“They are like mushrooms,” Eseus said, still feeling the fear of the hag upon him. Such a fear clung to him like cold swamp water. “I know that much. They are all one, beneath the curse, and sprout up like mushrooms from logs everywhere. People become them, but I did not know that putting on the garments they had washed would in turn curse you.”
“I have seen it happen,” the Spider clan girl said. They sat around a fire, facing each other. In the distance they could hear the gargling, gurgling, howling, growling, screeching swamp. It was an eerie ambience. “Man or woman, it does not matter. Anyone who dons the clothing she has washed will turn gray and sprout mushrooms, becoming as she. Who knows how many Gray Nanny Needleteeth there are in the world?”
Eseus shuddered. “I would have rather refused her services,” he said.
“She would have torn you apart for ‘bad manners’,” the young woman observed.
“Better dead than becoming an avatar for such a curse,” he said. He ate a grub, chewing it without retching. He was growing accustomed to how they crunched between his teeth and oozed all over his tongue. “How did such a curse begin?”
She pressed a single finger to her alabaster chin. It was such a curious pose, almost discordant with the notion that she was a deadly witch that had killed Lord Oxenford. Her wild white hair stood above her head like an abstracted drawing of a sunrise.
“No one knows for certain,” she said, “but my mother always sang a song to me about Gray Nanny Needleteeth. It was a warning, but it also hinted at her origins.”
The Spider clan girl cleared her throat, and sat up straight, properly, as a lady in court ready to sing to an audience of hundreds. She did not sing like a trilling lark, but in a singsong nursery rhyme lilt. Eseus, and his horse, listened attentively.
“O Gray Nanny Needleteeth,
for what does she sing in grief?
Is it the dawning of another day
while cursed by the unending Gray?
She wishes for her former life,
when she was the lordling’s little wife,
or when a knight so full of pride
that he got lost upon an errant ride,
or when a wizard who dared the curse
to see if he could the spell reverse—
one and all, together, in the bog
like mushrooms upon a rotten log,
one and one and one as one, or none,
bound to wash and spread the malediction,
adding many to their dreaded name
and to play the washerwoman’s Game
until the day that swamps run dry,
until the day that the Gray gives way
to a clear blue Summer’s sky.”
“So she is a curse of the swamp itself,” Eseus concluded. “I wonder if the Master might be able to undo the curse. Unweave it from the All Ways.”
“To do so may be to unmake swamps themselves,” the young woman said. “And to undo all of the life in the swamp.”
“The horrors of the swamp, you mean.”
“There are kindlier animals there,” she said. “I can feel them with my mind. They are as frightened as you were, but they live their whole lives frightened. They are thankfully short lives, however.”
Eseus ate another grub. He was hungry, and while the grubs were satisfying, it took many to fill the stomach after such physical tolls from the journey hitherto. Still, he did not mind the grubs so long as they gave him the strength to persist. There were times when he wished for a slab of beef, or a bowl of mutton, or even a salmon filet, but these yearning conjurations brought with them their shames. His people could been strewn out like carrion upon the fields and he was consumed with thoughts of his inconvenience.
“We must go soon,” he said. He rose, unsteadily, to his feet and saw to the saddle on the horse, fidgeting with it nervously. Sweat was still beading his forehead. It had never really left him since his encounter near the swamp. A cold deluge of icemelt still sloshed in his belly. His breathing grew rapid and he steadied himself on the stallion. He promised, without speaking, to retire the stallion when they arrived at the House of Lorwynne. The stallion would run in a pasture and breed until his heart was content.
A hand on his shoulder, which he grabbed and nearly broke.
It was the Spider clan girl. He released her hand.
“I am sorry,” he said. “I…am not feeling well.”
“You need to rest,” she said. “You have been through too much in too little time. Hags have an effect on men more than women. Even after they have left, their influence remains for a time.”
Eseus let the Spider clan girl assist him to the fire once again. She sat down beside him, feeling his forehead and giving him water from his canteen. It was fresh rainwater caught overnight.
