Visitations

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It was a moonless, starless, lightless night, and the old wizard slouched in his leatherback chair, dozing in the old cottage, chin to chest, with a cup of lemongrass-and-ginger tea on a small round table beside him, its steam a wispy trail floating thinly above its chipped ceramic rim. There was no sound except the grumbling blaze in the stone hearth, and the heavy rain muffled upon the thatch roof, and sloshing in the grass, forming rivulets that trickled downhill to the surrounding forest beyond the summit.
The old wizard wore a faded green robe with an expansive hood— large as a potato sack—and it enveloped much of his hoary head, keeping off the chill of the rain as it breathed faintly through an open window. He had a long, distinguished nose, as wizards sometimes did, and from his snoring nostrils there spilled hair like whitewater, curling down either side of his pale lips, the confluence gathering again at his chin and jaw, then tumbling down as a waterfall beard that cascaded over his shallow, heaving chest.
Books lay open in every nook and cranny of the room, or else were closed and piled high in tottering stacks on the floor, and atop these tomes were amphoras with skinny necks and large bellies full of strange liquids. Runes were scattered here and there, made of faintly glowing stones, and charts and maps and drawings of various creatures spread themselves lackadaisically upon the old oak table, and between the stacks of books; all forgotten after zeal had run its course and given way to lethargy and exhaustion. There was a rusted bird cage hung from one corner of the cottage, long abandoned to disuse, the droppings gone to dust and the dust carried away by the winds alongside other dust— mountains of dust from a mountain of discarded ages.
All was still in the world, save for fire and rain and the wind through the window, and all was restive.
Suddenly, there was a gentle knock at the door, as if by someone patient and measured, with endless days ahead and all of the time in the world. The wizard was roused but by half an eyelid of care.
“Come in, if you must,” he muttered.
In stepped the sunrise, or so it seemed, as the lovely young lissome lady entered, illuminating rain and cottage and wizard alike. She was golden-haired, and a youthful bloom of cherry flush betook to her cheeks, and her radiant garb was of golden gossamers. Within the spiraling tresses of her hair sat a diadem that rainbowed its golden triangles above her childlike forehead.
“Hello, Wagnard,” the young lady said.
The wizard opened his eyes a little more, flinched at the luminosity, and pulled at his overlarge hood, squinting painfully from behind its sheltering shade.
“Haven’t you some place to rise over today?” he muttered.
“Always,” she said.
The wizard snorted, then shifted uneasily in his chair. He sighed with fatigue and irritation. The young lady came to his side. The teacup’s steam was a ghostly strand.
“I wished to see you one final time,” she said. “Many times have I smiled upon your works, Wagnard, and, even unto the end, you always did well by others where others would have done well only by themselves.”
“It is easy enough to do,” the wizard confessed, “when it means they should cease their whining. I cannot abide that, you know. It is like shepherding a bleating flock of sheep.”
“And yet you aided them in their times of need,” she said.
The wizard waved a dismissive hand. It was knotted about the knuckles, like the boles of a tree, and veined blue through the paleness of his mottled skin. “As you say.”
The radiant lady came nearer to him, still, leaning over him and his hood. He stubbornly turned away from her, and yet she nonetheless snatched at his hood with deft, albeit, dainty fingers and pulled it back, thereupon planting a girlish smack of lips upon his wizened forehead. When she released his hood, he pulled it over his head once again to shield his eyes from her bountiful radiance.
“Thank you, Wagnar,” she said.
She headed toward the open door— blazing more brightly than any hearth or dragon’s fire.
The wizard roused suddenly, his eyes wide. “Wait!”
She paused at the threshold, turning toward him with a sad smile. “Yes?”
“In my youth,” he said, “I loved you most of all.”
She nodded. “I know, Wagner. I know.”
Beyond the threshold, she receded over the horizon to some other place in the world.
The door somehow closed, now, the wizard fell asleep once again.

