Venom Pies Part 3

 

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A new day dawned in the Gray and the sun was a pale-faced phantom through the thickening clouds. All day was as twilight. Only at dusk did the day differ itself, night encroaching over the world. Eseus pressed his horse forward, however, over the vast moor. Occasionally he found himself upon the Oxenford Road, and so would veer from it, keeping in parallel to its stubborn dirt scar.
The night deepened, its shadows saturating the far-flung expanses of the moorlands. Suddenly, the horse halted, neighing fearfully and nearly bucking its two passengers. The horse’s cries echoed long after Eseus had calmed the horse to silence. He eyed the darkening land suspiciously, not knowing what his sight sought. To his surprise he saw, across the misty moor, the broad trunk of a strange tree with a bushy head of leaves that blended in the upward heights of the looming darkness. He did not know why, but the tree alarmed him more than any Crow or wolf pack or even bog-wyrm could. Perhaps it was because it was such a solitary tree, since he had not seen trees since leaving the outskirts of his uncle’s lands. His passenger leaned toward his ear.
“There is no such thing as a benevolent tree upon the moor,” she whispered.
Eseus waited, and watched. The tree was black and had no branches. It was all trunk and foliage and nothing more, so far as he could see. He felt the chill of the fog mix with the chill of the sweat on his brow. Gasping, he watched as the tree split in two, yet the twin trunks shared the same head of foliage.
“Flee!” she hissed urgently. “Or we are doomed!”
The twinned trees bent and stepped forward as two large legs, their gigantic feet booming upon the moor. Eseus yanked the reins, driving the horse in a long-curving arch around the approaching legs, whipping his horse into a full sprint.
The Giant roared with a voice like an earthquake, and shook the moor as if to crack the contintent unto two. But as vast as the Giant’s stride was, he was slow and could not maintain even his slow speed for long, losing the riders in the fog even as his large, gnarled hands searched for them with grasping, hungry desperation.
“He should not follow us,” the Spider clan girl said. “It should be safe to slow now.”
Slowing the horse to a trot, and then to a stop, Eseus dismounted, thereafter helping his captor down.
“I have never seen a Giant before,” he said, breathing heavily. “It pretended to be a tree.”
“Many Giants do,” she said. “They wear kilts of leaves and stand very still, one leg in front of the other, digging their toes into the earth, rooting themselves in place and waiting for unwary travelers to pass by in the dark. Then they claim them and eat them. They are not very fast, and are almost always famished and tired. Their large size makes them so, as does the scarcity of food on the moor.”
“I have heard of Giants,” Eseus said, “but I must confess that we always thought them the tall tales of men too deep in their cups.” He wiped his brow clear of the clammy sweat beading there. “His legs looked like they were covered in bark.”
“They are,” she said. “And his face is gray and chiseled roughly, like stone, and hair covers much of its torso, colored green and yellow and brown. You must be careful of steep foothills. Most rise laxly, almost sleepily, from the moor, but there are those that rise too sharply toward their summits. Anything abrupt is not sleeping upon the moor. Giants also curl like foothills in the fog, biding their time to grab incautious prey. They are ambush predators.”
“My horse sensed the danger,” Eseus said. “Yet, I did not. I should have known a solitary tree upon the moor to be highly suspect. I was too preoccupied with the concerns of my home.”
“It is an assured way of never seeing home again,” she said. “The moor can use your love against you. Giants are kindred to the moor, and thus are children of the Gray. Yet, the Gray can be a barren mother, and so the Giants are often too groggy with fatigue and starvation to think clearly. In this way does the Gray humble its children. If Giants were clear-headed there would be no stopping them from running riot over the lands, feasting upon every living creature.”
“They would be a terrible army to behold,” Eseus agreed.
“Fortunately, they are no more merciful toward their own kind as to us. The smaller ones must be wary of the larger ones, for food is food to them, whatever its origin.”
“Smaller ones” he said. “Like children?”
She frowned at him and shook her head. Her white tangles of hair shook wildly, and the way she looked at him with her red eyes made him feel like he was speaking to an otherworldly creature.
“There is no such thing as ‘children’ among anything except humans and animals. Fairies, Giants, Titans—they have no ‘children’. And the smallest Giant has outlived the oldest wizard by a thousand years. Do they teach you nothing in your stony castles?”
“I have been taught many things,” he said. “Human history, for one. How many kings can you name? How many wars do you recall? Or the strategies employed?”
