Venom Pies Part 5

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When Eseus woke he no longer had the spider at his neck. Instead, Iadne’s lips rested upon his throat, for she lay upon him all through the night. Her white tumult of hair hooded them both, blocking out all else. It was not unpleasant.
She roused and looked at him, then rose, her red-irised eyes lingering upon him even as her body left his.
“Do you still wish for my love?” she asked. “Or the love of a knife?”
“I cannot marry a woman of the Spider clan,” Eseus said. “And I cannot dishonor you. If you would forsake the moor and live with me, as a lady of Lorwynne, then I will wed you, as is only right.”
She said nothing to this, but nodded only slightly. She did not kiss him, but after they had resumed their clothes and mounted the horse she leaned more familiarly against his back, clutching him possessively around his hips.
They rode the horse until it could no longer run, slowing upon its wearied, wobbling legs. Dismounting, they walked for a time. They did not talk. They had come upon a new world—a world between two hearts— and they did not understand it enough to risk its uncertainties with idle chitchat. They walked for a while, then ate of grubs from the moor, and then walked for a time longer. The sun did not shine through the Gray, but the air was not chill either. The fog was warm, not unlike a lover’s breath.
And then they saw a gray shadow through the fog. The rider came at full gallop, emerging from the fog of the moor like a dream. It was too late for Eseus and Iadne to avoid him, so Eseus drew his sword and awaited the ghostly figure as it hastened its gallop.
But Eseus recognized the green cloak that fluttered at the figure’s back, and the malachite heron upon his breastplate. The rider slowed to a trot, warily circling Eseus and eyeing his sword. The old man was pale with fear and with want of sun.
Eseus sheathed his sword and addressed the man at a distance.
“Hail, fellow countryman,” Eseus said. “What news from the House of Lorwynne?”
“None so good as I would like it,” the old man said. He had a bald pate, his wrinkled face lined with gray muttonchops. His voice wheezed as if he, and not his steed, had been running hard. “Our lord’s not returned and my ass is already chafed with looking for him.”
“He has tried to return,” Eseus said, “but the moor is a distracting mistress.”
The old man squinted his eyes as if beholding someone far away, and then blinked at Eseus in amazed recognition. He dropped from his mount, then dropped to one knee. “My lord! I…I didn’t recognize you without your usual vestments!”
“It is well, then, that I decided to disguise myself,” Eseus said, helping the old man rise to his feet. “Elsewise I would have been taken hostage long ago.”
“By Mathara’s breath, it is good that I have found you!” the old man said. His voice thickened with breath, no longer strained with exhaustion and fear “And none too soon! Riders have been sent out all over, and I among the horde. Your poor mother’s all overwrought with worry. Her fears have been on her like a harpy on a lamb. We received a rider from House Oxenford informing of your uncle’s wicked death. Your cousin Kareth feared for your safety and sent riders of her own to look for you. She feared you had been killed in an ambush upon the Road. And yet…here you are! Unaccompanied!”
“Not so,” Eseus said. He gestured toward Iadne. “I am fortunate to have been saved by this young woman. Without her aid, the moor would have long ago claimed me.” Eseus’s expression was grim, vengeful. “Treachery has claimed too many men yet. Kareth would know all such there is to know of it, too, since it was by her design.”
The old man was agog with surprise. “Surely you jest! And a startling jest it is! Your cousin?!”
Eseus nodded gravely. “Alongside the Crow clan with whom she and my uncle have made allies.” He sighed. “There are intrigues upon intrigues, and so I must speak to my mother at once and make ready the castle fortiments. I need ask of you your horse. It is well-rested, I should think, and can take me to the castle quicker than can our poor beast of burden.”
“Indeed, my lord,” the old man said. “I have scarcely ridden half a day on him.”
“We are that close to House Lorwynne?” Eseus said, surprised. “Then I must make haste forthwith!”
Eseus took the reins of the old man’s horse, hoisting himself up atop the beast’s saddled back. Iadne reached toward Eseus, expecting him to pull her up, but he did not take her hand.
“Iadne,” he said, “I must go swiftly, and more swiftly will I arrive alone than in tandem. Please understand this. Nor do I wish to abandon you. It is only that my people…”
She looked up at him in confusion, then in spite.
“There is no love for me in you,” she said, her white face hard set as marble with scorn. “Only the excuse of duty.”
“To defend my people I must arrive anon,” he said calmly. He gave the old man a look, and the latter went to tend to the wearied horse, whistling to himself. “I must prepare for the onslaught, imminent as it will be. If you wish, return your spider to my neck. I will gladly take it as a passenger to assure you of my honor. If I break my promise, you may kill me.”
“I may kill you any time I wish,” she snapped. She did not cry, for marble never wept, but there was a brittleness around the scowl of her eyes. “But…no. I will keep my spider. Go! I mislike your soft words and hard heart. Just remember how terrible was your fall when it last rained. I will not warm you with life a second time.”
“And I will not forsake you,” Eseus vowed. “Please, take care. Be vigilant, and arrive at House Lorwynne when you safely can. I do not want to lose you upon the moor. It is a dangerous place and…”
“Do not preach to me of vigilance on the moor,” she snapped.
Eseus grimaced, knowing he had wronged her. But he had no time for qualms. Lives laid betwixt the balance. He called out to the old man.
“You will escort the lady homeward,” he said. “Take care of her. I owe her a debt of life, and I intend to pay it in full.” He looked again to Iadne, though she had turned away from him. He could see stone-bitten censure upon the profile of her face. “For the rest of my life, Iadne, I will pay what I owe you. I swear it upon the crypt of my ancestors in which rest the bones of my father.”
He said no more, but drove the horse at a hard gallop parallel to the Oxenford Road. He glanced back only once. The Spider clan girl stared after him as he disappeared into the fog. Her face was illegible.
***

Iadne and the old man walked beside the horse, strolling along the moor. Iadne was silent, spinning her anger as a spider would its prey— winding it tight before she would eat of it. The old man seemed jolly enough, and smiled as they traversed the bland lay of land.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. “But might I venture to say that you are of the Spider clan?”
“The last,” she said. “Are you not afraid of me?”
“No, ma’am,” he said. “Married me a Spider clan girl meself, decades ago. She can weave a wonder to wear, though her cooking’s never been even half good.” He guffawed loudly, amicably.
“Your lord never objected to such intermarriage?”
“Why would he, ma’am? We’re all related at one point or another. One big happy World Tree, it is. The buds don’t mind if paired of a different scent or color, so to speak. Makes them all hardier, anyhow.”
Iadne became quiet once again, though she had stopped weaving her fury. She listened to the old man talk. He spoke of his wife, and their children, and their children’s children. He was old, but hardy, and had been an energetic husband. Even now he was robust with his expression.
“And them silk stockings that your people weave!” he remarked. “Keep the water out from between every toe, they do. And so comfortable! Feel like a fox in its own pelt, so natural. House Lorwynne has benefitted mightily from your people. Course, I can only really speak for myself, and how happy I am with my little Spider wife! That’s what I call her,” he added confidentially. “I say to her all of the time, ‘Woman, you spun a trap for me to cradle me off to sleep!’ And she says, ‘You willingly leapt into my web, dear.’ And I say, ‘It’s a pretty pattern that makes fools of us all!’ Ha hah! She loves when I say that!”
Iadne pulled her hood up over her tangle of hair. She needed shade for her thoughts. “My clan always disavowed those who went to live among the castlefolk,” she said. “We considered them traitors, and severed all threads to their lives. Whole families were torn apart because of such things. Many webs in disarray.” She held her hand up, her last spider dangling from its strand. “And we never spied on them once they left us. We pretended as if they never existed. Perhaps we were wrong.”
“We have our differences, to be sure,” the old man said. “But the arrangement’s always been about the same as it is in my household. I pretend that I am in charge, and my wife does as she pleases. Isn’t that the way of the Oxenford line and the clans of the moor? Yes, ma’am, I do believe it is.”
“And what do you think of Eseus?” she asked, glad that her hood was sheltering her expression. “Please speak truly. I’ll know if you lie.”
“As would my wife,” the old man said lightly. “All Spider clan women seem to sense a lie, as a fly upon a web. And, truly, I always speak true to my mind. So, what I will say about our lord is this: he is like his father. That man would never demand his subjects to do anything he himself wouldn’t do. He even took time now and again to help plant crops and reap the fields, build up the cottages and such. He wasn’t good at any of it, but doing that work helped him understand his people and how they lived by living everyday beside us. When he died…well, there wasn’t a one of us who didn’t wish his enemy to drink his own blood. And his son…Eseus felt the death keenly. He will be his father come again. You wait and see. He’ll be out there in the fields, blistering his hands with a scythe, or he’ll be packing clay for cottages, getting it deep in his fingernails. He’ll know a hard day’s work, and so he’ll know his people. He’ll care for us, and, by Mathara’s grace, we will care for him.” The old man’s jolly expression gave way to a gloomy frown. “I just hope he is more careful than his father. Them Crows can be tricky with their arrows. They can fly through a spin-storm and still find their mark.”
“His father was assassinated by the Crow clan?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “But two months afore. He was out in the fields with the rest of us, tending to the crops. We had a good year, you see, and when we have a good year everyone pitches in to pitch it out, so to speak. It was a clear day, too. The sun shone bright, but the wind was cool. Not cold, not hot. Just the right kind of weather for harvesting. But then there came a cloud out of the South. Took it for a thunderhead at first, so black was it. Then we saw that it came on too quick. Unnaturally quick. We realized it was a murder of crows. Crows swarming one another in a mad chaos of cawing and cackling and a flurry of wings. We were all so astonished that none of us had our heads on right enough to afford it the suspicion it warranted. One moment gave to the next and before we knew what happened, a hail of arrows came falling down out of that storm. The arrows oft struck earth, or else dealt wounds where life would not bleed out. But one arrow found its mark true enough, and earned a terrible bounty for our enemies. Lord Lorwynne fell quick, with an arrow in his heart, and no amount of ministrations or magic could have helped him.”
“The same such thing took many of my people,” Iadne said, remembering the day that her clan was massacred. “Only, the Oxenford forces stampeded upon us as well, lancing many of our people and trammeling them under hoof.”
“If they have joined together,” the old man said, “then they will be a hard foe to meet at a clash.”
Iadne sulked in the shadow of her hood. “Do you think Eseus…do you think he will seek vengeance against hte Crows for the murder of his father?”
The old man stroked his muttonchops, considering. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
“Why not?” she demanded.
“There is no wisdom in vengeance. Only an animal need to sate the blood-hatred. And it isn’t good to indulge that animal too much. You have to tame it, otherwise it will run riot.”
“I would say that to tame the animal would be to weaken it,” she countered. “And to weaken it in the wilderness is to invite disaster.”
“That is true in a way, too,” he admitted. “But look at it this way. Venageance is like a nasty pie. You may have baked it for a particular person, but in the end everyone gets a slice, including yourself. And you don’t want a piece of that pie, because it will mess with your innards something awful. Having married a Spider clan girl, I believe I know something on that matter. Now Justice—that’s a dish everyone can eat. And I believe that Eseus is his father’s son and will see that Justice is done. Blood doesn’t rest when it’s spilled on a downslope; it just keeps flowing faster and faster the more it is spilled.”

***

Eseus could feel the fresh strength of the horse, and with it a strength refreshed in himself. He felt dread before him, too, at what might find him at home, and remorse trailed behind him, worried as he was that something might befall Iadne. But he knew, too, that she was wiser than him to the perils of the moor. He had to trust in her pluck and knowledge, and concentrate himself on preparations for the coming war.
Hope leapt with each stone’s throw as he came closer to home. The triple-gash upon his shoulder burned and broke and bled anew, yet could not weaken his gladdening heart.
Eseus reached the Fork before midday, and soon saw the familiar fields of his homeland as the Gray lifted from around the expanse of Lorwynne. Perhaps his ancestor had been a wizard after all, for the Gray yielded dominion at the edge of his birthright. Stars always shone over House Lorwynne in the late hours, even when the day had been clad black as night. The stars, and their constellations, shone.

The peasants were out in the fields, tending to the crops. Scythemen reaped the wheat, and women plucked beans and squash. Hay was piled and pitchforked atop wagons to be stored in the thatch-roofed barns for the coming Winter. To see the peasants working out in the open, when war was as a storm brewing hot upon the horizon, frightened Eseus. They were all working loyally— in service to him as well as themselves—and they were vulnerable because of it. They would need to be brought behind the walls until the enemy had been vanquished. He only hoped the granaries were full enough presently to see them through the famine months.
His heart leapt when he saw the malachite heron banners rising from over the battlements of his father’s castle. Despite it all, he felt a great surge of purpose and hope at the sight of the mighty stone walls. He vowed to aspire to be ever as much the man his father was, and to be deserving of his people’s trust and loyalty. He would protect them, he told himself, from flood and flame and his fickle family.
The drawbridge was down, the portcullis up. The castle was as a young maiden with her legs innocently spread beneath her hapless skirt, ignorant of the lechers scheming for her maidenhead. Her chastity belt had to be drawn tightly, and the satyrs gelded for their intentions.
The horse’s hooves clacked upon the wooden bridge but a moment, it seemed, and he was entering the castle. Had he been a band of marauders they would have been well on their way to the heart of the castle, unchallenged.
Upon passing the first wall, he reared about. The sentinels lay lax against a wall— so lax they appeared dead. But they were not splashed with crimson upon their green cloaks and silver-veined armor. Their sonorous snoring also betrayed that they were yet-living. Their halberds lay athwart their laps, as if sleeping deeply as well.
“Why are these men sleeping while on duty?” Eseus demanded loudly.
No one answered him, for the two sleepers were the only souls on this side of the wall. Again, he questioned the deaf air in vain. Hopping down from his horse, he kicked the men upon their boots.
“Rise! Rise!” he bid them. “The enemy approaches!”
The sentinels, realizing who had waked them from their slumber, scrambled to their feet and stood at the ready, albeit very drowsy in their countenances.
“Sorry, milord!” they both said, sweat now bathing their well-rested brows. “We have been holding vigil all night, watching for you…”
Eseus waved away their words impatiently. Other men-at-arms, realizing whom was making a ruckus, gathered around him eagerly.
“Rally the other men!” he commanded. “Post the guards. Bow and arrow for one and all. Make ready the cauldrons. Boil the oil. Send riders out to the fields and gather the peasants. Do not wait. Do not let them tarry long. Once they are within, draw up the bridge and lower the portcullis. Go! Now!”
The men stood still, fidgeting with confusion.
“What is the matter?” he demanded, his angry eyes searching his men heatedly. “Are you strawmen struck dumb? Move! To arms!”
It was then that he saw their eyes all gather behind him. Turning, he saw his mother coming toward him— her eyes shimmering more brightly with tears than the shimmer of her green dress—but he also saw others around her. While his mother exclaimed praises to the air and threw her arms around her son, her son took her embrace but half-wittingly, for his eyes fixed themselves upon the retinue around her, and their purple-and-white ox emblems as baleful in his eyes as any creature lurking in Beggar’s Swamp.

