In a bit of a rush with things at the moment, so, it’s just some trees with faces from the sketchbook today.
In a bit of a rush with things at the moment, so, it’s just some trees with faces from the sketchbook today.
“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?”
Another attempt at getting Fetch looking right. So far I’m not having much luck with the little shadow demon, but this is maybe getting closer to what I have in my head: just a mass of shadows that is protean, and constantly shifting from something a little more like to cat into an otter and a ferret and polecat and then something mixing up all those shapes and other weirder more liquid forms.
It wasn’t hard to shadow along after the little old magician. Even if he had looked her way, the crowd would have done a good job of hiding her. She watched him furtively, through gaps in the milling people. At a crossways in the market, Fafmuir stopped, cast a hard glance around himself and seemed to identify what he was searching for. He took off into an abrupt, straight line, directly up to a thin, stoop-shouldered man who wore a greasy leather skull-cap and drab workmanlike clothing. This skinny fellow, who looked like nothing so much as a travelling whitesmith down on his luck, raised a broom-thin arm, pointed and said something that was too quiet for Caewen to make out. The magician, Fafmuir, nodded and turned away, plunging into the crowd again, this time with a renewed energy. Caewen kept trailing him.
It was not long before she saw the wizard’s new destination. A rough and ready drinking canopy had been set up at this end of the market. There were barrels, tapped and giving out a sudsy looking beverage. Probably a cheap ale, given the sheepy, fatty stink and sallow-tan colour of the liquid. A good number of folk with mismatched faces were sitting around on equally mismatched furniture, drinking and talking, passing the time. One of them, she saw, sat by himself at the far end of things. The wizard Fafmuir immediately ambled towards the lone drinker, and as Fafmuir approached, the man looked up, shifting uncomfortably. Caewen studied him from her place of vantage. He was long-limbed, rangy and sat sprawled, legs wide. He was sitting in a way that village bullies sometimes do, making himself look as if he owned the air and space around him. He wore a splotched and old pale grey cloak. The hood was hauled forward, concealing his features. He wore black gloves too, so that almost nothing of his skin was visible. He looked familiar to Caewen, though she couldn’t place where she had last seen him. The thought niggled at her. She had definitely seen him somewhere recently, but where?
The old wizard stopped squarely in front of this lanky, stand-offish man. Planting himself directly in the drinker’s line of sight, Fafmuir continued to whistle his bird-songs, stringing out the last few notes into a irritating tenseness. While Fafmuir was whistling, the man in the cloak simply sat still and waited, looking increasingly uncomfortable. When the song finished, old Fafmuir cleared his throat, his face expressionless. They had words then, or at least Fafmuir did. He seemed to start off friendly enough, but grew angry quickly, his face colouring as he spoke. Finally, he waved a hand at the hooded man, and it was a disdainful, dismissive gesture. The man in the pale cloak stood, his whole body clearly bristling. He hunched his shoulders and scuffed away into the darkness. He went off in such a wretched huff that he left his drink behind, mostly untouched.
Caewen heard Fafmuir say, briskly, and seemingly to himself, “Ah, and be gone with you!” She waited. He still had his back turned in her direction, and had not yet seen her. She might have tried to slip away, and perhaps she easily could have twisted off into one of the dark recesses of the night market, behind some tent or awning. She decided not to. She was too curious, and maybe, perhaps, also a little too drunk still for her own good. And still annoyed with Fafmuir from their earlier encounter.
She moved quietly into the open space in front of the drinking yard, and put herself right in old Fafmuir’s path as he made his way back the way he had come. He did not see her at all, and actually, he had to pull up short to avoid walking right into her. At first he said, “Excuse me,” in a soft voice, but looked again, and recognised her. “Oh. It’s the young woman with the poisoned friend and the demonic horse. Wotcha,” he said, amiably. His smile, which never quite did seem to fully leave his face, broadened.
“What was that all about?” she asked. “Are you in the habit of going around threatening people?”
