Fair Upon the Tor #47 (updates Mondays)

At length, she said, quietly: “Here is my last question, though it is not for my sake.” One long draw of breath. Now, she had to remember all the details. “Far to the east,” she started, “there is an Empire called Actria. I am told that they have long been threatened by a cult of priests who live in a place called the City of the Bloodied Lady. Someone I met wished very fervently to know how the City of the Bloodied Lady might be overthrown, and the cult cast down. Can you tell me how that might be achieved?”

“Difficult. It is at a great distance, and my vision is unclear at such leagues of lands and oceans. And worse, the city of which you speak is encircled, round and round, with ramparts of magic, defended by eerie beasts and necromantic constructs.” A long pause elapsed, before the goddess said, “But we know of a way. East of Temask and south of Caithroth is the Sorokorathian Desert. At the heart of the sands are twelve ancient pyramids. Equidistant among the pyramids lies a hidden chamber. It is under a sandstone statue in the shape of a gryphon half-buried in sand. In this chamber is a spear. This spear was made from the backbones and teeth of a murdered god. It rattles and hisses with a desire for blood, and its powers are terrible. In times long past, the spear of the sands had an enmity for the dark spirits that rule in The City in the Grey Dry Woods, that which you called the place of the bloodied lady: and the dead-god spear would seek the destruction of that city, if it could. Any who carries that spear to the gates of the grey, dry city will certainly bring the occultists and priests to their knees.” Her changeful eyes glinted as she looked at Caewen. “But it is a terrible weapon to unleash upon the world. It was buried and forgotten for good reasons, for the bloodlust of the spear will not be sated with a few dozen deaths, or a few hundred. Still, you ask this for another. It is rare, but not unheard of for a questioner to ask for something on behalf of another.”

“I felt sorry for her.”

“Nonetheless, it is admirable to expend a question thus.”

“Does that mean I might get another question?”

A long flicker of a laugh. “No. When the fault is mine, another question may be permitted. When the decision is yours, however selfless, the decision remains yours.”

“Worth asking, though, I suppose.”

“Questions usually are.”

“So what now?”

The goddess indicated the far end of the cave with a stretched hand. “Now, you leave. We have spoken, and I have answered your questions, as is fit payment for the turning aside of eternalness. You will find an egress away and down there…” Her words were accompanied by another flick of her fingers in the general direction. “Down at the farthest end of my house. The path thereafter will lead you out of the maze, to the point on the hillside where those supplicants who walk the maze emerge.”

Caewen started to leave then stopped herself. A scatter of worried thoughts chased through her mind like a swirl of midges on a hot buzzing Summer’s day. “What if I fail? What if the threat to the moot comes to fruition? Will you interfere?”

“No. I cannot. I am forbid. But I will not be destroyed either, only those who attend will be killed, the earth burned and ruined. In time, a moot will reform, and in time, sorcerers, witches and wizards will gather here again. That is certain, for the attraction of Sorcery Tor is powerful. It might take years. “She shrugged. “But I am everlasting. I abide, while the day and night turns.”

“I suppose you do. Well, I guess I should say, thank you. And goodbye. I don’t think I’ll be seeing you again.”

She shook her head, and her eyes, at the moment changing from a brilliant blue to a dark, deep black, shone. “No. I do not foresee us meeting again.”

Caewen walked away from the goddess, and into the more shadowed reaches of the space. She had only her footsteps for company, yet felt strangely comforted and whole, as if she had found a piece of herself that had been missing since she was very young. She took a moment to examine this feeling, but could not quite fathom what it meant, so put it aside to consider later. Once she was past the rugs and tapestries, candles, cushions and low soft chairs, she felt a cold rustle of wind against her eyelids, chilling her cheeks and lips. It was dark ahead, and she could not see the way out. Stretching her fingers forward, she groped into the blackness and found, eventually, a wet cold stone surface. Feeling her way along, a narrow rift in the stone appeared, and she was able to squeeze herself into and through this narrow, twisting passage.

Sudden grey light met her eyes as she emerged into a dull square-walled enclosure that was open to the sky. Ahead of her was a single door, tall and wide, hinged on old rusty looking plates of metal. At the door, she tested it, and found that there was some give. Just before she pushed through, Caewen did glance back and found that the crevice in the rock was gone. Maybe it had healed itself over while she had been looking away. Maybe it was shrouded with illusion. Maybe it had never really been there at all. In any instance, there was no going back.

She gave the door a shove and emerged into an eye-squinting blaze of torchlight and night-fires.

Fair Upon the Tor #46 (updates Mondays)

Caewen nodded and considered her options. She might ask whether Fafmuir could be trusted, or what Fafmuir was up to, assuming he was up to anything. Or she could ask why that assassin was at the moot. Perhaps, who hired the assassin? Although, that would be a wasted question if he had not been hired but was merely working to his own ends. For that matter, she still wanted to know whether someone was responsible for letting the wurum out of its cage? Or had that really just been an accident? And then, there were all the strange warnings from the phantoms in the maze. She might ask: why is the moot in danger? What threatens it? Or, who is the Winter King? Or, what is the Winter King? Or, is the Winter King threatening the moot? Or, why is he gathering armies? Wait. She didn’t truthfully know if he was building armies. She only had Tamsin’s word for it, and Tamsin was dead, and who knows how honest she had been. If the Winter King is planning war, then how can he be stopped? Can he be stopped? What could she say to convince the moot that there is a serious threat?

She turned all these questions over in her head, examining each one, thinking through the implications of each of them. Finally, she wetted her lips, then said, slowly and carefully, “How might I save the moot from its current danger?”

“Ah,” replied the goddess. “There are several ways. You might save the moot if you could convince everyone to flee before the last day of the gathering. You could find the pale assassin and stop him from undertaking the last of his tasks. You could find a person, mage, spirit or being who has a power of speech that would allow for calming or assuaging of serpents, dragonets, drakelings, wurums and the suchlike, but they are now in short supply hereabouts.” A smile. “You could recover the sea ivory box that was stolen from the Nibelungs and return its contents. You could steal all the treasures and gifts of the moot’s last day and remove them from harm’s sphere. Those would be the most straightforward paths visible to us. For though we do not know the precise details of all the trackways in the woods of time, those are somewhat clearer.”

