Fair Upon the Tor #23 (updates Mondays)

The lightning that broke the grey sky was more of a dead yellow than silver. Each brilliance cracked and flickered further off, sneaking away behind ridges of hilltops as the storm passed into the westward and south. The rain that had poured for several hours diminished, faltered and ceased. Yet, for a long while afterwards, the pattern of droplets still studded the air: tree, fern and leaf, stick, log and rock were all wet and running with rain. Down in the valley below, lights of tents stood stark, red, gold and yellow, against mist-dappled airs.

Although most of the gathering slept, there were some few scattered voices raised night-songs. Now that the rain had ceased, the more nocturnal of the wizards and other weird folk were stirring themselves into the open–coming out of their tents, and going about new business in the dark hours. Their words and greetings to one another were dim and distant.

All this was visible from an empty grass-thick browline of earth that stood to the north of the tor and fair, just far enough from Crow Hall Wood to fall out of the shadows of those trees. Atop this lonely ridge, no living creature moved or stirred, not a rat or mouse, moth, owl or gnat. The expanse of heavy wet grass was untrod, thick with a few tussocks, some low raggedly wind-torn hawthorns, broken logs, rocks. Nothing else.

But then a movement curled on the air. It was like a spiderweb twisting with the wind, and lighting up with a faint glow, coalescing and unravelling. Out of this faintness of form grew a more substantial shape: an old woman, or something like an old woman, bent near to double and wrapped up heavily under coarse, unpleasant brown hemp clothing. Her face was protrudent almost to the point of seeming goatlike and her ears were unusually large. Trailing from her skirt, there was a tangle of something long, that looked for all the world like a hairy tail, dragging in the mud. Stranger still, her left arm hung much longer than the right, and was covered all over in a coarse, wiry hair. She raised her blotchy yellow eyes to her surrounds, and looked about, as if expecting to see someone else atop the empty brow.

She remained alone for the time it took three flashes of lightning to etch hard gold into the southwest.

Then, to her right a tendril of red appeared, and it flickered, then grew almost like red roots growing out the air, descending, or a veinous network full of pumping, living blood, without a body. Soon, a creature had formed out of this mass too. It was androgynous, neither clearly male, nor female; also ancient, also bent and malformed; its face ugly, set with bulging eyes and a gash of a mouth full of squat yellow teeth. Just as with the other entity, this one had a left arm that was oddly marked, though the marking was more uncanny. Red wetness dribbled down the creature’s left arm, snaking and twining, until the whole of the left hand was red, as if dipped in fresh blood. Fresh blood could not be the actual source of it though, as the running sheet of bright red showed no sign of drying or ceasing. It just continued to bleed in a trickle down the creatures left fingertips, drip, drip, into the earth. “Well met, sister,” said the creature with the red left hand.

“Well met, sibling,” said the old bent woman with the hairy left hand.

They stood wordless then, searching the air, sniffing.

“Wet night,” observed the woman with the hairy hand.

“Storm’s been through,” agreed her sibling. “Better weather tomorrow.”

“That’ll be nice then,” she answered, then said, “Ah, he approaches us by land and not by wind or raindrop.”

Coming up the hill was a tall shadow and in the midst of this tall shadow, there seemed to be a giant, muscular, curved form, full of hard flesh, striding powerfully. It’s eyes were the dim fires of lights a thousand ells out to sea, drowning in darkest fog. It looked like a demon out of the elder age of the world, but as it neared, it diminished, growing smaller and smaller, even as the shadow around it grew thicker and larger, rising up, like wings rising up. This continued until the creature arrived at the gathering as a withered old man, bent, bearded with a grey lichenous rot-tangles, white-skinned and eyes nothing but hollows, filled with cobwebs and shadows and dim drowning light. His left arm hung uselessly at his side, shrivelled right down to the bone so that waxy skin was stretched over a dead frame of joints.

“Well met, sister,” he said to the old woman with the hairy arm, and “Well met, sibling,” he said to the creature with the red-blood hand.

They both song-voiced at once, “Well met, brother.”

He cleared his throat then and said, softly. “Let the old words be spoken so that we three know that each of us is true and not an imposture sent. I am one such as he who was killed in the field of birds.”

The old woman with the hairy arm then murmured, “And 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.”

They turned to look at the third in their company. The red-handed creature whispered, “And I am one such as them who was strangled with a leather cord and sunk deep in brackish bogs.”

The dead-armed one with the pall of shadow nodded. “Then we are all who we are. That is good. Long years have split us, and we have gone asunder, searching. This hour was appointed to reconvene. What news have you both? For I have none. The rumours have led me to naught in the west and south.”

“And this is true for me also,” said the creature with the red hand. “In the east I have found nothing but empty lies and false fears. What of you, sister? Have you found truth at the end of tales?”

She looked at them with his discoloured ochre-tinted eyes and said in a low rattle of a voice. “Aye, but for me, I have found out something more wondrous and more terrible. In the north. One of the Sorthemen has it, or a part of it at least.”

The other two drew in hard hisses and gasps.

“It is true then,” said red-hand. “It has been found. And in Sorthe? That land was scoured a thousand times over. It cannot have been there.”

“I did not claim it was,” said old woman hairy-hand. “I said only a Sortheman has it now. I do not know where he got it from. It is one of the Princelings of Sorthe.”

“That would explain the absence of the four prince-magicians of Sorthe then,” said dead-hand, from inside his pall of shadows. “Steps must be taken. The Sorthemen are savages. They cannot be allowed to make use it. Not ever. Such use would break the world.”

“Or he might give it to another?” suggested the blood-red hand. “That might be worse. Is it true that Him of the Pied Cloak has come out of the farthest north?”

The hairy-armed old woman nodded, a short, curt nod. “Aye and aye again.”

“That would be worse,” agreed dead-hand. “What then to do? We cannot leave this be. A strange sickly filth of lies has entered all the world’s oracles. They cannot be consulted, not with any trust to truthfulness. The Old Lady of Embers is missing, and you both know what that may well mean.”

They both nodded, sagely, worry on their strange, animalistic faces.

