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.”

Fair Upon the Tor #37 (updates Mondays)

She left him then, and kept walking the path, past the dead tree, eventually reaching the other side of the enclosure. As she went, the sounds of his angry, under-breath muttering trailed along with her, like dust pulled in the wake of a passing wagon.

Once Caewen was away from the grass-covered mound, the words dimmed off into faintnesses, and then were gone. Those tall, harshly hewn and carven walls, that had made a wide encirclement of the tree and hillock, crept back in, closing on either side of the path, forming into a narrower way once more. The trackway ran on between the walls, and with no other way to go, she followed it, looking around, listening, wondering. A good few minutes of walking passed her by, before the way widened again, and spilled her into another scene of eerie grassy wilderness, all lit white, and zinc-hued in the gathering moonlight. Moths were rising out of the thick, rank leaves, fluttering silent circles, ghost-pale in the dusk cold air. Just a little way ahead, the path split in two, and then ran parallel on these two prongs. For a span of a good few hundred paces at the least, the two dirt tracks lay seemingly side-by-side. This was odd. Why have two paths alongside each other? She hunted up the length of them with her eyes.

The path to the left did eventually ease off downhill and then plunge into a small but thick and shadowy wood. The path on the right just curved itself off and away: skirting the dark wood, and taking an easier, more open way. Far ahead, on the other side of the wood, the two paths rejoined. There seemed no reason to take the lefthand path at all… unless a person actually wanted to trudge into a tangled and airless little wooded dell. Caewen didn’t take long to decide which path to choose. She was happily moving at a quick step on the open, clear way, when she saw a figure moving with the same speed towards the dark forest, off to her left.

“A’hey there!” she called. Waving her hands, she called out again, “Halloo!”

The figure, who seemed to be of about her own height, and of a slender frame, turned to look, and waved back. With posture and countenance much more friendly than the young Mannagarm, the person called back, and it was the voice a young woman that carried over the grass to Caewen. “Hello there, to you.” An odd familiarity, and an odd, quare sense of discomfit flitted across the grass with those words also. A tautening of her skin jumped along the back of he neck, in the hollows of her knees, down the back of her hands. The voice was familiar.

The two of them left their respective paths, crossed the grassy ground and met halfway. As they drew closer, Caewen felt her unease unfold and enlarge. Once they were at a conversational distance, it was unmistakable. She could no longer tell herself anything else. Caewen was clearly looking at her own self, reflected back at her. True, this mirror self was dressed in some manner of outlandish outfit, like a court fool, in green and red, and, yes,  she carried nothing but a stout walking stick: but, her own smiling face was gazing back at her, clear eyed, and, to Caewen’s way of thinking, wearing an expression that was more than a bit irritatingly naive. Even perhaps, slightly vacant.

“Why, hello there, fellow traveller,” said the mirror Caewen in red-and-green, apparently either unperturbed by, or unaware of any resemblance. “Are you walking around the woods then?”

“Um.” Caewen collected some words together in a basket of thoughts, and tried to find a way through this conversation, “Yes, yes… I guess I am. It looks like you were about to walk straight into the dell.” She looked at the dark wooded gully, all tangled, all shadowed, and overgrown with low scrabbly ferns, scrub, and clawing trees. A stirring of noises of unseen and wild things was drifting out of the woods too. Unpleasant things were waiting in there. “Shouldn’t you consider taking the open path? I mean, the way I’m walking is much clearer, and surely less dangerous?”

“H’m, that might be true.” The mirror-self furrowed her face up in a way that Caewen recognised from the inside. She did that herself when she was thinking seriously about a problem. It was disconcerting. Hearing herself speak. Watching her facial expressions dance, and wrinkle, and jump about in fits of idle thought. “I’m taking this path into the woods because the moot is threatened, and everyone will be slaughtered if someone doesn’t do something about it.” The other Caewen looked at the forest, and bit her underlip. Another of Caewen’s own habits that she was not always totally aware of. “It will be a bloody slaughter, if nothing is done. But, rumour has it that there is a treasure hidden in those woods, and whoever owns that treasure will be able to restore peace, and save everyone, and the whole of the moot will be rescued, and the whole of everything else too maybe. And so, into the dark woods is where I must go.”

“But there might be nothing at all hidden in that little wildwood though, surely? I mean, it’s not even very big. And I can hear beasts in there. Look!” She pointed. “You can see shapes moving in the leaves. It’s a foolish risk… for what? A possibility of some mysterious treasure? What makes you think these rumours are even true?”

“Well, if I were hiding a wonderful treasure, it is the sort of place I’d hide it. Only stands to reason, if you think about it. Put it somewhere creepy and uncanny where no one much would want to look for it.”

“I suppose,” she conceded. A glance again at the dark woods, and back at this other self, standing before her, armed only with a stout walking stick. “I don’t suppose I could convince you to walk with me around the forest?”