***

“Such preparations are quite needless, I assure you,” the Oxenford commander said. “My scouts have reported nothing to fear from the Crow clan. They are leagues away, roosting in their own filth.”
They stood in a chilly circle of opposing words in front of the portcullis. Eseus’s men lingered by, oscillating in indecision and conflicted loyalties. Eseus insisted that they do as he had bidden them, and the Oxenford commander undercut his every word. Eseus remembered the man from his childhood, albeit now rendered with less hair and more mustachio. Commander Vanus had ever been a blowhard, and even now he outshouted the rightful heir to House Lorwynne.
“They march here even now!” Eseus said.
“Nonsense, my boy,” Vanus said. “My men would have report it if it be so.”
No one believed Eseus. No one trusted him. He was yet a young man, after all, and the commander was a battle-proven man of experience. That he was a traitor and a usurper-regent for the Oxenford heir, no one but Eseus could see that.
“I have seen them,” Eseus said. “I have killed three of them on the moor. My caravan was ambushed and my subjects slaughtered by their arrows and blades. I know that they conspire with…”
He cut short his words, knowing that his mother was present, and a single blade gone awry could end her life. He knew he could not let them know that he knew of the conspiracy, nor let them know of his dealings with Iadne. They believed they had him in the dark, but he could see beneath the hood of lies, and would use their machinations against his kingdom to undo them. The fish would leap and hook the eye of the fisherman. This he vowed.
“Perhaps I am but overwrought,” Eseus said after a time, relenting. “I have been too long upon the moor.”
“Verily so,” his mother said, anxious concern all over her face. She kept her arm around him, as if he might be spirited away at any moment. Her hand found the blood of his shoulder and she gasped. “And you are wounded! You bleed, Eseus!”
“As will we all,” he said, giving Vanus a scowl, “given time.”
He let his mother lead him away into the castle. A midwife was summoned, at once, and she tended to his bandages. House Lorwynne had no wizards or doctors. Doctors could hope for no better payment than room and board, and wizards shunned the Oxenford Road. Herbalists might be found, occasionally, but unless they were of a certain tradition they might kill a man as sure as any wound left unattended.
After he had been bandaged anew, Eseus dined with his mother, briefly, and spoke of the deadly feast at Oxenford.
“How dreadful!” his mother remarked, eyeing her slice of apple pie suspiciously. “That such terrible creatures should…should…should just spring out of a pie and kill a man! I am only grateful that you were not bitten. You were not bitten by a spider, were you, Eseus?”
“Only in a manner of speaking,” he said. When he saw the look of terror on her face he added, “Figuratively, mother.”
She attempted to smile, but the ghost of her grief clung to her still. It was for this reason, and others, that he did not tell her about the conspiracy between the Crow Clan and Kareth. He did not believe she would be able to play her role calmly while overcome with her sorrows. She had just lost her husband, and to know that Oxenford had plotted it so— and that its top commander now occupied her home— would have been knowledge too crippling for her overburdened heart. Thus, Eseus let things play out as they might, and plotted in the meantime.
“Mother,” he said. “Before uncle died he had voiced, rather aggressively, that I should marry his daughter. What are your thoughts on the matter?”
His mother became quite silent, staring down at her lap and wringing her napkin in her hands. Her brow twisted and flexed, trying to smooth out its turmoil.
“Your cousin Kareth is a beautiful young woman,” she said hesitantly. “What are your thoughts, Eseus?”
“That she is beautiful, yes,” he said. “And that my uncle desired our marriage. She desires it also.”
“And what do you desire?”
“I…I desire to know what father would think.”
His mother’s face twinged at the mention of his father, and she almost wept. However, she steadied herself and took a deep breath, dispelling the sadness.
“Your father said that you should never marry into their House,” she said. “And that they should never have dominion over ours.”
“Father and I are of an accord, then,” Eseus said.
“But you have to understand, Eseus,” his mother added quickly, “your father had wild dreams at night. He never spoke of his brother except after such dreams. And they were raving dreams, Eseus. Terrible nightmares. He spoke of stars falling upon the world and razing it to scorched scars that would never heal. While I did not understand any of that, I did understand that he did not trust your uncle. He did not trust any of them.”
“Nor do I, mother,” Eseus said.
“I should like to see you wed, my son,” she added. “And I should like a grandchild to bob up and down in my lap. But I do not want such a child as would be born from Kareth’s womb. Who knows what terrible sins might dwell there? Better a common lady, or even a peasant. I would not begrudge a peasant grandchild. I should give love regardless.”
Eseus nodded but once. His thoughts went to Iadne, but he did not speak to his mother of her. After dinner he ventured out on the battlements to give instructions to his men.
“Should they arrive, see that they are brought to me and to me only. See that they are not harmed. Fetch me at once. Do not let any of the Oxenford men intercept them, or attempt to claim them for questioning. One is a loyal man you likely know. Perceus. The woman is an albino with disarrayed hair. Her name is Iadne, and she is certainly not to be harmed. If the Oxenford men intervene, and it comes to blood, so be it. Am I understood?”
The men affirmed so.
“Tell no one else of this arrangement,” he said. “Once she is here there will be other arrangements to be kept only among us. Until then, be vigilant. There are enemies within our walls as well as beyond.”

Wizard Eyebrows (A Tangleroot Farce)

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When my queen tells me I must trim
my eyebrows till neat and prim,
I say, “Why should I, anyhow,
when it is my wizard’s brow?”

Then she urges me with decree
to sheer them, like bush or tree,
and at such times I must remind
why brows are not kept in kind.

I say, “Each conductor of mine
is a transistor ley line,
and they channel such vast power
as within Merlin’s tower.”

“Cosmic energies they focus
like a coiled karma locus,
or an altar to gods quite old
whose fires have not wavered cold.”

“My queen, would you deprive your court
of the powers of the sort
in measure like Gandalf the White,
shaving his beard ‘fore the fight?”

“Moreover, I must proudly state
that my brows intimidate
ogres, witches, fairies, and trolls,
dragons, goblins and lost souls.”

“Nor do only such foul creatures
fall to my feathered features,
but knights and ladies, lords and kings
are swayed by the winged things.”

“By means of mien wisely strengthened
with wondrous brows quite lengthened
and aspect accented so strong,
I enchant ere I look long.”

And so saying, I flap my brows
to overrule my queen’s vows—
to ensorcell her womanhood
abed, as lovers would.

Alas, my charms affect her not,
such is my unlucky lot,
angering her upon her throne
so that night I slept alone.

Venom Pies Part 4

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“They are like mushrooms,” Eseus said, still feeling the fear of the hag upon him. Such a fear clung to him like cold swamp water. “I know that much. They are all one, beneath the curse, and sprout up like mushrooms from logs everywhere. People become them, but I did not know that putting on the garments they had washed would in turn curse you.”
“I have seen it happen,” the Spider clan girl said. They sat around a fire, facing each other. In the distance they could hear the gargling, gurgling, howling, growling, screeching swamp. It was an eerie ambience. “Man or woman, it does not matter. Anyone who dons the clothing she has washed will turn gray and sprout mushrooms, becoming as she. Who knows how many Gray Nanny Needleteeth there are in the world?”
Eseus shuddered. “I would have rather refused her services,” he said.
“She would have torn you apart for ‘bad manners’,” the young woman observed.
“Better dead than becoming an avatar for such a curse,” he said. He ate a grub, chewing it without retching. He was growing accustomed to how they crunched between his teeth and oozed all over his tongue. “How did such a curse begin?”
She pressed a single finger to her alabaster chin. It was such a curious pose, almost discordant with the notion that she was a deadly witch that had killed Lord Oxenford. Her wild white hair stood above her head like an abstracted drawing of a sunrise.
“No one knows for certain,” she said, “but my mother always sang a song to me about Gray Nanny Needleteeth. It was a warning, but it also hinted at her origins.”
The Spider clan girl cleared her throat, and sat up straight, properly, as a lady in court ready to sing to an audience of hundreds. She did not sing like a trilling lark, but in a singsong nursery rhyme lilt. Eseus, and his horse, listened attentively.

“O Gray Nanny Needleteeth,
for what does she sing in grief?
Is it the dawning of another day
while cursed by the unending Gray?
She wishes for her former life,
when she was the lordling’s little wife,
or when a knight so full of pride
that he got lost upon an errant ride,
or when a wizard who dared the curse
to see if he could the spell reverse—
one and all, together, in the bog
like mushrooms upon a rotten log,
one and one and one as one, or none,
bound to wash and spread the malediction,
adding many to their dreaded name
and to play the washerwoman’s Game
until the day that swamps run dry,
until the day that the Gray gives way
to a clear blue Summer’s sky.”

“So she is a curse of the swamp itself,” Eseus concluded. “I wonder if the Master might be able to undo the curse. Unweave it from the All Ways.”
“To do so may be to unmake swamps themselves,” the young woman said. “And to undo all of the life in the swamp.”
“The horrors of the swamp, you mean.”
“There are kindlier animals there,” she said. “I can feel them with my mind. They are as frightened as you were, but they live their whole lives frightened. They are thankfully short lives, however.”
Eseus ate another grub. He was hungry, and while the grubs were satisfying, it took many to fill the stomach after such physical tolls from the journey hitherto. Still, he did not mind the grubs so long as they gave him the strength to persist. There were times when he wished for a slab of beef, or a bowl of mutton, or even a salmon filet, but these yearning conjurations brought with them their shames. His people could been strewn out like carrion upon the fields and he was consumed with thoughts of his inconvenience.
“We must go soon,” he said. He rose, unsteadily, to his feet and saw to the saddle on the horse, fidgeting with it nervously. Sweat was still beading his forehead. It had never really left him since his encounter near the swamp. A cold deluge of icemelt still sloshed in his belly. His breathing grew rapid and he steadied himself on the stallion. He promised, without speaking, to retire the stallion when they arrived at the House of Lorwynne. The stallion would run in a pasture and breed until his heart was content.
A hand on his shoulder, which he grabbed and nearly broke.
“Eseus!”
It was the Spider clan girl. He released her hand.
“I am sorry,” he said. “I…am not feeling well.”
“You need to rest,” she said. “You have been through too much in too little time. Hags have an effect on men more than women. Even after they have left, their influence remains for a time.”
Eseus let the Spider clan girl assist him to the fire once again. She sat down beside him, feeling his forehead and giving him water from his canteen. It was fresh rainwater caught overnight.
“I am…frightened,” he said. “The Crows did not scare me. But the hag…she may have not taken me, or transformed me, but she still changed me somehow. I do not understand it.”
“It is the Miasma,” she said. “It can last several hours. Are you foggy-headed?”
Eseus nodded.
“And you are hard of breathing?”
Again, he nodded.
“Yes, it is the Miasma. It will take time for your body to purify itself. And it will take longer for your mind.
Eseus tried to stand. “No, we haven’t the time!”
The world swayed and flew sideways, rising up across his face. He lay upon the ground, his breathing laborious as if he was drawing swampwater in and out of his lungs. He could still see the hag in his mind, her mushroom-warted face grinning. Her needle teeth opened and through her throat he slipped. He saw his fears manifested before him. He saw his cold-skinned father, slain by a Crow’s arrow. He saw his mother grieving at the crypt wherein her husband was interred. He saw the looks of his people, turned toward him as one, the hopelessness he felt mirrored in their faces. He saw his uncle laughing, and his pretty cousin smirking quietly, thinking her secrets utterly her own. He saw the waiting woman, though he did not understand why he feared her, and he saw the corpses of his people strewn around her while crows flew overhead, cawing with mad laughter.
And then he saw the Spider clan girl. She held his head in her lap. She had wrapped him in her robe and now sang while giving him water to drink. Beneath her robe she wore spidersilk garments—intricately patterned white on purple. She wore no dress, nor frock, or any such lady’s garments, but a practical tunic and britches. He stared at her, and her albino skin, her red eyes and wild array of milk-white hair. His mind focused upon her, as a wizard’s eye may a seeing-glass while gazing through the chaos of the All Ways. Her face was a refuge, and sheltering within it the fears of his life seemed to wither and fall to the wayside.
Her song:

“I knew a love like the moor
as it rises to the quiet hill;
it came upon me from the fore
with a subtle slope I could not feel.
I walked up the softly-easing rise
of the gently-gliding ground
and imagine, dearest, my surprise
when it was you I found.
For I never saw while we walked
what was clear and plain to see
as we went together, and talked and talked,
what this hill now reveals to me.”