“H’m. Some of that is mysterious to me, but some of the things seem easier than others. Here is my second question then, what is in the Nibelung’s stolen box?”

“That is beyond our sight. The weaves do not permit us to see within the box, for it is well-warded and guarded against all unnatural senses, be it sorcerer’s sight, scryer’s arts or clear visions. We cannot answer precisely. We know only that it was stolen, and danger might be averted if it were returned. We have given that answer already, therefore you may ask another question.”

Caewen gave the hue-shifting goddess a quizzical look. “That’s awfully nice of you. I thought creatures that answer questions in threes are more jealous of their answers than that. They always are in stories.”

“Do not always believe stories. Stories are lies.”

“Very well then. Here’s is my second question then, if this is still my second question–“

“It is.”

“What would you tell me, if you wanted me to fix this whole mess: the moot in danger, the Winter King, armies massing, all of it.”

“Clever.” Her face shifted as she smiled. “Perhaps we were too hasty. You might have provided more diversion than irritation. Nonetheless, what is done is done. I would tell you simply these three things: look to the oracles, for the oracles have been poisoned. Then, look to the north, and seek the Seeress of the Great Grey Mountain, for she knows more than I can see at such distances. My sight over such vast spans is murky and reduced in clarity. Third, it is not the moot, nor the Winter King, nor any other petty things you should be concerned about. If I wanted you to fix this whole mess, as you put it, I would advise you this: listen and listen close: A lost thing that was thought shattered and destroyed has been unearthed. Though it is only fragmentary, it is of an elder age and is powerful beyond the dreams of mortals, and beyond the notions even of most gods. This broken potency is not yet in the hands of the Winter King, but he will have it soon enough if he is not prevented. If the shattered power were to fall into his grasp? Would it be for the good or the ill? I cannot say, not with certainty, but with that power, he would have it in his craft to change the world to his liking. It would go badly for those who would not love his mastery over all things. So, find the prince Athairdrost. He has what you must take and keep safe, if you wish to ‘fix this whole mess’, as you say.”

“Athairdross… Athairdross…” she frowned. “That was the name of that phantom in the maze, the boy with the great sword that he could not lift.”

“Of that, we can say nothing unless you phrase it as a question.”

“No. It’s not a question. I have a question left though.” Ideas and thoughts raced in her skull, skittering around and leaving sparking trails of words. One more question.

Fair Upon the Tor #45 (updates Mondays)

Confused, she looked around. A cave, rough and dripping with limestone fingers. Distant echoing droplets of water tapped the silence. Rich clay-smells of cave mud lay on the air. In the near distance, ancient looking images crawled over every surface; ochre, chalk and charcoal; hunters and huntresses; strange huge beasts that she did not recognise; weird gods and spirits. Everything was illuminated by a ruddy glow of a wood fire. Something that glittered–maybe it was fool’s gold, mica or some similar mineral–had been pressed into the ceiling to give an illusion of a starlit sky in the firelight.

She noticed then, for the first time, a figure who stood apart, silent, at the farthest end of the cave. The person was thin to the point of being skeletal, slathered thickly in body-paint–white and black–long hair in straggling, red-mud painted tangles. There were remote green flames where her eyes should be.

And then, it all changed.

The firelight remained, but it spilled now from a tidy, civilised hearth. The bare walls and ochre sprays and lines receded and grew themselves into flat surfaces, becoming dressed stone walls hung with tapestries that depicted royal hunts and enchantresses in all manner of far-flung costume. The sorceresses were all in the midst of various magical works, replete with staves, swords, bells and candles. The images of primeval shamanic magic were replaced by a more civilised depiction of enchantry. The floor lost its roughness too, and all the streaky dirt evaporated away, to be replaced with luxuriant rugs. And in the shadows, the figure who stood at the dim end of the cave altered as well. Instead of a withered and ancient corpse-woman, she grew tall, and straight-backed, she held herself proudly in the fiery glow, basking, young, arrogant, beautiful. Her hair was glossy yellow-gold, her dress, all red and silver in leafy patterns. She smiled and her blue eyes lit up in the fire’s light. Though as Caewen stared, trying to grasp what she was seeing, the woman changed again. She was suddenly dusky skinned, with almond eyes and rich brown hair like oiled teak, wearing a dress as black and spangled as a starry sky. Her features shifted again, and she was white-skinned with red hair and freckles, a dress of purest sea-green silk. Now, skin as black as obsidian, bright, striking eyes, beautiful lips, ruby-hued, and a dress made from cloth of gold, hung with diamonds; complex weaves of ruddy hair, and coppery gold skin; a gown of black and white furs, spotted in a pattern of rosettes; milky skin and hair of a bearish brown hue, dress in stripes of purple and silver. As Caewen watched, the woman changed, again and again. Dozens of faces, all of them beautiful, one after another, after another, all of them young, and all of them smiling knowingly.

“Welcome to our house under the tor,” said the woman who was a shifting sweep of expressions and colours. “We are the One who are the Many, who are the Three. You have met us before. Three times, one apiece for each of the Three Great Aspects.”

“Maybe am I dead. Am I dead?”

“No.” A chime-like laugh, that changed into something more base and deep, as her features changed to a new form. Her voice shifted range as her features moved. “You are no more dead than I am. I have suspended the ruin that the untethered magic did to your flesh. I have put a little of my breath into you too, while you slept, so that you will have something more in you than just your own heart’s blood in future.” A smile. “Should you want to work such arts again, though… I caution you, I have only put a very little of my living breath into you. Do not over-use yourself. There is some crust of resilience in you now, but you will break it if you plumb yourself too deeply with lines of charms and hexes.”

“So, I’m not dead?” She considered this. “Then, um, are you planning to keep me here?” Another suspicion was growing inside her, worming itself free. “The young women who vanish in the maze. This is what happens to them, isn’t it? They become you. Or a part of you? That’s what all these faces are, the ones who were here before me? They are the many that make the one. The one who is three, who is many. I see now. You’re not a solitary goddess exactly, are you? You’re more like a thing made up of hundreds of people. Spirits. Or ghosts.”

