A House of Cards

Embraced by the carriage’s comfort, Sinjon remained unaffected by the horses’ wild flight through darkened French back roads.   The storm clouds above hid the moon from sight.  But Sinjon wasn’t focusing on anything other than the tarot cards he shuffled in his hand.  The exercise did nothing to drive away the memory of his escape.

A flipped card, a second: Death stared at up at him.  His blue eyes peered at it through the darkness, disgusted with its appearance.  He’d had enough of Death. The year was awash in blood: the Terror had decimated his circle of friends and family.  The king and queen deposed, imprisoned, beheaded; their friends and supporters incarcerated, many families devastated.  His parents were most likely dead.  Why had his family hurried him off to safety? Saving Porter, his mother’s firstborn, Sinjon could well understand.

Glancing out the window as they passed a lonely, barren tree he wondered, But why me? It made no sense, given their history.  Disdaining his mother for his conception, as the son of another man, most of the time Father ignored him or treated him as second best.  His father’s family wouldn’t lend him a helping hand.  His English paternal grandmother’s home in Dover now might be the only refuge.

If we can make it. He only hoped the cover of night and the serpentine route they were taking toward the border of Calais, from where he hoped to sail safely to England, would serve them well.  He couldn’t count on his bastard blood sparing him the bloody fate of the rest of Paris’ elite.

The driver cursed as the horses bucked, jolting their anxious passenger in his seat.  Cards went flying, the topmost landing face up on its neighbors.  What was it? But he put the tools out of his mind as he jumped down out of the carriage, venting his anxiety and rage against the careless carriage driver.  “Stupid oaf! Have a little more care! I won’t be taken by the mob because of your negligence!”

“It was no’ my fault, Sinjon — sir.  It was her!” The driver pointed toward the trees.  “She latched her wicked teeth into the mares’ necks!”

The mares whinnied in fear, yet Sinjon saw nothing to warrant it; just the empty lane. To its left, a tree, and to the right, a churchyard, its gates shut tight.  “Nevertheless, we can delay no –”

A scream pierced the night. Sinjon turned to spot an eagle as it landed in the tree’s dead branches. Below its perch, the body of a woman hung from a rope around her left ankle, heavy and lifeless, her throat cut, blood dripping down to stain her white hair and the ground beneath her.

Surely he was seeing things: the poor soul hadn’t been there a moment ago.  Ignoring the driver’s warning, he turned back to demand he lend a hand as Sinjon intended to cut her down.  But the more he looked, the less he was sure she was human.  She seemed so, but then, there was something odd about her. The fingernails weren’t right, seeming almost like razors; her skin was more like wrinkled leather; her throat a little too long.  Her eyes were altogether strange, gouged, yet whole; staring and lifeless, yet somehow they seemed to watch him.  And what had happened to the right side of the torso, he couldn’t tell, but it was torn to shreds, strips of bloodied flesh hanging, ribs showing through the injury; yet when he tilted his head for a different view, the skin and sinew seemed almost woven together.  Something protruded from her back, but whether two humps, knives, or — it couldn’t be — stubby wings, he couldn’t decide.  Or didn’t want to know the nature of what he saw.

As he turned back to his driver a wall of ethereal flame erupted between them.  Sinjon fell back, staring in astonishment. The flames crackled and spat, but the wind gusting from the blaze was cold as a winter’s breeze.  Beyond, noises of battle erupted; Sinjon reached for his pistol.  A screaming woman flew from the conflagration and locked her hands around his throat.  Shock paralyzed him as she dragged him into the flames.

The fire engulfed them utterly. The hag hissed as she bared wicked fangs. Twisting her grip, her nails cut his flesh like blades.  He shivered in the chill of the unreal blaze, struggling for freedom.  She laughed and tossed him about until nausea threatened to overtake him.

Sudden darkness blinded him.   Chains snaked around his chest, his limbs. He slammed against a stone wall alive with spiders. The monsters sank their teeth deep into his flesh, shocking him with unmatched pain.

