Hand-in-hand they followed the mysterious woman. Iadne, the Lady of Lorwynne, Edea, her many grandchildren, and her three daughters behind them— they formed a long throng that trailed the radiant woman. She brought them safely through Beggar’s Bog along a path made of mossy flagstones which shimmered like will o’ the wisps. Creatures swarmed hungrily around them, but scattered at the radiance with which the mysterious woman lit their way. She was as a spirit through the darkness, and they cleaved closely to her.
“Where are you taking us?” Iadne asked.
“Unto a tower beyond ages,” she said, “which is mine withal in the present age. ‘Twas built in times of old, before memory of Man, and will remain thus long after Man be no more memory than furrow upon field long neglected.”
The answer did not ease Iadne’s mind, but she had no choice and so resigned herself to whatever lay ahead. Beside her, hand-in-hand, the Lady of Lorwynne trembled and wept. She had, by now, realized that her son was not following their throng.
The swamp gurgled and growled and gibbered menacingly. The children cowered and huddled close to their mothers as the trees crowded them, hung heavily with moss and shadows. In time, however, the stone path led to a stone door in the base of a rounded tower whose height loomed inestimable above. The radiant woman touched this stone door with a pale hand. The door creaked, and screeched, scraping stone upon stone as it opened inward to allow the throng to pass into its inner mysteries. Pausing only to glance back once— as if she, too, hoped that Eseus would suddenly appear from down the path—Iadne led the Lady of Lorwynne within, followed by Edea and her children and grandchildren.
There was no fire in the tower; no hearth or candles for light. Yet, the tower was warm, holding off the chill fog of the swamp. Its air was clear of the miasma that choked with the foul breath of the decaying swamp. The circular stone interior was also illuminated pervasively, though from no visible source. Light simply existed in its vertical tunnel. A staircase spiraled up the flanks of the tower, ascending to the height of the edifice. There were no other rooms or floors—only the bottom floor and the balcony at the uttermost height. The base level had a chair, and a flowery carpet to soften the stone floor. A bed lay in the corner, simple and unadorned, and a table afar from it, burdened with books and scrolls and inkwells. A rack of spices stood near the table, a few iron-cast pans hung from its wooden beams. Last, but certainly not least, was a large cauldron that stood upon squat legs over a pit where ash smouldered. In the pit of the cauldron’s fat black belly there was a liquid that smelled of ginger and lemongrass. The cauldron was large enough for a man to easily boil inside it.
“Verily must I apologize for my meager furnishings,” the radiant woman said. “This tower ‘twas not meant for humanly habitation, nor accommodated by necessity hitherto. Indeed, this tower ‘twas root and stem but an instrument to channel powers beyond Man’s reckoning, now derelict and abandoned by slumbrous minds wherefrom such means were forged.”
The newcomers stared in awe at the edifice looming up around them. Iadne directed Eseus’s mother toward the only chair, easing the weeping woman into the soft leatherback. The Lady of Lorwynne still trembled and wept, and held onto Iadne’s hand, unwilling to let go.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Iadne said to the radiant woman. “My friend is harrowed with woe.”
“Thou be welcome to all hospitality thou seem fittest,” the woman said. “Thy suffering be vast, and aspireth vaster still afore thy fates be consummate.”
“Thank you,” was all Iadne could say to that, for she had difficulty understanding the meaning of the woman’s antiquated words.
“Hither warmth resideth,” the woman said, walking toward the cauldron. She stirred it with a ladle, and the liquid steamed faintly. Raising the ladle to her lips she sipped from the liquid, then gestured for her guests. “Soon thou will sup, yet at present moment refresh thy hearts and health with mine simple brew.”
Edea stepped forward, the first among the guests. She did not seem distrustful of their hostess, and, indeed, approached quite willingly.
“I doubt it is so strong a brew as Spidergrass beer,” she said, “but I will be thankful for any drink to comfort a soul beset with loss.”
