Fair Upon the Tor #33 (updates Mondays)

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.

Fair Upon the Tor #31 (updates Mondays)

For a time then, there was nothing for it, but to wait. So they chatted idly, watching as magicians-to-be were called, one after another, into the maze. Out of an urge to make conversation and pass the time, Caewen asked Keru and Keri why they wanted the status of magehood when neither of them seemed very inclined to magic. She had seen neither of them so much as talk about a charm or talisman. They told her that they came from a long line of sorcerer-chieftains. The family would consider it unthinkable not to attend the moot and walk the paths. “Early on,” said Keri, “when our people first washed up on the cold stony shores along the Foresetti woodlands, we were mistrusted, feared, oft attacked. But the moot has a rule that all comers are welcome. Our sorcerers and ghost-talkers were welcome here. It was the first point of acceptance in a strange land. All the old sorcerer families still walk the maze, even if they have little enough sorcery in the family any longer. It’s tradition, I suppose.”

Keru added, “And you know, a bit of fun too. Travel. See the moot. Walk the maze. People talk it up as dangerous.”

“Well,” suggested Caewen, “it sort of has been that.”

Dapplegrim just snorted out one, “Hurrrm,” in agreement.

About an hour passed before Keru’s name was called. They all got up, and walked with him down to the maze entry.

“Just him,” said Quinnya with a low, hard-lipped tangle of breath. The storm-cloud black and sleet-white of her ribbons and tatters stirred and moved as she spoke. She pointed at Caewen. “You are last, and your horse-thing cannot go with you, naturally, in case you were planning on it, well? One of the earlier supplicants, an upstanding young woman of clear potential warned me about you and your horse-creature. The rules are firm. No familiars, demons, spirits, no enslaved faer folk, no totemic beings, or gods, be they great or small, may be taken the maze. Only the mortal supplicant may enter.”

“Hurm. Hur. Hurrrr.” The pinpoint red lights in his cloudy black eyes flamed brighter. “I’m no enslaved spirit or demon.”

“And what are you then?” Quinnya raised herself stiffly, straightening her back and tilting her nose. “A talking pony? A cursed toy horse? A shrunken, skinned dragon who lost his wings?” A huff of irritation from her. “No pets either.”

“Pet. H’rm. Hur. Hurm. A friend, is what I am. I’ll not be happy if something unpleasant happens in there.” His sharp teeth shone. “Best remember that I am no magician, lady magess. I am not bound by the rules of this place.” His grin deepened. “I can murder whomsoever I like.”

“That is supposed to frighten me? I’ve been threatened by worse than you in my time. I’ve seen worse. I’ve scraped worse off the bottom of hobnails.” She waved at Caewen. “The other one, the Forsetti boy, he will go through now, but you must wait. Go away somewhere. I’ll call you when I’m ready to call you. As I said, you are last in line. That’s all you need to know. You can go away and eat griddle scones and strawberry jam for all I care.”

Keri gave her brother a quick hug, extracted a promise from him that he would be sensible and not do anything stupid, then let him go. He laughed, performing a dismissive little shrug before turning to the tall moss-crusted and damp-strewn doorway, and then walking directly into the darker space beyond. Soon enough, he turned a corner and was lost to sight.

An uneasy sense of foreboding came over Caewen then. She thought, perhaps, it was nothing more than nerves of the unknown, and shook herself free of it. “Did you want to sit down again?”

“Actually, would you mind if I walked by the old straight road to the maze end? I think I would like to be there when Keru comes out from the maze. He’ll probably have managed to trip over, graze himself, or something such thing that will give him a nice bit of hurt that he can make a fuss about.” She seemed to chew on some indecision before saying, “He’s tall for his age, and not as old as he looks. He’s still in that foolish space, where boys act like yearling calves and think they can’t be hurt by anything.”

“You go. Dapple will keep me company.”

“Thank you.” She grabbed Caewen by the hand, briefly, applying pressure to the fingers in a tight, warm squeeze, then hurried away. As she walked her face was turned down, taking in only the grass.


They were moving away from the door now, looking for a place to wait out the next span of minutes, hours or longer. “Was that true? What you said about the rules not applying to someone who isn’t a magician?”

“Old Mannagarm used to wring his guts out about it. He was cheated by a merchant at the moot he went to, years and years back. He had no way to get back at the fellow using the laws of the moot. The laws only apply to workers of magic. Of course, it works both ways. If the old witching-man had got his own back through dark spirits and evil spells, well… there was nothing to protect that merchant either. It’s a foolhardy soul that comes to the moot intending to get the best of wizards.”

“What about an intermediary then? If Samarkarantha sent his little grassy-haired creatures out to steal or kill, would the judgement come back to him.”

