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.”

Thoughts on what to think aloud

I’ve been thinking about what sorts of things I’d like to discuss here. Although, like everyone, I have political views, I don’t feel this is the forum to air them. Although I have a life and people in my life, I want to be careful about how much of that is brought out and waved around in public. This endeavour is (kinda) anonymous after all. Kinda, because it’s not very hard to work out my actual name. I haven’t hidden it in any careful way.

I’m also little uncertain about getting into the craft of writing too deeply, because magicians and curtains, and all that. I might go that route, but I’ll have to think about it for a while first.

I can write about books I’m reading, of course, and will do. And maybe some generalised life thoughts.

So, what did I want to say here. I went for a walk today with my partner and our week-old newborn. There is a park right nearby that is a bit wilder than the usual urban park. There’s a good amount of undergrowth, and the wildlife is more wild than the usual urban park. There are bluetongues and king parrots, and some of the locals claim that there are echidnas too. There could be. Not very far away are grey kangaroos and wombats. It’s not like we’re out on the urban fringe either. We’re only 30 minutes by commuter rail to the city.

Anyway, the park always has people in it, circling around, walking themselves, or their kids, or their dogs. We were stopped today by an elderly man, easily well past eighty if he were a day, asking if he might see our newborn. Age was claiming the man. He was frail, walking with a cane, wrinkled and stooped around the shoulders. He had a cap on, and the sort of casual clothing you can get away with if you are a student, or retired, but not so often in the between years. He really lit up looking at our newborn. He made a guess at age, ‘Is he a week old?’, and was right on the money, and then said with this nostalgic glow in his voice, ‘You’re in for some happy times.’ I asked him how often he made it around the park, expecting the answer to be once or twice a week, but he answered, proudly, ‘Three or four times a day’. We had to move on after that. The sunlight was getting bright, and upsetting the little one. So we said goodbye and moved on, into shade, to sit by the creek that has sleeping pobblebonk frogs*, waiting for next summer, near children playing on a jungle gym in the shadowmottled light of eucalyptus trees. There is nothing much more to the story than this. No end. No startling twist. But that is life, isn’t it. It just struck me as somehow beautiful, the old looking at the new and remembering good years gone by, and telling us, with a firm conviction that we have good years to come.

* Isn’t ‘pobblebonk’ the best name ever for a frog species?

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.

Journal and updates

I’m going to see if I can start up some posting with updates and (hopefully relatively brief) thoughts and reflections on writing. I’d like these to stand out from the ongoing fiction I’m posting. To that end, I’m going to play around with fonts and colours.

These life updates won’t be regular. It’ll largely depend on me having something I want to say.

And, yes, this post is awfully short, I know, but it will have to do for now. It’s getting onto be late and I’m barely keeping my eyes open. Time to sign off for the day.

 

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?”

Illustration 007 (updates Thursdays)

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.

Fair Upon the For #16 (updates Mondays)

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.”