“Where are you?” he screamed.  “Come and face me, damn you! I’m not afraid of you!”

The inhuman hag stepped out of the shadows.  “Aren’t you afraid, Sinjon? I wouldn’t expect such feigned bravado, were you unaffected by tonight’s events.”

He pulled against his chains.  “What do you want of me?”

She turned, not so much pacing the room as gliding around it.  “I wish you to live up to our bargain.”

He went still at her words.  “I’ve struck no bargain with you.”

She turned whitened eyes, as dull as a blind woman’s, on him.  “You will satisfy your end, nonetheless.”

This is madness! “You can hold me to no bargain, when I have made none.”

She stepped forward, so close he couldn’t escape her fetid breath and soulless eyes.  “Then you misunderstand the enduring nature of obligation.”

“Obligation?”

“Yes, you are obligated, Sinjon.  And you will do as I say.”

“Never.  I’ll have the gendarmes on you first!”

“Will you? And how will you call them?” She slid back into the shadows. Spiders skittered along his skin, their razor sharp teeth painfully tearing his once-fine silk sleeves to ribbons, shredding the skin beneath.  Sinjon screamed, cursed, struggling against the restraints until his body rebelled against the effort, and he lost consciousness with the strain.

But suddenly, he was awake once more.  The hag stood over him, waiting.  “Change your mind, did you?” she cackled.

Sinjon gagged on the reeking stench of putrid meat flooding his nostrils, and gave a contemptuous sniff.  “I owe you nothing, but let me go, and I will come up with something that might suffice.”

“Oh, you certainly do.” She raked her nails down his cheek, drawing blood.  “I have a task for you — three, actually.  But I doubt they will serve you well.  You will never accomplish — or I daresay, even survive — them.”

Sinjon sucked in a startled breath, wondering what tasks she would put to him.  After a moment, he agreed.  “Name them, and I’ll see them through.”

“Are you so sure of yourself? Well then, here is the first: Go back to the tree, and find the name of he for whom my blood was shed, if you can.”

“How can I when you’ve chained me here?” He shook his head, struggled against the bonds.  “I don’t even know where here is!”

“Oh, now how can that be?” Her voice seemed a mile away as she spoke.  “After all, you did find your way in.”

“I found my way in?”

He tugged against the chains, trying to reach out, yearning to wrap his hands around her scrawny throat.  Fire flared between them. The chains began glowing red, his wrists burning inside the manacles.  As he screamed they dropped away and the room dissolved like wet paint in the rain. And before him, the tree, the eagle and he was standing unchained in the middle of the darkened, empty lane.

Now’s your chance, said his startled mind.  Run! The order propelled him into action, but he was pulled up short, as if a chain still bound him to the wall.  Merde, what now?

The eagle’s call drew his gaze to the tree. That same damned tree stood overlooking the scene, but now it glowed a ghastly, deep red, and in its light he could see her.  The strange hag’s body hung upside down from the branch beneath the eagle’s perch; the rope from which she hung seemed like a rope of some thing’s gory entrails.  But the hangman had taken care to catch the hag’s skirt beneath his noose, so at least part of her remained demurely covered.  The left, exposed side of her body was nothing but bone and cartilage.  The eagle ruffled its feathers and the hag craned her neck to meet Sinjon’s startled blue eyes.

“What do you see, sir.  Step forward, if you dare.”

“Dare?” He wondered if he had heard right.  He hadn’t dared anything tonight.  If he dared anything it was to turn, to escape.  As he moved, he was jerked up short, looking over his shoulder for what held him; but still he saw nothing.  Turning again, he found himself nose to nose with the hag.  “What do you see, Sinjon Maigny? Tell me why I might be executed me thusly.”

She threw him toward the tree beside her, and the rough bark cut into his hands as he caught himself.  He felt something sprinkle over his head, and peered up through the branches.  What was the eagle doing up there?

Plop!

