Venom Pies Part 6

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For three days Eseus quietly made arrangements among his guards, plotting strategies and making contingencies to counter a siege of the castle. He also plotted the trap whereby to unseat the Oxenford forces from his castle and to expel them— either upon the open moor or as corpses within the moat. In the meantime he also comforted his mother, and reassured her of his well-being while also withholding the truth of their precarious situation. He visited the families of the soldiers and coachmen who had been slain upon the Oxenford Road. He shared in their grief, and they knew his grief to be genuine, regarding theirs as his own. He commiserated with them as a brother would.
And, amidst so much else, Eseus watched for Iadne’s arrival. Not an hour did not pass that his fears for her safety did not bloom anew with thorns around his heart. Ofttimes he marched up the battlements and searched the horizon for her and Percevis. Rationally, he knew it would be a few days before they might arrive, yet he was impatient for their return and, so, hastened it with his own longing. Meanwhile, Commander Vant and his retinue eyed him suspiciously, and japed at him behind his back, and swaggered complacently about the place, thinking themselves conquerors and finding mirth in the belief that Eseus did not know the truth of their presence and its subterfuge.
The stress of abiding inaction was a tortuous spell upon Eseus, especially as his hatred for the Oxenford men brewed. Yet, he remembered his father’s abiding patience, and his cool temperament, and he vowed that he was his father’s son. For the sake of the House of Lorwynne and its people and his father’s legacy Eseus would refrain until the opportune moment, as the snare snatching the hare— taut with patient anticipation, but timely in its sudden snap.
His mother’s presence becalmed him often. He was heartened to see that she no longer languished by the crypts in mourning, but often attended Eseus throughout the daylight hours. He spoke to her of his days upon the moor, but did not mention the Spider clan girl. He wished to first see if Iadne would actually arrive, or if she would abandon him to his nobleborn life. And if she did arrive, he would have rather his mother meet her ere Eseus composed a fancy of her that might mark amiss her true personage.

***

It was the fourth day when Eseus’s men fetched him to the portcullis. He ran out to meet them, decorum be damned. Unfortunately, Commander Vant and his troops had already arrived at the entrance, surrounding the new arrivals with their blades drawn. Percevis stood in front of Iadne, his sword drawn and demanding to know where Eseus was. Eseus’s men had their weapons drawn also, surrounding the Oxenford men in a larger circle. Eseus arrived and shouted down the shouting that echoed through the inner walls of the castle.
“Away with your swords, Vant!” he demanded.
“That is a Spider clan wench!” Commander Vant snarled. “And I will not abide her in my presence!”
“Then you may leave,” Eseus said. “She saved my life upon the moor. Without her, I should be a corpse feeding the soil.”
“It is because of her people that your uncle is dead!” he growled back, his habitually narrow eyes wide to the whites with wrath. “Have you forgotten? There is always a blood price for such things, and I will have it paid a thousand times over ere I let one Spider free unscathed.”
“It will be a hefty price to pay in blood,” Eseus warned. “For I owe her a debt of life and will make crimson ponds of your men lest you withdraw immediately.”
Vant glared at Eseus with the gaze of a creature more dog than man, ready to tear the throat of another man. When the archers upon the battlements aimed down upon his men, Vant sneered and seemed ready to risk it all rather than have an upstart pup defang him.
Iadne caught Eseus’s eye, and there was fear in her pale face which broke Eseus’s heart. He felt as if she, like his father, would be torn away from him at the swing of a blade.
The commotion had gained the attention of Eseus’s mother. The Lady of the House of Lorwynne came hurrying to her son, her green skirts lifted as her slippered feet hastened across the inner yardage. She was winged by her waiting-women, the latter wearing dresses and wimples of brown.
“What is the meaning of these hostilities among host and guests?” she demanded.
“It is a misunderstanding, mother,” Eseus said. “Commander Vant has only the best interests of his people at heart, but misreads the situation.”
Commander Vant eyed Iadne slowly, his scrutinying gaze creeping over her suspiciously as if there might, at any moment, spring from her robe an army of assassins.
“She is of the Spider clan,” he remarked. “And an ill-omened albino wench.”
“When has superstition penetrated the mind of an Oxenford Commander?” Eseus said. “Do you also cast runes on the eve of battle?”
“No,” he said, flushing red with fury. “But I do wish to read the intentions of a woman who might kill me in my sleep.”
“And my intentions, also?” Eseus countered. “Very well, Vant, I will tell you my intentions.”
Eseus raised his voice, speaking loudly so his words echoed within the inner wall and up its battlements, so that all his men could hear and not doubt his intentions. The soft-spoken young man had a startlingly powerful command of voice when he wished to employ it.
“I intend to wed this maiden to a citizen of Oxenford and thus welcome her as a citizen into my protection. I owe her much more than that— a life debt of the highest order—and will strive to repay her as best I may. For, you see, she saved my life upon the moor. Without her aid, I would have died a hapless fool.”
The revelation struck manifold among those who heard it. The Lady of Lorwynne gasped, her hand upon her heart. She stared in gratitude at the Spider clan girl. Eseus’s men affixed the aim of their arrows and blades with stronger resolve than before, whereas the Oxenford soldiers looked to their Commander for reassurance in this situation. Commander Vant sneered in disbelief. His nose crinkled in disgust, and he growled low, as a disgruntled dog. But he said no more. He waved away his men’s blades and then stormed off, thronged by his treachery and his men, glancing a single dagger over his shoulder, intent upon Eseus’s heart.
Iadne’s expression was one of deadly intent as well, but not for Commander Vant. Her venomous fury was directed upon Eseus as he went to greet her.
“I am to be wedded to a citizen of Oxenford, am I?” she said coldly. “And to become one of your subjects? Is that the gratitude and the falsity of your heart?”
Eseus glanced around, knowing that Vant’s men might still watch him. He spoke in a confidential whisper. “You will wed a high-ranking citizen,” he said, meaningfully. “One who owes you much.”
Her fury did not subside at once, but was soon overwhelmed by the Lady of Lorwynne as the Lady swept up before her and took her hands in both of hers.
“It is because of you that my son lives,” said the Lady of Lorwynne. “For this I am in your debt, always. The whole of the House of Lorwynne is in your debt, and shall repay you in whatever way we may, though I know it should never be enough for what you have done for us.”
Iadne blinked at the tall woman. Though faded with age, the regality of her stature and bearing was abiding, and was overshadowed only by the maternal resonance of her smile. Iadne had seen the Lady many times before— as had all of the members of the Spider clan— when spying upon the noblemen and women. Yet, being in her presence struck Iadne keenly with the Lady’s natural grace, sincerity, and warmth.
“You are welcome,” was all Iadne could say.
“One heck of a greeting from the Oxenford men,” Percevis remarked, guffawing. He had the reins of the exhausted horse in one hand, and was stroking his muttonchops with the other. “For a moment I thought they were to give us an executioner’s welcome. Then again, after what you told me, I am surprised they haven’t lengthened my neck yet.”
“Do not speak of the conspiracy right now,” Eseus said. “Not to anyone. They must not know that we know. It is crucial.”
“Don’t you fret it, milord,” Percevis said. “I can talk a bit to rust, but know the silence of the taut rein, so to speak.”
“Was it hard going after I left you?” Eseus asked, feeling very guilty.
“The walking was not such a trial,” Percevis said, “but the grubs…well, even after decades of being married to a Spider woman I cannot say I’ve accustomed to their food.”
“I am sorry for your suffering,” Eseus said, looking again at Iadne. “Tonight we will feast together. You, also, Percevis, for I must make amends for your efforts to bring me my friend home.”
“Friend?” Iadne snapped.
The Lady of Lorwynne looked between the Spider clan girl and her son, and her eyebrows lifted only slightly in surprise. They then settled once more in their easy expression of warmth.
Iadne grew impatient. “Why are the Oxenford men here as guests when…”
Eseus silenced her with a single finger to his lips.
“Do not worry,” he said. “The sword may be sheathed, but the hand is tight to the hilt. The blade will drink soon enough.”

