Iadne and the Lady of Lorwynne were sitting by the hearth, surrounded by peasant women and children. The explosion shook the whole castle to its bones. Women and children cried out and clung to one another. The Lady of Lorwynne paled and instinctively grabbed Iadne’s hand.
“They have breached the castle!” she gasped.
They rose to their feet unsteadily, expecting Crows to come flooding into the dining hall at any moment.
“The Crows will not spare women or children,” Iadne said. “Where can we go? There are too many for the men to repel for long!”
Lady Lorwynne glanced about in a fright. “Perhaps the crypts will be of some protection. They are as a maze beneath the castle, and we may lose them below for a time. My husband once said there was an escape route through the maze, though he had never ventured far enough to find it.”
Iadne remembered the thing she sensed down in the dark; the thing that was neither animal or beast. “Is there no other way?” she asked.
The Lady of Lorwynne shook her head. The screaming of war cries and death shrieks made her quiver. “My son!” she said. “I cannot leave without him!”
“I will fetch Eseus,” Iadne said. “He is mine now. He will come with me, or I will kill him myself.”
While the women and children followed the Lady of Lorwynne out to the crypts, Iadne sprinted toward the fray. What she saw upon the main stairs gave her pause.
The outer wall smouldered. It had been an unnatural explosion that destroyed it, the stone strewn out amidst malodorous black smoke that reeked of fetid death. A hemorrhage of Crows bled inward, slaying all those who stood before them with their ugly blades of butchery.
“The breach!” Eseus cried. “Stitch the breach!”
Iadne watched as Eseus threw himself upon the breach, staunching the hemorrhage with his sword and shield, bleeding the Crows that rallied within that fissure. Loyal men bolstered his fury, overwhelming the forces that had attempted to fight their way to the winches of the drawbridge and the portcullis. Yet, though they staved the flood, it was not destined to last.
Meanwhile, the peasant men scrambled to regain their weapons. The Lorwynne soldiers scrambled to issue them. Those that took possession of a blade or axe immediately engaged in battle. Their frantic flailing was dangerous, however, and Iadne feared that Eseus would just as soon fall to a peasant’s undisciplined blade as much as the wild frenzy of a Crow. She had to help him survive as the windmills of blades tightened around him.
The Crow clan did not fight with honor. They were a tribe of the moor, and a tribe of the moor did not dabble in luxuries like honor. Their crows swooped down upon the Lorwynne men, and the Lorwynne men—erstwhile distracted—were shredded by the Crow clansmen’s cruel weapons. Eseus saw this unworthy tactic befall many of his men, and so did not succumb to it himself. Left and right he hewed through the Crows like a woodsman through saplings, ignoring the crows as they squawked above his head.
Yet, however well he fought, Eseus could not fight forever. His injured shoulder ached, and soon betrayed him and his shield. It slowed him, and distracted him with pain, and so became an enemy also. He flung the shield into the face of a Crow woman, braining her, while he cut the legs out from beneath a Crow man vowing vengeance. It was all a butcher’s work, however reluctant he was to do it. And death-dealing wearied him emotionally as well as physically. So many lives ended by his bloody hands— he could scarcely face the enormity of the generations he had severed with the thrusts and slashes of his sword.
Eseus feared death. He was not so taken away with the steel song of battle to not fear such an absolute thing. But he feared more the death of his mother and of Iadne than his own. He feared more the failure to serve the memory of his father. And so he fought on, and on. He saw his men fall, and he saw the violation of the castle was his home. He saw enough bloodshed to slake the monsters of a thousand nightmares.
And then he saw the worst nightmare come true. Iadne was running in amongst the death-dealing madness of the green. She ducked and slid and fell and rose, scrambling to get to him. At first, the Crows did not notice her— so enthralled were they with killing other men—but when they recognized the Spider clan girl a great rage overtook them. No superstitious fear would restrain them now, for they had the bloodlust upon them.
Eseus fought his way toward Iadne, and away from the breach. She was surrounded by Crows by the time he reached her. He stabbed one Crow in the back, and beheaded another who was raising his taloned blades against her. The final two turned as one toward him. But before the two of them could overpower Eseus, Percevis met the second, and so Eseus took the first. Eseus slew the first, but the second scored a severe slash upon Percevis’s chest. The Crow raised his talon for the killing slash, but Iadne grabbed hold of his black-feathered cloak and pulled him back with a savage yank. The Crow toppled backward and Eseus drove him to the ground with a downward thrust.
Iadne helped Percevis up to his feet. His wound bled between his armor plate. Iadne supported his weight beneath her shoulder.
“Eseus, we must go!” she pleaded. “Retreat to the crypts!”
