Venom Pies Part 6

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For three days Eseus quietly made arrangements among his guards, plotting strategies and making contingencies to counter a siege of the castle. He also plotted the trap whereby to unseat the Oxenford forces from his castle and to expel them— either upon the open moor or as corpses within the moat. In the meantime he also comforted his mother, and reassured her of his well-being while also withholding the truth of their precarious situation. He visited the families of the soldiers and coachmen who had been slain upon the Oxenford Road. He shared in their grief, and they knew his grief to be genuine, regarding theirs as his own. He commiserated with them as a brother would.
And, amidst so much else, Eseus watched for Iadne’s arrival. Not an hour did not pass that his fears for her safety did not bloom anew with thorns around his heart. Ofttimes he marched up the battlements and searched the horizon for her and Percevis. Rationally, he knew it would be a few days before they might arrive, yet he was impatient for their return and, so, hastened it with his own longing. Meanwhile, Commander Vant and his retinue eyed him suspiciously, and japed at him behind his back, and swaggered complacently about the place, thinking themselves conquerors and finding mirth in the belief that Eseus did not know the truth of their presence and its subterfuge.
The stress of abiding inaction was a tortuous spell upon Eseus, especially as his hatred for the Oxenford men brewed. Yet, he remembered his father’s abiding patience, and his cool temperament, and he vowed that he was his father’s son. For the sake of the House of Lorwynne and its people and his father’s legacy Eseus would refrain until the opportune moment, as the snare snatching the hare— taut with patient anticipation, but timely in its sudden snap.
His mother’s presence becalmed him often. He was heartened to see that she no longer languished by the crypts in mourning, but often attended Eseus throughout the daylight hours. He spoke to her of his days upon the moor, but did not mention the Spider clan girl. He wished to first see if Iadne would actually arrive, or if she would abandon him to his nobleborn life. And if she did arrive, he would have rather his mother meet her ere Eseus composed a fancy of her that might mark amiss her true personage.

***

It was the fourth day when Eseus’s men fetched him to the portcullis. He ran out to meet them, decorum be damned. Unfortunately, Commander Vant and his troops had already arrived at the entrance, surrounding the new arrivals with their blades drawn. Percevis stood in front of Iadne, his sword drawn and demanding to know where Eseus was. Eseus’s men had their weapons drawn also, surrounding the Oxenford men in a larger circle. Eseus arrived and shouted down the shouting that echoed through the inner walls of the castle.
“Away with your swords, Vant!” he demanded.
“That is a Spider clan wench!” Commander Vant snarled. “And I will not abide her in my presence!”
“Then you may leave,” Eseus said. “She saved my life upon the moor. Without her, I should be a corpse feeding the soil.”
“It is because of her people that your uncle is dead!” he growled back, his habitually narrow eyes wide to the whites with wrath. “Have you forgotten? There is always a blood price for such things, and I will have it paid a thousand times over ere I let one Spider free unscathed.”
“It will be a hefty price to pay in blood,” Eseus warned. “For I owe her a debt of life and will make crimson ponds of your men lest you withdraw immediately.”
Vant glared at Eseus with the gaze of a creature more dog than man, ready to tear the throat of another man. When the archers upon the battlements aimed down upon his men, Vant sneered and seemed ready to risk it all rather than have an upstart pup defang him.
Iadne caught Eseus’s eye, and there was fear in her pale face which broke Eseus’s heart. He felt as if she, like his father, would be torn away from him at the swing of a blade.
The commotion had gained the attention of Eseus’s mother. The Lady of the House of Lorwynne came hurrying to her son, her green skirts lifted as her slippered feet hastened across the inner yardage. She was winged by her waiting-women, the latter wearing dresses and wimples of brown.
“What is the meaning of these hostilities among host and guests?” she demanded.
“It is a misunderstanding, mother,” Eseus said. “Commander Vant has only the best interests of his people at heart, but misreads the situation.”