***

The worn-out stallion was given the choicest oats to munch and set out— after having eaten his fill—to rest beneath the apples in the orchard. Eseus had vowed the horse would be bred for many sons, and when the stallion had rested, he was taken to the mares to indulge as he pleased, for they were in heat and welcomed him readily.
Meanwhile, Iadne was in a heat of a different passion. She was angry with Eseus for having left her upon the moor. She understood why he had, and sympathized in theory, but it did nothing to lessen her smoldering anger.
Eseus brought the taciturn Spider clan girl to his tower and discussed many things with her. He told her of the state of things when he arrived, and the precarious situation, as well as his plan to divide and conquer the Oxenford force. He also assured her of his honor toward her, and his debt, and that he must not let the Oxenford men know that he planned to wed anyone other than his cousin, Kareth. He warned her not to reveal the treachery of his cousin or her men to his mother until after the trap had been sprung.
“I am not some babe lost upon the moor,” she said, irritably. “I know which way the headwind blows.”
Eseus confirmed he knew her to be very astute, which she took as patronizing, however sincere his demeanor. He had a waiting-woman prepare a bath for Iadne in a large tub, and she was given a dress of the Lorwynne fashion. Iadne enjoyed the dress much less than the warm bath, the material being wool rather than the spider silk she had worn her entire life. Nor did she care to abandon her Spider clan robe so quickly, it being her identity for so long. She felt as if she was betraying her clan. She stood in the room— full of its tapestries and its oak furniture and its crudely woven rug—and she stared at herself transformed in the mirror of the vanity.
“I am yet a Spider,” she told herself. “A Spider in the bloom of a flower.”
Even so, the walls pressed upon her with their confinement. She was used to the open expanses of the moorlands. The only walls she knew were the spectral walls of fog that faded and drifting; not these uncompromising walls of bull-browed stone. She understood Eseus more, however, because of them, for his obligations and duties to his people were as these walls, and so he was confined by them; made rigid by them. That was why he was so stiff of spine even though he had spent his life sleeping in a soft-cushioned bed rather than the lay of the moor.
And now she had committed herself alongside him to dare this alien labyrinth of stone, for she did love him. That realization made her afraid, as did the fear of suffocation from within these tightly mortared walls.
She looked again at herself in the vanity’s looking-glass. It was not the first time she had seen herself— for she had seen herself through the eyes of many beasts— but it was the first time she had seen herself as Eseus saw her. Her hair was a mess and her face was unnaturally white. Her eyes were not green, like his, but a bloody red that was alien even in her clan. She did not know why it should matter, and yet it did. She grabbed the brush that lay upon the vanity and attempted to brush her hair, as her mother once did. But she could not comb the wild edges and curls into a semblance of sanity. Her hair remained frazzled and arrayed like a bogcat ready for bloodshed. She combed it mercilessly, spitefully, with fast clawing strokes, and yet her truer nature prevailed, stubborn as she herself was. Only her mother was able to plait her hair, and now she was gone. Her wild hood-disheveled hair was the emblem of her inner chaos. She felt lost, and disordered, and had no idea how to set things straight and prim. Nothing existed that could, lest someone could magically recall her clan to life once again.
A knock at the door. Iadne eyed it in surprise. To answer it would suggest that she had claim to the room, and that the room had a claim to her. There were no doors on the moor; only the receding Gray.
“Yes?” she said.
“May I come in?” Eseus asked.
It seemed a ridiculous question. “Why would you not?” she asked.
“If you were not ready to receive me,” he said.
“Why would I not be ready to receive you?”
“Are you dressed?” he clarified.
“Why would that matter between us?” she asked. “Have we not lain together?” His baffled silence persisted overlong, and so she told him, “Yes, I am dressed. Come in.”
The heavy door creaked open and Eseus appeared, closing the door behind him.
“Iadne,” he said. “Please do not freely speak of our…intimate interactions while in the castle. Or among anyone. It could stir the cauldron badly for us and work some unfortunate mischief.”
She scowled at him for a moment, then turned away. There was one window in the tower’s bedchamber, and this aperture she looked out and beyond, seeking patience somewhere among the darkening day.
“This dress chafes me,” she said. “If I am to stay here…if I am to stay here…then I will need to weave such a thing from spider silk to render it bearable.”
“It is not unbecoming on you,” he said.
“And neither is a crown on any head,” she said. “It is the neck that stiffens beneath the weight.”
Eseus went to her, but she turned away, her arms folded.
“Dinner is ready,” he said. “I would like it if you would join us. My mother would like it, also. We have not had guests for dinner since the Wake for father.”
“As milord commands,” she said, brusquely walking past him. She pulled the heavy door open and descended the spiraling stairs. He hurried to accompany her.