The rain continued, generous as ever, and the fire blazed on, ever so warm, but the teacup’s steam narrowed to a strand like spider silk, wavering in the cold wind. The wizard’s snore became a labored wheeze. His shallow chest trembled as it rose and fell beneath his green robe and waterfall beard. The wind through the window became colder, promising another Winter in due time.
There was an assured knock on the door, as if by someone who had accomplished all they needed to that day and was sure that whatever remained undone, there would be time for it tomorrow. Wagnar did not hear the first rapping. The second rapping roused him reluctantly.
“Come in,” the wizard said, “if it please you.”
The old oak door opened and in bounced a buxom madam in a crepuscular dress. Her hair was dark auburn, like the wooded shadows at dusk, and held her freckled fists to her wide hips, her arms akimbo.
“It does please me to come in,” the woman said. “The question is, ‘Does it please you?’”
The wizard squinted at the woman in the dark evening dress, but whether in irritation, or in wry amusement, he did not himself know.
“Your company was once a pleasure,” he said. “So, I suppose, at one time or another it pleases me to have you here.”
“Ho ho!” the woman said, the wide smile making dimples in her round cheeks that glowed like a full Harvest Moon. “Ever the wit, my dear, even by a whit!”
She bustled over to him, knocking over books and maps and things with her womanly hips. He did not seem to mind the mess, for his sleepy eyes were entranced by the pillowy expanse of her bosom. His head slumped toward her cradling chest as she leaned over him. She was a large woman, with welcoming brown eyes that were warm as a fireplace after a long day in cold woods. Her freckles reminded him of falling Maple leaves— blazing orange and lovely on dusky skin tanned by years of toil in fields and fens and forests alike.
“I remember your many evenings of study,” she said, “and the many evenings when you laid aside your frets and surrendered yourself to my embrace. But I also remember the aching evenings when needs meant your pulling away from me and braving the cold and the rain and the snow to see to the care of a sick child, or a woman in labor. You are a good man, my beloved Wagnar.”
“Am I?” he said. “I did what I did to stop them from pestering me, and much of the time wished to be left alone, especially in our evenings together.”
The woman smiled sadly. “But you sacrificed your own peace for the sake of theirs, and did it with a committed heart.” She twirled the curls of his long beard with her meaty, calloused fingers. “Even if you masked it with a quarrelsome mouth.”
She leaned down and kissed him deeply on the lips—as a wife would her husband–then held him close to her broad bosom, his wrinkled face relaxing amidst her cradling cleavage. When she withdrew from him, he swayed, half-asleep again. She walked to the door, less swagger in her hips; her stride hesitant and slow.
Wagnar sighed tremulously. “I looked forward to you most,” he said, “in my manhood. After a day’s work was done and I could relax and smoke a pipe, or lay with my loves, and be content for an evening. After the struggle was done and the embers of the day cooled in my heart.”
“I know, my dear,” the auburn-haired madam said. “Now rest. It is well-deserved. You always deserved a rest.”
A gilded tear in the outer dark revealed a dusky horizon, and she sauntered through that tear, mingling with the dusky gold of another place, and another time.

There came a hush upon the rain, and a silence to the the grumbling blaze in the hearth, and the wind at the window was less than the husk of a whisper. The steam from the cracked lip of the teacup was a wobbling wisp, like a pinch of frail cobweb in a billowy breeze. There was no knock at the door. The door simply opened and the old crone stepped in, cloaked like midnight, her withered face and wintry white hair veiled with a shawl of shadow. She said nothing as she approached his slumped body. Her tread was silent, as was the sway of her black garments as they swept the dusty floor. The cottage was cold, but he did not feel it.
“So it is time,” the wizard said, his eyes unmoving behind their lids. “Time for rest. Time to let go of the worries of this world.”
The old crone said nothing. Her face was illegible behind the veil.
“I feared sleep when in my youth,” the wizard said, “lest I miss the busy world and all that happened within it, and, in my manhood, I thought sleep welcome, but also a bother, commanding so much of my time that I could have employed otherwise— with more work…more studies…more efforts in bettering the earth. But now…now I welcome you more than the others. My bones are brittle. My lungs are frayed. My heart hesitates at times, doubtful that it should go on, and my mind is not a bright candle, but the melted wax with a drowning snub of a wick. Take me. I go willingly to my final sleep.”
The crone said nothing, but covered him with her deep, dark shawl, pressing her lips to his. He sighed, but whether in peace or surprise or restive resignation, it was never known. The steam guttered out and the tea went cold. The rain and the fire and the wind carried on.

It was a rainless, shadowless, cloudless dawn, and the birds sang loudly in the crowns of the trees while the squirrels chattered and chased one another, gathering acorns for the coming Winter. The old wizard lay in his leatherback chair, in his old cottage, unmoving and dreamless and untroubled. His hearth was but black ash and his scattered runes but cold stones upon the cold floor. His door remained open, and the dawn smiled brightly upon him, reaching her light inward upon his many tomes, and the evening moon, too, was increscent with love for him, her milky glow gleaming upon the fat amphoras, and the nightfall embraced him and all about him, as had all nights for millennia before when he had fallen asleep after a long day of selflessly serving the troubled world beyond his magnanimous doorway.

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.