“What good are such things to me?” she snorted. “My clan taught me how to survive.”
“Such things as I know help me to survive, also,” he said. “For your life, knowing the moor and its flora and fauna is important. For me, knowing humanity and its lessons helps me to survive. I will not belittle your knowledge just because it is different from my own.”
“You are right, of course,” she said. “I…I forgot myself. Knowing what other people are capable of could have saved my people. I would have never thought it possible that the Crow clan would make an ally of the Oxenford line to destroy us. But perhaps with your people as allies I may have my revenge replete.”
“Revenge is a bitter pie,” he said, thinking of the pie that had killed his uncle. “And you may eat it only once.”
“Yes, but what a feast to remember!” she said, smiling bitterly. She eyed him warily, thinking. “Would you dissuade me from vengeance? Do wish to spare my enemies?”
“No,” he said. “I only want to focus on defending my people right now, while I still have people to defend. I will think of vengeance only if…” He shook his head and let the thought die in the mist-heavy air. “I do not wish to think of it.”
The sky thundered suddenly, portending rains. There was a rush of warm wind coming on like a phantasmal army.
“We should camp near the Oxenford Road,” she said. “The Giants do not go near it. Nor do most things upon the moor.”
“Why is that?” he asked.
“It is cursed,” she said, “as is everything bearing the Oxenford name. There is a reason why the moors do not retake the Road with gorse and grass.”
He opened his mouth to say something, but refrained. He retained his silence.
“I do not like to be near the Road because of the curse,” she told him, noting his irritated expression, “but it is better than being snatched up while we sleep. We must not light a fire, however, for it will bring the Crows to us. They stay sheltered in their tents during storms, but their crows are ever scouting.”
Carefully, they walked in the dark until they came to the Road. The Spider clan girl had an unfailing sense of direction while upon the moor, even in the dark. She led Eseus by the hand, and he led the horse by the reins. When they reached the road, they sat beside it, huddling beneath her robe. Eseus attempted to sleep, but as with the night prior, sleep came but fitfully. At length, he sighed.
“What is wrong?” she asked.
“I am too worried to sleep,” he said.
“About your people.”
“And my mother.”
“But they have stone walls to protect them,” she said. “Surely that is enough in the meantime.”
“Stone walls did not help my uncle,” he said.
“No,” she said. “They did not.”
“I sometimes wonder if my family is cursed,” he said. “My father’s House is the House of Lorwynne, but he, too, was an Oxenford, only it was through marriage to my mother. House Lorwynne is an old house, and strong, but not as old and strong as House Oxenford. My father and my uncle grew up as rivals in many ways. During the tourneys they competed together, and more than often my father won. This bred resentment in my uncle. He and my father also both loved Lady Kareth’s mother. But her mother was much like Kareth herself, craving only power in a husband. And she saw power in my uncle. Not power of skill or of wisdom. But of willpower. He was willing to do whatever was necessary to dominate and control others. My aunt, therefore, was a perfect match for him.”
“As a werewolf to a full moon,” she said.
“Just so,” he said. “My father was bitter about their marriage at first. He had bested my uncle in many ways But then he met my mother— my uncle’s sister—at the wedding. He realized how fortunate he was to have dodged the arrows he had nocked for himself. My mother gave my father a tress of her hair and he began courting her almost at once. I do not doubt that my uncle resented their pairing, and begrudged my father even unto his own death, but I also believed that he thought it a fortuitous event for himself, for it meant he might someday rule the House of Lorwynne as well as the House of Oxenford. Before he died, my uncle pressed me to marry his daughter, my cousin, Kareth, and unite our houses. Kareth, herself, urged me to do so also. With the two largest Houses of Oxenford together she might have the forces to annex more provinces beyond the Oxenford Compact. She might annex the Northlands as a whole, in time, and extend her control to the Midlands, rivaling even the Valorian Empire. It is no secret that was my uncle’s dream, for it was my aunt’s dream, and so it is my cousin’s dream.”
“I saw your cousin at the feast,” she said. “She was a pretty little creature, in her own way. Fragile as a flower, though.”