***

The hearth in the dining hall was massive and as flame-throated as a dragon in a foul mood. Even so, the shadows draped the hall’s upper walls, and distinguished only with a sullen orange glow the faces and the food gathered about the long table. To Iadne’s one side sat Eseus, and to his other side sat his mother. Percevis sat across the narrow table, his muttonchops like jowls wreathed with fire. Beside him sat his wife. She was very much like all Spider clan women of a certain age. Her face was round and her nose upturned, but her hair was braided back in the Oxenford fashion. Iadne searched her face and her manner to understand how she, herself, might be changed by life within walls. So far it seemed the Spider clan woman had not been changed at all except for her superficial veneer. Her clothes were of the Oxenford style, but woven of spider silk, as was the fine tunic which Percevis wore. The woman’s manners and address and choice of words rendered her every bit a Spider clan woman, for she did not bite back in refrain, but playfully poked her husband into raucous laughter with taunts and japes.
“I have no doubt it was a mistake to send you upon the moor to find someone lost,” she remarked. “Would be better the lost person found himself, for all the good you are at losing yourself in your own thoughts.”
Percevis guffawed loudly. “Always lost and found, my dear! Lost and found upon the moor! As I lost myself when I found you!”
“And that poor beast of yours!” she continued, shaking her head. “Carrying you over and beyond without the words to question your sense of direction! Had you not happened upon my kin, that poor creature would be worn down to its knees with your aimless wandering.”
“True, very true!” Percevis agreed heartily. “I was ever lost without you to guide me. Then again, found as I was before, I have never had reason to lose myself until I met you!”
Percevis’s wife, Edea, spoke to her hosts with a familiarity often found only in families. “Listen to him speak from both ends! I tell you, if you sat him upside-down on his head he’d never know anything amiss, and neither would most who know him!”
Percevis hammered the table, laughing wildly until he remembered himself, and where he was, and saw the quiet smile on his Lady’s face.
“Forgive us, milady,” he said, checking himself at once. “It has been a long walk on the moor, and a long time away from my dear wife. I know not how to act when happy.”
The Lady’s smile only deepened. “It has been a longer time since we have had laughter in the dining hall,” she said. “And so I am grateful to hear it.”
Edea smirked at her husband, multiplying the wrinkles on her face. “Grateful for it now, but listen to it for a year or two and you’ll be ready to send him again out upon the moor.”
Once more Percevis laughed loudly, though he tried to contain it as he self-consciously stared down at his plate of food.
“And what of you?” Iadne asked Edea. “Do you miss the moor?”
Edea smiled softly, but also sadly. “At times, yes. But having the rain off my head, and the hood off as well, helps me appreciate the blessings of a roof. And a bed is most welcome at my age, even if I must share it with the snoring corpse of my husband.”
Percevis grinned and winked at his wife. “You have often avowed you are very much fond of sharing my bed. Why, it gained us many healthy children…” He laughed once again, but choked and coughed himself to silence when he remembered again where he was, and saw the blush on his Lady’s face. She turned away, as if in embarrassment.
“Sorry, milady,” he muttered in shame. “I get so caught up in talking with that enchantress of a woman that I forget myself.”
Much to Eseus’s alarm, there were tears streaming down his mother’s cheeks. He offered his napkin, which she accepted. She patted her face dry while an awkward silence took hold of the large hall. Only the low growl of the hearth could be heard, like the protracted sigh of a dragon. At length, the Lady of Lorwynne spoke.
“Do not mind me,” she said. “I was only reminded of the long talks I enjoyed with my husband. There really is no freedom like the freedom of unguarded hearts shared between a husband and wife. Candor is a salve, particularly when you must maintain a statuesque stiffness of formality throughout each day. To loosen the tongue, and unburden the bosom, is to breathe freely for the first time.” She sighed, resting her cheek upon her hand. “There are times when I desire to take a horse and ride off into the open spaces of the moor and never return.”
“Mother…” Eseus said tenderly.
She took his hand in her own, caressing it as if to caress her own anxieties and sorrows away. To his surprise, she laughed.
“But I could never survive the moorlands as you two ladies do. I would not tarry long at all there. And I could not leave your father’s work undone, or my son alone and unaided.”