“What? Oh? Him?” He gave a soft under-breath chuckle. “No, no. You’re mistaking threats for warnings. I was talking to him sternly, oh yes, but stern would be only a light ticking-off for that one. He is a well known and reputed assassin. People call him Master Squint. I don’t know his real name. No one does.” He shrugged, and his face passed through a funny little twisted expression. “I heard rumours that he was drifting around the moot, and went to find him. If an assassin such as Squint is in a place, it is sensible to consider the possibility that he is being paid to be there. It is sensible to tell him that he is known, and he is being watched, and, furthermore, if he is on a ‘job’, such as it may be, he ought to quit it, and leave.” His smile slipped for a moment into a gusting moment of cordial seriousness. He sounded as if he was giving advice to a younger relative as he said, “Best not get involved.”
“Really? And who appointed you overseer and constable of the moot then?”
He seemed at first flummoxed, then, with a look of realisation said, “Oh, you meant that rhetorically?” His small, gnome-like grin returned. “You don’t know my position?” His laughter was small and inward sounding. “Why the peerage did, of course. I was voted to the Broadtable out of the factions devoted to Our Lady who is the Light of Day, and quite comfortably.”
She had to step through this in her head. “Hold on,” she said. “You mean by that…? You’re on the Broadtable? You’re one of the high magicians who govern this…” she waved a hand to try and take it all in, “this… this… mangle of nonsense.”
“Yes, young lady, I quite certainly am a governor of this mangle of nonsense, as you put it. I hold the position of Archimage to the Broadtable. I am one of three representatives of the Dynasty of the Goddess of Light.” He sighed. “Look here now. Perhaps we have got off on the wrong foot? I didn’t mean to put such a scare into you, but it seems I have. I really do seem to have frightened you half-to-thinking I’m some sort of terror.”
Caewen folded one arm over the other, and looked at him flatly. “I suppose you have, yes. By holding an obligation over me. An obligation that is worth a life, as you put it… well, you’ll forgive me for being mistrustful.”
With a huff he walked over to his cupboard of petty treasures, opened in and rummaged inside. At the back he found an old sword, made of pattern-welded bronze and cut with runes. It was as much an antique as a useful weapon, but it was the best piece of blade he had. Now… now… what else might a ‘hero’ need to slay an undead thing?
“Drossel,” she said, taking the biscuits. She sniffed them, and the hot waft of air made the inside of her mouth water. “Smells good,” she said.
“Drossel, eh? North of here. I’m born and raised in Bernoth, me’self. These are a tradition in Bernoth.” She indicated the biscuits with a nod. “Hot Bernoth knobs. Best dainty in all these hereabout lands.” She smiled wryly. “And don’t give me no lip about baker’s knobs. It’s a joke everyone thinks is funny once, and I heard that joke a lot more than once. They’re called Bernoth knobs, and that’s the end of it. No jibes meant.”
She wasn’t sure how to take that. With a slightly embarrassed smile she said, “Thank you,” and stepped away. “It’s nice to hear a friendly voice here. It’s all so strange.”
“Yes, it would be, wouldn’t it dearie? Here, I did have a question for you though.”
“You did?” said Caewen through a crumbly mouthful of hot biscuit. It was sweet and salty, and had an undercurrent of a spice she’d never tasted before. Looking around, she realised that there was no one else in line behind her. She and the baker-woman were alone.
“Yes, Caewen of Drossel, I did. Now, what I wanted to know, dearie, is why did you turn down the offer of the Deathly One? It was quite the big lump of power to reject, and quite an honour to snub.”
The crumbs turned dry in her mouth. She swallowed what she had been chewing, and tried to gather her thoughts. The woman raised an eyebrow and started to tap time with her fingers on the table.
“Well? Are you mute all at once?”
“May I know your name, before I answer? Seeing as you seem to know mine.”
“Does it matter?”
“I think it may, yes.”