Commander Vant eyed Iadne slowly, his scrutinying gaze creeping over her suspiciously as if there might, at any moment, spring from her robe an army of assassins.
“She is of the Spider clan,” he remarked. “And an ill-omened albino wench.”
“When has superstition penetrated the mind of an Oxenford Commander?” Eseus said. “Do you also cast runes on the eve of battle?”
“No,” he said, flushing red with fury. “But I do wish to read the intentions of a woman who might kill me in my sleep.”
“And my intentions, also?” Eseus countered. “Very well, Vant, I will tell you my intentions.”
Eseus raised his voice, speaking loudly so his words echoed within the inner wall and up its battlements, so that all his men could hear and not doubt his intentions. The soft-spoken young man had a startlingly powerful command of voice when he wished to employ it.
“I intend to wed this maiden to a citizen of Oxenford and thus welcome her as a citizen into my protection. I owe her much more than that— a life debt of the highest order—and will strive to repay her as best I may. For, you see, she saved my life upon the moor. Without her aid, I would have died a hapless fool.”
The revelation struck manifold among those who heard it. The Lady of Lorwynne gasped, her hand upon her heart. She stared in gratitude at the Spider clan girl. Eseus’s men affixed the aim of their arrows and blades with stronger resolve than before, whereas the Oxenford soldiers looked to their Commander for reassurance in this situation. Commander Vant sneered in disbelief. His nose crinkled in disgust, and he growled low, as a disgruntled dog. But he said no more. He waved away his men’s blades and then stormed off, thronged by his treachery and his men, glancing a single dagger over his shoulder, intent upon Eseus’s heart.
Iadne’s expression was one of deadly intent as well, but not for Commander Vant. Her venomous fury was directed upon Eseus as he went to greet her.
“I am to be wedded to a citizen of Oxenford, am I?” she said coldly. “And to become one of your subjects? Is that the gratitude and the falsity of your heart?”
Eseus glanced around, knowing that Vant’s men might still watch him. He spoke in a confidential whisper. “You will wed a high-ranking citizen,” he said, meaningfully. “One who owes you much.”
Her fury did not subside at once, but was soon overwhelmed by the Lady of Lorwynne as the Lady swept up before her and took her hands in both of hers.
“It is because of you that my son lives,” said the Lady of Lorwynne. “For this I am in your debt, always. The whole of the House of Lorwynne is in your debt, and shall repay you in whatever way we may, though I know it should never be enough for what you have done for us.”
Iadne blinked at the tall woman. Though faded with age, the regality of her stature and bearing was abiding, and was overshadowed only by the maternal resonance of her smile. Iadne had seen the Lady many times before— as had all of the members of the Spider clan— when spying upon the noblemen and women. Yet, being in her presence struck Iadne keenly with the Lady’s natural grace, sincerity, and warmth.
“You are welcome,” was all Iadne could say.
“One heck of a greeting from the Oxenford men,” Percevis remarked, guffawing. He had the reins of the exhausted horse in one hand, and was stroking his muttonchops with the other. “For a moment I thought they were to give us an executioner’s welcome. Then again, after what you told me, I am surprised they haven’t lengthened my neck yet.”
“Do not speak of the conspiracy right now,” Eseus said. “Not to anyone. They must not know that we know. It is crucial.”
“Don’t you fret it, milord,” Percevis said. “I can talk a bit to rust, but know the silence of the taut rein, so to speak.”
“Was it hard going after I left you?” Eseus asked, feeling very guilty.
“The walking was not such a trial,” Percevis said, “but the grubs…well, even after decades of being married to a Spider woman I cannot say I’ve accustomed to their food.”
“I am sorry for your suffering,” Eseus said, looking again at Iadne. “Tonight we will feast together. You, also, Percevis, for I must make amends for your efforts to bring me my friend home.”
“Friend?” Iadne snapped.
The Lady of Lorwynne looked between the Spider clan girl and her son, and her eyebrows lifted only slightly in surprise. They then settled once more in their easy expression of warmth.