***

After dinner, Eseus stood beside his mother, near the hearth. Iadne stood with Percevis and Edea, the latter of whom were, as ever, jesting at each other’s expense. Yet, while Iadne acknowledged their playful bickering with a smile, her ears listened instead to Eseus and his mother.
“No, I am quite all right, Eseus,” his mother said. “It is just that…just that I am surrounded by the shadow of your father, and yet he is not here. He is buried in the crypts, but I see his ghost within all of his inanimate trappings. These dead, stiff things that he once brought to life with his presence. The hollowness echoes within me and…I wish to be away from it.”
“And visit the Southerlands?” Eseus said.
“His mother sighed, and it seemed such a sigh as could dispel the Gray. “As your father always promised we would. Yes. But I do not want to go without him. And I cannot leave with so much still undone. The people need their tending, and now that Vant is here I cannot leave Lorwynne. It would not be right of for a host.”
She put one of her hands to her heart, and held her son’s hand with the other. “All seems so ruined. But at least you are not lost! Had I lost you I would have laid myself down beside your father and…and…”
“Do not think such things, mother,” Eseus said. “I am here. And Iadne, too. And there are things we must discuss when opportunity affords us the time and safety. Until then, I wish for you to stay wary of Vant and his men. They are not to be trusted.”
The shadows gradually drowned the walls, pressing heavy upon the glow of the fire. Percevis and Edea were bidden a good night and returned to their cottage among the fields. The Lady of Lorwynne retired to bed, attended by her women-in-waiting. Eseus and Iadne left the dining hall and followed the lit braziers out to the battlements. A sentinel was posted there, and Eseus took charge of his watch, telling him to rest. The guard— being very grateful— bowed and left toward the barracks. Above the castle, and spread overhead like a dark depths of water with a seabed of diamonds, the starry sky sparkled clear and pure.
“We but rarely see the stars upon the moor,” Iadne remarked, her hands on the crenelated stone. “The Gray reigns above as well as below.”
“Every night the sky is clear over the House of Lorwynne,” Eseus said. “It is the legacy of my ancestor, I believe. I do not doubt there is magic in its persistence.”
Iadne stared at the stars in utter wonderment. “They are lovely. Like dew glistening upon a spider’s web.” Her eyes drifted toward the moon. It was waning, like a drowsy eye half-waking from sleep. “I would like to see the stars every night. And the moon. We only ever saw them in patches occasionally, whenever the Gray thinned at certain times of the year.”
“I am sorry,” Eseus said. “Sorry for leaving you upon the moor. I am sorry for what happened to your clan. There is so much I am sorry for, and I do not know how to make amends to you.”
Iadne regarded Eseus for a moment beneath the stars. There seemed to be a glow about him that she could not explain— a waxing halo. Was this the magic of the wizard of Oxenford, transmuted through the generations?
“My people had a saying,” she said. “‘A broken web is never mended.’ Do not misunderstand. It does not mean that you may never compensate for trespasses. It only means that no matter what you do, the damage remains. The web is never restored, only replaced.”
She slipped her arm around his hip, pulling him close to her. The dress she wore still chafed, but she now forgot to notice it.
“So I do not have to make a bedmate of a blade?” he asked, lightly.
A demure smile crept along her face. “Truth be told, I never gelded the father of my daughter. He married the daughter of the Spider clan chieftain, and no one said anything in reproach of him. My tribe suffered its own sort of hierarchy as well, and the privileges and disadvantages meted out by its tiers.”
Eseus nodded. He then pointed. “See there? That arrangement of stars? That is the constellation we call the Sparrow. And there is the Heron, for which the sigil of House Lorwynne derives.”
“Where does the name ‘Lorwynne’ come from?” she asked.
“My ancestor’s wife was named Lorwynne,” he said. “Or so I was told. When he created the Oxenford Road he split it in many directions at the Fork. One went to Oxenford, where he built a castle wherein to study magic. The other went here, where he kept his wife.”
“Why did he do such a thing? Did he not miss her?”
Eseus shrugged. “I do not pretend to know a wizard’s mind. Maybe he feared she would be hurt by his dabbling. Maybe he feared she would leave him if she knew what he dabbled in. Perhaps he could not dabble at all because she asked him too many questions.”
Iadne pinched him through his tunic as he chuckled.
“Regardless of the reason, it is said that the Wizard constellation was made when he died, and that it adds a star to its pattern every time an heir to the House of Oxenford and Lorwynne pass away. I do not take such things as true, however, though several of my subjects have sworn that a new star took its place among the pattern after my father’s death.”
The Wizard constellation looked nothing like a man, or anything for that matter, except a loose collection of dominant stars in the glittering sky. Iadne was used to pattern-seeking and pattern-weaving— as all Spider clan women were—but the stars held no significance in their arrangement that she could discern. Were a spider to weave threads between them they would outline nothing but incoherence.
“I care for you, Eseus,” she said, suddenly. “I…love you and I expect to be loved in return.”
His eyes left the stars and looked to her. Her pallor was ghostly in the stelliferous cloak of night.
“I do love you,” he said. “Though I do not understand it. I have never been in love before. It is as foreign to me as the moor. But it makes it no less strong.”
“I know,” she said. “I know you do, because you listened to me speak of my clan. You cared. You bore witness, willingly, and grieved for those whom you never knew. You grieved for my daughter. That is testimony to your heart. The ear can prove love as much as the mouth. And while all others would be gladdened by the…extinction of my tribe, you mourned them, if only for my sake. And so I know my heart has not chosen poorly.” She squeezed him. “But I also know that I cannot easily accept this place. These stones…these walls…they bother me. I am unnerved. I am used to the moor. And when I heard your mother speak of this place…of how she wished to flee from it…it scared me. I am frightened that your love will cage me.”
Eseus did not say anything for a long time, and she feared that she had angered him. But instead of speaking of cages and love and duty, he said something unexpected.
“They say that in the South the sprites adorn themselves in the colors of the clouds at sunset and sunrise. Gold, orange, blue, pink, red, purple—countless colors between glowing as embers in their bodies. I wish I could see such colors once, instead of this gloomy Gray. I would like to take you to see those colors. I would like to take you to the Southerlands. I would like to— after all this terrible intrigue is extinguished— journey the world with you, mingling our lives together with all of those wonderful colors.”
She pulled on him, leading him toward the stairs that wound up to his tower and bedchamber.
“Perhaps,” she said. “Perhaps we can make colors burn brightly between us tonight. This…this feels like a sunrise to me.”

