Fair Upon the Tor #64 (updates Mondays, mostly)

Apologies for the delayed post. Nothing serious. Just overwhelmed by things that had to get done yesterday, and ended up having to let the post slide until today.

-oOo-

 

Quinnya eased herself into a kneel beside the body, and then leaned low over Letha, looking at her face. Letha’s eyes were already open, staring mutely, blindly, but Quinnya used her fingers and thumbs to push them open wider still, until the dead eyeballs were protrudent. She muttered a few words and spat into each eye.

Caewen started to say, “What are you doing?” but Dapplegrim hushed her.

Quinnya’s breathing grew more ragged, more forced, and her face flushed with a hot under-glow. A glisten of sweat now was visible on her brow, and a single trickle of it ran down the side of her neck. Quinnya started to tremble. A faint light appeared deep in the dead girl’s eyes. It was like the light of a storm, flickering, coming and going, just over the horizon. At last Quinnya let go of Letha’s head and the corpse slumped like a doll back to the ground. The dead girl made a sticky sound as she resettled back into the pool of her own mostly dried blood.

Quinnya seemed to need to catch her breath after the spell-working. She got up, moved a little unsteadily to a rude stool that sat near the door, and sat herself down in a heap of night-gown and frazzled breathing. After a few seconds she said, “There was a man. His face was hidden by a hood, but he wore a pale cloak, maybe white? Maybe a very light grey? He came in through the back and surprised Letha. There was no obvious magic, just a knife. But there was something odd about him too. A sense of something amiss. I don’t know what exactly… but something about him felt unreal.” She looked at Dapplegrim. “It seems your suspicion about him is right. There was a strangeness to him. He might not be a real person at all, just a trick, or illusion maybe. Or someone wearing an illusion.” She shifted her gaze to Caewen. “However, you have nothing to do with the murder either. I was able to see that clearly.” A pause. “Which is good.”

Caewen opened her mouth, surprised. She blinked. “Why would you think we have something to do with this?”

“You’d be shocked at what people think is clever. A person kills someone. Often enough, they’ll report ‘finding’ the corpse to the sheriff or town guard, thinking that such folks will be tricked. I suppose a person thinks that if they are a witness, or a helper unto the law of the land, they can’t be a killer, well and well. However, those of us who oversee such matters are seldom fools.”

“I see,” replied Caewen. She looked at the ground, at the red-black dampness of the blood on the stamped down grass of the floor. “The man you described, it does sounds like the assassin whom Fafmuir was taking an interest in. He was drinking in a beer-stall, over by the market.” She thought back. “It was, what… only yesterday? So much has happened.” A feeling of tiredness sludged around in her head as she thought about it all. “So much.”

“Fafmuir? The Magician of the Dawn Chorus?” She made a horizontal jab with one hand to indicate height. “Shortish man, going bald, round face, cheery smile? Likes to whistle?”

“That’s him, yes.”

“Now, that complicates things. Fafmuir’s on the Broad-Table. He’s one of the three grand representatives of the magi of brightness and day.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Well. If he is involved, either plotting or working against a plot to murder, then there is something very much larger here than some petty killings. I wonder what is at work then?” She looked at Letha’s still face. “I wonder if we ought to have a word with him? Fafmuir, I mean. After all, She of the Many, the Three and the One don’t seem to be acting against these murders. And why is that then?”

“H’m,” replied Caewen, fixing Quinnya with a more careful, studying look. “Dapple?” she said. “Are you sure you can follow the trail of blood? Could you maybe check? Just go out a bit and come back.”

He shrugged his fore-shoulders. “Sure. If you like.” With a swish of fabric, Dapplegrim pushed out of the tent through the tear in the back. They could hear his hoof-falls receding.

Caewen waited a moment before she said, “You said ‘no’ to her too, didn’t you? When you were young and walked the maze? You must have come out through the central door, too.”

Quinnya gave Caewen back a hard long stare. Finally, she said, “That’s a dangerous topic of conversation. A person might come to a bad end by disclosing matters that are secrets of the gods and the godlike.”

“And yet I am not dead. You are not dead. Either the goddess isn’t quite so good at ensuring her secrets as she implied, or I haven’t divulged a secret. You know about the cave under the tor, and the ghosts as well, I wager. You met her, and you declined her offer. Just as I did.”

After another longish moment, Quinnya settled herself, adjusted her shoulders and said, “How did you know?”