“I am…frightened,” he said. “The Crows did not scare me. But the hag…she may have not taken me, or transformed me, but she still changed me somehow. I do not understand it.”
“It is the Miasma,” she said. “It can last several hours. Are you foggy-headed?”
“And you are hard of breathing?”
Again, he nodded.
“Yes, it is the Miasma. It will take time for your body to purify itself. And it will take longer for your mind.
Eseus tried to stand. “No, we haven’t the time!”
The world swayed and flew sideways, rising up across his face. He lay upon the ground, his breathing laborious as if he was drawing swampwater in and out of his lungs. He could still see the hag in his mind, her mushroom-warted face grinning. Her needle teeth opened and through her throat he slipped. He saw his fears manifested before him. He saw his cold-skinned father, slain by a Crow’s arrow. He saw his mother grieving at the crypt wherein her husband was interred. He saw the looks of his people, turned toward him as one, the hopelessness he felt mirrored in their faces. He saw his uncle laughing, and his pretty cousin smirking quietly, thinking her secrets utterly her own. He saw the waiting woman, though he did not understand why he feared her, and he saw the corpses of his people strewn around her while crows flew overhead, cawing with mad laughter.
And then he saw the Spider clan girl. She held his head in her lap. She had wrapped him in her robe and now sang while giving him water to drink. Beneath her robe she wore spidersilk garments—intricately patterned white on purple. She wore no dress, nor frock, or any such lady’s garments, but a practical tunic and britches. He stared at her, and her albino skin, her red eyes and wild array of milk-white hair. His mind focused upon her, as a wizard’s eye may a seeing-glass while gazing through the chaos of the All Ways. Her face was a refuge, and sheltering within it the fears of his life seemed to wither and fall to the wayside.
“I knew a love like the moor
as it rises to the quiet hill;
it came upon me from the fore
with a subtle slope I could not feel.
I walked up the softly-easing rise
of the gently-gliding ground
and imagine, dearest, my surprise
when it was you I found.
For I never saw while we walked
what was clear and plain to see
as we went together, and talked and talked,
what this hill now reveals to me.”
“You have a sweet voice,” he said. “Untrained, but obviously well-practiced.”
“Sometimes I welcome the silence of the moor,” she said. “Sometimes it maddens me.”
“I can speak the same of solitude,” Eseus said. “When among my relatives, I seek it. But the solitude I felt after my father died…it is a gaping chasm that swallows a man.” Eseus tried to sit up, but only slumped again into the young woman’s lap. “My father’s crypt is a thing of stone,” he said. “It is not warm, nor airy, as my father could be when among friends. I have not visited it but once, and only then to retrieve my mother from its dark void. I feared she might waste away down there, eaten by the shadows. I fear she may yet while I have been ensnared by all of these terrible intrigues.”
“My people would burn the dead,” she said. “And let the ashes fly upon winds across the moor. Sometimes I think I can hear my mother whispering to me with the wind. But I know it is only what I wish to hear playing a game in my ear.” She wiped his brow again, and her fingers strayed into his hair. “Why do you bury your people in such dark places? Why not care for your dead elsewise?”
“It is a tradition,” Eseus said. “To have them near us…it comforts some of us. Sometimes I am comforted by it, and sometimes I realize it makes no difference at all.”
“I should like to be remembered in lively song rather than cold stone. A song sung by the living, not etched in dead words.”
“Then I will write a song for you,” he said, smiling despite the tears in his eyes, “and they will sing it from the Northerlands to the Southerlands, from the Oestrelands to the Westerlands.”
“Do not mock me,” she warned. “Your noble blood will weep for it.”
“I do not speak in jest,” he said. “I will construct a song as we ride. And at next nightfall I shall sing it to you.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “I have a trained voice,” he said, “but it is also an unpracticed one.”
“Iadne,” she said.
He did not understand the word. “What?”
“If you are to write a song for me,” she said, “you should know my name. My name is Iadne.”
“Iadne,” he said. “My name is Eseus.”
“I know,” she said.
“How did you come to know it?” he asked. “I never told you.”