Sinjon jumped back when the gooey glop hit the ground at his feet. As he bent to study it, he realized the droppings were worse than what he had first supposed: a spot of putrid flesh lay rotting in the dirt and grass, still somewhat jiggling from its fall.  Nausea coursed through him as he jumped away.

“Never mind that.” The hag’s voice drew his gaze. Yes, those things protruding from her back were stumpy, leathery gray wings.   She cleared her throat and Sinjon finally met her gaze.  “What do you see, here –” With a lurch, she swung her body towards the tree.  “What is that, Sinjon? Tell me what your puny little mind thinks it sees.”

Strange markings scored the bark.  At some angles, the markings looked like Greek lettering; at other angles, they seemed to be crudely drawn animals and men, like figures from a medieval bestiary.  But what did they mean?

I wish I had access to my father’s friends! They were merchants, world travelers, amateur scholars of, if nothing else, the cultures of the world outside Paris.  He had hoped to join them in those endeavors one day, before the Terror.  Now, that dream –perhaps — could no longer be.

“Boohoo!” she taunted.  “Too bad they’re not here to help you, whelp.  Now what is your answer?”

“It is –” What? A man, crudely carved into the trunk, seemed to be scything a field of wheat — or was he chopping down a tree?  You have seen this before, Jon. But where had he seen it?

Then suddenly it came to him.  “A tale in the works of Lucan.  It is the Gallic god Esus.” He looked up. She hung there still, her weird eyes searching his, then craning her neck around to study the tree.  “His name is written right there.” He ran his finger over the words carved into the rough bark of the tree; the letters seemed to glow with a pale green light.  “He is the one for whom you were executed.  Am I wrong?”

The hag groaned as if in excruciating pain.  The tree and darkened lane dissolved to a void.  The darkness was so thick he could barely see his hand before his face.  And then, a blinding light pierced the gloom, and the hag reared up before him, her gnarled hand inches from his face.  “You cannot go just yet.  There is another task I wish of you.”

“Name it, Foul One, and stop wasting my time!”

“There is a woman in France who still has her hundred heads, limbs, and breasts intact.  Tell me where she can be found.”

Behind her a landscape was taking shape: a packed dirt road littered here and there with weeds, lined with the sporadic growth of gnarled trees. Ancient ruins stood above on a terraced cliff.  As Sinjon scanned the landscape, he found the soft, trickling sound behind him indeed emanated from a winding river.  Sinjon frowned in confusion.  What was she up to now? Where and what was this place? Of what woman was the fiendish crone speaking? An exasperated scoff slipped from his lips.  “I’ve never heard of such a woman, hag.  It’s impossible for someone to have –”

The hag cocked her scarred brow, speaking slowly and deliberately, as if to a slow child. “Tell me where she can be found.”

He considered the question.  “I don’t know of any such woman.”

“Then you give up so easily?” Sinjon drew away as she reached out for him, giving him a fetid kiss.  “My sweet fiancé, I knew you would!”

Spitting, shuddering, he jumped away from her.  You must be going mad, Jon. But what had she said? Fiancé? He shuddered to think what the bargain might have been. No, it couldn’t be.  She was simply taunting him.

“Well?” Her raspy, ancient voice was filled with annoyance.  “What is your answer?”

Sinjon threw up his hands in frustration.  “A moment, please!” A woman in France with hundreds of heads, limbs, and breasts intact? Where in God’s name was someone like that to be found anywhere, let alone in France? As he pondered it, struggled over it, he could’ve sworn he had never heard such nonsense before.  But maybe . . . “A cemetery? The newly dead might still — ” he waved a hand  “ — have all their parts.”

She was silent a moment, then cackled: “Wrong again! Oh, you will never get this.  What color do you think my wedding dress should be? I’ve never thought white suited me well, but for you — ”

Sinjon ground his teeth, begging God, Please, anything but that! I’ll happily take the guillotine over that fate!

