When Eseus woke he no longer had the spider at his neck. Instead, Iadne’s lips rested upon his throat, for she lay upon him all through the night. Her white tumult of hair hooded them both, blocking out all else. It was not unpleasant.
She roused and looked at him, then rose, her red-irised eyes lingering upon him even as her body left his.
“Do you still wish for my love?” she asked. “Or the love of a knife?”
“I cannot marry a woman of the Spider clan,” Eseus said. “And I cannot dishonor you. If you would forsake the moor and live with me, as a lady of Lorwynne, then I will wed you, as is only right.”
She said nothing to this, but nodded only slightly. She did not kiss him, but after they had resumed their clothes and mounted the horse she leaned more familiarly against his back, clutching him possessively around his hips.
They rode the horse until it could no longer run, slowing upon its wearied, wobbling legs. Dismounting, they walked for a time. They did not talk. They had come upon a new world—a world between two hearts— and they did not understand it enough to risk its uncertainties with idle chitchat. They walked for a while, then ate of grubs from the moor, and then walked for a time longer. The sun did not shine through the Gray, but the air was not chill either. The fog was warm, not unlike a lover’s breath.
And then they saw a gray shadow through the fog. The rider came at full gallop, emerging from the fog of the moor like a dream. It was too late for Eseus and Iadne to avoid him, so Eseus drew his sword and awaited the ghostly figure as it hastened its gallop.
But Eseus recognized the green cloak that fluttered at the figure’s back, and the malachite heron upon his breastplate. The rider slowed to a trot, warily circling Eseus and eyeing his sword. The old man was pale with fear and with want of sun.
Eseus sheathed his sword and addressed the man at a distance.
“Hail, fellow countryman,” Eseus said. “What news from the House of Lorwynne?”
“None so good as I would like it,” the old man said. He had a bald pate, his wrinkled face lined with gray muttonchops. His voice wheezed as if he, and not his steed, had been running hard. “Our lord’s not returned and my ass is already chafed with looking for him.”
“He has tried to return,” Eseus said, “but the moor is a distracting mistress.”
The old man squinted his eyes as if beholding someone far away, and then blinked at Eseus in amazed recognition. He dropped from his mount, then dropped to one knee. “My lord! I…I didn’t recognize you without your usual vestments!”
“It is well, then, that I decided to disguise myself,” Eseus said, helping the old man rise to his feet. “Elsewise I would have been taken hostage long ago.”
“By Mathara’s breath, it is good that I have found you!” the old man said. His voice thickened with breath, no longer strained with exhaustion and fear “And none too soon! Riders have been sent out all over, and I among the horde. Your poor mother’s all overwrought with worry. Her fears have been on her like a harpy on a lamb. We received a rider from House Oxenford informing of your uncle’s wicked death. Your cousin Kareth feared for your safety and sent riders of her own to look for you. She feared you had been killed in an ambush upon the Road. And yet…here you are! Unaccompanied!”
“Not so,” Eseus said. He gestured toward Iadne. “I am fortunate to have been saved by this young woman. Without her aid, the moor would have long ago claimed me.” Eseus’s expression was grim, vengeful. “Treachery has claimed too many men yet. Kareth would know all such there is to know of it, too, since it was by her design.”
The old man was agog with surprise. “Surely you jest! And a startling jest it is! Your cousin?!”
Eseus nodded gravely. “Alongside the Crow clan with whom she and my uncle have made allies.” He sighed. “There are intrigues upon intrigues, and so I must speak to my mother at once and make ready the castle fortiments. I need ask of you your horse. It is well-rested, I should think, and can take me to the castle quicker than can our poor beast of burden.”
“Indeed, my lord,” the old man said. “I have scarcely ridden half a day on him.”
“We are that close to House Lorwynne?” Eseus said, surprised. “Then I must make haste forthwith!”
Eseus took the reins of the old man’s horse, hoisting himself up atop the beast’s saddled back. Iadne reached toward Eseus, expecting him to pull her up, but he did not take her hand.
“Iadne,” he said, “I must go swiftly, and more swiftly will I arrive alone than in tandem. Please understand this. Nor do I wish to abandon you. It is only that my people…”
She looked up at him in confusion, then in spite.