“We are not dead.”

“But I’m more or less correct, aren’t I?”

“Yes. Perceptive,” said the goddess in her ever-shifting vocal tones. She looked like a regal young woman now, her face proudly beautiful and her eyes shimmering with arrogance. But in a breath, she was younger, barely out of childhood, and had a wholesome, farm-girlish prettiness about her. Then she was a mahogany skinned enchantress, wearing hardly any clothing at all, just loops of gold beads and a few translucent sashes of silks. And now she was sturdy, hard, icy-lovely and her complexion was closer to grey than white, with iron-hued eyes, and she wore a heavy dress of blood red velvet.

A glance around. “Who was the other one then? The man who lifted me up in the maze?” She saw a handsome, but unchanging youth, a boy getting onto being an young man. He was lying asleep in a corner.

“We would otherwise grow lonely in the cold years between moots. We keep a companion to keep us company. He is the only male walker of the maze we have ever kept here. He satisfies our loneliness, when required. He is otherwise of no consequence.” She tilted her head. “I suppose, he also has the advantage of physicality. He can fetch what we cannot.” A slight curve of a smile spread over full purplish-pink lips. “But none of that is pertinent. For now, he sleeps. Tonight, he is not needed. Tonight we have other company.” That warm, sharply aware gaze smouldered again in her eyes as she smiled.

“So, are you going to keep me here?”

“If you wish. It is a choice, ever and always a choice, and it must be ever so. I cannot force it.”

“So… then… what if I choose to go?”

“Then you give up immortality, eternal youth, happiness, and great power. If you make that choice, we must compensate you, as the old laws are writ. Those who make up their mind to leave are permitted three questions in payment, which we will answer truthfully inasmuch as we are able. Though, be well warned: the other half of the bargain is that you may never tell another of what you see, feel, touch, taste, or hear in our home. You may not speak it. You may not write it. You may not communicate it by words, spoken or graven, nor by spell-wrought images of the mind, nor by notions sent upon the magician’s winged will into another head. If you whisper a word of this meeting, you will be struck dead by curse and elder law. So it is. So it ever was. So it ever shall be. This is the bargain, and the bargain is inescapable. No distance is great enough, no power of demon, god or cosmic horror can protect you.”

“I see.” She frowned. “That seems a fair warning.”

“Fair is fair,” said the goddess as her features altered again. “And there naught fairer than the fair lady who watches the fair upon the tor.”

“That being so, I choose therefore not to stay. There are matters that I have to settle. Promises, that I have made.”

She nodded. “That is how we presumed you would choose. Truth be told, it is a relief to us, of a kind. You would have been… a disruption in the minds of the many. You are…” a considered pause now, “abrasive. Rough of edge. But, be that as it may be, you are thus and therefore allotted the three questions, which we will answer honestly and fully, as much as we are able.” A cunning sort of half-smile spread on her face as she shifted from fair-skinned to dark, to brown and gold and pale again. “For we are she who stitches the seven bright threads made of last year’s noonday stars into the contents of an empty pocket. We are she who knows where the flames go when they blow out. We can tell you where birds go when it rains. Where beasts of portent live between portentous times. We can make fabric from dawn at midnight. We can weave cloth of moonlight in the afternoon. A green oakleaf taken from a tree in winter. A drop of blood from a stone. A snowflake from a desert. These things are not beyond us. But, some things are. Ask wisely, Caewen of Drossel. Ask wisely.”

Fair Upon the Tor #44 (updates Mondays)

He mistook her tone. “That’s better,” he cooed. “You be respectful.”

It grew in her, feeling something like an urge to retch. There was a point of no return where the spell was coming out of her, and no amount of holding it back would help. It was like giving birth to a dirty flooding swamp. “Run,” she whispered under her breath, then louder: “run, run, run, runrunrunrunrun…” She yelled then, enraged at their sudden, dull, blank stares, their stupid failure to grasp what was about to happen. “Cretins! Run!”

The taller man seized upon a sudden expression of, first wonderment, then realisation. A flicker of real terror crossed his eyes. Maybe he did know enough about the art to see that something powerful was curdling around inside Caewen, that she was barely holding it back. He spun on the balls of his feet, and took off at a run. Meanwhile, the shorter, and clearly stupider, of the two men just put his hands on his hips and started to scold her again. “Here, now, if I have to put a slap across your cheek, then I’ll–“

He never finished. The fey-stroke broke loose.

It arose out of her, tearing through her blood and mind, uncontrolled and unmastered. The raw spell churned upwards, uncoiling and rising on uncanny wings. It gained a sort of living potency all of its own, turning itself into weird patterns of murk and light, as it stretched itself, just like a hawk stretching vast wings after too long cramped in a falconer’s mews. The prey caught its attention then, and the spell leapt and pounced. The short and hefty fool was caught unawares. He had only a second to blink in confused fear before he was bent backwards by the force of it. His eyes changed colour instantly, turning bright red. It was not that he bled from his eyeballs, not exactly, rather, his eyes simply lost their whites as all the vessels inside him broke open. He toppled backwards, making a sickening squelching noise.

Behind him, his friend was now at a full sprint, and nearly at the first twist in the maze. But there is no outrunning hungry magic. The fey-stroke was faster, and it caught him and tipped him over.

When Caewen regained some of her senses, she found herself staring at two crumpled bodies in front of her, both of them bleeding like a pair of mice crushed under a boot-heel.

The spell had killed, them, thoroughly and remorselessly, but as she lurched forward, and fell to her knees, she knew that it had killed her too. She had no pool of old power to draw on for the magic. Too much of her own life had been used up by that spell. Coldness and deadness ran through her flesh in thick rancid cords, so that, shaking all over, she collapsed sideways, and could do nothing better than slump herself into the wall for support. The shivering grew to spasms. She felt colder and colder. Ice strung itself out as pearls in her blood, fingertip to toe. Soon, it was difficult to breath. Before even a handful of seconds passed, she wanted to give up. Just let it all go. Give it all away. Forget about life. Forget about Dapplegrim, and Keri and Keru, and the moot, and the Winter King, whoever he was. Just let the pain flow out, along with her life’s blood. Let death in. Let life out. Be done.