“I’ve not heard anyone else call the goddess ‘the many’. Even if that title is used, you’ve been using it too consistently, too often. It was as if you knew why she was ‘the many’. You know about the patchwork of ghosts, all of them lost maze-walkers. And, now that I think about it, you reacted rather too strongly to my coming out through the central door. You weren’t suspicious of me, though, were you? You knew exactly what I had encountered… where I had been… what I had seen… but you were deflecting suspicion. You didn’t want anyone else to wonder.”

“That is more or less the truth of it.” Quinnya looked up then, and twisted, glancing over her shoulder, as if looking for something foul or terrible to come racing at them from the tor that rose behind and above the tents. She raised her eyebrows, looked back at Caewen. “Well, it does seem I’m not dead. You’re not dead either. Her vengeance has not visited us for discussing the truth of her.”

A shrug. “We both know the truth. There were no secrets to divulge, really.”

“I suppose so. M’m.” She changed the subject, abruptly. “Now, where has that horse-thing of yours got too?”

Caewen started towards the rent in the fabric, but looked back at Letha. “Do we just leave her? That seems wrong.”

“No choice. I’ll send someone in the morning. For now, we can’t risk the murderer escaping.”

“Yes. I guess so.”

“Indeed it is so. Onward.”

They stepped out through the tear in the tent wall and found themselves in a narrow space between the rear sides of many other tents, all crowded together. There were guy ropes criss-crossing the air all over the place, and quite a foetid stink. Caewen eventually traced the smell to chamber pots, which had presumably been shoved out the back of each of the respective owner’s tent. “Best not to trip,” said Caewen as she picked her way among the taut ropes. “Now where has Dapple got to?”

Just as she wondered this, his great black shadow moved across the gap at the far end of the tents. Red eyes dully alight were the only detail visible. He spoke loudly, above conversation but just short of a shout. “Hurm. The trail goes off this way. Hurry. The scent is fading.”

They made their way to him, then paced along a few feet behind, as Dapplegrim sniffed at the air and ground. Twice he lead them down the wrong way, then had to double-back. After the second time, he mused aloud, “I think the cunning bugger did that on purpose.”

“Language, creature!” exclaimed Quinnya at once. “Young lady. Please inform your beast that sort of talk is not acceptable among his betters.”

She shrugged. “I can tell him, but he can hear you, and he says what he says, and does what he does, more or less however he wishes. I don’t have any rein over him.” Turning then to him. “Dapplgrim, what did you mean, by that? He did that on purpose?”

“The murderer went off down that way, then doubled back, then went off this other way. He was counting on the possibility of hounds, I reckon. Hrmmm.”

Caewen looked with puzzlement down the other path. “Will that work?”

“Eh, sometimes. Because he went down the path, and back up it, the scent is twice as strong that way. So, yes, it is possible to get confused, but a good dog master would bring the dogs back up and down the path and find the other trail. It might delay, but not stop.” He snorted. “Luckily, I’m much smarter than a dog, so such tricks won’t help him elude us for very long at all.”

Quinnya frowned. “Or could the murderer simply be of two minds? Maybe he is acting indecisively, well?”

“Could be,” conceded Dapple. He seemed a little annoyed, perhaps preferring to have outflanked a clever trick. “Anyway, this way now. Hurry along. Hurm.”

He trotted off, and they followed.

Fair Upon the Tor #63 (updates Mondays)

“Between night and day?”

“Them two?” A wave of a hand. “Ah, yes, of course, but they’re always fighting anyway. No, it’s not all about the Goddess-Queens of Brightness and Darkness. There are the multitudes of the third dynasty too. They need to talk and moot just as much, probably more so, because they actually bother to listen to each other. Grievances among the third dynasty stand a real chance of being resolved here. We are not all of us divine fanatics. Yet, the fire-workers and the parliament of stones, the shadows and the snows, the rain, the woods or the ocean… well might they descend into bickering and wars if there were no way to resolve petty arguments peacefully. If those two celestial goddesses want to endlessly fight, like a couple spinster sisters in a hovel, so be it. But rain cannot fight with earth. The ocean cannot fight with air. It cannot be allowed. The consequences for all living and growing things would be disastrous.”

“That does sound rather bad.”

“Rather bad? Rather bad? Humph! That is rather understating the matter. The importance of the third dynasty for the continued peaceful turning of the seasons, growing of crops, and the health of herds, woods and waters is rather under-appreciated.” A formal sounding sniff. “To put it mildly.”

“So, you’ll help us?”

“Erm. Maybe. What is it you wanted again?”

“Just directions to the place where Letha has her tent.”

Quinnya stared into the sky a moment, raising her gaze and pointed chin alike upwards. “But you might be tricking me. You might be planning to murder poor Letha yourself. Maybe you are the assassins, well? Did you think of that?”

