The young man was dodging and weaving around the wurum, ducking, stabbing and slashing, barely avoiding jaws as they snapped at him. The young woman on the other hand stood not very far away, and was looking, if it could be believed, a mixture of skeptical and bored. As she leaned against her fighting spear, she called out, “Are you certain you don’t want help, little brother?” He just kept stabbing and evading. And actually, Caewen realised, he was not doing a bad job of it. There were already several bloody gashes up and down the length of the wurum’s muscular body. He was not armoured, and was relying instead on own raw speed to keep inches ahead of the snap of teeth.

Caewen and Dapplegrim paused then. She had her sword drawn, but was now uncertain what to do with it. She could feel that the sword had its own ideas: it must have sensed that there was blood on the air, and it grew slightly warmer to touch, slightly impatient. Its gentle thrum and whisper grew more strident in her mind. It was not a powerful magic sword, but there was enchantment enough in the blade all the same. And though she had not owned it long, the weapon had saved Caewen’s life more than once by moving quicker than she could have managed unaided, or artfully deflecting a blow that by all rights ought have shattered every bone in her arm and most of her ribcage.

“I guess–” said Caewen, now quite unsure… but then the fight shifted. The Forsetti youth took a poorly judged step, slipped and fell. He was suddenly and unexpectedly on his back in the mud. The wurum, seeing its chance, lunged and brought its tail up in a twisting arc. On the tip of the tail was a barbed sting, like a scorpion’s stinger, only this barb was as long as a short sword–to say nothing of whatever poison it carried.

It looked as if the sister had been too casual in her appraisal of the fight. Although she tensed at once, she was too far off. Jumping into a quick run, it still looked unlikely that she would reach her sprawled brother in time. Behind her, the sallow-skinned Modsarie with their white kelpie shields were sitting atop their horses, milling about, evidently not prepared to intervene. Their leader, the young woman with the long, stern features and the richly decorated suit of leather and scale, was watching from her saddle intently, almost raptly, leaning forward with a leering expression on her face. She was intent on the outcome of the fight, but had no interest in taking part in it. That much was clear.

“Now!” yelled Caewen.

Dapplegrim burst forward and they crossed the space to the wurum in three quick bounds. Dapplegrim was swifter than any mortal horse. Caewen swung her blade as hard as she could, bringing it about in an arc that bit into a coil of the wurum and sent a grey-black spray of blood out onto the mud and grass.

The wurum screamed.

It was the sort of scream to make bears wet themselves in fear. Every living thing for a league or more would have known in that moment, the best, maybe the only sane thing to do, was hide and hope that whatever had issued that sound of mindless rage would eventually just go away.

Caewen was not in a position to hide.

Instead of plunging its stinger into the prostrate young Forsetti man, the wurum turned its large head around, and stared at Caewen. It blew hot, angry air from its nostrils. It’s eyes grew wide and the gold and green in them spun with mad rage and pain.

“Now you’ve done it,” said Dapplegrim. “He took a few halting steps backwards. Maybe we should run?”

Caewen found herself saying, “No. We finish this or others will die.”

Dapple snorted. “We’re others to someone else you know. Shouldn’t you consider whether we might die?”

As they circled keeping out of reach of a few hesitant, snapping attacks, an ululation crested on the air. The sister appeared out of nowhere. Caewen noticed, oddly, that she was barefoot as she jumped and landed on one of the coils of the wurum, then vaulted, landed on another, higher coil, and from there, leapt to the point where the creature’s neck met the back of the skull. As she did this, the brother, accompanied by his own wild cry, managed to scramble back onto his feet, then swing a hard blow into hard scales and flesh.

Caewen and Dapplegrim hardly had to do anything after that. She did her best to get in one or two more blows, but the sword did not sink much past the creature’s thick rind of a hide. She wasn’t sure that she did anything more than provide a distraction. It was the brother and sister who, between them, killed the thing: the sister was perched up on the neck, using her legs to hold on, and striking the creature about the skull repeatedly, eventually taking out an eye. The brother then crept through a gap in the wurum’s snarls and attacks. He climbed underneath the wattle-like flab of skin that ran down the meaty throat, and, with a twist of shoulders, he thrust his spear upwards, burying it into soft flesh, sending the point deep into the brain. The creature shook three or four times, thrashed once, then fell. As it tumbled sideways, both the sister and brother jumped and rolled away from the dropping mass of meat and scale and horn. It thrashed out a few weak spasms after that, dying like a snake beheaded by a farmer’s shovel. The great coils of lank serpent, as thick around as a young oak, spasmed twice more, then were still.

