The shorter man spoke up then. “We could have some fun first. She’s not half-bad to look at.”
The other one screwed up his face in a knot. “Don’t be an idiot. If she’s here, it’s cause she’s witching a-training, right? She’s dangerous, right, weapons or none.” He then cast a quick, wary look at the stick she was gripping tight in white knuckles. “Look. I’ll hold her down, you open her neck. Quick and clean. No messing around. Then we get gone. Might be the Three Who Watch won’t even see.” He sniffed, and ran a finger up to rub his angular nose.
Short-and-hefty shrugged. “S’right, I guess. Still–we’re in the maze, and all we’ve ever done is stitch together some simple-hexes and throw the runes and the bones. I mean, she might not be dangerous.” He sounded petulant. Like a toddler with a toy taken away.
Caewen could barely believe they were having this conversation in front of her. A quick look around at the walls. Maybe, just maybe, she could climb to the top, if she got enough of a run up? No room for that though. So what then?
Tall-and-broad turned and snarled out: “And I said, no! We do this quick. We do this clean. That is that. And that is final, right?”
“Yeah?” The shorter man was turning red again, but this time it was anger pumping hot blood into his skin. “Who made you lord high king of me, eh? What if I don’t want to follow your orders? We’re both proselytes to the Deathly Waters, if you have forgotten. I got as much right to what I want, as you got to–“
At that moment a thought occurred to her. “Excuse me?” said Caewen, extending the branch out in front of her, pointing it. “Now, I didn’t want to stoop to this. After all, the goddesses probably are watching, but you know, if it is self-defence–would they seek retribution?” She shrugged. “I can take that risk.”
They both blinked at her. Short-and-hefty scoffed. “You’re threatening us with a stick? I got an axe, missus. Now, shut your mouth, else I’ll take time to bleed you out slowly, and drown you with your own blood, fathom me, s’right?”
“A wand, no mere stick. This is the Wand of Drossel, ancient and powerful artefact handing down through long years, from witch-to-witch of Drossel.”
The two men squinted. “I don’t get any sense of the eerie off it. There’s naught uncanny in that.”
A scoff from the other one. “It’s just a piece of kindling, that is.”
“Some of the most powerful tools of the art hide themselves,” she warned them. “This is one that is very well hid.” Her warning about powerful artefacts keeping themselves concealed was true enough. Lucid details floated in her mind, leftovers from the knowledge that Jack-in-the-Mist had left in her skull. She could still rattle off his elder lore, if rather vaguely. And, well, sure, this stick was of course actually just a stick, but it could be a potent and ancient wand of magic. The two men couldn’t know for certain. She tried to sound confident as she said, “Come a step close and I’ll put the fey-stroke on you both.”
The men visibly paled.
They knew what a fey-stroke was then. Caewen herself was just barely dredging and sifting through memories, hauling words out of her own dark lake of half-recollections. As she took a long, steadying breath, she focused on what she could remember. If she might pull out some convincing detail… so a fey-stroke was a charmed attack. Yes, good. Named for the fane-folk who favoured it. Alright. Maybe mention that then, too. She concentrated. Such an attack did not break the skin, but shredded the interior of a person or beast, turning them into a muck of blood and blasted organs, held together in a sack of skin. Now she felt herself wanting to blanch. Maybe she’d gone a too far, in threatening this particular magic? If they didn’t believe her, they might take badly to being threatened so gruesomely. Her fingers were starting to tremble. Her gut was clenching up in trepidation. So, what else could she pull out of the shadows of her memories? The fey-stroke was almost always lethal, if not immediately, then eventually. How much good was any of this going to do? Were they going to believe her?
The thought of being caught in such a charm had clearly stuck itself into the imaginings of the two men. They blinked their eyes at her, their expressions more cautious, more watchful. Fixing her with calculating eyes, short-and-hefty finally said, “You’re bluffing. That’s no wand. It’s a stick. And you’re no great sorceress. If you were, you wouldn’t be walking the maze like an apprentice. And you wouldn’t be giving us warning. You’d have done us for it already. S’right.” He took a step towards her. “Maybe I will gut you quick. Maybe I won’t. But you are a lying little ha’groat cur. I know a lie when I hears it.” Another step. He was within two strides of her now.
“My last warning,” said Caewen. She tensed herself up. But she failed to even sound convincing to herself. Her words came out all high pitched, threatening to slip into a full blown and shrill panic.
Another prowling step.
He reached for her, grabbing the makeshift wand, and with a wrench, he pulled it out her her grip, and snapped it in too. “S’right,” he muttered, “me and my friend are discussing how long you’re going to take to die. You be a nice girl, and maybe it will be over quicker. Less painful.” He gave her a sickly smile.
But deep inside, Caewen knew that there was another problem now. This was a new, unexpected, but immediate problem. The reason she knew all about the fey-stroke was that Jack-in-the-Mist knew all about the fey-stroke, and he knew how to cast this rather unpleasant bit of magic. He knew the way that the voice must be intoned, the twist of the fingers, the careful directing and caressing of the flows and weaves of the old powers of life and death. She had dwelled too long on the nature of the spell. She realised with a shock that she had called the spell without meaning to, and it was answering her call, deep down inside her soul. Panic and fear was rising in her, like water swamping upwards, ready to over-flood a lonely green hill. She could feel it beginning inside her. Her fear of this ugly, squat-nosed man had swarmed her mind, and atop the fear floated a scum of knowledge. The spell was rising up from her gut, through her oesophagus and into her mouth. “Oh, bloody demons of the mountains,” she said, terrified, but no longer of these two men.
She was afraid of herself.