Venom Pies Part 11

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

Venom Pies Part 10

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

Venom Pies Part 9

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The House of Lorwynne relied severely upon several wells on the green for the collection of rainwater during sieges. Since the inhabitants could not access the ponds and lakes and the other wells beyond the walls, these large wells were crucial for survival. And someone had defiled them. Since they were normally covered with heavy wooden lids until it rained, and could only be raised by a man within the castle, Eseus knew the sabotage had to have happened from within. Twenty people died from tainted water, and another forty were sick with the taint, suffering effluvia. None of the wells had been spared. Now the people of Lorwynne were reliant upon the rains for drinking water, and they were slow in coming. In the meantime Iadne alleviated the shortage by directing the peasants to arrange cloth above pots and buckets. When the dew gathered upon the cloth, it was wrung into the containers. This yielded little drinking water, but it was better than none.
Since the moors were ever overcast, there was no reliable omen when there might come a cloudburst among so many gray clouds. It stoked both hope and cynicism within the people of Lorwynne, for it promised much every hour and did not deliver. Yet, the next morning a great rainstorm came. Peasant, soldier, and noble alike stood in its chilly downpour to collect rain in pots and buckets and in their mouths. While many were happy with the relief, a few among the elderly died from the flu afterwards. Eseus had the forethought to have had new wells dug prior, and posted guards to protect the new wells and their limited store.

***

A cold wind rose, slithering into the deepest nooks of the castle and spiraling around those whom it touched, like serpents made of frigid air. It skirled and wailed and seemed the spirits of the peasant men slain upon the green, risen to bemoan their deaths and clutch at the survivors covetously. The women and children huddled in the dining hall, the hearth ablaze. Lady Kareth tended to them. The peasant men sat around the little fire pits they had dug in the green, warming themselves and grumbling and eyeing each other hatefully. Their weapons had been taken from them. They were not to be trusted with any blade or spike unless the invaders penetrated the castle’s defenses. Their fires smouldered, but their eyes blazed wildly.
The sentries suffered the worst from the cold winds. They huddled around the braziers, risking arrows from the Crows in the open spaces away from the leather tarps, for the wind bit hardest upon the battlements. Eseus stood among them, commiserating with their plight.
The Crows were untouched beneath their raven-feathered cloaks, as was Iadne beneath her spider silk robe. Edea and Percevis accompanied the young lord and his lover. The elderly husband and wife wore spider silk clothes also, and were thus better prepared than the other folk of Lorwynne. Nonetheless, the cold wind made Percevis shiver and grimace. His muttonchops billowed wispily. His wedge-shaped nose was raw and red.
“Only Autumn now and my bones feel as icicles,” he said. “It is going to be a terrible Winter.”
“Any Winter survived is a good Winter,” Edea remarked.
“Haven’t survived it yet, woman,” he said. “Hasn’t even arrived! But its convoys are a pain! That much is true!”
“Continue to speak to me like that and you will not even survive the Autumn,” his wife retorted.
“I have survived your cooking for decades,” he said, grinning. “What can Autumn or Winter do to me?”
“For that you shall be the next dish I serve,” she said, crossing her arms and giving him a knowing smirk. “Gelded jackass roast.”
Percevis blinked in disconcertment, then guffawed loudly. His donkey laughter rivaled the Crow clan’s as a whole, and many of them scowled up at the battlement, resenting his thunderous braying.
Eseus did not speak his way into the husband and wife’s playful fray. He was in no mood for playfulness. Rather, he was in a foul mood. Half of his soldiers now had to remain upon the green at all times, watching the peasant men and assuring that they did not slay one another. He was ruling a divided House, and felt the pressure of the capstone in his heart. He wished his father was here and well. He wished he, himself, had stronger resolve. Had he the steel needed in his soul, he might have promised executions with some sort of credibility. But he had not yet hardened enough to dole discipline with steel, or even speak of it with sincerity. And, moreover, he knew that many of his peasants were mostly innocent in this contrived blood-feud that had broken out betwixt them. Sometimes he wished he had a crow’s eye to circle overhead and watch the men at night for whoever was weakening the foundation of Lorwynne from within.
He looked to Iadne, who had been quiet all day. Her hands were withdrawn into the large sleeves of her robe. He knew that she clutched the clew to herself deep within the thick folds. Even at night, while abed with him, she would clutch the clew to her heart.
Percevis’s laughter echoed well after he had finished in a fit of coughs. The Crows shot arrows upon the castle wall, so vexed were they with his impertinent amusement. The single volley struck the thick leather tarps and were largely halted. A few penetrated here and there, but had lost velocity upon the impact. More importantly, they did not wound anyone, but struck castle stone. These arrows were added to the heaps already collected on the battlements. Eseus considered them a boon and was glad he knew now what vexed the Crow clan.

***

With evening came the stars, but also a celebration within the castle. Eseus arranged for music, with harps and lutes and lyres all raining melodies into that moonlit night. The peasants danced and sang in the inner sanctum of the castle, making a great clamor upon the moor. Meanwhile, the sentries descended from the battlements and the ramparts, lingering at the castle’s entrance. Several hours passed, and the peasants became exhausted. Still, Eseus demanded they sing and dance and make merry. Their lives depended upon it.
It was in the witching hours that the crows flew over the castle. They carried steel hooks made from the claws of hoes and attached to ropes. Silently they affixed these claws to the crenelations. The ropes were drawn tautly by the Crows in the camps. Ten men from the Crow clan then climbed the angled ropes over moat and castle wall. Seeing that the ramparts and battlements and the green were indeed all abandoned— and hearing the mirthful ruckus deep within the castle— the Crows descended the stairs and came upon the green. Eseus waited until they were nearly to the portcullis before giving the order. The Lorwynne soldiers then spilled forth from the castles with their arrows nocked and unleashed a rain of death upon the invaders. It did not matter that they could not see well within the half-mooned murk. Such a downpour did they unfurl that the whole of the green was riddled with arrows.
Eseus waited until the next day had dawned— in all of its drab dimness—before he ordered the bloodied bodies brought up to the ramparts and thrown into the moat below. The Crow clan did not hide their rage. Crow men and women alike spat curses upon the House of Lorwynne and its descendants. Yet, as wrathful as they were, they did not retaliate. They did not act. Instead, they waited. They watched. They were patient.

