“It is the burden of the people,” the Lady of Lorwynne said, gazing fondly on her son. “It weighs upon all those near and dear to a ruler.”
She and Iadne sat at the dining table, far enough away as to not disturb Eseus as he slept. Iadne held in her hand the clew, and the Lady of Lorwynne sipped at tea while speaking to the Spider clan girl.
“And these walls press upon him, too, though he has lived in them his entire life. Sometimes it is difficult to breathe here. He will never say so, but it is the curse of duty. The peasants feel it now, keenly, and it nettles them. They are used to the fields, not to these uncompromising enclosures. You, my dear, feel it keener than anyone.”
“I do,” Iadne confessed. She was troubled, and stared at the clew in her hand, for it allayed some of her anxieties. “I do not know if I wish to live here.”
The Lady of Lorwynne sipped at her tea, and regarded Iadne for a long time. “My husband always meant to abscond for a season. He wished to be elsewhere—anywhere but here—but he was ever tied to this place. He sometimes spoke of a yoke which every heir is born bearing in the House of Lorwynne. It was a yoke difficult to lift and impossible to abandon. And it drives all to keep safe the castle, cleaving to it like an ox to the plow.”
Iadne looked to Eseus once again, staring at his face— a face exhausted even as he rested. He was as alien to him as anything in the Southerlands, and yet she was attached to him by the threads of her heart. Would she have loved him so quickly had it not been for the demise of her clan? She did not know, and yet the love was as certain a thing as the moor upon which even giants could amble with a sure-footed stride. Then again, she foolishly believed herself in love with Panyseus, and more foolishly believed him to be in love with her.
Lady Lorwynne observed the turmoil in Iadne’s brow, and addressed it openly.
“You love my son,” she said, shocking the Spider clan girl. “And he loves you. Do not fret. I am not opposed to the pairing. It is unusual, but not unwanted. And while I would readily consent to your immediate marriage, I must first tell you of the hardships your life will entail; hardships which I would rather forewarn you thereof.”
“I have come to understand how this place is not unlike a prison,” Iadne assured her.
“Prison is the apt term, though any home could be seen as a prison, no matter how willing someone is in dwelling within it. No, the House of Lorwynne is different than most homes. It is very much a prison, even if it can be joyful at times. You know of the sigil of House Lorwynne? The Heron. But do you know why our banners bear such a sigil?”
Iadne shook her head.
The Lady nodded sadly. “Then I will tell you. There is a story, which some believe and some do not. It concerns the original Lady of this House. Her husband was the Wizard that created the Oxenford Road. He loved her— there is no doubt of that— and she loved him. Yet, it is said that she was lonely while her husband was away in his other castle, the Castle of Oxenford.”
“Eseus told me of the Celestial Bulls,” Iadne assured her. “And the Wizard’s dabbling. He said that he built this castle to house her so she would not be imperiled by his sorcery.”
“And so she stayed here,” the Lady said. “She was lonely and oppressed by the walls. She often ached to fly free of this place, and so she did. She is said to have been an adept likewise and transformed herself into a heron every night, flying away beneath the stars. Eventually— the legend says— she flew to the stars themselves and never returned. When the Wizard of Oxenford returned, he saw her constellation in the sky and he mourned her, abandoning the experiments that had preoccupied him.” She reached over the table and offered Iadne her hand. Iadne put her hand in the older woman’s, and the older woman pressed it affectionately. Imploringly.
“It is difficult to be the Lady of Lorwynne,” she said, “as it is to be the Lord of Lorwynne. I say this not to dissuade you, but so you may see things as they are. Clearly.”
Iadne nodded. “You…you regret being the Lady of Lorwynne.” It was not a question.
“Of course,” she said. “Especially now that my husband is departed. But I do not regret my love for him, or the birth of my son.”
Iadne considered what the older woman had told her, and looked again to Eseus.
“I am no bird,” Iadne said. “I will not fly away from him. But I am a Spider, and Spiders can be patient.” She stared again at the clew in her other hand. “We must be patient. If the pattern is correctly woven, all things come to the patient ones.”