Dapple fumed air in and out of his nostrils. “I think so, yes. I don’t know for certain, but anything in your power, a spell-thralled servant, a spirit, demon or faer creature: it would be viewed by the three goddesses as an extension of the spellworker. At least, I’m guessing. Why do you ask? You aren’t thinking of sending me off to do something unscrupulous. I’m usually all in favour of unscrupulous things, but remember: I did pass to you from Mannagarm under old laws of exchange. I suspect the goddesses would look unkindly on using me as a means to doing murky work.”

“It’s not that, no. I suppose I was wondering about using a cat’s paw. There’s that man who Fafmuir said was an assassin. What if he was hired by a magician?”

“That might work? Gods and goddesses, even the ones who want sacrifices of gold and bronze don’t really have a good grasp on monetary exchange. It’s sort of outside their sphere of understanding. Although, I don’t really know, truth of it. So, maybe, yes.”

“I wonder then.” She looked around. The crowd waiting at the gate was thinning. As would-be mages filed into the dark door, one after another, their friends, retainers or servants also drifted away. Presumably to meet them on the other side of the maze. Finally, the shadows of afternoon gauzed out into shadows of early evening and there were only two supplicants left. Caewen and one other young woman, of outlandish dress and strange foreign appearance. The woman was alone except for some small creature of a pet she seemed to be feeding out of her cupped hands. As they were the last two waiting, and as the other young woman had no one with her, Caewen tried a friendly smile, and finding it returned, she walked over, Dapple loping along behind her, head low, red-black eyes aglow.

Fair Upon the Tor #30 (updates Mondays)

“Or… maybe Samarkarantha?” said Keru, himself puzzled. “He could he have sent a note ahead of us? Or his little woody faced servant things might have come in the night? That was clever of him–if he did it–he does seem to always be thinking ahead with things. Could’ve been him? I guess.” He didn’t sound much as if he had convinced himself.

Quinnya fell quiet. For a time she did nothing but focus on the page, screwing up her face, winking both her eyes in rapid succession. Perhaps she thought that if she wetted her eyeballs enough the offending line would simply go away. Then, evidentially reaching the conclusion that the name Caewen of Drossel was stuck where it was, and she could do no more to shift it than she could shift rock or river, she sputtered, “Fafmuir? Samarkarantha? What? Those fools. No. No. Nonsense. It is writ in my handwriting, and I do not recall it. I would recall.” Peering closer, her teeth grit now into a hard, yellow-stained line. She said, “Mnh. But I don’t recall… and how very strange is that, well?” Her gaze lit up with a lightning-glow of thought. Her eyes flicked up, and set on Caewen. “And yet, not through any mortal art, nor magic, nor cunning can this ledger be altered by any other than me.” On her next breath she seemed to come to a point of understanding. A quizzical little humorous light clouded her eyes, then spread downward, overtaking her lips and her off-white teeth. She looked around then, at the landscape, the air and the sky, squinting all the while as she did. “No mortal art. I see. Well, you may have got yourself a entry token into the maze today, but I wonder if you will get yourself out again, well? If Themselves Who Watch have added your name to my list, then, well, they will have done so with a purpose. And their purpose is seldom at alignment with the lives of we lowly mortals. I would wish you good luck, but I don’t think luck will help you much. Not one way. Not the other.”

She turned her nose up then, and with a sniff that seemed to Caewen a little too practised, she turned, and walked off towards the great stone gates. They watched her go, until at last Keru said, “What an old she-goat.” He turned to Caewen. “Don’t you worry about that. She’s clearly just mad that she’s forgotten about you. I bet it was Samarkarantha.”

Keri snorted a laugh. “Well, either way, that is the Quinnya I remember. She hasn’t changed any more than the oaks on the hill have changed. Come on. Let’s go down to the green and wait. Your names will be called. We have to wait until then. Nothing else for it.”

They couldn’t sit in the grass; it was still too wet with dew from the night, and chilled all over by a faint humid out-breath of coldness from the living green blades. A few low stones that did not seem to be part of the processional way peaked here and there, and, once Keru, Keri and Caewen were all quite sure no one was going to be angry about it, the three of them sat down, making themselves as comfortable as they could on the low slabs of gritty surfaced rock. The air smelled of coldness and dew and wet soil. Dapplegrim stood behind them, lurking, glancing around, now and then tearing at the grass, ripping it, chewing, eating distractedly.

“Oh, mlooth, ith our frienths from the wurum.”

“What was that?” said Caewen.

Dapplegrim swallowed a mouthful of grass. “Over there. It’s ours friends, the Modsarie. The kelpie fondlers. What was their lady princess’s name. Sgeirr?”

“Kelpie, what?” said Caewen.

Fondlers,” answered Dapplegrim.