***

And then the Oxenford army arrived, their long caravan procession taking with it  wagons steep with planks of wood for bridging the moat and building ladders and siege towers. Eseus was dismayed at the size of the army. There had to be three thousand men in all.
The Crow clan cawed loudly at the House of Lorwynne as they were joined by the caravan. Another Oxenford Commander approached upon horseback. It was one of Eseus’s cousins, Malteus, and Eseus knew upon seeing him and his army that the House of Lorwynne stood not a chance. For the army hereto gathered was comprised of all of the minor Houses of Oxenford. Every standing army had been called to lay claim to Lorwynne on Kareth’s behalf. Eseus shook his head in disbelief. Was it a deceit that gained Kareth their devotion or a simple promise of power? No House sided with his own, it seemed.
Malteus approached the castle. His hair was long, and faintly brownish-red. He wore silver plate armor that gleamed proudly. The sigil of a hart splayed its antlers upon his breastplate. Raising a hand, he directed the Crow clan to act. At first, Eseus thought it would be the first salvo of the battle, but instead the Crows sent their black birds into the air, each of them holding a rolled-up scroll. With these they littered the green. There were hundreds of them, but they each said the same thing:
“By order of Queen Kareth, of the House of Oxenford and rightful ruler of all Houses on the Moors, the criminals responsible for her beloved father’s death shall be surrendered forthwith for imprisonment, trial, and summary execution. Those fighting on behalf of these traitors will be shown no mercy and shall be promptly executed without trial or consideration of extenuating circumstance, whereas those who lay aside their arms and surrender without bloodshed shall be spared and beloved of their new Queen.”
All of the soldiers could read, and so could many among the peasants. Eseus’s father had decreed that it was crucial that they be able to do so to learn and therefore strengthen the House of Lorwynne. Yet, now that strength was being used against the House of Lorwynne, for Eseus could see the confusion and doubt in the eyes of his people. Some tore up the scrolls; others let them dangle limply at their sides.
A lone peasant stood upon a rampart overtopping the green. He called out to the peasants below.
“We should parley with them!” he said. “There is no hope in fighting them! They will be merciful to us! I promise you all! Swear yourselves to Queen Kareth and share in her glory!”
Eseus’s eyes narrowed. He knew this peasant. His name was Aletus. He had extended family that lived among the Oxenford peasants, as did many peasants among the House of Lorwynne. Yet, he visited his family often in Oxenford, spending many Harvest weeks there. Here, at last, Eseus had found the traitor. Seeing the man lit a flame within his soul that tempered his rage with a molten flow. He approached Aletus, and Aletus recoiled.
“You cannot win, milord,” Aletus said. “They will pardon you, too, if you only surrender to them. There is no dishonor in it. They promised me that no one would be harmed…”
“You would poison our wells,” Eseus said, “and squat over a grave and befoul it.”
An innocent man might have been puzzled, but Aletus merely smirked. “Better someone else’s grave than my own.”
“You will be buried where you belong,” Eseus said.
The steel had hardened at last in his soul, and with it his fist, and so Eseus struck the man with a blow that sent him reeling around and falling upon his face. Eseus then grasped the man’s hair and dragged the weed up to his feet.
“What are you doing?” the man slurred, his mouth full of blood and broken teeth.
“If you wish to join them,” Eseus said, “go to them.”
Eseus shoved him off the rampart. Aletus screamed until the moat silenced him.
Heaving with rage, Eseus spat and found himself angry enough to do such a thing again, and again; a thousand times to vent his fury. When he looked again upon the faces of his people he saw the horror of what he had done. Even Iadne and his mother were aghast at his brutal act. His father had warned him that vengeance was never wise with its rulings. But the traitor had cost his people many good men with his insidious sabotage. And, to the last, Aletus had cost him the trust of his people. The capstone had faltered and fell, and with it the House of Lorwynne. Sighing, Eseus addressed his people.
“I have no excuses anymore,” he said. “If you wish to seek the mercy of the enemy— however much she might mete out to you—so be it. Only, remember that they ally themselves with those who slew my father. Remember that they will not govern you with a kind, fair hand as he did. As savage as I have been just now, toward an avout traitor who plotted you against one another, they will be much worse. I promise you. But then, to stay is certain death. “ He wiped his sweaty forehead, and swayed as if lost. He could not feel the strength of the castle’s stones in his bones. It was all dissembling dust. “Perhaps…perhaps she may be lenient after all…”
Eseus felt himself deflate, like a breathless dragon sinking in the air. As the old song went, Despair is an anchored crown, and it weighed him down, down, down. Looking upon his people, he lamented their fate, and the fate of his mother, and Iadne. But if he surrendered himself perhaps the armies would spare his people. Perhaps they would spare his mother and Iadne. He walked toward the portcullis, feeling numb. Iadne met him upon the green.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
“Surrendering myself,” he said. “Perhaps I can exchange myself for the promise that no harm will come to anyone else.”
“Do not be a fool, Eseus!” she snapped, grabbing hold of his wrist. “They will spare no one. The Crows will feast on everyone here.”
“Then what can we do?” he said. Even now he could hear the Oxenford army busily hammering nails into planks, building their bridges and their siege towers. By next nightfall they would have overtaken the castle’s walls. “If I surrender myself, you will not be butchered. You will live to see another day.”
“Piss upon that!” shouted a man’s voice. “Piss upon surrender and piss upon this ‘Queen’!”
It was Percevis. He held his sword above his head, and his beloved wife, Edea, smiled with pride. His children, and his children’s children, also took up the rallying call.
“Piss upon the Queen! Piss upon the Queen!”
“ Does the heron fly freely into the cage?” Percevis said, addressing his fellow countrymen. “No! He stands on his towering legs and he stabs down at those who would think themselves tall!  He is a bird that shits in their eye!”
While Percevis rallied the soldiers and the peasants, Iadne rallied Eseus’s spirits.
“Come, Eseus,” Iadne said, “I will not lose another family as soon as I have found it.” She took his hand in hers. “And your child needs you to use your head.”
“My child?” Eseus was as dumbstruck as a man waking to find himself in a field of fairies. His astonishment soon fled, giving way to a hard-bitten resolve. “Yes,” he said. “I must use my head. We both must. Together. Come with me.”
He ascended to the battlements once again, gazing out over the armies that had come to destroy everything he knew. Iadne followed him, wondering what was his plan.
“I need distractions,” he said, “and the best of our archers.”

