Cenataurs

How far they ride upon horse shoes
of beaten silver coin and gold
blacksmithed by the corporations whose
interests have them bought and sold.
Fitted thus they can gallop long
into their old age, man and horse,
even when no longer wise or strong
upon the circuit’s costly course.
Yet they do not steer, horse nor man,
but are driven by the tight reins
of those whose bit and whose bridle can
make or break them in campaigns.

Libations (To Keats)

Of libations he poured out overmuch
from heart, from lungs, thus a deathly wine
to slake cruel gods who thirst for such
as from fruit doth vein grow upon its vine.

For Persephone descended the depths
and Autumn came, that season of mists,
while Adonis spoke crimson breaths
a name clutched as blood between hopeless fists.

And so pouring forth, the singsong wine fell
to deepen the redness in the West,
cadences like a nightingale—
the bright star faded and was laid to rest.

Overfull

I am grasping at stones
in this lake,
not with my lumberjack’s hands,
but with a little girl’s curiosity,
wondering how this dreamy-eyed
Woolf
drowned in this water,
her belly full of rocks
and her naked Albion body
wrapped in a red cloak, a red
hood
with pockets full of
bitter chocolate biscuits.
I cannot retrieve these six stones
from the waves
and must find my own,
following the stream of
thought
to the lighthouse
so I might dissemble it
stone by stone
to build a room
of my own
wherein to while away the
hours
before the rabble
drives me to drink.

Venom Pies Part 3

 

