In the morning the starry night sky was concealed once again behind gray clouds thickly overlaying the castle, the fields, the moor. The day brightened, but was never bright; a solemn pall hung over the scythemen in the fields. Oxenford soldiers drilled presumptuously in the castle’s inner courtyard.
Eseus, clad in armor and armed with his father’s sword, gathered a group of his own soldiers at the stables, noisily readying themselves to set forth from the castle. Naturally, their clamorous preparations drew the attention of Commander Vant who, outraged, abandoned his drills to confront the heir of the House of Lorwynne and demand the meaning of his bellicose entourage.
“Foul deeds are afoot,” Eseus said simply, as if he had not the time or bother to explain to Vant. Heavy with armor, he was helped atop his mount by two soldiers. He took the reins impatiently, as if ready to ride roughshod over the Commander.
Commander Vant did not budge, but instead committed the impertinence of grabbing Eseus’s horse by its bridle.
“You must not leave the castle,” he said. “It is crucial that you stay here instead of fetching folly in whatever nonsense has you presently impassioned.”
Eseus regarded the Commander scornfully. “I haven’t the time! Do you not care for your Lady of Oxenford? Wickedness is being worked against her as we speak!”
This startled the Commander. His pale face reddened and the narrow slits of his eyes widened. “What wickedness do you mean?”
Eseus sighed irritably. “A bloody plot has been revealed to me. The Spider clan seeks to finish what it has started at the House of Oxenford.”
“That is impossible!” Vant nearly roared. “The Spider clan is no more!”
“Have you not seen the woman with whom I have been indebted?” Eseus said. “She has revealed to me the truth. A handful of members of her clan survived the culling and are now seeking the completion of their revenge on my kin. As they have slain my uncle, so too shall they slay my dearest cousin!”
The revelation struck all of the Oxenford soldiers to their hearts. Their knees trembled and they glanced betwixt themselves with uncertainty. Even their Commander was stricken to the heart, his mouth gawping impotently.
“Impossible!” was all he could muster against the revelation.
“Not impossible,,” Iadne said. “But inevitable.” She appeared from among the Lorwynne men, her hands bound in thickly corded twine. “My remaining kin will not rest until they have snuffed out all lines of the Oxenford family.” She stared at the ground, head bowed in the counterfeit of sorrow. “I would not take part in the death of an innocent maiden. It seemed cruel and unmerited. And then I met Eseus.” She gazed upon him with a tearful look unlike any she had ever given him; a look of utter and hopeless adulation.
“Why not reveal this treachery sooner?” Vant demanded furiously. “Why not when moments are utmost in importance?!”
“I…I found Eseus wounded upon the moor,” Iadne said, her hands upon her face as if she might cry, “and I thought him handsome. Having lost my clan, I wished to wed him and claim a new family for myself. One with power and wealth. But he professed his undying love for this maiden…Kareth…and I was jealous. I did not want him to marry his beautiful cousin. I wished that he would marry me. But last night he confessed his undying love for his cousin and so I…I regretted my selfishness. Thus, this morning I resolved to warn him before it was too late.”
Vant sneered hatefully. “You scornful women and your villainous wiles! I should have you stripped and whipped. As it so happens, however, I haven’t the time.” He turned to Eseus again and yanked impudently on the bridle. “And you! Little upstart lordling! You cannot lead a raid on these moorland demons! You could not ride across the moor without falling from your horse! I will lead a raid! Alongside my most trustworthy men!”
“It is my duty…” Eseus began.
“Your duty is to see to the women, little lordling!” Vant growled. “Now off this horse. I will commandeer it for myself, and all of the horses in your stables. My men and I will slake the moor’s thirst for blood.”
While Eseus’s men helped him down, the Oxenford men took the reins of the horses and confiscated the provisions for the war party. Commander Vant demanded that Iadne tell him all there was to know about the remaining Spiders.
“In which direction do they lie?” he demanded.
“Southeast,” Iadne said. “Be mindful, look to the large trees upon the moor. They will secret themselves in their canopies. Should you see such a tree, burn the tree or fill it with arrows. My kin will ambush you from behind should you pass such a tree and leave it unscathed.”
Eseus remembered the Giant upon the moor. He kept a grim silence.
“A savage tactic for dispatching savages,” Commander Vant said, considering. “Indeed, I shall heed your advice, tribe-traitor.”
Commander Vant mounted his horse. His men followed suit, mounting their own horses as the Lorwynne men were shoved unceremoniously aside.