It was as she was sitting there, collapsed, going deeper into the greyness, that she heard new footsteps approaching. A thin shadow fell over her, and though she tried to see who it was, her eyes refused to focus. “Who–?” she tried to say more, but only managed to murmur that single wheezing word again. “Who?”

The shape bent low over her, and a young man’s voice that she did not recognise said, “That was quite something. Herself will want to speak with you.” He sounded oddly friendly. “Quite something indeed.”

She lost her grasp on consciousness. The last sensation she knew was being lifted up from the ground by two hands and firm arms.

###

Caewen came back to herself. She felt nauseous, dizzy and stuffily warm all at once. Sitting upright–with pain–she yelled, aloud, “Run!” But then she squinted into the fire-lit air, and remembered that it was already too late for the two men, and too late for herself. The spell had already done its work.

So, was she dead then?

She poked herself with a knuckle.

Apparently not.

Fair Upon the Tor #43 (updates Mondays)

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.”

“What?”

“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.

Fair Upon the Tor #42 (updates Mondays)

Although it had been only the smallest sort of spell, the effort left her fighting for air, and feeling dizzy again too. Her right arm throbbed with an angry, hot pain. The magic had killed bits of her as it wove itself through meat, bone and tendon… small bits, certainly, perhaps no worse than what she might suffer in a serious but mundane accident: slamming into a rock wall, falling from a horse, being splashed with drops of boiling water. That last comparison stood out bold in her mind. It did feel like a mild burn had crawled the whole way from fingertips to shoulder. She closed her eyes and considered the pain. The injury would heal. Her right arm was painful to move, but that was still better than being at the mercy of the strange phantoms of this place.

She stretched her fingers, and made a weak fist. Not useless, but not useful either.

It was then, as she was considering the damage that even this tiny and minute parcel of magic had done to her, that she heard a thump. She snapped her eyes wide, alert. It was the sound of a footfall halting unexpectedly. She looked around, worried. That did not sound like any illusion.

Looking everywhere at once, wildly, she saw them. At the end of one of the adjacent lines of the maze, two men were standing, quite still, and staring in her direction: it was the two sallow-skinned Modsarie who had gone into the maze with Sgeirr. They were close together, looking squarely at her, and wearing their own startled expressions. They clearly had not been expecting to run into her, but as the second rolled over, their looks changed to a nasty, delighted anticipation.

The taller one, who had a more angular face and a big hooked nose said, surprise still strong in his voice, “Here now. That’s the slattern from before. The one who knocked the lady from her horse.”

The shorter man pulled a vicious looking hand-axe out of his belt and nodded. “Lucky us then.”

All right then, thought Caewen. Best run.

She didn’t have time to pick a likely looking path, but took off at a hard, foot-paining sprint. The sounds of a pursuit rose quick behind her, thumping boots and heavy dull wheezing breath. Neither of the two would be mages seemed to be in good shape. It was possible that she might be able to simple outpace them, if she kept her head and saved her reserves. As long as she was able to keep ahead of that axe, or whatever else they carried, she was safe. Rather than panic and exhaust herself, Caewen risked a glance over her shoulder to set a pace against the two men. They were both huffing out their cheeks, and even in the dim light of evening, a cherry glow was spreading across both faces.

Returning her attention to the path ahead–after all, tripping in the gloom would be sufficient to get her killed–she sought left and right, hoping to spot a branch that led to a likely looking portal or door. The maze must be near done with. She had been walking for so long already. As she ran, Caewen noticed something that started to niggle and worry. She was passing obvious blind-ended corridors now, dead ends in the maze that up until now seemingly had no dead ends. Was the maze changing because she was being pursued, shifting to put her in danger? Or was it just that coming to the end of the maze also meant arriving at dead-ends in the way forward? Although her capacity for thought was being eroded by the punishing headlong dash, the echo of life struck her. In old age, more options are cut off. So was she simply now in the more ‘elderly’ part of the maze, where life’s options diminish?

She swore with an angry out-breath as she turned a corner and saw a tall, flat wall ahead of her. There were still options though, a path heading off to the right, and two paths to the left. Taking the first lefthand path, she turned some more corners and found another dead end. Another very narrow way cut through the wall at an angle, and she took it, but ran directly into an expanse of raw stone that was just barely chiselled into an upright surface. Although the walls were not completely smooth, but they didn’t offer much in the way of hand-holds. She wasn’t going to climb out. That was clear. A hunt around the ground. There were no stones, but she did find a rather pathetic branch. It was something at least, and she took it up in her hand, hoping that it might look more like a weapon than a piece of dry kindling in the poor light.

The two men when they rounded the corner gave out puffs of exhaustion, and a sweaty cloud of hot vapour from their brows and exposed arms rolled off them. Steam was visible in the cooling air. The run had weakened them, and Caewen considered attacking, or charging and trying to shove past them, then run off, back the other way. It only took her a moment to decide that a frontal attack was a good way to die. Yes, they were worn out from the chase, but they were both wide-shouldered, stout-legged, and together they occupied the whole of the narrow way out from the dead-end corridor. Getting past them with only a stick for a weapon was not going to happen.

“Here now,” said the taller one, “why you so shy, eh? Running like that. Enough to make me think you don’t like the looks of us.”

The shorter man seemed much less able to articulate words, and through a few trembling huffs he managed to say, ‘S’right.” He bent over then, and for a moment looked like he was going to be sick.

“The Three Goddesses are watching this place,” tried Caewen, her mind racing. “They’ll punish murder.”

“Maybe,” said the taller one, “But the Princess Sgeirr will punish us worse if she finds out we had a chance to do you for it, and let you go.” He sniffed. “And she has her ways of seeing things. They all do, them royal folk of the house.”

“So, be your own man then,” tried Caewen. “Finish the maze and go out there, and walk away from her. You’ll both be mages, once you’ve walked the maze. Why do you need her, then? You can avoid the wrath of the Three Goddesses and just walk away from Sgeirr.”

But he shook his head. “Maybe, maybe, if you could offer me something, riches or a nice castle of me own. Maybe. But, no… Sgeirr would find us in the end, and she’d get her revenge. The royal house is like that. Rather set on revenge.”