Dapplegrim rolled his red glinting eyes. “Oh, brother! Please. Then come with us and see that we are not. Frankly, I’d be happy to have you along. You’re an officiator of the moot, after all. Them mad and merry night-revellers will have to leave us alone, proper like, so long as you’re with us. Hurm.”

“Probably,” said Quinnya. “Probably. Ermmm. But what if I am the assassin? Have you thought of that?”

“Are you?” asked Caewen.

The magess seemed to consider this a moment and said, carefully, “No, I don’t think so. But one can never be sure about these things.”

Caewen tried to put on a smile. “Ah. Well, yes. That’s good enough for me.”

“Very well then. Shall we?” She didn’t wait for an answer, but turned to her left and marched off downhill.

“Um,” ventured Caewen. “Don’t you want to put on a dress? Or tie up your hair? Or get some shoes?”

“When you reach my age, lass, you will find you care a great deal less about appearances. And these slippers are quite comfortable, thank you very much. I am quite contented with my current garb, raiment and attire.”

Caewen looked at Dapplegrim. She shrugged. “Alright then.” And they hurried to catch up.

###

They arrived at a small, rather humble looking round-tent. It was made from some kind of animal hide; each pelt of a striped brown, black and golden yellow. The zigzag appearance of the skins stitched together at haphazard angles gave the tent a sort of mad aspect in the moonshine. As they drew nearer, it became possible to see that the flap was unlaced and blowing gently in the wind. It made a tap, tap, tap noise as one corner slapped back against the tent wall.

“Hello?” said Caewen, not wanting a repeat of the confusion at Quinnya’s tent. “Letha? Are you in there?” Silence. “Dapplegrim?” she asked.

He drew in a long sniff. “Blood. A lot of it.”

“Useful horse,” mused Quinnya, giving him a sidelong look.

They moved into the shadowy recesses of the canopy. A single candle was guttering against the wind inside. There was a tear in the back of the tent. It was through this gap that the cold breaths of air were sneaking in to play with the candle-flame. The only other light was the moon’s glow, which held itself in a ragged and shifting shape against the skin ceiling: a dull round circlet of white-stained stripes that moved as the tent’s roof rose and fell with the wind. It took Caewen’s eyes a moment to adjust. But as soon as her sight grew used to the dark, she blinked and fought an urge to look away. Letha was stretched out, staring at the ceiling, back arched awkwardly in the middle of the tent. A long gash had opened up all of her throat. The cut was so deep that a glint of white was visible inside the wet red. Presumably, neck bones. Near Letha’s feet lay the dead body of her pet drakeling, its neck wrung at an angle that no living creature would survive. Whoever had done this had evidently been quick, brutal and thorough. They had wanted both Letha and her pet creature dead.

Quinnya walked over to the body, knelt down and shook her head, at the same time letting out a long low heave of a sigh. “Well, you weren’t lying. She’s been dead a while though. Several hours, I’d say at a guess. Stone cold to touch. The blood’s all clotted to a brown tack. You can see she’s stiffening a little too. The rigidity of death is setting in.”

Caewen edged around the body, trying not to look at the dead staring eyes, and failing. That she had been speaking with Letha only a matter of hours ago, that this was the same young woman, dead… she tried to force the thoughts from her mind, to shove aside the gathering twists of shock and disgust, the stunned sense of horror, but managed only to make herself feel queasy. Her fingertips prickled hot. A twisting funnel of coldness danced in her gut. She crossed the rest of the space quickly, occupying her thoughts by moving to the torn skins at the back of the tent. She peered out through the rent, then touched a finger to its edge. “This is frayed. Someone cut their way in. Maybe Letha was asleep? Or her back was turned?” She checked the wet earth outside. “I don’t see any footprints? Dapplegrim, you’ve keener eyes and nostrils.”

He trotted through the tent, stepping over Letha as if she were a log in a forest. His nonchalant step across the dead girl gave Caewen a twinge of discomfit, though she covered it up by frowning and looking back outside, into the night, then hugging herself as if cold. “Can you see any tracks, Dapple?”

“No,” he said, peering at the ground. “But I can smell her blood.” His nostrils flared. “The murder was not clean. Hurm. The killer got spots of blood all over themselves. I can track the scent of it.”

It was Quinnya who asked, “Can you really smell a spray of blood on clothing so clearly?”

He grinned, craning his neck around, looking her in the eye. “A half of my parentage very much enjoys tracking the smell of blood. So, yes, I can scent it well enough, hur.” He then paused a moment, holding his words carefully, before saying, “But there is another thing.”

“Yes?”

“Well?”