“Hmmm. And maybe it would.” She shrugged, dusted some flour over the table, and started kneading out a lump of dough. There is Herself of the Deathly, who you have met. And there is Herself of the Quickening, who brings about newness and life. And there is Herself of the Everlasting. That latter one, she is concerned with the preserving, the flourishing, the growing of things, the nourishing of things.” She thumped the dough down. “She likes them that nurture and grow. How is that biscuit, by-the-bye?”
“Very good,” said Caewen. It was. “What is the flavour? I’ve never had the like.”
“Tawny cinnum. It’s ground out of a nut that grows in hot jungles a long way from these cold climes. It is very expensive. But old lady Baint, who runs this little bakery-tent, she knows that sometimes good things take time, and expense, and genuine sacrifice. Even little cakes. If they are to be worth eating.”
“It is very nice. I will have to thank missus Baint when she is back in her own head, I think. I haven’t ever eaten anything that tastes quite like this.”
“Well, old Baint knows her work. Makes a good dough. Bakes a good biscuit. She is one of my people.” There was a flicker in her eyes, then, like light passing over a dark pool at the bottom of a glen. “Now, enough of the chit and the chat. I have been polite. You haven’t, I dear say. Need I remind you that I put a question to you?”
“Yes. That is true. You did. But everyone seems to be putting questions to me. I have a hard time keeping track of it all.” She took another bite of a biscuit as she considered her answer. She was not actually very sure what to say. It simply hadn’t seemed like a good bargain. To take power, but end up like the old man in the woods, mad, possessed, owned by some other, more elder voice. Finally, she shrugged and said, “My gut told me not to take it. It just didn’t seem that it’d turn out well for me. And besides, I don’t want power, not like that, not if it means always looking over my shoulder, or having to work awful bloody murder at the whim of some…” she waved a hand, “Spirit, goddess, whatever she is.” Then she added. “Whatever you are.”
“Hmmm. So and so, then. So and so. Well, I was curious. I will visit you more properly, in time. In a form that is more bodily my own. I may have more questions, even. For now, this will do. I imagine my other sister will wish to speak with you too. We were both quite curious about what our Bleak Sister saw in you, after all.” She fixed Caewen with a narrow, hard glance. “I don’t know if I see it myself, but I suppose there might be something there.” Then, the subtle light in her eyes fluttered away, like moths receding into shadow, and the baker-woman was left behind, blinking, a muddle of confusion lining her face. “What? Oh my. I seem to have had a turn.” She leaned against the table.
“Are you alright?” said Caewen.
“Oh, yes. Yes, luv, thank you.” She looked at the hot biscuits in Caewen’s hands, and then down at the collection of coins that she had on the table in front of her. “Now, how’s that for forgetful? I don’t even remember taking your coins, or dolling out your bready knobs. I am getting old. How are thems, the biscuits?” She brushed the coins into a purse, and shook her head.
“Very good,” said Caewen. “Thank you. I like the spice.”
“Well, I do put effort into the baking. As my mother used to say. If it falls to you to bake bready knobs for a living, you might as well bake the best darned bready knobs that there are.” She smiled. “I’ll be here throughout the moot. You want Bernoth knobs, you know where to find me.”
“I do. I will. Thank you, again.” Caewen walked away. She was still hungry, and greedily chewed her way through the rest of the biscuits. The sugar and the buttery, bread-yeast flavour calmed her angry complaining gut. Chewing and swallowing, picking out another of the small breads, she subsumed herself into the bodily experience of it, a distraction from her other dance of worries. For a few moments she had some peace in her head. Only when she was done, licking crumbs and slick grease from her fingertips did she think her way back to the strange goings on, the goddesses, apparitions, or whatever they were, that were haunting her. She rattled a hum around in her throat as she walked, wondering.
Strange spirits. Strange omens. Strange magicians. Rumours and more rumours. She looked about, at the stalls, the glowing lights, the weird market fair. Strange place.