***

Iadne did a simple thing at first. She willed one horse into the moat. It chewed its rope and then wandered away from the other horses. Oxenford man and Crow clansman alike saw it with disinterested glances and thought no more of it. But when the horse leapt into the moat headfirst, drowning itself in the filth, quizzical glances multiplied quickly. Then Iadne willed another horse into the moat. After that horse, another horse followed. Soon the Oxenford men and the Crows were struggling with their horses, pulling on their reins and trying to mount them and veer them away from the stinking circle. Some men were kicked to death; others were merely thrown and injured. Some fell into the moat with the horses and drowned.
While the enemy was baffled and distracted, Eseus had his best archers loose arrows upon those nearest to the moat. Over a hundred men died that day, and nearly every horse died also, clogging the moat with their bodies. Iadne was so exhausted by the effort that she lost consciousness and did not wake for a day and a half. Eseus fed her himself and tended to her while she remained in bed until she was strong enough to rise without aid. In the meantime their enemies were disconcerted and rebuffed. They buried their dead, or attempted to, only for the Lorwynne archers to heap more to the multitude. In the end, the dead were abandoned. The stench was profound, and the flies gathered in large clouds. The men along the ramparts lit arrows and set the corpses on fire. The flies buzzed and bit at the foe, disgruntled by the smoke and unable to reach the dead in the moat and on the land surrounding it. The flies were a minor inconvenience, but when paired with the losses of their horses and their cavalry, morale within the enemy ranks was very low.
Malteus cursed Eseus and had his archers launch several volleys into the castle. Most of these arrows were squandered, the peasants retreating into the castle and the archers along the walls taking cover beneath the wax-layered leather tarps.
When Iadne had recovered, Eseus requested a simple task of her. There were many animals upon the moor which she might have used for various means of undermining their foes, but he thought the modest skunk was the next champion in their efforts against the enemy. Using her natural gifts, Iadne summoned a skunk from the moor. Under cover of night, she sent him into the tents where the foodstuffs and provisions were being kept. She then willed the skunk to befoul the food with its spray. Not one ounce of hardtack was spared, nor cured meat or bundle of rice or grain. All was ruined. By the time guards had realized what had happened at one tent, the skunk had moved to another, and then another. The skunk even managed to escape unharmed, returning to the moor from whence he came.
The Oxenford men began to look with great distrust upon all animals, including the familiars among the Crow clan. Indeed, a rift of distrust existed between Kareth’s forces prior to the ruinous infiltration of their foodstuffs, and now had split wider as a schism while the uneasy allies turned upon one another, blaming each other for the misfortunes that had so far visited them and then, at last, hemorrhaging as a skirmish betwixt the tribal warriors and the condescending soldiers.
It was as Oxenford soldier and Crow clansman cut each other low that Eseus felt hope rise in his heart. Here the tides of battle turned, and flood came upon the moor as if ancient gods had risen from the Wakes and slaked themselves anew. Eseus might have regretted so much bloodletting as what he saw from the battlements had it not been the means by which his people might be delivered. As a leader he had to be a butcher of men to be a protector. It was an uneasy realization, and he could not find it in himself to hate the foes below as they gutted each other. There was nothing for him but pity.
“It is a bloody thing,” he remarked to Iadne. “I can take no pleasure in it.”
“I can,” Iadne said, looking on the battle with her red irises. Her eyes looked like bloody eclipses. “And so should you. The Crow clan killed your father. They killed my clan, with the Oxenford men’s help. To see them slaughtering each other is as beautiful to me as a field of flowers in bloom.”
Eseus turned toward Iadne, looking at her as if beholding a stranger. “I do not wish to hear such things from you, Iadne. It makes me feel as if I love a witch…or a demoness.”
Iadne slipped her arm around his hip. “Witch, demoness, lover, and the mother of your child. I am all such things, and more. You may dread being a butcher of men, but it is necessary. We must be ruthless against all who would hurt our child. I will not lose this one. I have already lost Immedea, and I wish to lose no more children.”
They became silent, watching as Malteus tried to reestablish peace among the tribes and his own soldiers. He was nearly slain himself when a Crow woman leapt atop his back with her taloned weapons at his throat. It was then that a great voice deafened the camps of the enemy, as well as the inner walls of the House of Lorwynne. Eseus recognized the voice, unnaturally amplified upon a large silver bell carried like a litter by four men.
You fools win the war for our enemy! Prepare for the siege! Let the dead lay and concentrate on the walls. Make ready the ladders!”
Men scrambled, then, to continue, their former brutalities forgotten. The bloodletting now staunched, the Oxenford and Crow armies set forth with their bridges, laying them across the moats. Eseus’s archers killed a few men, but not enough to stop the covering of the moat.
Eseus shouted orders.
“Let fly!” he commanded. A volley of arrows pierced the enemy like an airborne iron maiden, dropping many shadows to waste upon the earth. “Men, wherever a ladder be raised, go meet it with arrow and blade! Do not let them overtake the wall without paying dearly for it!”
And they did pay dearly. For the corpses of the Oxenford men and the Crow clansmen were heaped as they attempted to raise the ladders along the walls and ascend to the ramparts. The dead fell like overripe apples from the boughs of an Autumnal tree. They crashed through the bridges, adding themselves to the glutted moat, or else lay in piles around the castle walls. It seemed a desperate act, and Eseus could not understand the desperation that compelled them in such disproportional measures.
“It makes no sense,” he said, grimly. “These gratuitous losses all for the sake of this castle. She loses more men than she should ever hope to regain in victory. And yet she persists. Were she truly vengeful for the death of her father, then perhaps it would be an explicable exertion, but she was pleased by his death; not forlorn or vengeful. This is irrational. This is a vain victory by means of heavy losses. What can she hope to win by such an exchange?”
“Perhaps she does not care about the expense of men because she wants something else,” Iadne said.
“But what?” Eseus said. “What could she possibly desire so badly as to sacrifice so costly a number of lives?”

***

All day and well into the evening the invading army attempted to overtake the walls of the castle. The stench of death clung to the air stubbornly, and not even the heavy rains in the evening could exorcize its ghost. When the rains left the fog rose, breathing thick from the moor as the Gray encroached closer upon the House of Lorwynne. A fog rose from the moat, with its fetor, and encoiled the castle like a primordial serpent. Eseus did not sleep, nor did Iadne. They remained upon the battlements as his men slew countless invaders still attempting to ascend the walls.
“It is madness,” he said, exhausted by his vigil and by being witness to so much needless death. “Bloody madness.”
Quite suddenly— as the moon rose overhead in the starry sky— the invaders halted their efforts. They retreated from the castle, withdrawing into their camp all at once. The large silver bell gleamed in the pallid moonlight, having been set down reverently in view of the castle.
“That bell is an evil thing,” Iadne warned.
“It is a Resonating Bell,” Eseus said. “Some wizards use them to speak across great distances. I did not know that my cousin had such things in her possession.”
“It is an abominable thing,” Iadne said. “And it will bring us nothing but misfortune.”
Iadne attempted to summon a horse near the bell, thinking she might draw it away. But as soon as the horse came close to the bell, she lost control of it. She tried other animals and insects also, but could maintain no power over them as they approached.
Since the invaders had ceased their attempts, Eseus and Iadne retired to his tower to sleep a few hours. They were exhausted, but even so, sleep did not come easy to them. Rather, the stench of the moat, and of the many dead horses and men that had accrued all around the castle, grew fouler with passing hours. When morning came, the stench was unbearable. Many people became sickened by the stench, including Eseus’s mother. They burned fragrances within the inner sanctum of the castle, at the hearth, hoping to fight off the charnel stench. It allayed it only a little.
Meanwhile, Eseus rotated the sentries upon the battlements and ramparts. The exhausted men gladly retired to the green for food and rest. He and Iadne ascended to the battlements once again to look out upon the camp of their enemy. Their enemy stayed at a cautious distance. Perhaps, Eseus thought, they had been bled of nerve in the previous profligacy. Perhaps they were only biding their time.
The stench intensified, and many men became sick. Iadne had to retreat to the inner sanctum, joining the Lady of Lorwynne. Eseus covered his mouth with torn cloth, and had the sentries do the same. It was as if the very air had become an enemy.
It was at noon— when the day became the hottest—that four Oxenford men carried the large Resonating Bell closer to the castle. They were too far away for arrows to hit with certainty, so Eseus gave no command. He only watched them, curious. He hoped that perhaps his cousin wished to parley, even though he knew such a hope to be naive at best.
And yet his cousin did speak through the Resonating Bell, the cadence of her voice was mellifluous as it chimed within the vibrations of the Bell. The words she spoke were conversely grotesque and vicious.