“Can we call on any of the Courts of the Faer? Have we any allies left there?”

Now red-hand shook his head. “Nay. I went about and sought out our kin. They are tangled up in their own plots and schemes. The whole of the world is tied into knots by false prophecies and baseless foretelling. No help will come from that quarter.”

“So then, it is to us that the matter falls.” Dead-hand sighed and looked down at the view of tents and lanterns. “The three Goddesses of this place will stop us the moment they think we have plans to interfere with the moot. It is their sole duty. No pleading or cunning words will avert their wrath.”

“Then we must be quiet as mice,” said old hairy-hand.

“And quick as hares,” said him of the blood-red fingers.

“Or else dead as a rotting sheep,” said the one with the withered arm. Laughter rung from him then, like air from old broken billows. “More dead than we have ever been.”

“So then,” muttered the old lady with the hairy hands and dragging tail. “Let us make some plans.”

The other two said “Aye,” and they fell to whispers amongst themselves. Lightning spat and shot more distantly, and the clouds gradually uncurled themselves, and cleared away to let free a few weak stars. As a storm-drenched night slid into a cool, rainless pre-dawn, the three dark shapes on the hilltop bent heads together and spoke in hushed secrets.

Fair Upon the Tor #22 (updates Mondays)

“Wise words from savage mouths,” said Pel, softly. She eased up with the roughness of her fingertips. The rain threshed over the tent roof. The cooling embers gave away a little more of their ruddy light and deep soft shadows grew. “I was a happy child. My home is away in the east, past the Elradian Deserts, which are spoken of like a myth in these lands. Actria. Actria. It is a beautiful land, my home, though I do not think you would see the beauty. You people, I think you are mad for your love of green hills, and wet oaks, grey rocks and cold mosses. Actria is a land of hard gold and amber soils, cliffs and crumbling rocks. Ochre in a dozen shades, from white to flame red. The great Vasqu runs through it, and brings floods that wet the soils for crops every year. The sky is like cut turquoise, and there is turquoise in the earth too. So much, that you can kick it out of the ground in some hills. Gold like grains of rice tumbles in the currents of the Vasqu. And yet, it is a long way from perfect, my home, my Actria. In the north of Actria is a wilderness of airless grey forest, dry, without rivers or streams. Hardly any animals live there, but deep, deep in the forest is the City of the Bloodied Lady. The people of that place are some of the last scions of ancient Zenothia, Empire of a Thousand Darknesses and Blood Red Moons. Zenothia ruled over a bloody aeon. It stood a thousand years, and was overthrown a thousand years ago. But in the City of the Bloodied Lady they look back to their ancestry to Zenothia, and practise the old magic of the old cancerous empire. Divinations from living entrails, blood-rituals and death magic. They believe that a person can be made to speak prophecy only at the cusp of death. In their belief, a prophecy is all the more potent, if the mind has already be pushed to madness. So they think. So they think.” She rinsed her hands off in the water of the bath, and got up to dip some clean water out of a barrel with a brass pitcher, pouring it over Caewen, running it down her neck, shoulders and back, rinsing away the suds. It was cold, and left her shivering. “You ask, what happened to me? Just the same as what has happened to many whose towns and villages are a little too far north, a little too close to the edges of that dismal forest. Too many Actrian towns have walls that are not in good repair, or bells of alarm unused to ringing, stiff on their ropes. I hid in the vineyard, but I saw them come and take my family. My two younger sisters, my older brother, mother and father. They took my uncle too, and his family. A hundred others too, driven north, for blood-rites and other uses.”

“Why hasn’t your people put an end to this city then? You must have soldiers.”

“Many satraps, over many years, have taken armies north. None have returned. The City of the Bloodied Lady has magic at its call, weird beasts, and fell sorceries. They are not easily cast down by spears and cavalry.”

“But they might be by magic, if a person sutdied it deeply enough?”

Pel looked her in the eye, knwoingly. “Yes. That thought has occurred to me.”

“Mm. So, what happened to you then? After the raid?”

“I swore I would never be in a place where people like that could reach an arm into my heart and pluck it out. So I gave myself as an apprentice to the water temple at Tictisoquanna, and it came to be that I had a reasonable talent for the arts and ways of the the enchantress, and so I was trained.” She grew so quiet that even her breathing seemed to have stopped. “Tell me, Caewen of the north, where the darkness rules, and night demons wander, do you know of a way to bring low a city of blood and darkness, sorcery, ghosts and terrors, all of them night-worshippers, though and through?”

“No,” said Caewen. “That is beyond anything I know.” After a moment’s breath she added, “I would tell you if I knew such things.”

“Well, it never hurts to ask, I suppose.” Pel got up, rolled her shoulders a little, and recomposed herself into her hard, feline attitude. “You should rinse, dry off and come back to the main vestibule to sleep. Others may want to use the bath too, and you have been in here longer than is strictly polite.” She swished her way back through the curtain then, pausing only to pick up a few woven blankets from a table on her way.

After Pel was gone, Caewen spent a solid minute just staring into hollow air, listening to the rain, thinking. As she got out of the bath, she shot a glance at the biloko and said to them, “There world really is full of miseries, isn’t it?”

Their reply was a series of unhappy rattles and hisses in their throats.

Illustration 012 (updates Thursdays) (kinda)

Just another sketch from the sketchbook this week. Apologies for the lateness too. The newborn, just four weeks old today, and some visiting family have been occupying time.

This is my ‘faces in rocks’ page of sketches, which was a companion to the ‘faces in trees’ I posted earlier. Both sets of sketches were intended to try and break me out of sketching the same sorts of faces over and over again, reaching out, into something new, physiognomically speaking.

Fair Upon the Tor #21 (updates Mondays)

It was difficult to find a mental path back to her cosy sphere of relaxation, with the biloko standing there, hissing their small sad noises. She supposed that she could have told them to be quiet, and maybe they would even have obeyed her, but the thought of giving them commands made her feel damp and cold inside. The decision soon made itself up in her mind; the best thing to say was nothing. Instead, she sank into the hot water, tried to block out the noise of the angry biloko, and listened to the rain. Eventually their unhappy pipes and trebles faded off into fragmented breathing. A fragile quietness resumed. Time passed, and the steam rose. The glow of the embers below the tub started to fill up the space in the tent, reddening the air as the rain drummed on the fabric above. She had thoroughly lost track of time when the curtain ruffled, and a familiar, irritated voice said, “Are you not done in there yet?” It was Pel.

