“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?”