Necessary Evil

There was a full moon over the cornfield, lightening the night sky to a dark blue. Yet, the trees and houses and fields and valleys all lay in utter blackness. The headlights from two utility trucks pooled together in the center of a cornfield, cutting through the darkness as they met like a handshake. Two shadows fumbled in the cabs of their trucks, getting their equipment ready.
“Hell of a storm last night,” Earl said.
“What?” Henry asked, unable to hear him.
“I said it was a hell of a storm!” Earl said, raising his voice. “Imagine if Farmer Joe-Schmoe here hadn’t already cut his corn. It’d be a goddamn mess. Probably would have lost the Conduit in all of the shit.”
Henry had not heard half of what Earl said, but did afford the field a cursory glance, seeing the jagged remains of cornstalks in the haloed pool of the headlights. He pulled on his thick rubber safety gloves and walked toward Earl. To avoid looking at the Conduit in the pool of light, Henry stared up at the two power poles on either side of the field, barely discernible from the dark knobs rimming the horizon.
“Maybe if we had a stabler source of electricity…” he began to say.
“Don’t start that shit again,” Earl said, pulling on his own pair of safety mitts. His bald head gleamed in the light from his utility truck’s cab. “You know the boss hates hearing that shit.”
“It would not be so unreliable…”
“And I hate hearing it, too,” Earl put in forcefully.
Henry fell silent, helping Earl with the rolls of iron wire as he hauled them out of the truck. A lazy fog curled slowly up from a nearby creek, lounging over the field; glimpsed only where the headlights shone. Moonlight glossed the silver domes of the twin silos near the blackened house, burnishing them just enough to clean them of shadows and separate them from the sea of darkness all around.
The rolls of iron were heavy. Earl grunted, groaned, and let his end of the spool fall to the ground. Henry kept his end lifted, though the sudden imbalance jerked his arms and upper torso toward the ground, stooping him like an old man. He was eighteen years younger than Earl, but a hundred years ahead of him in other ways.
“Goddamn,” Earl swore, “I hate working out here in these bum-fuck boondock hick places. Can’t see shit, and everything smells like shit! And they are so goddamn pissy out here about their power! As if nobody else didn’t lose their power last night! Fuck, I pissed myself because I couldn’t see in the dark when I went to use the bathroom. So it wasn’t exactly paradise for me!”
Henry waited, still holding his end of the spool of iron wire, bent over and hoping that the sudden ache in his shoulder was not a pulled muscle.
“And they should know by now,” Earl went on, “that we get the city’s power back on first, then, eventually, if they are lucky and we feel like it, we get theirs back on. They should be grateful we don’t just let them live in the Dark Ages. Self-sufficient farmers, my ass!”
Henry did not say anything, but Earl gave him an outraged look as if he had.
“And don’t you start with your ‘Solar power and wind power is the solution to all of our problems’,” he said in an unflattering voice that was nowhere near accurate to Henry’s voice. “If we went to those, we would be out of a job!” Earl frowned, considering. “Probably.”
Henry waited patiently until Earl remembered what it was they were doing. With another grunt and groan and grumble, Earl squatted down and lifted up his end of the heavy coil of iron wire. They carried it— huffing and puffing—to the pool of conjoined headlights and set it near the Conduit. Earl squinted at the Conduit, a sour look on his face.
“Goddamn it,” he growled. “This one’s more than half-used up. It will need to be replaced soon, which means we have to come back out here again to stomp through cow shit. Probably in the Winter, by the look of it. Fucking hate this goddamn hick county…”
Henry did not like looking at Conduits, even if he had to install them everyday.
“We’ll have to order another one,” Earl continued, griping. “But for now we gotta use this one.”
The two utility men both knelt down beside the Conduit, the headlights at their back while they worked, readying the wire. Earl grumbled off instructions to Henry, even though Henry had been working for the company for more than two months now and knew the job as well as any of the old-timers. He was sharp to the uptake, even if Earl did not like to admit it.
“Don’t cut the old iron off until we attach the new iron,” Earl said. His wrinkled face was demonized by the headlights.
“I know how to do this,” Henry said, his blue eyes baffled by the white glare of the headlights. He kept his gaze to the side as he worked.
“Ouch!” Earl exclaimed, putting his finger in his mouth. It had been pinched between the iron coils as Henry unwound them. “Pay attention to what you’re doin’, dummy! What the hell’s the matter with you?”
Henry shrugged halfheartedly. “I don’t like to look at Conduits like this one,” he admitted.
Earl was apoplectic with disbelief. “Why the hell not?”
“They look like Cassie,” Henry said. “It just…just bothers me, is all.”
Earl raised his eyes to the heavens, shaking his head. “This Conduit’s a hundred years old. Likely even older! She ain’t some spoiled eight year old brat too mollycoddled by her momma to wipe her own ass. It’s just a goddamn Conduit. Jesus, man, try to be professional.”
Henry sighed heavily, then looked at the Conduit as he worked the wire. They unrolled the coil until they had enough, then cut it with a portable laser torch. Looming above them, the power poles stood tall, the old power line sagging between, snapped in two and laying in the cornfield like wet noodles. After a few moments, Henry sighed again.
“It’s just…it’s just she looks just like a little girl,” he said. “It doesn’t seem right.”
Earl was all utter slack-jawed disbelief.