Caewen edged back, pushing her shoulders into the wall. After a moment of her staring at them, and them staring at her she said, “So what then? You’re just going to kill me?”

“Looks that way.”

Fair Upon the Tor #41 (updates Mondays)

She walked forward, cautiously, into the next space that awaited her. And was blinded.

The enclosure was dominated by a ledge that stood over an ornate and decorated door, all resplendently carven with dragons and roses. She understood immediately that this was the last door out of this succession of weird visions, though she could no sooner explain how she knew this than explain how she had known that the dead women without jaws would be displeased by silence. Above the door stood a figure made from darkness, and pinpricked all over with the searing light of stars that were brighter than the sun. As Caewen moved closer, she realised she was mistaken. The person was actually made of sunlight, and dressed in a robe as gauzy and beautiful as the dawn. But then she saw that she had been mistaken again. No, the shape was not made out of sunlight, but rather it was formed from flames and burning embers, all of which twirled and spiralled, beat and pulsed, with every breath of the wind, and then, as she drew yet closer, she saw that the figure was actually made of soft shadows, warm, silver-tinted and enveloping, comforting to touch. She never knew or saw if there was another image behind the shadows, behind the flames, behind the sun’s corona, behind the vast spans of night sky, because, at that point she pushed through the doorway and all the strangeness, the magic, the awful weird dream fever, it all peeled away.

She was left rasping for breath, as heavily and madly as any panting dog, leaning against a dull and ordinary stone wall. Just like the walls and the carven ways she had left behind when she took the, perhaps ill-given, advise of the Faer creature, and walked into that strange place in the maze.

Oddly, as she collected her thoughts, Caewen realised that she could see again, more clearly. Why? Looking up, she saw that the sky was still the dim hard-blue and grey of evening getting into twilight. The sun was still visible, a disc of beaten old glowing silver, sinking westward. All the time that had passed while inside the weird gardens and phantom courtyards had not passed at all. Night was not yet asserted. There were no stars in the sky. Whatever had happened in that place had happened only inside that place, or maybe, she realised, inside her own thoughts, or in some other strange timeless space between things.

A sudden awful stomach clench came at her, rising upwards through her bowels. It felt like just getting out of a spinning boat in a fast river. Head pounding now, blinking at the reeling sensation, she took a long, hard breath. She suppressed an urge to retch successfully for a while, but, staggering a little, she gave up and leaned over the bring up the remnants of her midday meal. There wasn’t much left of it, and when she was done only a few sticky loops of saliva needed to be wiped away from her lips. She forced herself to walk then. A slight, damp sweat had broken out on her forehead, but it had stopped at that, and she was cooling down now in the evening air. Down the plain and rather unremarkable corridor, she went. After all, it turned out that she was still in the maze, and so she still needed to find her way out.

And then, as she scanned the walls, and the off-shoot corridors, she heard a new noise. A low, harsh wind-on-torn-flesh noise. An angry, enraged shove and rattle of breath sound: in and out, like a tide against rotting driftwood. She recognised that voice before she even looked around and saw him. Crouched above her, atop a wall and looking down with cold, distant malice in white-shot eyes, he sat–a wraithlike creature–covered in tattered rags, darkness-fleshed, and wearing a crown made of small bones, all looped together by metal thread.

It was the shade of Mannagarm.

“You can’t be here.” She stepped away from it. “No. The Wisht have you bound by their witchery. Up north,” she added, dumbly. It certainly looked real. When the wraith-thing snarled at her, she could see the rotten stumps of teeth, and she thought, it sounds real too. And it smelled real. Like coldness. And absence.

She ran.

It leapt from its stone wall-top and bounded after her, trailing a broad, fluttering cloak of mouldy grey and black after it. A glance over her shoulder, and she could see that it was gaining, bounding like a beast on all-fours, shrieking, its mouth and eyes stuffed full of darkness.

As she looked into the face of darkness and withered fleshed, a shock of realisation ran through her, and Caewen, now feeling a sudden return of the sickness in her stomach, slowed to a stop, then turned, taking a step backwards so that she was pressed up into a wall. The hard grit and the cold angles dug into her ribs and thighs. Refusing to move, she looked on the oncoming mass of rags and oily, ashy skin, the depthless eyes. It was still rushing towards her. It looked so real… and yet… for the barest moment she was sure that she could see right through it. A faint tracery of the walls beyond were visible, just for a blink.

It wasn’t real. No matter how it looked, sounded or smelled.

She told herself again.

It was not real.

A hard swallow, and she found herself desperately hoping that she was right about this. It was quite the gamble… and after all, wasn’t there a possibility that somehow the shade had been conjured here by what forces of magic lived in the maze? Squaring her shoulders, nonetheless, she reached towards it, so that, fingers stretched, she held out her hand to meet the on-rush of bitter darkness and swirling rage.

“You are not real,” she murmured. Then again, louder, “You are not here. You are the last of the fears of this place. The final vision of the maze I was walking.” She took a long, cold breath of the evening air. Heady, chill sensations ran through the nerves in her head, hands and fingertips. She sought for a spell or charm; some defence against illusion lodged in her mind by the ice-demon that had been inside her. A small, wavering mote of magic trembled, just barely alive, on the tip of her tongue, and at the tips of her fingers too. There it was, her own tiny minnow-flash of memory… drawn from the witcheries and charmworks still flickering about in her mind. And she was able to recall one small spell from the hours she had spent with the ancient ice-thing inside her skull. But, having nothing to draw her magic from–possessing no artefact, no arcane bloodline, no tethered spirit, fetish or familiar–with no such uncanny source to tap, she was obliged to draw the life’s force out of her own self. A fraction of the warmth of her body fled her. Some of her blood died inside her veins. Minute twists of dead tissue, like the tiny threads of grass-root nematodes thrashed within the muscles of her arm and her hand. But she caught the magic all the same, and she held it firmly, not letting it go. It was barely magic at all. Barely a spell, and nothing like the charms she had conjured when she had been bound to the old ice creature. And yet, there it was: a small squirming glimmer, twisting between thumb and forefinger.