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A new day dawned in the Gray and the sun was a pale-faced phantom through the thickening clouds. All day was as twilight. Only at dusk did the day differ itself, night encroaching over the world. Eseus pressed his horse forward, however, over the vast moor. Occasionally he found himself upon the Oxenford Road, and so would veer from it, keeping in parallel to its stubborn dirt scar.
The night deepened, its shadows saturating the far-flung expanses of the moorlands. Suddenly, the horse halted, neighing fearfully and nearly bucking its two passengers. The horse’s cries echoed long after Eseus had calmed the horse to silence. He eyed the darkening land suspiciously, not knowing what his sight sought. To his surprise he saw, across the misty moor, the broad trunk of a strange tree with a bushy head of leaves that blended in the upward heights of the looming darkness. He did not know why, but the tree alarmed him more than any Crow or wolf pack or even bog-wyrm could. Perhaps it was because it was such a solitary tree, since he had not seen trees since leaving the outskirts of his uncle’s lands. His passenger leaned toward his ear.
“There is no such thing as a benevolent tree upon the moor,” she whispered.
Eseus waited, and watched. The tree was black and had no branches. It was all trunk and foliage and nothing more, so far as he could see. He felt the chill of the fog mix with the chill of the sweat on his brow. Gasping, he watched as the tree split in two, yet the twin trunks shared the same head of foliage.
“Flee!” she hissed urgently. “Or we are doomed!”
The twinned trees bent and stepped forward as two large legs, their gigantic feet booming upon the moor. Eseus yanked the reins, driving the horse in a long-curving arch around the approaching legs, whipping his horse into a full sprint.
The Giant roared with a voice like an earthquake, and shook the moor as if to crack the contintent unto two. But as vast as the Giant’s stride was, he was slow and could not maintain even his slow speed for long, losing the riders in the fog even as his large, gnarled hands searched for them with grasping, hungry desperation.
“He should not follow us,” the Spider clan girl said. “It should be safe to slow now.”
Slowing the horse to a trot, and then to a stop, Eseus dismounted, thereafter helping his captor down.
“I have never seen a Giant before,” he said, breathing heavily. “It pretended to be a tree.”
“Many Giants do,” she said. “They wear kilts of leaves and stand very still, one leg in front of the other, digging their toes into the earth, rooting themselves in place and waiting for unwary travelers to pass by in the dark. Then they claim them and eat them. They are not very fast, and are almost always famished and tired. Their large size makes them so, as does the scarcity of food on the moor.”
“I have heard of Giants,” Eseus said, “but I must confess that we always thought them the tall tales of men too deep in their cups.” He wiped his brow clear of the clammy sweat beading there. “His legs looked like they were covered in bark.”
“They are,” she said. “And his face is gray and chiseled roughly, like stone, and hair covers much of its torso, colored green and yellow and brown. You must be careful of steep foothills. Most rise laxly, almost sleepily, from the moor, but there are those that rise too sharply toward their summits. Anything abrupt is not sleeping upon the moor. Giants also curl like foothills in the fog, biding their time to grab incautious prey. They are ambush predators.”
“My horse sensed the danger,” Eseus said. “Yet, I did not. I should have known a solitary tree upon the moor to be highly suspect. I was too preoccupied with the concerns of my home.”
“It is an assured way of never seeing home again,” she said. “The moor can use your love against you. Giants are kindred to the moor, and thus are children of the Gray. Yet, the Gray can be a barren mother, and so the Giants are often too groggy with fatigue and starvation to think clearly. In this way does the Gray humble its children. If Giants were clear-headed there would be no stopping them from running riot over the lands, feasting upon every living creature.”
“They would be a terrible army to behold,” Eseus agreed.
“Fortunately, they are no more merciful toward their own kind as to us. The smaller ones must be wary of the larger ones, for food is food to them, whatever its origin.”
“Smaller ones” he said. “Like children?”
She frowned at him and shook her head. Her white tangles of hair shook wildly, and the way she looked at him with her red eyes made him feel like he was speaking to an otherworldly creature.
“There is no such thing as ‘children’ among anything except humans and animals. Fairies, Giants, Titans—they have no ‘children’. And the smallest Giant has outlived the oldest wizard by a thousand years. Do they teach you nothing in your stony castles?”
“I have been taught many things,” he said. “Human history, for one. How many kings can you name? How many wars do you recall? Or the strategies employed?”
“What good are such things to me?” she snorted. “My clan taught me how to survive.”
“Such things as I know help me to survive, also,” he said. “For your life, knowing the moor and its flora and fauna is important. For me, knowing humanity and its lessons helps me to survive. I will not belittle your knowledge just because it is different from my own.”
“You are right, of course,” she said. “I…I forgot myself. Knowing what other people are capable of could have saved my people. I would have never thought it possible that the Crow clan would make an ally of the Oxenford line to destroy us. But perhaps with your people as allies I may have my revenge replete.”
“Revenge is a bitter pie,” he said, thinking of the pie that had killed his uncle. “And you may eat it only once.”
“Yes, but what a feast to remember!” she said, smiling bitterly. She eyed him warily, thinking. “Would you dissuade me from vengeance? Do wish to spare my enemies?”
“No,” he said. “I only want to focus on defending my people right now, while I still have people to defend. I will think of vengeance only if…” He shook his head and let the thought die in the mist-heavy air. “I do not wish to think of it.”
The sky thundered suddenly, portending rains. There was a rush of warm wind coming on like a phantasmal army.
“We should camp near the Oxenford Road,” she said. “The Giants do not go near it. Nor do most things upon the moor.”
“Why is that?” he asked.
“It is cursed,” she said, “as is everything bearing the Oxenford name. There is a reason why the moors do not retake the Road with gorse and grass.”
He opened his mouth to say something, but refrained. He retained his silence.
“I do not like to be near the Road because of the curse,” she told him, noting his irritated expression, “but it is better than being snatched up while we sleep. We must not light a fire, however, for it will bring the Crows to us. They stay sheltered in their tents during storms, but their crows are ever scouting.”
Carefully, they walked in the dark until they came to the Road. The Spider clan girl had an unfailing sense of direction while upon the moor, even in the dark. She led Eseus by the hand, and he led the horse by the reins. When they reached the road, they sat beside it, huddling beneath her robe. Eseus attempted to sleep, but as with the night prior, sleep came but fitfully. At length, he sighed.
“What is wrong?” she asked.
“I am too worried to sleep,” he said.
“About your people.”
“And my mother.”
“But they have stone walls to protect them,” she said. “Surely that is enough in the meantime.”
“Stone walls did not help my uncle,” he said.
“No,” she said. “They did not.”
“I sometimes wonder if my family is cursed,” he said. “My father’s House is the House of Lorwynne, but he, too, was an Oxenford, only it was through marriage to my mother. House Lorwynne is an old house, and strong, but not as old and strong as House Oxenford. My father and my uncle grew up as rivals in many ways. During the tourneys they competed together, and more than often my father won. This bred resentment in my uncle. He and my father also both loved Lady Kareth’s mother. But her mother was much like Kareth herself, craving only power in a husband. And she saw power in my uncle. Not power of skill or of wisdom. But of willpower. He was willing to do whatever was necessary to dominate and control others. My aunt, therefore, was a perfect match for him.”
“As a werewolf to a full moon,” she said.
“Just so,” he said. “My father was bitter about their marriage at first. He had bested my uncle in many ways But then he met my mother— my uncle’s sister—at the wedding. He realized how fortunate he was to have dodged the arrows he had nocked for himself. My mother gave my father a tress of her hair and he began courting her almost at once. I do not doubt that my uncle resented their pairing, and begrudged my father even unto his own death, but I also believed that he thought it a fortuitous event for himself, for it meant he might someday rule the House of Lorwynne as well as the House of Oxenford. Before he died, my uncle pressed me to marry his daughter, my cousin, Kareth, and unite our houses. Kareth, herself, urged me to do so also. With the two largest Houses of Oxenford together she might have the forces to annex more provinces beyond the Oxenford Compact. She might annex the Northlands as a whole, in time, and extend her control to the Midlands, rivaling even the Valorian Empire. It is no secret that was my uncle’s dream, for it was my aunt’s dream, and so it is my cousin’s dream.”
“I saw your cousin at the feast,” she said. “She was a pretty little creature, in her own way. Fragile as a flower, though.”
“That is her strength,” Eseus said. “Looking vulnerable. But there are talons there, as ready for blood as any Crow’s. I have known Kareth since I was a child. Her stratagems have not changed. Even then she would instigate fights amongst my other cousins and myself, demanding that we fight for her favor. She took after her mother in that way, I suppose. My eldest cousin, Artell, was mad for her. He challenged and beat all of my cousins in turns, coming at last to me. He was bigger than myself, and as crude as a bad tempered buck in rut. The hammer blow of his fist sent me reeling. Yet, I picked myself up afterward and ran at him. He struck once more, but I evaded beneath his arm. My swordmaster had taught me the weaponless arts as well— even when young—and so I snapped his arm at the elbow, rendering it useless. He crumbled to the ground, weeping, and I stood in shock. Erstwhile my fair cousin laughed in delight and favored me with a kiss as I stood there, dumbstruck to idiocy.” Eseus’s words became lighter, but his tone was nonetheless remorseful. “Artell cannot use a sword to this day, but he begrudges me no more. Indeed, we are on amicable terms insomuch as the present is concerned. Youth enflamed with passion leads to great tragedies. And to be young is to be passionate. The blood has not yet cooled.”
The Spider clan girl considered all that he had said.
“I never knew that lordlings had such…traumas in their lives,” she said. “We assumed you were pampered and coddled. But there seems to be more wilderness in your lives than that of our nomadic clan. At least those of a clan will not strike against their own. That much I can claim as a blessing.”
“Politics are always dangerous,” Eseus said, “and gaining a lady’s favor—especially the heir of a powerful house—is the most precarious of politics. Battles with pens can cost more lives than battles with swords. An errant pen can orchestrate a thousand catastrophes, bleeding long after the ink has faded upon the scroll.”
“Your lives are more complicated than I should like,” she said. “The moor is misleading, too, and can imperil with feints of good will, but it never smiles when it undertakes its machinations. This…Kareth…she seems to me to be a crow pretending to be a dove. But I pity her.”
“You pity her?” Eseus said, dismayed. “Why?”
“Because she does not truly care for her clan,” she explained, “and she who cannot care for her clan has no clan to care for her. She is alone. She is the mistress of her own sorrows.”
Eseus considered this. “You are right, of course. Then again, we Oxenford heirs have a habit of tailoring our own tragedies. This Road, for instance— you said it was cursed. Well, you might be right. Do you know how we came of the Oxenford name? My family named ourselves for the same feat that created this Road. My ancestor tied a plow to a pair of oxen of unnatural size and drove them through the moor— through heath and bog and hill and all—until this road remained. He forded without concern for impediments or imminence. Or so my father claimed. Some think he was a wizard and used celestial bulls. The curse you spoke of may, therefore, be partially true. Grass does not grow here, nor gorse, nor weed. Worms do not till it, nor will any plant grow within it. I know because I tried as a child to grow yams in its dirt near the castle. The yams grew on one side and on the other, but the actual Road remained untouched by vine or root or leaf. At the time I faulted my own ignorance as a farmer, but now…now it seems you are right. Only humans dare its path; humans and whatever other beast a man might press to tread its dirt. It must be cursed.”

