As he stood in his own thoughts, two rooks circled above him, then descended and landed in the higher-up branches. One of them was fat and sleek looking. The other was thinner, a bit of off-black overall, and quite grey around its neck, as if old.
As he stood in his own thoughts, two rooks circled above him, then descended and landed in the higher-up branches. One of them was fat and sleek looking. The other was thinner, a bit of off-black overall, and quite grey around its neck, as if old.
“Your speaking demon-servant is right. I learnt this particular art in the court of the Emperor-Magi in the lands of the Sungilt Stone. Far away, yes, over seas, in the blessed lands of the south where the summer reigns long and sure, and the days are bright.” He seemed to gather up some concentration then. “That is how it is put in the stories, I think?”
“But what are you doing? You don’t seem to be doing anything.”
He chuckled. “Magic, true, deep magic, isn’t made of chants or glyphs, spirit-dances, knots tying up the wind, or little witching dollies. Old deep magic is thought, breath, heartbeat.” A shadow of a frown. “Hush now, please. I have to concentrate for this bit.” His breathing grew a little harsher, hissing through his teeth, like storm winds gathering in a distant rocky place. It seemed like he was in pain, but as each breath became harder for him, Keru looked a little bit more alive, until the boy’s eyes began to muster flicks and blinks. Without warning, the old magician grunted out a long, groaning “Urnnngggh,” and wrenched his hand away from Keru. The old, frail palm was patched with discoloured skin, grey and black and lumpish.
“Oh!” said Caewen, though she choked herself off from saying anything more. She didn’t know what might distract him.
He grit his teeth and actually snarled for a moment at his own hand. Dimly, Caewen was aware that a small crowd of gawkers had gathered around them. A few under-breath words and murmurs shuffled through the onlookers. There was more than one sound of someone making an impressed huff or whistle. A few heads nodded appreciatively, as if this were a show. The blue-grey blotch started to move along the skin of the old man’s wrist, then along his arm. It was not spreading, but creeping along under the skin. Once it left his hand, the fingers, then the palm, flushed again with healthy blood and colour. The blotch moved until it disappeared under his sleeve, then there was a minute in which the old magician sniffed and breathed hard enough to turn red in the face. Finally, the discoloured blotch reappeared, and it crept up his neck and into his throat. At about half-way up the neck, it started to sink inward. The greyness just sort of disappeared down into the skin, into the flesh, vanishing deep into his throat. Eyes bulging now, breath wild, he snorted and hacked, and then he made a gut-prickling retch of a sound. His cheeks puffed out. He spat a wet wad of something that looked like off-green tar into the grass. Where it landed, the grass sizzled, smoked and withered until it was ash. People moved away from the charred space. A few of them applauded.
After a long draw of breath, he fumbled about his belt, found a water gourd and glugged from it, washing his mouth out, then spitting stringy green saliva onto the ground. These second and third spits were less searing than the first glob, but the liquid burned the grass a little, all the same. After a few more times doing this, swilling water around his gums and tongue, spitting, swilling, he seemed to decide he was done, and got to his feet. He trembled a little. “Uh,” he said, “there’s a thing I wouldn’t want to do twice in one day. Awful stuff.”
Keru was coming back to his senses. His breathing seemed more normal and his eyes were opening, coming alert a little, if still confused and foggy.
“Thank you,” said Caewen. “Thank you so much. I don’t know what to say.”
“Well,” said the old man, “there is the matter of payment, of course.”
“What?” said Caewen.
“Yes,” said Dapplegrim, a note of deeper menace in his voice. “What?”
The old man raised his palms in a conciliatory sort of way. “I have saved a life for you. Yet we had not agreed on a price. By the rules of the moot, I can make a claim. Now, I cannot be unreasonable, but the Broadtable would, I think, agree to any price up to and including the value of a whole and entire life, healthy and well-lived. Which is what I have, after all, restored.”
“We didn’t agree to anything like that,” said Caewen. “How can you–“
He flickered one of his pleasant, friendly little bald gnome smiles. “It is within my right to request. It is within your right to refuse, but I warn you, if this is brought before the Broadtable, they will judge in my favour, and they may well impose penalties that are much more unpleasant than anything I would ever ask of anyone.”