It is not a little girl,” he said firmly. It is not a she. It is a goddamn fairy. All right? They’re not fucking human. I mean, she’s got goddamn wings. Have you ever seen a human with wings?”
“But they have feelings,” Henry said. “They are alive and sentient.”
“Whoa-ho!” Earl said. “Big word for a repairman to use. Don’t hurt yourself with it, now.”
“They can think, is what I mean,” Henry said. “Look at her! She’s scared!”
“I know what ‘sentient’ means, smart-ass,” Earl shot back. He shook his bald head like a dog breaking a rabbit’s neck. “But I can’t see that she thinks at all. Or that she’s scared. The goddamn breaker helm is covering her glitter-spitter face! Fuck, man, she’s barely alive anyway. She doesn’t even glow no more. Not like those that are used in the movies and shit.”
“I know she’s scared,” Henry said resolutely. He had stopped working the iron wire around the fairy’s willowy body. “I can hear her sobbing. There are tears on her cheeks! Look!”
“That’s dew,” Earl said. “This fucking fog is all clammy as three-day old piss.”
“They can sing songs, you know,” Henry said, rallying. “Beautiful songs, like a choir of children.”
Earl snorted. “Never cared much for songs.”
“But you watch the movies with them. You just said so.”
“Sometimes I do,” Earl said gruffly. “So what? I also masturbate to porn with them in it. Doesn’t mean nothing. Doesn’t mean I want to marry one and let it vote.”
A silence fell between them. The silence subsumed the entire county and its dark neighborhood. In the nearby house, on the other side of the field, the sound of fumbling and cussing could be heard. A flashlight split the darkness in the house, glimpsed through the lightning flash of an illuminated window. A fat face appeared through the pane, and a flash of fire as a candle was lit. The face was porcine and disgruntled, like a beady-eyed boar ready to charge with its teeth gnashing and its tusks aimed to gore. It disappeared into the darkness once again.
“Maybe we should just let it all stay dark,” Henry said. “All of it. Everything. Leave it dark for everyone so we don’t have to do this anymore.”
Earl laughed wryly— humorlessly. “And for little Cassie, too?” he said. “What if she needs surgery? What if she needs to have her appendix out? Use the old ways? No modern tools and anesthetic and all of that shit that saves eighty percent of the population from dying slow, miserable deaths by age forty?”
Henry wavered, not saying anything. He could only stare down at the fairy. He knew the wetness streaming from under the breaker helm was not dew.
“Not to mention,” Earl added with a rogue’s relish, “all those people that would start burning other people at the stake just to stay warm, or to ease their hearts, or just for a single fucking laugh in an otherwise joyless grind of existence. People do fucked up things in the dark when they don’t have electric toys to distract them.”
“It doesn’t have to the Dark Ages,” Henry said. “Just the 1700’s. Or the 1800’s. Before industrialization began to poison the earth…”
Earl rolled his eyes, and continued rolling iron around the fairy. “And how exactly is Farmer Joe-Schmoe over there going to process enough food to feed everybody? It takes a lot of electricity to plant a cob of corn, harvest it, and bring it to precious little Cassie’s belly. Power for grocery stores and trucks and processing plants. Fairies power it all. If they didn’t, we’d have to use Brown people again.” Earl grinned like the Cheshire Cat about to pounce on the White Rabbit. “But that’s a big No-No nowadays. We can’t have Colored people out in the fields, picking cotton. I guess we could use White people to do it. You and me, I mean. Why not? Every color’s been used throughout history. I’m a little biased in favor of the fairies, though, because I wouldn’t make a good slave, myself. I’m too ornery.”
Henry shook his head. “There has to be another way…”
“And Winter’s on its way,” Earl said thoughtfully. “How many people would freeze to death without power? Or die of pneumonia? Lot of lives on your hands, Mr. Crusader.”
Henry could say nothing else. The immensity of the dilemma overwhelmed him. The argument was too big for a single man to grasp, and the problem enormous beyond comprehension. After a few moments, he took up the iron wire and continued binding the fairy. When she squirmed or whimpered, he paused, exchanging glances with Earl— the former distraught, the latter sardonically resolute—and then hurried to entwine her in accordance to OSHA safety standards. After a while, Henry spoke.
“I guess fairies are kind of backwards,” he said. “Like Neanderthals. And they all died out because of it.”
“That’s right,” Earl said with a sly smile. “They’re not even Stone Age. It’s almost a favor to them, really. What would they be doing otherwise? Just playing around like stupid fucking kids forever. Totally meaningless. At least now they’ve got a purpose to their backward lives.”
“Yeah,” Henry said. “It’s…it’s a necessary evil.”
“Not even an evil,” Earl said. “Just necessary.”
The two utility men finished binding the new wire around the Conduit, then cut off the rusted and snapped strands of the old wire. They spread the Conduit’s arms out at its sides, spiraling the new wire there, too, then Henry climbed into the lift on the back on his utility truck and they began to string the new wire—and the fading Conduit— up between the poles. They worked efficiently and had no problems following protocols. Henry was proving himself a very competent utility repairman. Even Earl was impressed.
The sun rose hesitantly above the foggy horizon, as if averting its gaze. Inevitably it spilled its light over the knobs and farms and fields and sins and guilt. Before leaving, Earl and Henry glanced up at their work one final time—the fairy T-posed in the center of the power line—and Henry was reminded of someone. Who it reminded him of, he dared not say.