“Whoever killed that woman and her pet left no body odour. Inside the tent, here, there is only the smell of the blood, and the lived-in stink of skin, clothing, oils, hair, a salty undertone of the dragonet. Only the girl, her pet, and death. Nothing else.”

Caewen screwed up her forehead in a frown. “What kind of creature would leave no scent?”

Quinnya made a hard, thrumming noise. “A magical construct? A ghost. A spirit. Maybe a god..?”

Dapplegrim snorted. “Hurm. But then I ought to be able to smell the curdling after-hints of the thing’s magic, shouldn’t I? There’s none of that, neither. And it’s not a phantom.” He sniffed. “A ghostly thing wouldn’t get blood on it, would it? Whatever killed that girl was solid enough. There is just a… well, hur, I suppose the only way to put it, is there is an absence. It feels as if there was a smell perhaps, but it was cut out of the air. Or it’s concealed behind the air itself?”

“Is that possible?” said Caewen. “And how?”

“Hur. How should I know?”

Quinnya frowned. “But it is a good question.”

Fair Upon the Tor #62 (updates Mondays)

Given the way that Dapplegrim was sniffing the air and the soil as they crept along, Caewen felt almost as if she were riding a huge dog rather than something more in the shape of a horse. They wove between tents and edged along the shadowy lips of the ridges that ran around the hillside. Every now and then, there was a distant rumour of voices, and more than once Caewen heard mingled screaming and laughter. She prodded Dapplegrim on the neck the first time there was a distant pained shriek, but he just shook his head, and whispered, “Not unless you actually want to die tonight.” With a snort he added, more thoughtfully, “Besides, despite what it sounds like, the revels really are fun and games for the worshipers, or… at least until someone gets over-zealous and someone else gets thrown on a bonfire.”

They moved on, uphill and further away from the noises of the festival. At last, they came to the wide flat grassy area that spread before the gates to the maze. The stone gateway itself stood silent, blackness-choked and remote at the end of the open expanse. Caewen sat up a little higher in the saddle, and looked around. “Do you see the tent? What was it, grey and silver with lightning on it? There’s only a few tents hereabouts.”

“I see it,” said Dapplegrim, and he started forward.

The tent was not lit from within, though it had a single lamp standing outside on a crooked post stuck into the ground. Either the flame was blue or the glass was. A wide and weirdly patterned splash of turquoise light spread over the ground, moving ever so slightly as the wind touched the lantern and set it swaying.

“Hello?” tried Caewen. She got down. “Magess Quinnya?”

An irritated voice rasped from behind the grey canvas. “Go away. I’m not of night, nor day, and I want none of your nonsense.”

“Quinnya. Listen, please: it’s Caewen. Um, you probably don’t remember, or maybe you do, but I walked the maze today and–“

“Go away. I’m not of night, nor day, and I want none of your nonsense.”

“Quinnya?”

“Go away. I’m not of night, nor day, and I want none of your nonsense.”

Caewen and Dapplegrim looked at each other. “That’s odd,” said Dapple.

“Can you smell her?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Can you tell if she’s alive?”

He sniffed. “Probably alive. I guess. I mean, not definitely, but there’s no smell of blood.” A snuffle. “No viscera either.”

“Well, that’s something.” Caewen stepped forward and prodded fingertips into the tent flap. It wasn’t laced up, and she pushed it apart easily. “Quinnya? Hello?”

The voice jumped up at her as if out of the darkness. “Go away. I’m not of night, nor day, and I want none of your nonsense.”

Caewen stepped back and gave a small, surprised yelp.

She shook her head.

“It’s just a bird,” she said. “On a perch inside the tent.”

As her heart rate eased back towards a normal pulse she realised that the bird was speaking in Quinnya’s voice. The thing was sitting on a turned wooden pole with a cross-beam, tethered in place by a delicate chain on its leg. She opened the flap again and looked at it. It eyed her back, one bright red-yellow eye gleaming in the shadows. It looked something like a crow or rook, only a bit smaller and sleeker, and its feathers were pied, not black. On more careful scrutiny, the creature struck her as looking very much like it was part-way between a crow and a magpie. Glaring at her with those rich orange eyes, it was intently alert. “Just a bird,” she repeat, trying to reassure herself. “Hello? Quinnya.”

A loud holler answered her. Caewen started, and saw the old woman–wearing a night-gown and velvet slippers–running towards her with a huge spiked mace raised over her head. She was yelling at the top of her lungs in a wordless, enraged scream.