Eseus turned stubbornly toward the breach once again.
“No!” he said. “I will not forsake my men!”
“You can do them no good dead,” Percevis said, groaning. “Come, lad, the castle will be overrun before long. We need a leader. Save their women and their children. Lead them to safety!”
Eseus oscillated between conflicted duties. All around him he saw his men falling. Peasant, soldier— their blood mingled together amidst the carnage. The Oxenford forces had not yet entered through the breach. All was doomed. His preparations were for nought.
“What hope have we in the crypts?” he demanded, sneering with rage. “To die in the dark like rats?”
“Your mother says there may be an escape passage below,” Iadne said. “Please, Eseus. We need you. I need you. Come with us!”
Eseus looked upon his dying men, and the Crows still entering the fray. He killed two more Crows, and felt no victory in their deaths. It was all meaninglessness against the gods of inevitability. Sighing in defeat, he hurried alongside Iadne, helping her support Percevis as they headed to the crypts and entered the innards of the earth. The massacre behind them, Eseus wondered how much of a failure, and coward, he would be in the eyes of his father.
The crypts were dark, dusty and smelled of Time. They ran like a maze beneath the House of Lorwynne, their twisting walls peopled by the dead. Each corpse was swaddled in moldy fabric, grim with their silent secrets. Eseus saw them in the flickering light of his torch and felt as if they were judging him; damning him for his cowardice as he passed.
“How large are these crypts?” Iadne asked. “They seem to go on forever. Or are we walking in circles? It is confusing. Perhaps I should have let a spider thread follow after us so we would know where we have passed and where we haven’t.”
Percevis laughed— a weak, painful laugh unlike his usual guffaw. “The walls of the Labyrinth always seem large to the young, but they narrow as you grow older. The corridors press upon you, little by little, and you begin to crack. That’s what wrinkles are. Eventually, the Labyrinth entombs you. For it is Time.”
Iadne felt Percevis’s forehead with a hand, thinking he might be suffering a fever.
“I’m not out of my wits, girl,” Percevis said, not unkindly. “Just waxing lugubrious and philosophic. That’s what happens when bad things happen around you. You try to salvage some worth from so much wreckage. Structure the ruins with some kind of meaning. And there aren’t any ruins like those of the dead, both above and below.”
Whatever carnage was being wrought above, it was deafened by the thickly packed earth. The passages descended along angled ramps beneath the earth, spiraling out wider. It seemed to Eseus that it was an underground ziggurat spiraling down into the earth, tiers unto tiers expanding upon their descent. Yet, as it descended, the corridors narrowed , as if to strangle all the very idea of light until extinguished.
At last, they came upon the women and children in the chthonic maze. The throng was as a subterranean river, flowing hesitantly in the crowded darkness and narrowing catacomb corridors. The flow ceased, then parted, letting Eseus and Iadne and Percevis pass through to the front where the Lady of Lorwynne awaited them. In the torchlight Eseus saw the pale, troubled faces of his remaining people, and the tearful fear manifested there mirrored what Eseus felt. Terror, hopelessness, grief. Yet, there was a defiance, too, in this last desperate plunge into darkness. They had now buried themselves alive in the crypts rather than let their corvine enemies pick among their corpses. At the very least, a greater feast would be denied to the Crows, lest such creatures dared to fly belowground.
“Eseus!” Lady Lorwynne exclaimed. She rushed to him in relief, but did not embrace him. He was the Lord of Lorwynne now, and so had to stand apart as Lord. “I feared I had lost you!”
“All may be lost,” Eseus said, “but I remain, for whatever consolation may be found in such an impoverishing exchange.”
“Eseus, do not assume the guilt as if it was your own…”
His mother attempted to console him, but Eseus would not accept it.
“As heir it all falls upon me,” he said. “And even if I somehow throw every one of those carrion-feeders out of the House of Lorwynne, they will have yet glutted themselves overmuch on our dead. Were I to purge the All Ways of them, they will have accomplished more against our people than I could ever avenge were I to kill them a thousand times over, for but one of our men is worth a thousandfold more than their whole misbegotten bloodline.”
He was in a fervor, the hateful bloodlust rising in him anew. He relinquished his aid to Percevis—letting Percevis’s wife, Edea, support her husband—and preoccupied himself with leading the throng through the subterranean maze. Meanwhile, Iadne explained to Edea her husband’s wound, and Edea saw to it immediately, bandaging it with a spider-silk cloth. Another woman—stouter than Iadne— came forward to help shoulder the old man’s weight as he limped along. He was the only remaining husband among either peasantry or soldier.