“You have a sweet voice,” he said. “Untrained, but obviously well-practiced.”
“Sometimes I welcome the silence of the moor,” she said. “Sometimes it maddens me.”
“I can speak the same of solitude,” Eseus said. “When among my relatives, I seek it. But the solitude I felt after my father died…it is a gaping chasm that swallows a man.” Eseus tried to sit up, but only slumped again into the young woman’s lap. “My father’s crypt is a thing of stone,” he said. “It is not warm, nor airy, as my father could be when among friends. I have not visited it but once, and only then to retrieve my mother from its dark void. I feared she might waste away down there, eaten by the shadows. I fear she may yet while I have been ensnared by all of these terrible intrigues.”
“My people would burn the dead,” she said. “And let the ashes fly upon winds across the moor. Sometimes I think I can hear my mother whispering to me with the wind. But I know it is only what I wish to hear playing a game in my ear.” She wiped his brow again, and her fingers strayed into his hair. “Why do you bury your people in such dark places? Why not care for your dead elsewise?”
“It is a tradition,” Eseus said. “To have them near us…it comforts some of us. Sometimes I am comforted by it, and sometimes I realize it makes no difference at all.”
“I should like to be remembered in lively song rather than cold stone. A song sung by the living, not etched in dead words.”
“Then I will write a song for you,” he said, smiling despite the tears in his eyes, “and they will sing it from the Northerlands to the Southerlands, from the Oestrelands to the Westerlands.”
“Do not mock me,” she warned. “Your noble blood will weep for it.”
“I do not speak in jest,” he said. “I will construct a song as we ride. And at next nightfall I shall sing it to you.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “I have a trained voice,” he said, “but it is also an unpracticed one.”
“Iadne,” she said.
He did not understand the word. “What?”
“If you are to write a song for me,” she said, “you should know my name. My name is Iadne.”
“Iadne,” he said. “My name is Eseus.”
“I know,” she said.
“How did you come to know it?” he asked. “I never told you.”
“We know the names of the nobility,” she said. “We hear word of you, just as we hear word of our other foes. It is good to know whom to assassinate.”
“Such as my uncle,” Eseus said.
“Verily so.” She regarded him for a long moment, her lips almost smiling with mischief. “So, you wish to be called Eseus. Is that all? No grand titles to add gems to its crown?”
“Eseus is all I wish to be called,” he said. “Titles are too heavy to wear, as are crowns.”

***

They traveled on, at length, though they walked to allow the horse much needed rest. The fog shrouded the moor as if to keep out the hours. It seemed a twilight without end. At times Eseus feared they might have fallen prey to some enchantment, doomed to walk the same stretch of featureless land forever.
There appeared a large hill through the fog. It was unlike the gradual slopes of the subtler hills on the moor. White, it seemed made of sand, as if from the Southerlands. Upon its crown were standing stones, ringed in a circle. Even at the distance Eseus could see footprints appearing and disappearing up and down its slopes and summit. He could not see the walkers. They were as phantoms without form
“Stay far from it,” Iadne said.
“There is ancient magic within such stones,” Eseus said. “They are concentric stones, the corners of the All Ways…if the All Ways should be believed possessed of corners. That is what our tradition states.”
“They are the vertebrae of a sleeping god,” Iadne said. “My people believed that the god dreams the Gray into the world as he sleeps.”
Eseus stared at the standing stones, and their circular grooves. “Perhaps both of our peoples are right.”
He steered the horse far from the hill, giving it a wide breadth of space. The Gray was thick upon it, as fabric wound around a spool. Eseus had seen such hills before, but always while within a large convoy. Even so, the japes of the accompanying soldiers ever died to silence whenever passing such a primordial nexus of the world’s magic. A natural instinct rendered the most foolish jester wise with silence as he passed such a place.
When they had put enough distance between themselves and the white hill and its standing stones, Iadne spoke again, though as quietly as if they were in the shadow of the hill.
“That woman,” she said, “Kareth. You do not find yourself drawn to her?”
“I am drawn to her,” Eseus confessed. “Which is why I mistrust her, and myself. She would use my love against my people. And a ruler must not be divided in his duties.”
“And you do not believe that her love for you might dissuade her from her…harder heart?”
Eseus laughed— he laughed long and loudly, even if it was a sardonic laugh. “She harbors no love for me, or for anyone. Sometimes I do not believe she loves even herself. Perhaps she is incapable of love.”
“Then I pity her all the more,” she said. She became quiet and did not speak for an hour. In the meantime her spider scurried up and down Eseus’s nape in agitation. When it stopped, Iadne spoke. “And there is no other noblewoman for whom you hold affection? No one you might be promised to in marriage?”
“No one I care for,” Eseus said, “though there are many who would scramble over the corpses of their own parents to secure a marriage into the House of Lorwynne. To be honest, I do not think of things such as these often. I do not care to. I have too many other frets to juggle without add wedding rings to the mix of things. I would fumble the more important concerns presently, like the blades of the Crows and of my loveless cousin.”
Once more Iadne said no more, but grew silent while her spider traversed Eseus’s nape. When she spoke again, she spoke haltingly.
“I…fell in love once,” she said. “He was a strong summoner in our tribe. Panyseus was his name. He…he never fancied me as much as I had him, but he fancied me enough to…wed me. He did lay with me…only once. He laid with many young women in our tribe. But our union was…fruitful…”
“I see,” Eseus said. His neck was straight and stiff, and not only because the spider gripped him hard with its legs.
Iadne spoke defensively. “We do not value a woman for her maidenhead alone. We are not the same as the nobleborn. Women have value for more than the children they bear, and such children in our tribe are raised by the tribe. The fathers still raise the children, if they will, but they are not necessary. Yet, the children often wish to know their fathers. Especially the boys…”
“I understand,” he said stiffly.
“It is far worse for the men in my tribe,” she said, “for if they abandon the child then they abandon all future children. A good knife will see to that.”
He nodded once, but the spider remained tight upon his neck. “Then…have you had children?”
“Yes,” she said. “Only one, for I laid with only Panyseus. I named her Immedea. She died when young. Bog-throat claimed her.”
“I am sorry,” he said. “And…the father?”
“He knew the love of a knife when he fled me,” she said. “The women of my tribe grew tired of his lecherous ways.”
“It must have…made things very hard,” he said, not knowing what else to say. “To raise a child…and then to lose a child…” He wiped his eyes with his sleeve.
“No,” she said. “I had my clan, and my clan helped me raise Immedea. When she died, the clan grieved as one. Now, I grieve my clan as one, alone.” She hesitated, and the spider released its tight grip on Eseus’s neck. “I…only wanted you to know about me. I wanted you to know what loves I have had.”

***

They rode through the fog until night blackened it like dragon smoke. They then camped and ate more grubs by a humble fire. The horse nibbled what tufts of grass were safe to eat and then laid down as if ready to die. Its ribs were etched with hunger and malnutrition. Eseus did not know what to do for it.
“The horse may die before we reach home,” he said. “If that happens we may not reach my home for weeks.” His face was taut with frustration. “I feel as if I am playing the part of some god’s jester. So many adversities and my efforts to defend my home have yet to even begin.”
“You are still breathing,” Iadne observed. “Perhaps the god wishes to harden your mettle before facing you against your foes.”
“I never thought kindness a trait of gods,” Eseus said. “Not even Mathara is known for it, and she is the most beloved among the gods by the peoples of this world.” His smile was sour, as if he sipped a wanting wine. “And she is but a dragon goddess whose merest whisper would burn the world.” He shrugged. “No, the gods do not favor any mortal except as a whimsy of amusement. We entertain them for a time, and then they tire of us and turn toward other torments.”
“And yet you are like a god to your people,” Iadne observed. “Whatever you do, they worship you. They obey your every word as if it is divine decree.”
Eseus shifted uncomfortably. “I do not wish to think of it that way,” he said. “I do not want to be a god, for good or ill, only a defender of my people.”
“But they are born and raised to do as you say,” she said. “You are as a god to them in word and in deed.”
“And I was born and raised to rule,” Eseus said, growing irritated. “Do you think I wish it? No! I would rather travel the world. See the Southerland beaches. Visit Gran Stone in the Midlands and speak to the Master. Peruse the tomes of his timeless library. Live a quiet life in the woods, perhaps, where there are no kings or nobles or even petty lords. Live unto myself, answerable to no one and nothing except Time and Death.” He sighed heavily. “But that is a dream for a selfish person. And I cannot be selfish. If I am selfish then my people will die.”
Iadne considered what Eseus had said, staring at him from across the fire. “I can make beasts do as I desire,” she said, “making them think they do what they desire. You do the same with your people, and your people do the same to you.”
“My people are not animals…” he began to say.
“They are not free,” she said. “And neither are you. None of you live your desires, and so you conform your desires to the expectations of others, telling yourselves you are happy following a pattern woven for you before your birth.”
“That is everyone,” Eseus said. “Every people with a history are herded by that history. From the Northerlands to the Southerlands, tradition is the shepherd of the people.”
“And you think I am bound by tradition, too?” She stood and walked to the other side of the fire, standing over him.
“Of course,” he said. “We are both bound by tradition. The echoes from the Past hound us to do as we are told. The customs of our clans bind us, whether living or dead.”
She lifted her robe and slipped it off, and then stripped herself of her undergarments.
“Then let us free ourselves from the Past. I am tired of their clutching shadows.”
She laid beside him, upon her robe, and pulled him upon her.
They met for the first time that night— not as lordling and nomad, nor foe and foe, host or guest, conqueror or conquered— but as man and woman, woman to man, soul to soul, freed at last from the complex trappings of civilization and heritage and tradition and blood debts. Free unto one another, as bird to bird upon the wild winds, they upmounted each other’s vertiginous heights and plunged into each other’s depths, finding peace in tranquil freefall, embracing against gravity and the rushing ground until all that existed was the wingstroke of each other’s love.

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.

Venom Pies Part 1

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“Vengeance pies
served with envy’s eyes,
abide the bride
to wed and to bed
in a house of lies.”
— an old Oxenford rhyme

The spider dangled from the strand. It was black all over, like the darkest shadow beneath the underbelly of the world, except upon its thorax where twin triangles mirrored one another, tip to tip, that scarlet hourglass as livid as blood freshly spilled. The strand twinkled with rain, shimmering as the irritated spider ascended its silken line in frustration at the falling droplets, seeking shelter once again in the bog-black sleeve from which the bone-white wrist and hand emerged, the smooth finger beringed with the end of the strand.
“Such a small malice you are,” the woman said. “And yet, trifling malice that you be, you may yet kill a great lord.”
She let the deadly spider crawl under the back of her hand, her palm up, and then scurry into the inner recesses of her sleeve. The woman looked out upon the rain-veiled valley where the castle resided, sprawling with its grandstanding towers and battlements.
“Time is at hand,” she said. “And time is up. Come, appetite.” She stood against the downpour. “We have a feast to attend.”
She began the walk down the slippery grass, and yet never slipped once, her footstep as assured as the stones that jutted here and there among the mossy banks. As sure as the vengeance she had promised herself, her pale pink lips smiling thinly within the dark shadow of her cavernous hood.
“And what a delicious feast served to joyful music.”
***

Eseus paced circles in the courtyard, as if to wear the flagstones down to dust with his boots. Restless-hearted with worry, he watched the last of the dinner guests enter the great feast hall beyond the columns, fretting over his role amidst so much mirth and politics. How he wished to be a simple guard, standing silently by portals and by crenelations! Instead, the emblem of the House of Lorwynne blazed darkly upon his breastplate— a malachite heron that meant he would be seated among the noble classes.
And Eseus was a noble, though he did not feel the fulsome draw of the festivities as keenly as his kin. To the contrary, he dreaded such gatherings as much as the peasantry and servants upon whom the labors befell. Yet, they were largely invisible— suffice that they accomplished their duties— whereas everyone seemed alarmingly interested in him. More to the point, they were interested in whom among his cousins he would marry.
The rainclouds were ill omens, he thought, and there spasmed through his nerves a brief inclination toward flight. Perhaps his cousin Kareth, whose father, his uncle, had invited him here as a special guest of honor. His uncle, it was no secret, was the strongest of the House of the Oxenford family, and whatever he decreed was obeyed.
Eseus heard the clatter of plates, the chuckles of his kin as they gathered around the long dining table. There was the trickling of lyres as the band prepared to add to the nobility’s conversations the cadences of music alongside the gloomy splatter of rain. Eseus remained outside yet, lingering beneath the tier of the courtyard He saw a woman walking on the second storey tier, through the rainy veil, her skin as pale as milk. She moved like a flashing ivory statue beneath a heavy hooded robe that could not conceal such radiant opalescence. His eyes followed her, briefly, then turned inward again, to his own gloomy hopelessness.
Sighing, Eseus consigned himself to his fate and entered the feast hall.

***

She was certain none of them had seen her stealing her way through the castle. They were too preoccupied with celebrating the latest conquest; too preoccupied with being nobleborn and content with their privileged lives. The servants, too, were too preoccupied with their tasks. The guards were too preoccupied with the spiders that covered them to stop her. She passed from the second storey to the servants’ stairwell, winding her way down into the kitchen. She set the pie in among a half-dozen others, then walked out— out of the kitchen, out of the castle, and half a mile out of the valley, watching the castle from the hillside, sitting upon a shelf of rock with her hood still shouldering her head against the rain and an eye in her hand— the eye of a crow that revealed to her what it saw from its twin inside the pie.
“By his own blade shall come his doom,” she said.
She then watched and waited.
Quite eagerly.