“That is her strength,” Eseus said. “Looking vulnerable. But there are talons there, as ready for blood as any Crow’s. I have known Kareth since I was a child. Her stratagems have not changed. Even then she would instigate fights amongst my other cousins and myself, demanding that we fight for her favor. She took after her mother in that way, I suppose. My eldest cousin, Artell, was mad for her. He challenged and beat all of my cousins in turns, coming at last to me. He was bigger than myself, and as crude as a bad tempered buck in rut. The hammer blow of his fist sent me reeling. Yet, I picked myself up afterward and ran at him. He struck once more, but I evaded beneath his arm. My swordmaster had taught me the weaponless arts as well— even when young—and so I snapped his arm at the elbow, rendering it useless. He crumbled to the ground, weeping, and I stood in shock. Erstwhile my fair cousin laughed in delight and favored me with a kiss as I stood there, dumbstruck to idiocy.” Eseus’s words became lighter, but his tone was nonetheless remorseful. “Artell cannot use a sword to this day, but he begrudges me no more. Indeed, we are on amicable terms insomuch as the present is concerned. Youth enflamed with passion leads to great tragedies. And to be young is to be passionate. The blood has not yet cooled.”
The Spider clan girl considered all that he had said.
“I never knew that lordlings had such…traumas in their lives,” she said. “We assumed you were pampered and coddled. But there seems to be more wilderness in your lives than that of our nomadic clan. At least those of a clan will not strike against their own. That much I can claim as a blessing.”
“Politics are always dangerous,” Eseus said, “and gaining a lady’s favor—especially the heir of a powerful house—is the most precarious of politics. Battles with pens can cost more lives than battles with swords. An errant pen can orchestrate a thousand catastrophes, bleeding long after the ink has faded upon the scroll.”
“Your lives are more complicated than I should like,” she said. “The moor is misleading, too, and can imperil with feints of good will, but it never smiles when it undertakes its machinations. This…Kareth…she seems to me to be a crow pretending to be a dove. But I pity her.”
“You pity her?” Eseus said, dismayed. “Why?”
“Because she does not truly care for her clan,” she explained, “and she who cannot care for her clan has no clan to care for her. She is alone. She is the mistress of her own sorrows.”
Eseus considered this. “You are right, of course. Then again, we Oxenford heirs have a habit of tailoring our own tragedies. This Road, for instance— you said it was cursed. Well, you might be right. Do you know how we came of the Oxenford name? My family named ourselves for the same feat that created this Road. My ancestor tied a plow to a pair of oxen of unnatural size and drove them through the moor— through heath and bog and hill and all—until this road remained. He forded without concern for impediments or imminence. Or so my father claimed. Some think he was a wizard and used celestial bulls. The curse you spoke of may, therefore, be partially true. Grass does not grow here, nor gorse, nor weed. Worms do not till it, nor will any plant grow within it. I know because I tried as a child to grow yams in its dirt near the castle. The yams grew on one side and on the other, but the actual Road remained untouched by vine or root or leaf. At the time I faulted my own ignorance as a farmer, but now…now it seems you are right. Only humans dare its path; humans and whatever other beast a man might press to tread its dirt. It must be cursed.”

***

When they woke, the rains had gone and the sun limned the moorlands wanly. The Road itself was utterly dry, as if the rain had dared not touch it. They began at a gallop once again, but the horse was soon overworked, and underfed, the moors providing little for a beast to sustain its strength for so long a ride. Eventually they dismounted and walked alongside the fatigued horse. Eseus was agitated, knowing he was well behind the progress he should have by now made.
“At this rate it shall be a week before I arrive home,” he complained. “Everything seems set against me. I should have arrived home today!” He eyed his captor sidelong. “Of course, that would have been so had I not an additional rider to burden my horse.”
The Spider clan girl gawped with fury. “Without me you would be but a corpse in a puddle with the crows pecking at your soggy flesh. Do not direct your frustration at me.”
Eseus scratched his head angrily— almost as if to pull his hair out—but suddenly relinquished his anger. “You are right,” he said, begrudgingly. “I am acting like a child. But I fear for my people, and the most rotten of luck has visited me. It is a hobgoblin sitting on my head and refusing to budge.” He reached into his satchel, finding only carrots and radishes awaiting his hand. “We will deplete the food I stored for the journey very soon. Do you…do you know of any food the moor might provide us?”
The Spider clan girl scanned the horizon. “My people survived making elixirs of various herbs and grasses on the moor. But such elixirs would not help you. Often they kill those not accustomed to their toxins. That is also why we have named ourselves the Spider clan.” She smiled with some satisfaction. “But we also ate food like the rest of you may eat, if you would deign do so. Rabbits. Foxes. Groundhogs. Any kind of bird. Especially crows. Whatever we might have killed with arrow or willed over our fires, we ate.”