Eseus woke a few hours later. He was not well-rested, but he was too restless with the stresses of leadership to sleep longer. Staggering as he stood— his head aching as if it had been used for a blacksmith’s anvil—he went to the ramparts to join the sentinels standing there. It was midday and the clouds made an early twilight with their shadows. Looking over the crenelations, he saw the fields, the apple orchards, and, farther beyond, the moor. But he saw no figures. He saw no crows in the sky. He turned to a sentinel— a young man with clear green eyes and an alert countenance— and spoke to him.
“No signs of our enemies today?” Eseus asked him.
“None, milord,” he said, “save for the crows seen circling the castle earlier this morning during the…contentiousness.”
Eseus nodded thoughtfully, staring out at the moor a while longer. He then bid the sentinel a good watch and walked down to the green to inquire after the common-folk that morning. The two men who had been slain were now buried, their graves both marked with cairns made from stone poached from the crumbling corners of the castle. The rival mobs had concentrated their animosities into a competition of burial rites and tributes. The cairns were absurd, wreathed with whatever wildflowers could be scavenged from the green.
“Two men dead too soon,” Eseus muttered to himself. “We do our enemies’ work for them. A few more weeks and who knows how many more graves will be arranged here.”
The rest of the evening had Eseus seeing to preparations and to his people’s well-being. His mother went to him occasionally to see to his well-being also, whereas he did not see Iadne until he retired to his tower later. The bedchamber was lit with a single tallow candle. Stars scintillated beyond the window. Dark as the room was, Eseus could see Iadne. There were tears in her eyes.
“What is wrong?” he asked.
She sat upon his bed, her Spider clan robe laying over her like a blanket made of shadows. Quickly, she wiped her tears and pretended as if she had not been crying.
“I am only tired,” she said. “Are you feeling better?”
“I am tired, too,” he said, sitting beside her. “Not enough sleep. It is taxing.” He looked at her in concern, but she turned away from him. “But I am not so dispirited as you. Please, Iadne, tell me what is wrong.”
“It is my people,” she said. “While upon the moor I could still feel connected to them. But now…it feels as if I have been shut in where they cannot reach me. Worse, I have had time to think, whereas before I was focused solely upon avenging my people.”
“You mourn them,” Eseus said. “Anyone would. Grief is a shadow that fades with Time, not with sunlight. I know its stain, too. It looms large over everything.”
She shook her head. “There is something else that bothers me. This castle…I can sense something beneath it. Something…frightening. It is like an animal, but not an animal at all. I feel its will pressing upon everyone here. Can you not sense it? Its will is like walls, pressing upon everyone here. Entrapping them.”
“You are not used to living within walls,” Eseus said, not unkindly. “That is all.”
She stood up abruptly, angrily. She enfolded herself in her robe, then turned about in a fury. “Do not discount me, Eseus! I know what is here. It is magic. Perhaps a curse. I…I followed its threads of power. It led me to a stone aperture within the foundation of this castle. It was ominous, and marked by many runes.”
“The crypts,” Eseus said. “They are deep, and the dead sleep there, but there is nothing to fear among their multitude.”
“You are not listening to me,” she said. “What have I told you? An ear can prove love as easily as a mouth. Please prove your love to me and listen. I sent a mouse into your crypt. I willed it far into that maze of bodies, but something snuffed it out. Something in the center of the crypts. Something lurking in the dark.”
Eseus rubbed his chin. “I do not know what it could be,” he said. “Are you sure it was not a snake, or even a rat? Mice have many predators, Iadne.”
“I would have felt their wills with my mind,” she said. “But this…I could feel its will, but it was alien to me. It was something…not of this world.”
Eseus sighed. He was tired, and he longed for sleep. “If you so wish, you and I will venture into the crypts tomorrow. It has been too long since I visited my father and paid him my respect.”
“We must be careful,” she admonished him. “Whatever it is, it is not like anything upon the moor. I fear it more than any Giant or Hag.”
Eseus only nodded. He then stripped off his clothes and slipped under the woolen blanket. Iadne doffed her robe, and her garments beneath it, joining him in bed. He blew out the candle and rolled over, hugging her to him. They did not make love— they were too tired and disturbed—but instead they held each other tightly in the dark; cleaving to one another as if for dear life. The warmth of their bodies lulled away the fears that had gripped them throughout the day. They slept like the contented dead.