Iadne grew impatient. “Why are the Oxenford men here as guests when…”
Eseus silenced her with a single finger to his lips.
“Do not worry,” he said. “The sword may be sheathed, but the hand is tight to the hilt. The blade will drink soon enough.”

***

The worn-out stallion was given the choicest oats to munch and set out— after having eaten his fill—to rest beneath the apples in the orchard. Eseus had vowed the horse would be bred for many sons, and when the stallion had rested, he was taken to the mares to indulge as he pleased, for they were in heat and welcomed him readily.
Meanwhile, Iadne was in a heat of a different passion. She was angry with Eseus for having left her upon the moor. She understood why he had, and sympathized in theory, but it did nothing to lessen her smoldering anger.
Eseus brought the taciturn Spider clan girl to his tower and discussed many things with her. He told her of the state of things when he arrived, and the precarious situation, as well as his plan to divide and conquer the Oxenford force. He also assured her of his honor toward her, and his debt, and that he must not let the Oxenford men know that he planned to wed anyone other than his cousin, Kareth. He warned her not to reveal the treachery of his cousin or her men to his mother until after the trap had been sprung.
“I am not some babe lost upon the moor,” she said, irritably. “I know which way the headwind blows.”
Eseus confirmed he knew her to be very astute, which she took as patronizing, however sincere his demeanor. He had a waiting-woman prepare a bath for Iadne in a large tub, and she was given a dress of the Lorwynne fashion. Iadne enjoyed the dress much less than the warm bath, the material being wool rather than the spider silk she had worn her entire life. Nor did she care to abandon her Spider clan robe so quickly, it being her identity for so long. She felt as if she was betraying her clan. She stood in the room— full of its tapestries and its oak furniture and its crudely woven rug—and she stared at herself transformed in the mirror of the vanity.
“I am yet a Spider,” she told herself. “A Spider in the bloom of a flower.”
Even so, the walls pressed upon her with their confinement. She was used to the open expanses of the moorlands. The only walls she knew were the spectral walls of fog that faded and drifting; not these uncompromising walls of bull-browed stone. She understood Eseus more, however, because of them, for his obligations and duties to his people were as these walls, and so he was confined by them; made rigid by them. That was why he was so stiff of spine even though he had spent his life sleeping in a soft-cushioned bed rather than the lay of the moor.
And now she had committed herself alongside him to dare this alien labyrinth of stone, for she did love him. That realization made her afraid, as did the fear of suffocation from within these tightly mortared walls.
She looked again at herself in the vanity’s looking-glass. It was not the first time she had seen herself— for she had seen herself through the eyes of many beasts— but it was the first time she had seen herself as Eseus saw her. Her hair was a mess and her face was unnaturally white. Her eyes were not green, like his, but a bloody red that was alien even in her clan. She did not know why it should matter, and yet it did. She grabbed the brush that lay upon the vanity and attempted to brush her hair, as her mother once did. But she could not comb the wild edges and curls into a semblance of sanity. Her hair remained frazzled and arrayed like a bogcat ready for bloodshed. She combed it mercilessly, spitefully, with fast clawing strokes, and yet her truer nature prevailed, stubborn as she herself was. Only her mother was able to plait her hair, and now she was gone. Her wild hood-disheveled hair was the emblem of her inner chaos. She felt lost, and disordered, and had no idea how to set things straight and prim. Nothing existed that could, lest someone could magically recall her clan to life once again.
A knock at the door. Iadne eyed it in surprise. To answer it would suggest that she had claim to the room, and that the room had a claim to her. There were no doors on the moor; only the receding Gray.
“Yes?” she said.
“May I come in?” Eseus asked.
It seemed a ridiculous question. “Why would you not?” she asked.
“If you were not ready to receive me,” he said.
“Why would I not be ready to receive you?”
“Are you dressed?” he clarified.
“Why would that matter between us?” she asked. “Have we not lain together?” His baffled silence persisted overlong, and so she told him, “Yes, I am dressed. Come in.”