“Sorry. I was just soaking.”

“Can I come in? I need to collect some things.”

Caewen felt a bit exposed in the water, but the sides of the bath were tall, and she was able to sink down a bit. “Yes. Please do.”

Peloxanna pushed her way through the curtain with a scratchy sounding sigh. She glanced past Caewen, uninterested, but looked back again, her brow lining. “Haven’t you even washed yourself yet?”

“Washed myself?” She looked down. “I’m in the water. What more washing can I do?”

An expression of frustration fomented, then leapt and dashed through Pel’s eyes. “There are no suds in the water. You’re haven’t even picked up a piece of soap.”

“Soap?” said Caewen, looking around.

Pel walked over to her, picked up a rose-tinted, unevenly shaped lump from a side-table, and thrust it towards Caewen’s face. It finished up poised right in front of her nose. “Soap, you barbaric yokel.”

Skin prickling, heat rising in the base of her skull, Caewen scowled back. A tension ran up and down the length of her arms. “I know what soap is. We make soap. I just wouldn’t use soap on my skin. It’s for washing hard linens. It would burn skin, wouldn’t it? Soap is caustic. I’m not an idiot.”

“What in the name of all twelve deserts of the world…? What kind of soap do you people make?” Pel seemed to deflate then. The energy went out of her. “By the temples of flame and water, I think your whole village must be nothing but mud-huts and hovels. It’s like talking to a badger. Do you people live with animals in your houses too?”

“Only when it is cold out,” said Caewen, ruefully. “In winter. Or if the spring turns harsh, the lambs have to come indoors. Otherwise, they’d freeze to death.” After a pause. “Wouldn’t they?”

“Or your could build barns.”

“We have barns! Of course we have barns. But a barn has no hearth fire,” said Caewen. “If you leave a newborn lamb in a warmthless barn, under a hard frost, it’ll be dead by morning, and then the ewe will be all a-kilter and miserable. Bleat, bleat bleat. On and on.” The breath she took was hard to keep steady. “Look, I’m not some bogle, wearing pelts, or living in a hole dug out of the ground,” she waved a hand, angry, “…eating moles and earthworms.”

“Well, you’ve certainly fooled me. Here, lean forward. You haven’t even wetted your hair, or combed it. I honestly don’t know.”

Caewen obeyed, feeling the unpleasantness lining her face and cords of irritation, like hard twisted strings, running through her. Pel sat behind the bath, on a stool, then splashed water into Caewen’s hair. She then emptied some of a bottle of liquor onto her head. It smelled faintly of rosehips. Then, Pel started lathering the stuff in, more roughly than was strictly required in Caewen’s opinion.

She was trying to shepherd some calmness together inside herself, but her blood only felt hotter and angrier with the passing moments. She shut her eyes, stopped the thoughts. The raking of Pel’s fingers on her scalp was sharply unpleasant, but she tolerated it. As she listened to Pel breathing in short, irritated puffs, she came back to wondering why the woman was so enraged at her. Finally, she asked, “Pel, why are you angry with me? I haven’t done anything to you.”

Pel pulled at Caewen’s hair, causing a sharp bite of pain at the scalp. “What makes you think I’m not angry at everyone?”

Caewen was about to say something mean-spirited, but took a breath, stared into the rippling and now quite pink-and-yellow foamy water, and instead, said, “I’m sorry. For whatever it is that happened to you. I’m sorry for it. But it can’t have anything to do with me. Being angry with some random stranger from the north doesn’t make sense to me. And it isn’t fair, either. We’re not all night-worshippers, and most night-worshippers I’ve met were decent people, besides. No more or less decent than most folks, anyway.” She held onto a silence for a moment, allowing Pel to say something, anything, but got only another equal and balanced silence in return. That, and the continued rough ministering of fingers against her skull. She tried another tack. “I grew up in a village that was ruled by a nasty old warlock. Mannagarm, by name, and just as filthy and dirty an old man as you can imagine. Everyone in the village was afraid of him, and he was afraid of everyone. He took people from the village to be his servants, and he killed folk’s wits with magic, and he stole people’s dreams, and made them into dull beasts that could barely remember their own names.” She twisted a little to look at Pel. “But you know what? He wasn’t a worshipper of Old Lady Night. He wasn’t a worshipper of the Day Queen, neither. He wasn’t out for anyone or anything, but for his own self. And he was quite capable of being malicious all on his own. I’m not in any divine camp either. I’m not thrown in with one goddess or the other. I’m doing my best to be a halfway good person, all on my own.”

“And what happened to him?”

“Mannagarm? He got what he deserved. Maybe worse than he deserved. But you know what? I don’t hate him, not anymore. I did, I think, and for a long time. I was definitely afraid of him. My brother and me had to hide in a cellar for most of our lives,” she didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with Pel, and giving up a little bit, she added, “Oh, I don’t know. There can be a time for anger. But it has to pass. Otherwise you become the anger. Nothing but anger all the way down.”

Fair Upon the Tor #20 (updates Mondays)

Dapplegrim stirred. “H’m. Caewen? Couldn’t you just say what you have to say to one of these others? Any of them will do, and then they can talk at the moot, and we’re all done. Then we could up hooves and leave. I don’t like being around so many magicians.” He shook himself, and a shiver ran down his black-grey flanks. “It makes my skin crawl. They’re creepy.”

“Sometimes, Dapple, I really don’t know if you are joking or serious.”

“What?”

“I will convey a message, if you wish it,” said Samarkarantha. Pel glared at him, but he ignored her. A few light creases marred his brow. He waited.

Caewen thought this through, turned it over in her mind. “No,” she said. “I promised to speak myself, and so I will. It wouldn’t honest to the promise otherwise.”