Fair Upon the Tor #07 (updates Mondays)

“First,” he said, “Aslaug the Vainglorious has left his lair for the first time for four hundred years. Don’t know why. Don’t know what’s prodded him into action. But he’s up and about, and looking for trouble, I dare say.”

“Aslaug the…?”

“Vainglorious,” said Twit. “A dragon. A fire-drake of the ancient days of yore. Big yellow eyes. Fiery breath. Green and black scales. Great wings, more massive that the sails of the barge that ferries the dead. All that and a ton of bricks.”

Caewen jerked her head back and looked up. “Is he around here?”

“No, no, no. He lives on the other side of the Deepwode. No trouble for us folk at all. Why, he’d be leagues and leagues away.”

“Don’t dragons fly?” said Dapplegrim, his voice a little arch.

“Ahem. But it is very far, and why would he come here? A place swarming with wizards. Seems dangerous, even if you are a dragon. So. If you will? Moving on. Two: the Niberlungr are in a rage because they think a magician has stolen something from them. Don’t know what, but they are going all about the fair stalls looking at lockboxes and chests and suchlike. So, the best guess is that whoever stole the thing, whatever it is, they couldn’t get it out of the chest it was in, so they took the whole chest.” A shrug. “What is inside? Who knows. But if some small hairy folks with long arms and big knotty hands want to look at your lockboxes, it’s best to let them do so. They have their ways of getting back at people who offend them. Third, and most marvellous, the oldest proclaimant of the Third Dynasty is missing and has not arrived for the Moot.” He paused, as if this momentous news should evoke some sort of reaction. Caewen just blinked, unsure what so say. She smiled, trying to look more apologetic than stupid. He continued with a sigh, “The three dynasties? They that have three representatives each on the Broadtable?” He paused. Sounding more exasperated, he said. “Oh dear. You don’t know anything, do you? I ought have taken the full piece of silver.” A deep breath in. “The governing council of the moot is called the Broadtable. They judge disputes, vote on punishments for the guilty and oversee the law of peace that holds here during the moot. There are nine proclaimants total; three proclaimants form the Dynasty of the Sun, three who serve the Night-Queen, and the final three are drawn from all the lesser, sundry parliaments: shadows, stones, waves, winds, wildwoods, that sort of thing. The Grand Old Lady of Embers, who was the representative of the Parliament of Flames has failed to arrive. Now, she could be late, or she could be dead. She’s been on the council a long time, and maybe one of the other lesser parliaments has decided they’d like their turn at having a seat? Such things have happened.”

After a pause, Caewen said, “Is that everything?”

“Is that everything? Is that everything? Look at the size of my sheets of parchment. I’ve told you more than I have written down.”

“Thank you.”

“Ah, but as I always say, don’t thank me, pay me. As you already have, I suppose that makes us even.” He was about to start ringing his bell again when there a tremendous tearing sound arose somewhere down the line of travellers. They all turned to look, startled. Twit visibly jumped. The wagon-cage with the drapery of cloth had trundled some distance down the road, but was still visible over the heads of the crowd. As they watched, it shuddered, then tilted and toppled to the left. Dull black bars of a cage were momentarily visible before they snapped and tore as the blanket fell away. A coiled, scaly shape unbent itself out of the cage and there arose a long, low shriek, like the noise of a bittern, only much louder and angrier.

“Oh dear,” said Twit. “Foolish git. I did wonder if that fellow had the beast locked up right. Looks to be, he did very certainly not have it locked up right.” He squinted. “Moor wurum, I reckon. Ah well.” Turning away from the sudden uproar of screams and panicked yells, he started ringing his cowbell. “Hear all about it! Wizards and magicians slaughtered by rampant moor wurum! As fresh as news can get.” He was walking up the line of travellers, away from the commotion. “Happening at this very moment. Here all about it! Murderous rampage by moor wurum! One silver for the full tale.”

“Come on!” said Caewen. She prodded at Dapple. “Well?”

“You want to get closer to that thing?”

“Yes.” She drew her sword. “Well, no,” she corrected herself, “but someone has to do something.” Her fingers turned slightly damp at the tips. Settling herself higher in the saddle, putting weight onto the stirrups, she tried to feel brave and mostly failed. Well, she thought, I might as well try to look and sound brave. “Yes. Charge. Now.”