“What do you want then?” said Caewen, a twisting twin-ribbon of anger and burgeoning fear in her chest and throat. What if she tried to escape on Dapplegrim? He was quick. They would probably get away, but then they would never address the moot. And then what? Tamsin’s death really would have been for nothing. Caewen’s word would be broken. Coldly, she asked again, “What is your price?”
He took in a flummoxed little breath. “I hadn’t actually thought that far ahead.” He took a step away, locking his hands behind his back. “Let us call it a standing debt of obligation. Be well assured though, I will think of something. When I do, I will call on you.” He turned enough to give a slight nod of a bow. “Until then, Caewen of Drossel, I bid you pleasant and fond leave-taking.” With a tap of two fingers to his head he added, “Wotcha,” as he moved off.
As the old magician wandered away, he took up a cherry whistle that sounded half-way between a flute and a dawn birdsong.
Caewen and Dapplegrim watched him recede into the crowd. When he was gone, Dapplegrim said, voice low, “Did you tell him your name?”
“No,” said Caewen. “No, I did not.” She looked down at Keru, who was still on his back, his expression confused getting onto drowsy. “It’s alright now,” she said and knelt next to him. “At least I think so. Assuming the strange old wizard doesn’t want our souls or something.”
“Just your soul, I imagine.”
She looked up.
Mannagarm stood on the gravelly path that stretched from the threshold of his hilltop longhouse to the village below. The path twisted past the old dead mountain ash that clung to the cliff’s edge there. And from where Mannagarm stood, beside the tree, he could see the trackway twist below him, down, down to where the houses and shacks and sheds of the village cowed together.
“But wurum poison,” said one of the women with books and donkeys, “it’s not easy to cleanse.”
“I don’t know about poisons,” said Caewen, “but we know how to hurry.” She climbed up into Dapple’s saddle so fast that she almost slipped off the other side, then steadying herself, she turned to Keri and said, “Pass him up. No beast with four legs is faster than Dapplegrim. We will hurry.”
Keri didn’t seem able to build words from thoughts, but she managed a nod and heaved her brother up until Caewen was able to drag him over the saddle like a stolen bag of grain. “On, Dapple!”
Dapplegrim erupted into a stride that left them all airborne for a moment. Hooves churned up wet soil where they landed, and then they were galloping. The grass underneath them lost its detail, turning into streaky blurs. Air whistled and stung. Travellers looked up at them, startled, scrambling to get out of the way or throwing spits and curses, waving fists. All of a sudden, on the left, the line of the Modsarie appeared. Caewen couldn’t quite resist the temptation. As they passed the Lady Sgeirr at a terrifying blur of speed, Caewen reached out and tapped the woman on the back. The impacted was enough to send a stinging jolt up into Caewen’s arm. She said, “Ow,” without thinking. But the swipe surprised the Modsarie lady with much more force. It was enough to unseat her. She flailed as she went over, shrieking, undignified. Caewen felt a little undignified herself, as she grinned and heard the yells and loud vows of revenge from all the Modsarie. She felt bad about feeling good, but pushed down the thoughts.
“Faster,” she said, as they tore onward. “Swifter and faster.”
“Hur,” replied Dapplegrim. “Maybe next time you can run, and I can ride?”
Caewen smiled. “There’s that wit of yours.”
The crowds, horses, wagons and oxen started to thicken, until their headlong rush was getting to be dangerous, for themselves and for others. Dapplegrim eased into a slower pace. Looking around, tents and market stalls were now scattered across a the wide green space. The road had lead them to a hollow where two low hills rose, one to either side, whilst in the near distance, the foggy, rock-strewn flanks of what must presumably be the Sorcery Tor rose sheer into the cloud of evening. Caewen didn’t take much notice of the landscape, just dimly noticing that there were some torch-light flames on the smaller hills and a few on the the great tor too. All around the flanks of the hills, and spreading across a wide, flat space, was a town of tents: stripped and chequered, dyed, plain and rustic, with peaks, or arches, or patterned fabric gables: there were almost as many constructions of canopy as there were canopies.
“Ho, there,” Caewen called down to the crowd, many of whom had backed away from her more than slightly. It was only sensible. Dapplegrim had come close to ploughing down more than one person. “Ho, there,” said Caewen again, exhausted and frantic. “Is there a healer near? Anyone with the herb-clever? Anyone at all?”