***

When they woke, the rains had gone and the sun limned the moorlands wanly. The Road itself was utterly dry, as if the rain had dared not touch it. They began at a gallop once again, but the horse was soon overworked, and underfed, the moors providing little for a beast to sustain its strength for so long a ride. Eventually they dismounted and walked alongside the fatigued horse. Eseus was agitated, knowing he was well behind the progress he should have by now made.
“At this rate it shall be a week before I arrive home,” he complained. “Everything seems set against me. I should have arrived home today!” He eyed his captor sidelong. “Of course, that would have been so had I not an additional rider to burden my horse.”
The Spider clan girl gawped with fury. “Without me you would be but a corpse in a puddle with the crows pecking at your soggy flesh. Do not direct your frustration at me.”
Eseus scratched his head angrily— almost as if to pull his hair out—but suddenly relinquished his anger. “You are right,” he said, begrudgingly. “I am acting like a child. But I fear for my people, and the most rotten of luck has visited me. It is a hobgoblin sitting on my head and refusing to budge.” He reached into his satchel, finding only carrots and radishes awaiting his hand. “We will deplete the food I stored for the journey very soon. Do you…do you know of any food the moor might provide us?”
The Spider clan girl scanned the horizon. “My people survived making elixirs of various herbs and grasses on the moor. But such elixirs would not help you. Often they kill those not accustomed to their toxins. That is also why we have named ourselves the Spider clan.” She smiled with some satisfaction. “But we also ate food like the rest of you may eat, if you would deign do so. Rabbits. Foxes. Groundhogs. Any kind of bird. Especially crows. Whatever we might have killed with arrow or willed over our fires, we ate.”
“I have no bow,” Eseus said. “Nor do I have your talent for willing beasts to do as I wish.”
“There are always bugs,” she said, seriously. “Or is that too beneath you?”
“They are quite beneath me,” Eseus said. “Beneath me, in the earth.”
When she did not laugh, Eseus explained that it was a joke.
“Starvation is no joke,” she said. “And certain bugs are quite filling. They can strengthen a man as much as any beef or poultry might.”
She knelt down at once and placed her hand upon the wet turf. Eseus waited patiently nearby, curiously watching her as he held the horse’s reins. The grass began to move, and small holes opened in the ground, as if dug by fingers. Bright orange grubs wiggled up through the damp grass. The Spider clan woman plucked them up and held them in her bone-white hands. There were seven fat grubs in all.
Eseus grimaced. “Do you not cook them beforehand?” he asked.
“If you wish,” she said.
She abruptly dumped them in his free hand and knelt down to make a fire. She gathered together gorse and grass into a rounded pile. She then withdrew flint and a striking stone from her voluminous sleeves. With these she quickly struck at the flint, spitting sparks into the wet grass. To Eseus’s surprise, the wet grass caught flame and a small fire burned upon the soaked turf.
“How?” he asked, baffled.
“Hurry,” she said. “Dump in your bugs.”
Eseus let the orange grubs fall into the flames. The flames eagerly cooked the grubs black. When she decided they had been cooked enough, the Spider clan girl stuck the flint into the fire, reabsorbing the fire into the black rock.
“That is dragonrock, is it not?” Eseus said.
“Of course,” she said, slipping the flint and the striking stone back into her sleeve. “Ancient dragonrock whose fire has almost burned out.”
“I know of it,” he said. “It was once the bone of a dragon, long dead. A dragon fossil, in fact, or near enough so. They say it absorbs flame, and gives flame when struck. Unquenchable flame. It belongs to one of the Immortal Dragons. If it were ever fed enough flame the dragon would be reborn.”
“Which is why I do not give it more flame than I take from it,” she said.
“They say that fire from a dragonrock can set water itself ablaze.”
“I have never tried such a thing,” she said. “I only use it sparingly when the grass is too wet to burn normally.”
“That is wise,” he said. “It is a priceless artifact. Many wizards and witches would…well, it is good no one knows you possess such a thing. Great mischief could be worked upon the world with such a powerful item.”
“It was my father’s,” she said. “The Crows threw it away as sentimental rubbish. But I knew its worth. I found it and have kept it as an heirloom.” She handed him a few of the burnt grubs, and took her share in hand. She stared at them for a long time, thinking. “Sometimes I think I would like to throw it into a large fire and let the dragon be reborn. Let it scorch the world in its fire.”
Eseus frowned in disgust— but whether it was disgust at the grub he had eaten or the intimation his captor had made, he himself did not know.
“Many innocent lives would be killed,” he said, chewing bug. It did not taste bad. It did not taste good. It was merely bland.
“Many guilty lives would be ended, too,” she said, eating her second grub. “Why should it matter, after all? I have no attachments in this world anymore. And I have the dragonrock at my disposal. If I feel nothing for anyone left, then I should not fault myself for letting the world burn. It is my right, and I am answerable to no one.”
“But what would your parents think of you?” he said.
She turned away from the fire, and from Eseus. “They are dead. What they would think does not matter, not even to them. I am free to do as I please.”
She stood apart from him, back toward him, and staring out across the moor. Eseus ate the remaining grubs and said nothing. He could see her shoulders shaking beneath her robe, but he said nothing. He let her moment of grief pass. When her shoulders stopped shuddering, she spoke again.
“Do lordlings believe in a life after this one?” she asked
“Many are Matharists,” Eseus said, “But my father believed it a lot of dragon feathers.”
“And what do you think, Eseus?”
Hearing her say his name for the first time gave him pause. He cleared his throat.
“Part of me wishes it so,” he said, “so I might see my loved ones again. But because I wish it so I doubt it. When has this world ever answered wishes?” He thought for a moment, his brow flexed with the world in the balance of his scales. “No, I believe it a lot of dragon feathers as well.”
She nodded, curtly, and then began to walk once more. There was nothing more to be said about it by either of them.

***

There was nothing but monotonous moor and bland gray sky stretching on forever. They stayed parallel with the Oxenford Road, walking within sight of it and within sight of the easy-rising foothills. The clouds thinned overhead, but sunlight never broke through to the moor. The world was awash with the Gray. In the distance— seeming at first a mirage of overlapping shadows and fog—a caravan moved upon the Oxenford Road. Eseus squinted his eyes, but could not discern much about them.
“I cannot see their banners,” he said.
“I may be able to,” his captor said. She raised a hand toward the seemingly desolate sky. Within a few moments two small birds arrived, resting on her wrist. They were very small gray birds, and Eseus did not recognize their breed. Before he could ask, one bird pecked at the eye of the other bird, plucking its eye out cleanly with its beak and dropping that tiny eye into his captor’s accepting palm. The two birds then flew away in two different directions. The blood-beaked bird went as it willed. The one-eyed bird fluttered toward the caravan, its gray body vanishing at the distance.
Taking a deep breath, the Spider clan girl peered closely at the tiny eye in her palm. After a moment, she spoke.
“They are heavily armored men,” she said. “With many lances and swords and pikes. The banner they fly is purple with a white ox upon it, its horns long.”
“They fly my uncle’s banner, then,” Eseus said. “We must circumnavigate them, or they will see us.” He pulled the horse to the West, circling wide of the encampment. “They are a war convoy…and I know where they go. But we must arrive first. Can you…can you watch them for a span?”
“I can,” she said. “But I cannot walk while I do so.”
“Then you will ride,” Eseus said. He helped her atop the horse, leading it by the reins from the front. As he walked and guided the horse, she spied on the caravan. Eseus looked to her occasionally, wondering what kind of toll such a talent took upon her. Her red eyes did not blink once. Sweat broke upon her brow.
They had followed the caravan at a distance for an hour or so before the Spider clan girl informed Eseus that the caravan was halting.
“They are setting camp,” she said. “They are resting for the night.”
“It is not yet twilight,” Eseus said. “We should ride around them now, while we have the chance, and gain more time on them.”
The Spider clan girl tossed away the bird’s eye, blinking her eyes rapidly and nearly swooning. Eseus caught her before she could fall off the horse. He mounted the horse behind her, holding the reins while steadying the young woman against him.
“Will you be well enough to ride at a swifter speed?” he asked.
“I need only a moment,” she said, “and I should recover.”
Eseus gave her a moment, and in that moment’s time she swayed with each light step the horse took. Gradually, however, she righted herself up, straightening her spine and gaining a hold upon the mane. Eseus noticed, and was glad for it.
“When you feel stronger,” he said, “we must switch places. I…I cannot see around your hair.”
The Spider clan girl actually blushed at that— with both fury and something else— and she nodded curtly. Unconsciously, she pulled at the wild disarray of her white hair.