***

The candle bled slowly, the wax melting as a sluggish pus creeping down the tallow stalk. Eseus watched it glumly, seeing his life melt moment by moment. Eseus sat at the long table alongside the others, not touching his food but curiously. His uncle, Lord Oxenford, sitting at the head of the table, scowled at the tardiness of his nephew, drinking his wine as if it was of a bitter vine, and stroking his bushy beard irritably. Conversely, his daughter—seated on his right—smiled kindly at her cousin. It was a ruse, her smile, and Eseus knew it well. She had her mother’s charms, and like her mother her charms were as sharp and penetrating as an executioner’s blade.
“Cousin,” she said sweetly. “How delightful it is that you were able to make the journey to visit us. And with so much yet to do at home!”
“Yes, indeed,” he said warily. “Since father’s passing it is difficult to afford such…distractions as this.”
Her smile lessened unto a thin, pursed line as she stared at him, unblinking. She had bright blue eyes, and had enthralled many men with a simple gaze. It did nothing to Eseus, however, except provoke his irritation. He had learned to be wary of Lady Kareth’s charms long afore, in childhood.
“We are honored that you afforded us the sacrifice,” she said, still sweetly.
Her father grumbled and drank some more, growling something into his goblet. His daughter laid her dainty hand upon his larger one— a loving gesture, but of motive not unlike those her mother once offered alongside her sweetest smiles. Whosoever was the recipient of such a smile was not long for this world thereafter. She was a witch, people often said, and sweetened her brew with honey alongside the nightshade
“Tell me,” she said. “How fares your mother?”
Eseus did not answer for a long while, staring at the ring upon his own hand— the malachite ring of rule.
“She is unwell,” he said at last. “She has lost her husband. We are all…unwell.”
Lady Kareth nodded, a sympathizing frown upon her pretty face.
“Perhaps we can comfort one another in mutual confidence,” she said. “Each of us having had a beloved parent pass so recently.” She patted her father’s hand. “Cousin, I should like for you to stay here a time. If you are able. It would do my heart much good to commiserate with you.”
“My people are in need of my return…” he began.
Lord Oxenford slammed his fist upon the table, killing all other conversations upon the instant. A graveyard silence prevailed. Even the musicians were entombed in silence, faltering with a twanging string soon throttled quiet.
“What your people need is a strong alliance!” he said, his tone broaching no contradiction. “They need a strong marriage! The Crow clans are assembling all around you, you young fool! Your father has passed and you cannot rally your people against the barbarians. You have no military experience and are doomed to ruin if you attempt it. You must join your soldiers to mine and allow my rule over them, otherwise you and your people will join your father in the grave.”
The other nobles nodded and voiced their agreement. The way they readily voiced their agreement angered Eseus. The sycophants reminded him of hounds begging for scraps beneath the table, and he thought they ought to follow suit on all fours.
“The Spider clan will keep them at bay,” he said. “They are always too busy squabbling with one another to concern themselves with us. ‘Thus divided, thus diverted, thus destroyed.’ That is what my father often said.”
Lady Kareth’s smile deepened with satisfaction, but she said nothing.
“The Spider clan is dead to a man,” Lord Oxenford said. “The Crows saw to that.”
Eseus could only gawk. His uncle grinned knowingly, quite pleased with his nephew’s newfound bewilderment.
“Do you see now, nephew? You are too poorly informed on these matters. You require a strong hand and an experienced mind to guide your people. Perhaps someday you will possess such strength and insight yourself, but never if you are in the meantime slain alongside your people.”
Eseus was silent for a while longer, collecting his thoughts— and his jaw—to formulate a response of defiance. He could not muster it. He asked what his uncle thought he should do, though he knew the answer before he ever uttered the question.
“You must marry my daughter and merge our lands,” his uncle said. “Only united may we crush the barbarian clans once and for all.”
The other nobles gave a rowdy cheer, and much wine was spilled. Eseus lost whatever remained of his appetite as he stared at his roasted duck. He felt like that duck— headless, featherless, and cooked to be served to others.
At length, he spoke.
“I must have my mother’s consent,” he told them, which provoked much laughter around the table.
Lady Kareth nodded in encouragement, though Eseus could sense the irritation in her blue eyes— like an eager eagle diving through early morning skies for prey. She reached up with a hand and tucked a strand of red hair behind her ear. For a moment her hooked fingers looked like bird talons.
“Of course,” she said. “I should prefer my aunt’s blessing in this fortuitous union of our houses. Like well-plaited strands of hair, we must be double-bound to secure ourselves strongly against the headwinds of the world.”
“By the binding of the heirs of our houses,” her father said loudly, “we shall overcome any threat poised against us.”
The rest of the guests again cheered, as if the marriage had already concluded. Eseus, however, felt quite cross and stubborn against this. He could sense the wills of everyone present twisting him and his cousin together in an irreversible knot. And it was not only a marriage knot, but the knot upon a noose. It chafed his neck.
But the matter seemed settled to everyone’s liking—except Eseus’s liking, of course— and so Lord Oxenford clasped his hands together and called for more wine and more food.
“Let us eat and drink in equal measure to our fortunes!” he demanded.
The servants did as bidden, and an indulgent procession of food passed from serving plate to dinner plate to fork or spoon, and finally to mouths, all washed down with various wines as to each guest’s particular liking. With greater wines came greater garrulousness, which was why the honored nephew forewent wine in favor of goat’s milk, though he drank of this sparingly, as he ate sparingly. Instead, he feasted his ears to surfeit with the conversations between the various guests, reading the politics inscribed upon the faces of his kinsmen as if upon an illuminated script. A sober eye could learn as much as a burning ear, and there was much here to glean.
These minor lords feuded over everything. They feuded even now, while beneath the truce-trussed castle of their host. While exchanging pleasantries and uniting unto a cheer to exult their host, they were feuding. Feuding for favor. Feuding for attention. Feuding for the sake of feuds. This little lord and that little lady displeased one another for no other reason than it was a tradition for their houses to be acrimoniously at odds. To see and hear them barter formalities and pleasantries while also exchanging barbs beneath the table, so to speak, exhausted Eseus. He also felt himself drained by the incessant gaze of his pretty cousin. She watched him unerringly, even as she spoke to others around the table. Some might have mistaken her gaze as love, whereas a more studied eye— like Eseus’s— knew it for what it was.
And he felt as a mouse trapped between cats, knowing not which direction to flee.
At last, the arduous hour came to its close. Dessert was served. As was the custom in the Oxenford House, Lord Oxenford was served first, and he cut every cake and pie himself. Lord Oxenford was a man who loved his sweets, and so he served himself from each of the seven pies and cakes in their circle. A generous slice of each he allotted upon his own silver plate. He settled down into his seat, thereafter, to eat while his primly pantalooned servants served the slices he had given to the other lords and ladies. Only Lady Kareth and her honored cousin, Eseus, abstained from the decadence offered; the rest ate heartily and nodded in appreciation of the desserts.
“I may have to abduct your cooks, my Lord,” one of his kin said. “Their skills are impeccable.”
Lord Oxenford nodded vigorously, speaking through a mouthful of pie. “Verily so. But you needn’t poach them, dear cousin. Whipping works wonders with more than mere meringues.”
The quip was well-received, with chuckles all around. Soon, however, the chuckles broken into gasps of pain and fright.
“My word!” a lady cried, dropping her fork in a clatter. “Something bit me!”
Other forks dropped, clattering in a sharp-toothed clamor. More gasps and grunts of pain accompanied this cacophony. Lord Oxenford rose, then, with a roar and dropped his own fork.
“I will have someone’s skin out to dry for this!” he roared.
A noblewoman screamed. “There is an eye in my pie!”
Everyone turned and saw that there was, indeed, an eye in her slice of pie, and it was watching Lord Oxenford. It was a human eye. Suddenly every slice of the pie— blackberry, it seemed— erupted with moving berries that traversed the table, chasing after Lord Oxenford. His nephew rose from the table, as did his daughter, backing away from the hundreds of spiders that came in a great tidal swarm.
“Guards!” the Lord shouted. “Guards!”
But there was little that guards could do with sword and shield against spiders that could crawl between plates of armor and chainmail and cloth. They succumbed to the venomous bites quickly, whereas the majority of the arachnid army marched upon Oxenford in haste.
Lord Oxenford was overcome in moments, clutching at his body in vain against the invading army. With a howl he fell to his knees, then upon the ground rolled as if afire with agony. His daughter came not near him, but had presence of mind for a theatrical swoon into her cousin’s arms. That he obliged by catching her upset him more than his uncle’s imminent death, even as that death was protracted with paroxysms of torment.
Carbuncles bloomed crimson upon Lord Oxenford’s face, and therefrom oozed the sickly sallow pus like candlewax, putrid with hastening rot before it even broke the skin. When Lord Oxenford finally released his last breath, his face was purple and black and knotted with the hemorrhaging lesions. Their victim conquered, the spiders dissolved in many directions.
The guards and the lady— all being bitten—suffered the same fate as Lord Oxenford. The court healer hurried forth in his ministrations, but to no avail. Meanwhile Eseus could not puzzle over the catastrophic turn of events, nor could he usher his cousin into someone else’s care, for she clutched to him with what seemed a compulsion of shock. He was asked to carry her to her bedchamber, which he did reluctantly. A waiting woman attended them, watching Eseus resentfully from behind a swath of head garments. She was a large woman—a head taller than most women—and bulkier than most men. Eseus did not know why, but he felt ill at ease with her walking behind him.
They ascended the central tower and entered Kareth’s room. His cousin immediately came to herself, standing freely, and bid him to stay. She told her waiting woman to leave. The burly woman paused, briefly, as if to scowl at Eseus, but exited without a contrary word.
Lady Kareth, now alone with her cousin, clasped his hands in hers and, inspirited, rejoiced in an unseemly manner.
“I knew this day would be fortuitous!” she chimed. “As I stated earlier. We now have the passage to our joint destiny, free of all obstacles!”
“Your father is dead,” was all Eseus could think to say in his dismay.
“Upon that point, beloved, it is now wayside shadows,” she remarked, her blue eyes twinkling with joy, and ambition. “There is nothing to impede us.”
“But your father,” he said. “An assassin…?”
She waved his words away with the most flippant flip of her dainty hand.
“Father had many enemies,” she said. “And what luck for us!”
“Dead!” Eseus said, still unable to overcome this stark fact. “Your father!”
“He was an incompetent lord at best,” she said. “He was governed by impulse rather than intellect. Mother always said so. But imagine what we could do together! Imagine our lands and people combined!” Her sweet smile was wryly edged with condescension.
Before he could question such a look further, Lady Kareth rushed into his arms.
“Oh Eseus!” she said, “We need one another now more than ever! Please marry me and help me rule this grieving kingdom! I cannot do it alone!”
Warily, Eseus attempted to withdraw from her. The incense in her bedchamber was overwhelming, and the day’s events taxed him. He felt as if he was tottering. “I must fetch my mother and prepare my steward,” he said.
“As you wish, beloved,” she said. She put her cool hand upon his hot cheek. Her fingernails, he noticed, were sharp and long. “And I must mourn my father or it may appear unseemly.” She kissed his other cheek, then, pulling him to meet her liips with an insistent hand. “As it would be unseemly for you to refuse his dying wish.”
Her smile curled at its corners tightly, and he knew not what to say.
“Now away,” she said, “my dearest treasure, and return to me in haste with blessed tidings. Fate awaits us. Make haste! Make haste!”
She ushered him to the door, then had her waiting woman guide him downstairs and into the dining hall.
“Her lady is mourning,” the waiting woman announced, loudly and without shame for her deep voice. “No one is to disturb her. Her cousin is leaving.”
She put a large hand on Eseus’s shoulder and shoved him with impossible strength. He nearly fell upon his hands and knees, staggering into the dining hall.
“Get on home, lordling,” she said.
Before Eseus could voice his anger, the waiting woman disappeared toward the tower once more.

Waiting woman: Her accent struck him strange, and not only because of the harshness of her voice. She did not sound like noble or peasant, but something entirely different. Uncouth. Unfamiliar. The thought of home, though, and his mother, prompted Eseus’s haste out to the stables where his armed carriage awaited him. His men stood at attention upon his arrival, but he told them to stand easy. The events of the day were odd and suspicious, and not only because Lord Oxenford had been slain under such an unnatural machination.
“You shall take the carriage by the Oxenford Road,” he told his men, “but I shall take a horse independent of you.”
“But my lord!” the men protested. “Highwaymen!”
Eseus raised a hand. “I will exercise caution,” he reassured them. “As will you. You will be a diversion, for I intend to arrive home in three days, not two weeks, and if there is any foul play ahead it will fall upon you. Please be vigilant and arrive safely home. Something is not right in Oxenford. I must swiftly rally our people. Foul deeds are afoot and we must be ready to greet them with blade rather than sheath.”
He spoke no more of it, but took the reserve stallion for himself, readying the saddle and bridle and a satchel of salted meats and hardtack for the journey. His men gave him a few carrots and radishes, too, saying he would need them for his eyes when all was shrouded in the murk of mystery and mischief. He enfolded himself in a long cloak as well, to keep off the rain and the curious eyes. In addition, he took an unadorned, unassuming blade. To all ignorant eyes he appeared a lowly messenger of little worth to bandits or clans.
He then climbed atop his horse and rode off across the treeless moors.