The ashy and cloak-heavy Mannagarm slowed to a lumber, and swayed a little, as if unsure, or afraid. The wraith was so close now. As close as a friend in conversation, so she closed her eyes, hoped again that she had guessed right, and she parted her finger and thumb and blew the magic into the ghaist with one quick puff of lung air. The silvery light made a dizzying, hard-spinning line, like an airy seed tossed on sharp winds. It struck the thing that was pretending to be the dead Mannagarm, and there was a small flutter of internal light, like a candle far out in a swamp. Then, rapidly, cracks appeared over the surface of the darkness and the rags, and the whole of the phantom split and fell apart, breaking and scattering like flakes of old glass. The pieces skittered, bouncing here and there, but lay still only a moment before gusting away in their own tiny pyres of smoke. All gone. All dissolved into the air.

“Just an illusion,” she said. “The last of them.”

So were they all illusions then, if the dead Mannagarm had been? The young Mannagarm too, and her own doppleganger, and the harp in the tree, and the figures of night-sky, daylight, fire and shadow?

Maybe, then. Maybe. She shook her head and did everything she could to not fall over, leaning her whole weight into the all behind her.

Fair Upon the Tor #40 (updates Mondays)

“What next?” she asked herself, as she cut through the darkening corridors and laneways. She met the answer not far along, in another little walled garden. The space was not very large, about as far across as a cottage, and was dominated by a large, scrabble-twigged tree that was leafless and grey. The walls on either side were so white that they looked as if they might have been carved from chalk, and under the emergent stars and moonlight, the stonework possessed its own ghostly quality. The tree itself was strange… not a type or breed that Caewen had ever seen, and though the lack of leaves suggested it might be some manner of oak, beech or hazel, it looked nothing quite like any of those trees. Oddly, too, Caewen realised, there were no remnants of Autumn’s leaf fall on the stone-paved ground through which a half-dozen visible tops of roots rent small clefts like hungry fingers. Even if the tree had lost its leaves months ago, the mulch would be heaped up in the corners of this walled space. Yet, there was no hint of any leaf or mould, litter, twig or even the slimy grime that comes after well decayed vegetation.

She walked around the tree, and was startled by a pluck of half-musical notes. Looking about, Caewen thought at first that there must have been another person in the garden after all, but she saw no one. She searched the branches of the tree then, and discovered a harp, dangling by a rusty iron chain, and swaying. It was about half-way up into the crown. A few more uneven and mindless notes sung from it. It seemed that the wind was catching a few stray notes from the gut-strings. She moved closer to it, finding it intriguing but not entirely sure why. Deep down inside her chest, she was aware of a sensation that was a sort of fearful attraction. And though she found herself wanting to gaze at the harp, she also understood without knowing how or why, that she did not dare climb into the tree and try to touch it. There was a sort of lethality to the shape and sound of it. A beautiful deadliness.

The instrument itself was made of some pale wood, inlaid with peals and chips of jet. There was silver braiding up and down the length of it, and the strings seemed to have a wan, silver hint to them too.

As it swayed on its length of chain, the links creaked, and a few stray notes plucked out of it again. They did have a musical quality. Something… whether it was the wind, or the tree, or the harp itself, or some other unseen intuition of force, was playing the harp. Something was making music, albeit unfriendly and wild to the ear.

Even as she listened–a little bit transfixed by the notes–a cold pine-needle feeling of discomfit brushed down her spine, along the underside of her arms, into her knuckles. The space behind her ears, and down her neck gave her an unpleasant twitching feeling. The notes grew and grew in her mind, taking up more and more space there, crowding out her own thoughts.

Being in the presence of the harp became too much for her to bear. She had to get away from it, out of this space and far away.

Hurrying, she left the walled garden.

She stole just one quick glance back at the harp, hanging on its red-spotted, rust-dappled chain, and she thought she did see the phantasmal outline of a person. Though, if there had been someone sitting there, perched up in the tree, the shape was gone a moment later. And though she stared, no matter how hard she looked, she could not see the shape again. The harp too had fallen silent.

Shrugging her cloak up around her shoulders, rucking the hood up so that it formed into a heap of hard, scraping cloth around her neck, pushing up under her hair, she curled her shoulders and walked on. Whatever had been in the space with the harp, she did not like the feel of it, but somehow it had been undeniably attractive too. It was the sort of sensation that was dangerous. An unsettling urge to learn more about something that was clearly, deeply dangerous. She felt like a mouse who had just seen a glimpse of beauty in the sinuous body of a cat.

After the courtyard with the chained, swaying harp and the bare tree, the maze-spaces and rock-cut corridors grew stranger still. It became harder for Caewen to focus, or even recall clearly what things she saw, or in what order.

There was a dead man laughing and dancing in a chamber full of shadows. There was a great coiling mass of reptilian scales, curling around and around a plinth on which rested something like a broken pearl tooth, and all of it smelling of brine, saltiness and rotten kelp. There was a man in a silver mask sitting on a throne. There was a majestically beautiful horseman hunting after a small, sad hairy creature that looked almost, but not quite, human. And finally, at the end of all this, she came to a room in which there was a statue, cut from hard white stone, of a woman draped from head-to-toe in a silken shroud. Her hands were out-held, and clasped in front of her was a human skull. This, Caewen decided on immediate glance, was death itself, surely, and not the local death of this hill and wizard’s moot either. The great death. The death at the end of all things.

She turned her face away from the statue as she walked passed it, and tried to think of something, anything else, but the vision of the carven woman in the stone shroud still filled her inner eye.

So, shivering, she pushed herself past the statue, not daring to look at it another time. The crawling suspicion that it was perhaps not actually a statue at all, but merely as still and as dead as white marble crept around in her thoughts and would not let go its whispers.

After the carved death she stopped short in a long, wide avenue that was thonged with… people? Or at least, something that had been people. Dozens of old woman, withered, corpse-like, dressed in funerary rags, grave-dirt on their necks and sleeves, they all stood to either side, a row of silent sentinels. All of them had had their jaws removed, cut away at the hinges, and each old corpse-women wore her severed jaw on a rope necklet slung around her neck and chest. In their left hands, they carried a spindle whorl, and with the right they raised arthritic, knotted old joints, like drift wood, and pointed at the far end of the way. There was no other way out, and she could not go back. She had no choice but to follow the way they indicated.