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 Vant 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,” Vant 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 Vant 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.”

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.

Gossssssip

Kate sat on the subway train, cradling her cell phone to her ear and chatting to Angela about the weekend.
“And you’ll never guess who Sophie went home with Friday night,” she said, her green-as-envy eyes glittering with glee. “Nick Satterly! Yes, Laura’s Nick! They both shared a martini, and several beers, and then Nick gave Sophie a ‘ride home’. To his place, of course. What? No, you know Laura was out of town over the weekend. Some business with her brother.” Kate shifted her cell phone to her other ear, crossing her legs. She could feel her pantyhose chafing her unpleasantly beneath her skirt in her unmentionable place. “No, I’m not jealous,” she said. “Why would I be? I’m not his wife. Laura, on the other hand…”
She fell silent as a woman sat down next to her. On the subway Kate expected someone to sit next to her, eventually, but this woman set off her alarm bells. She had frazzled black hair, dark black eyes, and dark black eyebrows in a long face with narrow slits for a nose. She wore a black dress and was covered like a Christmas Tree in gaudy, cheap Dollar Store jewelry that looped and dangled from her in mad disarray. She looked like a crack-head Cher with a rat-king nesting in her hair. Kate’s nose crinkled in disgust.
“…Well, Laura will probably be mad,” Kate finished lamely, too distracted by the woman to be colorful or hyperbolic about the weekend affair. She listened to Angela for a moment— her excited gasping and wondrous hawing—and then answered her subsequent question. “No, I’m the only one from the office that knows. You, Ben, Arthur, Madeline—everybody else left the bar early. Only I stayed behind and saw them leave together. And then Sophie called me Saturday morning, giving me the low-down. And it was a new low for her, for sure. Down, down, down low…”
Kate tried to giggle, but realized that crack-head Cher was staring at her. Kate turned away from the strange woman, presenting her back as a barrier of privacy. The woman did not seem to take the hint. Rather, she spoke to Kate freely.
“Who is Sophie?” she asked. Her voice was husky, like heady smoke. She smelled of strange, earthy incense—burning fragrance within a deep cave. “Is she your friend?”
Kate sighed in irritation. “What is it to you?” she demanded, shaking her head in disbelief and continuing to talk to Angela. “No, not anyone important. Just some weird lady on the train…”
“You do not speak of her as a friend would,” the woman said.
“Stop harassing me, you rude, smelly crack-whore,” Kate snapped. “Or I will call the police.”
“Deep underground here?” the woman said. Her look of skepticism was replaced by a small, mysterious smile. “This is my world. No one comes unless I wish them to. I am the Pythian priestess.”
“You are a wacko, is what you are,” Kate said. “She’s a druggie,” she then explained to Angela on her phone. She turned toward the woman again, puffing up with anger and righteousness. “I am not going to give you money,” she added. “I don’t even carry change on me. And if you think I am going to give you my credit card, you are badly mistaken.”
The woman’s small smile widened to reveal bright white teeth, flashing all the whiter in the sooty ash that overspread her pale face. She reminded Kate of a gypsy, or the stereotype of a gypsy. Her teeth were so long and narrow that it looked like she had no gums.
“I find no worth in any such thing as that,” the gypsy woman said. “I do wonder about your worth as a friend, however.”
“How dare you!” Kate exclaimed, sliding down a seat away from the woman. “And for the record, Sophie and I are not friends. We are coworkers.” She spoke quickly into the phone. “But Angela and I are besties. Always have been. Always will be.”
“Then it is very unprofessional,” the woman continued. She slid closer to Kate upon the subway seats, crowding Kate against the end of the row. As she slid nearer her cheap jewelry rattled and the fabric of her black dress hissed. “But who am I to say such things? The world is run by unprofessional people. Unprofessional gods, at that! Did you know that prophecy is simply gossip between the gods? It is true. Gossip is divine. Gossip becomes true, even if it isn’t, because the gods demand that it be so.”
The woman then folded her arms, each hand grasping the other forearm. Her skeletal wrists were entwined with many coiled circlets that clanked and jangled like bells.
“Since gossip is divine,” she said, “I will bless you, Kate Huxley. By the deep womb of Delphi, may you speak a sibilant sibyl’s song. May the twin-headed snake seek you in your most private moments…and places.”
Kate stood, then— losing all patience—and walked to the other end of the subway car. When she sat down she glanced back, but the gypsy woman was no longer sitting where she had been. Kate paid it no more mind. Instead, she took up chatting with Angela where she had left off, telling her all of the scandalous details about the affair over the weekened. She became quite happily lost in the lurid flow of it all and never reflected a moment enough to wonder how the weird gypsy woman knew her last name.