A tall fellow with bronze skin and rust-coloured eyes pointed to a collection of tents that stood a little way up the flank of the left hill. “Healer’s camp’s up there.”
“But you can’t go riding through folks,” said a woman in an outlandish red and green costume that seemed to be mostly made of feathers. “The moot will be getting you up on trial for that, yes. You get right down now, yes. No riding folks down.”
Caewen was already running her eyes over the heads of the crowds, up the flank of the hill to a place where the crowd was as thick as a market in springtime. “We’ll be an hour picking a path through that,” she said. “Gods of shear and plough.” She couldn’t see how Keru would survive long enough to reach the healer’s market. He was losing what was left of his healthy skin colour fast, and turning into a sort of blotchy brown-black-grey. “I guess there’s nothing else for it then. We’ll yell and make a noise. People will get out of the way. They will have to. If some wizard judges don’t like it, then blast them, one and all.”
Dapple had begun to trot forward when a friendlier, low, base voice cut out of the crowd. “Or perhaps I might assist?” They looked. It was an elderly man. He was walking towards them, carrying himself with a gentle rolling gait, like a pelican with a beak full of fish. He had a head going onto bald, a broad, twinkling, gnomish kind of smile and the sort of stout tub that comes from liking good food, or good drink, or more probably both. His beard, not long, but round and profuse was almost the size of his moon-shaped face. “I know a few tricks in the way of blood-cures.” He seemed uncomfortable making such a bold claim, adding, “You know. If one may pipe one’s own tune.”
“Yes,” said Caewen, a little desperately, “One may.” She climbed down, hauling the now limp and blank-eyed Keru with her. There were salt-stain spots of blood in the whites of his eyes. He was breathing, but only just. The swelling had found its way to his throat, and half his face was swollen beyond recognition. A painful puffiness was spread over his chest under his tunic too. His skin where Caewen touched it was fever-hot, uncomfortable to feel.
“Here, here,” said Caewen. She laid Keru out as carefully as she could on the trampled grass. “He was stung by a moor wurum.”
“Is that right?” said the man, his voice calm, giving out a sense of being somehow withdrawn within itself, considering, perhaps shy. His face jumped in and out of a fluster of seriousness and smiles. “How did a thing like that ever happen?”
Caewen tried to explain while the man looked into Keru’s eyes, touched fingers to his throat and prodded the flesh near the wound. As Caewen related everything, he said, “Ahmm… Ahmm… that so… ahmmm… I see. How ostensibly curious.” Once or twice he asked questions. “Who was the driver of the wagon?” She didn’t know. “The boy in the armour? Can you describe him again?” She did. “That’s interesting. A heir of the Drakkentunge. There are not so many of that bloodline left. A pity then.” He nodded and ahmmed some more.” He laid his hand over the wound as if he were feeling the warmth of it, judging how deep the injury went.
At last, Caewen said, “Can you save him?”
“Oh but I am.” He looked up with a quizzical smile and a funny little nod of the head. “Look. His colour is coming back. I think the inflammation is receding a little too. It had almost swollen shut his windpipe, though his heart would have stopped well before he suffocated, if you want the truth of it.”
“But how are you? I didn’t see you do anything?”
It was Dapplegrim who answered. “Old magic,” he murmured. “Strange, rich magic from somewhere far away.”
In the aftermath, it felt as if the world had slowed down. Time crawled through a few halting and fractured seconds, before urgency and noise and movement all fell back into place. The sister threw a cross sort of look at her brother and said, “What were you playing at? You stepped left when you should have moved right, and then you were on your arse in the mud. You nearly got yourself killed.”
He shrugged. “It all turned out fine. Just barely a few scratches. You worry too much.”
They both turned to look at Caewen and Dapple then. The girl gave them both an appraising look, up, down. “Thank you. I’m Keri Manutuwatu,” she indicated herself, “And this simpleton of a turehe is my brother, Karu.”
Before Caewen could answer, Dapplegrim piped up, “Oh, don’t mention it. Just doing our heroic job of, hurm, being heroic.”
