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.”

A Dragon Made of Madman

So a friend of mine has taken a bunch of my novels (published and unpublished) and trained a neural network on them to see what it would turn out. The results vary from incomprehensible word salad to quite a decent parody of me, to (sometimes) quite lovely leaps of phrase. Here’s some selections.

The soldiers were too frightened, as if the pre-in-spells struck only their inches, though she didn’t want to suppress the trees.

“If I ever belong to a young file,” said Fox. “You care so fantastic about things. My thoughts of glowing in wood. Fexing–and I’m better in this relationship of illusions, no longer often here too far as I may need for it. The pain can depirth you then, and be lost in his father and throw me in on some pieces of my wild, swords of a little haunter, troublesome protection in the now control on, and anyway you could imagine you are quite so that one day something is drinking for food have been going striking than these unconvinced works of goule.”

“Probably,” said Fox. “Certainly. There used to have her the common, and that sounds different. I am being the fox then?” He felt her eyes walk, trassing white stone, but he sat at a shudder. “What do you know?”

She shook her head. “You are.”

~~~

“I’ve said they believe something crossy. The Lady Cassandra left something sort of a slip of said poor sizes before bringing if it might cold behind the illusion of a pity.”

“Just one third the law-and-ways and power of it.”

“Don’t we go and change its arm in you.” As he began walking then the sound was heavy and harder and grasping degores on the wood. It was given the good species in a coat of stones, though his tears and pieces of view flowed through a dragon made of madman. Dapplegrim and Dianta passed, curious as well.

~~~

Fox followed. The magician fired on the door, but fair and shaked to the background of his brain and rolling on the air. Ella was a night and she could feel a friendly vulpine foot but the words were gone under the girls who were grown dead too. They were ready to think that names filtered. The chambermaid and above was a thin and valoury apple. Was a whole worker of yours upsetting the faint-place, Alex stood across the poors with tongue. It was was disersedled or twineless. It’s being hurried into the thick landscape of walls of folk, slain creatures. He chatted to see them but they were some heavier skill. “No signs,” said Caewen.

Will began to look the creature when a moment she found Dapplegrim, delicately against the white-finger and the knee struck, and the sun was nothing but some more she’s a valuable thing.

“Wonderful!”

“Well, hark the whole world share.”

~~~

“That was the man but you could smell this,” said Dapplegrim, so that she was gathering mid-runed and skulls and shadows. He clothed in his back as he struggled to breath, and she threw her to the ground and flapping a look at her. “If you are barely walking around my favourite, or creepy.”

~~~

Fear did the same. Another or the ways are being crutched. He takes a story northing rat-dobbed and green hair but no rest sound around the swarm of blood.

~~~

“Thank you,” said Death. “Give me from here. By if they are red-cottages, girity skulls and for instances. I’m afraid it becomes a good inside the last person of Dianta when it is an age for a hurt. You need not to meet earlier to dusk my own cut of form and fear. Where is your work?”

“Well, I hope. What do you want?”

“No. I have learned.” She was still feeling more scraping across the hilt.

“I think he had not made a way to anyone else and what?”

“That was one.”

~~~

They started to try and haphath. It was in the end of the place that climbed up, he was caught in a flint demony. Peering into the doorway was a pale, lald old shadow in the air, in drufting of answers and the vampire leathers around her way. She gave a slow touch of servants. It started her tail. The steel danced back. Caewen wondered. But as she walked this way he had come quickly in clasping into his brow. He could see Mancarrow bowing and quite bother some device of gisting literary-blastes. Caewen holding his head up with holds of hair and tightly twinkled heavily-fire blue light. “I might raise him on the whom, and if she’s lost that we could naenter the big earth or twice to draw another. And probably broken rivers of swords, and they’re better days on magic and though how is people, and then if you remember all the serfs.”

Now then they looked at her after both and a moment ago, not much like he needed to fix. With a grin. She let the fire cook a movement back and rowled out of the clouds. “I felt for a minute?”

“Though a home of the Hill of the Night and the only thing and she has now carrying for my thoughts. There are eldritch voices in a black man to make stories in mortals in the mountains.”

“Yes. Never ever won’t be worth his attention. There should be someone or no other magic in this day. They would go around to in what might be better to exact speeds that me.” They narrowed it on her part and flew out of his hand. “Deciding about the men’s purses are not our artists. We must put a word of light.”

Hm. Some of that strikes a little too close to home. I could have written a lot of those sentences, though I’d hope my actual words would be a touch more coherent.

Fair Upon the Tor #24 (updates Mondays)

Caewen slept late, awaking groggy, unsure, and squinting against the light. The morning sun suffused the roof of the tent, setting the ivory and off-red fabric alight, like stripes of white and red forge metal, glowing. Her eyes felt gritty with sleep. She yawned as she got to her elbows, looking around. Everyone else had risen already. The bedding was empty. Just cold piles of blankets, some folded neatly, others in a more crumpled state. She listened. A distinctly wooden clicking and thunking was coming from immediately outside the tent. It was accompanied by an occasional rise and fall of voices. It sounded as if Keri and Keru were out there, involving themselves in whacking sticks together.

Caewen got up, looked around sleepily, and found a basin to wash her face, before pulling on her most clean clothing, then picking a path to the tent flap.