***

Twilight came, and with it the Gray deepened upon the moor. The moor, however, was hemmed in in the West by a great bog.
“Beggar’s Bog,” Eseus said. “We would do well to keep away from it.”
His captor concurred. “Lest we wander its depths forever.”
Beggar’s Bog was vast— almost as vast as the moorlands—and was drenched in shadows from its ancient trees. The air hung heavy with the stench of stagnant waters and dead vegetation. Occasionally the stench of a dead animal wafted through the air, pungently punctuating the danger entailed in its gurgling, gaseous bowels. Will o’ the wisps flared here and there, like blue torches flaring and fizzling out. There were howls among the trees, and growls among the waters. The screech of a death pierced the mumbling ambience, and a tree shook intermittently, as if shouldered aside by something too big to be faced with sword or spear or even catapult. Moss hung from the trees like draperies, and the trees receded like columns into a temple of shadow. Not many men wandered into Beggar’s Bog and returned alive. And if they did return, they begged to be granted the mercy of a swift death and thus a swift cessation to whatever things they had seen that now haunted their minds.
Perhaps it was this latter knowledge that made Eseus halt the horse when he first saw the woman kneeling down at the edge of the swamp. He mistook her for some unfortunate soul lost in the woods, or perhaps a grieving mother trying to summon her hapless child from the merciless peat.
As he approached, he discerned a sad croaking sort of song. A wailing, gurgling, laughing song. He thought perhaps she had gone mad with grief.
His captor had fallen asleep, exhausted from her uncanny espionage upon the caravan. Eseus, thus, called to the woman, hailing her without first seeing her for what she was.
“My good woman!” he called. “What troubles you?”
The Spider clan girl roused at once, gasping and clasping her hand around his mouth. She hissed for him to be silent, but it was too late. The woman turned around and revealed herself to be a hideous, gray-skinned hag.
“Well hello, dearie!” she cackled. “Have you some laundry for Nanny to wash for you?”
Eseus realized his mistake upon seeing the creature’s mushroom-warted face, the hooked nose, and the needle-like teeth. She wore a dress made of what appeared to be skin and had white hair upon which black mold and lichen grew. The sight of her abhorred him, yet he knew the rules of the Game. Gray Nanny Needleteeth did not deal fairly with those who forewent her Game.
“Come, dearie, don’t be rude,” she said, growing testy. “Have you anything in need of a wash or not?”
The Spider clan girl released his mouth, whispering in his ear urgently. “Play along.”
“I know,” he whispered back.
“What are you saying, hmmm?” Nanny said. “Best not be whisperin’ about poor ol’ Nanny. She don’t like that! No, dearie! Not one bit.”
“Of course I have something in need of washing,” he said, dismounting from the horse. He looked back at the Spider clan girl, gesturing that she remain with the horse. “I was just thinking, Nanny, that my cloak is soaked with blood. I suffered a nasty wound and I fear I have ruined my favorite cloak.”
Eseus removed his cloak and, slowly, fearfully, edged closer to the hag.
“Oh, my poor dearie!” Nanny said, reaching out for the cloak with long, taloned fingers. Mushrooms riddled her arms as much as her face. “My poor dearie boy! Don’t you worry none about your favorite cloak! Nanny will clean it as good as new! As good and sweet as a newborn, delicious baby boy!”
“Thank you, Nanny.” He tried to smile as he handed the torn cloak over to the hag. She was taller than she appeared at the distance, and stank of foul, putrid waters. “I…truly dislike bothering you.”
“Tis no bother, dearie,” the hag said, clutching the cloak in her gnarled fingers as if to squeeze the blood stains from it. She grinned vastly, and the green needles of her teeth gleamed. “Tis no bother a’ tall!”
The hag hobbled quickly to the edge of the bog, wringing the cloak as if to wring a neck free of its spine. She bent down, kneeling, and submerged the cloak into the peat. The stench of the bog increased as she feverishly worked the cloak. Eseus glanced back at the Spider clan girl and the horse, tempted to flee. His whole body screamed to flee, for it knew— on some primal level—that this creature was frighteningly unnatural. But he knew to flee would be to die gruesomely. When he turned back to face the hag, she was standing in front of him, holding the cloak up— so very close—to his face.
“Did not Nanny do a good job, dearie?” she asked, her breath rancid with old meat. “Did not Nanny do her sweet little boy’s cloak a good turn?”
Eseus looked at the cloak in front of him. It was covered in peat and foul water. Mushrooms bloomed along its fabric without ceasing. Eseus swallowed hard, trying not to gag at the sight and the stench. Nanny grinned broadly.
“Try it on, dearie,” she said. “And tell Nanny she did such a good job cleaning her dear boy’s garments.”
Eseus could barely breathe. Swords were no good here, nor even magic, for this was a thing born of a curse. It was, thus, a game, and the Game had its rules, and he had to obey those rules to survive intact and unaltered.
Eseus pointed. “I beg your pardon, Nanny, but you seem to have missed a spot.”
The hag’s yellow eyes bulged. “Missed a spot, dearie?” she said. Dismayed, she looked from Eseus to his cloak, and then cloak to Eseus to cloak, and flung the cloak in the air, screaming wildly, tearing her white hairs out of her mushroom-dotted head and running toward the bog. She flung herself into the swamp with a long, tapering wail that ended in breathless gurgles.
Too shocked to react, Eseus stood there a while. When the Spider clan girl touched his shoulder, he nearly jumped.
“I was spellbound,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, “but you still won the Game.”
“I did,” he said, still in disbelief. His brow was a swamp of sweat. He had suffered a fear unlike any he had ever felt.
He reached for the defiled cloak, but the Spider clan girl interceded.
“Leave it,” she said, “or become as she is.”
She said no more, but led him back to the horse. The mounted again and rode farther into the North until night bid them halt and rest until daybreak.