“Then so you will,” said Samarkarantha.

The conversation turned thinner and more pattering then, dipping in and out of a few topics of no particular consequence. Where to buy good cloth in the market. The better handles of beer to be had for a few coins. The sort of thing that people fall back on when they feel it is polite to carry on a conversation with strangers, but are uncomfortable. Caewen was finding herself increasing aware of the damp in her clothing. The water had soaked itself down to her skin. Her leggings were wet right through to the toes inside her big farm-boots. Finally, after she started squirming slightly, Samarkarantha noticed. “You are cold. And soaked. You should not sit in wet clothing. There is a bath behind the curtains. I will order my un-belled biloko to fill it, and heat the water.” He rang the little gong again. The chiming note clung to the air like a frisson of sunlight, fading. As the sound receded, the three tusk-mouthed, snouted and woody faced creatures emerged from behind the curtain. Samarkarantha gave them a short command in his homeland tongue and they turned and retreated back behind the thick hangings. “They will fetch water and pour it, and stoke coals for warmth. You need not fear them, they’ve no power to harm you.”

It hadn’t occurred to her that Samarkarantha would have a bath hidden behind the folds of the rich curtains. In Caewen’s sphere of experience, a hot bath was the sort of thing empresses indulged in. Or princesses in bogey-tales. She had never been anywhere near such a thing, and she was immediately curious. “Alright.” She got up, feeling the wet clothing suck and draw at her skin. The smell of wet wool was becoming a stink of damp lanolin. Some quick digging around in her pile of saddlebags, and she was able to pull out dry clothing. She passed Pel on her way across the tent, and caught a close, ferocious look. Caewen wondered what must have happened to Peloxanna to motivate such dislike. She wanted to stop and explain, again, that her whole family, and all her cousins, and village, and everyone in Drossel were, by necessity of living in the borderlands, quite neutral in the ceaseless conflict of the two great goddesses. She wanted to say again: I am no night worshipper. I’m no sun worshipper either. I don’t have a stake in this.

But she didn’t. She saw no point. Peloxanna would not want to listen, and there was no way to make her.

Instead, Caewen, tried a small smile, and found that it ran aground on that hard yellow gaze. Pel’s irises were so bright in the lamplight that they looked the colour of daffodils. So, getting nothing in return but more cool anger, Caewen shrugged, and walked over to the curtains. “Through here?” she asked.

Samarkarantha nodded.

On the other side of the curtains, the biloko were already busy. One of them was pouring water into a huge iron tub that was decorated with motifs of lions and a some manner of spiky creature that looked like a giant hedgehog with a long snout. Another of the biloko was coming into the tent with a pail of water, while the third was kindling coals to life under the tub. This last one was chanting in rising and falling cadences, the language wild and eerie. It must have been a charm to speed the heating of the water. Trickles and low lines of steam were already roiling over the water’s surface.

Caewen peeled off her clothing without even thinking about the biloko. They gave off such an alien strangeness, that it was unclear to her whether they had a concept of male and female, let alone any notion of propriety. Her clothing came away in the sticky, bunched-up, damp masses that tend to accumulate once fabric gets really wet. Her skin felt immediately freer and more pleasant once the wet cloth was off her. She looked around for a drying rag, but found only some richly embroidered soft material that was cut into rectangles and hanging near the bath. Each of these soft strips was long and quite narrow, and she thought perhaps the intention was to wrap a piece around yourself. She asked through the curtain if she was to use the hanging cloth rectangles to dry herself afterward, and heard back, “Yes, certainly.”

Pel followed this by saying, loudly, “They are called towels.”

By this time the bath was getting towards full, and the steam was clouding up in pleasant puffs. When she went to the bath’s rim, intending to get in, she found that the biloko stopped their work and looked at her, rather more fixedly than seemed appropriate. But their gaze was clearly not desirous, rather, it seemed something closer to the stare of a curious animal. Not sure how much wariness was justified, she stared back at the three creatures, but found that the biloko just remained unmoving, limp-limbed, gawping. So without any further hesitation, she climbed into the hot water, splashing and sloshing it about. Yet, all the while, she kept half-an-eye on the small, woody-skinned creatures with their deep-set pig’s eyes.

She sank into the hot bathwater then.

It was very good.

Caewen allowed herself relax for the first time in what felt like forever and ever. Soaking into the water for long minutes, she could feel her breathing slow and grow gentler. On the other side of the curtain, the conversation continued pleasantly, and she caught some words of it, from time to time. Above her, the canvas roof drummed and rippled, as blasts of rain came down. Now and then, a flash of yellow-blue lightning filled the whole ceiling with translucent brilliance, and thunder stirred and rolled. It was so very good not to be out in this weather. Not everyone at the moot would have a tent. She didn’t own one, after all. Maybe she should buy a canopy or tent at the market? Could Dapplegrim carry a tent? Maybe a small tent. Not like this huge thing, with hot baths and cushions and little square tables and hideous servants from distant jungles.

The warmth of the water was lulling her into drowsy inattention. As her muscles unknotted and loosened, she tried to think through the next day, but found her plans muddled. Walk the maze? Ask some questions about that tent that caught on fire? She was curious about that now. Other things too. Definitely some other things.

She jolted silently, as she came awake. A light sharp scratch at her upper arm had woken her. To her right, one of the biloko had scuffled up very close. The other two were behind it, hanging back, watchful. The one that was beside her peered into her face, and it spoke. Its voice was like two pieces of old dead wood rubbing together in a wet forest. “Have pity on us, enchantress. Grant mercy upon us, mistress of sorceries.”

She said nothing, letting it speak.

It went on, waving his too-long, too-thin fingers in a hurry-less pattern. “We are servants of the Goddess of Night and Moonlight, just as you are, winter-witch. We sing her songs and her praises in the darkest reaches of the jungles. But all around us are the sun-worshippers. The day-hags. They enslave us. They take our bells away, our blessed bells of power, and they make us be servile for them.”

“And do laundry,” hissed one of the other biloko, like wind through thick waxy leaves dripping green water.

