served with envy’s eyes,
abide the bride
to wed and to bed
in a house of lies.”
— an old Oxenford rhyme
The spider dangled from the strand. It was black all over, like the darkest shadow beneath the underbelly of the world, except upon its thorax where twin triangles mirrored one another, tip to tip, that scarlet hourglass as livid as blood freshly spilled. The strand twinkled with rain, shimmering as the irritated spider ascended its silken line in frustration at the falling droplets, seeking shelter once again in the bog-black sleeve from which the bone-white wrist and hand emerged, the smooth finger beringed with the end of the strand.
“Such a small malice you are,” the woman said. “And yet, trifling malice that you be, you may yet kill a great lord.”
She let the deadly spider crawl under the back of her hand, her palm up, and then scurry into the inner recesses of her sleeve. The woman looked out upon the rain-veiled valley where the castle resided, sprawling with its grandstanding towers and battlements.
“Time is at hand,” she said. “And time is up. Come, appetite.” She stood against the downpour. “We have a feast to attend.”
She began the walk down the slippery grass, and yet never slipped once, her footstep as assured as the stones that jutted here and there among the mossy banks. As sure as the vengeance she had promised herself, her pale pink lips smiling thinly within the dark shadow of her cavernous hood.
“And what a delicious feast served to joyful music.”
Eseus paced circles in the courtyard, as if to wear the flagstones down to dust with his boots. Restless-hearted with worry, he watched the last of the dinner guests enter the great feast hall beyond the columns, fretting over his role amidst so much mirth and politics. How he wished to be a simple guard, standing silently by portals and by crenelations! Instead, the emblem of the House of Lorwynne blazed darkly upon his breastplate— a malachite heron that meant he would be seated among the noble classes.
And Eseus was a noble, though he did not feel the fulsome draw of the festivities as keenly as his kin. To the contrary, he dreaded such gatherings as much as the peasantry and servants upon whom the labors befell. Yet, they were largely invisible— suffice that they accomplished their duties— whereas everyone seemed alarmingly interested in him. More to the point, they were interested in whom among his cousins he would marry.
The rainclouds were ill omens, he thought, and there spasmed through his nerves a brief inclination toward flight. Perhaps his cousin Kareth, whose father, his uncle, had invited him here as a special guest of honor. His uncle, it was no secret, was the strongest of the House of the Oxenford family, and whatever he decreed was obeyed.
Eseus heard the clatter of plates, the chuckles of his kin as they gathered around the long dining table. There was the trickling of lyres as the band prepared to add to the nobility’s conversations the cadences of music alongside the gloomy splatter of rain. Eseus remained outside yet, lingering beneath the tier of the courtyard He saw a woman walking on the second storey tier, through the rainy veil, her skin as pale as milk. She moved like a flashing ivory statue beneath a heavy hooded robe that could not conceal such radiant opalescence. His eyes followed her, briefly, then turned inward again, to his own gloomy hopelessness.
Sighing, Eseus consigned himself to his fate and entered the feast hall.
She was certain none of them had seen her stealing her way through the castle. They were too preoccupied with celebrating the latest conquest; too preoccupied with being nobleborn and content with their privileged lives. The servants, too, were too preoccupied with their tasks. The guards were too preoccupied with the spiders that covered them to stop her. She passed from the second storey to the servants’ stairwell, winding her way down into the kitchen. She set the pie in among a half-dozen others, then walked out— out of the kitchen, out of the castle, and half a mile out of the valley, watching the castle from the hillside, sitting upon a shelf of rock with her hood still shouldering her head against the rain and an eye in her hand— the eye of a crow that revealed to her what it saw from its twin inside the pie.
“By his own blade shall come his doom,” she said.
She then watched and waited.
The candle bled slowly, the wax melting as a sluggish pus creeping down the tallow stalk. Eseus watched it glumly, seeing his life melt moment by moment. Eseus sat at the long table alongside the others, not touching his food but curiously. His uncle, Lord Oxenford, sitting at the head of the table, scowled at the tardiness of his nephew, drinking his wine as if it was of a bitter vine, and stroking his bushy beard irritably. Conversely, his daughter—seated on his right—smiled kindly at her cousin. It was a ruse, her smile, and Eseus knew it well. She had her mother’s charms, and like her mother her charms were as sharp and penetrating as an executioner’s blade.