War Paint

Margaret was glad that, at her age, she could still paint beauty into the world, even if the world had, year by year, taken her personal beauty away. Her husband departed, and her children preoccupied with their children, and their children’s children, she woke every morning with nothing on her mind but blank paper soon to be filled with whatever whimsy was demanded by her muse. This was half the fun: not knowing what would manifest from the end of her paintbrushes. She was as amazed as anyone by what she painted.
When Margaret was younger, and still desired making a name for herself in the Art World, it was frustrating. None of her work was unified by a single theme, and so most art galleries had little interest in displaying it, however masterful it may have been in its realization. What common thread could be found in the paintings of a fox, a still life bouquet of flowers, a meadow with a single apple tree, and a portrait of her niece’s youngest daughter? Nothing— nothing except that her muse demanded them and embargoed all other things until such demands were met.
Of course, Margaret sometimes attempted to plan out her paintings beforehand, and she would always fail at them. The paintings lived as they willed, unmindful of their creator and as vengeful to the taming whip as a wild lion newly caged. She simply accepted this, letting herself be the avatar desired, and was content in both the satisfaction of a deft execution and the serene calm that enveloped her while surrendering to her muse every morning.
Since her last remaining vanity was painting, Margaret equipped that vanity with the makeup that accentuated her talents. Watercolor, gouache, sometimes inks. She preferred water-based paints because they seemed more natural— more elemental to her fastidious muse. The watery colors were chaotic and would run at times like invading armies where they were not invited. They also presented minimal risks to her health and sanity, unlike oil paints which could have poisoned her and had her cutting her own ears off within a year. Her children already believed her too old and senile to be living alone; she did not want to provide them with further evidence for their case.
Nowadays her children rarely visited her. You would think their repeated concerns for her solitary life would culminate in a visitation every other week or so. But they hardly ever came, except for her eldest son, Damon, and that was because he was prime executor of the Will. He visited her twice a month in the attempt to convince his mother to forsake her happy, isolated independence for the crowded miseries of a nursing home. Though he masked himself with concern, the conceit was so counterfeit as to announce itself in shrill overtures. He desired only the house, which to most people would have been considered a mansion.
It was exactly that, too; a mansion in the middle of Vermont’s most pristine woods. Her late husband hated people and so aspired to avoid them wherever he could. The irony, of course, was that he tried very hard to people the house with as much as his seed would yield; with his wife’s assistance, naturally.
And now, born literally and metaphorically from those efforts, his many children were conspiring to take Margaret’s house from her, just as they were conspiring to take that selfsame house from each other.
Succinctly put, they wanted Margaret out of the way, just as she had wanted her husband out of the way when he was yet living. The difference was that she had worked in accordance to wisdom and married a wealthy, older businessman— some twenty years her senior—so that Time would serve her expediently as a trustworthy hitman. Time’s accomplices, Stress and Heart Disease, also served quite loyally.
Now, Time was demanding its payment from Margaret, too, while her children demanded— in subtle words of concern— their inheritance. How could she blame them their covetousness? They had inherited such selfish traits doubly on each side of their blood. Perhaps she would have been as transparent in her greed as they were if she had not been born, too, with the witch-like cunning that possessed her.
That is not to say she had not grown to regret her own behavior. She had been born a cold, distanced girl, and so she grew to be a curt, mostly indifferent mother. Her destiny was never one aligned to the nurturer’s calling; this she knew and embraced wholeheartedly. Any milk that flowed from her bosom had been scarce, if not soured.
Margaret had married her husband John because he was wealthy, and because with his wealth came the prospect of leisure to pursue her painting. Unfortunately, the cost of the wealth was his desire for heirs, and so she surrendered to his old-fashioned notions for the sake of her one passion. A nanny was employed to compensate for Margaret’s natural disinclination toward motherliness, and John had many mistresses, which pleased Margaret as much as her husband, for it spared her any intimate relationship with him after their five children were born. Margaret had always been asexual in her preferences. Their relationship was not even platonic, truly; it was merely an abiding business transaction. Their prenuptials explicitly embraced such a condition, and both had signed their names— and so their lives— to this arrangement without hesitation.
Sometimes Margaret wondered if the only things that perpetuated her life were her paintings and the frustration her continuity caused her impatient children. She lived to spite them and to beautify. She lived as she had always lived: selfishly. She had no illusions about her virtues. Were her virtues equaled in weight to their constancy then a small thumbtack could have held their combined weight up on a wall. Nor would it have mortified her if her virtues were overlooked among the wallpaper, or even a blankly white wall.
Her heart, succinctly put, was a withered leather sack emptied of any and all keepsakes, spacious in allowing solely her paints and brushes entrance. Her husband’s death had not bothered her anymore than her children’s obvious frustration at her longevity. She lived alone, and she lived happily. No memories harried her. No regrets weighed heavily on the leather sack, as if to make it burst. She was content.
And then, one morning, things changed.

It had been raining all week, and, according to the weatherman, would continue to rain. Margaret welcomed the rain. Its pervading presence announced the silence reigning in the house with a softly thrumming echolocation. Her muse welcomed the rain also, and its hypnosis. Who cared for sunlight with its peanut gallery of forest voices always chittering and chattering? She could paint light, if need be, and there were no distractions in the shade of a thunderhead. There was only the brushing hush of the rain as it veiled the house. There was only the silent water as it colored the paper with vivacious splashes of overlapping hues.
Then the phone rang.
Margaret was so startled she dropped her paintbrush, smearing an azurn cloud as the brush twirled out and away from her knotted fingers. Stooping, she fetched up the rebellious brush and set it on the easel, then thought on whether to answer the phone.
Part of her said that she should ignore it and simply focus on restoring the smeared cloud. Another part was mourning over the body of her murdered muse as it was hauled off to the tomb for a resurrection— scheduled at whatever time was its impish fancy. The phone’s petulant noise had killed it dead.
Without her muse to distract her, Margaret decided to answer the phone, if only to unleash hell upon the caller. She wiped her hands on her apron (splattered as it was with every color imaginable) and begrudgingly walked over to the antique dial phone resting on the antique rollerdesk. Twisting her face up toward her haughtiest eyebrow— the left one—she lifted the sleek black-and-brass receiver and pressed it to her dried-up peach slice of an ear.
“What do you want, Damon?”
“Hello, mom,” he said. the word “mom” was as uncomfortable coming out of his mouth as a wisdom tooth. “I was just calling to check on you…”
“I’m not dead yet,” Margaret retorted. “Until that hour arrives, leave me to my remaining hours of peace.”
“Hold on, now,” he said. “Since you brought that up, I have to ask you, mother, about the grand piano downstairs. You haven’t said where you want it to go.”
“The grand piano?”
“The one downstairs,” he said.
“I know which one,” she snapped. “It’s the only one in the house, after all.”
“Of course, mother,” he said.
Margaret loved that grand piano. She enjoyed sitting on its bench in the morning and setting her morning coffee on its hood and just ignoring it altogether while her conniving children dreamed in vain of selling its large mahogany bulk for a small fortune. Probably to pay for a new car, perhaps, or kitchen renovations. Denying them these petty dreams pleased her.
“I do not know what I will do with it,” she said. “For now I would not worry about it.”
“But mother…”
Margaret returned the phone to the stand, then stepped away. Her mind was still mourning her Lazarus muse when the phone startled her once more with its grinding gearbox-throated birdsong. She nearly jumped with surprise. Had her muse been a vampire this would have been the stake to the heart.
“Damn it all!” she cried.
Angry, Margaret wrenched the phone up from the stand as if she would fling it across the room. Instead, she slammed it into her ear.
“What, Damon?!”
“Mother, you need to get caller ID.”
It was her eldest daughter’s voice. Laura. Her tongue clucked with jaded sarcasm. Indeed, Laura was nothing but jaded sarcasm.
“If I had caller ID I would never pick up the phone for anyone,” Margaret said.
“That’s no way to talk, mother.” Laura’s pronunciation of “mother” was as frigid and disagreeable as a governess attempting Peter Pan’s domestication.
“What do you want, Laura? I am busy trying to live before I die.”
“How appropriate,” Laura said. “That is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. I was speaking to Damon earlier today and he seems to think that he is going to inherit the grand piano, which I knew could not possibly be true. I was the pianist in the family. I was the one that had musical inclinations.”
“Yes, but no musical talent,” her mother retorted.
There was a long silence from Laura’s end of the phone. It ticked like a bomb, though it may have just been Laura biting her nails. At length, she spoke.
“It would be a great travesty if you were to give such a beautiful instrument to that dolt. I would flaunt it in my living room, and play it at Christmas parties. Wouldn’t you like that, mother? To know your great-grandchildren are being cultivated on the holidays with a family heirloom?”
Since Laura’s sarcasm was infectious, Margaret asked how her great-grandchildren were doing, and she did so sarcastically.
“Henry has the Measles and is having a bad go of it,” she said. “Betty’s trying her best, but you know how Henry can be.”
No, Margaret did not know how Henry “could be”. She could not for the life of her remember what he looked like. Presumably he was boyish by look and bratty by nature. That is, if he were an honest heir to the family’s blood and not another cuckoo.
“And Susan’s off to boarding school,” she continued. “We couldn’t afford to send her to the school she wanted, but it is nonetheless an excellent school. Highly recommended in the Club for people wanting the best while balancing a budget.”
Margaret shook her head ruefully. “Knowing your side of the family you might be better off sending her to a nunnery.”
Again Laura clucked her tongue.
“If you knew her you would know that she is not like that,” Laura said.
“Oh yes, just as you were never like that.”
“It is always a delight to speak with you, mother. I do believe that it becomes even more pleasant with ever passing year.”
“Yes, I don’t doubt that you welcome each year as my last, just as you think every conversation with me will be the last. Well, don’t fret too much. I intend that this should actually be our last conversation.”
This time Margaret did slam the phone down.
And once again it rang.
“Laura, I gave you what you wanted…!” she said.
“So you gave her the grand piano?” It was Eric, her youngest son. “Mom, I can’t believe you…”
“I’ve given it to no one, Eric,” she snapped. “In fact, I am thinking of having myself buried in it. Why waste money on a coffin when the grand piano would serve just as well?”
“Mom, that’s silly. You need a proper coffin…”
“It would save more money for your inheritance, wouldn’t it?”
“Mom, I know a guy who wants a piano like that and he is willing to pay forty thousand dollars for it. That’s a lot of money.”
“No, Eric, it isn’t,” Margaret returned. “Your father would make that much money in a week sometimes.”
There was a long, defeated sigh from Eric’s end. “Dad was a stock-broker, mom. Of course it wasn’t much money. But I’m a teacher, and I’ll be lucky to make that much money in a year.”
“It is not my fault you chose public service over selfish practice,” Margaret said. “We paid for your education. You were the one to aim for the ditch when you had a golden brick road to follow.”
“Mom, this isn’t about me. It’s about Ashley’s care. We’re trying to hire a specialist to work with her.”
“Ashley?”
Margaret could not be bothered to remember the names, nor even the faces, of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren. They were as indistinguishable to her as a nest full of chirping, gaping throats. And each one a cuckoo, too.
“Ashley, my youngest grandchild,” Eric said. “She came with us last time we visited you.”
Margaret was surprised to find that she did remember the girl. She was a quiet, self-contained child with a meek face and shy, flighty eyes. The awkward girl was perfectly innocent in her reticence and self-consciousness. Upon first seeing the girl— Ashley, was it?— Margaret wondered briefly if perhaps the girl was a cuckoo planted into her dumb grandson’s house by a roaming salesman. Or perhaps a Jehovah’s Witness. She seemed meek enough to be one.
But the poor girl did have her father’s natural pout, worsened by a surprising overbite that neither Margaret nor her husband had to such a drastic degree. Ashley was also prone to freckles, her rounded cheeks bespeckled with them like stars on a night sky. Perhaps she was a changeling. Margaret knew her grandson and his wife had nothing to do with the child. That was why Eric was looking after the girl. Margaret could not fathom it. Having to birth children and raise them was a bother enough— having to raise the children your children birthed was the never-ending spiral staircase to madness.
Be that as it may, what remembered Ashley most to Margaret, though, was her quiet disappearance during the last family visit. It had been six months ago or so and Eric had not noticed— so busy was he inspecting and cataloguing the silverware in the house— but Margaret had, and she went looking for the curious girl. Margaret found Ashley in her painting studio upstairs, standing as if rooted in the center of the room.
Margaret was at first enraged, thinking the careless and homely girl might knock something over, or damage her finished paintings that were lined up along the walls. But then she noticed the gleaming light in the girl’s otherwise murky brown eyes. It was an exciting light; a light of magic and joy and appreciation.
“Do you like it, child?” she asked her great-granddaughter.
The child did not answer, and it was then that Margaret realized that the girl was not altogether there. Back in the old days they would have called her a dumb mute, or an idiot. Margaret did not know what they called them today. Even that asinine word “special” had become passe. Perhaps, she thought, they called them something as equally ridiculous.
So Margaret walked over to Ashley and gently took her by the arm and pointed out all of the things in the painting which had taken so many countless hours to paint. The field with an old castle in the background, collapsed to ruin by the onslaught of Time’s catapults of entropy. The Black Angus cows grazing between the mossy remnants. The crenelations on the remaining walls, like broken rows of teeth, and the castle’s bowels clogged with vines. A sky morose on the horizon, darkening with black clouds.
Looking at the painting anew, with the simple girl beside her, Margaret felt like that castle was her; her old constipated, rotting, derelict body. It was sad and beautiful simultaneously, and she allowed herself one tear of self-pity, but no more.
“Mom? Mom? Are you still there?”
Margaret shook herself from her woolgathering. “Of course I am still here,” she spat into the phone. “Not dead yet, no matter however much you might wish it.”
“Mom, don’t be like that,” Eric said with all of the feeling of a door mat.
“I’ll be however I like,” Margaret retorted. “And as of right now I will be hanging up the phone.”
As said, so done.
Margaret also unplugged the phone from the wall. Then she proceeded to her easel where she painted in supreme peace for a full two hours without interruption by blood or blotch or bladder.
Rain fell heavy on the house, cascading down the windowpanes in hydra-necked rivulets. The thrum of it put Margaret at ease while she painted. A certain serenity enveloped her so utterly that she sometimes forgot to breathe as she painted, her breath growing shallower and shallower until she nearly drowned in open air. Nor did the prospect of dying at her easel scare her; it was a peaceful prospect. The only death that might be superior would be in a blaze that took the mansion and all of its contents while her children stared on in horror, calculators in hand to reckon the total wealth lost.
Margaret had started painting when she was old enough to pick up a brush and splash some cheap watercolors across a page. Her young mind marveled at the colors. It was like there was the life-forming magic of nebulas in those haphazard collisions of color. Eventually, she had to develop an artist’s discipline of form and subject, rather than continuing the Jackson Pollock method of painting inherent in all children below the age of four. Yet, discipline was as pleasurable to her adolescent mind as the splashes of colors were to her toddler mind. Thus, a passion had been born in her: the passion of creating life, or at least, visions of life. Only in this way was she motherly.
Presently, her paintbrush was creating a wild moor, its verdant expanse bordered by whimsical trees and a seaside cliff. It looked like a very persuasive travel card from the Emerald Isle. Her muse always had an affinity toward the Celtic.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang, which irritated Margaret immensely. No one should have been visiting her today. The grocery boy was supposed to come on Sundays. Not today. Moreover, it was raining heavily, which meant the groceries would be wet and would need to be dried if they were to be properly salvaged at all.
Perhaps that was why the doorbell rang so urgently.
Margaret hurried downstairs, past the living room and dining hall and into the foyer. She opened the door, expecting the grocery boy— what was his name?— and instead found her eldest son, Damon, hurrying inside with his umbrella dripping water all over her floor.
“Its raining cats and dogs outside!” Damon remarked, laughing like an idiot. “Be careful, for they will chase each other about your head and leave wet pawprints on your temples.”
He took his fedora off and shook off his wet trenchcoat, hanging both of them on the coatrack. Of all of Margaret’s children, Damon most resembled her dead husband. Perhaps that was why she could stomach the sight of him the least.
“Mother, I wanted to apologize for being so rude with you on the phone,” he said. “I know I sometimes become pushy and it is very insensitive of me. I just want you to know that I am trying to do what’s best for everyone.”
Much like his father, Damon could also lie with a straight, serious face, or with a smile, or with a laugh. It served his father well in his business practices, but such a skill was wasted on Damon. He was “in-between jobs”.
“What would be best for everyone would be to leave me alone,” Margaret said. “When I am dead and gone you can fight amongst yourselves over the house. I do not want to be in the middle of your bickering while I am still standing. At least do me the courtesy of waiting until my corpse hits the floor.”
“A fight is exactly what I intend to avoid,” Damon said. “In fact, I will finish it before it starts.”
He began walking through the house without asking leave. It infuriated Margaret. This was still her house, whatever his intentions as executor of the Will. And she had half a mind to call the police on him for trespassing.
Damon arrived at the grand piano, which resided in the living room near the large recessed window. He then proceeded to inspect the piano in the most outlandish fashion. He plucked at the strings. He rubbed a finger along each square inch of mahogany. He tapped every single key, both white and black, and paused between keys to listen to its distinct note ring and then fade to silence. Margaret was fairly sure he had no idea what a finely tuned piano should sound like. He also kneeled down to inspect the legs of the piano, and its underbelly, and finally, after shaming himself beyond what Margaret could tolerate, he took a permanent marker from his pocket and wrote on the inside of the key cover his own name, the date, and the current time as per his wristwatch.
“How dare you!” Margaret yelled. “Out! Get out!”
She pushed at him, but he was a large man, much like her husband, and did not yield an inch of ground.
“Mother, please, if you do not stop this I will have to put you in a nursing home.” He then added, as an afterthought, “For your own good.”
“That is still my piano!” she said.
“And I am the eldest,” he said, “so it will of course go to me in…due time.”
He then left for the door, grabbing his umbrella and his hat.
“If Laura or Eric call, please inform them that the matter of the piano has been settled.” He opened the umbrella, then opened the door. He paused and looked over his shoulder. “Take care, mother.”
He stepped out and closed the door behind him.