Caewen stumbled backwards again, quickly and more clumsily this time. “Stop, stop, stop! It’s just me.” She ducked in time to avoid having the side of her skull caved in. “Wait! Stop!” She managed to scramble out of the tent and into the frail shimmer of blue light outside, then ended up on the ground on her rear. “Wait!”

Quinnya stepped out after her, her rusty iron mace raised. She was panting, and her eyes were wide and angry. “You dare sneak into my tent? I’m going to mount what’s left of your head on my lamp.”

“Stop! We weren’t sneaking.”

Dapplegrim intervened himself then. He stepped between Caewen and Quinnya, and turned his skullish face and red eyes towards the dishevelled woman with her frizzed, wild grey hair and that heavy cudgel in her hands.

“Who? What?” spat Quinnya. “A horse? Don’t think I won’t bash you into hanks of tenderised meat and serve you for dinner, you, you… horse.” She squinted. “Horse. Hold a moment. You two?” She squinted at them. “So, is it murder then? Skullduggery, well?” Her voice narrowed. “A foolish prank? Or was it merely some thievery?” The mace made a slapping sound against her palm as she hefted it absently.

“None and neither,” said Caewen, exasperated. “We just need your help.”

“Help? Really? That so, is it? Funny hour for calling by.” More suspiciously, she said, “And I thought you said you weren’t night-folks.”

“We aren’t. Or,” tried Caewen, “I’m not. He sort of is.”

“But I’m not really on the team, hurrm. More of a free agent.”

“That so.” She said this flatly, and she was still idly hefting the mace. This was done with a noticeable casualness, as if it were a stick she happened to have picked up on a walk. “Maybe I ought just call down some of my lightning. Blast you both into oily stains in the dirt, well?”

“Honestly. We just need your help. Listen, please. If not for us, then for the moot, or for Letha. You didn’t hate Letha did you? She seemed nice enough.”

“Letha?” Quinnya lowered he mace a fraction. “Letha. Letha. From the sunlands? Dark complexion? Red hair? Green eyes? Little puckling drake as a pet? That Letha?”

“Yes, that Letha.”

Quinnya seemed to consider this a moment, giving Caewen a chance to get up and brush some of the dirt and old dead grass-seeds off herself.

“What of her?” said Quinnya.

“She’s in danger.”

“It is the night of the festivities celebrating Old Night and Chaos. We are all of us in danger. So what?”

“It’s nothing to do with anything like that. Let me see. Alright. I suppose it started when we first arrived. There was a caged wagon with a wurum in it–” Caewen did her best to rapidly explain, but was sure she’d left some things out by the end, and got other things completely confused.

“I don’t understand. Who did you say is killing magicians at the moot?” asked Quinnya.

“We don’t know.”

“This is nonsense. I would know. And besides, the goddess who is many, three and one…”

“Doesn’t seem to know either, or cannot stop them, or will not. Whatever the reason, we have to act.”

“Whyever should we?”

“Well,” said Caewen. “You did say that where the goddess failed to act, it would fall to you as an officiator of the moot to exact justice. What could demand justice more than this? Someone has found a way to murder magicians at the moot, and avoid the punishment of the patron goddess too. Why and how, are not clear, admittedly. But if this continues…”

The stormy haired woman thrummed in her throat. “Yes, yes, I see. Soon enough, there will be no moot. The only reason all this lot of witches and wizards are even so much as willing to gather here is the enforced peace of the goddess. If that were to fail–” A thumming note of concern. “The moot is important for keeping the peace among the various peoples of the Clay-o-the-green too, well. Too important to let it fall apart.” She looked down at her fingertips, still gripping the mace haft. Her forehead knitted into a ragtag stack of wrinkles. “The moot must continue. It is necessary for resolving complaints and salving insults. Or else there will certainly be fighting.”

Fair Upon the Tor #61 (updates Mondays)

“And you were simply standing around… watching… what was it you said?”

“The Tent of Gifts.”

Before Caewen could ask what this was, Keri cut in, anticipating the question. “The two dynasties, Day and Night, give the other peace gifts at each moot.” She shrugged. “The presents are kept in a tent, and on the last feast night, they are doled out to the bigwigs… kings, mage-lords, sorceress-queens; the grand and fancy folk take their pick, then the next fanciest and so on. Lesser nobility maybe get a few leftover scraps.”

“Thanks. I was wondering. Uhm. Obviously.”

“You looked confused.”

“So, then, what about the third dynasty, nature, elements…”

Keri shrugged and said, “Don’t know. Guess they get something too?”

But Samarkarantha shook his head. “No. They do neither receive nor give gifts. They are not at war, and do not need to offer make-peaces.”