She shook her head. “I’m not going to ask.”

They all looked over, squinting. Dapplegrim had remarkable sight, but Caewen could make out the shapes of four people dressed in the Modsarie fashion, standing near the maze gate. It wasn’t all of the Modsarie contingent, just a few… the young, chieftainess Sgeirr was standing in her arrogant, haughty way, hands on hips, sneering at everything that she wasn’t scowling at. After a moment, the Modsarie seemed to notice Caewen and her friends for the first time too. Presumably they saw Dapple, who was hard to mistake for anything other than himself. When the chieftainess turned to look at them, Sgeirr’s general appearance and countenance became still harder. She gave them an irritated glare. Sunlight flickered across her distant eyes and lit up the rivermud green of her clothing. After the prickly moment passed, Sgeirr hunched her back, turned away again, and seemed to start up a renewed conversation with her companions, looking back over her shoulder every few moments.

“Dapple…” said Caewen. “Can you–?”

“No.” He twitched his ears forward. “I can make out the words, but she’s speaking in the native tongue of Modsaire. I don’t know it.”

After a while the Modsarie were called and Sgeirr and two of her retainers walked over to the great stone gates. They were beckoned over by Quinnya as a group, and they spoke to her at the doorway. Although they gathered about in a loose huddle near the door, they were seemingly directed to enter the maze one-by-one. Sgeirr went first, and the others made a show of saluting her and kneeling. The performance took a tedious few seconds and gave the impression that had trumpets been available, these would have been called for. A few of the magicians who were standing nearby seemed amused by the show, but not overly impressed. Caewen wondered the Modsarie were aware that some of the more urbane looking magicians were hiding smiles behind sleeves.

About ten minutes after Sgeirr had vanished into the dark doorway, the shorter of the two men was called by Quinnya, and then the third, and then the last of them. As the last man entered the shadows, he paused on the threshold and cast a glance back at Caewen. She was still watching, intently, so she saw him fingering a hand up and down the length of a short war-axe at his hip. He was otherwise wearing the same green-brown woollen robes as the others in his band, and the axe would not have been visible at all, except that he absentmindedly ran a palm on it.

“Did the others have weapons?” she asked.

“Maybe. I don’t recall,” answered Keri.

Keru seemed to have been paying more attention. “I think the other fellow, the one with the beard, he had a short sword. And didn’t Sgeirr have a knife? Or a knife scabbard anyway. A big, broad leaf-bladed thing. Sort of old fashioned?”

“I didn’t notice,” said Caewen, now wishing that she had been paying closer attention. “It would be punishable, to try and murder someone inside the maze, wouldn’t it? As with the rest of the moot? Right? The rules still apply?”

“Actually, that… I’m not sure.” Keri gave her an apologetic half-smile. “I don’t know if anyone is sure how deep the rules lie in there. There are the disappearances, after all. And there are always rumours of other deaths and murders in the maze too… but proof is hard to come by. Maybe it used to happen, a long time ago, and the goddesses increased their watchfulness?”

“Could be,” said Caewen, doubtful.

Fair Upon the Tor #29 (updates Mondays)

As they went, Keri mused aloud, losing herself in half-words and half-memories, “Old Magess Quinnya. That one was a bit of a battleaxe. Always angry about something. Go there. Stand here. No, stand there! And stop looking at me like that. And don’t be so smug.” Keri affected a high, nasal tone–a sort of cultured and rangy nose-voice, throughout this mock rattling of instructions.

But no sooner had Keri finished, than they were all forced to a jolting stop: a discomfortingly similar nasal tone lowered itself out of the air, perching itself atop and around Keri’s parody, leaving an embarrassed silence, tattered. “If that is supposed to be a player’s pigwiggenry of me, it is poorly done, and you would be well advised to quit while you still have both arms, both legs, both eyes, a tongue and two ears.” The woman manifested out of nowhere. There couldn’t have been anywhere for her hide, and yet she was standing before them: tall, with hair as grey as wool in stormy light, and a face sketched out by long, chalky and hard lines. She wore a dress that seemed to be made out of rags and ribbons of black, white and grey. This old hard looking woman took a handful of quick strides towards them, closing the distance to an uncomfortable closeness. As she swung her legs, one ahead of the other, uphill, her dress of fragments and strips swayed and trailed. Each white ribbon danced in the morning light, lustrous. When Caewen recovered from her immediate surprise, she took advantage of the moment’s pause to look at this strange visage more carefully, noting that the white ribbons were marred by small black, scratchy lines of runes.

“Ah, Magess Quinnya.” Keri attempted a smile, but her whole face looked clay-baked. “Just a bit of harmless joking.”