Venom Pies Part 10

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Iadne and the Lady of Lorwynne were sitting by the hearth, surrounded by peasant women and children. The explosion shook the whole castle to its bones. Women and children cried out and clung to one another. The Lady of Lorwynne paled and instinctively grabbed Iadne’s hand.
“They have breached the castle!” she gasped.
They rose to their feet unsteadily, expecting Crows to come flooding into the dining hall at any moment.
“The Crows will not spare women or children,” Iadne said. “Where can we go? There are too many for the men to repel for long!”
Lady Lorwynne glanced about in a fright. “Perhaps the crypts will be of some protection. They are as a maze beneath the castle, and we may lose them below for a time. My husband once said there was an escape route through the maze, though he had never ventured far enough to find it.”
Iadne remembered the thing she sensed down in the dark; the thing that was neither animal or beast. “Is there no other way?” she asked.
The Lady of Lorwynne shook her head. The screaming of war cries and death shrieks made her quiver. “My son!” she said. “I cannot leave without him!”
“I will fetch Eseus,” Iadne said. “He is mine now. He will come with me, or I will kill him myself.”
While the women and children followed the Lady of Lorwynne out to the crypts, Iadne sprinted toward the fray. What she saw upon the main stairs gave her pause.
The outer wall smouldered. It had been an unnatural explosion that destroyed it, the stone strewn out amidst malodorous black smoke that reeked of fetid death. A hemorrhage of Crows bled inward, slaying all those who stood before them with their ugly blades of butchery.
“The breach!” Eseus cried. “Stitch the breach!”
Iadne watched as Eseus threw himself upon the breach, staunching the hemorrhage with his sword and shield, bleeding the Crows that rallied within that fissure. Loyal men bolstered his fury, overwhelming the forces that had attempted to fight their way to the winches of the drawbridge and the portcullis. Yet, though they staved the flood, it was not destined to last.
Meanwhile, the peasant men scrambled to regain their weapons. The Lorwynne soldiers scrambled to issue them. Those that took possession of a blade or axe immediately engaged in battle. Their frantic flailing was dangerous, however, and Iadne feared that Eseus would just as soon fall to a peasant’s undisciplined blade as much as the wild frenzy of a Crow. She had to help him survive as the windmills of blades tightened around him.

***

The Crow clan did not fight with honor. They were a tribe of the moor, and a tribe of the moor did not dabble in luxuries like honor. Their crows swooped down upon the Lorwynne men, and the Lorwynne men—erstwhile distracted—were shredded by the Crow clansmen’s cruel weapons. Eseus saw this unworthy tactic befall many of his men, and so did not succumb to it himself. Left and right he hewed through the Crows like a woodsman through saplings, ignoring the crows as they squawked above his head.
Yet, however well he fought, Eseus could not fight forever. His injured shoulder ached, and soon betrayed him and his shield. It slowed him, and distracted him with pain, and so became an enemy also. He flung the shield into the face of a Crow woman, braining her, while he cut the legs out from beneath a Crow man vowing vengeance. It was all a butcher’s work, however reluctant he was to do it. And death-dealing wearied him emotionally as well as physically. So many lives ended by his bloody hands— he could scarcely face the enormity of the generations he had severed with the thrusts and slashes of his sword.
Eseus feared death. He was not so taken away with the steel song of battle to not fear such an absolute thing. But he feared more the death of his mother and of Iadne than his own. He feared more the failure to serve the memory of his father. And so he fought on, and on. He saw his men fall, and he saw the violation of the castle was his home. He saw enough bloodshed to slake the monsters of a thousand nightmares.
And then he saw the worst nightmare come true. Iadne was running in amongst the death-dealing madness of the green. She ducked and slid and fell and rose, scrambling to get to him. At first, the Crows did not notice her— so enthralled were they with killing other men—but when they recognized the Spider clan girl a great rage overtook them. No superstitious fear would restrain them now, for they had the bloodlust upon them.
Eseus fought his way toward Iadne, and away from the breach. She was surrounded by Crows by the time he reached her. He stabbed one Crow in the back, and beheaded another who was raising his taloned blades against her. The final two turned as one toward him. But before the two of them could overpower Eseus, Percevis met the second, and so Eseus took the first. Eseus slew the first, but the second scored a severe slash upon Percevis’s chest. The Crow raised his talon for the killing slash, but Iadne grabbed hold of his black-feathered cloak and pulled him back with a savage yank. The Crow toppled backward and Eseus drove him to the ground with a downward thrust.
Iadne helped Percevis up to his feet. His wound bled between his armor plate. Iadne supported his weight beneath her shoulder.
“Eseus, we must go!” she pleaded. “Retreat to the crypts!”
Eseus turned stubbornly toward the breach once again.
“No!” he said. “I will not forsake my men!”
“You can do them no good dead,” Percevis said, groaning. “Come, lad, the castle will be overrun before long. We need a leader. Save their women and their children. Lead them to safety!”
Eseus oscillated between conflicted duties. All around him he saw his men falling. Peasant, soldier— their blood mingled together amidst the carnage. The Oxenford forces had not yet entered through the breach. All was doomed. His preparations were for nought.
“What hope have we in the crypts?” he demanded, sneering with rage. “To die in the dark like rats?”
“Your mother says there may be an escape passage below,” Iadne said. “Please, Eseus. We need you. I need you. Come with us!”
Eseus looked upon his dying men, and the Crows still entering the fray. He killed two more Crows, and felt no victory in their deaths. It was all meaninglessness against the gods of inevitability. Sighing in defeat, he hurried alongside Iadne, helping her support Percevis as they headed to the crypts and entered the innards of the earth. The massacre behind them, Eseus wondered how much of a failure, and coward, he would be in the eyes of his father.

