Frost

Pubescent Winter, crone daughter,
coming in dead of night to shine
like stars aglow on cold water
or the glint of a silver mine.

Frost, you blight the garden and crops
far worse than worms in leaf and root
with your cold white crystal caltrops
upon petal, stem, vine, and fruit.

But you kill, too, the worms in squirrels
and rabbits with your icy sting
so that while the frigid wind skirls
the family may eat till Spring.

A goddess takes and gives in turn—
beautiful, cruel, hoary and kind,
so cold that you can sometimes burn
as we leave Summer warmth behind.

By No Other Path

(An atheist’s advice for believers)

You think that upon your earthly death
you will exhale at last your final breath
and sprout from your ghost the angelic wings
to carry you aloft, to the King of Kings,
but with whom you count yourself there among
depends on how well you climbed each rung
of the burning ladder that leads to Heaven
during your life, enduring the Seven.
You cannot fly high by flapping tongues,
but must give with open hands to take the rungs—
by giving up your all with selfless alms
and bearing the wounds of Christ upon your palms;
for it is a burning ladder you must ascend,
each rung a Hell before your End.

Little Lamb

The crumbling barn sloped leftward,
blackened by the backdrop of dusk,
the fields ragged, the woods blurred
by the dead day’s discarded husk.

She leaned on a rotten fence
of cedar posts and barb-toothed wire
blinking back tears to make sense
of dying light and Sodom’s fire.

Wearing a wool sweater vest
made by momma for Winter’s cold,
she was by beauty much blest
like her momma— but young, not old

Her thighs were bruised, her knees scabbed,
and she stood with her legs apart;
beneath her dress a pain stabbed
straight to the center of her heart.

There were horrors that scarred men:
famines, devils, tyrants, and wars,
but such were oft forgotten
in the daily routine of chores.

What she feared most was the thought
of daddy’s hands groping for fleece
within the pen, the lambs caught
and lifted and shorn, piece by piece.

She saw how he held the sheep,
pressed down under his grunting weight
late at night, momma asleep
while winds beat at the bleating gate.

So much blood from the nicking
as he drunkenly spread the shears
to cut, cut, cut, the blades pricking
the loins of a lamb young in years.

She would flee the farm tonight
while daddy drank in the black barn,
and find her way by moonlight
up the mountains, to the cold tarn.

Once there, she would drown the lamb
lest daddy could again sheer her,
knowing now the rutting ram
and not wanting daddy near her.

Crabby

Craig could only see the crabs through the hole in his shirt, right at the crook of his left arm. If he tried to look at them through the neck sleeve, over his shoulder, or through the wrist sleeve, up his forearm, he saw only his arm. He tried to reach into the hole to pull them out, but they would only dig their sharp legs into his flesh and pinch his fingers with their long pincers. He tried to shake them out, but that did no good, either. Their oddly shaped carapaces scraped up and down his bicep and forearms with the motion, and made a godawful scraping sound, like the grinding of teeth.
He knew he could not take off his shirt, or it would all be over for him.
Craig could not remember when exactly the crabs had proliferated inside the crook of his arm. It could have been the other day, when, at work, Benny had the gall to steal a good table of tippers from him at the restaurant. When Craig confronted him about it, Benny said Craig should have been quicker and more attentive because the family was becoming restless about their drinks. Craig talked through his teeth, fuming and saying that Benny had asked Craig to look after Benny’s table while Benny was taking a leak. Benny’s table had been an old man who complained about everything and wouldn’t stop complaining, even as he shuffled out the door, recounting the long personal history he had with the restaurant. Yeah, the crabs pinched at Craig’s arm bad as Benny split the ten dollar tip that was rightfully Craig’s.
Or maybe it was when Craig when to pick up his girlfriend a few weeks ago and he saw Rafael flirting with her out on the sidewalk while she waited for Craig. It wasn’t so much that Rafael was smiling his sleazy, dimpled smile with his slicked-back black hair— it was that Lily was smiling back so hard, her skull and eyeballs about to pop out of her face. Lily had never smiled at Craig like that. The crabs knew this too, and they scurried sideways and pinched and set his nerves on fire. On the ride home Lily said Rafael was “Just a friend”. The way she said it was as unabashed an admission as if she had said, “We fucked by the dumpsters on our lunch break, and I came three times.”
Or maybe the crabs colonized his arm a month ago, at the intersection, while he was on his way to work when some asshole in a delivery van ran a redlight and struck Craig’s Prius and spun his lightweight car around like a dreidel. The delivery truck was not even scratched, but the Prius— and Craig’s neck— was all bent out of shape. What was worse, Craig went to the hospital, after the paramedics insisted, and came out with a bill that his insurance company, and the at-fault driver’s insurance company fought tooth and nail to refuse to pay. Craig had been fighting with the two of them over his bills since the wreck. The wreck had also put a crimp in his love life. Whenever he and Lily tried to get intimate his neck would start hurting, or his back, and she would leave the bedroom in an angry puff, going to watch tv in the dark living room. He would take an Ibuprofen and fall asleep. One night, however, he had gotten up to go pee and had heard Lily talking to someone on her cell-phone. She crooned and giggled and was talking like a schoolgirl in love. When Craig went to wash his hands near the sink, he felt a searing pain in his neck. Looking up in the mirror he saw a Red King crab clutching the base of his skull with its large pincer. When he reached for it, the crab was gone, but the ache wasn’t. It spread.
In fact, the crabs spread all over him. They pinched him at the most inconvenient of times and places. While walking down the street, when someone bumped into him, or when receiving the wrong food at a fastfood restaurant. There were crabs behind his ears, and under his tongue, and folded up under his armpits. There were small crabs pinching at the nerves in his eyes, holed up in his eye sockets, and antagonized with eye strain. There was even a crab somewhere scuttling about in the chambers of his heart. He knew he would never be able to remove that one. Its spiky crustacean body scuttled restlessly as if the very beat of his heart set it off in a fury.
And he didn’t ever remove his shirt. He kept it on, even as it began to stink. He knew it had to remain, or all else would fall apart. It was the first thing Lily had bought for him when they had first started dating. It kept everything together, even as the holes in it grew larger and multiplied, revealing crabs in every ragged aperture.
It seemed to Craig that the crabs became worse during certain activities. Work, for instance, exacerbated them, sending them scrambling and pinching and poking him in various places. Driving in heavy traffic, too, made them worse. Having arguments with Lily really intensified them.
And then, one day, everything escalated. He was late for work because of a traffic jam, and Lily wasn’t returning his calls, and Benny kept taking smoke breaks during the busiest times of the day, then returning to poach Craig’s tables. Craig cussed Benny in front of customers, was reprimanded, then cussed his manager, was subsequently fired, and walked down the road in a fury, leaving his dented Prius in the parking lot. He walked all the way down to Lily’s place of work— an artisan café shop—and saw her flirting with Rafael while on break again. Craig felt an awful pain shoot up and down his back. Gritting his teeth, he went to a window of a nearby building and stooped over, raising his hood. In the faint reflection off the window he saw a giant snow crab sprawled across his back, its extraterrestrial head rising as its two eyes stared blankly at him from atop their stalks. His anger flared and went right up to Lily and Rafael and, punched the flabbergasted sleazeball right in his perfectly gleaming grin. Lily shrieked, further angering the crabs that scurried all over Craig. He slapped her across the face, then left down the street. As was his luck that day, the police came by fairly swiftly, demanding that he put his hands on his head and kneel on the ground. Instead, Craig lifted his shirt and flung it off, dissolving into a cast of crabs that scuttled sideways down the street.