“Oh no. I can’t take the safe path. That just isn’t for me.”

“It wouldn’t be, would it? H’m. If only Dapple were here now. He would be laughing himself into fits. Me, arguing with myself, trying to convince myself not to go into dangerous places.”

“Oh yes.” Her eyes lit up and a smile that was full of joy and memories broke over her face. “He would laugh so, wouldn’t he? Good ol’ Dapplegrim.”

“You know you’re me then?”

“Oh yes, of course.”

“And it doesn’t trouble you?” asked Caewen.

“Why would it? Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we each had a Dapplegrim? We’d be quite the sight then.”

“You’re making me uncomfortable.”

A genuine look of puzzlement came of the mirror Caewen’s face. “How so?”

“You just are,” Caewen said. “Here, listen a moment, if you will? Can you tell me what is threatening the moot. That phantom who called himself Mannagarm said the same thing. The whole moot is in terrible danger–or something–but from what?”

“Oh no, of course I can’t tell you that. It would be against all the rules.” She kicked at the ground and looked a touch embarrassed. “And, to be honest, you really ought have worked it out by now. You already have all the necessary lines of the riddle. You just need to put them together.” More proudly, she added, “Like I did.”

Caewen folded her arms. She could feel her face solidifying into an unpleasant scowl. “You’re not helpful.”

Her doppleganger just laughed. “It takes one to know one.” She gave out a small sketch of a bow, followed by another of her broad smiles. “Now, if you excuse me, I need to be off on my way. I’ve a treasure to find, and a whole mootful of sorcerers, witches, wizards and suchlike to save from certain death.” She tipped her red and green hat, and turned her back to Caewen, and strode back to the path that led into the darkness of interlarded trees. With a cheerful, somewhat artless whistle, she strolled into the murk of the forest. Within moments she was lost to sight.

Was that how other people saw her? She wondered about it. Or was this how she was afraid she saw herself? Or was it some apparition drawn from some other time and place? Had she been actually talking to herself, or just to a semblance of herself? And that whistling was not pleasant. She would have to ask Dapplegrim to tell her honestly if she needed to practise her own whistle. Surely, she whistled better than that.

Distractedly, she tried a few notes, considering them, and soured on the sound of them. Maybe her ability to hold a tune was that bad?

Fair Upon the Tor #36 (updates Mondays)

The Faer creature who called herself Moggie Moulach grinned, wide and sharp and plaque-stained yellow. “Good. The incurious never find out curious things. Shall I walk you to the door? I cannot go beyond it, unfortunately, but you will find the way easily enough from here, aye.”

“I suppose you might.” Caewen let herself fall into a slow rhythmic sort of stroll, down among the twisting, silent-shrieking carvings with their madness stretching between the stars, and then to the point at the wall where the door stood. Moggie came after her, ambling and scuffling along, her tail leaving a twisting snake-like mark in the grime and dust.

Giving the door a push, Caewen found that it gave way only under strain. It crunched against the stone flag it was set on, as if it had settled over a long time, contorting into a shape it was never meant to inhabit. “It just looks gloomy. Like a woodshed full of cobwebs.” Darkness welled up in front of her, and she searched it, sniffing at the wet damp, at the hints of mossy rot and long undisturbed earth. “What lies beyond?”

“Aye, well, that would be the curious thing. What you find will very much depend on what you are. I cannot tell you more, for I do not know more.”

“That would be about right.” She allowed herself one small, irritated smirk. “Well, I suppose after all this is done, Dapple will thrash me with a string of knotted words for having taken such a risk on behalf of… well… whatever you and your folk are exactly.” The snorting sound she then made at the back of her throat made her want to cough. She sputtered, mock incredulous: “You did what, on the advice of who? Just to see what was on the other side? Hur! Hurm! Reckless!” She gave a shrug. “But, nothing chanced, nothing won. As is said.”

“As is said,” agreed Moggie. “Good luck, then.”

“Thank you. Assuming I make it out of this accursed maze alive, assuming we ever cross paths again, I’ll let you know how this all works out.”

“Please do.”

Caewen turned herself fully to the doorway and with one measured stride, she passed within.

###

At first, it was like passing through cobwebs, curtains and curtains of them. The air grew darker, cloying to feel against the skin, and it was hard to breathe. Then, without warning, the thin and fibrous murk fell away and Caewen was standing on a grassy open span. At first, she thought she’d need to pat herself down, but the webs, if that is what they had been, appeared to have dissolved completely off her skin and clothing. There was no trace of the congealed stuff that had been making it hard to breathe a moment ago. She looked around, wondering what this place was. There were walls, but they were some distance off, so that she seemed to be in a sort of enclosed garden, and not the small, nasty and cramped labyrinthine ways that she had been walking through until now. Overhead, the stars were definitely coming into their own full glory, and there was a distinctly silvery sheen to the air and the grass.