Just like a life, she thought to herself again. No choice but onward. With a nod she addressed them, because it seemed to her that they expected some response, and might be displeased if they did not get it. “Very well,” she murmured, “thank you,” and she followed the way that they pointed, passing them. They smelled of wet earth and grave soil, bloat, earthworms and old rotten linen. Their tongues, visible in the carved-up mouth, lay like still dead slugs, mottled and lifeless.

Closing her eyes against the visions, she worked to refocus herself, tried hard to steady her breathing, and somehow, without even a good sense of understanding how, she succeeded.

And then she was through them.

And past them.

The dozens of dead jawless women were behind her.

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Post forty on Fair Upon the Tor. We’re now about 60,000 words into the story, more or less, and I’m expecting there to be another 20,000 or so. Maybe a bit more. I’m working ahead of the posts, so that there may be a point (time permitting) where I can start posting this in larger chunks, or maybe 2-3 posts per week instead of the one per week. I’m looking forward to having it complete so that I can make A Charm for the Nameless Child available, which is already complete at a second draft stage (though will require at least one more editing pass). Anyway, thank you everyone for keeping along with the story. There aren’t many comments, but I can see via the stats that there are some regular readers scattered around the globe, so thank you. Much appreciated.

Fair Upon the Tor #39 (updates Mondays)

He seemed affronted, and taken aback, blinking those weak coloured eyes, pursing his lips, and even quivering a little, just along the line of his brow, but, at last, he answered, “If I could but wield this that I possess, then I might avert all that will otherwise befall, and all the folk of the moot would then look upon me and acknowledge my greatness.” His eyes wandered then, drifting, and slipping in and out of focus. “They would reward me. A seat on the boradtable, no doubt. At the very least. I would be chiefmost among the four princes of Sorthe too. I would rule in comfort, and in safety.” A almost whine-like tone crept into his voice on that last musing.

“If you could but wield that thing, you would be twenty foot tall, and a giant among mortals. I imagine you would not need any sword then, large or small, to attract praises of greatness.”

He let out a half-whistling scoff of a noise, clearing upwards out of his throat and through his nose. “Shows what you know. This would be as light to master as any sparring sword made of wood, if it were only whole.” He snarled with effort then, moving his arms against the dead weight, twisting the blade and swivelling it. A harsh scraping noise came from the tip where it scratched the stone flags across the other side of the encircling pool of water. Light shone down its edge, and a triangular notch of metal, missing from the sword about half way along, came into sight on this new angle.

She sighed. Right then. Another phantom wanting something strange and unattainable. “I suppose you are sitting there wishing for that shard of metal then?”

“Of course.”

“Well,” she continued, “I haven’t seen any chips of steel, but if I see one, I’ll let you know.”

“Ensure that you do.”

With a shake of her head, she made to go. She was stepping away from him, already leaving behind this boy on his strange perch of rock, with his odd fiery pool and his strange too-large sword, when it occurred to her to ask, “Hold a moment–who are you? I mean, I know Mannagarm. And I know myself, but I don’t know you at all. Are you at the moot?” Reflecting she added, “Out there I mean. You are here, obviously, or some semblance of you is, I guess.” The phantoms in this place really did make very little sense to her.

“Here? Idiot! I’m no fool, though you must be a grand fool to have come to the moot. You see, I have stayed far away.” With an ominous note that bordered on the theatrical, he added, “I was warned,” and he looked down at the pool of flickering lit-up water. “The voice whispered to me.” One detached sniff followed. He waved his spare hand. “Besides, I’ve tasks to see to. Decrees that must be made. I am a prince, after all. One of the four Princelings of Sorthe. As for who I am, you may address me as His Grace, Athairdrost.”

“The name means nothing to me.” She said this thoughtfully, as much for herself as him. “Though… isn’t Sorthe a kingdom far in the north and east? North of Brae? Off east of the mountains, isn’t it?” She then considered carefully what she said next, testing the conversation like a fisherman dabbling a hook into water, afraid that she would scare away a slippery fish with too jolting a touch. “Are you under the sway of The Winter King?”

“Of course not. Sorthe is a realm and dominion unto itself.” After an uncomfortable pause, he did say, with a touch of concession, “Although the Four Crowns have entered into alliance with that personage, the pact is wholly in the favour of Sorthe, I assure you. The Four Crowns of Sorthe do not cow before him.” Though when he said this, his eyes did dash back and forth, as if he was half-expecting someone, or something, to manifest. When nothing eventuated, he seemed to grow bolder. “You ask a lot of questions.” A light glinted in his eyes. “Ah, I see it now. You are a spy! I have been warned about spies, and assassins too! You want to take my treasure from me. You will not! I will not let you.” With a colder crust to his tone, he cast his voice quietly into the dark air, “Arise to me, vassals of mine.” A smile. “Those who serve me will not ever, no never allow harm to come near me.” Stress daubed fragility into his throat. With more than a little of the breaking in and out of a teenage rasp in his throat, he declared, as if giving an order: “Take her! Bring her!”

Immediately, a cold touch of fingers brushed over the back of Caewen’s neck, and something caught at her hair. She lunged forward, then wove off to one side on nothing but instinct. Other invisible hands plucked at her, grasping–still weakly–at her clothing, hair, her skin. Pulling herself still further away, she twisted and broke free from the soft, chill touches, then stumbled as fast as she could around the water-bounded rock where the boy remained perched, glaring with his bright grey coloured eyes.

She ran for the door at the far end of the little stone courtyard, and made its threshold, just as fingers were grabbing and scrabbling at her back.

The moment she was through the doorway, the groping and clawing stopped. She looked back, racking her lungs for breath, and saw him, now quite white-faced, definitely enraged, pointing after her. He was shrieking, wordless and high-pitched, like a spoiled child, ready to throw his toys. But his unseen servants, for all that they had a chill otherworldliness to their cold hands, they did not follow after her.

She was safe in the doorway.