***

Kate did not stop talking to Angela on her phone about Nick and Sophie until she was face to face with Angela on the tenth floor of their firm’s office building, and even then she simply turned off her cell pone and spoke to Angela about them directly.
“He did not even pay for her Uber ride,” Kate said, laughingly. “Can you imagine?”
Angela smiled in mild amusement. She was very tall and skinny. “You know Nick’s always been that kind of guy. I think he has dated every woman in this building at one point or another. Not me, of course, but…well…others.” She eyed Kate’s pink sweater sideways while they both walked to their own corner of the floor. Behind them the maze of cubicles spread wide beneath florescent lights. Beyond the windows the sun rose sullenly between the crowding skyscrapers.
“But I’m sure Nick treated the other women better than Sophie,” Kate remarked. Her smile was somewhat bitter. “She said he didn’t even cuddle afterwards. He just sort of…ahem… he just rolled over and…hack…went to sleep…”
Hand to her chest, Kate coughed and hacked.
“Are you all right?” Angela asked.
Kate waved away her coworker’s concern. A moment passed, and so did the congestion. She continued speaking as before.
“What was she thinking?” she said, laughing sardonically. “As if Nick would use her for anything but a few jollies over the weekend! She’s not even sure…huck…that he wore…ack…a condom…”
Hunching over, Kate coughed and gagged, finally expelling something long and slimy from her throat. It slipped out and fell to the carpeted floor in a sinuous heap of scaly coils. Looking down at it in surprise, Kate saw that it was a snake— a small scarlet snake with pearly white fangs. It slithered toward the elevator. She watched it go with a feeling of relief, and an anticipation of mirth. She did not feel disgust or horror, nor did Angela show any.
The elevator doors opened as the snake reached them, and the snake coiled around Sophie’s ankle as she stepped out from the elevator. She did not seem to see it, but her face twinged as the snake bit her calf muscle through her silk pantyhose. Kate paid the snake no further mind, nor did Angela comment upon it at all, and the two women turned to greet Sophie as she walked slowly toward their habitual corner of the office.
Sophie appeared out of sorts and anxious. Her hoop earrings jittered like June bugs on a hot windowpane. Normally she wore makeup, but not today. Her face was sickly green with snake venom.
“Laura’s not here yet, is she?” she asked them.
Kate looked to Angela, and Angela shook her head. “I don’t think so. She’s not supposed to come back until tomorrow. Nick is here, though.”
The look of betrayal on Sophie’s face did not faze Kate in the least. The serpent bit at Sophie’s leg and foot several times, nearly tripping her as she stood upon her wedges.
“Kate,” she said, “you promised not to tell anyone.”
“I only told Angela,” Kate said. “And she’s my best friend. Just like you. Besties trust each other. We’re supposed to share everything.”
Sophie glanced nervously around the labyrinth of cubicles.
“I don’t want anyone else knowing about it,” she said, red-faced and heaving beneath her blouse. “I could lose my job. Nick could, too.”
Kate took Sophie by the hand. “There are plenty of other things to talk about,” she said. “And people. Did you know that Joe Plitschy in Accounting is getting fired? Hank Danforth told me that Joe bungled a few thousand dollars’ worth of numbers in the Hawthorne account. Some people think he’s addicted to pain meds and…hack…he doesn’t think of anything…blahaock… except taking them…”
Bending over, Kate coughed up another snake. It was orange, like fire, and it slithered toward a cubicle on the far side of the cubicles. Neither Angela or Sophie remarked upon it, though they clearly saw it. Kate continued talking as before.
“Anyway,” she said. “They are going to let him go at the end of the day.”
“I always liked Joe,” Angela said. “He reminds me of one of my dead uncles. Not the creepy one. The one that liked to give presents because he had no family of his own.”
“It was probably that back surgery,” Sophie said, still looking nervous as the snake loosened its fangs from her ankle. “I bet he has been in pain ever since returning from medical leave. Sitting at a desk without lumbar support doesn’t help. Even my back hurts sometimes.”
“Weekend activities can make things worse, too,” Kate said, making the snake at Sophie’s ankle bite her again.
Angela opened her mouth to say something, but at that moment saw Joe Plitschy hobbling toward the men’s restroom.
“There’s Joe there,” she said.
Joe’s face was bright red and his brow had broken out in a cascade of sweat. He was a rotund man—misshapenly so—and his girth twisted awkwardly with each cumbersome step he took. The orange snake which Kate had expelled had encoiled his chest. He held a hand against the wall for additional support.
“Going for his pills, I’ll bet,” Kate said. Her eyebrows hopped eagerly and she left the corner of the office, heading to Hank Danforth’s office. Leaning into his office from the door, she spoke to him briefly, then returned to Angela and Sophie. Danforth stepped out of his office and watched Joe Plitschy go into the restroom. He waited a moment and then went into the restroom himself.
“All things in due time, Kate,” Angela said, crossing her arms irritably.
Kate shrugged. “It’s for his own good.”
Shortly afterward, Hank emerged from the restroom. A minute or so later, Joe emerged, his eyes to the floor. He walked more slowly than before. The snake had tightened its coils around his chest, and had buried its fangs deep into the middle of his spine. The balding man cringed with every biting step as he went to his cubicle to pack his things. Eyes from the other cubicles followed him quizzically, then sympathetically. But no one said goodbye to him.
A few minutes later Kate, Angela, and Sophie went to their cubicles. The workday began for everyone except Joe Plitschy.