Bloated guts,
carrion air,
decay that gluts
and gases aflare,
become a doom
that shatters bones,
a carnal bloom
to break these stones.”

The fetor of the moat and the mounds of bodies became unbearable. Behind streaming tears Eseus retched as he watched hundreds of corpses exhale a terrible cloud of gas from their bloated bodies. The seepage rose into an amorphous bubble, a tawny stain upon the air which floated next to the castle wall. Eseus tried to shout a command for the sentries to flee, but could only gag. The gas cloud wound itself tightly, then erupted into a flashing explosion. The castle wall burst inward, the shattered stones raining upon the green while the dust flew up alongside smoke and the limbs of the unfortunate sentries who had been standing upon the blasted wall.

Venom Pies Part 8

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“It is the burden of the people,” the Lady of Lorwynne said, gazing fondly on her son. “It weighs upon all those near and dear to a ruler.”
She and Iadne sat at the dining table, far enough away as to not disturb Eseus as he slept. Iadne held in her hand the clew, and the Lady of Lorwynne sipped at tea while speaking to the Spider clan girl.
“And these walls press upon him, too, though he has lived in them his entire life. Sometimes it is difficult to breathe here. He will never say so, but it is the curse of duty. The peasants feel it now, keenly, and it nettles them. They are used to the fields, not to these uncompromising enclosures. You, my dear, feel it keener than anyone.”
“I do,” Iadne confessed. She was troubled, and stared at the clew in her hand, for it allayed some of her anxieties. “I do not know if I wish to live here.”
The Lady of Lorwynne sipped at her tea, and regarded Iadne for a long time. “My husband always meant to abscond for a season. He wished to be elsewhere—anywhere but here—but he was ever tied to this place. He sometimes spoke of a yoke which every heir is born bearing in the House of Lorwynne. It was a yoke difficult to lift and impossible to abandon. And it drives all to keep safe the castle, cleaving to it like an ox to the plow.”
Iadne looked to Eseus once again, staring at his face— a face exhausted even as he rested. He was as alien to him as anything in the Southerlands, and yet she was attached to him by the threads of her heart. Would she have loved him so quickly had it not been for the demise of her clan? She did not know, and yet the love was as certain a thing as the moor upon which even giants could amble with a sure-footed stride. Then again, she foolishly believed herself in love with Panyseus, and more foolishly believed him to be in love with her.
Lady Lorwynne observed the turmoil in Iadne’s brow, and addressed it openly.
“You love my son,” she said, shocking the Spider clan girl. “And he loves you. Do not fret. I am not opposed to the pairing. It is unusual, but not unwanted. And while I would readily consent to your immediate marriage, I must first tell you of the hardships your life will entail; hardships which I would rather forewarn you thereof.”
“I have come to understand how this place is not unlike a prison,” Iadne assured her.
“Prison is the apt term, though any home could be seen as a prison, no matter how willing someone is in dwelling within it. No, the House of Lorwynne is different than most homes. It is very much a prison, even if it can be joyful at times. You know of the sigil of House Lorwynne? The Heron. But do you know why our banners bear such a sigil?”
Iadne shook her head.
The Lady nodded sadly. “Then I will tell you. There is a story, which some believe and some do not. It concerns the original Lady of this House. Her husband was the Wizard that created the Oxenford Road. He loved her— there is no doubt of that— and she loved him. Yet, it is said that she was lonely while her husband was away in his other castle, the Castle of Oxenford.”
“Eseus told me of the Celestial Bulls,” Iadne assured her. “And the Wizard’s dabbling. He said that he built this castle to house her so she would not be imperiled by his sorcery.”
“And so she stayed here,” the Lady said. “She was lonely and oppressed by the walls. She often ached to fly free of this place, and so she did. She is said to have been an adept likewise and transformed herself into a heron every night, flying away beneath the stars. Eventually— the legend says— she flew to the stars themselves and never returned. When the Wizard of Oxenford returned, he saw her constellation in the sky and he mourned her, abandoning the experiments that had preoccupied him.” She reached over the table and offered Iadne her hand. Iadne put her hand in the older woman’s, and the older woman pressed it affectionately. Imploringly.
“It is difficult to be the Lady of Lorwynne,” she said, “as it is to be the Lord of Lorwynne. I say this not to dissuade you, but so you may see things as they are. Clearly.”
Iadne nodded. “You…you regret being the Lady of Lorwynne.” It was not a question.
“Of course,” she said. “Especially now that my husband is departed. But I do not regret my love for him, or the birth of my son.”
Iadne considered what the older woman had told her, and looked again to Eseus.
“I am no bird,” Iadne said. “I will not fly away from him. But I am a Spider, and Spiders can be patient.” She stared again at the clew in her other hand. “We must be patient. If the pattern is correctly woven, all things come to the patient ones.”