“And besides”, added Dapple. “They wouldn’t worth bribing, would they? The third dynasty doesn’t have any cohesion, does it? Hur. It’s all just a bunch of factions, fighting each other most of the time. Why bother buttering them up with pricey trinkets?”

Caewen paced across the tent, then turned on her heel as a realisation struck her. “Letha!”

“What’s Letha?” said Dapplegrim.

“No, no… who, who is Letha. I am such a fool. I spoke to her outside the maze. She had a little dragon-thing, a pet creature. She could speak to it. Oh, gods of stars, ash and sun… if she hasn’t already been killed–“

“Someone will try soon enough,” said Keri. “That fits the mould of the murders.”

“It does. But how do we find her? How would we warn her?”

A silence then hung between then, stretched out like a cold limp sheet. They exchanged glances, one to the other, to another. It was Keri who eventually spoke, saying, “Was she walking the maze?”

“Yes.”

“Then she will be on Quinnya’s list. Quinnya will know where her tent is pitched, or caravan parked.”

“Where is Quinnya then?”

Samarkarantha answered, quietly. “She always raises her tent at the foot of the maze. Near the entrance. It’s a great grey and silver thing with clouds and canvas turrets and white lightning bolts stitched into the fabric.”

“Right then. Keri, did you want to come?” Caewen started towards the door.

“Are you mad?” Keri’s eyes were immediately wide with disbelief. “You’ve already gone out into the festival once, and once is enough. It only gets more crazed as the night goes on. You go out now–there are packs of night-worshippers just strutting about, looking for sacrifices. And someone already near enough killed Samarkarantha and Pel. Clearly, whoever is behind the killings knows about us now. They are watching us, without question. We’re staying in his tent. We’re all staying in this tent.”

“Hiding in a tent didn’t do the snake worshippers any good. They’re all still burned to cinders.”

“It’s better than going out there,” snapped Keri.

“Keri is right,” tried Samarkarantha. “Pel and I are not without skill and arts of defence. We are, to be truthful, far more dangerous persons than you, or your shadow-horse thing. And whomsoever is undertaking these killings, well, they had no compunctions nor hesitancies about the two of us. Of you? They may well make short work.”

“So what? We just wait until dawn. What if the murderer is planning to kill Letha tonight? We have to warn her. We have to at least try.” She looked questioningly at Samarkarantha. “Well?”

He sighed. “If I were not already badly hurt, I would go with you. But look at me. I can barely breath without pain.” He looked at the ground, and shifted, uncomfortably. “Caewen, please listen. Please. Mark well what I have already said to you: I am no hedge-wizard, nor paltry conjurer. I have real power, deep and marbled with veins of old magic. And yet, I was ambushed, and nearly killed. If the murderer comes for you…” He shook his head. “I don’t wish to be some old doomsayer, but you will not survive. You’ve no real power. Not really. You will be killed.”

“Keri,” she tried again. “Surely you won’t stand by… that’s not who you are.”

She shut her eyes tight. “No. It’s not. But I can’t leave my brother either. I can’t.” She drew in a suffocated breath. “My parents.” Then opened her eyes and looking squarely at Caewen. “If there is a clean fight, I will be at your back. But not this…. wandering around in the darkness, stumbling about… hoping to find some stranger’s tent before the night-worshipers find you. No, Caewen. There is right and there is wrong, but there is also sensible and there is just plain stupid. No.” Her head hung a little. “I’m staying here. With Keru. Someone has to.”

“Fine.” She turned for the way out. “It’s just me and Dapple, then.”

“Hurm. I don’t want to be a wet fog on your dawn, Caewen, but they are both right: it really isn’t sensible. We were lucky the first time we went out. We might not be this time. And the revels do get more, hurm, exuberant, as the night goes on. It’s riskier now than it was before midnight.” His voice grew more philosophic. “Sometimes to hesitate is to lose, but sometimes to hesitate is to not be standing in the way when a tree falls on the path.” Softly, he added a “Hurrrrm,” and a “hur.”

“Fine. I’ll go alone.”

Keri raised her voice. “Caewen. Please.”

“Hurm. And I didn’t say I would let you go alone. Only that I think this is a foolish choice.” He smiled and his jagged teeth shone against the lamplight. “But what are we two if not fools?”

“Alright then. Let’s think about this a moment. Could you outrun night-worshippers? If we were chased?”

“Probably. Depends on the night-worshiper. But they might surround us and I can only jump so far.” He turned over some thoughts, then said, “I might be able to bluff my way past a mob. Anyone from beyond the Snowy Mountains would know of my father–but, they would probably not know I am estranged from my father.”

“I thought you said you father was some sort of forest demon, who snuck out of the woods one night?”