“Dapple.” Caewen let slip her own exasperated part-sigh. She got down from the saddle and stowed her sword. “I don’t know if we were really much help. I think mostly we just avoided getting crushed.” As she walked over to the brother and sister, the small gathering of the Modsarie rode around the corpse of the wurum, their leader looking cooly at the corpse of the thing. She waved at one of her men, and he got down from his saddle, then crossed the distance to where the creature’s tail lay. Drawing his sword, he hacked off the stinger with three quick strokes.
The girl, Keri, raised her voice, “Hoy! What are you playing at?”
The Modsarie lady answered, quite level, quite calm. “The venom has uses. The stinger is worth good coin. Seems a pity to leave it lying about on the ground for any old bird-snarer to carry off.”
“Well that coin belongs to me and my brother. And maybe this girl too. And her strange horse.” She turned to Caewen. “What was your name?”
“Yeah,” said the brother, Keru. “This strange girl Caewen and her strange horse.”
“Dapplegrim,” said Dapplegrim.
The Modsarie lady didn’t answer. Instead she brought her mount a few trotting steps closer to Caewen, slowing, then stopping where she could look down at her. “As for you.” She shook her head. “What are you doing even mixing with these strange-bloods? Fern-eaters. Tree-worshippers. They aren’t properly of the Nocturnal Parliament, you know. These Forsetti… their bloodline isn’t even properly of the north. They are not of the Night Queen’s children.”
“And what does that have to do with me?”
The Modsarie lady blinked, confused. “You have northern blood in you. Cold magic is all about you, like a song in the night-time. You shouldn’t lower yourself to the company of these two. Come with us.”
Caewen kept her voice flat. “And yet somehow I find myself preferring their company to yours.”
The lady’s face showed a twist of emotion. She was shocked. “Do you know who I am? No? Obviously not.” She rearranged the fur trim of her collar and cloak. “I am the Lady Sgeirr, first daughter of Staru the Namenthird.” After a pause in which Caewen did not register any change in attitude or any note of surprise, the lady added, “Staru? King of the Dearg Modsarie and the Red Boglanders, Lord of the Twelve Rivers, Overseer of the Gathered Clans, High Master at the Temple of the Silts and Weeds.”
“Oh,” said Caewen. “That Staru the Namenthird.” She had, of course, never heard the name of the king of the Modsarie. Her home village was not exactly situated on a well-trod road. And, of course she had spent much of her early years in a root cellar hiding from the feeble, nasty old warlock Mannagarm in his house on the hill. What Modsarie visitors their little upland village had received were few, infrequent and never stayed long.
Keri took some steps forward, whirling her fighting-spear about her in a flickering, slow weave. “You’d best have your man drop that tail. It’s our kill. It’s our trophy to divide as we see fit.”
“And you will stop me?”
“We just put down a wurum. The way I see it–if I were you–I would be much more concerned for my own skin than the gain of a few coins.” She moved into a fighting stance, the spear held at a poised angle in both hands.
“Perhaps,” said Sgeirr,” but, there were three of you, and now there are only two. Your chances are diminished.” Her lips curled into a smile. “Goodbye, Keri of the people who live in the forest shadows. Bird-snarers. Yam-worshipers.” Her tone mocked Keri’s words, echoing them back. “If I were you, I would worry more about the skin of your brother. It is gaining rather an ugly shade of grey-pruple about the edges.” Sgeirr pulled at the reigns of her horse and twisted its head around, making it stamp and whinny. “And you,” she said, “Caewen, wasn’t it? I do not forget insults. Prefer their company to mine if you will, but do not think I will forget it. We shall see how your choice of company works out for you.” Sgeirr turned and rode off, followed by her men. As she left, a quiet wheezing sound disturbed the new stillness. It was coming from Karu. They turned, looked and discovered he was on his knees in the mud. “Sister,” he said, “I do not feel well.” His fingers loosened and his fighting-spear fell to the blood-wet dirt. He swayed and slipped forward, plunging into the ground with a thump and a squelch. Even from a distance, it was clear that one of the scrapes on his arm–a shallow scratch that had been barely noticeable only seconds ago–was now weeping a sickly green liquid. His whole right arm was puffing up and the swelling was moving towards his neck.
“The stinger,” Keri said. She dropped her own spear and ran to him. “The stinger. Gods of wind and forest, Keru, Keru!” She grabbed at him and cradled him into her arms. “Keru. Look at me.”