***

Eseus woke a few hours later. He was not well-rested, but he was too restless with the stresses of leadership to sleep longer. Staggering as he stood— his head aching as if it had been used for a blacksmith’s anvil—he went to the ramparts to join the sentinels standing there. It was midday and the clouds made an early twilight with their shadows. Looking over the crenelations, he saw the fields, the apple orchards, and, farther beyond, the moor. But he saw no figures. He saw no crows in the sky. He turned to a sentinel— a young man with clear green eyes and an alert countenance— and spoke to him.
“No signs of our enemies today?” Eseus asked him.
“None, milord,” he said, “save for the crows seen circling the castle earlier this morning during the…contentiousness.”
Eseus nodded thoughtfully, staring out at the moor a while longer. He then bid the sentinel a good watch and walked down to the green to inquire after the common-folk that morning. The two men who had been slain were now buried, their graves both marked with cairns made from stone poached from the crumbling corners of the castle. The rival mobs had concentrated their animosities into a competition of burial rites and tributes. The cairns were absurd, wreathed with whatever wildflowers could be scavenged from the green.
“Two men dead too soon,” Eseus muttered to himself. “We do our enemies’ work for them. A few more weeks and who knows how many more graves will be arranged here.”
The rest of the evening had Eseus seeing to preparations and to his people’s well-being. His mother went to him occasionally to see to his well-being also, whereas he did not see Iadne until he retired to his tower later. The bedchamber was lit with a single tallow candle. Stars scintillated beyond the window. Dark as the room was, Eseus could see Iadne. There were tears in her eyes.
“What is wrong?” he asked.
She sat upon his bed, her Spider clan robe laying over her like a blanket made of shadows. Quickly, she wiped her tears and pretended as if she had not been crying.
“I am only tired,” she said. “Are you feeling better?”
“I am tired, too,” he said, sitting beside her. “Not enough sleep. It is taxing.” He looked at her in concern, but she turned away from him. “But I am not so dispirited as you. Please, Iadne, tell me what is wrong.”
“It is my people,” she said. “While upon the moor I could still feel connected to them. But now…it feels as if I have been shut in where they cannot reach me. Worse, I have had time to think, whereas before I was focused solely upon avenging my people.”
“You mourn them,” Eseus said. “Anyone would. Grief is a shadow that fades with Time, not with sunlight. I know its stain, too. It looms large over everything.”
She shook her head. “There is something else that bothers me. This castle…I can sense something beneath it. Something…frightening. It is like an animal, but not an animal at all. I feel its will pressing upon everyone here. Can you not sense it? Its will is like walls, pressing upon everyone here. Entrapping them.”
“You are not used to living within walls,” Eseus said, not unkindly. “That is all.”
She stood up abruptly, angrily. She enfolded herself in her robe, then turned about in a fury. “Do not discount me, Eseus! I know what is here. It is magic. Perhaps a curse. I…I followed its threads of power. It led me to a stone aperture within the foundation of this castle. It was ominous, and marked by many runes.”
“The crypts,” Eseus said. “They are deep, and the dead sleep there, but there is nothing to fear among their multitude.”
“You are not listening to me,” she said. “What have I told you? An ear can prove love as easily as a mouth. Please prove your love to me and listen. I sent a mouse into your crypt. I willed it far into that maze of bodies, but something snuffed it out. Something in the center of the crypts. Something lurking in the dark.”
Eseus rubbed his chin. “I do not know what it could be,” he said. “Are you sure it was not a snake, or even a rat? Mice have many predators, Iadne.”
“I would have felt their wills with my mind,” she said. “But this…I could feel its will, but it was alien to me. It was something…not of this world.”
Eseus sighed. He was tired, and he longed for sleep. “If you so wish, you and I will venture into the crypts tomorrow. It has been too long since I visited my father and paid him my respect.”
“We must be careful,” she admonished him. “Whatever it is, it is not like anything upon the moor. I fear it more than any Giant or Hag.”
Eseus only nodded. He then stripped off his clothes and slipped under the woolen blanket. Iadne doffed her robe, and her garments beneath it, joining him in bed. He blew out the candle and rolled over, hugging her to him. They did not make love— they were too tired and disturbed—but instead they held each other tightly in the dark; cleaving to one another as if for dear life. The warmth of their bodies lulled away the fears that had gripped them throughout the day. They slept like the contented dead.

***

There was no time for the crypts the next day. Someone had defiled the cairn of one of the dead men buried in the castle’s green. They had knocked over the stones and squatted upon the grave, relieving themselves as an animal would and smearing heresies with their excrement. The sight of it incensed the men. Soon they were at each other’s throats, and not even the armed soldiers could dissuade them from beating each other mercilessly. They would not listen to Eseus as he shouted for peace and calm among the fray. They were as beasts made rabid with rage.
Amidst the brawl came another chaos. Body parts fell from the sky. Fingers, feet, hands, and even heads. One head was missing its eyes, yet Eseus recognized the man as one of Commander Vant’s surviving soldiers. Wails of terror rose among the Lorwynne peasants. They screamed and stampeded into the castle’s inner sanctum— men and women alike. The crows above circled once more, then returned— as a large flock—to fields beyond the castle. The Crows had arrived within the fields. They lounged beneath the apple trees and taunted the House of Lorwynne with their japes and tomfoolery. They did not attack. Rather, the hundreds of them merely bided time and sent their crows over the walls to drop whatever thing that amused them.
Eseus was suspicious. With Iadne’s help he had successfully expelled Comannder Vant’s treacherous forces from the castle— forces that would have likely dropped the bridge and opened the portcullis to the marauders beyond the walls—and yet he felt as if someone was lurking somewhere, giving the Crow clan the confidence to tarry outside and entertain themselves rather than laying siege. After all, the Crow clan was known to be fast in their raids. So fast were they that Northerlanders often said the Crows could take a far-sighted eagle by surprise. They struck all at once, like lightning, and often were never preceded by the warning of thunder or rain or dark clouds in the sky. But lackadaisical complacency reigned in their camp. They were waiting. There were biding their time and enjoying themselves.
Some of the sentries became anxious and attempted to shoot down the carrion birds. Amidst cawing laughter the arrows were wasted with little gain to show for so much squander. Eseus commanded his sentries to reserve their arrows. In the meantime Iadne wrested control of one crow, takings its eye and circling out over the encampment of the clan. But this crow was pecked to death and eaten by the others. The Crows and the Spiders were both wise to each others’ ways.
Despite the good-humored languor that had settled over the Crow clan, Eseus busied his people with preparations for a battle. The cauldrons of oil were brought up to the ramparts. Bundles of arrows were arranged beside the sentries. Thick leather tarps were raised upon poles of wood, angled on to the crenelated battlements to provide cover. All of the tactics which Eseus had planned were implemented. He hoped they would, together, form a viable strategy to counter whatever his enemies had in mind for the siege.
Yet, much of these preparations were meant to allay the fears of his people. Eseus was not sure any such preparations would help defend the castle against the invaders. The truth was that Eseus had not studied combating the clans of the moors as much as he had other standing armies. The clans had their methods, and were wily in their own ways, and he looked upon them and felt the disadvantage of his ignorance, though he did not voice it. The Crow clan was quite unassuming and relaxed, whereas his anxieties abounded from moment to moment. True, he had killed three Crows by himself on the moor, and had witnessed some of their foibles as a consequence. But he also suffered an injury which still ached in his shoulder. And the Crows’ tactics had claimed the life of his father. It was easy to misread them.
Eseus stood upon a battlement, with Iadne, leaning upon the crenelations while staying beneath the heavy tarp of thickly-layered leather. It was midday and the gloominess of the sky affected the Lorwynne people badly. The Crows seemed unaffected by it. They japed and laughed in easy leisure beyond the moat. Smoke rose like black pillars from the burning fields and cottages and barns. They were attempting to provoke the Lorwynne men, but Eseus had forbidden his men from feathering them. Many Crows sat and cooked meat over fire pits recently dug. They wore their black robes with black cloaks of crow feathers.
Glaring at them, Eseus asked Iadne how her people defended themselves against the Crow clan.
“We wove nets of spider silk to catch their arrows,” she said, “and threw our nets upon the Crows as they rode their horses into our people. Our spiders were upon the nets, and when the nets enshrouded them, our spiders bit at them, crawling beneath their clothes and killing them much the same way that they killed your uncle. Their crows would eat the spiders, too, and they would use their weapons against us. But we had our spiders, and were nomads, and thus needed no weapons…until the day your uncle’s forces overpowered us and corralled us for slaughter.” She stared hatefully down at the Crows. “That carrion laughter was much as it is now, only louder and inescapable.”
“It is unfortunate that we could not have helped one another,” Eseus said. “Perhaps the combined power of the House of Lorwynne and the Spider clan could have destroyed the Crows and the Oxenford army once and for all.”
“That was impossible then,” Iadne said. “We did not trust any self-proclaimed lords living behind walls. Walls hold secrets, and our clan prided itself upon the openness of the moor. We withheld no secrets from one another. But your people do. We could not have trusted one another.”
“You are right,” he said. “We always considered the clans of the moorlands as untrustworthy. Crow…Spider…they were all the same to us, and we did not trust you, either. I suppose it was because you did not belong to us. You belonged to yourselves.”
“We belonged to the Gray,” Iadne said. “Everyone upon the moor does. There is no escaping it. Castle walls will not keep it out. The Gray claims all.” Her spider dangled from the hood of her robe, the hourglass upon its thorax a deep scarlet. She still held the clew in her hand, growing larger. “It is just a matter of time.”
Eseus considered this, and contemplated the foe below.
Crows made their clawed weapons from the farming tools they scavenged from the peasants they killed, breaking and remaking their claws crudely. Even their weaponry was, thus, carrion in provision and make. Often they would take weapons won from battles with bandits and caravans, and even Northerland soldiers, and these they transfigured afresh as new grotesqueries. The uglier the weapon, the more nightmarish and, so, the more intimidating to weaker, unseasoned minds. But Eseus knew such weapons to be impractical, and even cumbersome, compared to the modest, no-nonsense blade of a sword or the straight-to-the-point spike of a lance or halberd. The key matter was teaching his soldiers not to fear the Crows’ obscene weapons.
Walking from battlement to battlement, Eseus saw to the morale of his men. He encouraged them, and told them not to fret, for the battle was as much won before a sword had been unsheathed as when in midstroke of the blade.
“A manticore seems a nightmare come unto flesh,” he said, “until it throws itself onto your spear. So, too, the Crow clan and all of its devilry. But do not forget how my father died. Beyond the theatrics is a deadly truth, but we must see to the heart of it and, thus, end that heart forthwith. Do not fear. We have the advantage. Yet, do not succumb to complacency.”
From one soldier to the next he went, refining this small rallying speech. Iadne would have been amused by it as she followed him had it not been for the circumstances in which he addressed his men. The specter of Death loomed large over the speech, and so intensified it despite its iterations. When Eseus had spoken to all of his soldiers, he then went down upon the green and spoke with the common men. They had been given spears and swords with which to defend their families should the walls be breached. They had little in the way of training, and, so, held these weapons as they would a wyrm ready to leap and bite at their necks. Eseus spoke to them briefly, reassuring them of the castle and the moat and the advantages they held. Many of them were clearly frightened, and some of them seemed more sullen than affrighted. The latter group gave Eseus pause, but he had little time to massage their fury unto reconciliation. He only hoped that the threat of their enemy would press them into unity.
Eseus went into castle to check upon the women and children and to rally their spirits. To his relief, he did not have to do much to achieve this, for his mother had already undertaken the necessity herself. She had the women and children in the dining hall, in the warmth of the hearth, and she told them stories about the founding of the House of Lorwynne, of its place in history, of the wizard and his lover who established the house as a place of refuge against the cruel world beyond its walls.
“For hundreds of years these walls have stood,” she said. “And for hundreds of years longer will they remain. We are all of us bound together in its history. Our great-great-grandchildren will live here together someday, as will their great-great-grandchildren. The walls stand so love may thrive…”