Venom Pies Part 11

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Cousins, uncles, aunts, and various other relatives by blood and by vow all greeted the heir of the House of Lorwynne and his people as they were taken at point of sword and spear. Eseus knew it wiser not to fight, though every vesicle throbbed in him to take a blade to the complacent faces of his relatives. They sneered as he was stripped of his sword and rendered powerless. The looks upon their faces reminded him of the same arrogance present upon their faces at the feast wherein Kareth’s father died, except now they were one and all peacocked out in plumage and armor which ill-suited them.
“How could they know where we would emerge?” Iadne said. “We did not know ourselves.”
“Kareth is a sorcerer,” Eseus said. “I doubt there is much she does not know.”
“You are correct in your assumptions, traitor,” one of his cousins said; a dandy with a golden helmet and a purple plume. “She sees all. She knows all. Your treachery had no hope of success.”
The fop sneered, then raised the mouthpiece of his helmet and sneered again so Eseus could this time see it.
“If Kareth can see all,” Eseus said, “then she knew of the imminence of her father’s death, and did nothing to prevent it. Thus she wished for his death. Do you deny this?”
“Silence, traitor!” the fop said. He raised a gauntlet, as if to strike Eseus, but even the silver gauntlet could not steel his nerve toward violence. “It is ill luck to strike a relative,” he said, relenting and lowering his hand.
Eseus shook his head slowly, ruefully. “No, you fear to strike me because Kareth does not wish me harmed,” he said. “That much is easily seen.”
“True,” said another relative; a grandaunt stepping forward with as haughty a voice as her plumed son. She was one of his grandfather’s younger sisters. Her son— the dandy— was ten years Eseus’s senior. She walked like a woman possessed of years and power, and unrivaled arrogance. She spoke as someone who had never been brought to suffering by the pomposity of their tongue. “But that does not hold true of others in your treacherous number. Do you wish to tempt harm upon them?” She looked meaningfully at Iadne. “Those ill-bred peoples of the moor are not afforded the same mercies obligated to those loyal to a House. Wherever they go, they go with the shadow of a blade above them, eager to fall.” She gestured toward the women and children following behind Eseus. “And even your peasants can find themselves afoul of a noble temperament should they prove unworthy of Queen Kareth’s magnanimity. Loyalty is expected above all else, and the very whisper of disobedience is merit enough for a culling of their sniveling multitude.”
Eseus did not hide his sarcasm. “Loyalty seems a fickle thing in our family,” he remarked darkly.
“Indeed,” his grandaunt said. “Especially with your recent betrayals. Did you think she would abide your alliance with the Spider clan, let alone the assassination of Lord Oxenford?”
Eseus could not muster even a frown of incredulity. His grandaunt seemed rehearsed in the narrative that Kareth wished to present, and so, likely, the rest of his extensive family. Thus, he knew that Kareth was scheming beyond the House of Lorwynne and the domination of the moorland provinces. Her ambitions were doubtlessly exuberant, and reached elsewhere and afar.
“Lord Oxenford had my father assassinated,” Eseus said. “That he should be assassinated in turn seems divine retribution. And I am eternally grateful to the one responsible for that comeuppance. Had I the chance, I would have slain him myself and served his fat flanks at the feast in his honor.”
“But you did not slay him,” his grandaunt said simply. “Your ally did.”
She did not indicate Iadne beside him. She did not have to. The hateful glares that followed the Spider clan girl informed him, and her, that all present knew who she was and for what she was responsible.
“And,” his grandaunt continued, “you know as well as I that there was nothing divine in Lord Oxenford’s death, except, perhaps, that his daughter should reign afterwards as an ascendant Queen of the All Ways.” She threw her hands fussily in the air, as if shooing them all away. “Enough chatter now. We march. See where your words will take you while in judgment by your esteemed cousin. She will likely be more merciful than I would be, but I think she will nonetheless exact recompense from you, in some form or fashion. I eagerly await that judgment, too.”
“As do I!” her son said with childish glee. She gave him a withering look, but he was too gleefully spiteful to notice.
Eseus, his mother, Iadne, Percevis, Edea, and the remaining women and children of Lorwynne were all conducted through a passage walled by blades on either side, led to the military caravan already arranged along the Oxenford Road. They began the long march toward the House of Oxenford. Eseus glanced back in the direction where he thought lay the House of Lorwynne, but could not see anything. Above them, the Gray was as thick as ever, and beyond them, too. Much of the Oxenford army was concealed in the fog. Eseus could not see anyone among the Crow clan.
“Where are your allies?” Eseus asked. “I do not see them.”
“Your cousin feared for your safety,” his grandaunt said, her voice one of mild amusement. “She wished that they stay and hold the castle, weeding out whatever worms remained among its nooks and crannies.”
“They are pilfering and butchering,” Eseus said. His hand went to his hilt, but they had already taken his sword from him.
“Crows have their uses,” his grandaunt said. She stank of glamor-laced perfume. “As do peasants. So long as you surrender to Queen Kareth’s forces she will spare all those remaining. As I have said, loyalty matters to her. Her plans require many more forthcoming soldiers. The boys remaining will be trained to be obedient to her and to serve loyally in her army. The women, too, shall have their uses. No one will be squandered, and those unhelpful will find themselves unnecessary.”
Eseus looked to Iadne, to his mother, to all of the women and children sobbing behind him. He saw Percevis’s grim, blood-drained face, and the anger there, but also saw the illegible look upon Edea’s face. The old Spider clanswoman gave no feelings away at all, and Eseus knew wisdom in that.
“I will plead for mercy from my cousin,” Eseus said, sighing. “On behalf of all my remaining people.”
“Her remaining people,” his grandaunt said. “Otherwise we would round them all up like sheep and slaughter them as we did their treacherous husbands and sons. Be thankful, thus, that you have all been allotted mercy by being inducted into the Queen’s ownership. All that was yours, is hers. Your people, your castle, your mother, your soul. All belongs to Queen Kareth.”
“As you say,” Eseus muttered.
The Oxenford soldiers did not bind him, nor any of the others. They saw them as no threat. Only Iadne did they watch sidelong with suspicion and wariness. So far as they knew, she was something of a sorcerer in her own right. This was not entirely true, but also not entirely a misreading of her capacities. She kept the clew close to her heart within her hooded robe, next to the dragonrock.

