Venom Pies Part 9

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The House of Lorwynne relied severely upon several wells on the green for the collection of rainwater during sieges. Since the inhabitants could not access the ponds and lakes and the other wells beyond the walls, these large wells were crucial for survival. And someone had defiled them. Since they were normally covered with heavy wooden lids until it rained, and could only be raised by a man within the castle, Eseus knew the sabotage had to have happened from within. Twenty people died from tainted water, and another forty were sick with the taint, suffering effluvia. None of the wells had been spared. Now the people of Lorwynne were reliant upon the rains for drinking water, and they were slow in coming. In the meantime Iadne alleviated the shortage by directing the peasants to arrange cloth above pots and buckets. When the dew gathered upon the cloth, it was wrung into the containers. This yielded little drinking water, but it was better than none.
Since the moors were ever overcast, there was no reliable omen when there might come a cloudburst among so many gray clouds. It stoked both hope and cynicism within the people of Lorwynne, for it promised much every hour and did not deliver. Yet, the next morning a great rainstorm came. Peasant, soldier, and noble alike stood in its chilly downpour to collect rain in pots and buckets and in their mouths. While many were happy with the relief, a few among the elderly died from the flu afterwards. Eseus had the forethought to have had new wells dug prior, and posted guards to protect the new wells and their limited store.

***

A cold wind rose, slithering into the deepest nooks of the castle and spiraling around those whom it touched, like serpents made of frigid air. It skirled and wailed and seemed the spirits of the peasant men slain upon the green, risen to bemoan their deaths and clutch at the survivors covetously. The women and children huddled in the dining hall, the hearth ablaze. Lady Kareth tended to them. The peasant men sat around the little fire pits they had dug in the green, warming themselves and grumbling and eyeing each other hatefully. Their weapons had been taken from them. They were not to be trusted with any blade or spike unless the invaders penetrated the castle’s defenses. Their fires smouldered, but their eyes blazed wildly.
The sentries suffered the worst from the cold winds. They huddled around the braziers, risking arrows from the Crows in the open spaces away from the leather tarps, for the wind bit hardest upon the battlements. Eseus stood among them, commiserating with their plight.
The Crows were untouched beneath their raven-feathered cloaks, as was Iadne beneath her spider silk robe. Edea and Percevis accompanied the young lord and his lover. The elderly husband and wife wore spider silk clothes also, and were thus better prepared than the other folk of Lorwynne. Nonetheless, the cold wind made Percevis shiver and grimace. His muttonchops billowed wispily. His wedge-shaped nose was raw and red.
“Only Autumn now and my bones feel as icicles,” he said. “It is going to be a terrible Winter.”
“Any Winter survived is a good Winter,” Edea remarked.
“Haven’t survived it yet, woman,” he said. “Hasn’t even arrived! But its convoys are a pain! That much is true!”
“Continue to speak to me like that and you will not even survive the Autumn,” his wife retorted.
“I have survived your cooking for decades,” he said, grinning. “What can Autumn or Winter do to me?”
“For that you shall be the next dish I serve,” she said, crossing her arms and giving him a knowing smirk. “Gelded jackass roast.”
Percevis blinked in disconcertment, then guffawed loudly. His donkey laughter rivaled the Crow clan’s as a whole, and many of them scowled up at the battlement, resenting his thunderous braying.
Eseus did not speak his way into the husband and wife’s playful fray. He was in no mood for playfulness. Rather, he was in a foul mood. Half of his soldiers now had to remain upon the green at all times, watching the peasant men and assuring that they did not slay one another. He was ruling a divided House, and felt the pressure of the capstone in his heart. He wished his father was here and well. He wished he, himself, had stronger resolve. Had he the steel needed in his soul, he might have promised executions with some sort of credibility. But he had not yet hardened enough to dole discipline with steel, or even speak of it with sincerity. And, moreover, he knew that many of his peasants were mostly innocent in this contrived blood-feud that had broken out betwixt them. Sometimes he wished he had a crow’s eye to circle overhead and watch the men at night for whoever was weakening the foundation of Lorwynne from within.
He looked to Iadne, who had been quiet all day. Her hands were withdrawn into the large sleeves of her robe. He knew that she clutched the clew to herself deep within the thick folds. Even at night, while abed with him, she would clutch the clew to her heart.
Percevis’s laughter echoed well after he had finished in a fit of coughs. The Crows shot arrows upon the castle wall, so vexed were they with his impertinent amusement. The single volley struck the thick leather tarps and were largely halted. A few penetrated here and there, but had lost velocity upon the impact. More importantly, they did not wound anyone, but struck castle stone. These arrows were added to the heaps already collected on the battlements. Eseus considered them a boon and was glad he knew now what vexed the Crow clan.