Caewen went to him too, though she had no idea what to do about wurum poison. She had no idea about any poison. The idea terrified her. A slow, secret killer reaching for the heart. She looked around, trying to identify anyone in the milling crowd who might be helpful. Keri knelt down, holding wet sobs down, trying to prop her brother against knees. “Keru, Keru, you idiot,” she whispered, “don’t you dare close your eyes. If you close your eyes I will beat you around the head with a string of yams. Keru!”
Caewen looked over the crowd. “Is anyone here a healer? Does anyone have any herbals or bloodgeiys?” The three black-cloaked walkers who had escaping being crushed under the falling cage were gathered around their dead companions, lost in their own grief. They had dragged the short person in the gold dragon armour out from under the cage and pulled off his helmet. He was only a child, not the short adult that Caewen had assumed. The man who rode his boggart-palanquin was there behind them, although he had stopped eating his blackberries and the boggarts looked more sombre than sour. She looked around. There were two men in blue and gold robes. The man with the shock of dead white hair and a scald mark on his face and neck. Three women on donkeys with stacks of books tied to the saddles. “Is anyone skilled in the leech-work?” said Caewen. “Anyone?” No one answered, until finally, the blackberry-eater said, “None here. No. The best healers will be at the fair, by now, they will, with their shops. If you hurry…” but he did not finish the sentence, and looked uncomfortable. “Maybe. If you hurry.”
All around the upturned wagon, ruin and confusion stumbled and scattered itself everywhere. The cage had toppled directly onto several travellers, crushing them dead without a chance. Caewen tried not to look too closely, but it seemed to have been the procession with the dragon-armoured man and his taggers-along in robes. Two or three of the latter had escaped and were keening in a sort of high, mad shriek. Blood was spreading in the mud of the road, trickling into the ruts, mixing with grit. Severed limbs lay on the ground too. Caewen felt a retching wave rise in her throat, but she screwed up her eyes, looked away, and managed to bite back the twist of nausea. She tried then to take some bearings. The creature was thrashing and coiling itself into knots on the far side of the wagon. The sheen of its grey-green scales had an oily quality, and when the head came into view it was the head of no snake: long, tapering and ending in a hooked beak, the draconic skull sported a fringe of quills and a membranous crest. From her current vantage, the creature appeared to be fighting someone or something.
“Have you ever seen the like?” said Caewen. Feeling that she was gaping a bit stupidly, she shut her mouth and tried to square her shoulders.
“Yes. Of course.” Dapplegrim snorted. “I am hundreds of years old and have travelled all about the shadowy north. Mind you, this is an unusually large specimen. Wurums don’t usually grow so big. I wonder if someone has been feeding it?”
“Come on, then.”
“Are you sure you want to get closer. It looks like someone else might be handling it.” There did seem to be noises of fighting.
“Come on,” repeated Caewen.
Caewen and Dapplegrim rounded the wagon, slowing their approach only to avoid stepping on what remained of the now very dead wagoner. When they came into direct view of the creature, the sight was strange enough to make Caewen pause as she tried to take it in. The two Forsetti she had seen earlier had dismounted, and taken into hand the short fighting-spears with flanged blades at the butt-end that their people favoured. The young man was dodging and weaving around the wurum, ducking, stabbing and slashing, barely avoiding jaws as they snapped at him. The young woman on the other hand stood not very far away, and was looking, if it could be believed, a mixture of skeptical and bored. As she leaned against her fighting spear, she called out, “Are you certain you don’t want help, little brother?” He just kept stabbing and evading. And actually, Caewen realised, he was not doing a bad job of it. There were already several bloody gashes up and down the length of the wurum’s muscular body. He was not armoured, and was relying instead on own raw speed to keep inches ahead of the snap of teeth.
Caewen and Dapplegrim paused then. She had her sword drawn, but was now uncertain what to do with it. She could feel that the sword had its own ideas: it must have sensed that there was blood on the air, and it grew slightly warmer to touch, slightly impatient. Its gentle thrum and whisper grew more strident in her mind. It was not a powerful magic sword, but there was enchantment enough in the blade all the same. And though she had not owned it long, the weapon had saved Caewen’s life more than once by moving quicker than she could have managed unaided, or artfully deflecting a blow that by all rights ought have shattered every bone in her arm and most of her ribcage.