***

Peasant men quarreled in the night. Blood was shed. Corpses were heaped. The Lorwynne soldiers separated them, but could not deduce the origins of the violence. Despite his grogginess, Eseus realized quickly that there was someone among his people that was intentionally fomenting strife. A traitor dwelt amongst them; perhaps many. Yet, he had no idea who it might have been.
In total, twelve men were slain and several more injured. An elderly woman— attempting to stymie the bloodshed—was thrown to the ground and suffered a broken hip. She died later in the day. Her husband took his own life in the adjoining night. Through this all the Crow clan bided their time, and joked and laughed and occasionally lobbed stones and arrows at the battlements of the castle. The latter they did with no intent except in alleviating their boredom. Otherwise, they waited. They watched.

Venom Pies Part 7

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In the morning the starry night sky was concealed once again behind gray clouds thickly overlaying the castle, the fields, the moor. The day brightened, but was never bright; a solemn pall hung over the scythemen in the fields. Oxenford soldiers drilled presumptuously in the castle’s inner courtyard.
Eseus, clad in armor and armed with his father’s sword, gathered a group of his own soldiers at the stables, noisily readying themselves to set forth from the castle. Naturally, their clamorous preparations drew the attention of Commander Vant who, outraged, abandoned his drills to confront the heir of the House of Lorwynne and demand the meaning of his bellicose entourage.
“Foul deeds are afoot,” Eseus said simply, as if he had not the time or bother to explain to Vant. Heavy with armor, he was helped atop his mount by two soldiers. He took the reins impatiently, as if ready to ride roughshod over the Commander.
Commander Vant did not budge, but instead committed the impertinence of grabbing Eseus’s horse by its bridle.
“You must not leave the castle,” he said. “It is crucial that you stay here instead of fetching folly in whatever nonsense has you presently impassioned.”
Eseus regarded the Commander scornfully. “I haven’t the time! Do you not care for your Lady of Oxenford? Wickedness is being worked against her as we speak!”
This startled the Commander. His pale face reddened and the narrow slits of his eyes widened. “What wickedness do you mean?”
Eseus sighed irritably. “A bloody plot has been revealed to me. The Spider clan seeks to finish what it has started at the House of Oxenford.”
“That is impossible!” Vant nearly roared. “The Spider clan is no more!”
“Have you not seen the woman with whom I have been indebted?” Eseus said. “She has revealed to me the truth. A handful of members of her clan survived the culling and are now seeking the completion of their revenge on my kin. As they have slain my uncle, so too shall they slay my dearest cousin!”
The revelation struck all of the Oxenford soldiers to their hearts. Their knees trembled and they glanced betwixt themselves with uncertainty. Even their Commander was stricken to the heart, his mouth gawping impotently.
“Impossible!” was all he could muster against the revelation.
“Not impossible,,” Iadne said. “But inevitable.” She appeared from among the Lorwynne men, her hands bound in thickly corded twine. “My remaining kin will not rest until they have snuffed out all lines of the Oxenford family.” She stared at the ground, head bowed in the counterfeit of sorrow. “I would not take part in the death of an innocent maiden. It seemed cruel and unmerited. And then I met Eseus.” She gazed upon him with a tearful look unlike any she had ever given him; a look of utter and hopeless adulation.
“Why not reveal this treachery sooner?” Vant demanded furiously. “Why not when moments are utmost in importance?!”
“I…I found Eseus wounded upon the moor,” Iadne said, her hands upon her face as if she might cry, “and I thought him handsome. Having lost my clan, I wished to wed him and claim a new family for myself. One with power and wealth. But he professed his undying love for this maiden…Kareth…and I was jealous. I did not want him to marry his beautiful cousin. I wished that he would marry me. But last night he confessed his undying love for his cousin and so I…I regretted my selfishness. Thus, this morning I resolved to warn him before it was too late.”
Vant sneered hatefully. “You scornful women and your villainous wiles! I should have you stripped and whipped. As it so happens, however, I haven’t the time.” He turned to Eseus again and yanked impudently on the bridle. “And you! Little upstart lordling! You cannot lead a raid on these moorland demons! You could not ride across the moor without falling from your horse! I will lead a raid! Alongside my most trustworthy men!”
“It is my duty…” Eseus began.
“Your duty is to see to the women, little lordling!” Vant growled. “Now off this horse. I will commandeer it for myself, and all of the horses in your stables. My men and I will slake the moor’s thirst for blood.”
While Eseus’s men helped him down, the Oxenford men took the reins of the horses and confiscated the provisions for the war party. Commander Vant demanded that Iadne tell him all there was to know about the remaining Spiders.
“In which direction do they lie?” he demanded.
“Southeast,” Iadne said. “Be mindful, look to the large trees upon the moor. They will secret themselves in their canopies. Should you see such a tree, burn the tree or fill it with arrows. My kin will ambush you from behind should you pass such a tree and leave it unscathed.”
Eseus remembered the Giant upon the moor. He kept a grim silence.
“A savage tactic for dispatching savages,” Commander Vant said, considering. “Indeed, I shall heed your advice, tribe-traitor.”
Commander Vant mounted his horse. His men followed suit, mounting their own horses as the Lorwynne men were shoved unceremoniously aside.
“We will see them all dead ere they harm our beloved Lady!” Commander Vant shouted. “By the horns of Oxenford!”
“By the horns of Oxenford!” his men shouted in kind.
They then rode out of the castle, beyond the fields, and into the Gray laying heavy upon the moor. When they had disappeared, Eseus dispatched his men to gather up the peasants from the fields and bring them hither into the castle with all of the sacks of grain and foodstuffs they could carry. The majority of the livestock was butchered and the meat cured and packed in salt while the fat was used for rendering tallow. Only twenty heads of cattle remained— within the inner courtyard—for the sake of milking in the meantime and breeding at a later time. The chickens were largley gathered up into an improvised coop made from palisades, their eggs added to the evening broth. Palisades were also arranged around the moat to further impede an enemy’s approach. All waste— animal or otherwise—was shoveled daily and dumped into the moat. The drawbridge was raised and the portcullis was shut. Further preparations for war were made, in accordance to Eseus’s plans.
Things took their natural course. Now came the most difficult straits: the straits of Time.