“That so?” said Quinnya, eyeing her. “If I recall correctly–and in all truth, I never recall incorrectly–you walked the maze last moot, young little one. Seven years hence. What are you doing here? You cannot walk the maze twice, and I cannot let you. No matter how much I might wish certain folks might vanish in the maze, well?”

Keri’s head bobbed as she assumed an more polite and conciliatory tone. “My brother, Keru, presents himself to walk the maze, and claim the title, privileges and obligations of magehood. As so too does this other, too.” She indicated with a hand. “Caewen of Drossel,” after a pause, and seeming to decide that something more was needed she said, “A recent friend.”

“Hmmmmgrm.” The sound was like a rubbing of pebbles deep in the woman’s throat. Her storm-flecked eyes shot first to Keru, then to Caewen, then to Dapplegrim, where they rested for a good few flutters of seconds. “Now, I have this brother of yours, Ke-ru, on my lists, but I have no forward notice of this other… hrm, hrm, one, at all. Late entrance without notice cannot be accepted.”

“What?” said Caewen. But as she spoke, she twitched, then looked over her shoulder. Again, she was sure she had heard a burst of laughter of the sort that children make when they are up to some minor mischief hidden from adults. She was certain

“I said,” repeated, Quinnya, “if you will bother to look in my direction–that your late entry is without sufficient prior notice and therefore cannot be accepted, well? You must be on my list to walk the maze. You are not. Therefore you shall not.”

“But that was never a rule in the past,” said Keri.

“Rules change. As it is my privilege and position to make the rules, it is also, therefore, my pleasure to change the rules.” She looked Caewen up and down, critically. “Pigsty boots and a farm-girl dress? This farmyard muck-raker, straw-pitcher… pale-fetcher… oat-chaffer… this, this, personage… well, she will have to wait until the next moot.” Then, to Caewen, she pitched her voice into a high, false sugary slant. “Of course, I can note your name down now, if you find that convenient? Always good to get in early, after all.” Her smile was fog-thin and might as well have been smeared with honey and ashes. “Well?”

“I don’t… that is…”

A whisper at her shoulder. A young woman’s voice. Sweet. Delicate. Distant and resonant. “Ask her to look again.”

“Uh,” said Caewen.

“Is the young pig-herder deaf, tongueless, or simple?” Quinnya spoke louder and more slowly. “Shall I write your name into the ledger for the next moot, well? Seven. Years. Hence. Understand?”

“Actually, would you mind checking again? Just to be sure.”

“I do not need to check. I have a mind wrought of steel and sprung copper.” She was clutching a small cloth-covered book in one hand and opened it to a page that showed a list of little twisting scribbles. “Here, look! You. Are. Not. Listed.”

“Yes she is,” said Keri, squinting. “That looks like Caewen of Drossel. It’s writ in redletter, which I don’t cipher too well… but that looks right. Isn’t that it, right there?” She pointed squarely at a little line of scrawl among a jumble of other, similar scrawls. Caewen couldn’t read a word of it, but feeling embarrassed, she just coughed and looked down at a patch of dandelion by her feet. Did everyone outside her village expect folks to learn letters, or was it just magicians?

The magess pinned the paper with a frowning stare, as if somehow the fabric of the page and the ink were responsible for the unforgivable crime of having shown her to be wrong about something. “Hmmmgmmm.” The noise was now a flutter of irritation itching her vocal chords.

Only after the hot, rash noises coming out of the magess’s lips had fallen to silence did Caewen dare speak. “Someone must have added me to the list? Fafmuir did seem to have an interest in my walking the maze. Maybe he added my name?”

Fair Upon the Tor #28 (updates Mondays)

“You heard about that too? Wasn’t it an accident?” Keru held his words for a breath after he said it, reflecting, then adding, “I didn’t hear much, I guess.”

Keri skipped her voice in over his. “Oh, brother, you do love the sound of your own voice. When you don’t have anything to say, you still say what you haven’t got to say.”

“I do, yes.” He smiled, boyishly.

“Sometimes I wonder how we can be related.” A smile belied any irritation. “Anyway, yes, I did actually hear something about that fire. I was, um, gossiping with a merchant down at the market. Wasn’t it some sect of priests and their minor godling? They had an oracle in the tent, but it was all burned to the ground, priests, oracle, tent and everything: all ashes and bones. They had pitched camp in the soothsayer’s market, down at the far end of the fair. It’s not too far past the other stalls. We could go and have a look around, you know, after the maze.”

“Yes.” Caewen nodded. “I think we should. Fafmuir mentioned it to me. You know… I’m not sure if he’s trying to prod me towards discovering something, or if he’s trying to tie me in knots, or, maybe there is nothing to him at all? Just words and nonsense. It feels as if there is an intent in him, but I don’t know what it is.”