“Cousin,” she said sweetly. “How delightful it is that you were able to make the journey to visit us. And with so much yet to do at home!”
“Yes, indeed,” he said warily. “Since father’s passing it is difficult to afford such…distractions as this.”
Her smile lessened unto a thin, pursed line as she stared at him, unblinking. She had bright blue eyes, and had enthralled many men with a simple gaze. It did nothing to Eseus, however, except provoke his irritation. He had learned to be wary of Lady Kareth’s charms long afore, in childhood.
“We are honored that you afforded us the sacrifice,” she said, still sweetly.
Her father grumbled and drank some more, growling something into his goblet. His daughter laid her dainty hand upon his larger one— a loving gesture, but of motive not unlike those her mother once offered alongside her sweetest smiles. Whosoever was the recipient of such a smile was not long for this world thereafter. She was a witch, people often said, and sweetened her brew with honey alongside the nightshade
“Tell me,” she said. “How fares your mother?”
Eseus did not answer for a long while, staring at the ring upon his own hand— the malachite ring of rule.
“She is unwell,” he said at last. “She has lost her husband. We are all…unwell.”
Lady Kareth nodded, a sympathizing frown upon her pretty face.
“Perhaps we can comfort one another in mutual confidence,” she said. “Each of us having had a beloved parent pass so recently.” She patted her father’s hand. “Cousin, I should like for you to stay here a time. If you are able. It would do my heart much good to commiserate with you.”
“My people are in need of my return…” he began.
Lord Oxenford slammed his fist upon the table, killing all other conversations upon the instant. A graveyard silence prevailed. Even the musicians were entombed in silence, faltering with a twanging string soon throttled quiet.
“What your people need is a strong alliance!” he said, his tone broaching no contradiction. “They need a strong marriage! The Crow clans are assembling all around you, you young fool! Your father has passed and you cannot rally your people against the barbarians. You have no military experience and are doomed to ruin if you attempt it. You must join your soldiers to mine and allow my rule over them, otherwise you and your people will join your father in the grave.”
The other nobles nodded and voiced their agreement. The way they readily voiced their agreement angered Eseus. The sycophants reminded him of hounds begging for scraps beneath the table, and he thought they ought to follow suit on all fours.
“The Spider clan will keep them at bay,” he said. “They are always too busy squabbling with one another to concern themselves with us. ‘Thus divided, thus diverted, thus destroyed.’ That is what my father often said.”
Lady Kareth’s smile deepened with satisfaction, but she said nothing.
“The Spider clan is dead to a man,” Lord Oxenford said. “The Crows saw to that.”
Eseus could only gawk. His uncle grinned knowingly, quite pleased with his nephew’s newfound bewilderment.
“Do you see now, nephew? You are too poorly informed on these matters. You require a strong hand and an experienced mind to guide your people. Perhaps someday you will possess such strength and insight yourself, but never if you are in the meantime slain alongside your people.”
Eseus was silent for a while longer, collecting his thoughts— and his jaw—to formulate a response of defiance. He could not muster it. He asked what his uncle thought he should do, though he knew the answer before he ever uttered the question.
“You must marry my daughter and merge our lands,” his uncle said. “Only united may we crush the barbarian clans once and for all.”
The other nobles gave a rowdy cheer, and much wine was spilled. Eseus lost whatever remained of his appetite as he stared at his roasted duck. He felt like that duck— headless, featherless, and cooked to be served to others.
At length, he spoke.
“I must have my mother’s consent,” he told them, which provoked much laughter around the table.
Lady Kareth nodded in encouragement, though Eseus could sense the irritation in her blue eyes— like an eager eagle diving through early morning skies for prey. She reached up with a hand and tucked a strand of red hair behind her ear. For a moment her hooked fingers looked like bird talons.
“Of course,” she said. “I should prefer my aunt’s blessing in this fortuitous union of our houses. Like well-plaited strands of hair, we must be double-bound to secure ourselves strongly against the headwinds of the world.”
“By the binding of the heirs of our houses,” her father said loudly, “we shall overcome any threat poised against us.”
The rest of the guests again cheered, as if the marriage had already concluded. Eseus, however, felt quite cross and stubborn against this. He could sense the wills of everyone present twisting him and his cousin together in an irreversible knot. And it was not only a marriage knot, but the knot upon a noose. It chafed his neck.