***

With evening came the stars, but also a celebration within the castle. Eseus arranged for music, with harps and lutes and lyres all raining melodies into that moonlit night. The peasants danced and sang in the inner sanctum of the castle, making a great clamor upon the moor. Meanwhile, the sentries descended from the battlements and the ramparts, lingering at the castle’s entrance. Several hours passed, and the peasants became exhausted. Still, Eseus demanded they sing and dance and make merry. Their lives depended upon it.
It was in the witching hours that the crows flew over the castle. They carried steel hooks made from the claws of hoes and attached to ropes. Silently they affixed these claws to the crenelations. The ropes were drawn tautly by the Crows in the camps. Ten men from the Crow clan then climbed the angled ropes over moat and castle wall. Seeing that the ramparts and battlements and the green were indeed all abandoned— and hearing the mirthful ruckus deep within the castle— the Crows descended the stairs and came upon the green. Eseus waited until they were nearly to the portcullis before giving the order. The Lorwynne soldiers then spilled forth from the castles with their arrows nocked and unleashed a rain of death upon the invaders. It did not matter that they could not see well within the half-mooned murk. Such a downpour did they unfurl that the whole of the green was riddled with arrows.
Eseus waited until the next day had dawned— in all of its drab dimness—before he ordered the bloodied bodies brought up to the ramparts and thrown into the moat below. The Crow clan did not hide their rage. Crow men and women alike spat curses upon the House of Lorwynne and its descendants. Yet, as wrathful as they were, they did not retaliate. They did not act. Instead, they waited. They watched. They were patient.