Looking around, she identified what seemed to be a path worn into the grass, and followed it with her eyes, seeing it climb, and rise, and, presumably, meander towards some other way out of this wall-encircled space. With no other obvious course to take, she decided to follow the trail. There was, she supposed, no reason not to.

Moving her feet against pebbles and chalky soil, Caewen climbed the rise, and as she did, she slowly became aware of a muttering noise from ahead. At the top of the hill she found herself presented with a strange sight: there was an old dead tree and two round objects, glowing bright with silvery light, which seemed to be caught in the branches. A young man was walking around and around the base of the tree, mumbling to himself.

“Hello there?” said Caewen, hesitant. Was this one of the other postulants, walking the maze? Or someone else entirely? Other than the Faer woman, she hadn’t seen so much as a trace of any other person in the maze.

He looked up at her, with a swift, aggressive jolt of the head, and Caewen felt a twisting frisson of recognition. His face was much younger, not yet wrecked and broken by a bad life. There were no liver-spots on him, no trenches of wrinkles, and his eyes even held a small note of the hopefulness of youth. And yet, it was unmistakable. This was Mannagarm. A young Mannagarm, yes, but it was the warlock-chief of Drossel, nonetheless.

“What are you gawping at?” he spat, full of his same relentless vinegar and snarl.

“I just… I’m sorry. I thought you were bound by the Wisht… and… well, dead.”

“I am dead, you fool-of-a-straw-ninny.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

“Why, that ought be obvious.” He stood back from the tree, folding his arms, and very nearly growling out his next words. “The moot is in peril, awful, nasty danger. There’s a terrible threat, oh yes there is, and everyone… every last one of you is going to be dead if nothing is done about it. If I could only get these two moons out of this tree, then I’d have the power to meet the threat. I could restore peace to the moot, and then they’d have to let me in as a proper magician, wouldn’t they?” He turned his attention back to the tree. “But how, how?”

Caewen looked more carefully at the silvery-white orbs. He was right. They were two duplicates of the moon, caught in the tree like airy dandelion fluff, blown there by the wind and snarled up in the twigs. “I might help, if you like? I could push you up into the tree?”

“What? You must think I’m a fool. Don’t you come near me. You killed me once, already. I’m not going to let you murder me again. That’s what you want. I know it is. Sneaking about. Planning my murder. You’d think killing me once would be enough. But on no, not you. Oh look, there’s Mannagarm. Quick. Better kill him even though I did that already. Mgrrm. M’n.” Eyes narrowing, he said, “Get yourself away from me.”

She started to protest, but within the same breath she saw the impossibleness of arguing with a ghost, or delusion, or trick-of-magic, or whatever this vision was. Caewen took a breath to steady herself, caught a whiff of him as she did, and was struck by how real and earthy he smelled. His body scent was of unwashed salt-sweat and raw wool. He seemed real. But no. He could not be. The shade of Mannagarm haunted a place very far from here. Whatever this was, it was not him. With a shake of her head, Caewen edged around the barren tree. “I mean you no more harm than I ever meant you. It was you own greed that killed you. Your own desire for power.”

“Urrrgh. You just keep telling yourself the pretty lies, then. A person knows when they’ve been murdered. A person remembers.”

“Goodbye, Mannagarm. I wish you good luck with getting your moons out of the tree. May it help you in whatever way it can.”

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“Best not be touching those carvings. Not unless you want to spend the rest of your life listening to the voices and songs of them things that dwell in the icy voids between the stars. Of course, some folk do.” She looked up, frowning, as if she could see shapes moving high above in the evening sky. “They are ancient, them things that stir, half-awake, out there, in endless, lifeless cold, and they do speak of deep secrets, and magics, and truths.” Forming a gap-toothed sneer of a grin on her face, she said, “But their voices are the voices of madness also.” The creature then puckered up her unpleasant looking mouth. “Me? I wouldn’t want to know what those things think of you, or me, or this great green earth. It cannot be good to know such things. Better to continue in pleasant ignorance.”

Caewen managed to articulate a few clumsy half-thoughts through a mind that still felt bloodless and deadened. “Who are you?” she asked. It was true, she realised: an inhuman sense of coldness had seeped out of the stones and into her prickling flesh while she had been looking at the carvings. She glanced at the patterns once more, and regretted doing so. The feeling laced back into her mind, again, that terrible coldness. But, when she screwed her eyes tight and looked away, the awful mad, itching iciness started to recede much faster. She was able to take a deep and steadying breath. With forced calm, Caewen said, “Do you belong to the goddesses?”