“There is no love for me in you,” she said, her white face hard set as marble with scorn. “Only the excuse of duty.”
“To defend my people I must arrive anon,” he said calmly. He gave the old man a look, and the latter went to tend to the wearied horse, whistling to himself. “I must prepare for the onslaught, imminent as it will be. If you wish, return your spider to my neck. I will gladly take it as a passenger to assure you of my honor. If I break my promise, you may kill me.”
“I may kill you any time I wish,” she snapped. She did not cry, for marble never wept, but there was a brittleness around the scowl of her eyes. “But…no. I will keep my spider. Go! I mislike your soft words and hard heart. Just remember how terrible was your fall when it last rained. I will not warm you with life a second time.”
“And I will not forsake you,” Eseus vowed. “Please, take care. Be vigilant, and arrive at House Lorwynne when you safely can. I do not want to lose you upon the moor. It is a dangerous place and…”
“Do not preach to me of vigilance on the moor,” she snapped.
Eseus grimaced, knowing he had wronged her. But he had no time for qualms. Lives laid betwixt the balance. He called out to the old man.
“You will escort the lady homeward,” he said. “Take care of her. I owe her a debt of life, and I intend to pay it in full.” He looked again to Iadne, though she had turned away from him. He could see stone-bitten censure upon the profile of her face. “For the rest of my life, Iadne, I will pay what I owe you. I swear it upon the crypt of my ancestors in which rest the bones of my father.”
He said no more, but drove the horse at a hard gallop parallel to the Oxenford Road. He glanced back only once. The Spider clan girl stared after him as he disappeared into the fog. Her face was illegible.
Iadne and the old man walked beside the horse, strolling along the moor. Iadne was silent, spinning her anger as a spider would its prey— winding it tight before she would eat of it. The old man seemed jolly enough, and smiled as they traversed the bland lay of land.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. “But might I venture to say that you are of the Spider clan?”
“The last,” she said. “Are you not afraid of me?”
“No, ma’am,” he said. “Married me a Spider clan girl meself, decades ago. She can weave a wonder to wear, though her cooking’s never been even half good.” He guffawed loudly, amicably.
“Your lord never objected to such intermarriage?”
“Why would he, ma’am? We’re all related at one point or another. One big happy World Tree, it is. The buds don’t mind if paired of a different scent or color, so to speak. Makes them all hardier, anyhow.”
Iadne became quiet once again, though she had stopped weaving her fury. She listened to the old man talk. He spoke of his wife, and their children, and their children’s children. He was old, but hardy, and had been an energetic husband. Even now he was robust with his expression.
“And them silk stockings that your people weave!” he remarked. “Keep the water out from between every toe, they do. And so comfortable! Feel like a fox in its own pelt, so natural. House Lorwynne has benefitted mightily from your people. Course, I can only really speak for myself, and how happy I am with my little Spider wife! That’s what I call her,” he added confidentially. “I say to her all of the time, ‘Woman, you spun a trap for me to cradle me off to sleep!’ And she says, ‘You willingly leapt into my web, dear.’ And I say, ‘It’s a pretty pattern that makes fools of us all!’ Ha hah! She loves when I say that!”
Iadne pulled her hood up over her tangle of hair. She needed shade for her thoughts. “My clan always disavowed those who went to live among the castlefolk,” she said. “We considered them traitors, and severed all threads to their lives. Whole families were torn apart because of such things. Many webs in disarray.” She held her hand up, her last spider dangling from its strand. “And we never spied on them once they left us. We pretended as if they never existed. Perhaps we were wrong.”
“We have our differences, to be sure,” the old man said. “But the arrangement’s always been about the same as it is in my household. I pretend that I am in charge, and my wife does as she pleases. Isn’t that the way of the Oxenford line and the clans of the moor? Yes, ma’am, I do believe it is.”
“And what do you think of Eseus?” she asked, glad that her hood was sheltering her expression. “Please speak truly. I’ll know if you lie.”