Venom Pies Part 2

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***

The misty moorland stretched out to all sides of her, rising by sinuous foothills into the higher highlands and their smoothly curved mountains. The mountains looked more like burial mounds for ancient titans than the mountains in other areas of the Northlands. For this reason many people referred to them as the Wakes. All around the Wakes was empty desolation beneath a yawning, overcast sky. A slight breeze whispered of rain in the next hour or so. She walked as if in a daze. She had seen her vengeance concluded, and yet the self-righteous hatred and triumph gave way quickly in the silent, distant aftermath. Grief returned to her, like a melancholic horse that trailed her. Her hood could do nothing to shield her eyes from her own blinding rains. She had no purpose now. She had a vague impulse to wander Westward, into Beggar’s Bog, and sink herself into the peat once and for all.
Still, another thought tempted her toward the notion of exacting revenge against the Crow clan, too, since they had been involved intricately in the deaths of her loved ones. Perhaps slaying the self-proclaimed Lord of the Moor would be enough— only, she did not know what he looked like. Taking another Crow clansman’s eyes might secure her this knowledge. But the Crow clan were wise to the Wyrd ways, unlike the nobility of Oxenford, and they employed their own means and methods and countermeasures against such practices. It was impossible.
It was while she chewed over these glum thoughts that she spotted the lone rider dashing across the moors like the Shadow of Death. She wiped her eyes free of their tears and peered clearly. He rode as if the Flames of Mathara were at his hooves. But instead of cleaving close to the Oxenford Road, the rider shot far amiss of it, cutting through the moorland and edging the foothills. Farther afield of the rider, and arriving several moments later, there was a carriage flanked by armored soldiers on armored steads. Though it moved slowly, it headed in the same direction as the lone rider. Unlike the rider, it stayed upon the Oxenford Road.
“A ruse,” she said. She looked again at the lone rider. “Which little Oxenford sparrow are you?”
She followed the path of the rider, and saw that his trajectory aimed him into the fray of a warring storm upon the horizon. The wind near her whispered more eagerly now of violence and hatred.
“The fool will die of exposure in the elements,” she said. She turned away. “It is none of my concern.”
But then she felt her last remaining spider stir from within her hood, crawling down the side of her pale face and tapping meaningfully upon her chin.
“You wish for me to follow him?” she asked the spider. The spider tapped her chin once more.
“Very well,” she said, turning in the rider’s direction. “Perhaps there will be something useful to be found within his useless corpse.”
She walked in his direction, slowly and patiently, like a spider assured in its web. The rising wind howled madly, raking the grass angrily across the moor. The Eastern sky loomed blackly with its bellowing storm. Clutching her robe tight about herself, she trudged onward, the rain flicking almost playfully its flung droplets. Its mood soon soured into precipitous scorn.

***

The rain hit Eseus hard— harder than he expected. He had ridden into it defiantly, as he would have the Crow clan’s vicious ranks were they to descend upon him. It was less a matter of valor than it was an impulse of frustration and necessity. He hated the situation he now found himself in. He was confused, lost, disoriented upon the bucking bull of vicissitude, and not only because of the elemental tumult he spitefully charged into at full gallop. His father had been dead now only two months, and his covetous uncle was now dead, assassinated by an unknown schemer. Perhaps it was Kareth. Perhaps not. She had accepted the situation with glee, ever the opportunist, yet it was such a bizarre ploy that it seemed beyond her presumed charms and means. He thought at once of the Spider clan, but his uncle seemed quite sure that they were “dead to a man”. Then again, his uncle seemed quite sure he would be able to enjoy his sweets that evening with impunity, so what, truly, did his uncle know?
The winds whipped the rain into his face derisively. He was riding blind now in the wet and the dark. It was like riding into the roaring wet maw of a sea dragon. His horse whinnied in alarm, but did not relent in his gallop.
‘Nothing can hinder me,’ he thought. ‘I must return home. I must consult my advisors, my mother. I must…prepare for war.’
He pondered marrying his cousin but for a moment, and dispelled it forthwith. Kareth was a beautiful woman— as beautiful as her mother was, and as intelligent— and yet he knew she was as cruel as her mother was, and as cruel as her father, and so doubly cruel as the two. Yet, he also had to look to the well-being of his people, and she would make a powerful ally. On the other hand, he knew how she treated her peasants—in a manner mirroring her parents—and he was not certain he could rein in her cruelties. Then again, without her reinforcements his people might not survive a siege by the Crow clan. Death was death, after all, and life was life, however unkind it might have been, day to day.
It was as his mind was beset by such a clamor of frets that a trident of lightning thrust from the sky and landed near him. His horse reared in fright, screaming wildly. Eseus tried to calm him down, but the horse was fright-frenzied, bucking and kicking at invisible terrors. Eseus clung onto the horse’s wet, slipper mane as he was jerked about like wet laundry whipped dry by a washerwoman. At length, his grip failed and he was thrown, boots over helm, upon the ground. Striking the wet earth with a sharp agony in his shoulder, Eseus saw his stead flee into the flashing, booming downpour. He wondered if his guardsmen were nearby with his carriage. His only hope was to find them amidst this chaos.
His path decided, he pushed himself up with both hands. He immediately let out a breathless wail and collapsed once again upon the ground. His shoulder felt as if it had been cleaved by the lightning bolt. Searing pain, like a deep magmatic ravine, opened there, and into he fell, finding peace only in utter oblivion.