“And scrub pots and dishes,” snarled the last of them, like moonlight on a forest floor.

“Our bells are in a chest that we may not touch. Take them out, fetch them to us, give them to us.” The thing pointed at a wooden strongbox that sat at the foot of a large sleeping frame, off to one side. This was presumably where Samakarantha made his bed each night.

“Return to us our potencies.”

“And we will serve you and be your servants, and grateful, untold and everlasting.”

“And what else would you do, if I freed you?”

“We would murder the filthy sun-magician who ensnared us. Murder him dead. Dead like bones. Dead like gristle. Dead like marrow chewed up by hyaenas in the blessed dark night.”

“Then I cannot,” she told him. “Samarkarantha has been kind to me. I will not repay kindness with treachery.”

“Then you are no lady of the night. No true sorceress of our glorious and most beautiful mistress would let her children suffer so. She who is the mother of all things will curse your name, and spit poison into your blood and soul.”

“No. I’m not a true sorceress of anything. You’re right about that.”

“Then, hark to us. Hark! We will be freed eventually. One way, or another.”

Another of them spoke. “We live an eternity.”

The third hissed. “And when we are free, we will remember you and your morality.”

“We will come for you and kill you dead. Like bones. Like meat. Like marrow.”

“Marrow to be chewed by hyaenas in the blessed dark night.”

She shrugged. “I suppose you may live an eternity but I won’t. I expect I’ll be a long time dead before you come looking for me.” They retreated into the shadows then, whispering and snivelling to themselves. She looked away but thought about what they had said. Caewen did not much like slavery. Whether it was humanfolk, spirits, or gods who were the slave-keepers, or the enslaved. “I will speak to Samarkarantha on your behalf,” she said, softly and into the darkness. “I’ll tell him that I think he shouldn’t be keeping servants against their will.”

They snarled as one, and retreated yet deeper into darkness, huddling together in a miserable mass of arms and legs and woodlike skin and grasslike hair.

Fair Upon the Tor #19 (updates Mondays)

Caewen gave into a mass of unpleasant thoughts as she returned, going via the market, and eventually, back to Samarkarantha’s tent. She stumped through the cold, muddy grass, feeling each heavy tread of her feet.

The thickness of storm-cloud that had been lying over the world was finally deciding to give up some of its rain, though it was still an inconstant and fickle drizzle, never quite deciding to grow into the heavy wet droplets that the clouds promised. Instead of soaking her, the airy mist fringed her skin, hair and clothing with a haze of cold moisture, making her chilled, deep inside. Her woollens, with their moth-holes and wispy strands, gathered a halo of damp that glowed under lantern-light and itched her skin.

At Samarkarantha’s tent she stopped to look up into the sky, at the churn of clouds and the few peeking stars beyond. Someone, somewhere was singing an even-song, and it was beautiful. A high clear intonation, fit to call blessed spirits down from the moon, or celestial maidens out of their thrones in the stars. There was beauty here too, she reflected. Madness. Strange old laws. Ugliness and fear-wrought things. But also beauty. She would take her mind back to that. Look for the beauty in the world. It is there, she thought, a person only has to see it.

She felt calmer then. The cool air had eased her temper, and there was some tranquility in her thoughts, as she pushed the tent open, as she heard friendly voices, and smelled food and incense.

“Caewen!” It was Keri. She jumped up from where she had been sitting beside her brother. She crossed the space between them at speed but slowed down enough to avoid knocking Caewen over. “I don’t know how to thank you,” she said, and hugged her with a solid grip of an embrace. “My stupid brother would be dead,” she said then, quieter.

“How is he?”

“Resting. Keru will live.”

“I did the running,” said Dapplegrim, behind them.

“Yes.” Keri sounded both amused and irritated. “And I’ve already told you I’m grateful for it.”

“I just want to put it out there. Hurm. There wouldn’t have been any saving without me. Me. Dapplegrim. The nasty shadow demon horse,” though as he spoke, he was looking sideways at Peloxanna, where she was relaxing with a cup of wine in the corner, eying everyone in silence. She snorted, a tiny, ladylike noise.

Samarkanatha was still seated in his place near the middle of the tent. “Your horse does not merely talk, it is talkative. I hope it knows to be quiet while a person is trying to sleep.”

“Oh, Dapple just likes the attention when he can get it.” Caewen tried on a smile, though it was a touch wan she suspected. She stepped over to Dapplegrim, reaching out and scratching him behind the ears. He grinned, showing all his sharp teeth. She then walked with Keri over to a pile of cushions near Keru. He was stretched out on his back, sound asleep. They sat down. It felt good to be off her feet.

Outside, the wind was rising by degrees. A few straggling lashes of rain crossed the roof of the tent, making it ripple along the underside. Somewhere, far away, thunder grumbled. A few spare moments passed and then the torrent descended. Rain rammed the roof and the earth outside in cold spears. The air temperature noticeably dropped, so that the light down of hairs on Caewen’s arms and legs and the back of her neck prickled up. She pulled off the damp wool jumper and draped it over a table to dry.

It was then that she noticed Peloxanna watching her.

“What?” said Caewen.

But the lady just tilted her head and let her eyelids hood over those golden eyes. “It is like you were raised in a cellar.”

“People keep saying that,” muttered Caewen.

Samarkarantha cut them off. “Ahem. How was your walk? Did it help you put your thoughts in order?”

“Yes. More than I expected. I ran into Fafmuir. We had an interesting exchange.” She related the conversation, and told them about how she had found Fafmuir talking to the supposed assassin. She told them that she was undecided how much of the old man’s words she trusted. Finally, she asked, “Did you know that the triple goddess of this hill demands sacrifices? Human sacrifices?”