So what did it all mean? One spirit in the woods. Another one here, possessing an elderly baker? The local divinities of the tor were clearly taking an interest in her, but why? Maybe they took an interest in everyone? Maybe they appeared often? She needed to ask around. Find out. Her shoulders rose and fell as she breathed deeply, taking in air, trying to push the thoughts out of her mind. In every yarn she had ever heard spun, spirits and gods were dangerous things. Capricious. Faithless. Often cruel. Her own experience seemed to confirm this. She wanted nothing to do with any such powers, but, she worried that she might not have much choice in this.
She was nearly half-way back to the russet and white tent where she had left Keru and Dapple with their host, when she noticed a familiar, nearly bald, round head bobbing along in the crowd. He was facing away from her. She was able to fix the back of his head with a stare, without needing to feel self-conscious about it. It was the old magician Fafmuir. He was walking along in his waddling, friendly little gait, hands clasped behind his back. Even across the distance, with people moving between them, she could hear him whistling in his beautiful, rounded and crisp whistle. He sounded so much like a songbird it was unsettling.
Caewen watched him amble. She wondered if she was imagining it, but it did seem as if he was going somewhere, quickly. It certainly looked as if he had a hidden purpose in his ramble. As she watched, she grew more certain of it. He was definitely going somewhere, cutting through the crowd. She felt a strong twinge of attentive interest. Where was he going in such a hurry? She rubbed the back of her hand across her lips, scraping away fine crumbs and the last grease of butter. With narrowed eyes, she moved after him, following.
Standing up suddenly had perhaps not been the best idea. Caewen realised this as she swayed a little. She was dizzy. The drink was stronger than she had thought. “I need to apologise again,” she held herself steady, struggling to keep words together as her head pulsed with the thud of her own blood. “Your magicianiness. I think I need to take a walk in the air. My head is, um, foggy.” Dapplegrim started to get up too, but she waved him back down and said. “No. Dapple. Someone should stay in case Keru wakes before his sister gets here. Will you please? Watch over him for me.” She started weaving a path towards the cut in the fabric that was the tent’s egress. Wind was sneaking into the tent, flapping the entry-fold gently, and chasing the candleflames around on their wicks. The light was throwing seasick shadows into among the cushions and low tables.
“Hurm. Hur. Are you sure?,” said Dapple. “I don’t know if it’s safe for you alone out there.”
She scrunched up her face in a dismissive frown and tossed her hair about with one shake of the head. “I won’t talk to anyone, or buy anything, or whatever.” I just need a breath of air. That’s all. I’m sorry. I’ve never been a heavy drinker, and the wine had got to me. A little.”
“Hurm. Well, if you are more than an hour, I will come looking for you.”
“Alright.” She smiled. “It’s nice to know you care.”
He huffed and snorted. “Care, hrmm. Care, might be stretching it.”
“Of course,” said Caewen, as she threaded a way toward the tent’s opening. She passed Peloxanna in her embroidered and woven silks, her cloak of feathers, blue-green and gold-tipped, hanging about her shoulders. “I am sorry,” Caewen said again. The wine was making her candid. “Really. I don’t like to be at odds with people. I find it upsetting.”
But Peloxanna just gave her a cool, gold-iris stare, blinking once, with a nonchalance that seemed perhaps a little too practised. Her voice was low, almost a whisper. “Out of respect for Samarkarantha, I will see that there is goodwill between us. But this I do only, out of respect for Samarkarantha. Do not mistake charity for naivety, northlinger. If there is darkness in your thoughts, it will out, and I will be watching you.”