Edea sipped from the ladle proffered, and nodded; pleased with the brew. “A goodly tea,” she said. She waved her children and grandchildren over. “Come. Do not be rude. It will chase the chill from your bones, if nothing else.”
Her children and grandchildren formed a line and, in turn, drank from the cauldron. Iadne, too, took her turn, bringing the ladle carefully to the Lady of Lorwynne. The bereft matron drank reluctantly, and her sobs subsided enough that she might speak.
“Thank you for your kindness,” Eseus’s mother said to their hostess. She said nothing else, but leaned back upon the chair, closing her eyes and seemingly falling asleep. Tears still streamed down her cheeks.
“She is the Lady of Lorwynne,” Iadne said. “She has suffered much.”
“I, too, was once the Lady of Lorwynne,” the radiant woman said. “Long ago. Now thou may simply call me Lady Mourningstar.”
Iadne glanced about the tower, then stared at the sole inhabitant of it. This woman— Lady Mourningstar—shined even here, beyond the darkness of the swamp. But Iadne still wondered if it was the shine of a will o’ the wisp leading victims astray.
“We are all grateful for helping us escape our captors,” she said, “but I must know who you are and why you live alone.”
“Alike thy friend I am but a wretched widow in the waning years,” Lady Mourningstar said. “Mine husband long ago lost himself to those greatest of dragons which lurk and hunt and prey upon mischief. Ambition. Pride. Power. Afore him I was contented with my Sisters. Yet fallen I have become, through Love’s bewitching wiles, and hence serve penitence as becometh the All Ways.”
Iadne stared at the radiant lady, and doubted that she could be any older than herself. She was tall and stately and beautiful, her face faulted by no blemish or crease or wrinkle earned by years gone by.
“Momma, I am hungry!” one of Edea’s grandchildren complained.
She was a little girl with her grandmother’s shrewd eyes, and her grandfather’s wild eyebrows. She could have used a brush for her lovely hair, or those eyebrows. The girl’s mother— Edea’s eldest daughter— attempted to hush her, but Lady Mourningstar only smiled and beckoned the child follow her to the stone door.
Lady Mourningstar opened the stone door, without even a touch, and gestured toward the swamp. Soon enough there came frogs and footed fish and lizards and such in a strange throng, hopping into the tower— to the amazement of all, and the suspicion of Iadne—and then further they hopped in a throng very much like the refugees’ own throng had been when coming to the tower. They hopped up into the cauldron and lounged in that herbal broth while the flames were stoked with unseen hands. The broth roiled gradually, simmering at first, then, as the fish and frogs and whatnot succumbed, the broth bubbled to a riotous boil. Lady Mourningstar added fragrant spices— some of which not even Idane or Edea knew the origins of— and stirred the cauldron. The little beasts all died contentedly, it seemed.
Iadne was beset with a fear that such a fate would befall them, too, in this strange tower. She watched these proceedings with growing apprehension.
Lady Mourningstar bid the women to use the ladle and scoop out the food, setting them upon her pans. The children all gathered around and, once the morsels had cooled enough, chewed at the bulging-eyed little creatures. They were Spider clan children, after all, and so were used to such untamed fare. And hunger was always the most appetizing ingredient of all. They indulged with relish and satisfaction.
The children ate until they could eat no more. The women ate, too, excepting the Lady of Lorwynne and Iadne. Afterwards, the ordeal and the tea and the food overcame the refugees. Some laid on the bed while others laid on the comfortable rug. All slept well, except Iadne. She could not sleep. She was tired, but she was also wary. It was not only a wariness of Lady Mourningstar, but also a general suspicion that things were conspiring against her. It all seemed a trap, nor was she, in the coming days, ever certain she escaped the trap. She wondered, increasingly, if she had aided it in ensnaring her.