***

It was a long march, protracted by the length of the caravan, the loads of supplies, and the prisoners of war thronging between it. The whole company crawled along like a lethargic dragon suffering an illness. This frustrated many among the nobles— in particular, Eseus’s foppish cousin— but there was no effective remedy for the circumstance.
Eseus was offered to ride in a guarded wagon, but declined. His mother also declined this dubious hospitality, though she grew faint with each passing day until she had to swallow her pride and climb aboard a wagon. Eseus insisted that the elderly and the young be given places among the wagons also. This request was granted by his relatives, but not, in fact, out of kindness; rather, it was obvious that everyone— from low Oxenford soldier to highborn noble—feared losing Queen Kareth’s newly gained subjects. Thus, the elderly and the young had their burdens lessened, many choosing to stay on the wagon wherein the Lady of Lorwynne resided.
Eseus felt Kareth’s presence always. While she was not among the convoy, her eyes and ears strained everywhere. At night when they slept, and Iadne refused to part from Eseus, he could feel a hateful glare upon the two of them. Iadne seemed to sense it, too, for she insisted with a spiteful delight that he share her robe with him. As they held each other, she smirked at the unseen intruder eavesdropping upon their moments of intimacy.
“He is mine,” Iadne whispered. “You cannot have him. He is mine. Always.”
The prisoners were fed hardtack that stank of skunk and given water every day. Eseus would not have deigned to eat, but Iadne admonished him to do so. Often at night she would supplement their poor diet by Willing grubs up from the moor, as she had done weeks prior while on the trek to the House of Lorwynne. Eseus ate all begrudgingly, knowing that she was correct: he needed his strength. His people needed him to be strong. Moreover, they needed his mind to be clear and well fed.
Yet, Eseus felt hollow. Shame had withered him from within, and alongside that shame was a restless beast; a creature caged by circumstance which sought fanciful means of salvation for his people as he imagined miraculous escapes and impossible moments of vengeance against the forces that had bereft them all. But he remained impotent, raging silently within his own skull as he awaited the inevitable arrival at House Oxenford. Disgraced and powerless, his mind reached back toward the Bull beneath the Labyrinth. Iadne sensed this stagnating rage. When he succumbed to such moods she would clasp his hand in hers as they walked, squeezing when the fury in his heart pitched downward into desperate fury, like a seaship diving headlong into a whirling maelstrom.
“Do nothing reckless,” she told him, “or all will be truly lost.”
“It is a fury I have never known in life,” he confessed, “and so it is a steed that throws me from within. It bucks and leaps and I feel the violence in its hooves. It wants to trammel everything. Foremost, myself. The shame is unbearable. The rage overwhelms when I think of all that could yet be lost because of my incompetence.”
“Do not let it overmaster you,” she said. “I know it is hard. Believe that. I know better than anyone what it is like to lose everything.”
Eseus felt a sudden shame of a different kind. “I am so sorry, Iadne,” he said. “For what happened to your people. For what has happened to you.”
She smiled at him sadly, and tears were in her eyes. “I feel shame, too, Eseus. For in all this misery, I feel hope. And happiness. Our daughter will come. I have read it in the web. She will make things right, as things should be. And I am ashamed because this happiness I feel would not have been had my clan not been extinguished. Without their deaths, I would have never known you. And you are mine. That, no one can take away. Not even you.”
Eseus shook his head sadly. “Nor would I. I promised you my life, and you shall have it.”

***

The caravan came to a stop, the prisoners kept in tight groups overseen by spearmen. In turns the women and children were allowed to make water upon the moor. While Iadne took her turn, Eseus saw to his mother. She sat among several women and children, all of whom had the looks of frightened rabbits as wolves prowled nearby.
“They have treated me no worse than anyone else,” she told him. “It has been a bumpy ride in the wagon, but worse would it be to walk. The soldiers have been more or less courteous; more so than to the other women.”
“They would not dare harm you,” Eseus said. He said it mostly to reassure her and himself, and feared only half-believing it.
“You have lost weight,” she said, touching his face. “You must eat, Eseus, and stay strong. Your people need you.”
There came an angry volley of voices from the other side of the Road. Two men shouted, one Percevis and the other an Oxenford soldier.
“Keep off her, you brothel-born by-blow!” Percevis roared. “Or I’ll split your head like an overripe pumpkin in want of mushing!”
“Search the woman,” the soldier ordered, ignoring Percevis. “She was doing something suspicious out on the moor.”
Percevis hobbled toward the soldier, meanwhile clutching the wound at his chest. “Yeah, she was pissing, you leaking bucket of hog-water! Didn’t get enough of an eyeful then, hm? Want to see where I keep my other sword while you’re at it? You filthy tree-peeper!”
The soldier ordered two other soldiers to bind Percevis, then grabbed Edea by the wrist, pulling her roughly to him. Inspecting her garments, he began to strip them off of her, one by one, until she was left with only her undergarments. He nearly stripped these, too, but for the eyes upon him. Instead, he stuffed all of the Spider-silk cloth into a large pouch and hooked it to the saddle of his horse. He looked quite pleased with himself.
Eseus rushed forward, even as the spears closed in around him.
“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “Stealing from an elderly woman? Have you never a mother of your own?”
Red-faced, the soldier stiffened and snarled. “I am confiscating these items lest they be used for witchcraft.”
“There is no witchcraft in human decency!” Eseus cried. “Nor in warming oneself from the moor! Would you have her freeze to death?”
The soldier snorted as he mounted his horse. “What loss would it be to for an old witch to die on the moor?”
Percevis pulled at the reins of the horse, turning it aside and flipping it down upon its flanks. The soldier rolled from the saddle, scrambling to find his feet. The horse was unharmed, but startled, and righted itself up and fled from the scene, startling other horses with other soldiers upon their backs.
Before Eseus could intervene, the thrown soldier came at Percevis and struck him a harsh blow across the face that sent him reeling. The old man’s chin was streaming crimson before he collapsed to the ground. Edea screamed, but was held back by the other soldiers. Eseus leapt forth and struck the soldier so hard that his helm went spinning off his head, joined in short order by the man himself. Straddling the downed man, Eseus beat him near to death before another Oxenford soldier knocked him aside with the hilt of his sword. The world spun and plummeted into darkness. All was darkness.