Margaret returned upstairs to paint, feeling rather furious. She entered a vicious sort of trance that held sway over her for countless hours. Possessed of her newfound passion, her every spiteful thought went from neuron to brush tip like a lightning strike. It was a murderous mood most foul and perpetrated itself with gashes of gouache all over the watercolor underpainting.
When she came to herself later—brush in hand and swaying with exhaustion— she was disturbed to find her moorland painting savagely deviated from its original image. The trees were aflame, the sky was black with smoke, and the moor itself was littered with corpses mangled within shattered armor. Mass pyres burned on the horizon and women wept over fallen husbands, sons, and brothers. Swarms of black flies crowded upon the banquet of death served so generously to them. Soldiers stood in the distance, looking distraught and dismayed at the destruction they had achieved, like dogs of war waking suddenly from a bout of rabies.
And standing in the center of it all, like a grandstanding ringleader grinning at applause only he could hear, was a tall figure in a blood-red cloak.
Margaret’s eyes lingered on that strange figure, and his eyes seemed to linger on hers. Something about him seemed to pop off the page. Perhaps it was merely his red cloak, which was a complementary color to the green field.
Enough, she thought. It was past time that she had something to eat. All of the painting and family drama had exhausted her. She was also feeling dizzy and faint.
Without further ado, she walked downstairs and made a simple salad for herself, sitting on the couch in the living room and watching a little television to distract herself from the grand piano and the painting upstairs. The television chatter blended with the sound of rain pattering on the house. Neither made distinct sense in her waywardly drifting attention, but both were welcome and comforting.
Accompanying her salad was a tall glass of merlot. She kept the bottle on the coffee table, within easy reach should she have need of a refill; which she had, and numerously. She was drinking her fourth glass when she fell asleep on the couch.

Sometimes Margaret peed the bed. Sometimes her bowels betrayed her. But there was little shame in these accidents because there was no one around to shame her. She simply bleached the sheets, washed her underwear, and found a large sheet of blank paper upon which to work her frustrations into fulsome fusillades of paint.
Unfortunately, the couch was not something so easily cleaned as bed sheets. Rather, it was leather, and she had no idea how to properly clean the smell of urine off of leather. So, when she woke later, in the middle of the night, she did the only things she could do: she took a shower, threw her dirty clothes in the laundry machine, put on a nightie, and scrubbed the leather with wet, soapy rags. Whether it would clean it sufficiently or not, she did not know.
When she was finished, Margaret went into her bedroom and cried, thinking about how much she hated the thought of a nursing home and how much she hated the thought of her children rejoicing in finally exiling her from her home.

***

So long as Margaret could see, and so long as Arthritis did not clutch her hand into a gargoyle’s stony claw, she could paint serenity and beauty into her decaying life. Thus, the next morning Margaret woke up and, without food or drink or even a bathroom break, she stood at her easel and painted for four hours straight; unblinking as if in a trance. What possessed her, she did not know, but when she was finished the paper was wet with a strange scene.
It was a royal court, presided over by a king robed in crepuscular velvets and crowned with stars. The people populating his court were humanoid, but not human. Their faces were more delicately featured, some being cartoonish in their long noses and slender chins. Their ears were tapered and long, like pointy aloe leaves. The men’s faces were narrow, and the women’s faces were shaped like acorns. All wore finery of a more anachronistic make, such as lavish gowns and trim-fitted pantaloons, frocks and tunics and petticoats, vests blooming with cravats and waistlines tightly wound with whalebone-and-lace corsets. Translucent wings, such as those belonging to dragonflies, sprouted from the backs of the men, and the women were paired with butterfly wings whose diaphanous colors shimmered.
Margaret was astounded by the breadth of the details and the sheer amount of dexterous work involved in the painting. Frankly, she amazed herself. She wondered if she was suffering dementia, and if so, she concluded it her best muse yet.
And then her eye alighted upon the most dominant figure in the scene, with the exception of the twilight-robed king. There was a tall, willowy man in a bright red suit standing near to the king’s throne. He was, perhaps, the most gaudily dressed gentleman in the room, and while he was certainly handsome, there was something about his eyes— as he peered over his shoulder at Margaret— that chilled her through to her old bones. Something whispered in her ear, Oleander, and she knew, at once, that Oleander was this creature’s name.
Startled, she glanced about herself. Blood throbbed in her head and she decided that it was time she had something to eat, lest she faint.

Margaret ate eggs benedict with a cup of plain milk, the latter of which was a rarity for her. It was raining outside again, though the sun sometimes shone its light through that hushing veil. As she finished her eggs, the doorbell rang. Thinking it might be the mailman, she went to answer it.
It was not the mailman.
It was her eldest daughter, Laura.
“Hello, mother,” Laura said, stepping in with her stilettos hammer-tapping the floor. She tossed her parasol to the floor, quite unmindfully. “I came to check on you today. Damon said you were in extreme duress yesterday.”
“You should be in extreme duress,” Margaret said, “wearing high-heels in this weather.”
“You still have your spirit, at least,” Laura said, puncturing the silence of the house with each piercing step. “God willing, mind and body will remain, too.”
She pretended to give the foyer an equal glance over— here and there— but soon arrived at her obvious purpose for the visitation: the grand piano in the living room. She walked around it, inspecting it casually, feigning disinterest before lifting the key cover and running a ringed finger along Damon’s name. She clucked her tongue and stomped her heel like a billiard ball striking another billiard ball, and another, and another.
“That selfish bastard,” she said. “He knew I wanted it. He knew I deserved it. He had never shown any interest in it until he found out what it was worth. I remember when we were children and he would mock me for playing it. He had no ear for good music.”
“None of you ever did,” her mother said.
Laura ignored her. She had a purse at her side— a black leather, diamond-studded gaudy thing— from which she fetched a tube of fingernail polish remover. She then proceeded to dab at Damon’s name and the date with the odorous little brush. While the acetone ate at the permanent marker, she stood by and waited. Then, using a handkerchief, she wiped away the ink, as well as some of the piano’s finish.
“Right as rain,” she remarked, folding the handkerchief and returning it to her purse.
“Nothing is as ‘right as rain’,” Margaret grumbled.
Laura then proceeded to take a turn about the lower level of the house, from the living room to the kitchen, to the utility room and the pantry and the dining room. It was mostly an open-floor plan on the first floor, and so each of her stiletto-steps echoed pointedly throughout the house. Margaret followed her, outraged and yet helpless.
Whereas Damon resembled his father, Laura resembled her mother. She differed, however, in that she was taller and younger, and thus vainer. This was why Margaret could suffer her presence even less than her other children’s. The very reason Margaret painted so much was so she could escape herself, and yet here was a walking, talking reminder of all of her former earthly vanities.
Returning to the living-room, Laura suddenly paused in her perambulation. The click of her stilettos stopped, ending with a cluck of her tongue that seemed louder than her punctuated walk.
“Why does it smell like pee in here?” she asked.
Livid with anger and shame, Margaret lied. “The cat peed on the couch.”
“I didn’t know you had a fondness for cats,” Laura replied, craning her neck to look for the errant beast.
“I don’t,” Margaret said, “which is why I had to rid myself of it.”
“I see,” was Laura’s stiff reply.
Laura gave the house one last sardonic look. “Well, mother, I suppose I should be going. Julio and I are set to take the grandchildren to the beach.”
“To the beach?” Margaret said. “But it is too cold for the beach.”
“Copacabana beach, mother,” Laura said, curtly. “We’re taking Julio’s company jet there this evening. Long trip, of course, but worth the eleven hour flight. Little Laura has been so looking forward to it. She can hardly wait.”
Margaret could only nod. She could not remember what “Little Laura” looked like. She supposed she looked like a little Laura, which was to say, a girl not unlike what Margaret herself resembled when still young; a happy, pretty, spoilt, naive little girl. Not so bent and embittered and soured to life as Margaret was now.
“Well, take care, mother,” Laura said, heading to the door. “Try not to fall down the stairs or anything. If Damon comes by again, tell him he can put his name wherever he likes. I have plenty of remover to wipe away any claim he might make.”
Laura left and Margaret fumed. The pettiness of her children, and the invasiveness of their visits, infuriated her. There was no end to it, except, perhaps, the end. And it was all so uncalled for. Laura was very wealthy; perhaps wealthier than Margaret had ever been. Her husband, Julio, was a derivatives market conquistador from South America. A bronzed man with an aquiline profile, he had a black ponytail and was built like a professional soccer player, even as he entered his mid-fifties. Margaret’s dead husband hated him, more for their similarities than their ethnic differences. And that was why Laura had married him. That, and his financial liquidity. The plain fact of the matter was that Laura could have bought any piano she wanted, but she wanted Margaret’s piano precisely because Damon wanted it, and Damon wanted it because Laura wanted it. At least Eric was honest about wishing to sell it, not that such honesty earned any appreciation from Margaret. An honest thief was still a thief.

Margaret returned upstairs to her studio. The next painting came spontaneously and without forethought or reflection. Margaret welcomed her muse and became its willing conduit. Like a bloodhound on the trail, she followed it with single-minded devotion. When she had finished, and woken from the magical mesmerism, she looked at her painting with a stranger’s eyes.
It was an outdoor scene where a king in a crepuscular robe and star-studded crown was walking through an apple orchard. Arrayed around him were many smaller fairies— perhaps sprites— all sitting in the boughs of the trees, or flitting through the air, or hiding under flowers and roots. Beside the king stood the same devilish dandy in his crimson cloak that smirked in Margaret’s other two paintings.
Oleander.
Lord Oleander, something told her.
In this painting he was much closer to the viewer, his features elaborated upon with greater scrutiny. Lord Oleander was a tall, willowy sort of dandy, with conceitedly long blonde curls. In that slender foppishness, however, was the cold, sharp promise of anger, like an unsheathed rapier with a flowery handguard to distract from its blade. He was the sort of blade which never sheathed itself but reluctantly, and then only to lower his target’s guard and trick them for a killing strike.
The devilish dandy was gesturing the king toward a ring of mushrooms in the center of the orchard. The king, who was a bent and sallow looking old fellow, nonetheless beamed with a genuine grandfatherly sort of smile. He could not see the kris dagger in the dandy’s other hand.
Margaret took a few steps back, then leaned forward, peering. She stepped forward again and leaned back, peering. No matter how she looked at the painting, she felt like she was painting someone else’s painting—not her own. Where did this painting come from? Where had it been hiding inside her all this time?
Letting the paper dry, Margaret walked to the studio window and looked outside. The massive Vermont pine trees were standing like soggy, shaggy green beasts wishing they could come in out of the incessant rain. Some perverse part of her wanted to see her spiteful children standing out in this rain, wanting to come in, just so she could deny them entry and watch the rain taunt them with its cold wetness.
“I am a bad mother,” she said to her ghostly reflection in the window. “I have always been a bad mother. That is why I have bad children.”
She walked downstairs, found the half-empty bottle of merlot, and carried it to bed.