The Lady of Lorwynne regained her spirits enough the next day to eat. She was not as happy with the fare offered by the swamp as Edea’s family, but she thanked her host nonetheless and ate what she could with the gratitude remaining in her. She did not talk, but she did listen to the children play in the tower. Their laughter spiraled up the tower like a flock of birds, nesting there in a gaggle for a happy hour or two. Listening to them, she wished that Eseus had had more time as a child to play games— more time for games and laughter and happiness.
Duty had been an omnipresent tyrant worse than any Valorian emperor.
Meanwhile, Iadne held the clew in her robe, and awaited its growth. It swelled, as did her silent rage. She wished she knew how she might steal Eseus back from his cruel cousin. Yet, she had no standing army, nor could she convince Eseus to abandon his people. All she had left was his child, growing within her womb alongside her rage.
Edea attempted to console Iadne and the Lady of Lorwynne with the help of her children and grandchildren. Such attempts allayed the pain and the rage for a time, but the ebbing of such tides always gave way to flow afterwards in Iadne’s heart. When she had no other recourse, she turned the clew over and over again in her hands, Willing upon it wrathfully.
Days passed slowly, and the nights even slower. Iadne recalled what Percevis had said about the labyrinth that was time, and she could feel the walls slowly pressing from all sides.
All of the Oxenford peasants were arranged on either side of the Road to greet the caravan as it arrived. They cheered as if their very lives depended upon such a raucous display, and so their lives did. Though they smiled and shouted jubilantly, fear haunted every visage, gleaming in each eye like daggers readied at their throats. Pomp and pageantry abounded as if to further humiliate Eseus, but he was too dejected to be indignant as he was marched toward his cousin, sitting exultant upon her silver throne as four large men carried her into the Oxenford courtyard.
Eseus hated her, but he hated himself more. He had betrayed his mother and Iadne. He only hoped they had made it safely away from the soldiers without injury. He knew Iadne would see to the rest, being wise to the moorlands. He hoped both would forgive him in time.
His father had warned him that to rule was not a privilege, but a needful sacrifice; or so it should be for any noble and just ruler. He hoped his father would be proud of him, even as his son was held by his enemy, steeped in his shame. Swallowing his pride, Eseus knelt before his cousin and pleaded for the lives of his people.
“Dear cousin,” he said, “though I have raised arms against you, it was to protect my people, and now that they are hither brought to you, please pardon them for my misdeeds.”
Kareth wore a tiara upon her brow, woven of a whitish silver found only in the Sinking Mines of the moorlands. It was intricately molded in beauteous facsimile of flowers and vines. Opals, like glittering poison berries, were entwined among the spiraling leaves and stems.
“You have accomplished much,” she said, her smile never faltering. “So much to oppose me…and yet, a pebble was never a dam against the river. The waters carry it away as well, overlooked in the rapids. Thus, Fate cannot be overwritten. So. Here we are. Heir to Oxenford and heir to Lorwynne. Do you wish to parley? I believe you have earned that much. Indeed, I was quite surprised at your resourcefulness.. And you were quite the warrior in the battle. But you were destined to be overtaken, cousin, and regardless of your best efforts you achieved a mere protraction both needless and vexing. But vexing to yourself, for it amounted to little more than suffering. Take, for instance, the fact that had you simply allowed my preliminary party to assume control of the castle, not one father, son, brother, or grandfather need to have died. You needed only allow Commander Vant free rein and spared countless lives. But, no, your stubbornness prevailed and because of it over a thousand men are now dead. A thousand men that could have served me loyally had their Lord been possessed of more insight into the truth that towered over him like an ill-tempered god.”
Kareth’s coronet sparkled with diamonds like stars, and the silverwork was finely beaten and molded to delicate arabesques. Below the coronet, her green eyes sparkled, and yet there was no warmth in them; they sparkled like the green ice of the Aurora shores—that cold waste where nothing grows and nothing lives and is the immaculate domain of death.