***

And then the Oxenford army arrived, their long caravan procession taking with it  wagons steep with planks of wood for bridging the moat and building ladders and siege towers. Eseus was dismayed at the size of the army. There had to be three thousand men in all.
The Crow clan cawed loudly at the House of Lorwynne as they were joined by the caravan. Another Oxenford Commander approached upon horseback. It was one of Eseus’s cousins, Malteus, and Eseus knew upon seeing him and his army that the House of Lorwynne stood not a chance. For the army hereto gathered was comprised of all of the minor Houses of Oxenford. Every standing army had been called to lay claim to Lorwynne on Kareth’s behalf. Eseus shook his head in disbelief. Was it a deceit that gained Kareth their devotion or a simple promise of power? No House sided with his own, it seemed.
Malteus approached the castle. His hair was long, and faintly brownish-red. He wore silver plate armor that gleamed proudly. The sigil of a hart splayed its antlers upon his breastplate. Raising a hand, he directed the Crow clan to act. At first, Eseus thought it would be the first salvo of the battle, but instead the Crows sent their black birds into the air, each of them holding a rolled-up scroll. With these they littered the green. There were hundreds of them, but they each said the same thing:
“By order of Queen Kareth, of the House of Oxenford and rightful ruler of all Houses on the Moors, the criminals responsible for her beloved father’s death shall be surrendered forthwith for imprisonment, trial, and summary execution. Those fighting on behalf of these traitors will be shown no mercy and shall be promptly executed without trial or consideration of extenuating circumstance, whereas those who lay aside their arms and surrender without bloodshed shall be spared and beloved of their new Queen.”
All of the soldiers could read, and so could many among the peasants. Eseus’s father had decreed that it was crucial that they be able to do so to learn and therefore strengthen the House of Lorwynne. Yet, now that strength was being used against the House of Lorwynne, for Eseus could see the confusion and doubt in the eyes of his people. Some tore up the scrolls; others let them dangle limply at their sides.
A lone peasant stood upon a rampart overtopping the green. He called out to the peasants below.
“We should parley with them!” he said. “There is no hope in fighting them! They will be merciful to us! I promise you all! Swear yourselves to Queen Kareth and share in her glory!”
Eseus’s eyes narrowed. He knew this peasant. His name was Aletus. He had extended family that lived among the Oxenford peasants, as did many peasants among the House of Lorwynne. Yet, he visited his family often in Oxenford, spending many Harvest weeks there. Here, at last, Eseus had found the traitor. Seeing the man lit a flame within his soul that tempered his rage with a molten flow. He approached Aletus, and Aletus recoiled.
“You cannot win, milord,” Aletus said. “They will pardon you, too, if you only surrender to them. There is no dishonor in it. They promised me that no one would be harmed…”
“You would poison our wells,” Eseus said, “and squat over a grave and befoul it.”
An innocent man might have been puzzled, but Aletus merely smirked. “Better someone else’s grave than my own.”
“You will be buried where you belong,” Eseus said.
The steel had hardened at last in his soul, and with it his fist, and so Eseus struck the man with a blow that sent him reeling around and falling upon his face. Eseus then grasped the man’s hair and dragged the weed up to his feet.
“What are you doing?” the man slurred, his mouth full of blood and broken teeth.
“If you wish to join them,” Eseus said, “go to them.”
Eseus shoved him off the rampart. Aletus screamed until the moat silenced him.
Heaving with rage, Eseus spat and found himself angry enough to do such a thing again, and again; a thousand times to vent his fury. When he looked again upon the faces of his people he saw the horror of what he had done. Even Iadne and his mother were aghast at his brutal act. His father had warned him that vengeance was never wise with its rulings. But the traitor had cost his people many good men with his insidious sabotage. And, to the last, Aletus had cost him the trust of his people. The capstone had faltered and fell, and with it the House of Lorwynne. Sighing, Eseus addressed his people.
“I have no excuses anymore,” he said. “If you wish to seek the mercy of the enemy— however much she might mete out to you—so be it. Only, remember that they ally themselves with those who slew my father. Remember that they will not govern you with a kind, fair hand as he did. As savage as I have been just now, toward an avout traitor who plotted you against one another, they will be much worse. I promise you. But then, to stay is certain death. “ He wiped his sweaty forehead, and swayed as if lost. He could not feel the strength of the castle’s stones in his bones. It was all dissembling dust. “Perhaps…perhaps she may be lenient after all…”
Eseus felt himself deflate, like a breathless dragon sinking in the air. As the old song went, Despair is an anchored crown, and it weighed him down, down, down. Looking upon his people, he lamented their fate, and the fate of his mother, and Iadne. But if he surrendered himself perhaps the armies would spare his people. Perhaps they would spare his mother and Iadne. He walked toward the portcullis, feeling numb. Iadne met him upon the green.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
“Surrendering myself,” he said. “Perhaps I can exchange myself for the promise that no harm will come to anyone else.”
“Do not be a fool, Eseus!” she snapped, grabbing hold of his wrist. “They will spare no one. The Crows will feast on everyone here.”
“Then what can we do?” he said. Even now he could hear the Oxenford army busily hammering nails into planks, building their bridges and their siege towers. By next nightfall they would have overtaken the castle’s walls. “If I surrender myself, you will not be butchered. You will live to see another day.”
“Piss upon that!” shouted a man’s voice. “Piss upon surrender and piss upon this ‘Queen’!”
It was Percevis. He held his sword above his head, and his beloved wife, Edea, smiled with pride. His children, and his children’s children, also took up the rallying call.
“Piss upon the Queen! Piss upon the Queen!”
“ Does the heron fly freely into the cage?” Percevis said, addressing his fellow countrymen. “No! He stands on his towering legs and he stabs down at those who would think themselves tall!  He is a bird that shits in their eye!”
While Percevis rallied the soldiers and the peasants, Iadne rallied Eseus’s spirits.
“Come, Eseus,” Iadne said, “I will not lose another family as soon as I have found it.” She took his hand in hers. “And your child needs you to use your head.”
“My child?” Eseus was as dumbstruck as a man waking to find himself in a field of fairies. His astonishment soon fled, giving way to a hard-bitten resolve. “Yes,” he said. “I must use my head. We both must. Together. Come with me.”
He ascended to the battlements once again, gazing out over the armies that had come to destroy everything he knew. Iadne followed him, wondering what was his plan.
“I need distractions,” he said, “and the best of our archers.”