The heavy door creaked open and Eseus appeared, closing the door behind him.
“Iadne,” he said. “Please do not freely speak of our…intimate interactions while in the castle. Or among anyone. It could stir the cauldron badly for us and work some unfortunate mischief.”
She scowled at him for a moment, then turned away. There was one window in the tower’s bedchamber, and this aperture she looked out and beyond, seeking patience somewhere among the darkening day.
“This dress chafes me,” she said. “If I am to stay here…if I am to stay here…then I will need to weave such a thing from spider silk to render it bearable.”
“It is not unbecoming on you,” he said.
“And neither is a crown on any head,” she said. “It is the neck that stiffens beneath the weight.”
Eseus went to her, but she turned away, her arms folded.
“Dinner is ready,” he said. “I would like it if you would join us. My mother would like it, also. We have not had guests for dinner since the Wake for father.”
“As milord commands,” she said, brusquely walking past him. She pulled the heavy door open and descended the spiraling stairs. He hurried to accompany her.

***

The hearth in the dining hall was massive and as flame-throated as a dragon in a foul mood. Even so, the shadows draped the hall’s upper walls, and distinguished only with a sullen orange glow the faces and the food gathered about the long table. To Iadne’s one side sat Eseus, and to his other side sat his mother. Percevis sat across the narrow table, his muttonchops like jowls wreathed with fire. Beside him sat his wife. She was very much like all Spider clan women of a certain age. Her face was round and her nose upturned, but her hair was braided back in the Oxenford fashion. Iadne searched her face and her manner to understand how she, herself, might be changed by life within walls. So far it seemed the Spider clan woman had not been changed at all except for her superficial veneer. Her clothes were of the Oxenford style, but woven of spider silk, as was the fine tunic which Percevis wore. The woman’s manners and address and choice of words rendered her every bit a Spider clan woman, for she did not bite back in refrain, but playfully poked her husband into raucous laughter with taunts and japes.
“I have no doubt it was a mistake to send you upon the moor to find someone lost,” she remarked. “Would be better the lost person found himself, for all the good you are at losing yourself in your own thoughts.”
Percevis guffawed loudly. “Always lost and found, my dear! Lost and found upon the moor! As I lost myself when I found you!”
“And that poor beast of yours!” she continued, shaking her head. “Carrying you over and beyond without the words to question your sense of direction! Had you not happened upon my kin, that poor creature would be worn down to its knees with your aimless wandering.”
“True, very true!” Percevis agreed heartily. “I was ever lost without you to guide me. Then again, found as I was before, I have never had reason to lose myself until I met you!”
Percevis’s wife, Edea, spoke to her hosts with a familiarity often found only in families. “Listen to him speak from both ends! I tell you, if you sat him upside-down on his head he’d never know anything amiss, and neither would most who know him!”
Percevis hammered the table, laughing wildly until he remembered himself, and where he was, and saw the quiet smile on his Lady’s face.
“Forgive us, milady,” he said, checking himself at once. “It has been a long walk on the moor, and a long time away from my dear wife. I know not how to act when happy.”
The Lady’s smile only deepened. “It has been a longer time since we have had laughter in the dining hall,” she said. “And so I am grateful to hear it.”
Edea smirked at her husband, multiplying the wrinkles on her face. “Grateful for it now, but listen to it for a year or two and you’ll be ready to send him again out upon the moor.”
Once more Percevis laughed loudly, though he tried to contain it as he self-consciously stared down at his plate of food.
“And what of you?” Iadne asked Edea. “Do you miss the moor?”
Edea smiled softly, but also sadly. “At times, yes. But having the rain off my head, and the hood off as well, helps me appreciate the blessings of a roof. And a bed is most welcome at my age, even if I must share it with the snoring corpse of my husband.”