***

And then there were stars. Mesmerizing stars. Countless stars above and beyond. And he was a man staring out from a balcony upon a tower in the Southerlands around which white sands stretched seemingly forever, horizon to horizon. He saw the stars above his barren world, and marveled at them, yearning to pull them down and bind them, under yoke, to his will. More than anything, he coveted the twin Bulls that drove across the heavens, chasing even the moon itself in its arching path. The power of the Bulls pulled at him, like a madness, and so he sacrificed much to work miracles with his magic. He sacrificed whole forests and swamps and generations of creatures to harness the yoke whereby to call down the Bulls from the sky. He knew they were the beasts with which he would build a kingdom upon the misty moorlands.
A great road he furrowed, forking upon forks to create many paths to many castles. These castles he built up with magic, stone upon stone. Below them he cut a great labyrinth wherein to house his coveted beasts so no one might take them from him.
A woman came to him in time— a sorcerer of aspiring talent, and unequal beauty—and he longed for her companionship. But she feared the Bulls— not the beasts themselves, but the glimmer in his eyes when he thought of them— and so he gave unto her one castle over which she had dominion, and he kept his own castle, over which he had absolute dominion, and so he halved his power to double his love for her, visiting her in her castle whenever he was not dabbling in darker arts and studying the Bull beneath Oxenford. Her castle— Eseus’s ancestral home—was a cage for her, as it was for the Bull entombed beneath it. Like the Bulls, she felt separate from him, and so divided, and paced restlessly above or below the earth.
***

Iadne watched over the man she loved, tending to the wound dealt to his head. She cleaned the bloody contusion with hot water and honey, then bound it with fabric cut from her own robe. She gave him water and watched him for signs of fever. He did not wake, but he did not weaken, either. He merely slept.
When she was not tending to Eseus, she attended his mother, reassuring her the best she could about their circumstances. She also tended to Edea, though she knew that in moments of grief there was merit to solitude also, especially those among the Spider clan. Meanwhile, she also assured herself of the future of her clan. The clew remained, pregnant with promise, and so, too, the dragonrock. She did not know when an opportunity would present itself for escape, but she knew she and Eseus would need to take it. Yet, he was so stubborn. She knew how he felt about his people— she knew better than most. However, he would not be able to free those remaining. They would be inducted into slavery to his vile cousin, and if he and Iadne did not escape they would be tortured and humiliated and executed. Or so it seemed to her.

***

When Eseus roused he felt the world swaying and rattling violently. He thought it an earthquake at first, then saw his mother leaning over him, and Iadne, and the cloth backdrop behind them. He was in one of the caravan’s wagons. Disoriented, he lay still, listening as his mother and Iadne spoke to him. He had been struck half-dumb, but slowly regained his wits. Words resumed meaning in his head and he could at last understand what they were saying.
“Do not exert yourself,” his mother said. “Or your wound may bleed again.”
There was a spider-silk bandage across his forehead. He reached toward it curiously, but Iadne stayed his hand with her own.
“Leave it be,” she said. “Or you will be twice the fool you were earlier.”
“Percevis!” he said with a start, suddenly remembering everything.
The look upon their faces revealed all, grave and wan as they were.
“Where is Edea?” he asked, holding back his tears.
“She is here, in this wagon,” his mother said. She glanced toward the corner of the wagon, where Eseus could not presently see. He heard a woman’s sobs, faint above the rattle of the wagon wheels. His mother wiped a tear from her eye. “She grieves. They wished to bind her, but I would not let them. She is now our responsibility.”
“And Percevis?” Eseus whispered. “Did they…did they bury him?”
His mother and Iadne exchanged concerned looks.
“The moor will see to him,” Iadne said. “Do not rise up in a furor over it or you will be joining him. His burdens have been…eased. Relinquish yours, for a time at least.”
Eseus clenched his teeth, but did not rise. He knew it would do no one any good. The world rattled on, noisy and unfeeling as ever before. He closed his eyes and listened to the cacophony of the caravan pass along the Oxenford Road; the snorting of horses, the japes of soldiers, the weeping of the women and children, and the wobbly wheels of the wagon upon which he lay. The commonplace sounds were transformed monstrously in the wake of so much death and destruction. It drove the spark of his anger like a fire in the fields, burning bounty and blight alike until there was only the flames, and the desire for it to burn the unjust world to ash.
“Are you not angry?” he said.
“Of course we are angry, Eseus,” his mother assured him. “But we can do nothing now.” She looked wan and weary, her auburn hair graying. She trembled as she spoke. “We are are at the mercy of circumstance. It is not resignation…but we must abide. Your father would not want you to throw your life away in a noble, but futile, gesture. Nor would I. It would kill me to lose you.”
“Had she wanted me dead I would be dead. She has other proposals in mind.”
“‘Proposals’,” Iadne said, her pale lips creased at one corner; neither with amusement or anger. “That is the choicest of words for the matter.”
Edea sighed, her sobs subsiding. Then her sobs renewed. Eseus turned his head just enough to see her crumpled form in the corner. Her children and grandchildren huddled around her, comforting her, and themselves, in their loss. Eseus’s rage was suddenly overcome with pity. Pity gave way to outrage once again and he vowed revenge. Yet, despair undercut outrage, and the realization that he was powerless was as a bloodletting upon his anemic soul.
“I am useless now,” he groaned. “What a shame it is to be the last living man of the House of Lorwynne.” He shook his head, a tear streaming down his cheek. “What shame I feel. What disgust…”
His mother laid a gentle hand on his cheek, and Iadne rubbed his chest with her palm. In this way did the women of his life comfort him until he fell asleep once again. He dreamed of Labyrinths of Time, and a wall-less Labyrinth without Time, and the Celestial Bull, and all that would come to pass before the end of the world…