“We will see them all dead ere they harm our beloved Lady!” Commander Vant shouted. “By the horns of Oxenford!”
“By the horns of Oxenford!” his men shouted in kind.
They then rode out of the castle, beyond the fields, and into the Gray laying heavy upon the moor. When they had disappeared, Eseus dispatched his men to gather up the peasants from the fields and bring them hither into the castle with all of the sacks of grain and foodstuffs they could carry. The majority of the livestock was butchered and the meat cured and packed in salt while the fat was used for rendering tallow. Only twenty heads of cattle remained— within the inner courtyard—for the sake of milking in the meantime and breeding at a later time. The chickens were largley gathered up into an improvised coop made from palisades, their eggs added to the evening broth. Palisades were also arranged around the moat to further impede an enemy’s approach. All waste— animal or otherwise—was shoveled daily and dumped into the moat. The drawbridge was raised and the portcullis was shut. Further preparations for war were made, in accordance to Eseus’s plans.
Things took their natural course. Now came the most difficult straits: the straits of Time.
It was a fortnight before Commander Vant returned. His forces were less than half what they began as upon the outset of their raid. The remaining men, and Vant himself, were half-starved, bruised and broken men upon their emaciated horses. Vant shouted with a strained voice, demanding to be let into the castle. Paled and trembling, his head bandaged from a terrible blow, he looked as a dead man would look in defiance of his own death. His voice shrieked hoarsely with sufferings endured upon the moor.
“Let us in at once, you traitorous by-blow!” he demanded.
Eseus answered his commands with an arrow from his own bow. When it struck its mark, Vant commanded only blood—his mouth hanging ajar like a door upon broken hinges. He slumped off from his horse and collapsed to the ground. His remaining men fled toward whatever doom awaited them upon the moor. Eseus was gladdened to see them go, but he was wise enough to know that the true battle had not even begun.
Iadne held in her hand what appeared to be a clew, or ball of spider thread. She held it tenderly, as if it was the most precious of treasures.
“What is that?” Eseus asked.
“A future generation,” she said. “Many generations, I hope.”
They walked side-by-side up the stairs to his twilight-shaded tower. It had been a long day of preparations. Eseus had drilled his men once again in accordance to the strategies he had conceived for the approaching siege. His mother and Iadne had spent the day seeing that the common people were reassured and well-fed. They had roles, too, in the coming battles. They split wood, made palisades and arrow shafts and tanned leather for specific implementations. Their work, Eseus assured them, was as important as the roles the soldiers had to fulfill upon the battlements and in the bowels of the castle should the castle be penetrated.
It would all be bloody work by the end, he warned them, but as necessary as any harvest.
As a show of solidarity, Eseus ate along with the peasants and soldiers in the courtyard— when it did not rain— and often this meant a large gathering with cauldrons of stew served in common. Tents were raised on the green, and though they were not so comfortable as the cottages they were used to, the peasants did not complain. They felt safe within the walls of the castle, and safety let them sleep easier than any bed that might be bloodied or set ablaze by the violence of their foe.
It was one such night that Iadne sat beside Eseus and his mother, all surrounded by the people of Lorwynne. Many of them had seen the Spider clan girl before, and knew to respect her for having saved the heir of their late ruler. Even so, many of them furtively glanced at the albino girl and her tumult of hair. Though she had woven a new dress in the Lorwynne style, she had not managed to wrestle her hair into any braid that was not somehow worse than her normal disorderly array.
Eseus had to remind Iadne not to show affection in public. This admonishment often earned him a scoffing reproach since she claimed she was not overly fond of the idea of public affection toward him, or even private affection at times. Regardless, as the day dimmed and the stars shone through the dissipating clouds, Iadne sat close beside him while she ate. And while she ate, the Spider clan girl did not relinquish her clew, nor even set it aside, eating her chicken and vegetable stew with one hand while the other cradled the spider silk ball. Eseus stared at it briefly, but did not inquire after it. He knew she deserved to retain her own Spider clan ways, for she had made great strides to .
Many among the soldiers were curious as to whom Iadne would be wedded. They had heard Eseus’s pledge when she first arrived at the castle, and while she was beautiful, many of them dreaded the idea that Eseus would force one among them to wed her. For, while some men, such as Percevis, married the Spider clan women that sought the House of Lorwynne for a life, not many albinos existed in the world. And though Eseus did not share their superstition, many among the soldiers, and the peasantry, worried that she was ill-omened by way of her complexion.