Percevis grinned and winked at his wife. “You have often avowed you are very much fond of sharing my bed. Why, it gained us many healthy children…” He laughed once again, but choked and coughed himself to silence when he remembered again where he was, and saw the blush on his Lady’s face. She turned away, as if in embarrassment.
“Sorry, milady,” he muttered in shame. “I get so caught up in talking with that enchantress of a woman that I forget myself.”
Much to Eseus’s alarm, there were tears streaming down his mother’s cheeks. He offered his napkin, which she accepted. She patted her face dry while an awkward silence took hold of the large hall. Only the low growl of the hearth could be heard, like the protracted sigh of a dragon. At length, the Lady of Lorwynne spoke.
“Do not mind me,” she said. “I was only reminded of the long talks I enjoyed with my husband. There really is no freedom like the freedom of unguarded hearts shared between a husband and wife. Candor is a salve, particularly when you must maintain a statuesque stiffness of formality throughout each day. To loosen the tongue, and unburden the bosom, is to breathe freely for the first time.” She sighed, resting her cheek upon her hand. “There are times when I desire to take a horse and ride off into the open spaces of the moor and never return.”
“Mother…” Eseus said tenderly.
She took his hand in her own, caressing it as if to caress her own anxieties and sorrows away. To his surprise, she laughed.
“But I could never survive the moorlands as you two ladies do. I would not tarry long at all there. And I could not leave your father’s work undone, or my son alone and unaided.”

***

After dinner, Eseus stood beside his mother, near the hearth. Iadne stood with Percevis and Edea, the latter of whom were, as ever, jesting at each other’s expense. Yet, while Iadne acknowledged their playful bickering with a smile, her ears listened instead to Eseus and his mother.
“No, I am quite all right, Eseus,” his mother said. “It is just that…just that I am surrounded by the shadow of your father, and yet he is not here. He is buried in the crypts, but I see his ghost within all of his inanimate trappings. These dead, stiff things that he once brought to life with his presence. The hollowness echoes within me and…I wish to be away from it.”
“And visit the Southerlands?” Eseus said.
“His mother sighed, and it seemed such a sigh as could dispel the Gray. “As your father always promised we would. Yes. But I do not want to go without him. And I cannot leave with so much still undone. The people need their tending, and now that Vant is here I cannot leave Lorwynne. It would not be right of for a host.”
She put one of her hands to her heart, and held her son’s hand with the other. “All seems so ruined. But at least you are not lost! Had I lost you I would have laid myself down beside your father and…and…”
“Do not think such things, mother,” Eseus said. “I am here. And Iadne, too. And there are things we must discuss when opportunity affords us the time and safety. Until then, I wish for you to stay wary of Vant and his men. They are not to be trusted.”
The shadows gradually drowned the walls, pressing heavy upon the glow of the fire. Percevis and Edea were bidden a good night and returned to their cottage among the fields. The Lady of Lorwynne retired to bed, attended by her women-in-waiting. Eseus and Iadne left the dining hall and followed the lit braziers out to the battlements. A sentinel was posted there, and Eseus took charge of his watch, telling him to rest. The guard— being very grateful— bowed and left toward the barracks. Above the castle, and spread overhead like a dark depths of water with a seabed of diamonds, the starry sky sparkled clear and pure.
“We but rarely see the stars upon the moor,” Iadne remarked, her hands on the crenelated stone. “The Gray reigns above as well as below.”
“Every night the sky is clear over the House of Lorwynne,” Eseus said. “It is the legacy of my ancestor, I believe. I do not doubt there is magic in its persistence.”
Iadne stared at the stars in utter wonderment. “They are lovely. Like dew glistening upon a spider’s web.” Her eyes drifted toward the moon. It was waning, like a drowsy eye half-waking from sleep. “I would like to see the stars every night. And the moon. We only ever saw them in patches occasionally, whenever the Gray thinned at certain times of the year.”
“I am sorry,” Eseus said. “Sorry for leaving you upon the moor. I am sorry for what happened to your clan. There is so much I am sorry for, and I do not know how to make amends to you.”