“If you refer to the way in which the maze takes walkers from time-to-time,” replied Samarkarantha, “then, yes. We are aware of that. The Lady Pel and myself are not in support of this practise. It is barbaric.” He threw a glance at Peloxanna, who continued to lounge where she was, like a golden cat, and did not take her eyes from Caewen. “But, we are acquitted to it, for the time being.” He gave out a huff of a noise, followed by considered, self-regarding silence. “There is some truth in the belief that we wizards would not come together at all, if there was no guarantee of godly punishment for those who might transgress the old laws. It is fair to say that many–not all–but many of we whom tread the pathways of spellcraft, the art and the way of charms, many of us, are driven by a desire for power, greater and greater, without limit. There are some of us who live in absolute terror of what their fellow magicians might stoop to, in order to steal secrets or treasures.” He allowed himself a moment to take a drink before continuing. “So, yes. It is not in the way of my people to offer human lives to any god or spirit. And yet, this is an old law, and the seven year moot has been thus for a long many years. It is difficult to see an end to it.”

“Keri,” what do you think? Aren’t you worried about walking the maze? Aren’t you worried about vanishing?”

“I was,” she confessed, “but I did the maze and was granted my magehood back at the last moot. I was still a girl, but I did it, and came through alright.” She shrugged. “I guess it wasn’t so bad, looking back. It’s not difficult. And we’re only here for this moot because Keru is going to walk the paths tomorrow. He not much of a magician, but boys will tend to get grand ideas about themselves.”

“So aren’t you worried for him then?” She looked at Keru, snoring gently in his half-enchanted sleep. “I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying he seems likely to charge into trouble. If there’s trouble to be found.”

“Oh, but Keru’s safe. Of course he won’t be taken.”

“Why?”

“Did old Fafmuir not explain?” said Samarkarantha, uncomfortable.

There was an tense absence of words around the group that grew more tense as it drew out. Finally, it was Peloxanna who spoke. “What they don’t want to tell you, is that only young woman and girls are taken by the maze. Not boys. Not men. And if you have given birth to a child, you are safe too. So, maybe, if you are afraid, Caewen, well… maybe you should get yourself with a screaming little brat, and come back seven year’s hence. You’d be safe enough then.” She followed this with a feline smile. “I’m sure if I asked around I could find some fellow who would lower himself to helping out in that respect.”

Caewen didn’t rise to Pel’s taunt. She was too angry. “What? The maze only takes young women? How can any of you stand for this? It’s… that’s…” she grasped around for words, but said int he end, limply, “Well, it’s not fair, is it?”

The people around the tent remained silent. Samarkarantha shifted and looked at his knuckles. Keri seemed embarrassed. Only Lady Pel was smiling, a nasty, small smile.

The rain was falling heavier now. A storm was coming down outside. The ground would be mud by morning.

“That’s so much worse,” said Caewen. “It’s bad enough to let the goddesses take human life. But the rotten old wizards and all the foul old men of this place never even had to take any risk at all? Fafmuir told me he walked the maze when he was young, and he said it wasn’t so bad… but of course it wasn’t bad for him. He was never under any threat.” She sat a little more upright, scowling. “What happens if there are no young woman wanting to walk the maze-ways? Do they force some girl to go in, to satisfy the bargain?”

“Well,” said Keri, “that hasn’t happened–not in a very long time–so far as I know. There’s always someone who wants a grasp at magehood. Always a lot of someones. Boys and girls. Male and female.”

“So, then, I don’t suppose you will be walking the labyrinth tomorrow?” said Pel, her voice a subtle purr. “It seems that you object.”

Caewen hunched up her shoulders. She frowned at the ground, and picked at one of the holes in her clothing that the moths had left her. “No. Well. Yes. I promised someone I would speak at the moot, and to speak I have to walk the maze first. Unless Fafmuir was being deceitful on that count too?”

Samarkarantha shook his head. “No. On that, he was plainspoken and honest. It is the rule of the moot. Only accepted and sworn magi may get up on the stump and speak. Of course, whether anyone will listen, that is another matter. Magicians like to sound wise more than they like to listen to wisdom.”

“The maze is something I’ll have to risk then.”

Illustration 009 (updates Thursdays)

I decided I wanted an opening illustration and realised that the pieces I have so far are a little bit into the story. So, here are the two rooks flying over the hills and glens of the lands south of the Snowy Mountains. The red tinted illustration is the original done with an ochre coloured oil-based pastel pencil. I then discarded the colour, switching to greyscale, and duplicated the image as a new layer in Photoshop. I switched the new layer to Multiply to bring up the lines. As a tidying up step, I used the adjust levels option and the white eye-dropper to pick a place that is a bit off-white but should be white to push the background into a nice clear white colour.

Fair Upon the Tor #18 (updates Mondays)

“Oh, it’s not all so terribly perilous as that. The maze-walking is mostly ceremonial, you see. A representation of the twisting path of life. It’s easy, really. We’ve all done it. I did it, when I was much younger. There is only one entrance, true, but the maze has many out-ways. Much as does life. We are all born of a mother’s womb, but life may take us upon different paths, and to different exits.” A friendly, forthright tone crept up in his voice. A spiderweb of wrinkles creased his face. “There will be other supplicants walking the maze tomorrow. If you present yourself at the carven gate, they’ll give you a numbered lot, and call you at your appointed time.”

“And then what? I just walk around until we find a way out?”

“Well. More or less.”

“More or less?” she asked.

He cleared his voice, sounding less comfortable. The lump of his throat bobbed. “Very rarely, you see, and it is very rarely, a person does not, as it were, actually come out the other end. The local divinities of the tor do require a payment for their benediction upon this place, and the moot, and the gathering. Usually, it is no more than one life per moot, but the Three Who are One, well, they can be inscrutable and moody. In some moots, several maze-walkers vanish. In other moots, everyone passes through the labyrinth safely, dandy as you like.”

She considered this new piece of information, and felt heat rising at her collar, and a prickling against the skin of her hands and arms. She felt a hard anger mottling and spreading inside. “The goddesses of this place demand sacrifices? Of people?”

“If you insist on framing it like that, yes. It is a payment. An exchange. A very ancient one.”

“And for what exactly? Watching over you? I haven’t seen the goddesses actually do anything. That is, other than baking bread and leaving old men to die in hovels.”