Now it was Dapplegrim’s turn to snuffle and snort, and give out a low huff of a laugh. “He is an odd one, but he is before all else an achimage of the moot.” His voice ground itself away into old wild tones. “You can stand assured, Fafmuir is not made of mere words and nonsense, hurm, hur. No archimage ever uses words merely. An archimage will be plain with words no easier than a horse can toast crumpets.”

“I suppose you would know,” said Keru, laughing.

“But then, if he is trying to nudge me towards something, why be so cryptic about it? He could just set me to a task. He still has that obligation over me. Unless he’s trying to get me to do something without resorting to calling in favours?” She started then, and looked around, hunting, but saw nothing that wasn’t just low scrabbly trees, soggy grass and the heaped mass of the earth and rock and twisted thorn trees that was the tor, standing above them. Had there been a sound of children’s laughter? “Can anyone else hear that?” she asked.


“Laughter,” said Caewen, looking around. “Giggling.” Maybe Fafmuir was about? Did he leave his tent with his wards in toe?

But the others agreed that they couldn’t hear anything. Dapplegrim seemed quite suspicious of the possibility. He looked at her quite hard with his dull red-on-black eyes. “I’ve a much better keenness of hearing that you,” he muttered. “There is no one laughing for some distance. Over the brow of the hill two drunk men are laughing at a rude joke. That’s the closest to laughter there is, and you could not hear that.”

If she had been catching sounds of children, they were gone now.

“I couldn’t no. I guess I was mistaken.”

“As for Fafmuir,” said Keri continuing her train of thought, “who can understand the minds of great wizards? Unfortunately, insanity threads itself alongside magic. That’s why it’s sensible to only learn a little in the way of charms and spells, old secrets, runes and suchlike. The deeper secrets will drive a person mad, in the end. There’s a reason some superstitious folks think wizards and witches are a wholly different race of being. Not human at all. Workers of miracles and magic end up changed in strange ways.” As Keri finished, she looked up, huffed, and said, with a note of pleasant foreboding, “Ah! Here we are then. The entrance to the maze. There’s a few people waiting to enter. We’re not too late then. That’s good. I wonder if old Quinnya is still in charge of the entrance?”

The view ahead was of a wide, shallow depression, running smoothly like a half-funnel towards the base of the tor, and then up to a wall of tall flat-faced stones that formed a sort of rampart against the green turf. Beyond the wall stood a jumble of stone, mossy heaps, and just visible wall-tops, disappearing into a web of half-glimpsed tunnels. The maze itself, visible in a few straggling pieces and peaks. The huge, primitive entry into the maze took the shape of a rough arrangement of uprights and one massive lintel that had been hauled into place by some ancient people. This set of stones formed a heavy, lichen-crusted doorway, softened by darkness and cobwebs behind and within. Carvings ran rankly all around that passageway, thick as weeds and twice as tangled: abstracted whorls, sweeps and lines, and primitive human figures too–though the distance was too great to make out details.

Downhill and across the grassy open slopes, were scattered smaller stones–misshapen and dwarfish looking–arrayed in rough lines. These looked as if they demarcated some forgotten processional concourse that had its origin off at the far end of the broad gully.

Nearer the maze entry, a milling of magicians, servants and attendants were gathered into small and clumpy flocks. They groups seemed to be keeping themselves well apart. There was little mingling among those who planned to walk the way, apparently. In Caewen’s assessment it wasn’t insanity that ran deep alongside magic, it was suspicion, and perhaps also guilt: for one tends to circle around the other, pairwise.

Caewen and her companions cut a quick decent downslope, into the gully, swishing noisily through the thickest patches of green. The expanse they strode into turned tufty with dandelion, clover, ragwort and cat’s ear. It had a weediness that settled against the part of Caewen’s mind that still dwelled on the work of running a farm. The dandelion and cat’s ear were useless for sheep or cows, and the ragwort was poisonous. These were not fields that any farmer had tended for long ages.

Fair Upon the Tor # 27 (updates Mondays)

“They must have walked paths I didn’t. For me, it was mostly just half-carven, unfinished stone walls.” Her brow knit, memories chased themselves around in her eyes, and she looked much more serious. “There were etchings on the walls, in places. Strange letters, but I couldn’t read them. A few rude faces carved in the stone. Some grasses and the odd sapling.” She concentrated, seeking inwardly, back through the short seven years since she was in the maze. “The walls were formed of the same rock that makes up the spurs hereabouts. What is that, limestone?”

Caewen wasn’t sure, but Dapplegrim, who had been trailing silently after the three of them, snuffled and declared himself abruptly knowledgeable about rocks. “It is most definitely limestone. H’m. Full of shells, if you look. From a long time ago.” His tail swished. “From before people. From before the wars of the goddesses. From a very long time ago. It takes a long age for fragile things to turn rock hard.” He cast a glance at Caewen then, his red eyes gleaming dully. “Even under great pressure.”