“Me? Goodness, no. I am one such as she who died in the sea cave, and had my head cut away and placed in darkness under the earth. But that’s rather a lot to remember. Call me Moggie Moulach.” She scuffled closer, huffing as she came, lifting the leading hem of a ratty old dress of rough woven hemp.

“What are you then?” said Caewen. She took an almost involuntary step backwards. If the carvings gave off a sense of palpable wrongness, this strange bent creature was just about as bad–though the uncanny sensation was at the same time, wholly different. Where the carvings felt cold, dead and remote, full of an inscrutably vast perspective, this hobbling things had a warm deadness to her. Like a body mouldering in a muddy grave of leaves. Caewen’s flesh pricked up like a goose’s as she looked at the creature. Her marrow flashed with small flicks of warning and unease. “You can call youself whatever name you want, but… what on earth are you?” She took another backward step, knowing that it must look impolite, but not caring if she insulted the thing that was shuffling nearer. She simply did not want to be close to her, or it, whatever the creature might be.

“Not on earth, but under it, mortal lass. As I said, I am Moggie Moulach, and Moggie Moulach is what I am. As to my kith and kindred, it is not entirely within your ken to know entirely what I am, though you would call my folk, Faer.”

“Faerie,” said Caewen. “No goddess then, but one of the Faer Ones. Are you the kidnapper in the maze then?” Stealing people was something the Faer were well known for, at least in the bogle-tales of the mountains where Caewen had grown up. The Faer snatched away those they took a liking to: away under hills, and into strange otherworlds of grey warmthless light and endless dusk. So the stories went.

“Oh no. No, of course not. That’s them three goddess things, the lass-thievers. You must be careful of divinities. All confected to be a fairness of voice and complexion, but they run much fouler than worms and slugs down beneath the skin. Not like me.”

“I confess you strike me as uncanny on a different slant. Different, but the same. Dangerous through and through. If the goddesses are in their way foul, you are foulness’s self, surely.”

Spittle formed on her lower lip as she laughed. “Impolite. Direct. I like that.”

“I thought the Faer loved politeness.”

“Yeah, well, aye. Most of them. But I’m more honest. I wear my foulness proudly, you see. You know what you are dealing with, you talk to me. Course, that’s not true of all my folk.” She scratched at her nose using a claw-like finger on her hairy left hand. Then digging at the flesh on the inside of her left nostril, she seemed to find the itch she was after, sighed and added, “In my opine, it is lucky you ran across me, foul or not, and not some fairer looking beastie. Never trust creatures that choose to make themselves beautiful. There’s always some ulterior motive.”

“I suppose I have to agree. I have run into that sort of thing before.”

“Indeed?”

“The Wisht Folk, up and away north.”

“Ah. Them. Cousins to the Fane, but they made bad bargains, long ago, and now they have more than a little Faer blood in them, and slithering shadows too, and rot. Well and well.”

“Yet, I still have to wonder about a creature who choses to make herself weird and unpleasant. What is her ulterior motive?”

“Well, in my opine, such creatures are just being honest about how they see themselves. That is all.” She looked around. “This is growing tiresome. Now. Where were we? I’ve warned you not to touch the carvings of the nameless things that howl in the gulf between the stars. Aye.” She rearranged the hem of her ragged skirt. “So then, if I may be so bold, which way were you going to walk, from here onwards?”

“Just the way I was going.” Caewen indicated with a hand. The cleft they stood in was overrun to a riot with those convoluted carvings all up and down the walls, but it led, sure and straight into the near distance, where the way appeared to take a hard turn left. “There are no other ways to go.”

“Are there not now?” said the creature that called herself Moggie Moulach. She pursed her lips and frowned, then squinted and with a small huff, she said, “What about that door, then?”

Caewen started to say “What door?” but only got halfway through the question. When she looked she saw that there was indeed a door she hadn’t noticed before. How could she not have noticed it? It stood plainly the end of this straight length of crevice, just beyond where the cup and ring marks ended. Instead of turning left, she might push the door open and keep going straight on. Like everything in this place, it looked old and primitive: just a slab of wood on ancient hinges. Nothing decorative or remarkable stood out about it. Just a plain and very old door.

“Now where did that come from?” said Caewen at a whisper.

“It came from nowhere. ‘Twas always there… you just had to be told where to look. That’s all.”

“What is beyond it?”

“A more informative path. I cannot advise you past that, yeah or nay, whether good or ill, nor whether you ought take the veiled door… but you will certainly learn things from that path that you will not learn upon this path.”

Caewen took a couple hesitant steps down the crevice. The shadows were growing colder. A single large, wet star had already come out in the sky, promising a cold night. She tested her lips with the wet of her tongue, feeling the damp, and the chill. “Why would you help me? If this is help?”