“I guess–” said Caewen, now quite unsure… but then the fight shifted. The Forsetti youth took a poorly judged step, slipped and fell. He was suddenly and unexpectedly on his back in the mud. The wurum, seeing its chance, lunged and brought its tail up in a twisting arc. On the tip of the tail was a barbed sting, like a scorpion’s stinger, only this barb was as long as a short sword–to say nothing of whatever poison it carried.
It looked as if the sister had been too casual in her appraisal of the fight. Although she tensed at once, she was too far off. Jumping into a quick run, it still looked unlikely that she would reach her sprawled brother in time. Behind her, the sallow-skinned Modsarie with their white kelpie shields were sitting atop their horses, milling about, evidently not prepared to intervene. Their leader, the young woman with the long, stern features and the richly decorated suit of leather and scale, was watching from her saddle intently, almost raptly, leaning forward with a leering expression on her face. She was intent on the outcome of the fight, but had no interest in taking part in it. That much was clear.
“Now!” yelled Caewen.
Dapplegrim burst forward and they crossed the space to the wurum in three quick bounds. Dapplegrim was swifter than any mortal horse. Caewen swung her blade as hard as she could, bringing it about in an arc that bit into a coil of the wurum and sent a grey-black spray of blood out onto the mud and grass.
The wurum screamed.
It was the sort of scream to make bears wet themselves in fear. Every living thing for a league or more would have known in that moment, the best, maybe the only sane thing to do, was hide and hope that whatever had issued that sound of mindless rage would eventually just go away.
Caewen was not in a position to hide.
Instead of plunging its stinger into the prostrate young Forsetti man, the wurum turned its large head around, and stared at Caewen. It blew hot, angry air from its nostrils. It’s eyes grew wide and the gold and green in them spun with mad rage and pain.
“Now you’ve done it,” said Dapplegrim. “He took a few halting steps backwards. Maybe we should run?”
Caewen found herself saying, “No. We finish this or others will die.”
Dapple snorted. “We’re others to someone else you know. Shouldn’t you consider whether we might die?”
As they circled keeping out of reach of a few hesitant, snapping attacks, an ululation crested on the air. The sister appeared out of nowhere. Caewen noticed, oddly, that she was barefoot as she jumped and landed on one of the coils of the wurum, then vaulted, landed on another, higher coil, and from there, leapt to the point where the creature’s neck met the back of the skull. As she did this, the brother, accompanied by his own wild cry, managed to scramble back onto his feet, then swing a hard blow into hard scales and flesh.
Caewen and Dapplegrim hardly had to do anything after that. She did her best to get in one or two more blows, but the sword did not sink much past the creature’s thick rind of a hide. She wasn’t sure that she did anything more than provide a distraction. It was the brother and sister who, between them, killed the thing: the sister was perched up on the neck, using her legs to hold on, and striking the creature about the skull repeatedly, eventually taking out an eye. The brother then crept through a gap in the wurum’s snarls and attacks. He climbed underneath the wattle-like flab of skin that ran down the meaty throat, and, with a twist of shoulders, he thrust his spear upwards, burying it into soft flesh, sending the point deep into the brain. The creature shook three or four times, thrashed once, then fell. As it tumbled sideways, both the sister and brother jumped and rolled away from the dropping mass of meat and scale and horn. It thrashed out a few weak spasms after that, dying like a snake beheaded by a farmer’s shovel. The great coils of lank serpent, as thick around as a young oak, spasmed twice more, then were still.
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“First,” he said, “Aslaug the Vainglorious has left his lair for the first time for four hundred years. Don’t know why. Don’t know what’s prodded him into action. But he’s up and about, and looking for trouble, I dare say.”
“Vainglorious,” said Twit. “A dragon. A fire-drake of the ancient days of yore. Big yellow eyes. Fiery breath. Green and black scales. Great wings, more massive that the sails of the barge that ferries the dead. All that and a ton of bricks.”
Caewen jerked her head back and looked up. “Is he around here?”
“No, no, no. He lives on the other side of the Deepwode. No trouble for us folk at all. Why, he’d be leagues and leagues away.”
“Don’t dragons fly?” said Dapplegrim, his voice a little arch.