But the matter seemed settled to everyone’s liking—except Eseus’s liking, of course— and so Lord Oxenford clasped his hands together and called for more wine and more food.
“Let us eat and drink in equal measure to our fortunes!” he demanded.
The servants did as bidden, and an indulgent procession of food passed from serving plate to dinner plate to fork or spoon, and finally to mouths, all washed down with various wines as to each guest’s particular liking. With greater wines came greater garrulousness, which was why the honored nephew forewent wine in favor of goat’s milk, though he drank of this sparingly, as he ate sparingly. Instead, he feasted his ears to surfeit with the conversations between the various guests, reading the politics inscribed upon the faces of his kinsmen as if upon an illuminated script. A sober eye could learn as much as a burning ear, and there was much here to glean.
These minor lords feuded over everything. They feuded even now, while beneath the truce-trussed castle of their host. While exchanging pleasantries and uniting unto a cheer to exult their host, they were feuding. Feuding for favor. Feuding for attention. Feuding for the sake of feuds. This little lord and that little lady displeased one another for no other reason than it was a tradition for their houses to be acrimoniously at odds. To see and hear them barter formalities and pleasantries while also exchanging barbs beneath the table, so to speak, exhausted Eseus. He also felt himself drained by the incessant gaze of his pretty cousin. She watched him unerringly, even as she spoke to others around the table. Some might have mistaken her gaze as love, whereas a more studied eye— like Eseus’s— knew it for what it was.
And he felt as a mouse trapped between cats, knowing not which direction to flee.
At last, the arduous hour came to its close. Dessert was served. As was the custom in the Oxenford House, Lord Oxenford was served first, and he cut every cake and pie himself. Lord Oxenford was a man who loved his sweets, and so he served himself from each of the seven pies and cakes in their circle. A generous slice of each he allotted upon his own silver plate. He settled down into his seat, thereafter, to eat while his primly pantalooned servants served the slices he had given to the other lords and ladies. Only Lady Kareth and her honored cousin, Eseus, abstained from the decadence offered; the rest ate heartily and nodded in appreciation of the desserts.
“I may have to abduct your cooks, my Lord,” one of his kin said. “Their skills are impeccable.”
Lord Oxenford nodded vigorously, speaking through a mouthful of pie. “Verily so. But you needn’t poach them, dear cousin. Whipping works wonders with more than mere meringues.”
The quip was well-received, with chuckles all around. Soon, however, the chuckles broken into gasps of pain and fright.
“My word!” a lady cried, dropping her fork in a clatter. “Something bit me!”
Other forks dropped, clattering in a sharp-toothed clamor. More gasps and grunts of pain accompanied this cacophony. Lord Oxenford rose, then, with a roar and dropped his own fork.
“I will have someone’s skin out to dry for this!” he roared.
A noblewoman screamed. “There is an eye in my pie!”
Everyone turned and saw that there was, indeed, an eye in her slice of pie, and it was watching Lord Oxenford. It was a human eye. Suddenly every slice of the pie— blackberry, it seemed— erupted with moving berries that traversed the table, chasing after Lord Oxenford. His nephew rose from the table, as did his daughter, backing away from the hundreds of spiders that came in a great tidal swarm.
“Guards!” the Lord shouted. “Guards!”
But there was little that guards could do with sword and shield against spiders that could crawl between plates of armor and chainmail and cloth. They succumbed to the venomous bites quickly, whereas the majority of the arachnid army marched upon Oxenford in haste.
Lord Oxenford was overcome in moments, clutching at his body in vain against the invading army. With a howl he fell to his knees, then upon the ground rolled as if afire with agony. His daughter came not near him, but had presence of mind for a theatrical swoon into her cousin’s arms. That he obliged by catching her upset him more than his uncle’s imminent death, even as that death was protracted with paroxysms of torment.
Carbuncles bloomed crimson upon Lord Oxenford’s face, and therefrom oozed the sickly sallow pus like candlewax, putrid with hastening rot before it even broke the skin. When Lord Oxenford finally released his last breath, his face was purple and black and knotted with the hemorrhaging lesions. Their victim conquered, the spiders dissolved in many directions.