Her silky dress conformed to her slim figure unabashedly, dyed deeply a dark vermillion as if soaked in the blood of the slain. The surety of her walk, and her gaze, was evidenced in every lax gyration of her stride and bespoke power and doubtless certainty of control over all whom she lay eye upon or spoke word to. Only her shadow seemed amiss in this, for she had none; though a candlelight night etched black shade upon hard stone from the most fleeting of specks, it issued nothing cast in semblance of her contours, nor did silhouette dare parody her form through curtain or draper. She had control most absolute, and not even her own shadow mocked her. Such was the way of a true sorceress steeped in her own vanity.
“The time has come for your Queen to wed,” Kareth said. “And it has often been said by my dear, departed father that the heir of Oxenford and the heir of Lorwynne should join together, united their houses. Yet, that was before the betrayal that stole my father from me.” Her voice was icy indifference. She did not attempt to guise it with feeling of loss or grief. “Thus, breaking from tradition I wish to set a new precedent. Now I ask all of my cousins—“ She turned toward the entourage of nobles. “—I ask who among you would dare to take up arms against the slayer of my father and, thus, save me from the ignominy of joining such a wicked heart to my own?”
Eseus looked among his kin, and saw many with angry visage, yet none with actionable courage. His grandaunt spoke to his dandy cousin, but he dared not budge. Eseus thought it a pity, for he would have gladly slain the foppish fool, even if for Kareth’s idle entertainment.
“Shall I have none to defend my honor?” Kareth asked, a hand to her heart and the imitation of a woeful brow. “Very well then. I will set another precedent. I extend this offer to anyone, regardless of birth. If you slay my treacherous cousin then you will find a lifelong wife in me.”
There was an immediate bellow among the crowd; deep and bellicose and beastly.
“I shall split him head to groin and feed his craven loins to the Crows of the Moor!”
There stepped forth Kareth’s handmaiden— that broad-shouldered, towering figure of unfeminine bulk and bravado. With large, meaty hands she unwrapped her head of her scarf and wimple, and let her frumpy frock fall from her burly body. Men and women averted their eyes, but when the frock fell away there stood before Eseus now a large man with cruel eyes encircled in blackened blood. He wore black vestments over chainmail, and a cape of black feathers.
“He is your rival,” Kareth said. “Lord of the Moor, Crovanus, heir to the Crow clan. With him will you fight for my honor. My father is not here to disapprove. But to think that the Lord of the Moor walked beneath father’s very nose! Many a laugh have I had to think of it.”
Kareth spoke freely of the ruse, and no one among the crowd dared to question her; not her family or her serfs or soldiers. When she ordered a soldier to return Eseus’s sword to him, there was no hesitation. Eseus held once again the sword of Lorwynne; that sword with which his father entrusted him. Crovanus, too, claimed a weapon. It was a barbarous thing to behold, as were all Crow clan weapons.
Crovanus circled around Eseus with a hefty stride, each ponderous step promising violence.
“I have changed my mind,” Crovanus said. “I will not kill you. I will geld you and render you a dog to feed on scraps from beneath my table. You shall be my Fool. When I am angry I shall kick you and beat you and grab you by the scruff of your neck and shake you until you piss yourself. And then I shall laugh at you. Everyone will laugh at you.”
Eseus said nothing. Talk was a distraction. He focused on the weapon the Crow’s heir gripped in his hands: a triple-bladed scythe with a handle like a crow’s foot. The weapon was large, and would have been encumbering for a smaller man, but Crovanus swung it easily one-handed, resting it against his shoulder.
Eseus leapt forward into the slash, catching the handle on his shoulder, the impact shuddering throughout his body, and then he thrust his sword toward Corvayne’s heart. But the Lord of the Moor caught the blade with his naked hand, turning it aside with his bleeding fingers. At first Eseus was too taken aback to react, but as Corvayne raised his triple-scythe to cut Eseus down, Eseus wrenched his sword free of Corvayne’s grip, severing his fingers to rain upon the floor while Eseus ducked below the sickles’ savage slash. The Lord of the Moor was never daunted, even at the loss of his fingers, but rather was enraged, flailing his sickles wildly with one hand, his renewed vigor waxing while his other hand bled from its stumpy bones. Being much larger than Eseus, Corvayne would have soon overpowered the Lord of Lorwynne had the former not had a defter hand and greater patience. Turning aside each blow, Eseus circled and resumed the center of the room, commanding it while deflecting and parrying the Crow’s crude weapon. Kareth stood by her vanity, her habitually calm composure now transmogrified unto childish glee. To see her so utterly rapt infuriated Eseus.