***

It was a fortnight before Commander Vant returned. His forces were less than half what they began as upon the outset of their raid. The remaining men, and Vant himself, were half-starved, bruised and broken men upon their emaciated horses. Vant shouted with a strained voice, demanding to be let into the castle. Paled and trembling, his head bandaged from a terrible blow, he looked as a dead man would look in defiance of his own death. His voice shrieked hoarsely with sufferings endured upon the moor.
“Let us in at once, you traitorous by-blow!” he demanded.
Eseus answered his commands with an arrow from his own bow. When it struck its mark, Vant commanded only blood—his mouth hanging ajar like a door upon broken hinges. He slumped off from his horse and collapsed to the ground. His remaining men fled toward whatever doom awaited them upon the moor. Eseus was gladdened to see them go, but he was wise enough to know that the true battle had not even begun.

***

Iadne held in her hand what appeared to be a clew, or ball of spider thread. She held it tenderly, as if it was the most precious of treasures.
“What is that?” Eseus asked.
“A future generation,” she said. “Many generations, I hope.”
They walked side-by-side up the stairs to his twilight-shaded tower. It had been a long day of preparations. Eseus had drilled his men once again in accordance to the strategies he had conceived for the approaching siege. His mother and Iadne had spent the day seeing that the common people were reassured and well-fed. They had roles, too, in the coming battles. They split wood, made palisades and arrow shafts and tanned leather for specific implementations. Their work, Eseus assured them, was as important as the roles the soldiers had to fulfill upon the battlements and in the bowels of the castle should the castle be penetrated.
It would all be bloody work by the end, he warned them, but as necessary as any harvest.
As a show of solidarity, Eseus ate along with the peasants and soldiers in the courtyard— when it did not rain— and often this meant a large gathering with cauldrons of stew served in common. Tents were raised on the green, and though they were not so comfortable as the cottages they were used to, the peasants did not complain. They felt safe within the walls of the castle, and safety let them sleep easier than any bed that might be bloodied or set ablaze by the violence of their foe.
It was one such night that Iadne sat beside Eseus and his mother, all surrounded by the people of Lorwynne. Many of them had seen the Spider clan girl before, and knew to respect her for having saved the heir of their late ruler. Even so, many of them furtively glanced at the albino girl and her tumult of hair. Though she had woven a new dress in the Lorwynne style, she had not managed to wrestle her hair into any braid that was not somehow worse than her normal disorderly array.
Eseus had to remind Iadne not to show affection in public. This admonishment often earned him a scoffing reproach since she claimed she was not overly fond of the idea of public affection toward him, or even private affection at times. Regardless, as the day dimmed and the stars shone through the dissipating clouds, Iadne sat close beside him while she ate. And while she ate, the Spider clan girl did not relinquish her clew, nor even set it aside, eating her chicken and vegetable stew with one hand while the other cradled the spider silk ball. Eseus stared at it briefly, but did not inquire after it. He knew she deserved to retain her own Spider clan ways, for she had made great strides to .
Many among the soldiers were curious as to whom Iadne would be wedded. They had heard Eseus’s pledge when she first arrived at the castle, and while she was beautiful, many of them dreaded the idea that Eseus would force one among them to wed her. For, while some men, such as Percevis, married the Spider clan women that sought the House of Lorwynne for a life, not many albinos existed in the world. And though Eseus did not share their superstition, many among the soldiers, and the peasantry, worried that she was ill-omened by way of her complexion.

***

The peasants, and even the soldiers, grew restless. They obeyed Eseus’s commands and did not leave the castle, but longed to be beyond its walls. They had slept in cottages their whole lives, yet had spent most of the day in the wide open fields. They grew restless, and sometimes old quarrels grew vicious while goaded by the walls and the crowds around them. Eseus had forbidden wine and beer while in the castle walls, but that did not mean the craftier and sneakier among the peasants had not hidden away such contraband. Two men— drunk on beer and old grudges and the belief that moonlight was as good an accomplice as any— fought upon the ramparts. Before soldiers could separate the two men, one was thrown from the high wall and fell to his death down below, in clear view of many witnesses. The other man, claiming self-defense, was bound in chains and taken to the green to await judgment.
Eseus, having been abed with Iadne—the latter of whom often hid beneath the bed at a knock at the door—was summoned to pass sentence on the killer. By the time Eseus had dressed and descended his tower to the green, most of the peasants were awake and awaiting the execution. Eseus dreaded such duties, as had his father. There was no sense of fulfillment in it, or purpose, or justice. It was what his father often deemed it: “The profligacy of the human animal.”
A hangman’s rope had been quickly made, and an eager axe sharpened. Eseus looked upon these two instruments of death sadly. To carry out justice was to bleed the beast for having bled itself. The anticipation in his people’s eyes saddened him even more. There was much shouting and clamoring all around. Some peasants shouted in defense of the living man at the expense of the dead man, whereas others decried the living man as a cold-blooded murderer while extolling the virtues of the dead man as a saint. Listening to the discordant cacophony, Eseus could only conclude one thing: that it was all such a bloody waste.
Eseus knew that to hang or behead the man would be to invite the worst sort of animosities among his people; some reveling in the spectacle while others vowed vengeance, thus dividing them and weakening his people as a whole. In truth, he wanted to postpone passing a verdict until the morning. Yet, to do so would be to let the peasants stew in their feelings until rancid with either bitterness or blood-thirst. His decision had to be swift and absolute, but also a compromise. It was a dilemma, but not one without a solution. He decided to banish the man upon the moor.
“A life was taken,” he said, “and so a life must be punished. Upon the morning we will banish the guilty to the moors. As for now, the dead man must be buried and the offender must remain in chains.”
Eseus said no more. His soldiers undertook their lordling’s decision while pushing back the rabble. Neither side was pleased, and so Eseus believed he had chosen the correct path for Justice. He hoped the man would walk out upon the moor and disappear however was wished by both sides in the conflict: as a man doomed to death upon the moor, or as a man treading with hope to live another day. The ghost of his decision would haunt Eseus for the remainder of the night, and would become a terrible phantasm with the dawn.