“And yet you know this how?” said Keru, amused. “How indeed? You’re not so old as that. And don’t lie to me.”

“Spirits remember. Spirits talk.” Dapplegrim threw his head around. “This was all a sea once, this place. If you dig deep enough there are still watery spirits here, deep, deep down, but they have tunnelled into the soil, into the wet caves far beneath, looking for darkness and coldness. The sorts of spirits who swam in the sea before there were humanfolk or gods are not the sort of spirits that like daylight and airy breezes.”

Keru’s smile played up around face. “Done a lot of wandering through dark wet tunnels yourself, have you?”

“Some,” replied Dapplegrim, but he didn’t elaborate, choosing instead to flick his ears and set a frown on his skullish face. “So you and Caewen will walk this maze? Then what? How long until Caewen can speak her piece, and her and me can leave this rotten mound of cunjorers and tricksleeves?”

With a slight shake of her head, Keri spoke, her words lighter than the lingering mists that still faintly roused and stirred in the cold hollows of the morning landscape around them. “Who knows? You have to take a lot to speak, and the lot could come up anytime. Could be later today. Tomorrow, or later still even, after the festivals.”

“What festivals?” Caewen had been thinking about the maze, but also, in flickering half-moments, about Fafmuir, about dead boys crushed by cages, and burnt tents. She came back to her focus as Keri turner her face towards her.

“The celebration of Uncreated Night, Firstborn Day, the Living Flames and the Dead Ashes. Four festivals strung out in a row, but it’s not as exciting as it sounds. I was bored and disappointed seven years ago. Went to bed early both nights. It’s all very…” she waved a hand… “rigid and formal. A touch too pious, for my tastes, anyhow.”

Her brother gave out his opinion, as he was wont to do. “I’d say very much too pious from everything I’ve heard. Getting towards a sort of fool-sacred. When does it start? Tonight?”

“Tonight would be the Festival of the Uncreated Night, yes.” Keri nodded. “Tomorrow is the Day of the Firstborn Daughter, the Day Queen. Then, the evening is the Time of the Fires for the Living, and in the small hours, the Red Ashes for the Dead. Flames for the living; embers for the dead. The fire-priests build up huge bonfires and let them burn down. Supposedly, the good dead come back to sit by the embers, but I slept through it all last time. I’m not much in the mood to talk to ghosts this time either, bad or good.”

“M’m,” said Caewen. “So there’s a series of self-important sounding festivals. That would fit. The magicians of this moot never do cease to surprise with their talent for being a little more uppity about themselves.”

A light curve of a smile touched Keri’s mouth, and ran up into her eyes. “I’m afraid it does often seem that way. It rather goes with the job, I expect.” A shrug. “Being magicians, and all.”

“Yes.” Caewen looked away, past her companions, at the tents passing by, at the bright morning sky full of mist of cloud in full, soft light, at the trees and the hills beyond them. “I’ve been thinking also about that escaped wurum. Here. I’ve a question… Keri, Keru: did you know the boy was a serpent-talker? He came from some lineage that could talk to wurums and dragons, snakes, and other things too, probably. Fafmuir told me.”

“I didn’t” said Keri. “But what of it?”

“Does’t is strike you as awfully convenient?”

“In what way?” she said.

“Well, I mean, think about it. Right there, we had a person who could have simply told the wurum to go back into its cage, or asked it nicely to go to sleep, or I don’t know, whatsoever he wanted it to do. But he was killed the very moment the wurum got loose.”

Keru snorted and puffed out his cheeks. “I would have described it as awfully inconvenient.”

As her head nodded in slow, thoughtful agreement, Keri said, “Inconvenient for us, but convenient for anyone who wanted a rampaging wurum. You think it wasn’t an accident then?”

“I’m just about sure that it wasn’t an accident. Only, I’m not sure to what end. There’s something murky going on here. I feel like there are shapes flashing just out of sight, like white-bellied eels coiling just under the surface of a muddy creek. A glimpse here. A rush of a shape there. But I can’t see the whole of it yet.” She sniffed the cold air through her nostrils, feeling the chill in her head and down the inside of her windpipe, turning her breath over, and puffing it out in one irritated whisper. “I want to go and look at the tent that burned down too. I think I must. I need to know what happened there.”