There was no time for the crypts the next day. Someone had defiled the cairn of one of the dead men buried in the castle’s green. They had knocked over the stones and squatted upon the grave, relieving themselves as an animal would and smearing heresies with their excrement. The sight of it incensed the men. Soon they were at each other’s throats, and not even the armed soldiers could dissuade them from beating each other mercilessly. They would not listen to Eseus as he shouted for peace and calm among the fray. They were as beasts made rabid with rage.
Amidst the brawl came another chaos. Body parts fell from the sky. Fingers, feet, hands, and even heads. One head was missing its eyes, yet Eseus recognized the man as one of Commander Vant’s surviving soldiers. Wails of terror rose among the Lorwynne peasants. They screamed and stampeded into the castle’s inner sanctum— men and women alike. The crows above circled once more, then returned— as a large flock—to fields beyond the castle. The Crows had arrived within the fields. They lounged beneath the apple trees and taunted the House of Lorwynne with their japes and tomfoolery. They did not attack. Rather, the hundreds of them merely bided time and sent their crows over the walls to drop whatever thing that amused them.
Eseus was suspicious. With Iadne’s help he had successfully expelled Comannder Vant’s treacherous forces from the castle— forces that would have likely dropped the bridge and opened the portcullis to the marauders beyond the walls—and yet he felt as if someone was lurking somewhere, giving the Crow clan the confidence to tarry outside and entertain themselves rather than laying siege. After all, the Crow clan was known to be fast in their raids. So fast were they that Northerlanders often said the Crows could take a far-sighted eagle by surprise. They struck all at once, like lightning, and often were never preceded by the warning of thunder or rain or dark clouds in the sky. But lackadaisical complacency reigned in their camp. They were waiting. There were biding their time and enjoying themselves.
Some of the sentries became anxious and attempted to shoot down the carrion birds. Amidst cawing laughter the arrows were wasted with little gain to show for so much squander. Eseus commanded his sentries to reserve their arrows. In the meantime Iadne wrested control of one crow, takings its eye and circling out over the encampment of the clan. But this crow was pecked to death and eaten by the others. The Crows and the Spiders were both wise to each others’ ways.
Despite the good-humored languor that had settled over the Crow clan, Eseus busied his people with preparations for a battle. The cauldrons of oil were brought up to the ramparts. Bundles of arrows were arranged beside the sentries. Thick leather tarps were raised upon poles of wood, angled on to the crenelated battlements to provide cover. All of the tactics which Eseus had planned were implemented. He hoped they would, together, form a viable strategy to counter whatever his enemies had in mind for the siege.
Yet, much of these preparations were meant to allay the fears of his people. Eseus was not sure any such preparations would help defend the castle against the invaders. The truth was that Eseus had not studied combating the clans of the moors as much as he had other standing armies. The clans had their methods, and were wily in their own ways, and he looked upon them and felt the disadvantage of his ignorance, though he did not voice it. The Crow clan was quite unassuming and relaxed, whereas his anxieties abounded from moment to moment. True, he had killed three Crows by himself on the moor, and had witnessed some of their foibles as a consequence. But he also suffered an injury which still ached in his shoulder. And the Crows’ tactics had claimed the life of his father. It was easy to misread them.
Eseus stood upon a battlement, with Iadne, leaning upon the crenelations while staying beneath the heavy tarp of thickly-layered leather. It was midday and the gloominess of the sky affected the Lorwynne people badly. The Crows seemed unaffected by it. They japed and laughed in easy leisure beyond the moat. Smoke rose like black pillars from the burning fields and cottages and barns. They were attempting to provoke the Lorwynne men, but Eseus had forbidden his men from feathering them. Many Crows sat and cooked meat over fire pits recently dug. They wore their black robes with black cloaks of crow feathers.
Glaring at them, Eseus asked Iadne how her people defended themselves against the Crow clan.
“We wove nets of spider silk to catch their arrows,” she said, “and threw our nets upon the Crows as they rode their horses into our people. Our spiders were upon the nets, and when the nets enshrouded them, our spiders bit at them, crawling beneath their clothes and killing them much the same way that they killed your uncle. Their crows would eat the spiders, too, and they would use their weapons against us. But we had our spiders, and were nomads, and thus needed no weapons…until the day your uncle’s forces overpowered us and corralled us for slaughter.” She stared hatefully down at the Crows. “That carrion laughter was much as it is now, only louder and inescapable.”