***

A group of men had rushed the chained man and slew him in the predawn murk. The soldiers on duty attempted to stop them, but were too exhausted from the previous day’s labors to react quickly enough. By the time the soldiers’ spears and swords had routed the mob, there was nothing to be done for the man in his scarlet-slicked chains.
Eseus never truly fell asleep that night, tossing and turning long after he had kissed Iadne goodnight. Irritable with fatigue, he rose to find the inner green divided between two bellicose factions. To one side were raging would-be avengers, and to the other side were the complacent mob that had exacted their revenge only moments earlier. Between the two stood the soldiers— a steel wall of armor and weaponry that was reluctant to be where they stood. All of the women and children had retreated into the inner sanctum of the castle.
Eseus and Iadne looked out over the scene from the top of the stairs leading from the main body of the castle. To see his people so clearly divided sank Eseus’s heart like a capsized ship into the depths.
“Oxenford has already won,” Eseus said. “And they needn’t have killed one person to do so.”
“You advised them prettily enough through an ugly encounter,” Iadne said. “You have no fault in this. They reap their own poorly-chosen actions. They are as spiders stuck in their own misbegotten webs.”
Eseus shook his head ruefully. “But now I must extricate them from their poor choices, or we are all doomed. Father would have found a better way. Father had a defter mind for handling the emotions of his people. He had experience, and the natural aptitude. I…I never wished to be a Lord.”
“It is a heavy weight, being a Lord,” Iadne remarked pensively. “When we marry, will I… being a Lady….have to make such decisions?”
“So long as I am alive and with my wits, no,” Eseus said. “But I would ask your advice if you would be willing to give it.”
She shook her head slowly, as if beholding a dreaded thing. “I know not what advice would be of use in such impossible predicaments. It would take a wizard to unwind such a confused knot.”
“I doubt wizards would waste their time on an enigma without a good answer,” he said. “Other rulers might simply cut the knot and threaten the subsequent threads with shortening them. Though I regret the truth of it, sometimes the promise of violence is the only way to staunch the wounds already dealt by it.”
They descended the stairs. Much to Eseus’s frustration, the sight of the lordling only redoubled the inchoate shouts of the opposing mobs. They pleaded for justice, and screamed for vengeance, and lobbed obscenities at one another, all while pressing against that wall of armor that separated the two mobs like the teeming flanks of two beasts with a ferocious rut upon them. Eseus regarded both sides, feeling exhausted. Iadne touched his shoulder, then pointed to the sky. The black specks of crows flew there.
“They watch us,” she said.
This revelation only infuriated Eseus more. He raised his hands for silence, but the anticipation of an ensuing silence convinced either side that they might be heard. The growls of the two beasts became deafening roars. Red with fury now, Eseus shouted down the mobs, nearly becoming a frothy-mouthed beast himself in the process.
“Silence!!! Silence or I will open the castle and let them take you, one and all!”
The rancor subsided into restless muttering. These mutters angered Eseus as much as the shouts, like the petulant squabbles of children. He scowled at both sides until these mutters fell, at length, to silence. He resumed speaking, loudly as before.
“What good would it be to defend ourselves against our enemies behind these castle walls if we are to bleed ourselves from within the walls?! You pigheaded fools! You wish to kill for two men who defied the Law! Why do you think I forbade such drink?! Why do you think I forbade the freedom of the fields and your homes? Because Death awaits you there! Death crouches in every shifting shadow and unassuming corner! Do not mistake me! I understand how you feel, but that does not excuse this…this…mutinous upheaval! And should you think I consider it a mutiny against me, you are wrong! It is a mutiny against yourselves! Against your loved ones, your children, and your own heartbeat! Who wins when two foes meet upon the battlefield? The victor? The slain?” He paused, letting the question riddle them into bafflement, for the answer seemed so self-evident that they could not divine his meaning. “Neither!” he shouted. He pointed to the black shadows fluttering overhead. “It is the Crows! Crows always win on a battlefield, for they reap a morbid banquet of both the slain and the victor, given time!”
Eseus stepped down from the stairs and walked along the wall made by his soldiers. Each soldier he commanded to set down his weapon and retire to the barracks for rest. The soldiers hesitated, naturally, but he reassured them to go. Grave concern written deeply upon their faces, they did as they were told. At last, only Eseus remained between the two mobs. Now standing alone— while Iadne and the Lady of Lorwynne stared on in apprehension— Eseus addressed his people once more.
“See these weapons laid before you?” he said. “If you really desire bloodshed to slake the throats of the Crows, then take up these arms and strike each other down! Strike me down and give to them the goodly feast they desire! Come! Prove yourselves the unthinking beasts you are! Or, if you seek another way— the way of the living—set aside this blood debt and help me repel the Crows! Those are your only choices. Nothing else between the twain! But remember you this: should you squander the eyes you’ve to see clearly, the Crows will not hesitate in plucking them out to make better use of them in their morning meal!”
A man stepped toward a sword. All eyes fell upon him, including those of the Lord of Lorwynne. The peasant stared at the sword for a long time, standing over it, then looked to Eseus, and up at the crows circling over the castle. He grimaced and abruptly turned his back upon the sword. A great sigh seemed to exhale from the two mobs— like a gale loosening its fury into a languid breeze—and their tensity abated, dissolving into shamefaced forlornness. The mobs broke away, sitting upon the green. In time, the women and children were fetched from inside the castle. They returned to their men, their relief giving way to tears. The men were not so prideful as to hide the relief they, themselves, felt at the dissolution of that wrathful storm.
The Lady of Lorwynne and Iadne both greeted Eseus as he returned to them, their eyes sparkling with relief. Yet, however much mother and lover wished to embrace him, they could not, for he was now unquestionably the Lord of Lorwynne, his father’s son and rightful ruler. To have embraced him would have meant unmanning him, and so they smiled and walked beside him as he mounted the stairs and went into the dining hall. Once there, he ate a hearty meal of eggs and sausage and porridge, then promptly fell asleep in his father’s chair by the hearth, his troubled head hanging low beneath its heavy weight.

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.”