***
The witch looked out from her tall black tower overtopping the trees of Beggar’s Bog. She sat in a rocking chair, slowly rocking back and forth upon the balcony. She sipped from a tea made of mushroom caps and spider-grass, and occasionally nibbled from a biscuit flavored with gingerweed and sugar rushes. The dark canopies that stretched beyond her tower appeared like the moor itself—solid and traversable by foot. Below the foliated mirage of the trees, however, were plummeting depths and strange songs and drowning waters. Hungry mouths rummaged everywhere for meals. Aqueous throats gurgled, and guttural croaks deepened into growls. The trees of the Bog stretched outward forever, disappearing into the Gray that lay heavy upon the sky, occluding the heavens like a malevolent miasma that hoarded covetously the Northlands.
And because of these things, and many more, the witch considered her tower one of the safest places in the whole of the All Ways. It was safe enough for her, anyhow. The tower had stood for thousands of years, and she had lived in it for hundreds. Waiting. Watching. Wondering. Even when she could glimpse in her scrying glass the world beyond the Bog, she wondered at its machinations. Something foul was afoot. The House of Lorwynne had fallen, and now a great imbalance threatened not only the moorlands, but the entirety of the world. She feared it was the same power that had enthralled and ruined so much so long ago.
Yet, she calmly sipped at her tea and nibbled at her biscuit. She knew the threads would weave their way to her soon enough. Inevitability reigned here, as it did everywhere else. Not even the Master— whoever he or she happened to be nowadays—could overpower inevitability. Fate had its say, regardless of whether it accorded mankind cruelty or kindness. In the witch’s estimation, kindness and cruelty were often the same thing. And if she ever forgot such a thing, she would look down upon the Bog and be reminded of how the world was.