“Ahem. But it is very far, and why would he come here? A place swarming with wizards. Seems dangerous, even if you are a dragon. So. If you will? Moving on. Two: the Niberlungr are in a rage because they think a magician has stolen something from them. Don’t know what, but they are going all about the fair stalls looking at lockboxes and chests and suchlike. So, the best guess is that whoever stole the thing, whatever it is, they couldn’t get it out of the chest it was in, so they took the whole chest.” A shrug. “What is inside? Who knows. But if some small hairy folks with long arms and big knotty hands want to look at your lockboxes, it’s best to let them do so. They have their ways of getting back at people who offend them. Third, and most marvellous, the oldest proclaimant of the Third Dynasty is missing and has not arrived for the Moot.” He paused, as if this momentous news should evoke some sort of reaction. Caewen just blinked, unsure what so say. She smiled, trying to look more apologetic than stupid. He continued with a sigh, “The three dynasties? They that have three representatives each on the Broadtable?” He paused. Sounding more exasperated, he said. “Oh dear. You don’t know anything, do you? I ought have taken the full piece of silver.” A deep breath in. “The governing council of the moot is called the Broadtable. They judge disputes, vote on punishments for the guilty and oversee the law of peace that holds here during the moot. There are nine proclaimants total; three proclaimants form the Dynasty of the Sun, three who serve the Night-Queen, and the final three are drawn from all the lesser, sundry parliaments: shadows, stones, waves, winds, wildwoods, that sort of thing. The Grand Old Lady of Embers, who was the representative of the Parliament of Flames has failed to arrive. Now, she could be late, or she could be dead. She’s been on the council a long time, and maybe one of the other lesser parliaments has decided they’d like their turn at having a seat? Such things have happened.”
After a pause, Caewen said, “Is that everything?”
“Is that everything? Is that everything? Look at the size of my sheets of parchment. I’ve told you more than I have written down.”
“Ah, but as I always say, don’t thank me, pay me. As you already have, I suppose that makes us even.” He was about to start ringing his bell again when there a tremendous tearing sound arose somewhere down the line of travellers. They all turned to look, startled. Twit visibly jumped. The wagon-cage with the drapery of cloth had trundled some distance down the road, but was still visible over the heads of the crowd. As they watched, it shuddered, then tilted and toppled to the left. Dull black bars of a cage were momentarily visible before they snapped and tore as the blanket fell away. A coiled, scaly shape unbent itself out of the cage and there arose a long, low shriek, like the noise of a bittern, only much louder and angrier.
“Oh dear,” said Twit. “Foolish git. I did wonder if that fellow had the beast locked up right. Looks to be, he did very certainly not have it locked up right.” He squinted. “Moor wurum, I reckon. Ah well.” Turning away from the sudden uproar of screams and panicked yells, he started ringing his cowbell. “Hear all about it! Wizards and magicians slaughtered by rampant moor wurum! As fresh as news can get.” He was walking up the line of travellers, away from the commotion. “Happening at this very moment. Here all about it! Murderous rampage by moor wurum! One silver for the full tale.”
“Come on!” said Caewen. She prodded at Dapple. “Well?”
“You want to get closer to that thing?”
“Yes.” She drew her sword. “Well, no,” she corrected herself, “but someone has to do something.” Her fingers turned slightly damp at the tips. Settling herself higher in the saddle, putting weight onto the stirrups, she tried to feel brave and mostly failed. Well, she thought, I might as well try to look and sound brave. “Yes. Charge. Now.”
“Alright.” They clattered off at a gallop. He shook a snort out of his nose. “It really is going to be a nuisance having to find someone else to buy me hay though. Hur.”
Well, it’s done. At about 150k words, Old Dark Things is a dark, folkloric stand-alone fantasy set in Clay-o-the-Green, the same world as The Winter King.
My plan is to run it through Kindle Select for a while to start off with, so that I can make the book available as a free product over at least a couple promotional periods. We’ll see how that goes. If I don’t get a lot of take-up in terms of downloads via Amazon, I’ll withdraw it from Kindle Select (but leave it on the Amazon regular service), and then upload copies here and at Smashwords so that the novel will at least be easy to get hold of.