***

The ringing of the bedroom phone woke Margaret from her drunken slumber in the middle of the night. It was Chris, her youngest son.
“Heya’, mom, I just wanted to give you a call,” he slurred into the phone.
“Chris, it is three in the morning.”
“It is? Aw well, it ain’t no biggie. How ya’ doin’, mom?”
“You’ve been drinking again,” Margaret said. It was not a question. She leaned over to put the phone back down on the stand, but the empty bottle of merlot fell to the floor, ringing and rolling. “Chris, you know the court will not like it if they find you’ve been drinking again.”
“Ain’t no big deal,” Chris slurred, blithely. There was a sound similar to a bullfrog’s throat engorging and croaking, ending with a wet smack of lips and a throaty sigh of satisfaction. “My parole officer doesn’t know where I am.”
“You get involved in another hit and run, Chris, and you’re on your own! I’m not paying to bail you out!”
“You didn’t pay last time,” he snorted. “You let me rot in jail.”
“I gave Mr. Setter the money and he took care of everything.”
“Mr. Setter? Oh yeah. The mute suit. Fucking stuck-up sonnabitch wouldn’t say a damn word to me.”
“That is because he is a lawyer who knows when to speak and when not to,” Margaret quipped. “Something you never learned, obviously.”
“You were always a cold ass, mom,” Chris said.
Behind him came a volley of voices and the distorted blast of music from static-eaten speakers. The occasional chinking of long-necked glass told Margaret all she needed to know. He was at a bar. Knowing Chris, she guessed it was in all likelihood a dive-bar.
“The boys and I are goin’ for a run later,” Chris said. “We’re going to pick up some girls. But don’t worry, mom. Sheridan’s driving. Or Joseph, maybe. Wait a second…” He shouted away from the phone. “Hey! Who’s driving?! Thomas? Fuck all, I might as well be driving…”
Margaret hung up the phone. She had no patience for drunkards, especially those who cost her money.

Margaret tossed and turned for the remainder of the night. When she got up in the morning she had a migraine that not even Columbian coffee could allay. Wanting to paint, but unable to concentrate, she took a long hot shower and then laid on the couch in the living room, listening to the rain continue its hushing thrum upon the rooftop.
Gradually, the trenchant pain in her head dissolved into a lax pool of numbness, and with it her consciousness. She slipped, gratefully, into a restful nap.
She was startled awake by what sounded like an intruder upstairs. Fearful for her life— whatever little of it remained to her— she stood up and walked to the kitchen, quietly taking a butcher knife from a drawer. Cautiously, she walked upstairs, her house slippers whispering to each other as she baby-stepped across the floor.
There was the sound of tearing paper, and of tearing tape, of what must have been her easel as its three legs were rattled into a new position while the intruder moved it. What was the intruder doing up there?
Upstairs now, Margaret sidled toward her studio door. Her nerves were electrified with anxiety and fear, and static electricity. The friction of the hall rug was building static in her furry pom-pom slippers. The hairs on her neck stood at attention. Scared to breathe, she craned her neck around the doorframe and peered into her study.
No one was there. She checked behind the door, and near her stacks of paintings against the wall. She even checked the window and found that it was fastened tightly against the elements, permitting no entry or exit. As she was turning from the window the phone rang in the bedroom, giving her a violent start. She jumped.
“Damn it all!” she gasped.
Her heart pounding in her chest, she walked to the master bedroom and answered the phone.
“Heya’, mom,” said a chippery girl’s voice without a care or wear in the world. “What’cha’ doing?”
“Angela?” Margaret said, unsure.
“Duh, mom,” Angela said, giggling. “Did you forget me?”
“No, I did not,” Margaret said. “It is hard to forget you when I am still getting bills for your credit cards. You know, I am seriously contemplating canceling your cards.”
Angela laughed nervously. “Oh, mom, you wouldn’t do that. You’d leave me stranded in the middle of France without any way to live or get by.”
“You could always find a job,” Margaret said. “Washing dishes. Cleaning rooms. Oh, but you never learned how to do anything for yourself, did you?”
Angela’s chippery voice flattened with gravitas. “Mom, I am taking care of myself just fine. I stay in cheap hostels and…”
Margaret cut her off. “Nothing is cheap in Paris. I have the bills to prove it.”
There was a long pause on Angela’s end. When she spoke again it was with a measured amount of optimism. “My novel is coming along. Jean believes it will do well in France. Maybe even the rest of Europe.”
If Margaret was a young woman again she would have rolled her eyes. Instead, one of her eyes simply twitched with frustration. “And what is this novel about again?”
“I’ve told you a hundred times, mom. It’s about a young American woman living in France who falls in love with a mysterious man with a dark past.”
“How very…romantic,” Margaret remarked, the word as corrosive in her mouth as acid. It invoked Cherubim, and immediately shot them down from heaven.
“Jean has many literary contacts in Paris,” Angela said, heedless of her mother’s sarcasm. “Publishers, agents, critics. He says they are all interested in me.”
“Just make sure you don’t meet them in dark alleys after midnight,” Margaret said.
“Don’t make fun, mom,” Angela said.
“I’m not making fun,” Margaret replied, seriously. “I am speaking in earnest.”
Angela was the youngest of all of her children, born unexpectedly when Margaret should have been going through menopause. Margaret was not even certain Angela belonged to her husband. Had Margaret not been there herself for the delivery, she would have questioned whether Angela belonged to her, too. In her late twenties, the adventurous girl still acted like a teenager on Summer Break; all year long.
“Once my novel is published I will be able to pay my own bills,” Angela said. “Actually, I will be able to pay you back for all of the bills you have paid for me.”
“That’s nice, dear,” Margaret said.
“Stop making fun of me, mom,” Angela said. “I will be able to take care of myself. You’ll see.”
“Of course,” Margaret said.
“I mean, I know you won’t be around forever. I’ve got to get my shit together.” She dropped her voice again. “By the way, mom, what are you doing with the house? I mean, I don’t want to own it, but can’t there be a clause in the Will somewhere that says I can stay there whenever I want? I bet I could really write a lot if I set up a desk and computer in your old study.”
Margaret bit her tongue.
“By the way, mom, have you figured out what you’re going to do with that grand piano? Jean plays in a band and…”
Margaret slammed the phone down with a very satisfying bang.
Her fear, now, was completely replaced by fury. She went through the entire house, finding phones and unplugging them. This done, she went upstairs to paint.

Hours later, a painting sprawled across the heavy-weighted paper, centered on the crimson-cloaked dandy. He stood victorious in the court now, all of the crepuscular tapestries hanging from the walls replaced with blood red tapestries in likeness to himself. Lord Oleander. The throne was refurnished with carmine velvet and a new crown sat upon his head, its petals forged from a reddish-gold.
“What a horrid creature,” Margaret said, distastefully.
Everyone in the Elfin court— from lord to lady, peasant to soldier— bowed low to Lord Oleander, their faces twisted with disgust and fear and impotent rage. The crimson dandy basked in the bitter emotions of his subjects, a joyful smirk wrinkling his long, narrow face. In an upraised hand the kris blade glittered in the morning light, the head of the old king impaled through the eye for all to see.
Margaret heard the the front door open and close downstairs. Then came the heavy clomping of boots as the intruder walked through the lower floor. The tread sharpened as the intruder went from the rug-lined foyer to the tiled kitchen and then the wood-paneled living-room.
“Mother?”
The intruder’s voice was more curiosity than concern. His tread sharpened again as he came near the bathroom. There was a knocking at the door, which Margaret knew was open.
“Mother?”
The intruder headed upstairs.
“Mother, where are you?”
He came up to the landing, then spotted her through the open door.
“Mother, you really should answer me when I call to you,” Damon said. “I was afraid something might have happened to you.”
“Oh, really?” she retorted. “Is that why you took your time walking through the house? Make sure I’m good and dead before you find my body and have to call an ambulance?”
“Mother, this attitude of yours does not help anyone.”
“Were you in my house earlier today?” she demanded.
He looked at her all agog. “Of course not, mother. I have been at Mr. Setter’s office, adjusting the Will. Was someone in the house?”
“I…I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it was just a squirrel in the attic.”
“Are you sure you are not hearing things?” he said. “Voices?”
“Oh, I hear more voices than I care to,” she said. “Especially right now.”
Damon ignored the quip and instead looked over his mother’s shoulder at the painting she was working on.
“What a horrific scene,” he observed, though his flat and impassive tone did not indicate that he was seeing anything that struck him as horrific. “Mother, I worry about your mental… stability. You shouldn’t be painting things like this.”
“I worry about your mental feasibility,” Margaret returned. “All your life I’ve worried about it. For you see, Damon, you are an idiot, and I do believe that had I been a more attentive mother I would have remedied your natural deficiencies to the best of my abilities. Which is to say, I would have sent you to a school for the handicapped.”
“Don’t be so rude, mother.”
“I’ll be however I’ll be,” she said. “I grow tired of my children telling me not to be as I am inclined.”
“It’s just that you have had, for some time now, a very twisted view of everything, mother…”
“My head’s on straighter than yours,” she rallied. “I see things as they are; not as I’d like them to be. I can see, for instance, that you’re looking forward to my death so much that you can’t see anything else, including how foolish you are in your transparency.”
“Mother…”
She pointed her paintbrush at him as if she were mugging him with a knife. “You are hurrying me to the grave, but I won’t go quickly. Eventually, yes, but in my own time.”
Damon stared at the paintbrush with an unimpressed frown.
“That’s not true, mother. I want you to live as long as you can. Many years more, in fact. And I want you to live them happily. That is why you need to go where a professional medical staff can look after you. Riverside Retirement Villa has an excellent rating with…”
“I am going to die in my own home,” she snapped. “If that means breaking my hip on the stairs and starving to death all alone, then so be it. But if you force me out and I die somewhere else I promise you that I will move back in here and haunt you forever. I promise you that, Damon.”
“Mother, no one wants to force you out…”
Margaret laughed; a bursting sort of abbreviated laugh that someone might make if they had been run through with a rapier upon hearing the particularly powerful punchline to a joke.
“I’ve never seen so many buzzards fighting over an animal still alive and out of reach. Is there not some roadkill down the street that can sate your appetite in the meantime?”
“Mother, you do your children a great disservice…”
“You are right,” she said. “I should have never had children. I should have had my lady bits cut out so you wouldn’t have to grow up to become…me. I’m tired of you. Leave now.”
“Mother.”
“Out, I said!”
Damon left, though not soon enough, and Margaret returned her attention to the painting she had been working on.
“Lord Oleander,” she said, staring at the crimson-cloaked dandy.
King Oleander, someone said.