***

Kate had a lot of business to attend to. Not official work-related business; but social business. She was a confidante for many people in the office building. Ironically, she had earned this dubious station by sharing with everyone what others had shared with her. People felt like they could trust her because she trusted this and that person with another person’s secrets. Even now, when she was supposed to be filling out data tables and spreadsheets, she spent her time reading emails and sending emails concerning salacious information. She felt the snakes roil and coil in her chest, writhing with restless anticipation.
As the workers sat at their cubicles, working on their computers and reading emails, there rose many whispers between the cubicles among that peopled maze. The whispers were hushed, but together sounded like many snakes gathering in a sibilant storm.

***

Lunchtime came, and with it whole rivers of snakes spewing from Kate’s mouth. The multitudinous tangle in her chest uncoiled and spilled from her throat impossibly, like clowns from a clown car. Occasionally she hacked up a large nest of snakes—like a cat coughing up a hairball—and set them loose on the whole HR department, rolling among the cubicles like a pinball in an elaborate machine until it gradually unwound itself, leaving snakes everywhere to await the return of the workers from their break.
For Kate the release felt good. Thrilling. Cathartic. Orgasmic. Each expulsion of a snake was a tectonic rapture. She was the nexus, after all; the convergence and the floodgates of the garrulous flow. She spoke serpents into the world, and it pleased her to do so.
Everyone had a mess of snakes to struggle with as they returned to their cubicles. But no one had more snakes than Sophie as she returned to her desk. Her head hung heavy with snakes. She bowed beneath the weight of them, staring at the ground like a forlorn Medusa. No one spoke to her except Angela. Kate spoke about Sophieincessantly, and subsequently Nick and Laura.
Nick did not seem to mind any of it. He wore his snakes like trophies as he smiled his All-American golden boy smile and joked around with the other guys in the Acquisitions department. He was invulnerable. This did not so much provoke Kate’s ire toward him as much as provoke her ire toward Sophie and Laura. Laura was not there to protest, and Sophie was too overwrought to do anything about the snakes. And to try to fight against them did nothing but antagonize them. The more she tried to disentangle herself, the more riled the snakes became, biting her in waves of discontent.
And then things became worse. To everyone’s surprise, including her husband, Nick, Laura arrived for the latter part of the day. She appeared unhinged, and not only from apparent jetlag. One of her friends in HR had notified her of the affair via email. Everyone expected her to confront Nick and Sophie, and she did, hysterically. Nick hurried her to his office where the door muted her sobbing and screaming minimally. Meanwhile Kate crept nearby, listening at the door. Angela attempted to call her away, but Kate only smirked. There was a mixture of mischief and malice upon her face as she listened.
And then, abruptly, Laura was standing there, looking like a wartime refugee in the florescence of the overhead lights. Her blonde hair was disheveled. Her blouse and skirt were wrinkled and hitched up and down like she had been fighting herself. There were distraught tears streaming from her eyes, yet the look on her face was simple, overwhelming horror. She looked more like a woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer rather than a victim of Monday gossip.
“How could you do this to me?” she said, her voice cracking. “Nick and I are getting a divorce now.”
At first Kate did not know to whom she addressed the question. Her surprise gave way quickly to supercilious disavowal.
“Sophie is the one that did it to you,” Kate said. “She slept with your husband.”
“Lots of people have slept with my husband,” Laura said, her voice hollow. “I don’t like it, but it’s the way we work.” The mournful dismay in her blue eyes hardened into ice. “But you…you had to talk about it. You had to spread it around where we work. We don’t have privacy anymore about it. You’ve shamed me more than Nick ever could. Everything is ruined.”
“It’s not my fault you don’t feel any shame about not being able to please your man,” Kate snapped. “You and Nick need to separate. You’ve needed to for a long time. If you had any self-respect you would know that, and do it. Right away.”
“I was happy,” Laura said, ignoring Kate. “We were happy. Happy enough for me. But then you ruined it. You ruined everything with your forked tongue.”
“You should have had your own house in order,” Kate said, smiling with faint satisfaction. “You should have had more self-respect.” She spoke loudly, then, so that everyone in the labyrinth of cubicles could hear her. “You should have divorced Nick for all of the other affairs he’s had. But you just let him walk all over you, and fuck whoever he wanted. You’ve got…hlack…no one…glack…to blame but…ack…yourself…”
Kate bent over, her hands on her knees while she heaved. Her neck bulged and her face reddened and then darkened to purple while her mouth stretched unnaturally wide. A giant python disgorged from her throat, landing heavily upon the floor. It slithered toward Laura and encoiled her. Laura shook her head slowly, ruefully, and let the snake have its fill. She could barely breathe.
“I hate you all,” she said faintly. “I hope you get what you deserve. I hope it comes back to bite you on the ass before it’s over…”
She disappeared into the snake’s unhinged jaws.