***

Eseus lay on his back, brooding. The ache in his head had departed, but the ache in his chest remained. His mind turned back often to the Celestial Bull beneath the House of Lorwynne. He envisioned himself driving the gigantic beast out over the moor and toward the various Houses that had conspired against his people. He saw the Crow clan scattering before its earth-shaking hooves, trammeling them to dust. With its horns lowered, the Bull charged the various castles, smashing them to ruins, the bodies of his duplicitous kin strewn among the fallen stones.
But he saw, too, the cost of such a vengeance. The House of Lorwynne would collapse as the Bull rose from its tomb, for its tomb composed the foundation of the castle. To free the Bull would mean to forfeit his ancestral home. He saw, also, that the Bull would not stop until all tall towers upon the earth were razed to the ground, for the Bull wished to refute all aspirant towers arrogantly thrusting themselves toward the stars. It was not that he could not have driven the Bull away from such a destructive path, but that he knew— deep down in his blood—that he would also have wanted to level the earth of all conceited enterprises accosting the heavens.
It was no use, all this wishful dreaming. Eseus sat up, steadying himself with his hands upon the wagon bed. The women and the children were asleep now. He could hear their restive breaths. He could not see in the dark of the wagon. Night roosted upon the world and the caravan had stopped. He wished to step outside, and relieve himself, and so carefully crawled toward the back of the wagon. Nights upon the moor were as black as chthonic passageways, but he could see the fires from the camps of the soldiers. An Oxenford soldier approached him as he climbed down from the wagon.
“I need to relieve myself,” Eseus said.
“I will relieve you of your head,” the soldier said, “if you do not return to the wagon.”
“Then I shall relieve myself here,” Eseus said. He fumbled with his britches, still feeling dizzy from the blow to his head.
The soldier stood guard meanwhile, his sword in hand. When Eseus had finished, the soldier shoved him up into the wagon.
“Animal,” the soldier said.
Eseus wished to kick the soldier’s helm off his head, but refrained. He sat at the end of the wagon, looking out at the soldiers and their many campfires. He felt dizzy and wished for water. Someone approached. To his surprise, Iadne appeared from around the wagon’s wheel, climbing up into the bed, unseen by the soldiers.
“They possess poor eyesight at night,” she said. She sat next to Eseus at the back at the wagon, her pale face cut softly from darkness by the faintest flicker of a nearby fire.
“Where have you been?” Eseus asked.
“Your mother was taken for questioning by some of your kin. Do not fear. She is safe and will be returned shortly. I crept about, finding the tent and listening to their questions.”
“What did they ask of her?”
Iadne glanced around, briefly, to see if any soldiers were within earshot. She whispered. “They asked what we had found in the crypts. She told them we had found many generations that would be ashamed of them all. They did not take kindly to that answer, but did not strike her either. They threatened to kill a peasant child for every turn she took at balking. She told them of the beast beneath the castle. This pleased them and they prepared to have her returned here. I left, naturally, before they could observe me.”
Eseus could only nod.
“We must escape tonight,” Iadne said. “I have a plan. It will require haste. How do you feel? Can you run?”
“I cannot run,” Eseus said. “I cannot leave the other women and children here.”
“They will be fleeing with us,” she said.
“Not all of the women and children would escape,” Eseus countered. “Many would be recaptured. Many would be slain. I cannot forsake them.”
Iadne scowled at him, and the darkness did not soften the spite.
“I have lost one daughter once before,” she said. “I will not lose another.”
“That is why you must take my mother and flee together,” Eseus said. “So long as I remain, the heir of House Lorwynne, they will be satisfied.”
Iadne’s scowl hardened. Her wild white hair, paired with her red-eyed glare, made her appear like a gorgon in the dark. “You would abandon me? You would abandon our child?”
Eseus looked away from her. He heard the multitudinous breaths in the darkness of the wagon—the women and children whose fathers and brothers lay heaped upon his ancestral grounds. When he spoke, his voice was soft and slow and full of memory.