***

The moor was, on its driest day, swampy, and so it did not absorb much of the rain. She sloshed through the many puddles slowly, steadily, her stockings repelling the water with their special thread. Her robe, too, was woven from this special thread, as were all of the clothes belonging to her clan. It kept them warm and dry in these fitful autumnal months in the soggy Northlands.
She found him in a heap in the center of a mud puddle. She could discern from a glance that his shoulder was dislocated. Since he had already fallen unconscious she took hold of the displaced anatomy and righted it with a smooth, singular movement of coordinated hands; as if she had done so a hundred times before. He yelped weakly and shuddered, but did not wake fully. She then waited for the last of the rain to pass and dragged him uphill, through cascading runoff. She was not a burly woman, but wiry, and her sinews were strong with years of repetitive labors. She laid him upon a flat rock that jutted out from the hillside, and then stripped him of his soaked clothes. She scoffed at his rich, ineffectual tunic and pantaloons; their pomp and poor protection against the elements. These were the clothes, she realized, of men and women who spent far too much of their lives beneath roof and behind battlements. Their wits had been dulled by the luxuries of their easy lives. What else would explain his suicidal jaunt into the storm?
She recognized him at the feast. He sat next to the pretty noblewoman with the light red hair. She wondered what would send him fleeing from such a woman so quickly.
The young man now stripped, she doffed her hooded, crepuscular robe and shook off the rain droplets, then enveloped him in it, laying with him within it. It was a large robe— all Spider clan robes were— and so it accommodated both of them well. It trapped her heat within it, warming his cold, clammy body. After an hour or so, he began to shiver, which she knew to be a good sign. His body at last took up the fight against the damp chillness of Death. He improved, though he did not wake.
The sun set and night fell. His body warmed the robe also, though it would be midnight before he roused enough to speak. His voice was faint, and wavered.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Not your friend,” she said. “Not yet your foe.”
“I fell from my horse,” he said. “Do you know where he went?”
“You are a fool to charge into a storm,” she began to say.
“Do you know where my horse went?” he repeated, rousing irritably.
His tone was louder and was edged sharply. She misliked it, her own tone sharpening to meet his— blade to blade.
“There is venom at your neck,” she said. “You could die at a word if you voice your arrogance against me once more.”
He sighed impatiently. “You would not have saved my life if you wished to kill me,” he said. “I must hurry home. My people are in danger.”
“My people are dead,” she hissed. “Killed by your kinsmen and the Crow clan.”
Eseus opened his eyes. “So they plotted it together,” he said. “You must be of the Spider clan. I should have known you for this robe. It feels of Spider clan make.”
“You know nothing about my people,” she said. “Do not fool yourself.”
“I do know of them,” he said. “My father took in several of them when they defected from your clan.”
“Traitors!” she hissed.
“Only women and children tired of war,” he said. “And who can blame them? Your endless squabbles with the Crow clan wearies even us…”
“Silence!” she hissed near his ear. Her teeth clenched against his lobe. “Your tongue will kill you.”
“Your tongue betrays you,” he said. “You talk overmuch for someone who wishes me dead. That is because you do not want me dead, for you have spent too much time and effort talking to me, and saving my life. I would be grateful to you, as well as indebted, but I know you did not save me as a kindness. It is to serve some other purpose. Ransom, I presume.”
“That is not the reason,” she said.
“What, pray, is?”
“I…will tell you when the time comes,” she said. “In the meantime, my spider is at your neck. If you attempt to flee me, she will kill you. If you attempt to hurt me, she will kill you. Do you understand?”
He was silent a very long time. “I am begging you,” he said, trying to sit up. “Let me go to my people. My mother…I must see her. I do not want her to be alone when the Crows come. I must…protect…her. My uncle may be dead, but…my…cousin…she…”
He succumbed to exhaustion and fell asleep. She watched him for some time, thinking of her own mother…and the way the Crows cut out her eyes while she wept over her husband. Her heart hardened, but then came another memory of her mother, sitting at the fire and weaving spiderweb into a dress for her daughter. Her heart softened, even if her tone did not.
“Why would the Crow clan attack its ally?” she demanded.
His head lolled slightly, and he groaned. She asked the question once more.
“We are not their allies against you,” he said. “We are distant cousins. My uncle craved my father’s lands for years. Perhaps he was the one to employ the Crows against you, as he would have against my own people. But he died. He has always…resented us, and any clan not…brought to heel under his rule…
***

Eseus awoke with white curls of hair in his face. He slipped out from the robe and sat up, slowly, and then stood. He was naked upon the hillside. She had somehow made a fire using grass and twigs from shrubs and scruff. He would have thought everything in the moorland too drenched to be of use in conjuring a fire, but she had worked a miracle. The fire smouldered now, his clothes drying nearby on a rock. He donned them, grateful they were at least somewhat dry, but wishing he had his chainmail and breastplate. He felt very vulnerable. He glanced about for his horse.
“Do not think to leave,” she said, glaring up at him. Her eyes were red within her alabaster face. Her hair was a wild array atop her head.
The spider’s legs tickled the nape of his neck. He had to fight the instinctive urge to swat the spider away. His life would be thrown away with the merest flick of the fingers.
She rose, wearing her robe once again. “I have pondered your situation,’ she said. “And I will consent to your return home. However, I will accompany you, and my spider will ever be at your neck. If you are going to fight the Crow clan, then I wish to help you. My vengeance is yet incomplete, and the spirits of my clan will not rest until the Crows are destroyed. Once that is finished, I will release you from your debt to me.”
“Agreed,” Eseus said. “Thank you.”
“Do not thank me,” she said. “I hate you as much as the rest of your kin.”
“And I have no love for my kin,” he said, “nor for my dead uncle whom I presume you slew.”
“He slew himself,” she said, “the moment he allied himself with the Crows against my clan.”
She then closed her eyes and held out her bony hands. Eseus watched her quizzically. To his surprise he heard hooves, and then saw his horse running toward them.
“My horse!” he said. He ran to greet the becalmed stallion.
She opened her eyes as he returned to her, holding the horse’s reins.
“How did you do this?” he asked.
“Few of us can summon more than spiders,” she said. “And among those a few have more varied skills.”
Eseus’s sword was still attached to the scabbard upon the horse’s saddle. He reached for it and the young woman screamed at him.
“Do not dare take that blade in hand!” she said. “Have you forgotten that Death is at your neck?”
Eseus’s hand withdrew. “I promise not to harm you,” he said. “But I need my sword should bandits attack. Or worse. The moorlands are dangerous and cruel. There are things that would…”
“That would not flinch at a blade,” she said, interrupting him. “I know more about these lands than you, lordling. Do not presume to teach me of my birthplace. Does the grasshopper presume to teach the spider about her web? No, especially not as he struggles within it.”
“I am not presuming anything except your failure to understand why I must be armed,” he said. “
She squinted at him suspiciously. “You may only lay hand to it when I say you may,” she said. “If we are confronted by an enemy which blade might advantage us. But not sooner than my word gives your leave.”
“Very well,” he said. He hoisted himself up, astride the stallion. “Come.” He reached a hand out to her. “We must ride.”
The young woman’s acrimonious veneer suddenly broke into troubled wariness.
“What is wrong?” he asked.
“I have never ridden a horse before,” she said. “My clan has always walked.”
“That will do no good here,” he said. He gestured with his hand. “We must go.”
She took his hand, and he pulled her aloft the horse. No more had she both legs to either side of the horse did he drive the horse into a speedy flight. She clung to him tightly, rendered a helpless girl upon the beast’s back.

***

The day never fully awoke to daylight in the Northlands. The gray, groggy sky was always overcast and always gloomy. A thick fog gathered ever ahead and behind and at the peripheries. The subtle rise of the hills, and the obfuscations of the fog, meant Eseus did not realize they were mounting a hill until the horse had nearly reached its crown. Other hills were not so subtle, and so he rode around their swelling bases.
It was easy to become lost in the nondescript moor, especially in the fog, but Eseus had a good sense of direction. Nonetheless he found himself where he wished he had not: upon the Oxenford Road.
“This is no good,” he said to his quiet passenger. “Bandits will be concealed in the fog, and we will be as ducks fresh out of the reeds for their arrows if we remain upon this road.”
But as he was ready to steer them from the road he saw emerging from the fog a large obstruction upon the road. It took only a moment for him to recognize it for what it was, and he hurried toward it with feverish lashes of the reins.
It was the carriage he had sent upon the road, alongside his dead horses and dead men. They were all arrow-feathered and butchered with barbarous weapons. Eseus dismounted from his horse and fell to his knees.
“Loyal men to the last,” he said. “I must bury them. I must honor them with the work of my hands.”
“They were fools who died for a fool,” his passenger said, “and I will not die likewise. We must go, or we will be added to their pile.” She surveyed the moorland, looking for creeping shadows in the fog. “We must go now.”
“But my men…” he said.
She dared not take the reins, but she did push the horse onward with her mind.
“The Crows have eyes searching for other travelers,” she said. She gestured toward the sky. “They can see farther and travel faster than any rider on horseback. We must go.”
Eseus nodded and stood, hoisting himself up onto the stallion’s back once again.