“As would my wife,” the old man said lightly. “All Spider clan women seem to sense a lie, as a fly upon a web. And, truly, I always speak true to my mind. So, what I will say about our lord is this: he is like his father. That man would never demand his subjects to do anything he himself wouldn’t do. He even took time now and again to help plant crops and reap the fields, build up the cottages and such. He wasn’t good at any of it, but doing that work helped him understand his people and how they lived by living everyday beside us. When he died…well, there wasn’t a one of us who didn’t wish his enemy to drink his own blood. And his son…Eseus felt the death keenly. He will be his father come again. You wait and see. He’ll be out there in the fields, blistering his hands with a scythe, or he’ll be packing clay for cottages, getting it deep in his fingernails. He’ll know a hard day’s work, and so he’ll know his people. He’ll care for us, and, by Mathara’s grace, we will care for him.” The old man’s jolly expression gave way to a gloomy frown. “I just hope he is more careful than his father. Them Crows can be tricky with their arrows. They can fly through a spin-storm and still find their mark.”
“His father was assassinated by the Crow clan?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “But two months afore. He was out in the fields with the rest of us, tending to the crops. We had a good year, you see, and when we have a good year everyone pitches in to pitch it out, so to speak. It was a clear day, too. The sun shone bright, but the wind was cool. Not cold, not hot. Just the right kind of weather for harvesting. But then there came a cloud out of the South. Took it for a thunderhead at first, so black was it. Then we saw that it came on too quick. Unnaturally quick. We realized it was a murder of crows. Crows swarming one another in a mad chaos of cawing and cackling and a flurry of wings. We were all so astonished that none of us had our heads on right enough to afford it the suspicion it warranted. One moment gave to the next and before we knew what happened, a hail of arrows came falling down out of that storm. The arrows oft struck earth, or else dealt wounds where life would not bleed out. But one arrow found its mark true enough, and earned a terrible bounty for our enemies. Lord Lorwynne fell quick, with an arrow in his heart, and no amount of ministrations or magic could have helped him.”
“The same such thing took many of my people,” Iadne said, remembering the day that her clan was massacred. “Only, the Oxenford forces stampeded upon us as well, lancing many of our people and trammeling them under hoof.”
“If they have joined together,” the old man said, “then they will be a hard foe to meet at a clash.”
Iadne sulked in the shadow of her hood. “Do you think Eseus…do you think he will seek vengeance against hte Crows for the murder of his father?”
The old man stroked his muttonchops, considering. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
“Why not?” she demanded.
“There is no wisdom in vengeance. Only an animal need to sate the blood-hatred. And it isn’t good to indulge that animal too much. You have to tame it, otherwise it will run riot.”
“I would say that to tame the animal would be to weaken it,” she countered. “And to weaken it in the wilderness is to invite disaster.”
“That is true in a way, too,” he admitted. “But look at it this way. Venageance is like a nasty pie. You may have baked it for a particular person, but in the end everyone gets a slice, including yourself. And you don’t want a piece of that pie, because it will mess with your innards something awful. Having married a Spider clan girl, I believe I know something on that matter. Now Justice—that’s a dish everyone can eat. And I believe that Eseus is his father’s son and will see that Justice is done. Blood doesn’t rest when it’s spilled on a downslope; it just keeps flowing faster and faster the more it is spilled.”
Eseus could feel the fresh strength of the horse, and with it a strength refreshed in himself. He felt dread before him, too, at what might find him at home, and remorse trailed behind him, worried as he was that something might befall Iadne. But he knew, too, that she was wiser than him to the perils of the moor. He had to trust in her pluck and knowledge, and concentrate himself on preparations for the coming war.
Hope leapt with each stone’s throw as he came closer to home. The triple-gash upon his shoulder burned and broke and bled anew, yet could not weaken his gladdening heart.
Eseus reached the Fork before midday, and soon saw the familiar fields of his homeland as the Gray lifted from around the expanse of Lorwynne. Perhaps his ancestor had been a wizard after all, for the Gray yielded dominion at the edge of his birthright. Stars always shone over House Lorwynne in the late hours, even when the day had been clad black as night. The stars, and their constellations, shone.