Caewen just sighed. She let herself out, feeling the night air wash into her face. It was chilly under the evening sky, getting onto real cold. A crisp wind was rushing down out of the highlands to the west. A few damp stars were struggling to push their light through piles of cloud, and the moon was nowhere in sight. It would have been an empty, dark dusk, except for the soft lights that were just now appearing all over the valley. The tent encampments were dotted with torches and oil lamps. Down in the shallower bowl of the valley was a spreading flowerbed of a hundred other, eerier lights, arrayed in golds, ambers, reds and yellows. Caewen set out on a path towards this mass of lights. After a little distance, she came to the first of them and discovered they were some sort of candle-lantern encased in a coloured translucent material that she didn’t recognise. It might have been dyed silk, or perhaps some sort of hard, glassy paper? From the direction of the central mass of lights, a noise of voices, laughter and music drifted to her. The sounds chased over the wet sombre grasses. She took a hard long breath into her lungs, felt her ribs expand, and decided that it felt good. The cold was clearing her head already. She walked carefully, making sure not to trip on the uneven sods and tuffets. At the edge of the place where the softly coloured lamps grew thickest, she discovered the boundaries of a twilight gala, with stalls and tables scattered about, people milling in a hundred strange and foreign garbs, and smells of food wafting, music, and laughter. Most, but not all, of the stallholders were human. She tried not to stare at the other weirder folk, but found it hard to keep herself from gawping. She stole snatches and little glances at the sights as she walked. She passed some odd dwarfish little men with skin that looked soot-stained and leathery, and eyes of a luminous green–she saw a stern-faced troupe of fragile, pale people with ears that ran up to a point. Their hair was a lustrous lichen-grey, their eyes entirely sky blue, without pupils or whites–at another tent a talking vixen fox was animatedly advertising the rabbit skins she had piled up on a low table in front of her–after this, Caewen saw a stooped old hag with grey-blue skin, puckered black tattoos, and a harsh, icy voice. The crone was offering to swap miseries and sorrows for delights. Caewen hurried past–and now, a dozen mice, standing on a high, round table, wearing cloaks and swords, standing upright like people, and selling what looked like acorns made of silver. Their voices were quiet peeps, and she would need to have leaned right down low, just to hear them–a wizened old man with soft grey-pink skin was selling bright crimson crows that sang with human voices–another man was selling what appeared to be inanimate statues made of clay, except that when Caewen glanced at them she saw one statue blink–then there were musical sounding bells growing out of saplings in clay pots–delicate crystals full of sparkling dancing imp-shapes at another stall–a huge figure made of shadow, only when Caewen looked at it from behind, she saw a little, shrivelled old man at the heart of the darkness. Even more odd, he seemed to grow smaller as Caewen moved away from him, while his shadow seemed larger–there were bottles of churning, weird colours and liquors on makeshift benches–miniature stone horses made of a brilliant green stone that shone like fire–and all manner of entertainers too, jugglers, fire-dancers, singers, minstrels, and more and more. It was a wild and eerie night-market.
So much of it was enticing. Caewen found herself wanting to stop and touch things, or pick a delicate piece up, or breath in the smells from perfumed flowers, but she knew better than that. With an uptight, fixed rigidity, she did not talk to anyone, nor offer to buy anything, nor sell anything by mistake. She kept herself perfectly silent, perfectly watchful. She kept herself, perfectly to herself.
Near the far end of the market, she ran into a small group of hairy men and women, bent, hunch-backed with long thick-knuckled hands, bulbous eyes and protuberant lips. They wore raw hides and furs, but their belts were finely tooled leather, and the daggers and hammers they carried were so finely wrought they might have been objects fit for princes, kings or a more modest sort of god. This gave them a strange appearance. Whilst they mostly looked like broomcutters and dirty beggars, the hammers they had at their belts were made of gold or silver, and crusted with gems. One of these hunched creatures looked directly at Caewen, and ambled towards her. She watched him come. His gait was bow-legged, rolling. “Greetings to you, fine mistress. If I may have a moment, a word, a breath?”
Having been staring at the little man, she could not pretend not to have seen him. “Aye. You may.”