“I have no bow,” Eseus said. “Nor do I have your talent for willing beasts to do as I wish.”
“There are always bugs,” she said, seriously. “Or is that too beneath you?”
“They are quite beneath me,” Eseus said. “Beneath me, in the earth.”
When she did not laugh, Eseus explained that it was a joke.
“Starvation is no joke,” she said. “And certain bugs are quite filling. They can strengthen a man as much as any beef or poultry might.”
She knelt down at once and placed her hand upon the wet turf. Eseus waited patiently nearby, curiously watching her as he held the horse’s reins. The grass began to move, and small holes opened in the ground, as if dug by fingers. Bright orange grubs wiggled up through the damp grass. The Spider clan woman plucked them up and held them in her bone-white hands. There were seven fat grubs in all.
Eseus grimaced. “Do you not cook them beforehand?” he asked.
“If you wish,” she said.
She abruptly dumped them in his free hand and knelt down to make a fire. She gathered together gorse and grass into a rounded pile. She then withdrew flint and a striking stone from her voluminous sleeves. With these she quickly struck at the flint, spitting sparks into the wet grass. To Eseus’s surprise, the wet grass caught flame and a small fire burned upon the soaked turf.
“How?” he asked, baffled.
“Hurry,” she said. “Dump in your bugs.”
Eseus let the orange grubs fall into the flames. The flames eagerly cooked the grubs black. When she decided they had been cooked enough, the Spider clan girl stuck the flint into the fire, reabsorbing the fire into the black rock.
“That is dragonrock, is it not?” Eseus said.
“Of course,” she said, slipping the flint and the striking stone back into her sleeve. “Ancient dragonrock whose fire has almost burned out.”
“I know of it,” he said. “It was once the bone of a dragon, long dead. A dragon fossil, in fact, or near enough so. They say it absorbs flame, and gives flame when struck. Unquenchable flame. It belongs to one of the Immortal Dragons. If it were ever fed enough flame the dragon would be reborn.”
“Which is why I do not give it more flame than I take from it,” she said.
“They say that fire from a dragonrock can set water itself ablaze.”
“I have never tried such a thing,” she said. “I only use it sparingly when the grass is too wet to burn normally.”
“That is wise,” he said. “It is a priceless artifact. Many wizards and witches would…well, it is good no one knows you possess such a thing. Great mischief could be worked upon the world with such a powerful item.”
“It was my father’s,” she said. “The Crows threw it away as sentimental rubbish. But I knew its worth. I found it and have kept it as an heirloom.” She handed him a few of the burnt grubs, and took her share in hand. She stared at them for a long time, thinking. “Sometimes I think I would like to throw it into a large fire and let the dragon be reborn. Let it scorch the world in its fire.”
Eseus frowned in disgust— but whether it was disgust at the grub he had eaten or the intimation his captor had made, he himself did not know.
“Many innocent lives would be killed,” he said, chewing bug. It did not taste bad. It did not taste good. It was merely bland.
“Many guilty lives would be ended, too,” she said, eating her second grub. “Why should it matter, after all? I have no attachments in this world anymore. And I have the dragonrock at my disposal. If I feel nothing for anyone left, then I should not fault myself for letting the world burn. It is my right, and I am answerable to no one.”
“But what would your parents think of you?” he said.
She turned away from the fire, and from Eseus. “They are dead. What they would think does not matter, not even to them. I am free to do as I please.”
She stood apart from him, back toward him, and staring out across the moor. Eseus ate the remaining grubs and said nothing. He could see her shoulders shaking beneath her robe, but he said nothing. He let her moment of grief pass. When her shoulders stopped shuddering, she spoke again.
“Do lordlings believe in a life after this one?” she asked
“Many are Matharists,” Eseus said, “But my father believed it a lot of dragon feathers.”
“And what do you think, Eseus?”
Hearing her say his name for the first time gave him pause. He cleared his throat.
“Part of me wishes it so,” he said, “so I might see my loved ones again. But because I wish it so I doubt it. When has this world ever answered wishes?” He thought for a moment, his brow flexed with the world in the balance of his scales. “No, I believe it a lot of dragon feathers as well.”
She nodded, curtly, and then began to walk once more. There was nothing more to be said about it by either of them.