The peasants, and even the soldiers, grew restless. They obeyed Eseus’s commands and did not leave the castle, but longed to be beyond its walls. They had slept in cottages their whole lives, yet had spent most of the day in the wide open fields. They grew restless, and sometimes old quarrels grew vicious while goaded by the walls and the crowds around them. Eseus had forbidden wine and beer while in the castle walls, but that did not mean the craftier and sneakier among the peasants had not hidden away such contraband. Two men— drunk on beer and old grudges and the belief that moonlight was as good an accomplice as any— fought upon the ramparts. Before soldiers could separate the two men, one was thrown from the high wall and fell to his death down below, in clear view of many witnesses. The other man, claiming self-defense, was bound in chains and taken to the green to await judgment.
Eseus, having been abed with Iadne—the latter of whom often hid beneath the bed at a knock at the door—was summoned to pass sentence on the killer. By the time Eseus had dressed and descended his tower to the green, most of the peasants were awake and awaiting the execution. Eseus dreaded such duties, as had his father. There was no sense of fulfillment in it, or purpose, or justice. It was what his father often deemed it: “The profligacy of the human animal.”
A hangman’s rope had been quickly made, and an eager axe sharpened. Eseus looked upon these two instruments of death sadly. To carry out justice was to bleed the beast for having bled itself. The anticipation in his people’s eyes saddened him even more. There was much shouting and clamoring all around. Some peasants shouted in defense of the living man at the expense of the dead man, whereas others decried the living man as a cold-blooded murderer while extolling the virtues of the dead man as a saint. Listening to the discordant cacophony, Eseus could only conclude one thing: that it was all such a bloody waste.
Eseus knew that to hang or behead the man would be to invite the worst sort of animosities among his people; some reveling in the spectacle while others vowed vengeance, thus dividing them and weakening his people as a whole. In truth, he wanted to postpone passing a verdict until the morning. Yet, to do so would be to let the peasants stew in their feelings until rancid with either bitterness or blood-thirst. His decision had to be swift and absolute, but also a compromise. It was a dilemma, but not one without a solution. He decided to banish the man upon the moor.
“A life was taken,” he said, “and so a life must be punished. Upon the morning we will banish the guilty to the moors. As for now, the dead man must be buried and the offender must remain in chains.”
Eseus said no more. His soldiers undertook their lordling’s decision while pushing back the rabble. Neither side was pleased, and so Eseus believed he had chosen the correct path for Justice. He hoped the man would walk out upon the moor and disappear however was wished by both sides in the conflict: as a man doomed to death upon the moor, or as a man treading with hope to live another day. The ghost of his decision would haunt Eseus for the remainder of the night, and would become a terrible phantasm with the dawn.
A group of men had rushed the chained man and slew him in the predawn murk. The soldiers on duty attempted to stop them, but were too exhausted from the previous day’s labors to react quickly enough. By the time the soldiers’ spears and swords had routed the mob, there was nothing to be done for the man in his scarlet-slicked chains.
Eseus never truly fell asleep that night, tossing and turning long after he had kissed Iadne goodnight. Irritable with fatigue, he rose to find the inner green divided between two bellicose factions. To one side were raging would-be avengers, and to the other side were the complacent mob that had exacted their revenge only moments earlier. Between the two stood the soldiers— a steel wall of armor and weaponry that was reluctant to be where they stood. All of the women and children had retreated into the inner sanctum of the castle.
Eseus and Iadne looked out over the scene from the top of the stairs leading from the main body of the castle. To see his people so clearly divided sank Eseus’s heart like a capsized ship into the depths.
“Oxenford has already won,” Eseus said. “And they needn’t have killed one person to do so.”
“You advised them prettily enough through an ugly encounter,” Iadne said. “You have no fault in this. They reap their own poorly-chosen actions. They are as spiders stuck in their own misbegotten webs.”
Eseus shook his head ruefully. “But now I must extricate them from their poor choices, or we are all doomed. Father would have found a better way. Father had a defter mind for handling the emotions of his people. He had experience, and the natural aptitude. I…I never wished to be a Lord.”
“It is a heavy weight, being a Lord,” Iadne remarked pensively. “When we marry, will I… being a Lady….have to make such decisions?”
“So long as I am alive and with my wits, no,” Eseus said. “But I would ask your advice if you would be willing to give it.”