He stared intently at her, apparently picking his next words carefully. “At some point, you will need to explain what you mean by that. You are a strange one. But… as regards them who watch, the Three Ladies do indeed watch over us here, but their work is to protect us from ourselves. They ensure the old laws of the moot are upheld. They ensure that peace is maintained whilst the moot gathers. You must remember: magicians from all over the world come here, to this misery of a spur, in the midst of wilderness and nothing. And they come here with a mind to connive, deal, bargain, entrap, outwit and outflank each other. Can you imagine the insanity if there was not a firm, unbreakable rule of peace upon this place? Magicians are nothing if not quarrelsome.” He tutted. “Half of them are half-mad, and the other half simply don’t half-like each other.” He turned her a small, playful smile. “Without the governing hand of the three goddesses, and the promise of retribution for the breaking of laws, this moot would devolve into murder, fast.”

“And what are you then? Half-mad or half-unfriendly?”

“Oh, you must allow for complexity.” He winked. “I may be a little of both. We are not simple creatures. We are all a mess of passing moods, prejudices, engrained habits, irrational wants and fears, whims and wishes. A person may have many troublesome qualities. There is no reason to lack ambition and limit oneself to just the one unpleasantness.” He smiled, then sputtered, “Oh, stop looking so serious. I’m joking.” He rolled his eyes then.

“You’ve an odd sense of humour.”

“You’ve an odd sense of seriousness,” he countered.

They were drawing closer to a large but otherwise plain canopy, with flowers growing in cut barrels arranged outside it. A noise of quiet birdsong moved inside the tent, and well before they stopped, Caewen had a strong sense that this was Fafmuir’s lodging. As they arrived at the flower barrels, he went up to a flap and pushed it open. “Ah, all my children are well then.” She looked over his shoulder and saw birds flitting around the inside of the tent, a few were brightly feathered, but most were small, drab, speckled and mottled. They were the sorts of small beige bird that hides in the ferns and bushes and hunts spiders. All of them were singing softly and sweetly. On the floor of the tent, several children were playing underneath this canopy of canvas and birdsong. There were clearly no blood relations to Fafmuir among the children. They were drawn from all manner of cast and build. None of them would have been any older than ten, Caewen thought, though this was only a guess. They all jumped up, delighted, when they saw Fafmuir.

“Unci Fafmy,” one of them yelled.

Another, a young girl, ran towards him, colliding into his knees with a ferocious hug.

Fafmuir scrubbed her on her head, mussing up her hair as he said, “How are we all doing then? No mishaps I hope?”

A ringing chime of voices answered, happily.

Caewen looked over the children then asked, in a low voice, “Apprentices?”

“No. Orphans. Of a sort, at least. Over the years, I have got myself a reputation for taking in children who have developed, erm, a ‘talent’ that has made them unwelcome in their homes.” He spoke much more quietly, when he said, “Some of these children are extraordinarily dangerous when they lose control of themselves. Little Egalia here had a penchant for conjuring spirits and transmutation of flesh that is altogether too skilful for her age. Clent over there can prise open a path into one of the voids that exist between worlds when he is upset; shadows and serpent-shades of darkness creep out and swarm the earth around him if he has a tantrum. The little boy with the black curly hair is Drangut. He has a talent for sorcery of leaf and tree. If his tears wet the earth, they sprout thorny vines that strangle whatever, or whoever, has upset him. So, I take in children who have developed an innate and blood-born talent for sorcery, but lack the control and discipline of an adult understanding.” More quietly, he said, “If not for me, most of these children would otherwise meet an grisly end by strangling, or drowning, or burning on a pyre. Some of them have killed their own families without any comprehension of what they did, or how. Most have nightmares.”

“I didn’t know there were such children,” said Caewen.

“They are rare. Old bloodlines of magic trickle down to us through the years. Natural talents for a gimmick or spell rear up every now and then.”

“Oh. Like the dragon-tongue who was killed when the cage fell. He could speak to dragons by ancestry. Didn’t you say that?”

“Yes. Like him.” He held onto that thought for a moment, before hurrying it away and saying, “But, someone has to look after these children, and often enough, that someone is me.” After a pause he said, more thoughtfully, “You see? I am not such a monster after all. Just an old man trying to do his best by the world.”

She looked around the tent with the playing children and the songbirds flitting overhead. Maybe she was judging old Fafmuir unfairly? She counted eight children of various ages. The oldest of them might have been getting onto twelve. That one looked more serious than the others, and seemed to have been looking after a toddler who was stumbling around at his feet. He threw a half-smile to Fafmuir and said, “Evening, Lord-Magi. We’re all fine and well.”

“Isn’t it dangerous to leave them alone?”

“No. No. I have wards and a spells bound tight on this tent. The flitting and voices of the songbirds hold my magic firmly. These wayward children of mine would have a hard time working any magic in her. Even a great arch-wizard would have a hard time of witching work under this canopy.”

“Hm,” she said, paying only scant attention, looking around the tent. It was well appointed with small beds and cots, rugs and furnishings. In one corner was an oddly shaped brazier that seemed to be a tripod-legged bowl of coals with a rudely shaped brazen head emerging out of the midst, like a swimmer coming up through sun-glinted waters for a breath. The rest of the light and warmth came from hanging lanterns in the shapes of flying birds.

“Well, Caewen, thank you for the walk and the conversation. I should be retiring, I think. And you should too. You ought to get a good night’s sleep. After all, if you decide to walk the labyrinth tomorrow, you will want to be rested.”

“About that… I don’t think I have any good reason to walk the maze. I’ve only come to the moot to keep a promise. I will say my piece at the moot, and then I’ll be done with all of this madness. I didn’t come here to become a magician. I don’t think I should like to be one, to be honest. It seems to turn people’s minds, a bit. No insult intended.”

“None taken. I’m quite aware of my peculiarities.” He smiled his gnomish smile. “But, I have to conjecture that, ah, well… I am sorry, but I think you do have a reason to walk the maze. Only oath-sworn magicians are permitted to speak at the moot. If you want to address the gathering, you will have to walk the maze first, swear to keep to the old laws, and only then will you be allotted a time to speak.”

She looked at him blankly, and then, remembering the children, she did not swear like a lame-footed swineherd in a pigsty.