***

Iadne did a simple thing at first. She willed one horse into the moat. It chewed its rope and then wandered away from the other horses. Oxenford man and Crow clansman alike saw it with disinterested glances and thought no more of it. But when the horse leapt into the moat headfirst, drowning itself in the filth, quizzical glances multiplied quickly. Then Iadne willed another horse into the moat. After that horse, another horse followed. Soon the Oxenford men and the Crows were struggling with their horses, pulling on their reins and trying to mount them and veer them away from the stinking circle. Some men were kicked to death; others were merely thrown and injured. Some fell into the moat with the horses and drowned.
While the enemy was baffled and distracted, Eseus had his best archers loose arrows upon those nearest to the moat. Over a hundred men died that day, and nearly every horse died also, clogging the moat with their bodies. Iadne was so exhausted by the effort that she lost consciousness and did not wake for a day and a half. Eseus fed her himself and tended to her while she remained in bed until she was strong enough to rise without aid. In the meantime their enemies were disconcerted and rebuffed. They buried their dead, or attempted to, only for the Lorwynne archers to heap more to the multitude. In the end, the dead were abandoned. The stench was profound, and the flies gathered in large clouds. The men along the ramparts lit arrows and set the corpses on fire. The flies buzzed and bit at the foe, disgruntled by the smoke and unable to reach the dead in the moat and on the land surrounding it. The flies were a minor inconvenience, but when paired with the losses of their horses and their cavalry, morale within the enemy ranks was very low.
Malteus cursed Eseus and had his archers launch several volleys into the castle. Most of these arrows were squandered, the peasants retreating into the castle and the archers along the walls taking cover beneath the wax-layered leather tarps.
When Iadne had recovered, Eseus requested a simple task of her. There were many animals upon the moor which she might have used for various means of undermining their foes, but he thought the modest skunk was the next champion in their efforts against the enemy. Using her natural gifts, Iadne summoned a skunk from the moor. Under cover of night, she sent him into the tents where the foodstuffs and provisions were being kept. She then willed the skunk to befoul the food with its spray. Not one ounce of hardtack was spared, nor cured meat or bundle of rice or grain. All was ruined. By the time guards had realized what had happened at one tent, the skunk had moved to another, and then another. The skunk even managed to escape unharmed, returning to the moor from whence he came.
The Oxenford men began to look with great distrust upon all animals, including the familiars among the Crow clan. Indeed, a rift of distrust existed between Kareth’s forces prior to the ruinous infiltration of their foodstuffs, and now had split wider as a schism while the uneasy allies turned upon one another, blaming each other for the misfortunes that had so far visited them and then, at last, hemorrhaging as a skirmish betwixt the tribal warriors and the condescending soldiers.
It was as Oxenford soldier and Crow clansman cut each other low that Eseus felt hope rise in his heart. Here the tides of battle turned, and flood came upon the moor as if ancient gods had risen from the Wakes and slaked themselves anew. Eseus might have regretted so much bloodletting as what he saw from the battlements had it not been the means by which his people might be delivered. As a leader he had to be a butcher of men to be a protector. It was an uneasy realization, and he could not find it in himself to hate the foes below as they gutted each other. There was nothing for him but pity.
“It is a bloody thing,” he remarked to Iadne. “I can take no pleasure in it.”
“I can,” Iadne said, looking on the battle with her red irises. Her eyes looked like bloody eclipses. “And so should you. The Crow clan killed your father. They killed my clan, with the Oxenford men’s help. To see them slaughtering each other is as beautiful to me as a field of flowers in bloom.”
Eseus turned toward Iadne, looking at her as if beholding a stranger. “I do not wish to hear such things from you, Iadne. It makes me feel as if I love a witch…or a demoness.”
Iadne slipped her arm around his hip. “Witch, demoness, lover, and the mother of your child. I am all such things, and more. You may dread being a butcher of men, but it is necessary. We must be ruthless against all who would hurt our child. I will not lose this one. I have already lost Immedea, and I wish to lose no more children.”
They became silent, watching as Malteus tried to reestablish peace among the tribes and his own soldiers. He was nearly slain himself when a Crow woman leapt atop his back with her taloned weapons at his throat. It was then that a great voice deafened the camps of the enemy, as well as the inner walls of the House of Lorwynne. Eseus recognized the voice, unnaturally amplified upon a large silver bell carried like a litter by four men.
You fools win the war for our enemy! Prepare for the siege! Let the dead lay and concentrate on the walls. Make ready the ladders!”
Men scrambled, then, to continue, their former brutalities forgotten. The bloodletting now staunched, the Oxenford and Crow armies set forth with their bridges, laying them across the moats. Eseus’s archers killed a few men, but not enough to stop the covering of the moat.
Eseus shouted orders.
“Let fly!” he commanded. A volley of arrows pierced the enemy like an airborne iron maiden, dropping many shadows to waste upon the earth. “Men, wherever a ladder be raised, go meet it with arrow and blade! Do not let them overtake the wall without paying dearly for it!”
And they did pay dearly. For the corpses of the Oxenford men and the Crow clansmen were heaped as they attempted to raise the ladders along the walls and ascend to the ramparts. The dead fell like overripe apples from the boughs of an Autumnal tree. They crashed through the bridges, adding themselves to the glutted moat, or else lay in piles around the castle walls. It seemed a desperate act, and Eseus could not understand the desperation that compelled them in such disproportional measures.
“It makes no sense,” he said, grimly. “These gratuitous losses all for the sake of this castle. She loses more men than she should ever hope to regain in victory. And yet she persists. Were she truly vengeful for the death of her father, then perhaps it would be an explicable exertion, but she was pleased by his death; not forlorn or vengeful. This is irrational. This is a vain victory by means of heavy losses. What can she hope to win by such an exchange?”
“Perhaps she does not care about the expense of men because she wants something else,” Iadne said.
“But what?” Eseus said. “What could she possibly desire so badly as to sacrifice so costly a number of lives?”