“When I was a boy I wished to play as the peasant children played. I saw them from the stone towers of Lorwynne and wondered why I could not indulge as they indulged in mirth and sunshine and games. But my father dedicated me to training and education, instructing me about the world and the moor and governance. Whenever I bemoaned my lot my father would take me to the fields where the peasantry toiled. There I saw the children toiling, too. I saw how bent they would become, as their fathers had, and I saw how gnarled, and some broken by the hard labors of the fields. The children played but a few hours a day, whereas their chores lasted long hours, grinding them with its stooping and digging and planting and reaping. I saw their present lives, and I saw what their future lives would become. My heart ached for them, and when I confessed this to my father he said that wisdom began with a lent heart. By lending my heart to others, I could understand their lives. When I asked why we should allow the peasants to break themselves in the fields, he told me it was a necessary evil. He said that leadership must also including stepping beyond the immediate empathy to think of tomorrow’s plights. Small pain presently was better than greater pain— perhaps even deathly pain— later. Famine, he said, was the demon driving us forward beneath the yoke of necessity. As for me, he said I could not play as other children because there were too many lives ever upon my shoulders. Innumerable deaths, he said, would be the harvest of such play. And so, thinking of those small boys and girls, I dedicated my life to the role set before me. Even now I see those children in my mind, playing innocently for a handful of hours and then toiling endlessly in the field. Those little boys are all as one dead, strewn among the green in the House of Lorwynne, and those little girls are here, older now and weeping for the fallen while clutching little boys and little girls of their own to their hearts lest they be stripped from them and lost forever in the silence hereafter. All of my years training and learning— what good did it do any of them? What good would it do any of them if I abandoned them now? It would be a worse betrayal than that of abandoning their men to die on the green. I cannot do it. I will not do it.”
Iadne opened her mouth to rebut him, but he spoke quicker.
“And that is why I want you to take my mother and Edea and escape. Please. Save my mother. Save our daughter. Raise her to be a child of the moor. Do not tell her of me. Do not thread her path to the House of Oxenford. Take her South. Go to Gran Stone, or even the Southerlands. See the Silver-Scale Sea. Let her know freedom. Let her know happiness beyond all this misery.”
“You can go with us to the Southerlands,” she said. “Leave all of this behind.”
“Kareth will not allow it,” Eseus said. “You do not know her. Her heart is a cold, immovable thing. Glaciers would melt ere her heart would change. The retribution against the women and children…it would be of terrible cost to them. I must remain. You must leave, and take my mother with you. But I am bound by fate now.”
Iadne leaned toward him, her pale lips curdled angrily, but her red eyes sad. She grabbed his shoulders and stared into his eyes. “But you owe me your life,” she said. “It is not your decision to make.”
“I do owe you a debt of life, Iadne,” he said. “But my greater debt was always to my people. Had I a thousand more lives, Iadne, I should give each to you. I love you.”
Iadne said nothing. There was nothing left to be said. She felt the world churning irrevocably— the great millstone of Fate grinding what was into what could never be again—and it tore at her heart. Yet she remained silent, though she wished to scream.
Presently, a trio of soldiers came to the wagon, the Lady of Lorwynne between them. Eseus and Iadne leaned upon one another, pretending sleep, erstwhile listening to the soldiers.
“She’s a pretty one,” one of the soldiers said. “For her age.”
“No touching, you fool,” another soldier said, “or they will gut you for sure. That’s a Lady, even if she is a traitor.”
“A little pinch is all I want,” the other soldier said. “Never pinched a Lady before.”
“And I am telling you your neck will be in a pinch if you try it!”
The two soldiers argued quietly while the third soldier helped Lady Lorwynne up into the wagon.
“Go to sleep,” the third soldier said. “And don’t try anything unwise.”
“Of course,” the Lady of Lorwynne said.
The three soldiers left, the two grumbling amongst themselves. When their gripes died at a distance, Iadne and Eseus sat up once again.
“We must leave,” Iadne said. “It is our one chance.”