Either way, I plan to make the novel free using the promotional options via Kindle Select as much as possible. It should be easy to grab the work for free directly from Amazon, one way or another. Once Old Dark Things is up and available I’ll link to it directly, and make public some planned freebee dates. If you miss one window you can then easily grab the next one.
With oddly jolting, sudden motions he waved a hand at the forest and said, “You came out of the Crow Hall. I saw you. Blimey. That is something. I mean, not many people are willing to walk through there. Herself of the Deathly might take an interest in you.” And then he looked at Dapplegrim and Caewen again, eyeing them up and down a bit, as if suddenly suspicious. “You didn’t, well, you know, come into possession of anything did you? I know it’d be nothing of my business, but it would be news, wouldn’t it? If that were to happen.”
“No,” said Caewen. “I’m afraid we did not.”
“Ah well,” he said, after a moment, “Would have been a good tale. Nonetheless. Nonetheless.” He patted his chest. “Call me Twit.” He waved a hand at them and his face turned into a mock-frown with half-lidded eyes. “Now, now. Don’t ask. I’ll get to that right away. Cause everyone asks. Twit? What sort of name is that? My full and proper name is Twit le de Bird of the family le de Bird. Much as my pappie and grandpappie and great grandpappies all the way back, I am in the gossip business, you see. Utterings. Newsings. Musings. Rumours. Tattles. Drolls. You name ’em, I got ‘im. Tall tales. Short tales. Little squiggly tales with an odd ending that really makes you think. When people say they heard it from a little birdie, they mean me.” He scratched his nose. “Well, half the time they mean me. The other half the time, if they are proper wizards, like this lot, they probably actually were talking to birds. Wizards are like that, aren’t they?”
Despite herself, Caewen found herself taking something of a liking the strange man. She smiled. “I see. Um. Do you have any rumours for sale?”
“Funny you should ask.” He pulled out a bundle of pages tied up with a ribbon. Writ in red-letter chancery, and common blackletter and southron too, in case that is your preference. All the most tantalising news there is. Just one silver penny a sheet.” Each sheet did have three blocks of writing, each in a different lettering. Presumably it was the same news repeated three times.
“Ah,” said Caewen. A hotness of flushing blood ran up her face. A slight awkward knot in her throat developed, and she said, “I don’t know my letters. Sorry.”
“Oh, no, I apologise, myself. I shouldn’t have assumed. I shouldn’t have. Not right to assume such a thing, is it? Now, another option, is that I can just tell you the best bits, quietly, under my breath so to speak. Though you have to promise not to go tattling it all over the place. I have a business to keep up after all.”
“Alright.” Caewen fished around in her purse and pulled out a silver penny. She was still rather well stocked with coins, even this long after her time with the Wisht and the goule-thing.
He looked at the coin, a shine in his eyes, but also he looked somehow conflicted. He started to reach for it, but let his hand fall. “Ah. Blimey, what is to become of me? Look, you seem like a nice lass. Are you a nice lass?”
“I suppose,” said Caewen.
“She’s awful,” said Dapplegrim. “The other day I wanted to eat some cow, and she simply refused to pay for it.”
“There was no one to pay! We can’t just eat a cow when we find one beside the road. You know that.”
“Always with the rules. Don’t eat this. Don’t eat that. Don’t make the stall bigger by knocking down walls. Don’t dig up graves.” Dapplegrim snorted. “No one uses their body when they’re dead. What good is it leaving it to rot? It’s enough to drive me crazy.”
“Well,” said Twit to Caewen, “I’ll take your word for it over his. The thing is, when I ask for a silver, I’m not really asking for a silver. You should come back to me with a price about a quarter of that, and then we argue, and finally, after an enjoyable bout of to-and-fro, we agree on a price about halfway between what I first asked, and what you first offered.” He jabbed a thumb at the crowd on the road. “If you are going to take yourself along with that lot, you best not just hand over whatever price someone asks first. You’ll end up being owned soul-and-flesh inside a day.”
“Oh. Well. Shall I offer four bits of copper or did you want to just take one half silver and some groats?”
“Ah. There’s no fun in it now, is there. Alright. Just hand it over. The half silver and groats will do.” He shook his head. “What my dead old pappie would say, I do not know.” A sigh. “So. Lean in a bit. I’ll tell you the important bits, but quietly.”
They did, Caewen and Dapplegrim leaning down to hear him whisper.