Fair Upon the Tor #26 (updates Mondays)

A small, silent and mutual regard teased out between the two of them then, but it twisted upon itself and became uncomfortable. Caewen felt self-conscious. She looked away, down at her feet, at the wet, dewy grass and the places where the night’s spiderwebs lay like jewelled nets over it. When she had gathered her thoughts sufficiently to meet Samarkarantha in the eye, she did, briefly, and found that he had not broken off his gaze. He was looking at her levelly, as if trying to study the details of her face, jaw, neck. Now squirming with discomfit, she coughed and waved to Keri and Keru. “Hey there. Shouldn’t we be going?”

They stopped trying to give each other welts for long enough to turn to her. Keru was clearly still slow and uneasy on his feet after the poisoning and yesterday’s close call. Although the bruises didn’t show strongly against his nut brown skin, there were still quite a few purplish lines visible against the dark tan of his bare chest and arms. Caewen wasn’t sure if the bruising was from yesterday’s dealings with the wurum or today’s dealing with sparring. His sister looked comparatively unscathed. Even as Keru replied, full-voiced, “Finally! Yes. Let’s go!”, a sweep of his sister’s short spear caught him on the back leg and clipped him neatly into a fall that landed him rump-in-mud. “Ow. That was not fair,” he muttered.

“All is fair in battle, little brother.” She shook her head, and placed a hand on hip, frowning at him. “You are too distractible. Keep your mind on your opponent, or you will end up with a knife in the gut or an axe in the skull. Get it?”

“Yeah, if you say.”

When she reached down to help him up, he made a quick jolt of a movement and tried to pull her into the wet grass. She was too quick, stepping lithe to one side, and he was back in the mud again. Instead of being offended he laughed, raucously, loud and long.

With a shake of the head, Keri muttered, “Well, at least you’ve a good humour about your repeated comeuppance from your big sister. Caewen’s right though. We should be going.”

He got himself up to his feet. “Sounds good to me. Better than another hiding from you.”

“Will you come too?” Caewen asked Samarkaratha. “We could both use the moral support I expect.”

“No. I have other matters to attend to. Pel is already out in the market making inquiries on my behalf. She will be back soon and we will have things to discuss. Go with grace and good fortune, Lady Caewen, and you too young warriors Keri and Keru. Peace be upon you, and peace go with you.”

“Thank you,” said Caewen, rising. “I hope it is, and it does.”


Keri led them to the maze entrance by memory, with only a couple digressions up the wrong slope, or down some blind laneway of tents. She strode half a pace out in front, animatedly talking about what she remembered of the labyrinth. Evidentially, there was no rule against describing the maze, as remembered, although Keri hedged her advice. “But keep in mind that everyone remembers it differently. The maze changes and twists on itself. In some places, the air is so thick with magic, it almost sparkles. You can feel it like a thrumming on the skin. The ground shifts as you walk. The pathways are inconstant… mutable.”

Caewen arranged questions in her head and brought them to bear, one after another. “Keri, did you meet anything in the maze? Are there… I don’t know… creatures? Spirits? Are we likely to run into other people walking the maze? Does everyone go in at once?”

It was actually Keru who gave the first response. He and his sister had clearly gone over this many times, and he spoke with an assumed, half-casual authority. “They send you in one at a time. I don’t know about creatures though. There are stories of visions and things, but not anything like, well you know, a boggart or a wurum” He glanced over at his sister. “You never saw anything like that did you?”

“No.” Keri shrugged. “Some people do tell stories about phantoms in the ways. But maybe that’s just tricks of the eye. Or harmless illusions? Or lies and boasts?” A shrug. “I didn’t see anything besides endless grey walls.” After a moment, she did add, stretching out her words, “I guess I should say… I did hear things. Voices in the walls. Far off singing, the words not altogether human. But the voices never grew loud, never drew close, and I didn’t go looking for them.” As if remembering her brother, she added, “And Keru, if you are thinking about chasing phantom voices: do not. I know you’d think it would be a bit of fun, but the maze is not a child’s plaything. Just walk the paths, find a way out, leave. Don’t linger or tempt the maze to act against you.”

“Dull,” said Keru.

“And that’s all there is to it?” Caewen thought this over. It didn’t sound so terrible, but walkers in the maze did go missing. So there had to be something more threatening that voices and rumours. “Really, Keri, that can’t be all there is to it. People vanish in there.”

Fair Upon the Tor #25 (updates Mondays)

“In what way are you evil?” she said, putting playfulness into her tone.

“Do not ask questions that will lead to unpleasant answers,” said Samarkarantha. “One way that we restrain the demons of the heart is to play our own little mind games, ignore the tempting voices, pretend the words are weak, or bare whispers and ghosts. It is true that sometimes acknowledging a demon can clear it out of the mind.” He shrugged. “On the other hand, sometimes it only brings the beast to the surface.” His eyes gleamed then in the white, pale morning light, and his teeth seem brighter and harder than they had been.