She shook her head slowly, as if beholding a dreaded thing. “I know not what advice would be of use in such impossible predicaments. It would take a wizard to unwind such a confused knot.”
“I doubt wizards would waste their time on an enigma without a good answer,” he said. “Other rulers might simply cut the knot and threaten the subsequent threads with shortening them. Though I regret the truth of it, sometimes the promise of violence is the only way to staunch the wounds already dealt by it.”
They descended the stairs. Much to Eseus’s frustration, the sight of the lordling only redoubled the inchoate shouts of the opposing mobs. They pleaded for justice, and screamed for vengeance, and lobbed obscenities at one another, all while pressing against that wall of armor that separated the two mobs like the teeming flanks of two beasts with a ferocious rut upon them. Eseus regarded both sides, feeling exhausted. Iadne touched his shoulder, then pointed to the sky. The black specks of crows flew there.
“They watch us,” she said.
This revelation only infuriated Eseus more. He raised his hands for silence, but the anticipation of an ensuing silence convinced either side that they might be heard. The growls of the two beasts became deafening roars. Red with fury now, Eseus shouted down the mobs, nearly becoming a frothy-mouthed beast himself in the process.
“Silence!!! Silence or I will open the castle and let them take you, one and all!”
The rancor subsided into restless muttering. These mutters angered Eseus as much as the shouts, like the petulant squabbles of children. He scowled at both sides until these mutters fell, at length, to silence. He resumed speaking, loudly as before.
“What good would it be to defend ourselves against our enemies behind these castle walls if we are to bleed ourselves from within the walls?! You pigheaded fools! You wish to kill for two men who defied the Law! Why do you think I forbade such drink?! Why do you think I forbade the freedom of the fields and your homes? Because Death awaits you there! Death crouches in every shifting shadow and unassuming corner! Do not mistake me! I understand how you feel, but that does not excuse this…this…mutinous upheaval! And should you think I consider it a mutiny against me, you are wrong! It is a mutiny against yourselves! Against your loved ones, your children, and your own heartbeat! Who wins when two foes meet upon the battlefield? The victor? The slain?” He paused, letting the question riddle them into bafflement, for the answer seemed so self-evident that they could not divine his meaning. “Neither!” he shouted. He pointed to the black shadows fluttering overhead. “It is the Crows! Crows always win on a battlefield, for they reap a morbid banquet of both the slain and the victor, given time!”
Eseus stepped down from the stairs and walked along the wall made by his soldiers. Each soldier he commanded to set down his weapon and retire to the barracks for rest. The soldiers hesitated, naturally, but he reassured them to go. Grave concern written deeply upon their faces, they did as they were told. At last, only Eseus remained between the two mobs. Now standing alone— while Iadne and the Lady of Lorwynne stared on in apprehension— Eseus addressed his people once more.
“See these weapons laid before you?” he said. “If you really desire bloodshed to slake the throats of the Crows, then take up these arms and strike each other down! Strike me down and give to them the goodly feast they desire! Come! Prove yourselves the unthinking beasts you are! Or, if you seek another way— the way of the living—set aside this blood debt and help me repel the Crows! Those are your only choices. Nothing else between the twain! But remember you this: should you squander the eyes you’ve to see clearly, the Crows will not hesitate in plucking them out to make better use of them in their morning meal!”
A man stepped toward a sword. All eyes fell upon him, including those of the Lord of Lorwynne. The peasant stared at the sword for a long time, standing over it, then looked to Eseus, and up at the crows circling over the castle. He grimaced and abruptly turned his back upon the sword. A great sigh seemed to exhale from the two mobs— like a gale loosening its fury into a languid breeze—and their tensity abated, dissolving into shamefaced forlornness. The mobs broke away, sitting upon the green. In time, the women and children were fetched from inside the castle. They returned to their men, their relief giving way to tears. The men were not so prideful as to hide the relief they, themselves, felt at the dissolution of that wrathful storm.
The Lady of Lorwynne and Iadne both greeted Eseus as he returned to them, their eyes sparkling with relief. Yet, however much mother and lover wished to embrace him, they could not, for he was now unquestionably the Lord of Lorwynne, his father’s son and rightful ruler. To have embraced him would have meant unmanning him, and so they smiled and walked beside him as he mounted the stairs and went into the dining hall. Once there, he ate a hearty meal of eggs and sausage and porridge, then promptly fell asleep in his father’s chair by the hearth, his troubled head hanging low beneath its heavy weight.