“We know the names of the nobility,” she said. “We hear word of you, just as we hear word of our other foes. It is good to know whom to assassinate.”
“Such as my uncle,” Eseus said.
“Verily so.” She regarded him for a long moment, her lips almost smiling with mischief. “So, you wish to be called Eseus. Is that all? No grand titles to add gems to its crown?”
“Eseus is all I wish to be called,” he said. “Titles are too heavy to wear, as are crowns.”
They traveled on, at length, though they walked to allow the horse much needed rest. The fog shrouded the moor as if to keep out the hours. It seemed a twilight without end. At times Eseus feared they might have fallen prey to some enchantment, doomed to walk the same stretch of featureless land forever.
There appeared a large hill through the fog. It was unlike the gradual slopes of the subtler hills on the moor. White, it seemed made of sand, as if from the Southerlands. Upon its crown were standing stones, ringed in a circle. Even at the distance Eseus could see footprints appearing and disappearing up and down its slopes and summit. He could not see the walkers. They were as phantoms without form
“Stay far from it,” Iadne said.
“There is ancient magic within such stones,” Eseus said. “They are concentric stones, the corners of the All Ways…if the All Ways should be believed possessed of corners. That is what our tradition states.”
“They are the vertebrae of a sleeping god,” Iadne said. “My people believed that the god dreams the Gray into the world as he sleeps.”
Eseus stared at the standing stones, and their circular grooves. “Perhaps both of our peoples are right.”
He steered the horse far from the hill, giving it a wide breadth of space. The Gray was thick upon it, as fabric wound around a spool. Eseus had seen such hills before, but always while within a large convoy. Even so, the japes of the accompanying soldiers ever died to silence whenever passing such a primordial nexus of the world’s magic. A natural instinct rendered the most foolish jester wise with silence as he passed such a place.
When they had put enough distance between themselves and the white hill and its standing stones, Iadne spoke again, though as quietly as if they were in the shadow of the hill.
“That woman,” she said, “Kareth. You do not find yourself drawn to her?”
“I am drawn to her,” Eseus confessed. “Which is why I mistrust her, and myself. She would use my love against my people. And a ruler must not be divided in his duties.”
“And you do not believe that her love for you might dissuade her from her…harder heart?”
Eseus laughed— he laughed long and loudly, even if it was a sardonic laugh. “She harbors no love for me, or for anyone. Sometimes I do not believe she loves even herself. Perhaps she is incapable of love.”
“Then I pity her all the more,” she said. She became quiet and did not speak for an hour. In the meantime her spider scurried up and down Eseus’s nape in agitation. When it stopped, Iadne spoke. “And there is no other noblewoman for whom you hold affection? No one you might be promised to in marriage?”
“No one I care for,” Eseus said, “though there are many who would scramble over the corpses of their own parents to secure a marriage into the House of Lorwynne. To be honest, I do not think of things such as these often. I do not care to. I have too many other frets to juggle without add wedding rings to the mix of things. I would fumble the more important concerns presently, like the blades of the Crows and of my loveless cousin.”
Once more Iadne said no more, but grew silent while her spider traversed Eseus’s nape. When she spoke again, she spoke haltingly.
“I…fell in love once,” she said. “He was a strong summoner in our tribe. Panyseus was his name. He…he never fancied me as much as I had him, but he fancied me enough to…wed me. He did lay with me…only once. He laid with many young women in our tribe. But our union was…fruitful…”
“I see,” Eseus said. His neck was straight and stiff, and not only because the spider gripped him hard with its legs.
Iadne spoke defensively. “We do not value a woman for her maidenhead alone. We are not the same as the nobleborn. Women have value for more than the children they bear, and such children in our tribe are raised by the tribe. The fathers still raise the children, if they will, but they are not necessary. Yet, the children often wish to know their fathers. Especially the boys…”
“I understand,” he said stiffly.
“It is far worse for the men in my tribe,” she said, “for if they abandon the child then they abandon all future children. A good knife will see to that.”
He nodded once, but the spider remained tight upon his neck. “Then…have you had children?”