***

The fog thickened as night fell. It spread heavy upon the moor, diluting the darkness into a water-thinned charcoal desolation. No stars shone. The young woman made a fire once again and they huddled around it to stay warm. Eseus wrapped himself in his cloak. She bowed her head beneath her shadowy hood. Her pale face glimmered in its shade like the alabaster columns of the ancient cities in the Sealands.
“This chilly fog is a curse,” Eseus said.
“The fog is our friend,” she said.
“I cannot see in it.”
“And neither can our enemy. It will help us.”
“Or drop us off a bluff.”
“Only if you do not know the lay of the land.”
He frowned into the fire. “The moor is a maze without walls. There is no learning the lay of its land.”
“I have lived here my whole life,” she said. “Your kin claim it, but my people live here. It has a claim on us, and so we have learned every grass, every stone, and every hill. It tells us where to go and how to avoid its dangers.”
“You exaggerate,” he said.
“Only slightly,” she admitted.
“This fog is thick as pea soup and twice as cold.”
“Do not talk of food,” she warned him. “I have yet to eat these three days past.”
“Then it is fortunate that my horse did not lose my satchel,” he said. He rummaged in his satchel and withdrew two slices of salted meat and a piece of hardtack. He held them out to her, and though she hesitated, hunger took the food into her hands.
She chewed the meat, frowning. “Your people learned to salt meat from my people,” she said. “Though your people obviously did not learn as well from us as they should have.”
He did not even challenge her on the point, being indifferent to such a petty remark.
“It is true, though,” she continued to say, “that your people learned much from my people when they entered our lands. They would have died if not for our…hospitality.” Her red eyes glimmered in the firelight. “And then your people began wounding the land for rock to build your castles— bleeding the earth to form fortresses of scabs.” She chewed the meat vengefully. “You conquered us through our kindness.”
“I did no such thing,” he said. “And, besides, your people conquered one another as well. We were trying to forge peace under one rule. No more bloody feuds. No more clashes of clans.”
“And yet your people war as much as the clans ever did.”
Eseus fell silent, the air acrid with unspoken curses.
She tossed her hood back, and shook her white curls loose in the cool air.
“It is no matter now,” she said. “My people are dead. As is your father, and your uncle, and no one living cares about the injustices dealt to the dead.”
“There would have been a time I would have cared,” Eseus said. “But now I can only afford the time to care about injustices dealt to the living.”
“I have none living that I care about,” she said. “So I do not care. When I am at last dead, no one will care about me or my people. We will be forgotten except in the boasts of our enemies. In their spiteful songs as they urinate on our bones.” She snarled the words to scare away her own tears.
They were both quiet for a long time after that, letting the silence of the fog-shrouded moor settle on them with its ghosts. It clung damply, clammy as a corpse’s kiss. At length, the Spider clan girl spoke.
“It is not as your people are, with your chiseled stones of memory. We raise cairns, but they do not record the names or the faces of my people.”
Eseus pondered the girl and her grief. “Sometimes…sometimes I wonder if such a humble fade would not be better than etching faces in stone,” he said. “We all wish to erect great statues in honor of those we love, but what legacies we leave behind in doing so? How easily more are slain to slake the visaged memory of our ancestors? Perhaps we should let the past die, and the dead rest. To pester them is to be as…”
“Crows,” she said. “Perhaps you are not as foolish as I thought. Perhaps you have gleaned some wisdom from my people.”
“Wisdom is the only legacy worthy of stone,” he remarked. “Too much stone is squandered on war and pride and blood debts. And too many people squandered, too.” He sighed heavily. “I have rarely been one to think beyond my people, or the stones of my father’s castle. Too much responsibility has been ingrained in me. Too much duty. But sometimes, in silent moments such as these, I think I should like to escape the castle and go see the rest of the world. The world at the end of the Oxenford Road. The Southerlands, for instance. They say the light dances on the ocean like diamonds, and the sky is bright and warm and people go swimming there everyday of the year. There are trees from which delicious fruits can be eaten—rubyseeds and sweetsabers—and you need only reach for them and pluck them down. And while there are seadragons in the oceans, and sharks and sirens and countless other dangerous creatures, there are also playful creatures that swim with humans, and giggle and mean no harm. I would like to see that ere I die. But I know I cannot. This is my home. This is what I know. It is all I shall know.”
“This is my homeland,” she said. “I should wish to lay here with my people at the end of my life.” She hesitated. “But to see such things would be…different. I can understand why you would wish to see them.”