That evening Margaret went to bed early. She could not sleep, and she cried. She did not cry maudlin tears, or even tears of self-pity; they were tears of frustration and anger. She had never in her whole life cried out of anger. It was a new experience.
“Might as well get that out of the way,” she said aloud, wiping wrathfully at the tears. “Before the end. There’s a first time for everything, even in a long life like mine.”
Margaret knew she had been selfish in her choice of husband. She had chosen him because she thought he would die early and allow her the financial freedom she desired. But instead of finding freedom she had found her children readily assuming his role as oppressor. They, in turn, thought that she was selfish in her sternness. Yet, they did not know what it was like to be married to their father. Love was not an essential factor of life, for her or for him, but he was needlessly cruel to her. Indeed, that she had so many children was confirmation of the way that he dictated how her life should be.
“I will cause a scene at my own funeral,” she vowed. “I will decompose quicker than usual and make the pallbearers flee from the stench. I will make a scene for the newspapers, and their articles shall hound my children forever more.”
Lightning flashed beyond the windows. A downpour began, hammering the mansion with its own angry tears.
Unable to sleep, Margaret climbed out of bed and went down to the kitchen. She poured a glass of water for herself and sipped from it absently while she returned upstairs. In the second storey hallway she saw her studio shrouded in shadow. A flash of lightning illuminated the easel. The tripod stood in the center of the room, like a ghoul, its shelf a jaw splattered with paint that looked like blood in the brief flashes of light.
She turned and looked at the master bedroom, and hated it. She hated the bed that sprawled there, insolent with its parted sheets. This, she thought, was the bed that begot her life. This was the marital bed, the conception bed, the deathbed. This was the hateful apparatus whereby her husband exercised his continual control over her.
Upset, she slammed the bedroom door shut and went into the study. Using the glass of water she had brought upstairs to drink, she worked in the epileptic luminescence of the thunderstorm, welcoming both the light and the shadows that fought over the embattled painting there.
The hours passed quickly. Midnight came and fled on fleet raven wings. Then came the witching hours and they were more riddled with thunder and lightning than anytime before. Once the creative seizure was over, she looked at the painting for the first time.
There were children impaled on pikes while parents mourned on bent knees. Babies were bashed across walls and thrown from windows like refuse onto the cobblestone walkways. Men and women were being skinned and bled dry, their blood flowing in runnels that converged on the royal robe of the new king. He sat in the center of it all, rejoicing on a throne of bone. He wore a vest of flayed skin and drank from a goblet brimming with the blood of innocents.
“King Oleander,” she said.
“Emperor Oleander,” said someone behind her.
She turned and staggered, clutching at her chest. Standing there, in the dim light of her study, was the crimson-cloaked dandy himself: Oleander. He was half-shrouded in shadow, and flickered into stark relief with every lightning flash through the window.
“I had not the luxury of time during my last visit to address you directly,” the tall fairy said. “I was so preoccupied with the Purification in my kingdom that I could scarcely afford my attentions being anywhere else. But I am encouraged to see that you, for your own sake, took to my dictation and have been allotting the appropriate amount of your time to the most important priorities of your life. Namely, recording my legendary ascension to the crown— and with it a new age unlike any other.”
Margaret could only stare in astonishment at this crimson gentleman. She feared she was suffering a stroke-induced hallucination. Any moment she feared a vesicle should burst in her brain.
“Granted, I should be offended that my glorious reign should be recorded by someone of your breeding and background,” the fairy continued to say, “but I am of a charitable character when Fate decides it so, and so I will gladly allow you the honor of being my chronicler.”
He paused, seemingly awaiting her reply. There came none and so he continued.
“You are overwhelmed by my presence. It is only natural. But I am afraid that this arrangement will soon come to an end. Rejoice in the service you have rendered me, for while I will live on, as recorded here, you will soon depart from your mortal coil. The whole of your life was for the making of this tribute to me.”
Margaret looked at the painting again, in the flashing luminescence stabbing through the window, and then at the crimson dandy with his habitual sneer.
“Allow me to paint you one final time,” she said suddenly, “so as to better capture your majesty.”
The malicious fairy’s face curdled into a vicious smile. “One final painting? You are dedicated, mortal. Very well. Yes. Yes, I suppose that it is enough of a reward for a lowly mortal to be the chronicler of my unequaled magnificence.” He turned to leave, but hesitated, speaking over his shoulder. “But do well by me in this, your last tribute, or else you will suffer.”
“I promise you that the execution will be perfect,” she said.
The next morning Margaret sketched for hours trying to force her willful muse to depict the Execution of Emperor Oleander. But to no avail. No matter how much she tried to enslave her muse to her dictation, the wild-willed wanton refused submission. The sketches were a disordered mess of smeared graphite and blurred erasures. When she attempted to paint the most successful among her failures she found no respite from her contentious muse. The paint bled and fled wherever it would, like a wounded beast, and she could not corral it into an orderly stillness. Had she been a more attentive mother with her children, all those many years ago, perhaps she would have learned the patience and authority to overmaster her own errant inner child. But she had not and now that spoilt brat would not bend or bow, defiant with every little artistic impulse.
Frustrated, Margaret walked downstairs to get away from her studio, and her muse. She turned on the television and flipped through a few channels, arriving at some absurd soap opera. Normally she abhorred drama, but this she watched with dawning enlightenment. The tone-deaf drama represented on-screen what was likely the kind of absurdist scene that would soon follow her own demise. Torrential arguments. Fish-eyed gawping outrage. Frigid shoulders and the soul-crushing gravity of disappointment. Theatrical tantrums. Histrionic fits. Pity parties to surfeit.
The prospect of such melodrama would have been wonderful if not for the fact that she would be too dead to relish it. A pyrrhic victory was all she had remaining for herself.
Margaret turned off the tv and plugged in a phone. She called Mr. Setter, the family lawyer. She informed him that she desired to review the Will.
“Of course, Margaret,” he said.
Mr. Setter had learned early on in their business relationship that Margaret preferred to be called by her given name rather than by her married name.
“I do not know what is in the Will,” Margaret confessed. “I’ve forgotten. Could you bring it here so I could read over it? I do not go out much these days.”
“Yes, I can arrange to have that done,” Mr. Setter said. “Do you wish for the Executor to be present also?”
“No. No, I will handle this myself.”
“Then I will send it over with my secretary this afternoon.”
“Thank you, Mr. Setter.”
The business call ended, Margaret unplugged the phone.

A few hours later, Mr. Setter’s secretary, Skyler, arrived with the folder containing the Will. She was a mousy-looking, bespectacled thing in a brown overcoat that was as plain as she was. Margaret envied Skyler insomuch as Skyler, when she aged, would have little to mourn as she became older. She had less for Time to steal, in other words— less beauty, less wealth, less vanities and pretensions. That was a comfort to be cherished in and of itself, she thought, for the homely among us.
Margaret read through the Will while sitting at the grand piano. There were few specifics in the Will regarding the actual estate. In fact, the overall Will seemed to be more of an afterthought than a genuine summation of Margaret’s overall material existence. And it seemed to have a defiant sort of vagueness to it, as if it was procrastinating in denial that the event that the document addressed, DEATH, would ever come to pass. It seemed to acknowledge the possibility in mere abstraction and without any serious concern of its inevitability or its repercussions.
Margaret frowned down at the document for some time, forcing her mind to accept what it represented: a glimpse into the future; the cold, dead-eyed stare of her own corpse as she was hauled off to be embalmed and buried. Skyler, meanwhile, stood aside with all of the calm, quiet patience ingrained in a a bookish woman who had been ignored all of her life.
Margaret laid the Will on the grand piano and then, after a moment’s hesitancy, fetched a pen and a pad of paper. For the next two hours she catalogued the possessions in the house and designated to whom each would be granted upon the time of Margaret’s death. It was no easy feat, especially since it confronted her not only with the starkness of her mortality, but the thought of her children rejoicing in these things they had coveted of her for so long.
When Margaret came to the thought of her paintings and what would become of them, she wrote that she wanted them to be buried with her. Then she remembered little Ashley— Ashley was her name, wasn’t it?— and how that mute girl would stare at the paintings as if they were magically entrancing her. Margaret scratched out her selfish post-mortem request and wrote down “To my great-granddaughter, Ashley Tess: ALL of my paintings”.
Margaret was resolved. She would not be an atheist pharaoh hoarding her most prized treasures for an afterlife she did not believe in. There was no better afterlife, in her sardonic modern view, than in the eyes of a mute who could say nothing and simply stare at her great-grandmother’s paintings. The girl could not speak ill of Margaret, even if she had wanted to. In truth, Margaret regretted not having spent more time with the child.
It was as Margaret was signing and dating the catalogue that Damon arrived. He looked momentarily stricken to see Mr. Setter’s secretary there, but soon overcame that fleeting sign of weakness and introduced himself with a big, deceitful smile.
“Hello,” he said, shaking her hand. “You must be Skyler. I believe I’ve seen you in Mr. Setter’s office. You are his personal assistant, yes?”
“Secretary,” Margaret said, enemy of all euphemisms.
Skyler would have scowled at Margaret, but a tall, handsome man was showing her attention; never mind that he was old enough to be her father.
“Yes, Mr. Tess, I am Mr. Setter’s personal assistant.”
Margaret chuckled. They ignored her.
“What brings you to my house?” Damon asked.
“It is my house…” Margaret began, but Skyler was too mesmerized by Damon to hear. He was handsome for an older gentleman.
“Mrs. Tess was just reviewing the Will,” Skyler said, making herself an eternal foe to Margaret.
“Oh really?” returned Damon. He looked at his mother in mock-surprise. “So you are finally treating it with the seriousness it deserves, mother?”
Margaret wanted to slap that ridiculous fedora off his head, along with his head. “I am just making sure that everyone gets their due.”
“Now, see, that’s the most sensible thing you have said since father passed away.”
Margaret looked to the heaven’s for patience, and found none. She pushed the notepad into Skyler’s hands. “Here, secretary. See that Mr. Setter gets that today. I am done with visitors. You can see each other out.”
She turned and walked toward the stairs.
“This is a happy coincidence,” Damon was saying to Skyler. “I have business with Mr. Setter later today. Maybe you and I can go out for dinner afterwards? My treat…”

The outrage Margaret felt focused her mind into the shackles necessary to chain and bend her muse to her will. She was angry— with herself and with Damon, and even with Skyler— for she realized, too late, what Damon would do. He would not let her have her last wishes as she wanted them. He would deny his mother her last dignity.
Her last dignity stolen, Margaret painted and painted; all evening she painted. Her muse finally surrendered to her rigors and she worked with the forethought and deliberation that she had lacked her entire artistic life. Even so, she knew it was killing her muse in the process. The sacrifice of freedom was too great and her muse started to wither, even as Margaret’s skill bloomed one final time.
When Margaret finished she stepped back and looked at the painting with tears of pride and of loss, for she knew it was the best and the last painting that she would ever make. Reconciling herself with fate, Margaret then walked through the house— her house— and looked over its contents. She tapped a few keys on the grand piano; not for spite or defiance, but because it was just nice to hear the keys ring in the dead silence of the home.
This done, Margaret felt extremely sleepy. She returned upstairs and laid down on the studio’s floor. Rain came again, calming in its pattering pall. Margaret listened to it with her eyes closed. She thought she heard someone in the room.
But I am the one and only Oleander! You cannot do this to me! I am your emperor! I am your god!
Margaret sighed contentedly.
Then she passed away.
***
A year later— after the burial and the distribution of the estate and its effects— there was an art gallery exhibition in New York for the Margaret Tess collection. Damon Tess secured the showing after spreading word about his mother’s mental breakdown and the subsequent paintings of strange, deranged worlds that visited her deteriorating mind while she dwelled in “misanthropic isolation”. Since Alzheimer’s was a very popular crusade among the New York intelligentsia, it proved to be an excellent marketing strategy. Damon had the potential of making millions from the auction on the following month.
The premiere was crowded. Many high-profile New Yorkers came. There were reporters, art critics, celebrities, and even a few local politicians. But while all of the self-important adults were chattering and clattering wine glasses, a little girl was walking from one painting to the next, unnoticed by the insular crowd gathered there.
She was strange, this girl, and very quiet. Had anyone engaged her they would have found her doe-eyed and mute. She stopped in front of the painting entitled “Dementia On Trial: Losing One’s Head”. The girl’s granduncle, Damon, boasted that it was the last painting his mother had completed before she was found dead in her studio. The tale of his grisly discovery had already been revisited multiple times by her granduncle, and was likely to be revisited many times more before the auction next month. But the girl did not care about such things. She had a mind only for the painting itself.
The painting depicted a crowd of strange-looking people who were gathered around a chopping block where a tall, slender fop had just been executed with an ax. There was no joy in the faces of the crowd as they looked on the decapitated corpse; only unabated anger that would live on for generations.
The little girl’s ear tingled suddenly. It caught the notes of piano keys tiptoing daintily in the air. Enamored, she followed the sound past the self-absorbed adults and out of the gallery room. Down a hallway she went, toward the storage area of the gallery. The hallway was dark and dusty. She passed a broom closet and a single-toilet bathroom. At the end of the hall opened to a large, spacious room that was murky except for a bright candle sitting on a grand piano in the center of the floor. Coming closer, the little girl recognized the piano. She did not recognize, however, the strange man sitting on the piano stool.
His ears were pointy and his head was narrow and he was very tall, gangly, and yet graceful with his long fingers. He wore a strange suit unlike the tuxedos flocking about in the gallery. It was the color of twilight, this suit, and had a flowery bloom at the neck. On his head was a simple crown of silver saplings uncoiling toward. He was the handsomest man the little girl had ever seen. And he had wings like a dragonfly’s.
The young man stopped playing the piano and turned to the little girl. There was something in his lap. He picked it up and gave it to her.
“The settling of debts, my little princess,” he said.
The little girl looked at the thing in her hands. The room fell to darkness, then, and when she looked up again the young man and the piano were gone. She left the room and went down the hallway. Turning back, she found that the room, too, was gone. She returned to the gallery.
“Ashley! Ashley, don’t stray!”
Ashley looked at her grandmother, then down at the thing in her hands. She returned to her grandparents with a slow, confused stride. They were standing next to her grandaunt Laura, though Laura did not seem pleased by their presence.
“Eric, I told you not to bring her,” Laura whispered harshly. “She will make a scene.”
“Oh, she is just looking at mom’s paintings,” Eric said, smiling nervously. “She always liked mom’s paintings. More than anybody else.”
“That tells you a lot, doesn’t it?” Laura mumbled to herself before taking a sip of wine.
Ashley’s grandmother scowled. “Says more about Margaret’s children than it does about her great-grandchildren.”
Laura rolled her eyes and clucked her tongue.
Ashley held out the thing the prince had given her.
“What’s this, honey?” Eric asked.
The little girl handed the notepad to her grandfather. Eric smiled and read the first page. At first his eyes skimmed the long list with a polite, albeit disinterested, gaze. Then his eyes widened, scouring each line in shocked disbelief. He saw the signature and the date at the bottom of the page and gawped. A moment later he shut his mouth and ground his jaw, as if chewing stiff leather.
“Laura,” he said, as evenly as possible, “you, Damon, and I have some things to talk about.” He slapped his palm with the notepad. “Many important things.”
“Surely, it can wait,” returned Laura, sighing. “Damon’s about to give another boring toast to mother.”
“Well, I don’t think things will be boring for long. In fact, I think war is on the way.”
Laura blew smoke lazily from her cigarette. “What are you talking about?”
“Theft,” he said, slapping the notepad again. “Shameless theft.”
His jaded sister rolled her eyes in disinterest. “Don’t make a scene, Eric. Mother wouldn’t have wanted it at her first official gallery showing.”
“To the contrary,” he said, “That is exactly what mother always wanted. A memorable scene for the newspapers to write about.”
Eric walked over to his brother— standing amidst his rapt audience as he spoke of how much he had agonized over his mother’s well-being— and slapped the glass out of his hand. He then slapped the fedora off of his head. When Damon opened his mouth to voice his outrage, Eric held up the notepad for all to see. The flush of fury in Damon’s cheeks abruptly drained to a sickly pallor. He looked like a dog about to be beaten by the newspaper. And he was.
“This is Margaret Tess’s last Will and Testament,” Eric said. “And it says that my brother here is a scheming thief trying to rob her great-granddaughter out of her rightful inheritance…”
As the journalists hurriedly jotted down notes, Eric began to read his mother’s last Will and Testament aloud for all to hear. It proved quite the scene and later only added to the mystique of the paintings. Art historians argue to this day that the family infighting only increased the value of the paintings, the scandal multiplying their worth manifold among collectors. After a lengthy court battle the paintings came to belong to Margaret’s mute great-granddaughter since she was, according to the Will, the only person who appreciated Margaret’s art while Margaret was alive. Ashley retained ownership of the paintings until her death many years later. No one currently knows where the paintings reside. Only Ashley knew, and she, of course, never told a soul.