“Ah, for the same reason that the Three Goddesses have taken an interest in you.” A long snuffle rattled through her hairy nostrils. “Think of the world as a great game of pieces, moving about, this taking that, that blocking this, always moving, outflanking, or being outflanked. Well, you, my charming mortal lass, as it turns out, are a free piece on the board–an uncommitted token, so to speak. Now, there are of course many such tokens; being all of them folks as are not a part of this machination or that one, but not all such pieces have the promise of being useful in the great worldly game. Frankly, my dear mortal lass, you have that potentiality. And so there is interest in you. From one quarter, or another, and another.”

“And what quarter are you in then? I didn’t think the Faer Folk took much interest in anything but their own revels and feasts.”

“Ah, such is true of the bulk of my kind, quite true, true. But… there are some of us who have longer term designs, and so we are rather in our own quarter, if you will accept that as an answer. Neither night, nor day, nor shadow, flame, nor waters, rains, storm, nor darksome earth. We hold to our own interests.”

“I have heard stories that the Faer Folk must speak the truth, and can never break oaths. Would you make a promise that you intend me no harm by sending me through some strange door in the maze?”

“And I’m sure you’ve heard that the Faer can be made to go away by throwing salt over your left shoulder, or walking sun-wise three times around a juniper bush, or by turning your stockings inside-out, or by tapping me with a wand made of twelve twigs of rowan bound up with a red ribbon, eh? I encourage you to try these things. You may find that the truth of the world is a vast long way from the fancies of tales.”

“Then why should I trust you at all? Why should I trust to the advice of some strange…” she searched for a word and finally just said, “thing, wandering about in this place?”

“Why? You only need one reason. Think on it: what should lie beyond that door, that the three goddesses of this hill desire to keep it concealed from mortal eyes? You could never have seen the way on your own. None who come here as walkers in the maze could have seen the way. It took Faer arts to reveal it to mortal eyes. That is a very well hidden door. So what does that mean, I wonder?” A predatory grin.

Caewen did turn to face the door then. Her brow knit, and she turned thoughts over in her head. “But what if–” she started and then said, “No, but it could be that–” and paused. “You twisted old wretch. I’m curious now, and I can’t help myself.”

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“By what?” asked the old magess. Her wooly hair was making a dark cloud around her, so that her skin stood out, pallid against it. Night’s shadows were deepening the lines of her face.

“Just some voice on the air. I suppose this place is rife with them. Being a meeting of wizards, and everything.”

“A you a complete fool?” The magess shook here head. Seeming to soften a moment, Quinnya said, in a lower, less harsh voice. “Be careful. Voices on the air are not to be trusted. Not anywhere, and especially not here.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she replied, perhaps a little more sarcastically than she’d meant. Caewen tried to return some warmth to her voices as she said, “H’m. Sorry. Yes… thank you.” She turned to the maze. “So, do I just walk in then? There’s nothing more to it?”

“Nothing more than that, and nothing less. Walk into the shadows, find your way through the twists of the maze, discover your own and personal way out. You may find things along the way. You may not. It is always different.”

Feeling a prickling tenseness, a small wave-lap sense of resignation, Caewen nodded, and said for her own benefit, “There’s no point in waiting about then.” She took a few tentative steps towards the maze, passing under the massive lintel rock. She could have reached out and touched the damp pads of moss, the way was so narrow. Stringy roots hung from the crevices in the walls too, and scrabbly old gnarled thorns stood over the wall-tops on either side, darkening her already dim view ahead. She looked back, saw Quinnya watching her, tried a smile that was met with only a long cold expressionless glare.

She walked into the maze.

###

The ways were cramped and twisting. The walls on either side were roughly hewn from old living stone, and the half-patterns of ancient adzes and chisels showed up in the last light of the evening. A red glow from the sun was touching the tops of the walls now and painting sparks against the leaves of the scrubby trees that grew haphazard from the wall tops and overhangs above.

To begin, it seemed to Caewen that there was little enough to distinguish one narrow corridor from another. The air was cold and damply uncomfortable. Occasionally she found a small, carven flight of stairs. Once, she crossed a bridge that spanned an expanse of still, reed-choked pond. She searched around the rim of the pond and found that it had been cut into the stone. Was it decorative once, long ago? Or a reservoir for drinking water? Whatever its original purpose, it was a home only for a few sad sounding frogs now. The winter chill reduced their calls to a few scattered eruptions. She recognised them as striped marsh frogs, a sort that call all year round. After deciding there was nothing special about the pond, she moved on, leaving it behind. After the bridge she found a series short tunnels, burrowing in and out of the hill. Caewen followed the ways, picking left or right by whim. Nothing stood out to recommend one dark path over another. But, always, the narrow ways did curl uphill, drawing her by obscure approaches towards the tor’s peak.