His shoulder was knitted with catgut and salved with honey, then padded with cloth. He was not allowed time to rest or recover. His terrible destiny awaited him.
The marriage ceremony was brief. No one challenged Eseus thereafter; not even those among the Crow clan that were doubtlessly present, disguised among the peasantry. The Oxenford family scowled as Eseus and Kareth were wed before the Matharist priest. Fear stayed their tongues, nonetheless, and they were was impotent to stop the ceremony as they were to stop the sun rising and falling. Kareth took pleasure in the outrage so visibly etched on their silent faces. She would marry the man who allegedly conspired to slay her father? Yes, she would, if only because no one else dared to challenge him for her hand. Even wounded, Eseus intimidated them all. Their shame, too, seemed to please her, and she smiled to see their chagrined grimaces; their eyes averted in confusion and humiliation.
Thereafter came the festivities, including the Flight of the Bulls. Several young peasant men and soldiers stripped to their undergarments and were led into a large pen of palisades, their sharp stake teeth pointed inward. There awaited them a large bull antagonized by whips and canes. It charged about wildly, snorting and bellowing as it rampaged in every direction. Seeing the men, its fury found focus and charged them. The young men had to leap over the horned heads of the raging beast, or aspired to do so. Many young men were gored or trammeled, or gashed themselves upon the palisades. Those few who managed the acrobatic fear of leaping over the bull were crowned with berry stems and given a mushroom wine to drink. Those who were injured were tended and treated by healers. Many died before they could be tended to. Eseus never learned how many. And while he was not grateful that the men of Lorwynne were dead, he was glad they had not died for his cruel cousin’s idle amusement. Even so, it shamed him to sit and do nothing while Kareth giggled at the grotesqueries of the barbaric tradition that had been outlawed by his own father.
Kareth saw the horror on his face and smiled with pleasure.
“You disapprove, dear husband?”
“It is…a waste of brave men,” he said.
“Not so brave, half of them,” she said lightly. “Did you not see how they fled from the bull? That was their unmaking. You must not flinch or flee, but must surmount the obstacle directly. Without hesitation. There sit three young men who managed the simple feat. A goblin could have achieved it, had he the inclination, and so it is no great thing for mortal men.”
She turned to face him, then, staring into his eyes, her green-ice eyes unblinking and focused, yet empty of any feeling at all except, perhaps, the demand of obedience.
“But for you and I, Eseus, the bull we face would trammel the world were it not tamed by the steadiest and most ruthless of hands. You understand my will. You comprehend my aims. Will you be beside me on my chariot of Empire, or will you be detritus beneath its wheels?”
She did not give him time to answer. She simply turned away and raised her goblet, clearing her throat, impatiently, as a servant hastened to pour more wine, like blood, into the gaping mouth of the goblet. She sipped from it, staining her pink-petaled lips a darker crimson, then clapped her hands to call attention to herself, the soft impact of her dainty palms killing the festivities and music unto a solemn, wary silence. She then pointed to the bull still raging within the palisades.
“Tame the beast,” she said. “Make cold its heart.”
Oxenford soldiers hurried toward their task, carrying long spears. The bull was impaled all at once, then butchered for its meat and hide; its breath not yet vanished from the cooling Moor air. The head Kareth took for her own, esteeming it as a centerpiece for the wedding banquet table. Its eyes were still apoplectic with rage. It stared at Eseus, and he bethought he could see auguries in such dead, yet still somehow hateful, eyes.