***

The fog parted, but the sky remained overcast. Dawn bled through the clouds like a wound through cotton dressing. Eseus and his passenger rode on through the day. They saw little upon the moor. Occasionally a moor rat scurried here, or a groundhog poked its head up from the damp earth. Crows flitted here and there. They eyed these black omens warily.
At midday they stopped to rest and stretch and eat. They made no fire, for the day in the moorlands— while damp and gloomy— was much warmer than the night. The Spider clan girl stared up at the sky, as if reading it for portents.
“The roof of the sky collapses,” she said. “It will rain at nightfall. A storm comes. We will have to shelter beneath my robe again, or else a fever will claim you again.”
Eseus sighed. Frustration roiled in his mind like a sea serpent in want of prey.
“Damn this weather,” he snapped. “It plots against me as much as any enemy and kin.” He kicked a rock jutting from the earth. “Does the sun ever favor me with Mathara’s warmth? I am of a mind that there is no sun anymore. Only plotting shadows and treacherous murk.”
The Spider clan girl glanced about the moor. The mad array of her white hair swayed in a warm wind.
“This is the moor,” she said. “Here, there is no place for Mathara or her invasive light. There is only the Night and the Gray. The Gray upon the moor in midday. They say the Gray has existed since time immemorial, a primordial dream from which the whole world was born. It existed before the Giants and the pookahs; it existed before the Green Nannies and all of the other creatures upon the moor. And it will continue to exist long after it has bored of all such creatures and replaced them with things of different make.”
Eseus’s frustration subsided, giving way to thoughtfulness. “The Gray sounds very much like the concept of the All Ways that the various Masters have spoken of throughout time. I wonder how many differing versions of the same Truth is represented in this world…”
He could contemplate it no more, for there suddenly arose a great clamor of squawking. Three crows they saw circling above, and three Crow riders appeared from the distant fog. Shrouded in cloaks of black feathers, the carrion-feeders cackled and cawed like their namesakes, mocking their prey as they approached on horseback. They were all armed with Crow-talons: three-taloned rakes of knives splayed like a crow’s foot. It was too late for Eseus and his passenger to mount the horse and flee.
“I need my sword,” Eseus told her. “It is the only way!”
The Spider girl looked from the oncoming Crows to her nobleborn captive.
“Very well,” she said. “Use your sword, but know that my spider is still at your neck.”
Eseus unsheathed his sword from his saddle, and led his horse to his captor.
“Calm him,” he told her, giving her the reins. “Do not let him startle and bolt.” He thought for a moment. “If I fall, flee.”
“I will do as I wish,” she said. “And I will not flee before any Crow.”
“Who is this we have here?” the largest of them said. His eyes were darkly lined with dried blood. “An Oxenford whelp and a Spider clan orphan?”
The crows above circled them in harmony with the Crows on horseback. They were double their number in eyes, and Eseus felt the scrutiny as he raised his sword.
“What do you want?” he demanded.
“Just a bit of hospitality,” the Crow said. “Food, coin, your horse, and that blade you hold there. Surrender them all and we promise to let you go.”
The two other Crows laughed maliciously.
“You can have my blade,” Eseus said. “But be you wary. It is a thirsty fang.”
The Crows laughed again, but then noticed the Spider clan girl standing next to the horse. They all stopped circled, then, and dismounted as one, facing Eseus. They held their taloned rakes tightly in their hands.
“Ah, we remember the girl,” the largest Crow said. “That day was beautiful with its blood and tears. We fed well that day. The moor drank deeply of your clan’s cowardly blood. And here you are, the last of your misbegotten people, taking up with an Oxenford whelp. My, what your people would do to see you now.”
The Spider clan girl sneered, but said nothing. Tears blinded her.
“But now that I think of your clan,” the Crow said, “I believe I will offer them libations. A drink to toast the olden days now gone.”
The Crow pulled down his leather britches and began to urinate upon the moor. His fellow Crows laughed, and the crows above shared in their laughter.
Eseus did not hesitate. While they were distracted he charged swiftly, gutting the first Crow before he could raise his rakes against him. The largest Crow was still trying to adjust his britches without pissing on himself, and thus was not ready for the onslaught, whereas the Crow on his left met Eseus with his rakes readied. There was a clamorous flurry of blade against talons, culminating in the Crow’s leg being severed at the knee. He screamed and fell. As Eseus finished him, the largest Crow slashed in a wild frenzy, having finally righted his britches. He caught Eseus’s shoulder with one rake while the other rake slashed toward Eseus’s throat. Eseus caught the Crow’s wrist, turning aside the deadly weapon, and thrust his own blade into the man’s soft bowels. He let him fall to the ground amidst his own spillage.
The fight over, Eseus turned toward his captor, blade in hand. Using his cloak, he wiped the blade clean, then calmly walked toward her. She was so taken aback by the quick turn of events that she stuttered.
“I..I still have my spider at your neck!” she said, her red eyes wide to the whites. She stood behind the horse, watching him warily.
Eseus slipped his sword into the scabbard on the saddle. His tunic and cloak were soaked crimson where his shoulder bled. He cringed, the hot blood of the fight now receding and the pain waxing in his arm.
Seeing that he had relinquished his sword, the Spider clan girl tended to his wounds. She made a fire— as mysteriously as before— and cauterized the gashes in his shoulder. She then bound the wounds with spider-silk thread. The three crows landed among the three dead men. It was a fine cannibal feast for them.
“We should leave soon,” she said. “Crows may fly afield of the flock, but they always keep within sight. Does this hurt?”
“Not enough to prevent me riding,” he said.
“You are skilled with a blade,” she said. “My clan had warriors, too. But none of us dared to think we might claim three Crows with one blade.”
“It is no great feat to slaughter beasts,” he said. “They have never been taught warfare by a swordmaster. Sometimes experience outnumbers all else.” He eyed her sidelong as she finished bandaging him. “They recognized you.”
“Of course,” she said. “There are not many albinos in the world.”
“Why did they leave you alive?” he asked, not unkindly. “Why did not simply kill you with the rest of your clan?”
“They left me alive because they believe I would bring foul luck upon whoever slew me. They bickered over who should kill me, but feared a hex upon their heads. An albino is considered cursed, and sometimes I wonder if my own clan did not kill me for fear of a similar curse.”
“We believe no such superstitions,” Eseus said. “But then again, we have plenty of superstitions of our own.”
They mounted the horse and rode on until the storm broke its waters upon the moor. They then camped together, beneath her robe, sheltering against the rains. Fretful of the fates of his people— and unable to divert his mind any other way—Eseus spoke to her about her clan.
“We control smaller creatures possessed of small wills,” she said. “Yet of finer work. The Crow clan controls birds that fly from one place to another. That is no difficult feat. I doubt they can weave a nest with their crow familiars, let alone the clothes as we do…did…with our spiders.” She turned away from him, within the hood, refusing to let the lordling see her cry. “Intricacies were valued among the Spider clan. The intricacies of weaving. Of wording. Of loving. Of family. Such intricacies matter more than any show of strength or proclamations of power.”
“Your clothing is famed throughout all of the kingdoms,” he said. “Did you know that?”
“And soon they will be the things of myth,” she said, dismissively. “It does us no good, whatever our reputation might have been.” She regarded him a moment. “Are all lordlings as skilled as you with a blade?”
Eseus shook his head, feeling her white hair bloom all around him within the hood. It was not an unpleasant feeling, nor an unpleasant fragrance. “I fancied the sword more than my cousins. Perhaps I understood how my Oxenford family were. Perhaps I had some instinct of self-preservation, and so naturally I indulged in practice with what was more immediately available as a means of defense. Later I would learn military tactics, and abstract concepts of strategy for campaigns. But in the meantime I was inclined to learn the more visceral aspects of war. Thus, I trained with the sword.”
The Spider clan girl smiled knowingly. “My clan always taught the subtleties of war to all of us skilled with control over animals. Yet, while you learned to fend off men, we learned to survive the elements. We were strong against things that would have toppled empires. Blizzards. Famines. Diseases. You may be a strong man, but you are not hardened. You have led a life of hard training, but easy labors. So, while you may be strong, in your own fashion, you are of fair-weather breeding, and are still weak out here, in the Gray. You could survive Fall away from a castle, but not Winter.”
“I know this to be true,” he admitted. “I know my limitations.”
“And yet,” she said, “what good did my clan’s strength gain them? They are gone now, and the men responsible laugh over their graves. I am alone, and my hardened heart breaks to think they will be forever forgotten.”

***

The rains departed, and a thick fog rose. Through the fog the moon shone wanly, a polished bit of bone encircled by a white corona whose outer edge bled red in its haunt above. Eseus and the Spider clan girl leaned against one another, trying to sleep. His shoulder still ached and his mind was beset with worries. He thought of his mother, and of his people, and
he thought of this young woman beside him and her dead clan. He could not decide what frightened him more: the destruction of his people or the long stretch of history into which they would be forgotten.

Petty

You are petty like a
robin
rubbernecking on the highway
for detritus
during rush hour;
a backward-bounding bird
flipping in acrobatic
fussiness
to peck-peck-peck
at a small twig
of insignificance
to collect for your
scornful nest of
trivialities.
Mind the traffic,
petty bird,
because the traffic is too busy
with what matters
to mind you.