The peasants were out in the fields, tending to the crops. Scythemen reaped the wheat, and women plucked beans and squash. Hay was piled and pitchforked atop wagons to be stored in the thatch-roofed barns for the coming Winter. To see the peasants working out in the open, when war was as a storm brewing hot upon the horizon, frightened Eseus. They were all working loyally— in service to him as well as themselves—and they were vulnerable because of it. They would need to be brought behind the walls until the enemy had been vanquished. He only hoped the granaries were full enough presently to see them through the famine months.
His heart leapt when he saw the malachite heron banners rising from over the battlements of his father’s castle. Despite it all, he felt a great surge of purpose and hope at the sight of the mighty stone walls. He vowed to aspire to be ever as much the man his father was, and to be deserving of his people’s trust and loyalty. He would protect them, he told himself, from flood and flame and his fickle family.
The drawbridge was down, the portcullis up. The castle was as a young maiden with her legs innocently spread beneath her hapless skirt, ignorant of the lechers scheming for her maidenhead. Her chastity belt had to be drawn tightly, and the satyrs gelded for their intentions.
The horse’s hooves clacked upon the wooden bridge but a moment, it seemed, and he was entering the castle. Had he been a band of marauders they would have been well on their way to the heart of the castle, unchallenged.
Upon passing the first wall, he reared about. The sentinels lay lax against a wall— so lax they appeared dead. But they were not splashed with crimson upon their green cloaks and silver-veined armor. Their sonorous snoring also betrayed that they were yet-living. Their halberds lay athwart their laps, as if sleeping deeply as well.
“Why are these men sleeping while on duty?” Eseus demanded loudly.
No one answered him, for the two sleepers were the only souls on this side of the wall. Again, he questioned the deaf air in vain. Hopping down from his horse, he kicked the men upon their boots.
“Rise! Rise!” he bid them. “The enemy approaches!”
The sentinels, realizing who had waked them from their slumber, scrambled to their feet and stood at the ready, albeit very drowsy in their countenances.
“Sorry, milord!” they both said, sweat now bathing their well-rested brows. “We have been holding vigil all night, watching for you…”
Eseus waved away their words impatiently. Other men-at-arms, realizing whom was making a ruckus, gathered around him eagerly.
“Rally the other men!” he commanded. “Post the guards. Bow and arrow for one and all. Make ready the cauldrons. Boil the oil. Send riders out to the fields and gather the peasants. Do not wait. Do not let them tarry long. Once they are within, draw up the bridge and lower the portcullis. Go! Now!”
The men stood still, fidgeting with confusion.
“What is the matter?” he demanded, his angry eyes searching his men heatedly. “Are you strawmen struck dumb? Move! To arms!”
It was then that he saw their eyes all gather behind him. Turning, he saw his mother coming toward him— her eyes shimmering more brightly with tears than the shimmer of her green dress—but he also saw others around her. While his mother exclaimed praises to the air and threw her arms around her son, her son took her embrace but half-wittingly, for his eyes fixed themselves upon the retinue around her, and their purple-and-white ox emblems as baleful in his eyes as any creature lurking in Beggar’s Swamp.
“Such preparations are quite needless, I assure you,” the Oxenford commander said. “My scouts have reported nothing to fear from the Crow clan. They are leagues away, roosting in their own filth.”
They stood in a chilly circle of opposing words in front of the portcullis. Eseus’s men lingered by, oscillating in indecision and conflicted loyalties. Eseus insisted that they do as he had bidden them, and the Oxenford commander undercut his every word. Eseus remembered the man from his childhood, albeit now rendered with less hair and more mustachio. Commander Vanus had ever been a blowhard, and even now he outshouted the rightful heir to House Lorwynne.
“They march here even now!” Eseus said.
“Nonsense, my boy,” Vanus said. “My men would have report it if it be so.”
No one believed Eseus. No one trusted him. He was yet a young man, after all, and the commander was a battle-proven man of experience. That he was a traitor and a usurper-regent for the Oxenford heir, no one but Eseus could see that.