“That is true. Hurm. But he has rights and powers. Few would want to cross him openly. Hrmmm.”

“There is that then. And, couldn’t you just sniff us around trouble? You’ve a good nose. Could you smell night-folk and skirt them?”

“Perhaps. Yes. It might work. Hrm. “Yes. Quite possibly. But it will have to be just you and me. To move quickly, I can’t be carrying more than one person.”

“It was just you and me to start with.” She resumed walking towards the tent flap when Keri cleared her throat.

“Caewen?”

“What?”

“Er. You may want to put some more clothes on. You’re still dressed in undergarmets.”

“And you should take your sword,” said Samarkarantha.

“Oh. Yes.” A little embarrassed, she scrambled and pulled on her rough dress, and socks, boots and belt, finally looping her scabbard on. “Right then. Ready, Dapple?”

“As I ever will be,” he replied.

Fair Upon the Tor #60 (updates Mondays)

It was about a half hour later when Dapplegrim’s voice roused, jolting Caewen back to full wakefulness, “Ho! Hurm! They’re back! Caewen! Come! Quick.”

She jumped up, dashed for the outside, and pushed through the fabric into cold air and cloud-strained moonlight. Keri was close behind her. Both of them were still only mostly dressed, but wide awake, having spent an endless-seeming span listening to the biloko cry and whimper. Even Keru had stirred from sleep a bit, turning and thrashing, before slipping back into his restless, exhausted slumber.

Outside, a light drizzle had started up, so that Caewen felt the pricks of small hard cold spots as she stood: sparks of ice against bare shoulders, face, throat and arms. Dapplegrim was swishing his tail agitatedly, staring off into darkness.

“Where?” she said.

“Over there. Coming this way, by that big green tent.”

They all started off in the direction and soon spotted Samarakantha. He was hobbling towards them, supporting a limp and sagging Pel. They were both welted all over by awful bruises, and their skin was streaked alike with thin but bloody rake-marks. It looked as if they had been attacked by a swarm of small, sharp cutthroat razors.

Samarkarantha started and raised a hand, defensively, before recognising his guests and relaxing.

“Oh, you,” he said, barely forming the words. “Kindly be your hours, days and year. And peace be upon you.”

“And the same to you and yours,” said Caewen. “Whatever has happened, you’re safe now. The tent is nearby. Come… we’ll help.”

He blinked a few times, as if trying to clear sweat out of his eyes, and gave a nod of understanding. “Yes, good, Yes. Thank you. Thank you so much. We were attacked.”

Caewen put an arm around Pel, and Keri went to help support Samakarantha. He looked like he was barely keeping himself upright.

“By what?” said Caewen.

“Not now.” He winced, and screwed his eyes tight against a rush of pain as he moved. “Inside. Inside first.”

They moved a barely conscious Pel to a heap of pillows and laid her down gently. Wherever her gold toned skin wasn’t purpled and greyed by bruising, it was bloody from the streaky claw marks.

“What happened to you? What attacked you?” asked Caewen again.

Samarkarantha only muttered and shook his head. He eased himself to his knees beside Pel, closed his eyes and began to speak. As he did, the biloko crept out of their shadows and their misery, and crawled towards him, fawning, reaching out with groping hands, touching his legs and feet. He spoke as they whimpered. “There was once a young woman,” said Samarkarantha, “whose name was Peloxanna the Actrian. She was very brave, elegant and lovely, but most of all brave, for she went along with a foolish wizard to look after some treasures. Someone did not appreciate this. The two of them were attacked by someone… something.. and she was injured terribly. But Pel was strong. Pel was hale. Pel did not succumb to the bleak magic.” His voice grew in strength and gathered into itself a sort of resonance. A diamond-like perfect echo of itself. “She fought, and she outfought the killing curse. The magic did not kill her. It could not kill her. Peloxanna was too strong.” As he spoke a healthier flush returned to Pel’s face and neck, and some of the bruises seemed to diminish. Her face, which had been wrenched into a rictus of hard pain, relaxed, and her feline eyes opened briefly, taking in the tent and the lamplight, Samarkarantha’s face. She blinked, and managed to say through dry lips. “Are we safe? Are they gone?”

“We are safe,” he answered. “This tent has fine wards upon it. They will not cross the boundary.” She started to say something more, but he hushed her. “No, no. Rest for now. Rest.” Her eyes fluttered closed and she slumped into a loose-limbed sleep.

He looked around then and saw Keru. “Seems you’ve fared as badly as we did tonight. How is your brother? He looks badly hurt.” He began to inch towards Keru, though the effort clearly left him in agony, and his biloko were trying to stop him.