“It is unfortunate that we could not have helped one another,” Eseus said. “Perhaps the combined power of the House of Lorwynne and the Spider clan could have destroyed the Crows and the Oxenford army once and for all.”
“That was impossible then,” Iadne said. “We did not trust any self-proclaimed lords living behind walls. Walls hold secrets, and our clan prided itself upon the openness of the moor. We withheld no secrets from one another. But your people do. We could not have trusted one another.”
“You are right,” he said. “We always considered the clans of the moorlands as untrustworthy. Crow…Spider…they were all the same to us, and we did not trust you, either. I suppose it was because you did not belong to us. You belonged to yourselves.”
“We belonged to the Gray,” Iadne said. “Everyone upon the moor does. There is no escaping it. Castle walls will not keep it out. The Gray claims all.” Her spider dangled from the hood of her robe, the hourglass upon its thorax a deep scarlet. She still held the clew in her hand, growing larger. “It is just a matter of time.”
Eseus considered this, and contemplated the foe below.
Crows made their clawed weapons from the farming tools they scavenged from the peasants they killed, breaking and remaking their claws crudely. Even their weaponry was, thus, carrion in provision and make. Often they would take weapons won from battles with bandits and caravans, and even Northerland soldiers, and these they transfigured afresh as new grotesqueries. The uglier the weapon, the more nightmarish and, so, the more intimidating to weaker, unseasoned minds. But Eseus knew such weapons to be impractical, and even cumbersome, compared to the modest, no-nonsense blade of a sword or the straight-to-the-point spike of a lance or halberd. The key matter was teaching his soldiers not to fear the Crows’ obscene weapons.
Walking from battlement to battlement, Eseus saw to the morale of his men. He encouraged them, and told them not to fret, for the battle was as much won before a sword had been unsheathed as when in midstroke of the blade.
“A manticore seems a nightmare come unto flesh,” he said, “until it throws itself onto your spear. So, too, the Crow clan and all of its devilry. But do not forget how my father died. Beyond the theatrics is a deadly truth, but we must see to the heart of it and, thus, end that heart forthwith. Do not fear. We have the advantage. Yet, do not succumb to complacency.”
From one soldier to the next he went, refining this small rallying speech. Iadne would have been amused by it as she followed him had it not been for the circumstances in which he addressed his men. The specter of Death loomed large over the speech, and so intensified it despite its iterations. When Eseus had spoken to all of his soldiers, he then went down upon the green and spoke with the common men. They had been given spears and swords with which to defend their families should the walls be breached. They had little in the way of training, and, so, held these weapons as they would a wyrm ready to leap and bite at their necks. Eseus spoke to them briefly, reassuring them of the castle and the moat and the advantages they held. Many of them were clearly frightened, and some of them seemed more sullen than affrighted. The latter group gave Eseus pause, but he had little time to massage their fury unto reconciliation. He only hoped that the threat of their enemy would press them into unity.
Eseus went into castle to check upon the women and children and to rally their spirits. To his relief, he did not have to do much to achieve this, for his mother had already undertaken the necessity herself. She had the women and children in the dining hall, in the warmth of the hearth, and she told them stories about the founding of the House of Lorwynne, of its place in history, of the wizard and his lover who established the house as a place of refuge against the cruel world beyond its walls.
“For hundreds of years these walls have stood,” she said. “And for hundreds of years longer will they remain. We are all of us bound together in its history. Our great-great-grandchildren will live here together someday, as will their great-great-grandchildren. The walls stand so love may thrive…”
Peasant men quarreled in the night. Blood was shed. Corpses were heaped. The Lorwynne soldiers separated them, but could not deduce the origins of the violence. Despite his grogginess, Eseus realized quickly that there was someone among his people that was intentionally fomenting strife. A traitor dwelt amongst them; perhaps many. Yet, he had no idea who it might have been.
In total, twelve men were slain and several more injured. An elderly woman— attempting to stymie the bloodshed—was thrown to the ground and suffered a broken hip. She died later in the day. Her husband took his own life in the adjoining night. Through this all the Crow clan bided their time, and joked and laughed and occasionally lobbed stones and arrows at the battlements of the castle. The latter they did with no intent except in alleviating their boredom. Otherwise, they waited. They watched.