The guards and the lady— all being bitten—suffered the same fate as Lord Oxenford. The court healer hurried forth in his ministrations, but to no avail. Meanwhile Eseus could not puzzle over the catastrophic turn of events, nor could he usher his cousin into someone else’s care, for she clutched to him with what seemed a compulsion of shock. He was asked to carry her to her bedchamber, which he did reluctantly. A waiting woman attended them, watching Eseus resentfully from behind a swath of head garments. She was a large woman—a head taller than most women—and bulkier than most men. Eseus did not know why, but he felt ill at ease with her walking behind him.
They ascended the central tower and entered Kareth’s room. His cousin immediately came to herself, standing freely, and bid him to stay. She told her waiting woman to leave. The burly woman paused, briefly, as if to scowl at Eseus, but exited without a contrary word.
Lady Kareth, now alone with her cousin, clasped his hands in hers and, inspirited, rejoiced in an unseemly manner.
“I knew this day would be fortuitous!” she chimed. “As I stated earlier. We now have the passage to our joint destiny, free of all obstacles!”
“Your father is dead,” was all Eseus could think to say in his dismay.
“Upon that point, beloved, it is now wayside shadows,” she remarked, her blue eyes twinkling with joy, and ambition. “There is nothing to impede us.”
“But your father,” he said. “An assassin…?”
She waved his words away with the most flippant flip of her dainty hand.
“Father had many enemies,” she said. “And what luck for us!”
“Dead!” Eseus said, still unable to overcome this stark fact. “Your father!”
“He was an incompetent lord at best,” she said. “He was governed by impulse rather than intellect. Mother always said so. But imagine what we could do together! Imagine our lands and people combined!” Her sweet smile was wryly edged with condescension.
Before he could question such a look further, Lady Kareth rushed into his arms.
“Oh Eseus!” she said, “We need one another now more than ever! Please marry me and help me rule this grieving kingdom! I cannot do it alone!”
Warily, Eseus attempted to withdraw from her. The incense in her bedchamber was overwhelming, and the day’s events taxed him. He felt as if he was tottering. “I must fetch my mother and prepare my steward,” he said.
“As you wish, beloved,” she said. She put her cool hand upon his hot cheek. Her fingernails, he noticed, were sharp and long. “And I must mourn my father or it may appear unseemly.” She kissed his other cheek, then, pulling him to meet her liips with an insistent hand. “As it would be unseemly for you to refuse his dying wish.”
Her smile curled at its corners tightly, and he knew not what to say.
“Now away,” she said, “my dearest treasure, and return to me in haste with blessed tidings. Fate awaits us. Make haste! Make haste!”
She ushered him to the door, then had her waiting woman guide him downstairs and into the dining hall.
“Her lady is mourning,” the waiting woman announced, loudly and without shame for her deep voice. “No one is to disturb her. Her cousin is leaving.”
She put a large hand on Eseus’s shoulder and shoved him with impossible strength. He nearly fell upon his hands and knees, staggering into the dining hall.
“Get on home, lordling,” she said.
Before Eseus could voice his anger, the waiting woman disappeared toward the tower once more.
Waiting woman: Her accent struck him strange, and not only because of the harshness of her voice. She did not sound like noble or peasant, but something entirely different. Uncouth. Unfamiliar. The thought of home, though, and his mother, prompted Eseus’s haste out to the stables where his armed carriage awaited him. His men stood at attention upon his arrival, but he told them to stand easy. The events of the day were odd and suspicious, and not only because Lord Oxenford had been slain under such an unnatural machination.
“You shall take the carriage by the Oxenford Road,” he told his men, “but I shall take a horse independent of you.”
“But my lord!” the men protested. “Highwaymen!”
Eseus raised a hand. “I will exercise caution,” he reassured them. “As will you. You will be a diversion, for I intend to arrive home in three days, not two weeks, and if there is any foul play ahead it will fall upon you. Please be vigilant and arrive safely home. Something is not right in Oxenford. I must swiftly rally our people. Foul deeds are afoot and we must be ready to greet them with blade rather than sheath.”
He spoke no more of it, but took the reserve stallion for himself, readying the saddle and bridle and a satchel of salted meats and hardtack for the journey. His men gave him a few carrots and radishes, too, saying he would need them for his eyes when all was shrouded in the murk of mystery and mischief. He enfolded himself in a long cloak as well, to keep off the rain and the curious eyes. In addition, he took an unadorned, unassuming blade. To all ignorant eyes he appeared a lowly messenger of little worth to bandits or clans.
He then climbed atop his horse and rode off across the treeless moors.