“Yes,” she said. “Only one, for I laid with only Panyseus. I named her Immedea. She died when young. Bog-throat claimed her.”
“I am sorry,” he said. “And…the father?”
“He knew the love of a knife when he fled me,” she said. “The women of my tribe grew tired of his lecherous ways.”
“It must have…made things very hard,” he said, not knowing what else to say. “To raise a child…and then to lose a child…” He wiped his eyes with his sleeve.
“No,” she said. “I had my clan, and my clan helped me raise Immedea. When she died, the clan grieved as one. Now, I grieve my clan as one, alone.” She hesitated, and the spider released its tight grip on Eseus’s neck. “I…only wanted you to know about me. I wanted you to know what loves I have had.”
They rode through the fog until night blackened it like dragon smoke. They then camped and ate more grubs by a humble fire. The horse nibbled what tufts of grass were safe to eat and then laid down as if ready to die. Its ribs were etched with hunger and malnutrition. Eseus did not know what to do for it.
“The horse may die before we reach home,” he said. “If that happens we may not reach my home for weeks.” His face was taut with frustration. “I feel as if I am playing the part of some god’s jester. So many adversities and my efforts to defend my home have yet to even begin.”
“You are still breathing,” Iadne observed. “Perhaps the god wishes to harden your mettle before facing you against your foes.”
“I never thought kindness a trait of gods,” Eseus said. “Not even Mathara is known for it, and she is the most beloved among the gods by the peoples of this world.” His smile was sour, as if he sipped a wanting wine. “And she is but a dragon goddess whose merest whisper would burn the world.” He shrugged. “No, the gods do not favor any mortal except as a whimsy of amusement. We entertain them for a time, and then they tire of us and turn toward other torments.”
“And yet you are like a god to your people,” Iadne observed. “Whatever you do, they worship you. They obey your every word as if it is divine decree.”
Eseus shifted uncomfortably. “I do not wish to think of it that way,” he said. “I do not want to be a god, for good or ill, only a defender of my people.”
“But they are born and raised to do as you say,” she said. “You are as a god to them in word and in deed.”
“And I was born and raised to rule,” Eseus said, growing irritated. “Do you think I wish it? No! I would rather travel the world. See the Southerland beaches. Visit Gran Stone in the Midlands and speak to the Master. Peruse the tomes of his timeless library. Live a quiet life in the woods, perhaps, where there are no kings or nobles or even petty lords. Live unto myself, answerable to no one and nothing except Time and Death.” He sighed heavily. “But that is a dream for a selfish person. And I cannot be selfish. If I am selfish then my people will die.”
Iadne considered what Eseus had said, staring at him from across the fire. “I can make beasts do as I desire,” she said, “making them think they do what they desire. You do the same with your people, and your people do the same to you.”
“My people are not animals…” he began to say.
“They are not free,” she said. “And neither are you. None of you live your desires, and so you conform your desires to the expectations of others, telling yourselves you are happy following a pattern woven for you before your birth.”
“That is everyone,” Eseus said. “Every people with a history are herded by that history. From the Northerlands to the Southerlands, tradition is the shepherd of the people.”
“And you think I am bound by tradition, too?” She stood and walked to the other side of the fire, standing over him.
“Of course,” he said. “We are both bound by tradition. The echoes from the Past hound us to do as we are told. The customs of our clans bind us, whether living or dead.”
She lifted her robe and slipped it off, and then stripped herself of her undergarments.
“Then let us free ourselves from the Past. I am tired of their clutching shadows.”
She laid beside him, upon her robe, and pulled him upon her.
They met for the first time that night— not as lordling and nomad, nor foe and foe, host or guest, conqueror or conquered— but as man and woman, woman to man, soul to soul, freed at last from the complex trappings of civilization and heritage and tradition and blood debts. Free unto one another, as bird to bird upon the wild winds, they upmounted each other’s vertiginous heights and plunged into each other’s depths, finding peace in tranquil freefall, embracing against gravity and the rushing ground until all that existed was the wingstroke of each other’s love.