***
The crypts were dark, dusty and smelled of Time. They ran like a maze beneath the House of Lorwynne, their twisting walls peopled by the dead. Each corpse was swaddled in moldy fabric, grim with their silent secrets. Eseus saw them in the flickering light of his torch and felt as if they were judging him; damning him for his cowardice as he passed.
“How large are these crypts?” Iadne asked. “They seem to go on forever. Or are we walking in circles? It is confusing. Perhaps I should have let a spider thread follow after us so we would know where we have passed and where we haven’t.”
Percevis laughed— a weak, painful laugh unlike his usual guffaw. “The walls of the Labyrinth always seem large to the young, but they narrow as you grow older. The corridors press upon you, little by little, and you begin to crack. That’s what wrinkles are. Eventually, the Labyrinth entombs you. For it is Time.”
Iadne felt Percevis’s forehead with a hand, thinking he might be suffering a fever.
“I’m not out of my wits, girl,” Percevis said, not unkindly. “Just waxing lugubrious and philosophic. That’s what happens when bad things happen around you. You try to salvage some worth from so much wreckage. Structure the ruins with some kind of meaning. And there aren’t any ruins like those of the dead, both above and below.”
Whatever carnage was being wrought above, it was deafened by the thickly packed earth. The passages descended along angled ramps beneath the earth, spiraling out wider. It seemed to Eseus that it was an underground ziggurat spiraling down into the earth, tiers unto tiers expanding upon their descent. Yet, as it descended, the corridors narrowed , as if to strangle all the very idea of light until extinguished.
At last, they came upon the women and children in the chthonic maze. The throng was as a subterranean river, flowing hesitantly in the crowded darkness and narrowing catacomb corridors. The flow ceased, then parted, letting Eseus and Iadne and Percevis pass through to the front where the Lady of Lorwynne awaited them. In the torchlight Eseus saw the pale, troubled faces of his remaining people, and the tearful fear manifested there mirrored what Eseus felt. Terror, hopelessness, grief. Yet, there was a defiance, too, in this last desperate plunge into darkness. They had now buried themselves alive in the crypts rather than let their corvine enemies pick among their corpses. At the very least, a greater feast would be denied to the Crows, lest such creatures dared to fly belowground.
“Eseus!” Lady Lorwynne exclaimed. She rushed to him in relief, but did not embrace him. He was the Lord of Lorwynne now, and so had to stand apart as Lord. “I feared I had lost you!”
“All may be lost,” Eseus said, “but I remain, for whatever consolation may be found in such an impoverishing exchange.”
“Eseus, do not assume the guilt as if it was your own…”
His mother attempted to console him, but Eseus would not accept it.
“As heir it all falls upon me,” he said. “And even if I somehow throw every one of those carrion-feeders out of the House of Lorwynne, they will have yet glutted themselves overmuch on our dead. Were I to purge the All Ways of them, they will have accomplished more against our people than I could ever avenge were I to kill them a thousand times over, for but one of our men is worth a thousandfold more than their whole misbegotten bloodline.”
He was in a fervor, the hateful bloodlust rising in him anew. He relinquished his aid to Percevis—letting Percevis’s wife, Edea, support her husband—and preoccupied himself with leading the throng through the subterranean maze. Meanwhile, Iadne explained to Edea her husband’s wound, and Edea saw to it immediately, bandaging it with a spider-silk cloth. Another woman—stouter than Iadne— came forward to help shoulder the old man’s weight as he limped along. He was the only remaining husband among either peasantry or soldier.
Eseus raised his torch and continued through the labyrinth, his mother to one side and Iadne to the other; his remaining people following close behind them in a whispery bustle of shoulder-to-shoulder silence. Eseus said nothing, his mouth shut like a dragon-trap. No one else spoke, either, for many of them feared the dead and wished not to disturb their slumber. The curve of the maze began to unwind as it descended, becoming a long corridor without corpse or coffin. It was a long hallway made of stone. Eseus knew, instinctively, that it cut beneath the moat and extended out into the moor. But the passage did not rise yet, but was even, cut as flat as any castle hall might be. The floor was cobbled darkly with obsidian.
There was a wall— a spiteful wall promising only despair. It permitted no one further passage, its rebuff as deathly silent as the grave. This was the end of hope. The wall was the accomplice of the Crows and the Oxenford men in their slaughter of the remaining survivors. Women wailed while children sobbed. They all knew what the wall meant.
Yet, there were runes upon the wall. They were runes Eseus had never seen before, but somehow he understood them. He read them aloud, his tongue speaking the self-evident translation without his mind comprehending the means which bestowed this newfound talent.