Eseus raised his torch and continued through the labyrinth, his mother to one side and Iadne to the other; his remaining people following close behind them in a whispery bustle of shoulder-to-shoulder silence. Eseus said nothing, his mouth shut like a dragon-trap. No one else spoke, either, for many of them feared the dead and wished not to disturb their slumber. The curve of the maze began to unwind as it descended, becoming a long corridor without corpse or coffin. It was a long hallway made of stone. Eseus knew, instinctively, that it cut beneath the moat and extended out into the moor. But the passage did not rise yet, but was even, cut as flat as any castle hall might be. The floor was cobbled darkly with obsidian.
There was a wall— a spiteful wall promising only despair. It permitted no one further passage, its rebuff as deathly silent as the grave. This was the end of hope. The wall was the accomplice of the Crows and the Oxenford men in their slaughter of the remaining survivors. Women wailed while children sobbed. They all knew what the wall meant.
Yet, there were runes upon the wall. They were runes Eseus had never seen before, but somehow he understood them. He read them aloud, his tongue speaking the self-evident translation without his mind comprehending the means which bestowed this newfound talent.
“To ford the stars enfolded
in their abyssal depths
pass the door herein molded—
by daring, by words, by breaths.”
Eseus did not understand the riddle, but more puzzling was his own comprehension of the runes. He was ever more confused when the wall rumbled, breathing dust from its corners, and began to slide noisily to the side. The way was now open.
The corridor continued its descent, and the remaining people of Lorwynne had no choice but to follow. At length, the corridor came to a post-and-lintel end, opening unto a vast, circular room. At first it seemed an empty darkness inhabited this cavernous room, but something moved within the shadows. It was massive, and as it moved the whole of the crypts shook with its rousing power. Iadne trembled as she held onto Eseus’s arm. His mother gasped.
“It is the thing I feared,” Iadne warned.
Deep within the manifold darkness there emerged a broad, horn-crowned head. The face was furious, its large nostrils looped with a glowing ring the size of a shield. Behind the head came a neck—thick as an ancient tree trunk— and beyond that neck a massive body with pale flanks that were wide and powerful, like the bulwarks of a great ship. Taken all together, it could be comprehended as a large ox, and it stood before them in the center of that circular expanse. The size of a dragon, it stepped forward, its hooves shaking the earth and making the throng of women and children cry out. Its dark eyes gazed upon them like the swallowing depths of Night. Within its eyes were stars— countless stars that shone like a memory of the stelliferous sky. It snorted, and the force of its exhalation resounded through the crypts like a gale from a seastorm.
“That is what I sensed beneath the castle,” Iadne shouted, striving to be heard beneath the bellows of the Bull. “We must turn back!”
“We cannot turn back,” Eseus said. “To turn back is to die! To stay is to die! We must press forward! There is a way around the beast! And if not, much can be improvised when the will provides!”
The Bull bellowed again, as if to challenge Eseus on the matter.
“Be ready to flee to the other side,” he said. “Seek egress as soon as I distract the beast.”
“This is deathly foolishness!” Iadne said, holding him by the wrist. “You mustn’t…”
“I must!” he shouted.
Could Iadne have paled more, she would have. The Lady of Lorwynne paled enough for the both of them.
“Son,” she said, “this is not the path to take. We can…we can all rush to the other side. Together. It will be like taking lots. Drawing straws. A game of chance and knuckle-bones…”
“No, mother,” he said, gravely. “It will be fixed in my favor. How could it not be? I am faster than all of you. And how many would die were that beast to trample through them? I will not allow it.”
Eseus, undaunted, stepped toward the post-and-lintel threshold. He was too determined to be thwarted now, for if he did not help the wives and children of the men that had died, then he had truly failed at everything. Closer to the threshold now, he saw that the runes carved into the lintel above his head. For some strange reason he knew what they meant, even if he could not read them for what they were.
Iadne pulled him back, pleading with him.
“I will try to Will it away,” Iadne said. “Please let me try!”
Eseus was too astonished by the runes to argue with Iadne. He nodded and waited while she closed her eyes. The struggle to reach the mind of the beast was written with tremulous wrinkles upon Iadne’s high brow. Swooning, she opened her eyes, leaning now on Eseus.
“I cannot touch its mind,” she said. “It is not something of this world, but a creature beyond. Perhaps not even a creature. It is something much older…much more…elemental.”
Eseus told his mother to see to Iadne.
“Be prepared to run,” was all he said as he stepped beyond the lintel. He did not unsheathe his sword. He knew that such a weapon would do little against a beast that so easily dwarfed a manmade blade. But he nonetheless had his torch, and this he held aloft, wondering if the preternatural creature would fear flames, or light, having been condemned to the darkness for so long. Perhaps he might blind it so that his people could scurry past it silently without being trampled to death.