Iadne regarded Eseus for a moment beneath the stars. There seemed to be a glow about him that she could not explain— a waxing halo. Was this the magic of the wizard of Oxenford, transmuted through the generations?
“My people had a saying,” she said. “‘A broken web is never mended.’ Do not misunderstand. It does not mean that you may never compensate for trespasses. It only means that no matter what you do, the damage remains. The web is never restored, only replaced.”
She slipped her arm around his hip, pulling him close to her. The dress she wore still chafed, but she now forgot to notice it.
“So I do not have to make a bedmate of a blade?” he asked, lightly.
A demure smile crept along her face. “Truth be told, I never gelded the father of my daughter. He married the daughter of the Spider clan chieftain, and no one said anything in reproach of him. My tribe suffered its own sort of hierarchy as well, and the privileges and disadvantages meted out by its tiers.”
Eseus nodded. He then pointed. “See there? That arrangement of stars? That is the constellation we call the Sparrow. And there is the Heron, for which the sigil of House Lorwynne derives.”
“Where does the name ‘Lorwynne’ come from?” she asked.
“My ancestor’s wife was named Lorwynne,” he said. “Or so I was told. When he created the Oxenford Road he split it in many directions at the Fork. One went to Oxenford, where he built a castle wherein to study magic. The other went here, where he kept his wife.”
“Why did he do such a thing? Did he not miss her?”
Eseus shrugged. “I do not pretend to know a wizard’s mind. Maybe he feared she would be hurt by his dabbling. Maybe he feared she would leave him if she knew what he dabbled in. Perhaps he could not dabble at all because she asked him too many questions.”
Iadne pinched him through his tunic as he chuckled.
“Regardless of the reason, it is said that the Wizard constellation was made when he died, and that it adds a star to its pattern every time an heir to the House of Oxenford and Lorwynne pass away. I do not take such things as true, however, though several of my subjects have sworn that a new star took its place among the pattern after my father’s death.”
The Wizard constellation looked nothing like a man, or anything for that matter, except a loose collection of dominant stars in the glittering sky. Iadne was used to pattern-seeking and pattern-weaving— as all Spider clan women were—but the stars held no significance in their arrangement that she could discern. Were a spider to weave threads between them they would outline nothing but incoherence.
“I care for you, Eseus,” she said, suddenly. “I…love you and I expect to be loved in return.”
His eyes left the stars and looked to her. Her pallor was ghostly in the stelliferous cloak of night.
“I do love you,” he said. “Though I do not understand it. I have never been in love before. It is as foreign to me as the moor. But it makes it no less strong.”
“I know,” she said. “I know you do, because you listened to me speak of my clan. You cared. You bore witness, willingly, and grieved for those whom you never knew. You grieved for my daughter. That is testimony to your heart. The ear can prove love as much as the mouth. And while all others would be gladdened by the…extinction of my tribe, you mourned them, if only for my sake. And so I know my heart has not chosen poorly.” She squeezed him. “But I also know that I cannot easily accept this place. These stones…these walls…they bother me. I am unnerved. I am used to the moor. And when I heard your mother speak of this place…of how she wished to flee from it…it scared me. I am frightened that your love will cage me.”
Eseus did not say anything for a long time, and she feared that she had angered him. But instead of speaking of cages and love and duty, he said something unexpected.
“They say that in the South the sprites adorn themselves in the colors of the clouds at sunset and sunrise. Gold, orange, blue, pink, red, purple—countless colors between glowing as embers in their bodies. I wish I could see such colors once, instead of this gloomy Gray. I would like to take you to see those colors. I would like to take you to the Southerlands. I would like to— after all this terrible intrigue is extinguished— journey the world with you, mingling our lives together with all of those wonderful colors.”
She pulled on him, leading him toward the stairs that wound up to his tower and bedchamber.
“Perhaps,” she said. “Perhaps we can make colors burn brightly between us tonight. This…this feels like a sunrise to me.”

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