***

Kate entered the Ladies restroom. It was the last break before the end of the workday and she needed a moment to take a breather and relieve her bladder. She sat in a stall, tinkling and texting, and soon heard two women enter the restroom, talking. She knew them immediately. They were Angela and Sophie. They did not use the stalls, but stood near the sinks, Angela’s high heels clopping loudly on the bathroom tiles.
“I still feel bad about Laura,” Sophie said. “Friday night was…unplanned. All of us were at the bar and then you guys all left and I had had too much to drink. Kate was hitting on some random guy, trying to show off. I hate her sometimes. And Nick…Nick was so nice to me. I knew better, but I just felt so…so lonely. I hadn’t even been out on a Friday in over a month. I have no life, you know? I’m a loser. A guy hasn’t paid attention to me in forever. And then Nick was so nice and sweet and one thing led to another and I just…I feel awful.”
The water faucet hissed on, and Kate could hear Sophie splashing her face with water.
“Shit happens,” Angela said, “and then you die. We all make mistakes. Several mistakes in a row, too. It’s like playing a scratch-off lottery ticket. You win the jackpot— or Nickpot, I guess—and you are as surprised as anyone.”
“That’s for sure,” Sophie said, sighing. “Drink too much, sleep with a coworker, then tell another coworker about it. What was I thinking? I shouldn’t have told Kate anything. She talks too much.”
“That’s because she has no life, either,” Angela said. Kate could virtually see her smirk through the stall door, so strong was the twist of her lips on that sharp tone. “And don’t feel bad about Nick and Laura. Their marriage has been doomed for a while now. You’re not the first woman he has taken back to their marriage bed for a one-night-stand. Last year he and Kate slept together. A couple of times, actually. She wanted him to leave Laura. But he wouldn’t do it. She was just another side-piece. Kate told me about it. Several times. Wouldn’t stop crying over him. God, I dreaded those phone calls.”
“She liked him that much?” Sophie said, incredulous. “But why? He wasn’t even good in bed. I’m not even sure I had an orgasm. It was over so quick…”
Kate did not see the snake slithering under the stall’s door, raising its head toward her spread knees. She was staring at her phone instead, but her mind was attending the conversation at the sink.
“Who knows why?” Angela said. “Kate’s always wanted what other people had, even if it wasn’t that good. Or maybe she hates Nick just like she hates herself and wants the both of them to be miserable together.” Angela tittered like a snake would if it could. “Whatever the reason, Kate is super-jealous of him and whoever he is with; whether it is Laura or some other girl on the side. She didn’t get over him as well as you have.”
“That’s just…sad,” Sophie said.
“That’s not even the worst part,” Angela said. “Afterward she was so upset that she tried to make Nick jealous. She went and got blackout-drunk at a bar and woke up with some guy. He never even told her his name. He left shortly after they had both woken up, but he left a gift for her to remember their romantic evening.”
Angela paused for a long time, and in the meantime Kate felt like she was falling down into the depths of the earth. Things swarmed over her in that terrible darkness.
“Kate has HIV.”
Sophie’s sharp intake of breath was a hiss, and Kate flinched painfully at the revelation. The snake speared itself into her womanhood and slithered its way into her womb.
“Kate has HIV?” Sophie said, aghast. “But she seems so healthy.”
“She’s on really expensive drugs to manage it,” Angela said. “She’s actually running out of money. I gave her a loan myself to help pay for her rent.” Angela tittered again. “It would be a shame if everyone at the firm found out about that, wouldn’t it? But then again, it might be divine comeuppance, too. She’s always been a busybody. Ever since college. Probably ever since she learned to talk. She doesn’t know how to keep her mouth shut.”
The restroom door opened and the two women left. Kate sat in the stall, stewing in her own venom. Bitterly she stared at nothing, her cell phone loosely gripped in her limp hand. Deep within her, the snake coiled in upon itself, constricting itself into a knot of self-loathing and hatred and despair. It was a two-headed snake and it entwined itself balefully, each end trying to eat the other in an interminable struggle. She wished she had never spoken it into existence.