The strangest thing in all this–and it took her some time to realise it–was that there seemed to be no dead ends. Every pathway appeared to go on forever, and, quite frequently, a way she as walking split itself into two or three new branches. Soon, it was hard to imagine how so many curling maze-ways could be crammed into the same space of the hillside.

Caewen moved on through cramped tunnels and narrow clefts in the stone, in relative silence. There were no sounds to accompany her, but the under-hush of wind in the branches, rattling and rustling, and her own footsteps against the gravel and clay surface. She tried scuffing her feet a few times, making arrows on the ground, but finding that she never came back across any of the markings, she gave up on that too eventually. It all just seemed to go on and on.

Suddenly, she had a thought that put a slight chilling effect into her blood: the maze did feel like a length of lifespan. You went forward. You went this way. You went that. You made the best choices you could, given what you knew, and what you had to hand, but in the end, it was mostly about following the path ahead of you, hoping for the best, and eventually, finding yourself at a way out of it all.

She had got so used to the feeling of sameness that when she did walk through a cleft and into a wider, more open space filled with carven walls, Caewen stopped short, and was taken aback for a moment. The walls were incised deeply with circles and rings. She ran her eyes over the nearest protuberance of stone. They looked something like the cup and ring marks that sometimes were cut into old outcrops of rocks in wild places. Very old symbols of a forgotten people, for a forgotten purpose. But these were more intricate, more heady somehow. The spirraling shapes cut into the stone almost seemed to move of their own accord, circling around themselves, and Caewen felt a little bit ill in her stomach as she looked. A disturbing sense of movement played up in her mind, while at the same time she found that she wanted to touch the spirals. Feeling a repulsion, she found herself reaching out, nonetheless, stretching her fingers towards a group of seven cup marks, run around with rings upon rings upon rings upon…

“I wouldn’t.”

The voice broke her from the draw of the carvings. She shook herself free, gasping, and feeling a terrible pain in her neck and shoulders, as if she’d twisted herself down to pick up something, and pulled muscles doing it. Stumbling, Caewen increased the distance between herself and the rock wall, before looking around to see who had spoken.

It was a woman–or something like a woman–only, short, squish-faced, black eyes, shining, a large-nose, with hair like rotten brown broom growing on a heathy moor. She was hunched, and her left arm hung strangely at her side. It was covered with a mat of thick and wiry hair, right down to the fingers and knuckles. When the creature moved, she revealed a hairy tail dragging behind her too.

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Arising out of a subtle drift of mixed colours and shapes, the last of the three arrived. She was young, wonderfully beautiful, and hugely round in the belly: fully pregnant, apparently ready to drop a child any day, from the look of her. The woman let a serene sort of smile cross her face, she tilted her head and blinked her blue-stained eyes. “Now, is this a way to greet a goddess? You were rude to my sisters, but must you be impolite with me too? Uncouth.”

“Some goddesses you lot are. Murdering old men. Stealing the bodies of bakers. Sneaking about in the twilight like… like… I don’t know what. A magical ferret.” She scowled.

“Most postulants to the maze would abase themselves before a manifestation of just one of we three sisters. Most supplicants would count themselves blessed to hear my children laughing and playing, even just the once… a sound to haunt dreams and keep treasured and precious in the beating of the heart, for ever and ever. It would warm your old years, in your toothless, wrinkled agedness, if you would but let the laughter into you… Acknowledge it. Accept it. Be joyful of it.”

“No. I’ve had quite enough of old spirits of the earth worming a way into my mind.”

“I suppose that is true enough. I can taste that which was once inside your blood and sinew. Perhaps he left you frozen inside? Perhaps there is nothing warm and loving left in you to welcome in the laughter of children?” She tilted her head, curious. “Perhaps.”

“H’m. I’m warmer and more alive than you, I suspect. You can call yourself a goddess if you like. As for myself, I don’t know if there is much difference between you and a forest-imp, besides aggrandised names and ranks.” She waved a hand. “And whatnot.”

“Dangerous words,” whispered the goddess. But she laughed the moment after she said it, clear and pretty. As she did, she laid her hands gently on her belly, the way pregnant woman will sometimes do. Lowering her gaze, she said then, “It’s a brave mouse that snarls at a she-fox. A brave moth that flutters in the face of the nightjar.”

“Brave, or just plain tired of games. Sometimes a person isn’t brave. Sometimes a person is simply utterly worn out with fear and worry. Eventually, even a mouse gets sick of paws landing, this way and that.” She looked around. Quinnya was paying no attention to her. “Can’t they see you?”

“They cannot. Although, magicians often talk to unseen voices. It won’t seem strange to any of them. Weird things beset weird people.”

“That so?”

“That is so.”

“And your children?” She looked around. Now that she knew what to look for, she could just see the stirrings upon the grass, whisking over it, in little trailing lines. Small disturbances that betrayed a passing of something light-footed and airy. “Here now…” A frowning sensation passed over her lips. “Children require fathering.”