Fair Upon the Tor # 17 (updates Mondays)

“Yes, yes, holding a favour over you, but really? You must think me some sort of monster. I have no desire to extract any kind of horrid recompense.” He sighed. “For a wizard in my position, well, it is always useful to have a few favours up one’s sleeve. That is all.” He looked past her, passively, into the crowd. “Now, I have to get back to my lodgings. I can leave you here, brooding in the dark, and dreaming up suspicions, if you wish. Or you may walk with me, if you like. I’d be glad for the company, but it is quite up to you.”

She thought this over and said, “Alright,” though, as she spoke she folded her arms, narrowed her gaze. “I’ll walk with you for a bit.” She noticed that he did not ask her to go with him. A request, put directly, might have been construed as a favour, and despite a guileless, even jolly tone to his voice, the words had been carefully picked. It was difficult not to maintain a little of her steady brittleness towards the old magician.

He smiled at her, his look fringing on exasperation. “Oh, be glum then. Still, someone to talk to when out strolling is always appreciated. This way.” He half-trotted, half-waddled over the silver-lit grass, cutting a path uphill, towards a low shadow-green brow where the largest and most impressive pavilions stood. “I suppose you are sensible to wonder about me. I don’t take any deep umbrage over it. After all, it is rather a strange moot this year. It is your first year attending the wizard’s moot, isn’t it? You have that callow look about you.” He breathed out a huff of air, noisily. “Well, you’ve chosen to attend a moot that has quite its share of suspect things.” A glance upward, at the lowering sky. “Have you noticed that there are no draig-riders? The knights with their winged draigonets are absent. Indeed all four of the princes of Sorthe are noticeably missing, and they would usually come riding on royal draigonet beasts too.” He seemed to turn this over in his head, before saying. Now, it is true that Sorthelanders are inclined to their own machinations, so maybe there is murder and plotting afoot up north? It has happened before that the princes of Sorthe were too busy murdering each other to attend the moot… and yet, the Grand Old Lady of Embers is still missing. Cag-Mag Twelveshadows has turned up, late, and seems to be in a foul mood. I can’t get from her any reason why. I called on her tent, and she wouldn’t receive me. I had to actually accost her in the market to have some words. Whatever made her late, she is being tight-lipped about it. There was that accident with that caged wurum-o’-muirs. Also rather suspicious, to my mind.”

“It did happen all very quickly,” said Caewen.

“He looked at her oddly. “Oh, yes. Of course. I forgot. You were there, naturally. Your friend’s poisoning.”

“Yes. I saw the wagon roll past me. The cage seemed solidly tied down. Then, just a few moments later, it wasn’t.”

His brow furrowed. “Rather odd?” he said. “Doesn’t it seem?”

“I suppose so. Yes. I wondered at the time. But I don’t know how the creature could have got loose, except by accident.”

“Nor do I.” Though with a sly wink he added, “Well, unless you consider the possibility that accident may bleed into purpose. And magic might be involved. I mean, that sort of thing is rare, though isn’t it? It’s not like there’s several hundred magicians all gathered in one the place, all trying to out-wheedle each other. Is it?”

She glared at him.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be mocking, but it is all–as I have said–suspicious.” He waved a hand about, palm up. “A chain comes loose with no warning and a number of magicians are killed. And that’s not the only freak accident. Eight folk were killed yesterday when their tent caught fire. The flames spread extraordinarily fast, by all accounts. Almost as if the fire was fed by oil or spell. Here now.” A friendlier note returned, sliding into his voice. “I meant to ask. Are you planning to walk the maze? You are in time for it, assuming you did want to petition the moot for full and rightful magehood. You have a little magic in your blood.” He scrunched up his nose and pressed his lips into a line, as if he were considering whether he liked the smell of something dubious. “Cold feeling. Wintry magic. Not to my taste, as far as a cup of brew goes, but there are plenty of winter-witches about. You might join a coven, or something? Assuming you walk the maze without incident.”

“Um,” admitted Caewen, “well, that is, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Maze? Magehood? I’m sorry. I don’t know much about anything that goes on in a wizard meeting.” She shrugged her threadbare cloak up on her shoulders, rucking folds of linen right up to her earlobes. “Or anything much about the world, truthfully. Except when to plant swedes and cabbage, and how to set out a poison mash for granary rats.”

“Where did you grow up? In a root-cellar?” There was a joking light in his eyes.

“Well, actually, yes. More or less.” She tried to nudge a lighter tone into her voice, but did not succeed. The memory of damp and darkness, with a constant fear of the old witch-chief on the hill–the sense of oppression was still too fresh in her feelings and thoughts.

He arched a brow at her. “I see. One day, when we have more time and less mistrust between us, you will have to tell me that tale. Anyway. So. Well, yes. There is an rock-cut maze dug into the skirts of the great tor. No one knows for certain who built it. The maze-way has been here for time out of mind. Some of our very oldest surviving texts and chronicles claim that the labyrinth was here before people came into these lands. I have read one account in which the first people to come here found a race of hairy, squat things with catlike eyes living around the tor; performing unwholesome rituals; and so the people killed the creatures with spear and fire.” He made a sort of low, uncertain sound in his throat. “And perhaps that is true. Maybe a long dead folk did build the maze? Or maybe the three enchantress-goddesses of the tor caused it to be made with their arts, or their priesthood did, centuries ago? In any instance, the maze is a place special to magic. Enchantment and illusion curdle the air thickly there. The longstanding tradition of the moot is that anyone who wishes to present to the council; anyone who wishes to be avowed to the old laws and agreements of magic; sworn and recognised as a mage fullblooded; well then, such a person must first walk the labyrinth.” he winked. “And come out the other side.” He indicated towards the dark mass of the hill with a hand. “All supplicants to magehood will walk the dark ways, and find their own path to the glen of the roots and stump, up there, up on the hillside. The gateway into the maze is down at the base.”

“That doesn’t sound at all dangerous,” said Caewen, flatly. “You send children and apprentices into a tangle of bewitched tunnels? Alone?”