She held his gaze only for a short moment before finding it uncomfortable, and looking back to Keru and Keri moving gracefully across the ground. The morning light was still rising and the sun was a white phantom of brilliance beyond hills and clouds. The trees in the distance, fringing the ridges of low hills that surrounded the tor, all looked flat and without depth, as if they had been beaten out of a piece of bronze stoked to white heat. But it was a cold brilliance. Fog lay in the dips of the green hills and dew sparked in long lines up grassy slopes. She could see the thin lines of spiderwebs too, woven in the night and netted over grass, alight in the sun, fragile and ready to blow away with the day’s first real breath.

“I did want to say another thing too. Your biloko spoke to me last night.”

“Oh? Did they now?”

“They did. They begged me to let them go. There’s a chest, and they wanted their bells back. They know the bells are in there, and they want them. You should know they are trying to get free. And, maybe you shouldn’t be keeping them? I don’t want to be impolite. You’ve been very kind to me and Dapplegrim, but… it’s just…”

“You don’t approve?” said Samarkarantha, with an arch of one brow.

“No. I suppose I don’t.”

His face lost its expressiveness for a moment, passed into a cloudy look, but came back to a smile, after a moment. “I don’t know if I approve either. I caught them, and took away the bells that is their power and their magic, and made them into slaves, and I did all this when I was a much younger man. Much more rash. Far more arrogant. I am less sure of myself now.”

“So why keep them? Surely they’ll find a way to get their bells out of that chest, eventually.”

In a tone of warning, Dapplegrim added. “Creatures of old magic do not like to be kept as prisoners. Such beasts can be patient, but they’ll get their revenge in the end. Believe me, I know.”

“Ah, but they will not. My biloko cannot ever be free without their bells, and I confess that I have mislead them. There are no copper bells of power in the chest. The chest is empty.”

“Oh. Then why would you want them to think the bells are in there? Have you hidden them somewhere else?”

“He shot a glance to the entryway of the tent and gave out a small, sad sound. “I was hasty in my youth. Overproud of my art. Their bells are not hidden. The bells are gone. They have been melted and reformed anew. The biloko will never be freed. They can never be freed without their bells. They are eternally bound.”

After a pause, Caewen and Dapple said at the same time. “The gong.”

“Yes. But if the biloko ever knew this, they would be driven mad. So, I keep the truth from them. Sometimes, it is the container that is important. Sometimes the object within is nothing but misdirection and trickery.”

“Hurm,” said Dapplegrim. They turned to look at him. With a flick of his ears he said, “Sounds like one too many magicians I’ve known. All frippery and garnish, nothing inside.”

“I hope you find that some of us have a little more pith to our core?” Samarkarantha’s smile returned, broadening.

“A little. H’m. Somewhat.”

The thwack and click of the wooden staves was the only sound for a while. Caewen spent some time focused on the food in front on her. “I suppose I ought to be going along to the labyrinth now. When are we expected there?”

“Soon. Yes.” A nod towards the sparring siblings. “Keru was only waiting for you to rise. Otherwise he would have been off to the maze an hour ago.”

“Oh. I hope I haven’t made him late. Do you get in trouble for being late?”

The slightness of the shrug that passed through Samakarantha’s frame could easily have been mistaken for a breath of wind stirring his clothing. “Not in trouble with the Three Who Are One, they who oversee the maze-ways, no. Some petty official of the moot may be angry, but the goddesses are goddesses all the same, even if they are minor and rather local to the tor. And goddesses are timeless, are they not?”

“I suppose that would be true.” Her glance fled from the half-finished breakfast, dancing momentarily to the skullish features of Dapplegrim. “Can Dapple go with me?”

“No. You must walk the maze-ways alone. He may pass by the old winding path and meet you at the far end.”

“If I come out the other end?”

“I have a faith that you will.”

“And why is that?”

His face wore its expression steadily, growing more sombre, more serious by small notes only. “There was once a man who learned about the magic in stories, and he learned that a name is just a story told in a few small syllables, and he learned that a story is a name strung out long and twisting, and full of trivial points of fact. This man learned that he could work magic by telling stories. He learned that he could learn a lot by listening to stories. One day a young lady told him all about herself, and so he learned a great deal about her. He learned the things she knew about herself, but he also listened to the silences between words, the unspoken gaps, the sighs and the irritated huffs of noise, and he learned some things that the young woman did not herself yet know. He learned that she will either come through the maze, or not. And he learned that her fate within the close-bound and twisting walls will be one of her own free choice. More than that, he does not know. But he trusts that she will choose well.”

“Then this man has a great deal more trust in her than she does herself.”

“As the man has said, he knew some things about her that she did not know. He had reason to trust.”

“M’m,” said Caewen. “Is that so?”

“It is so.”