“What an impertinent point to raise. My sisters are right. You are delightful.” She tilted her head the other way, as if appraising goods. “But you also chafe. You are prone to be irritating. That will not do.”

“And yet you are refusing to leave me be.” Her fists clenched and re-opened. Hot and cold tinglings ran down her skin. “What is your purpose?”

“Ah. And that is another impertinent question, but, it is a question that follows old laws and rules.  The winter demon that was in your heart must have left some lore there. That question was well phrased, and it cannot easily be turned aside. Our purpose? Let me see. Our purpose is the keeping of the peacefulness of the tor, the moot, the accord. This hill–this was where the two great goddesses called truce, spoke each to the other in conciliatory whispers, made peace and made love. Did you know that?”

“What? Wait. What was that last thing you said?”

“Troves must be sealed. With blood. Or with death. Or with procreative acts. Or with love. Even if that love is loose-woven and ill-at-ease, symbolic only. The two goddesses could not truly love one another. There was too much pain and blood, loss, grieving and betrayal for that. And thus the pact was sealed in ritual only. Oaths made lightly are like mayflies dancing on a deep, dark pond. They do not last long. And yet, and yet, and yet… we three were left to keep the peacefulness of the tor and the accord. And that is our purpose. That is my purpose.”

“So, you are keepers of the peace? Between the two factions? Sun and moon. Day and night.”

“In some measure, more or less. Yes.”

“And your interest in me is what exactly? I cannot think that’d I’d be much help stopping a war. Oh,” she said. “But that was why I came here. It was my whole reason for coming here. I made a promise to speak at the moot, and try and get everyone to see some sense. Your interest as always going to fall on me. As soon as I promised to speak against a war…”

“We three heard your oath echo from a long way off. It is good that you work to keep it.”

“Or else?”

“You would be punished.” A momentary smile. “After all, you placed yourself within our sphere of interest, willingly and without lien or duress. We have a right over you. But… and yet, and yet, Cessation spoke first with you, and found you would not do her biding. Provenance spoke then with you, and found you obstinate. Inception speaks last with you, and finds you unpleasing to her thoughts, and an irritation to her mind. Whether you will do her bidding, she does not know for Inception does not bid others. She but allows them to act on her behalf.” There was that small knowing smile again. “But, we three agree that we three have our purpose, and so too do you. You are disobedient in the face of great power. That is both the good and the ill of you. Only time will tell if the good and the ill will go well with you.” Her smile was now a minnow-flash in sunlight. “We have spoken enough. Goodbye to you for now, Caewen of Drossel. The three have looked upon you, and found you wanting for their immediate uses. You will have other uses, we suspect… in the longer scheme of things… and we will talk upon that, ourselves, one among three, among one, among many. Before this moot is done we will have come to a final decision concerning you.”

“I see. Best be off with you then.” She frowned as she said it, almost to a scowl. “I certainly don’t need you adding to the mess of things.” She waved a hand. “Go, then.”

She laughed, pitching her tone upwards, into the grey limned sky. Already fading, she said, “You are an impertinent farmyard donkey, and imprudent.” With an almost hungering look on her face, she added, ghostly, “We three watch. We three wait. I take my leave of you, Caewen of Drossel, farm-ass and lumpish fool. Impertinent one. Disobedient one. Unwilling one. You’ve a keen talent for abrasiveness. I hope it doesn’t lead you into too deep a patch of briar-rose and thorn.”

And then she was gone.

Caewen was alone. She experienced a feeling something like coming up from deep underwater. A light pressure that had been on her ears, and which she had barely been aware of, released, and there was a sensation of being able to breath again, even though she had been breathing perfectly well the whole time she had been in conversation.

As she gathered her breath back within herself, she heard her name being called. Caewen turned. It was Quinnya, her storm-grey eyes lit with irritation. “Caewen of Drossel! I will not call again, well? If you do not enter the maze this moment, then your moment will be past. A seven year wait, then. You want that, well?”

“Sorry,” muttered Caewen, as she walked over, more than a little sheepishly. “I didn’t hear you. I was distracted.”

Fair Upon the Tor #32 (updates Mondays)

“Hello there,” said Caewen. She introduced herself then, and Dapplegrim too. He smiled his own sharp grin.

The young woman had quite the singular appearance to Caewen’s eyes. She blinked green cat’s eyes and ran a hand under hair like red snakes, clearing the locks away from her face. Her skin was dark, almost black, and twinned all over with tattoos that nearly matched the flame red of her hair. “Greet-good to you,” she said, voice low. An awkward smile followed. “Are you local? How are you standing this coldnessy? Always shivers, here.”