“To ford the stars enfolded
in their abyssal depths
pass the door herein molded—
by daring, by words, by breaths.”

Eseus did not understand the riddle, but more puzzling was his own comprehension of the runes. He was ever more confused when the wall rumbled, breathing dust from its corners, and began to slide noisily to the side. The way was now open.
The corridor continued its descent, and the remaining people of Lorwynne had no choice but to follow. At length, the corridor came to a post-and-lintel end, opening unto a vast, circular room. At first it seemed an empty darkness inhabited this cavernous room, but something moved within the shadows. It was massive, and as it moved the whole of the crypts shook with its rousing power. Iadne trembled as she held onto Eseus’s arm. His mother gasped.
“It is the thing I feared,” Iadne warned.
Deep within the manifold darkness there emerged a broad, horn-crowned head. The face was furious, its large nostrils looped with a glowing ring the size of a shield. Behind the head came a neck—thick as an ancient tree trunk— and beyond that neck a massive body with pale flanks that were wide and powerful, like the bulwarks of a great ship. Taken all together, it could be comprehended as a large ox, and it stood before them in the center of that circular expanse. The size of a dragon, it stepped forward, its hooves shaking the earth and making the throng of women and children cry out. Its dark eyes gazed upon them like the swallowing depths of Night. Within its eyes were stars— countless stars that shone like a memory of the stelliferous sky. It snorted, and the force of its exhalation resounded through the crypts like a gale from a seastorm.
“That is what I sensed beneath the castle,” Iadne shouted, striving to be heard beneath the bellows of the Bull. “We must turn back!”
“We cannot turn back,” Eseus said. “To turn back is to die! To stay is to die! We must press forward! There is a way around the beast! And if not, much can be improvised when the will provides!”
The Bull bellowed again, as if to challenge Eseus on the matter.
“Be ready to flee to the other side,” he said. “Seek egress as soon as I distract the beast.”
“This is deathly foolishness!” Iadne said, holding him by the wrist. “You mustn’t…”
“I must!” he shouted.
Could Iadne have paled more, she would have. The Lady of Lorwynne paled enough for the both of them.
“Son,” she said, “this is not the path to take. We can…we can all rush to the other side. Together. It will be like taking lots. Drawing straws. A game of chance and knuckle-bones…”
“No, mother,” he said, gravely. “It will be fixed in my favor. How could it not be? I am faster than all of you. And how many would die were that beast to trample through them? I will not allow it.”
Eseus, undaunted, stepped toward the post-and-lintel threshold. He was too determined to be thwarted now, for if he did not help the wives and children of the men that had died, then he had truly failed at everything. Closer to the threshold now, he saw that the runes carved into the lintel above his head. For some strange reason he knew what they meant, even if he could not read them for what they were.
Iadne pulled him back, pleading with him.
“I will try to Will it away,” Iadne said. “Please let me try!”
Eseus was too astonished by the runes to argue with Iadne. He nodded and waited while she closed her eyes. The struggle to reach the mind of the beast was written with tremulous wrinkles upon Iadne’s high brow. Swooning, she opened her eyes, leaning now on Eseus.
“I cannot touch its mind,” she said. “It is not something of this world, but a creature beyond. Perhaps not even a creature. It is something much older…much more…elemental.”
Eseus told his mother to see to Iadne.
“Be prepared to run,” was all he said as he stepped beyond the lintel. He did not unsheathe his sword. He knew that such a weapon would do little against a beast that so easily dwarfed a manmade blade. But he nonetheless had his torch, and this he held aloft, wondering if the preternatural creature would fear flames, or light, having been condemned to the darkness for so long. Perhaps he might blind it so that his people could scurry past it silently without being trampled to death.
“Eseus, come back!” his mother pleaded.
It was too late. He approached the ox. The words of the runes echoed in his head. And he felt himself drawn toward that gigantic beast. He felt the power of that elemental creature threading its way through his own being, pulling at him like a spool winding round tightly.
The ox snorted and stomped. The gales nearly knocked Eseus to his feet. The stomp brought him to his knees while flames sparked from the obsidian cobblestone. Yet, Eseus stood and steadied himself, holding the torch aloft. As he approached the beast he spoke the words on the runes. These words bound him and the Bull together. Somehow, they were like the words of Fate herself. Irresistible. Irrevocable. Inescapable.
“By the threads I found you. By the fabric I bound you. By the threads I found you. By the fabric I bound you…”
The Bull bowed its head. For a moment Eseus feared it might charge him, but instead it awaited his command. Dismayed, Eseus motioned for his people to pass. Iadne entered the vast, cavernous room first; then the Lady of Lorwynne, and soon the rest of the women and children. Percevis, Edea, and the stout midwife hobbled lastly, moving like a three-headed chimera with its legs all wrongwise. The survivors circled around the room, allowing a wide breadth between themselves and the Bull. The Bull paid them no mind. There was another post-and-lintel aperture upon the other side of the room. The throng of women and children entered it, following the Lady of Lorwynne. Iadne stayed behind, waiting for Eseus. But Eseus was mesmerized.
“Eseus!” she whispered, loudly as she dared for fear of startling the Bull. “Please! Hurry!”
Eseus had stopped speaking the binding words, and yet he and the Bull were as mesmerized as before. Iadne went to Eseus, taking him by the arm, gently, and leading him from there. The Bull watched them leave from within its rounded tomb. It was as patient as the stars.