Rattled, she leaned into the wall on one hand, and called back at the waterlit, firelit boy, “I take it back, Athair-whatever-your-name-is. If I find that piece of your sword, I will keep it for myself, drill a hole in it, and wear it for a trophy. I do not know who you are, for truth, or what you are, but if you cross my path in the world of trees and earth, I swear you will come off the worse for it.”

This enraged the prince still more. He descended into a incoherent boil of words. And yet, despite what was now a blistering, spittle coated anger that babbled out of his lips, the boy remained unwilling, or unable, to get down from his little stone precipice. It was only his spit-covered, echoing knot of rage that followed Caewen, as she stalked out of that space, and into the next length of stonework, and onwards.

She shook out a sigh and bowed her head, tired.

Just one more insubstantial spectre, unable to do harm, but able to rattle and frighten.

Fair Upon the Tor #38 (updates Mondays)

She waited, anxious, for a few moments after her other-self vanished. Half-expecting to hear a scream, or a terrified yell, and completely at a loss as to what she would do if her double were to cry out for help, Caewen persisted in waiting, just a little longer, a bit longer still. But there were no cries for help. There were no sounds or signs of the double at all. And though the treed dell was small, the double-self did not emerge from the other end of it. Eventually, Caewen accepted that unless she followed the double into the wooded dell herself, she was not going to see or hear anything more of the vision… thing… phantom… or whatever it was

She forced a shrug, and, with effort, she tried to feel nonchalant about this.

It was, after all, surely just some fevered illusion born of this place, anyway? Definitely. Just a phantom… or ghost of the brain, dredged up from the dark oceanic under-thoughts of the mind. Just a thing woven from her own secret fears concerning how the world looked on her, and placed her, and considered her.

Surely.

Casting a quick glance along the clear path, she took the last few paces back to its relative safeness and surety. With a shake of her head, she turned over more thoughts. Strange phantoms, indeed. Living ghosts. Memories and fears, made real. Though, to what end? Looking about, she saw the outlines of the maze walls, all around her in the near distance, and squirming in wormlike patterns up the hill slope, a mass of curdled lines, grey against the blackness of the tor. Much farther up the flank of the tor, some fires were now being lit. Small and flickering, remote. She felt cold, alone. With a leaping, throat-clawing desperation she wanted to be beside a warm fire. Away from this maze. Away from the gathering night. Away from the weird hauntings of the pathways.

As she trudged the ridge of the grassy embankment, stepping lightly along her open trail, Caewen did wonder if it really had been such a good choice to follow her curiosity through the door into this other place. “I ought have just kept on walking the maze out there,” she said to herself, though not with much conviction, and not with much of a sense of self-accusation either. After all, she thought to herself, she had just spoken to a mirror-self that seemingly had no purpose except to the take foolish risks out of a misguided sense of the invulnerable heroic.

Either the magic of this place had a sense of irony, or her own unconscious did. Either way, it didn’t strike her as amusing, and it all felt rather on the nose.

She quickly passed the place where the two paths reformed, and looked back one last time at the dell. Darkness as thick as midnight clung to the trees, and the roots, and under the leafy boughs. There was still no sign of the other, mirror Caewen. So, what more could she do then?

Certainly not wait about all night, watching the stars spin.

Onward then, to follow the path and see where this tangled mess led to next.

Her bare dirt track ran downhill, and then in and out of a handful of small, walled-in squares, all empty except for signs of having once held gardens. No other branchlets broke off these small squares, and there remained just the one gateway out of each, into the next. This part of the maze was not very mazelike at all. Just one long straight road disguised as something more convoluted.

“Hmph,” she said aloud, half a snort. Just like the maze out there, she thought. Just like a walk through life. Seemingly full of choices, and twists and turns, but really rather more direct than most people want to admit, running without much digression from start to end.

The pathways in the courtyards drew her along, and at length, deposited her outside one large doorway, lit from within by the umber glow of fire. The rock walls here were more finely cut, but were jumbled, as if they had been taken, stone-by-stone out of a castle or great city, and reassembled in odd, ill-fitting rows. Shades jumped in the uncertain flame-light. She could smell woodsmoke, and she peered into the next space only tentatively, scrunching her nose against the prickly grey fume-scent. It seemed a touch too coincidental that she had just been wishing for a fire, and now, here she was at a doorway that promised a fire beyond.

No immediate rustle or mutter of voices met her. Well, perhaps that was a good sign? Maybe the maze was done with her, and was going to allow her to find a way to an exit.

But when she stepped through the door and looked round, she felt a sigh ride through her, and her shoulders sagged. Another one.

He was sitting, hunch-shouldered on a stool made of rock, decorated all over with weird carvings. The rock looked raw and old, and, strangely, there was a little moat of water around him, as if he was trapped by it. In his hands he held the hilt of a sword that was ludicrously too large and too long. It was a sword fit for a godlike giant–magnificent, decorated with red-gold scrollwork and creatures, and three times taller than the boy. The boy himself was rather skinny, rather pimply and a bit sad looking, in a self-pitying kind of way. He would have been about Caewen’s own age, she guessed.

Taking a moment to look around, Caewen could not at first locate the fire, though the air was throaty with smoke. She walked a little way into this squared off yard, and thought for a moment she had found the reflection of the fire, only it wasn’t a reflection. The fire seemed to be burning underwater in the miniature moat, and the smoke was coming off the water, like mist off a mountain loch.

The boy still faced away from her.

“Hello,” she tried.

He started, and looked up with eyes that had a washed-out quality. It was only now that she noticed he was wearing a simple coronet made of raw white gold, polished to the point of being a high silver-white spectre of reflections. The fire’s flickers ran along the crown’s edge, and jumped in the boy’s eyes and tripped down the long, unwieldy length of sharp steel he so clumsily grasped the hilt of.

When he spoke, his voice sounded as snivelly as his expression looked. “I didn’t see you there. What do you want?”

“Oh. Um. I guess I was expecting you to tell me all about how the moot is in danger, and how you must save it.”

A flustered snarl. “How did you know that? It is the greatest of my secrets.”

She fought hard to not roll her eyes. “Call it a wild guess.” With a tilt of the head, and a frown, she asked, “So how are you planning to save the moot from this terrible danger then? With that sword of yours? It doesn’t look a very practical weapon.”