***

There was nothing but monotonous moor and bland gray sky stretching on forever. They stayed parallel with the Oxenford Road, walking within sight of it and within sight of the easy-rising foothills. The clouds thinned overhead, but sunlight never broke through to the moor. The world was awash with the Gray. In the distance— seeming at first a mirage of overlapping shadows and fog—a caravan moved upon the Oxenford Road. Eseus squinted his eyes, but could not discern much about them.
“I cannot see their banners,” he said.
“I may be able to,” his captor said. She raised a hand toward the seemingly desolate sky. Within a few moments two small birds arrived, resting on her wrist. They were very small gray birds, and Eseus did not recognize their breed. Before he could ask, one bird pecked at the eye of the other bird, plucking its eye out cleanly with its beak and dropping that tiny eye into his captor’s accepting palm. The two birds then flew away in two different directions. The blood-beaked bird went as it willed. The one-eyed bird fluttered toward the caravan, its gray body vanishing at the distance.
Taking a deep breath, the Spider clan girl peered closely at the tiny eye in her palm. After a moment, she spoke.
“They are heavily armored men,” she said. “With many lances and swords and pikes. The banner they fly is purple with a white ox upon it, its horns long.”
“They fly my uncle’s banner, then,” Eseus said. “We must circumnavigate them, or they will see us.” He pulled the horse to the West, circling wide of the encampment. “They are a war convoy…and I know where they go. But we must arrive first. Can you…can you watch them for a span?”
“I can,” she said. “But I cannot walk while I do so.”
“Then you will ride,” Eseus said. He helped her atop the horse, leading it by the reins from the front. As he walked and guided the horse, she spied on the caravan. Eseus looked to her occasionally, wondering what kind of toll such a talent took upon her. Her red eyes did not blink once. Sweat broke upon her brow.
They had followed the caravan at a distance for an hour or so before the Spider clan girl informed Eseus that the caravan was halting.
“They are setting camp,” she said. “They are resting for the night.”
“It is not yet twilight,” Eseus said. “We should ride around them now, while we have the chance, and gain more time on them.”
The Spider clan girl tossed away the bird’s eye, blinking her eyes rapidly and nearly swooning. Eseus caught her before she could fall off the horse. He mounted the horse behind her, holding the reins while steadying the young woman against him.
“Will you be well enough to ride at a swifter speed?” he asked.
“I need only a moment,” she said, “and I should recover.”
Eseus gave her a moment, and in that moment’s time she swayed with each light step the horse took. Gradually, however, she righted herself up, straightening her spine and gaining a hold upon the mane. Eseus noticed, and was glad for it.
“When you feel stronger,” he said, “we must switch places. I…I cannot see around your hair.”
The Spider clan girl actually blushed at that— with both fury and something else— and she nodded curtly. Unconsciously, she pulled at the wild disarray of her white hair.

***

Twilight came, and with it the Gray deepened upon the moor. The moor, however, was hemmed in in the West by a great bog.
“Beggar’s Bog,” Eseus said. “We would do well to keep away from it.”
His captor concurred. “Lest we wander its depths forever.”
Beggar’s Bog was vast— almost as vast as the moorlands—and was drenched in shadows from its ancient trees. The air hung heavy with the stench of stagnant waters and dead vegetation. Occasionally the stench of a dead animal wafted through the air, pungently punctuating the danger entailed in its gurgling, gaseous bowels. Will o’ the wisps flared here and there, like blue torches flaring and fizzling out. There were howls among the trees, and growls among the waters. The screech of a death pierced the mumbling ambience, and a tree shook intermittently, as if shouldered aside by something too big to be faced with sword or spear or even catapult. Moss hung from the trees like draperies, and the trees receded like columns into a temple of shadow. Not many men wandered into Beggar’s Bog and returned alive. And if they did return, they begged to be granted the mercy of a swift death and thus a swift cessation to whatever things they had seen that now haunted their minds.
Perhaps it was this latter knowledge that made Eseus halt the horse when he first saw the woman kneeling down at the edge of the swamp. He mistook her for some unfortunate soul lost in the woods, or perhaps a grieving mother trying to summon her hapless child from the merciless peat.
As he approached, he discerned a sad croaking sort of song. A wailing, gurgling, laughing song. He thought perhaps she had gone mad with grief.