“Eseus, come back!” his mother pleaded.
It was too late. He approached the ox. The words of the runes echoed in his head. And he felt himself drawn toward that gigantic beast. He felt the power of that elemental creature threading its way through his own being, pulling at him like a spool winding round tightly.
The ox snorted and stomped. The gales nearly knocked Eseus to his feet. The stomp brought him to his knees while flames sparked from the obsidian cobblestone. Yet, Eseus stood and steadied himself, holding the torch aloft. As he approached the beast he spoke the words on the runes. These words bound him and the Bull together. Somehow, they were like the words of Fate herself. Irresistible. Irrevocable. Inescapable.
“By the threads I found you. By the fabric I bound you. By the threads I found you. By the fabric I bound you…”
The Bull bowed its head. For a moment Eseus feared it might charge him, but instead it awaited his command. Dismayed, Eseus motioned for his people to pass. Iadne entered the vast, cavernous room first; then the Lady of Lorwynne, and soon the rest of the women and children. Percevis, Edea, and the stout midwife hobbled lastly, moving like a three-headed chimera with its legs all wrongwise. The survivors circled around the room, allowing a wide breadth between themselves and the Bull. The Bull paid them no mind. There was another post-and-lintel aperture upon the other side of the room. The throng of women and children entered it, following the Lady of Lorwynne. Iadne stayed behind, waiting for Eseus. But Eseus was mesmerized.
“Eseus!” she whispered, loudly as she dared for fear of startling the Bull. “Please! Hurry!”
Eseus had stopped speaking the binding words, and yet he and the Bull were as mesmerized as before. Iadne went to Eseus, taking him by the arm, gently, and leading him from there. The Bull watched them leave from within its rounded tomb. It was as patient as the stars.
Having seen the Bull, Eseus felt a great power within him. It was maddening, this power. It beckoned him to plow the world with his Will. Leaving the Bull behind made his heart ache. He sweated as he fought off the impulse to run back through the dark corridors and return to the Bull once more; to release the Bull upon the world. It had a hold on him— a yoke which he could not shrug off. Yet, he had Iadne and his mother beside him, and the women and children afore him, and he had to continue on, farther and farther from the Bull, even as the yoke of urgency grew heavier upon him with the distance. His stride began to falter. He stumbled along, Iadne helping to steady him.
“What is the matter?” she asked. “Are you injured?”
“It is the Bull,” he said. “It…it has a hold on me, as I have a hold upon it.”
“It is not a natural beast,” she said. “I do not know what it is. Whatever it is, you must resist it. We must escape to the moor.”
Eseus rallied himself, though his heart was rent with the rigor of his efforts. The darkness of the labyrinth pressed closer than ever to him, regardless of how close he held his torch to his face.
“Eseus!” Iadne growled. “Wake up! You are behaving as thick as bog peat.” She grabbed the torch from him before he could burn himself. “Give me the torch lest you turn yourself into a swamp wisp.”
They continued on, though Eseus’s stride slowed. Eventually he began to hesitate, sweating and breathless. The farther from the Bull they ventured, the more arduous the struggle to continue.
“Hurry, Eseus!” Iadne commanded, yanking on his arm. “Your people need you! I need you!”
“The Bull…” he said. “With the Bull I can destroy all of our enemies. The Crow Clan. House Oxenford. Even the Valorian Empire to the South. It is only a matter of time before they aspire to conquer our lands. They must be stopped, and the only means by which to expel them will be to exterminate them. The Bull…it has the power to do that…and more.”
Iadne’s hand slapped Eseus across the face so sharply that the throng of women and children paused, gazing back as the echo resounded sharply all around them.
“I need you, Eseus!” Iadne said. “Our daughter needs you!”
The revelation struck him harder than her slap ever could. He could scarcely speak.
“She will come,” Iadne said, “if you help all of us through this darkness! Please. Hasten your feet! She will need both of us, and I will need you!”
The reins of power were abandoned; the yoke thrown off. Eseus took the torch in hand once more and hurried to the fore of the throng, leading them once again. The corridor ascended slowly— at a lax incline— and they walked what seemed miles in the dark. Soon their torches began to fade, having burned overlong, and now extinguished, and the women clutched the children to them, fearful they might lose them in the dark.
“Join hands!” Eseus shouted. “Everyone join hands and do not leave anyone alone beneath the earth!”
Through darkness they walked, hand-in-hand, and, in time, Eseus came to the end of the ascending corridor. Still holding Iadne’s hand, he felt a cloak of grass brush against his face, and fall aside, and then the moors expanded all before his eyes as he emerged from the side of a hill. The Gray was there to greet them. The Oxenford army greeted them also.