“I guess I was born to it.” Caewen was close enough now to more clearly see the animal that the woman was feeding. It was winged and serpentine, a sort of small draconic thing: though it had long, feathery scales at the fringe of its wings and its tail tip. “Oh.” Caewen was intrigued. “Is that a baby dragon?”

Laughter rung from her. “No, barbarian. No dragon. This is puk-drakeling only. Small beast. Good for housepet. Catches mice and little grain-thief birds, if sing the right song.” Her voice rose then into a piecing lilt–a twist of notes, harsh, full of meaning without words–it danced from her tongue, and the small winged creature arched its neck, reared and took off, flapping madly. It vanished into the nearest stand of old trees and underscrub. And only a few moments afterward, it returned, bursting out of a wall of leaves with a dead hedge sparrow in its claws. She laughed again, as it circled her, and once the small dragonish thing landed on her wrist, she took some of the sparrow blood on a fingertip and tasted it against her tongue tip. “Must partake of the food first. Elsewise, puk-drakeling will think he is the dominance. He is not.” She shot Caewen a hooded, emerald glare.

The sparrow was still twitching as the puk-drakeling manoeuvred it headfirst and then swallowed it, gulp at a time, like a lizard. Caewen tried not to let herself look disturbed by this little show of falconry. She didn’t enjoy watching something get swallowed alive, even if it was just a sparrow. Her dance with the wurum could easily have ended that way too, after all, and she experienced a brief harsh pang of imagining herself being swallowed, head-first, still able to twitch but not much else.

“Um,” she tried. “You are walking the maze?”

“Yes. I am the next. And you are after me. My name is Leske.” She looked at Dapplegrim. “And this is a bond-demon, then, yes? Powerful demon. Good bindings to you then?”

“After a manner of speaking,” said Dapple.

Caewen laid a hand on Dapplegrim’s neck. “Ah, well, Dapple is rather his own demon, and he is only part demon at that.”

Leske stared with a look of puzzlement, then threw her head back and laughed. Whatever it was that was funny, Caewen couldn’t decipher. In that moment, the young woman with the dark skin and red tattoos looked a little too much like her pet, mouth wide, flesh of the inner mouth and tongue red-pink, ready to swallow smaller, weaker prey.

They were saved from the growing risk that the conversation was about to mire itself into something quite uncomfortable when Quinnya called out Leske’s name and the young woman smiled a last time, saying, “I am called. I go. You go after me.” She whispered something to her little winged creature, and it took off, spiralling upwards, and shooting off towards the maze and over it, uphill.

“No pets in the maze,” said Dapplegrim, glumly.

“I suppose she sent it on to meet her on the other side. Look, Dapple, did you want to go and walk the other path around the maze-way too? It can’t be very much longer before I’m called, and I don’t know how long it takes to walk through or around. Through must vary, I guess.”

He dragged a furrow through the soft turf with a hoof. His skullish face developed some lines of worry. “I don’t know if I trust Quinnya not to keep you waiting here for hours yet, just out of spite. You might be standing around in the cold for a while.”

“I might.” She shrugged. “But that would keep Quinnya standing around in the cold too, and I can’t see herself doing that to herself for very long. Either way, I’d rather see your face on the other side when I get out of this thing.” She leaned over and gave him a hug around his neck. “See you soon?”

“Hur. Hurm. Sure.” He turned and trotted off then, stopping once to look back with scrutinising eyes that lit up the evening air and cast a faint red pallor across his bone-thin face. As if he suspect that she had some other motive for sending him away. “Don’t dawdle.”

“Why would I?”

She watched him go then, and felt alone. It was just her and the cold and the silence now. Waiting to have her name called. A glance over at the large and looming doorway. Had it been purposely built out of those massive slabs of stone to look intimidating, godlike, primeval? Probably.

Quinnya was standing beside the door without making any obvious move to invite Caewen, or even to check that Caewen was still there. Her hard face was turned downward, her brow half-hidden by the mass of the iron-wool hair of her head. Surely Quinnya wouldn’t want to stand around all night. Caewen felt the first stir of a shiver from the cold. Surely. Just wait patiently. Wait, wait… walk the maze. Speak at the moot. Be done with this.

Maybe she oughtn’t have asked Dapplegrim to leave. She might have been wrong about her suspicion. She cast a glance around the grey and grassy turf, then back to look at Quinnya. The old woman still gave off no sign of movement.

It was then, as she was watching Quinnya, waiting warily, that a brush of laughter, almost palpable, passed by her leg. Caewen spun, eyes open and staring hard, taking in all the detail of empty grass and cold blue evening shadows. More childlike laughter and small voices pipped up around her. It all seemed to come up from the soggy ground. “I knew I heard you,” she said. Caewen took a step, wishing that she had thought to bring her sword after all. It hadn’t seemed necessarily this morning in the bright sun.