***

The dragonrock sparked, setting the spidergrass alight. Three sparrows carried the flaming wisps in their beaks, diving into the wagons wherein some of nobles resided. The canvas bloomed aflame, and many voices screamed as soldiers scrambled. The night became as dusk with the flames.
Iadne clasped the Lady of Lorwynne’s hand tightly, leading her urgently away from the conflagration and the chaos at their backs. Edea followed also, her eyes no longer grieving, but hardened and flashing like the sharp points of vengeful daggers. Her family members, too, followed her, and so their throng fled over the moor.
Soldiers shouted for them to stop. Naturally, the women did not heed them, but hastened their flight through the darkness and the mist. Arrows flitted past them, whining near their heads in futile fury.
“Where is Eseus?” the Lady of Lorwynne asked.
Iadne remained silent.
“Eseus?!” she called. She tried to stop, looking about for her son. Iadne yanked upon her wrist, hastening her.
“He will come,” she lied. “Now, run for your life!”
Iadne was too disoriented with emotions to know which direction she was fleeing. She was upset, and her eyes burned, and she wished the world to burn, too, for all seemed a ruin of what it should have been.
And then there came a light; a shimmer in the darkness. The woman beckoned to them from the edge of the swamp. She was fair-haired, her skin lustrous like starshine, and her dress was as black as the darkness between stars. Her neck was long and slender, and moved with a precise, almost unnatural deliberateness. The women and children followed her, surrendering their fates to her as they came to the edge of Beggar’s Bog. Iadne hesitated but briefly, fearful that she was being led astray by a wisp or some other malevolent creature. The radiant woman saw the doubt in the young woman’s eyes. She held up both hands, and therein were stars like the guiding stars of morningfall.
“Fear not,” the radiant woman said, “for thy deliverance I grant unto thee.”
The woman’s voice was soothing, devoid of malice, and renewed Iadne’s faith in her intentions. Thus, she followed, pulling the Lady of Lorwynne along while Edea and her family kept close behind. Soon they disappeared into the swamp. The soldiers of Oxenford were loath to follow.

Beneath His Habit

Beneath his habit there was hidden
what, in his gospels, he preached against—
a body beset, disease-ridden,
for which he so shivered and coughed and winced.

Beneath his collar there grew like weeds
a cancer of the throat, so like libel,
and down below his rosary beads
his lungs were black as a brand new Bible.

While he spoke to save each lamb-like soul
in the rapt congregation of his church
there was an irreparable hole
in his heart—literal, which made it lurch.

And there were blood clots, each quite swollen,
in his arteries, clogging the relay,
and there were polyps in his colon,
lined like pews in a church, ripe with decay.

He read aloud tales from the good book
of his Lord, and how He might spite us,
his fingers trembling, stiff at each crook,
and thorn-ringed with a flaming arthritis.

His frail body was the tale of Job,
each youthful blessing stripped wholly away
until only faith filled up his robe,
forcing fickle flesh through another day.

Love became his words, and creed his sight,
while pain became his altar boys and choir;
as he spoke of faith, his lips were white
and he smelled of Death beneath his attire.

But he felt akin at last to Christ
as he hung tormented upon the cross,
knowing faith means being sacrificed
to prove one’s faith, through its gain and its loss.

Speaking of the paradise to come
he became so passionate and pious
as to feel faint, his arms and legs numb
while he toppled down upon the dais.

Thus he fell, and thus his flock mistook
his death as evidence of their god’s wrath,
averting their eyes, so as to look
for some other means—an easier path.

The Nihilist’s Delusion

Pardon my breaststroke
over oblivion,
but the undertow will take me
inevitably
in time,
not with my eager acceptance, thank you,
but with mortal fatigue,
meanwhile your undead body
bloat-floats complacently
over oblivion,
coming eventually
to ashen shores
so you may make
ash angels
after having razed the world
and all of its myriad “illusions”,
attempting to delight in the
ruination
of the
joys to be had
rather than throwing yourselves
upon the pyres
and giving resolution
where your philosophy’s resolution is due.
You wish to beat us down
with the bones of the departed,
striking our hopes with a cruel
tattoo of
“You too! You too!”
as if we were not aware
that even headstones crumble,
given time;
and, yes, we know that
we ride determinism’s
compulsive waves
along the continuum of life—
it is no hollowing revelation.
Excuse me,
but while you numbly nestle
into the shoreline’s ashes
after you have smote all meaning
in your estimation,
and while you stubbornly mutter
your mantra of “malignant uselessness”,
I cannot help but note the irony
of your continued existence;
for while you champion mass extinction,
the puppet does not burn himself
to cinders
to rescue himself from the supposed
“conspiracy against the human race”.
Actions speak louder than words,
and you seem quite disingenuous
while you gleefully lob
Molotov cocktails into the sea
like bottled letters
meant to reach distant shores.
It is an ironic joke, you know—
the one about the
self-professed nihilist
who refuted his own thesis
by showing up
in person
for the book signing.
Yes,
we are meat puppets
tangled up in our own strings,
but only you seem to be
high-strung about it.
Then again,
strumming other people’s
heart-strings
has always been lucrative,
even if money and ambition and
etcetera
further the delusion
you decry.
Perhaps you should use the ashes
as eyeliner
for your late-term
Emo phase?
Meanwhile,
I will make my sand castles
as I please.
Somehow I doubt your
ash castles will last long,
and, besides, wet ash
burns the hands
which shape it,
yet will never clean the hands
of the hypocrisy
that stain them.