“Alright.” They clattered off at a gallop. He shook a snort out of his nose. “It really is going to be a nuisance having to find someone else to buy me hay though. Hur.”

-oOo-

Fair Upon the Tor #06 (updates Mondays)

With oddly jolting, sudden motions he waved a hand at the forest and said, “You came out of the Crow Hall. I saw you. Blimey. That is something. I mean, not many people are willing to walk through there. Herself of the Deathly might take an interest in you.” And then he looked at Dapplegrim and Caewen again, eyeing them up and down a bit, as if suddenly suspicious. “You didn’t, well, you know, come into possession of anything did you? I know it’d be nothing of my business, but it would be news, wouldn’t it? If that were to happen.”

“No,” said Caewen. “I’m afraid we did not.”

“Ah well,” he said, after a moment, “Would have been a good tale. Nonetheless. Nonetheless.” He patted his chest. “Call me Twit.” He waved a hand at them and his face turned into a mock-frown with half-lidded eyes. “Now, now. Don’t ask. I’ll get to that right away. Cause everyone asks. Twit? What sort of name is that? My full and proper name is Twit le de Bird of the family le de Bird. Much as my pappie and grandpappie and great grandpappies all the way back, I am in the gossip business, you see. Utterings. Newsings. Musings. Rumours. Tattles. Drolls. You name ’em, I got ‘im. Tall tales. Short tales. Little squiggly tales with an odd ending that really makes you think. When people say they heard it from a little birdie, they mean me.” He scratched his nose. “Well, half the time they mean me. The other half the time, if they are proper wizards, like this lot, they probably actually were talking to birds. Wizards are like that, aren’t they?”

Despite herself, Caewen found herself taking something of a liking the strange man. She smiled. “I see. Um. Do you have any rumours for sale?”

“Funny you should ask.” He pulled out a bundle of pages tied up with a ribbon. Writ in red-letter chancery, and common blackletter and southron too, in case that is your preference. All the most tantalising news there is. Just one silver penny a sheet.” Each sheet did have three blocks of writing, each in a different lettering. Presumably it was the same news repeated three times.

“Ah,” said Caewen. A hotness of flushing blood ran up her face. A slight awkward knot in her throat developed, and she said, “I don’t know my letters. Sorry.”

“Oh, no, I apologise, myself. I shouldn’t have assumed. I shouldn’t have. Not right to assume such a thing, is it? Now, another option, is that I can just tell you the best bits, quietly, under my breath so to speak. Though you have to promise not to go tattling it all over the place. I have a business to keep up after all.”

“Alright.” Caewen fished around in her purse and pulled out a silver penny. She was still rather well stocked with coins, even this long after her time with the Wisht and the goule-thing.

He looked at the coin, a shine in his eyes, but also he looked somehow conflicted. He started to reach for it, but let his hand fall. “Ah. Blimey, what is to become of me? Look, you seem like a nice lass. Are you a nice lass?”

“I suppose,” said Caewen.

“She’s awful,” said Dapplegrim. “The other day I wanted to eat some cow, and she simply refused to pay for it.”

“There was no one to pay! We can’t just eat a cow when we find one beside the road. You know that.”

“Always with the rules. Don’t eat this. Don’t eat that. Don’t make the stall bigger by knocking down walls. Don’t dig up graves.” Dapplegrim snorted. “No one uses their body when they’re dead. What good is it leaving it to rot? It’s enough to drive me crazy.”

“Well,” said Twit to Caewen, “I’ll take your word for it over his. The thing is, when I ask for a silver, I’m not really asking for a silver. You should come back to me with a price about a quarter of that, and then we argue, and finally, after an enjoyable bout of to-and-fro, we agree on a price about halfway between what I first asked, and what you first offered.” He jabbed a thumb at the crowd on the road. “If you are going to take yourself along with that lot, you best not just hand over whatever price someone asks first. You’ll end up being owned soul-and-flesh inside a day.”

“Oh. Well. Shall I offer four bits of copper or did you want to just take one half silver and some groats?”

“Ah. There’s no fun in it now, is there. Alright. Just hand it over. The half silver and groats will do.” He shook his head. “What my dead old pappie would say, I do not know.” A sigh. “So. Lean in a bit. I’ll tell you the important bits, but quietly.”

They did, Caewen and Dapplegrim leaning down to hear him whisper.