***

All day and well into the evening the invading army attempted to overtake the walls of the castle. The stench of death clung to the air stubbornly, and not even the heavy rains in the evening could exorcize its ghost. When the rains left the fog rose, breathing thick from the moor as the Gray encroached closer upon the House of Lorwynne. A fog rose from the moat, with its fetor, and encoiled the castle like a primordial serpent. Eseus did not sleep, nor did Iadne. They remained upon the battlements as his men slew countless invaders still attempting to ascend the walls.
“It is madness,” he said, exhausted by his vigil and by being witness to so much needless death. “Bloody madness.”
Quite suddenly— as the moon rose overhead in the starry sky— the invaders halted their efforts. They retreated from the castle, withdrawing into their camp all at once. The large silver bell gleamed in the pallid moonlight, having been set down reverently in view of the castle.
“That bell is an evil thing,” Iadne warned.
“It is a Resonating Bell,” Eseus said. “Some wizards use them to speak across great distances. I did not know that my cousin had such things in her possession.”
“It is an abominable thing,” Iadne said. “And it will bring us nothing but misfortune.”
Iadne attempted to summon a horse near the bell, thinking she might draw it away. But as soon as the horse came close to the bell, she lost control of it. She tried other animals and insects also, but could maintain no power over them as they approached.
Since the invaders had ceased their attempts, Eseus and Iadne retired to his tower to sleep a few hours. They were exhausted, but even so, sleep did not come easy to them. Rather, the stench of the moat, and of the many dead horses and men that had accrued all around the castle, grew fouler with passing hours. When morning came, the stench was unbearable. Many people became sickened by the stench, including Eseus’s mother. They burned fragrances within the inner sanctum of the castle, at the hearth, hoping to fight off the charnel stench. It allayed it only a little.
Meanwhile, Eseus rotated the sentries upon the battlements and ramparts. The exhausted men gladly retired to the green for food and rest. He and Iadne ascended to the battlements once again to look out upon the camp of their enemy. Their enemy stayed at a cautious distance. Perhaps, Eseus thought, they had been bled of nerve in the previous profligacy. Perhaps they were only biding their time.
The stench intensified, and many men became sick. Iadne had to retreat to the inner sanctum, joining the Lady of Lorwynne. Eseus covered his mouth with torn cloth, and had the sentries do the same. It was as if the very air had become an enemy.
It was at noon— when the day became the hottest—that four Oxenford men carried the large Resonating Bell closer to the castle. They were too far away for arrows to hit with certainty, so Eseus gave no command. He only watched them, curious. He hoped that perhaps his cousin wished to parley, even though he knew such a hope to be naive at best.
And yet his cousin did speak through the Resonating Bell, the cadence of her voice was mellifluous as it chimed within the vibrations of the Bell. The words she spoke were conversely grotesque and vicious.

Bloated guts,
carrion air,
decay that gluts
and gases aflare,
become a doom
that shatters bones,
a carnal bloom
to break these stones.”

The fetor of the moat and the mounds of bodies became unbearable. Behind streaming tears Eseus retched as he watched hundreds of corpses exhale a terrible cloud of gas from their bloated bodies. The seepage rose into an amorphous bubble, a tawny stain upon the air which floated next to the castle wall. Eseus tried to shout a command for the sentries to flee, but could only gag. The gas cloud wound itself tightly, then erupted into a flashing explosion. The castle wall burst inward, the shattered stones raining upon the green while the dust flew up alongside smoke and the limbs of the unfortunate sentries who had been standing upon the blasted wall.

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