His captor had fallen asleep, exhausted from her uncanny espionage upon the caravan. Eseus, thus, called to the woman, hailing her without first seeing her for what she was.
“My good woman!” he called. “What troubles you?”
The Spider clan girl roused at once, gasping and clasping her hand around his mouth. She hissed for him to be silent, but it was too late. The woman turned around and revealed herself to be a hideous, gray-skinned hag.
“Well hello, dearie!” she cackled. “Have you some laundry for Nanny to wash for you?”
Eseus realized his mistake upon seeing the creature’s mushroom-warted face, the hooked nose, and the needle-like teeth. She wore a dress made of what appeared to be skin and had white hair upon which black mold and lichen grew. The sight of her abhorred him, yet he knew the rules of the Game. Gray Nanny Needleteeth did not deal fairly with those who forewent her Game.
“Come, dearie, don’t be rude,” she said, growing testy. “Have you anything in need of a wash or not?”
The Spider clan girl released his mouth, whispering in his ear urgently. “Play along.”
“I know,” he whispered back.
“What are you saying, hmmm?” Nanny said. “Best not be whisperin’ about poor ol’ Nanny. She don’t like that! No, dearie! Not one bit.”
“Of course I have something in need of washing,” he said, dismounting from the horse. He looked back at the Spider clan girl, gesturing that she remain with the horse. “I was just thinking, Nanny, that my cloak is soaked with blood. I suffered a nasty wound and I fear I have ruined my favorite cloak.”
Eseus removed his cloak and, slowly, fearfully, edged closer to the hag.
“Oh, my poor dearie!” Nanny said, reaching out for the cloak with long, taloned fingers. Mushrooms riddled her arms as much as her face. “My poor dearie boy! Don’t you worry none about your favorite cloak! Nanny will clean it as good as new! As good and sweet as a newborn, delicious baby boy!”
“Thank you, Nanny.” He tried to smile as he handed the torn cloak over to the hag. She was taller than she appeared at the distance, and stank of foul, putrid waters. “I…truly dislike bothering you.”
“Tis no bother, dearie,” the hag said, clutching the cloak in her gnarled fingers as if to squeeze the blood stains from it. She grinned vastly, and the green needles of her teeth gleamed. “Tis no bother a’ tall!”
The hag hobbled quickly to the edge of the bog, wringing the cloak as if to wring a neck free of its spine. She bent down, kneeling, and submerged the cloak into the peat. The stench of the bog increased as she feverishly worked the cloak. Eseus glanced back at the Spider clan girl and the horse, tempted to flee. His whole body screamed to flee, for it knew— on some primal level—that this creature was frighteningly unnatural. But he knew to flee would be to die gruesomely. When he turned back to face the hag, she was standing in front of him, holding the cloak up— so very close—to his face.
“Did not Nanny do a good job, dearie?” she asked, her breath rancid with old meat. “Did not Nanny do her sweet little boy’s cloak a good turn?”
Eseus looked at the cloak in front of him. It was covered in peat and foul water. Mushrooms bloomed along its fabric without ceasing. Eseus swallowed hard, trying not to gag at the sight and the stench. Nanny grinned broadly.
“Try it on, dearie,” she said. “And tell Nanny she did such a good job cleaning her dear boy’s garments.”
Eseus could barely breathe. Swords were no good here, nor even magic, for this was a thing born of a curse. It was, thus, a game, and the Game had its rules, and he had to obey those rules to survive intact and unaltered.
Eseus pointed. “I beg your pardon, Nanny, but you seem to have missed a spot.”
The hag’s yellow eyes bulged. “Missed a spot, dearie?” she said. Dismayed, she looked from Eseus to his cloak, and then cloak to Eseus to cloak, and flung the cloak in the air, screaming wildly, tearing her white hairs out of her mushroom-dotted head and running toward the bog. She flung herself into the swamp with a long, tapering wail that ended in breathless gurgles.
Too shocked to react, Eseus stood there a while. When the Spider clan girl touched his shoulder, he nearly jumped.
“I was spellbound,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, “but you still won the Game.”
“I did,” he said, still in disbelief. His brow was a swamp of sweat. He had suffered a fear unlike any he had ever felt.
He reached for the defiled cloak, but the Spider clan girl interceded.
“Leave it,” she said, “or become as she is.”
She said no more, but led him back to the horse. The mounted again and rode farther into the North until night bid them halt and rest until daybreak.

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