He bowed, deeply, scraping the ground with the small straggle of his wiry beard. “Good luck to you then, and bounty too.” Coming up, he snuffed air out through his nostrils and asked, “Have you, by chance, seen anywhere in this market, or this moot, a small box. Perhaps for sale? Or perhaps not. It would be made of sea-ivory, tooled all over with roses and thorns? There is a carved goat leaping on the lid.”
“No,” she said, truthfully, for she had not. Remembering the tales she had bought from the rumourmonger, she asked, “Are you one of the Nibelung?”
“The Nibelungr, yes. I am Farli, get of Fjalarr.” He bowed again, just as deeply, and his tone and habit had a sort of obsequious, frail edge to it. The fawning tone seemed like thin ice covering a deep chasm.
Caewen placed words carefully, like pieces in a game of stones-and-cheques. “I am sorry for your loss. No. I have not see your little ivory box.”
His face brightened. The thick lips curved into a smile, and his hairy cheeks hitched themselves up. “Yes. Our little box. It is ours, and well you remember that, and tell other folks to remember it too. It was stolen, and we will have it back. One way, or another, yes.”
“Very well. If I see it, I will remember that you asked after it.” She was careful with her wording. She did not want to accidentally promise anything she might not be able to do. It seemed safe to promise that she would remember the Nibelung. “May I go?”
“Yes. Of course, fair one. Go on your way, yes.” His smile was unctuous. His teeth, when they flashed behind his lips, proved to be long, sharp and yellowed by fuzzy plaque.
She turned, hurrying off while trying to not look like she was hurrying. The empty knot in her gut left by several cups of wine and nothing really solid was growing increasingly demanding. There must be food to eat here? Something to buy that wouldn’t be a risk? Just plain old food. Even magicians must eat, surely? She glanced over her shoulder and noticed that the small hairy man was still watching her, his head crooked almost comically. He didn’t seem to mind that she saw him watching, and he smiled, waving once, with a clawed hand that had too-long fingerbones and thick joints. She felt a shudder pass through her muscles, her tendons, through the underneath of her skin.
She turned away. Alright, Caewen thought. First, find something to eat. The need to eat was definitely making her light-headed. She had good coin, after all. She would just look carefully before she spoke to anyone. Circling around some food stalls, like a wasp circling an open jar of preserved fruit, she settled on a woman selling plain-looking biscuits. “Bernoth knobs,” called the woman in a low sing-song voice as she worked, serving piles of hot, round biscuits one moment, taking coins or tending her squat portable oven the next. Caewen had got to be quite mistrustful by now. She watched the people in front of her, counted out what they were paying, and when she gathered herself up, and walked to the front of the stall, she offered the same price. “There’s a dear lass,” said the baker-woman, nice local lass. Where’re you from then?”
Up in the rafters of the longhouse something stirred in the shadows and one shadow detached itself from the others. A thing that was made entirely of darkness, and had something like a body partway between a cat and a mink and an otter, slid elegantly and with a fluidness out from its hiding place, then down the wall, and with a leap it landed on the table.
“Yes.” Caewen tasted the wine. It was very sweet. Almost sickly so, but she smiled politely and took another drink. It had a strong bite. “Alright then. Let me see.” She considered where to start, and after accepting some dates and goat cheese, she said, “Well, Dapple and I were on the road, not far off, a little way north of here–“
“Wait, wait, no. That will not do. Go back further. Start nearer the start.”
“Oh. Um. If you like. A little while ago we were set upon by a storm and were driven to a tower in the woods. It turned out the tower belonged to a sorcerer and–“
But she was cut off again. “Hold a moment. We?”
“Dapplegrim and me.”
“No. I want to hear the whole of the tale. Tell me how you two met. Allow me to behold the mystery of the whole tale.”
“That far back? Well, alright. In my home village there was a warlock named Mannagarm.”
She was not very good at telling stories. She mixed some bits up. She was sure that she made some parts, which ought have been interesting or exciting, unutterably dull instead. And the parts that should have been skipped over, quick and easy, she laboured with, making too much of them, or muddying it all with too much detail, or rendering everything vague with too little. Finally, after talking for an hour, her voice fell to silence. Her tale had arrived here, at the tent. “And then we were here,” she said. “Taken in by a magician from a distant land.”