They were hissing, “No, no, master of bells, save your strength.”–“No more of the arts.”–“Please, be kind to yourself. Please!”

But it was Keri who stopped him, saying, “He will recover. There are already healing arts upon him. There’s no need for you to exhaust yourself more.” She grew sterner in her voice. “And you need to rest. Honestly, you’re near as beat up as Pel.”

He nodded, and sagged down to the floor. “I am.”

“Now, tell us what happened?” said Caewen.

“Pel brought me a rumour, back, earlier today.” He coughed and blood came out the corner of his mouth. “Someone lurking around the Tent of Gifts. You walked in on us discussing it this afteroon.” Another deep, rattling cough. A thin smile.  “You’re not the only ones who have noticed that matters are strange in the moot. Pel has been going about secretly on my behalf, asking questions, looking, prodding, listening. We have grown certain that an unknown someone or something has been sneaking about the moot. This person, or thing–whatever they are–was near the Tent of Gifts, yesterday and in the evening. We went looking. Thought we might stand watch, if it was called for. Then, attacked.”

“By who? By what?” said Keri.

He shook his head. “Dark magic. Black birds made of death magic, cold and terrible.” A shiver ran down his face. “Foul things.” His focus detached and wavered then, as he remembered.

Caewen shook her head. “But surely that’s not possible. The goddess of the tor would want retribution. She wouldn’t allow it.”

“The three who are one have abandoned the moot,” whispered Samarkarantha. “That much is now clear to me now. How else could these murders be allowed? How else could we be attacked with dark witchery and curse-sendings, without reprisal, without justice?”

“No, she hasn’t.” Caewen winced as soon as she said it. Both Samarkarantha and Keri looked at her, questions in their eyes. Dapplegrim, from the flap snorted. She wetted her lips, looked down at the ground, and said, “I mean… I can’t tell you why–I’m not allowed to–but I know for certain that the goddess is still watching over the moot. Something else is amiss. Something is hiding these killings from her. Hold a moment, you must know about all the other murders too then?”

“Yes. We were aware. In fact, we thought your Keru was a possible victim that had not been quite cleanly killed. That’s why we took you in.”

“To protect us?” said Caewen.

“That… yes. And, we thought the murderer might come back for you.”

“Oh,” said Keri, realisation dawning in her voice. “I don’t know if I like being treated as blood smeared on a hook.”

He only shrugged. “And to protect you. Well guarded bait, if you like. But Pel and I have also understood that there is a pattern to the killings, yes. Serpent-speakers, dragon-tongues, snake-charmers.” He shrugged. “We don’t know why.”

“H’m.” She focused her thoughts inward, considering. “How might a person avoid the gaze of the threefold goddesses?”

Samarkarantha looked at her. “There would be ways, but they are either rare or dangerous, or both. And even if one or more magicians were to shroud their flesh from her sight, the spellwork itself could never be hidden from her. She is a goddess of magic, and no magic can be hidden from her. If the bleak arts were used: she would know.”

“And yet, it seems she does not.” Caewen stood up, and took a few brief paces, trying to think. “Black birds? Like crows?”

“Maybe. I didn’t see them clearly. It was dark and there were dozens of them, maybe more. We barely escaped.”

Fair Upon the Tor #59 (updates Mondays)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

“I have no idea.”

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

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

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

“And trade us.”

“And they will never free us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t think… wait… Dapple?”

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

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

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

“Then what?” said Caewen.

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

She turned to Keri.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair Upon the Tor #58 (updates Mondays)

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

###

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

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

Caewen asked about that last one.

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

“Are they buried with a spinning whorl too?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“You could smell it, or taste it?”

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

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

“Nonsense.”

“Yes. I thought so.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Dapple?”

“Yes?”

“A moment of seriousness.”

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

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

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

“A person not to be trifled with.”

“Indeed. Hrmm.”

“I’m starting to wonder about Fafmuir.”

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

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

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

“True. True. Hurm.”

Fair Upon the Tor #56 (updates Mondays)

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

Harper shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can it wait a minute?”

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

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

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

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

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

“How so?” said Caewen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a–” started Harper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“They’re both unfailing in their memory.”

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

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

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

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

“What?” said Caewen.

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

“What are you–?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No it wasn’t.”

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

“And also not a sorcerer.”

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

Fair Upon the Tor #55 (updates Mondays)

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

“True enough. Hrm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Caewen and this is Dapplegrim.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Surely,” agreed Caewen.

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

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

They both shook their heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me, for one.”

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

“Rhe-tori-what?”

“It doesn’t matter. Come on.”