***

Having seen the Bull, Eseus felt a great power within him. It was maddening, this power. It beckoned him to plow the world with his Will. Leaving the Bull behind made his heart ache. He sweated as he fought off the impulse to run back through the dark corridors and return to the Bull once more; to release the Bull upon the world. It had a hold on him— a yoke which he could not shrug off. Yet, he had Iadne and his mother beside him, and the women and children afore him, and he had to continue on, farther and farther from the Bull, even as the yoke of urgency grew heavier upon him with the distance. His stride began to falter. He stumbled along, Iadne helping to steady him.
“What is the matter?” she asked. “Are you injured?”
“It is the Bull,” he said. “It…it has a hold on me, as I have a hold upon it.”
“It is not a natural beast,” she said. “I do not know what it is. Whatever it is, you must resist it. We must escape to the moor.”
Eseus rallied himself, though his heart was rent with the rigor of his efforts. The darkness of the labyrinth pressed closer than ever to him, regardless of how close he held his torch to his face.
“Eseus!” Iadne growled. “Wake up! You are behaving as thick as bog peat.” She grabbed the torch from him before he could burn himself. “Give me the torch lest you turn yourself into a swamp wisp.”
They continued on, though Eseus’s stride slowed. Eventually he began to hesitate, sweating and breathless. The farther from the Bull they ventured, the more arduous the struggle to continue.
“Hurry, Eseus!” Iadne commanded, yanking on his arm. “Your people need you! I need you!”
“The Bull…” he said. “With the Bull I can destroy all of our enemies. The Crow Clan. House Oxenford. Even the Valorian Empire to the South. It is only a matter of time before they aspire to conquer our lands. They must be stopped, and the only means by which to expel them will be to exterminate them. The Bull…it has the power to do that…and more.”
Iadne’s hand slapped Eseus across the face so sharply that the throng of women and children paused, gazing back as the echo resounded sharply all around them.
“I need you, Eseus!” Iadne said. “Our daughter needs you!”
The revelation struck him harder than her slap ever could. He could scarcely speak.
“Our…daughter?”
“She will come,” Iadne said, “if you help all of us through this darkness! Please. Hasten your feet! She will need both of us, and I will need you!”
The reins of power were abandoned; the yoke thrown off. Eseus took the torch in hand once more and hurried to the fore of the throng, leading them once again. The corridor ascended slowly— at a lax incline— and they walked what seemed miles in the dark. Soon their torches began to fade, having burned overlong, and now extinguished, and the women clutched the children to them, fearful they might lose them in the dark.
“Join hands!” Eseus shouted. “Everyone join hands and do not leave anyone alone beneath the earth!”
Through darkness they walked, hand-in-hand, and, in time, Eseus came to the end of the ascending corridor. Still holding Iadne’s hand, he felt a cloak of grass brush against his face, and fall aside, and then the moors expanded all before his eyes as he emerged from the side of a hill. The Gray was there to greet them. The Oxenford army greeted them also.

Kvothe

Plot, character, setting, and action
should all be established in stride,
not each in a conflicted faction
facing off on an opposing side,
and yet this doddering fool plods about,
left and right and questing so aimlessly,
then squatting down to shit it all out
and wallowing in it shamelessly.
He so loves the smell of his own shit,
thinking his discharge a lavender scent
while he rolls round-and-round in it
like a scatophiliac decadent.
And critics praise his every word
as if he is raising anew the sun,
but it is a balled-up bit of turd—
the story which this dung beetle has spun.

Riddle Root

greenmanink

What an upstart little sapling you seemed to be
with riddles running wild in its riotous roots,
growing on hopes and pride into a tall tree
as you splayed your spread-fingered shoots.

How fast you grew toward the fanciful sky,
holding your ambitions like a glorious crown
stuck in the clouds— ever so deliriously high
that your spindly trunk snapped and fell down.

What a stark collapse that shook the earth!
And you, yourself, too, splintered all apart
so that you looked down at the upturned turf
and saw therein your dry-rotted heart.

You trifled with riddles and poems and wit,
thinking yourself wiser than the way of things,
but then you came aground, bit by broken bit,
and found but kindling in your recording rings.

The Green Man could not save you, oh no, no, no,
nor the rains of plenitude that always came,
and, so imbalanced, you were doomed to go
and now no one knows your secret name.

crisscrosstangle