“Myself,” said Samarkarantha. “It is good to know a little one’s own role in other people’s tales. It helps one find one own’s centre. It helps see the self from the outside.”
She drained off her cup of the wine. It was her third. It had started to taste quite good. “So, why have you taken us in?” she asked, directly. “What do you want out of it?”
He threw his hands wide, expansive. “What makes you think I want anything?”
She laughed, loudly, then trying to cover up her mirth, she suppressed the laugh into a murky giggle. An embarrassed heat crept itself through her face. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I am starting to think,” and here she paused, trying to work out what she wanted to say. “Well, I suppose, that everyone wants something. Especially magicians. Especially here.” The wine did seem quite strong.
“That may be so, but what I want is of no concern, and of no harm to you, or your friends. There are many factions with the dynasties of the magical. Though old Fafmuir and myself are of the same dynastic encompassment, so to speak, we are heirs of different legacies. I watch and I listen, to find out what others are, hm, up to. So speak.” He waved a hand. “As the jackal watches. As the jackal listens. And so do I.” He shrugged. “There have been–” he trailed off. “How do I word it? Disturbing nuances in the oracles. Strange pre-seerings, and odd. Weird voices that have not spoken in a hundred years are whispering in jungle groves. Bloody sigils have appeared on the walls of the smoke-caves of Tkiluki. The Devil-Temple of Shru Nithur is flocked full of talking monkeys again, and those grey monkeys of Shru Nithur have not spoken a word of prophecy in years. Words are seen in the clouds. Flights of birds spell out strange foretellings. It is all very disconcerting. So, I have come to the great convocation of the magical to listen to as many stories as I can. To pay attention.”
“Stories,” said Caewe. “Tales.” She considered this as she spoke. “There is magic in names, but a story is like a name spun out over a long time, with more depth. A long name. Does that have something to do with your magic then? Stories?” She wondered momentarily, through the fog of the alcohol whether she had made a mistake reciting her whole story to him honestly. She felt suspicion trickle into her mind. “Is your magic done through stories?” She asked, rather more bluntly than she had meant.
He grinned, but all he said was, “Your observations are astute.”
She didn’t know what to make of that. Had she put herself in more danger then? She couldn’t tell, and for now, it seemed more sensible to stay calm and chase some more answers. What he had said about omens struck her, and it knocked around in the back of her mind, like a bat caught inside a house. “What disturbing omens exactly?” As a part of her own tale, she had described Tamsin and the Winter King already. She circled back to this now. “Is this to do with what Tamsin saw, do you think? The armies in the north?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. I do not yet know for certain, but one of my guesses runs along that road. Yes.” Before he could say any more, the entrance to the tent ruffled as a hand brushed over it. A faintly familiar voice said, “Samar? Are you in there?”
“Enter, with peace.”
The cloth stirred aside and Caewen saw that the woman who stepped into the ruddy half-light of candles was the same who had told her off for riding into the crowd earlier, the one wearing the strange outfit of feathers in blues and greens. She stopped short when she saw Caewen, saying something that sounded like an oath in some foreign tongue. When she turned and saw Dapplegrim, smiling at her from the darkness beside the entrance, she yelled aloud, “Akalu! Mbele ti fo effur! Are you mad, Samar? Why do you have these… these… night-demons in your welcome?” Her habits of speech and accent were similar to Samakarantha, but the woman looked quite different to him. Where he was as dark as blue-back jet in shadows, she was honeyed in her skin, hair and her eyes. The latter were an arresting, bright, yellow-gold. “You have night-worshippers in your tent? Look at her!” She pointed at Caewen. “Have you invited her to stay here? She’ll be awake all night drinking swine blood and howling at the moon.” The lady shot Caewen a dirty sneer of a look, and rested her hands on her hips.