Outside, the sun made her blink and squint.

“Hur. Goodmorning, sleepyhead.” The familiar notes of Dapplegrim’s deep, gruff voice rose up. She found him sitting in the chill morning light, his legs folded in a quite horselike repose.

“Morning to you, Dapple,” she managed to mutter. Looking about, she saw that the Forsetti siblings, Keri and Keru were indeed sparring with those short flange-ended spears they called tine-hafts. That was the cause of the wooden clack, clack, whisk, clack. It was impressive to watch, even if the two of them were pulling their blows and seemed to be stepping through martial routines.

“Like a dance.” Samarkarantha looked her way and smiled. He sat at a small round table, spread with food and drinks. He nodded, indicated a seat beside him and turned his attention back to the pair. “Makes you wonder what is out there, in the world, beyond the shores we know.”

She agreed that it did make her wonder, and sat down in a spare seat. Her eyes fell immediately on some unleavened bread, dusty with flour. Beside the bread was an arrangement of various interesting coloured pastes. Strong aromas came off them. Some fruity, some savoury. “May I?”

“Yes, please. The measure of hospitality takes in the length of the dinner table as well as the length of the bunk.”

“Thank you.” They sat together in a companionable silence, watching the the long brown limbs of the two siblings, as they twisted, stepped, flurried blows at each other, retreated. “I always thought maybe the Forsetti came from the south, way back when. They’re darker skinned, like the people in the south. Sun-blest.”

Samarkarantha shook his head. “No. Where they came from is not known to my people either, and we are merchants and travellers, wanderers and scholars across the deserts and the jungles. No. They are from some other place, islands, or another landmass, away in the ocean.”

“I wonder what else is out there? Why they left? I wonder if the war between the Ladies of Night and Day is also a strife their homeland?”

“Who knows? The Forsetti themselves might, but they never speak to outsiders about their home, or why they left. Perhaps they themselves have forgotten. It was several hundred years ago.”

“It was a long time ago. They’re northerners now, mostly. I’ve seen Forsetti eat fermented fish and stuffed sheep’s stomach.”

“And that makes one into northern folk?”

“Have you ever fermented fish and sheep’s stomach stuffed with mince, oats and spice?”

“No. I suppose I have not.”

She picked at the bread, tearing it up and using a blunt knife to spread a sticky, sweat purple jam on it. “Is Lady Pel about?”

“She had business elsewhere.”

“Hm. Samarkarantha, can I ask you a question?”

“A question may always be asked. If it will be answered, is less certain.

Dapplegrim snorted. “Hurm. And you say I talk in circles.”

“Dapple.” She frowned. “Hush.”

“It’s alright. I appreciate the beast’s humour. It is, what is the word?”

“Irritating,” said Caewen.

“Perhaps that too. I was thinking of brash. So, what was your question?”

After a pause, watching the brother and sister strike and parry, sweep and step, she said, “I spoke with Lady Pel last night. Do you think that the Night Queen is evil?”

He shifted in his seat, looked at his knuckles as he folded them on the table, but at last, he shook his head and said, “No. She is not evil. And the Queen of the Day is not good. Truthfully, there is no battle between good and evil except that which is inside all of us. People like to believe that good and evil are like a weft and weave of the cosmos, a hard truth outside, out there somewhere. But they are not.” He tapped his chest. “They are in here.”

“But the creatures of the night… blood-drinking bogey-beasts, boggarts and troldes, the restless dead, shadow things with scales of slime and darkness…”

“And have you seen all those things?”

“No,” admitted Caewen. “I’ve met with boggarts. They didn’t seem very evil,” she admitted, “more, just, I don’t know: a bit feral and impolite?” After a pause, she added, “I’ve met worse men. Mannagarm, for example. The old chieftain of my village. Gone now.”

“And so it is. And so they are.” Samarkarantha reflected inwardly for a moment, tilting his head down until his chin touched his chest. He then said, “Let me tell you of ogres. Have you heard of ogres?”

“Yes and no. They are cannibal men? Night creatures?”

“That is half-true. Ogres are a strain of huge flesh-eating giants. Sometimes as tall as two men atop one-another, thick and sinewy, with hard leathery skin and teeth like the mouth of a shark. We have none of your boggarts in the Golden Dales, but there are ogres. People call them obig, locally, and villages often pay them in sheep, and sometimes in people, to keep them satisfied and unruffled by hunger. But they are not like your pelt-wearing, savage boggarts. Ogres like riches: castles, cut from sandstone blocks, turreted and domed, with gold and red painted walls. They dress in finery: pelts of wild cats, silks, delicate brocades, cloth-of-gold. Nothing is too opulent. There are no she-ogres. Ogres breed more ogres by getting themselves on human woman. So they keep harems too. And, this final point is pertinent. They are monsters of the day, through and through. Ogres were made by The Queen who is Brightness in the elder-most age, when she wanted guards and soldiers for her wars against Night. But when she was done with them, she let them go free, and creatures made with no purpose but murder, fighting, eating and rulership do not make good neighbours. So, if you like, you can find evil in the ranks of the Queen of Day and Sunlight, too. Just as you will find evil in all hearts of all people and gods, if you look closely enough. No one is purely good, not the whole way through.”

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.