“I have seen them,” Eseus said. “I have killed three of them on the moor. My caravan was ambushed and my subjects slaughtered by their arrows and blades. I know that they conspire with…”
He cut short his words, knowing that his mother was present, and a single blade gone awry could end her life. He knew he could not let them know that he knew of the conspiracy, nor let them know of his dealings with Iadne. They believed they had him in the dark, but he could see beneath the hood of lies, and would use their machinations against his kingdom to undo them. The fish would leap and hook the eye of the fisherman. This he vowed.
“Perhaps I am but overwrought,” Eseus said after a time, relenting. “I have been too long upon the moor.”
“Verily so,” his mother said, anxious concern all over her face. She kept her arm around him, as if he might be spirited away at any moment. Her hand found the blood of his shoulder and she gasped. “And you are wounded! You bleed, Eseus!”
“As will we all,” he said, giving Vanus a scowl, “given time.”
He let his mother lead him away into the castle. A midwife was summoned, at once, and she tended to his bandages. House Lorwynne had no wizards or doctors. Doctors could hope for no better payment than room and board, and wizards shunned the Oxenford Road. Herbalists might be found, occasionally, but unless they were of a certain tradition they might kill a man as sure as any wound left unattended.
After he had been bandaged anew, Eseus dined with his mother, briefly, and spoke of the deadly feast at Oxenford.
“How dreadful!” his mother remarked, eyeing her slice of apple pie suspiciously. “That such terrible creatures should…should…should just spring out of a pie and kill a man! I am only grateful that you were not bitten. You were not bitten by a spider, were you, Eseus?”
“Only in a manner of speaking,” he said. When he saw the look of terror on her face he added, “Figuratively, mother.”
She attempted to smile, but the ghost of her grief clung to her still. It was for this reason, and others, that he did not tell her about the conspiracy between the Crow Clan and Kareth. He did not believe she would be able to play her role calmly while overcome with her sorrows. She had just lost her husband, and to know that Oxenford had plotted it so— and that its top commander now occupied her home— would have been knowledge too crippling for her overburdened heart. Thus, Eseus let things play out as they might, and plotted in the meantime.
“Mother,” he said. “Before uncle died he had voiced, rather aggressively, that I should marry his daughter. What are your thoughts on the matter?”
His mother became quite silent, staring down at her lap and wringing her napkin in her hands. Her brow twisted and flexed, trying to smooth out its turmoil.
“Your cousin Kareth is a beautiful young woman,” she said hesitantly. “What are your thoughts, Eseus?”
“That she is beautiful, yes,” he said. “And that my uncle desired our marriage. She desires it also.”
“And what do you desire?”
“I…I desire to know what father would think.”
His mother’s face twinged at the mention of his father, and she almost wept. However, she steadied herself and took a deep breath, dispelling the sadness.
“Your father said that you should never marry into their House,” she said. “And that they should never have dominion over ours.”
“Father and I are of an accord, then,” Eseus said.
“But you have to understand, Eseus,” his mother added quickly, “your father had wild dreams at night. He never spoke of his brother except after such dreams. And they were raving dreams, Eseus. Terrible nightmares. He spoke of stars falling upon the world and razing it to scorched scars that would never heal. While I did not understand any of that, I did understand that he did not trust your uncle. He did not trust any of them.”
“Nor do I, mother,” Eseus said.
“I should like to see you wed, my son,” she added. “And I should like a grandchild to bob up and down in my lap. But I do not want such a child as would be born from Kareth’s womb. Who knows what terrible sins might dwell there? Better a common lady, or even a peasant. I would not begrudge a peasant grandchild. I should give love regardless.”
Eseus nodded but once. His thoughts went to Iadne, but he did not speak to his mother of her. After dinner he ventured out on the battlements to give instructions to his men.
“Should they arrive, see that they are brought to me and to me only. See that they are not harmed. Fetch me at once. Do not let any of the Oxenford men intercept them, or attempt to claim them for questioning. One is a loyal man you likely know. Perceus. The woman is an albino with disarrayed hair. Her name is Iadne, and she is certainly not to be harmed. If the Oxenford men intervene, and it comes to blood, so be it. Am I understood?”
The men affirmed so.
“Tell no one else of this arrangement,” he said. “Once she is here there will be other arrangements to be kept only among us. Until then, be vigilant. There are enemies within our walls as well as beyond.”