Caewen sat upright. Her head was more than a little dizzy from the wine. She put the empty wine cup down. “Hey! How dare you? I don’t drink blood. I don’t howl at things. And I do not worship Old Night and Chaos, if that’s what you think. None of my folk do. We–” She felt herself fuming, heat rising up her neck. “We live between the shadow and the sound. My village is neither properly in one camp, or the other. And a good thing too. You lot, all you lot. Night magicians. Sun witches. You’re all mad.”
But the woman just fixed her with a cool and calm gaze and pointed now at Dapplegrim. “You are riding around on a thing that is half night-demon! I am not an idiot!”
“I’m half-horse,” said Dapplegrim.
“What?” said the woman.
“What?” said Caewen.
“I’m half-horse too.” Dapplegrim snorted, his nostrils flared and his tail flicked as if to emphasise his horsiness. “Everyone is always obsessed about my father, night-demon this, high-lord of shadows that, master of the foul revels of the darkness soaked forests of benighted Ghortain, or something, something. But no one ever stops to think, maybe, old Dapplegrim, maybe he actually would like to eat hay and run around in the grass for a bit, time to time. I mean, I’m not entirely demonical, am I?”
“It talks?” said the woman.
Caewen said, confused. “High-lord of what? I thought you didn’t know anything about your father?”
Dapplegrim rolled his eyes. “Is this really the time to discuss whether my father might, or might not be, a dark lord of chaos-shadowed lands? The important thing is that I’ve almost literally never eaten anyone.”
“A cease to this!” It was Samakarantha. “He had raised a hand, and his fingers twisted into an odd shape, a gesture that made Caewen feel sort of queasy, just looking at him doing it. He then said. “Once upon a time there were three persons who bickered and bickered. And they bickered so much, that the spirits grew sick of it, and so the spirits took their voices away until they learned to be civil and live peacefully.” His words had a dull thudding echo to them. The sounds seemed to come from somewhere deep and brassy inside the thin, frowning man.
Caewen tried to speak but discovered that nothing came out of her mouth other than a low wheeze, like wind coming out of a deflating billows. Dapplegrim and the other woman seemed to also be discovering that they couldn’t speak either. They both made small, angry wheezing noises then stopped, fuming and glaring at Samarkarantha.
“This is my tent and household, and I will entertain whomever I wish, Lady Peloxanna.” He threw the woman an unimpressed gaze. “And I am not an idiot either. I would not have persons or beasts in my company that were a foulness, or a danger to me. I know how to judge fair from foetid.” His hand twitched, and his fingers flicked again. He performed another odd gesture. “And so it was that the three argumentative fools learned the value of silence and they learned peacefulness. The spirits returned their voices to them, but the bickerers knew that if they should fall to argument again, the voices would be snatched away, this time forever.” Caewen wasn’t sure she could have mimicked his movements of finger and hand as he moved them. It looked a little bit like he was stitching the air with an invisible needle and thread. She could not have copied him. Not even if she had tried right there and then to follow his movements with her own. There was something too boneless and fluid in them. His hand seemed to be moving not just up and down, forward and back, but somehow in and out of another, deeper and hidden direction. “So be it thus, your voices are restored,” he said, “and you will use them to apologise, and then to talk, as my guests.” Noise and soft hums of words came back to Caewen’s throat. The other two cleared their voices, and all three of them looked at each other in silence, awkwardly.
“Alright,” said Caewen. “I don’t think I offered the first insult, but I’ll offer the first apology. I’m sorry.” She was fuming inside, but forced herself to say, “I should have been more polite.”
With more than a small edge of reluctance, the woman ruffled her blue and green feathers up until she looked something like and angry peacock, and said, “And I ought have been more civil. I insult the hospitality of Samarkantha. I apologise too.”
They looked at Dapplegrim, but he just scuffed a hoof and said, under his breath. “Hurm. Well. Sorry. Yes.”