She would not let this go. Determined to outsmart her, he turned his attention to her question.  “Just a moment.” If not a cemetery, then . . . perhaps an archaeological site? He had heard of such things, but couldn’t say with any certainty that he remembered specifics about them.  Closing his eyes he tried to picture an ancient burial ground in Egypt, for he was sure he had heard his younger cousins mention reading of such things. But somehow he couldn’t remember such a creature being associated with any of those sites.

The hag laughed.  “Oh, and our wedding night! I just can’t wait for that!”

Sinjon shuddered again; those spider bites seemed a bit friendlier now.  He wondered when he would start to feel their poison take effect.  Better that than the alternative.  “You allowed me one hint with the previous question.” The query might be worth it.  He hoped.  “Would you grant me another?”

She muttered to herself, fumed and glided a few steps along the road like an annoyed owl.  “Very well.  See how this suits you.” She waved her hand to the river.  “Where is this being I seek? Bring me evidence of her.”

The river wound around, reaching out to the terraced cliff.  Just like the one he had heard of lying northwest of Dijon along the Seine.

But it was still just a lonely path, old bricks fitted together, now cracked and marred with time and wear; if there was a woman here, he saw no evidence of her whatsoever.  Merde, she’s done it again! If the hag was so determined to take him, why didn’t she simply force the signing of the wedding contract? What use was it trying to stop her?

A glance told him all he needed to know and his resolve slammed back into place. He wouldn’t give in.  No, he had to answer her riddles, had to see these ruins for himself. But the cliff could present a problem.  He had never been one for cliff climbing, and yet he simply couldn’t remain here.  Besides, what did her question mean? There was no one here.  But if the stories he had heard of cliff cities on the Italian coast were true, maybe this was one similar city.

The climb was much harder than he expected. He was exhausted and out of breath, sweat trickling into his eyes and down his back, as he finally reached the top.  But he was disappointed to find only ruins.  Broken columns of a temple of some sort took up most of the ground, cracked and worn steps leading up to what once might have been a door.

You were wrong.   It’s a simply another trick!

No.  As he peered over the temple remains, Sinjon spied pottery, bits and pieces of smashed statuary. The ancient floor crumbled and littered with tattered leaves and broken tree limbs blown in by the timeless wind.

Curiosity got the best of him and he approached, began searching through the rubble.  Many of the pots held ash and dirt, so many in fact that he nearly frustrated himself looking for the remnants the hag demanded.  In the final set of pots, he found them: small carvings in stone and wood resembling heads, arms, legs, even something reminiscent of a rabbit’s heart.  This must be what she meant.

But how to prove his find to her? She seemed to come and go as the mood struck her, and he had no notion of how to call her to him.  Taking one or two would do nothing to convince her, for wouldn’t she just accuse him of stealing someone’s private treasures?

Think!

There was no papyrus, no parchment shreds of any kind in the rubble.  If he had thought to demand pen and paper — but how could he make a demand of her? She would likely never honor it.  He paced back to the nearest tree, ran his hands along the rough bark; and finding a loose piece, pulled it free.  With a stick, another small strip of wood, some dried moss, and diligence at the task, he produced a small flame with which to char the end of a stick to use for sketching the effigies onto the bark.

“What are you doing?”

The hag’s voice startled him, but he kept his eyes on his work.  “What you requested of me.  I found the woman you sought.”

“Where?” She peered around the landscape.  “I see no one.  Show her to me.”

He handed her the crude drawing.  “Hundreds of limbs, hundreds of heads.  All at the source of the Sequana River.  Sequana, named for a Gallic goddess.” She merely blinked at him.  “Am I wrong?”

“No.” But a slow smile spread across her face.  “And yes.  Did I fail to mention, you were not to disturb the site?  You have failed! Yes, you failed this one!”

He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Anger overwhelming him, he struck out at her.  But there was nothing to connect with.  She was gone again, and only the sound of her laughter remained.

“You’re mine, you’re mine! I wonder how many wedding invitations I should send out.”

“Unreal, cursed bitch!” Sinjoin cursed her until his throat burned, and tears streamed down his cheeks, but she failed to return. He wondered how long he could remain here.  The Sequana River was lovely.  But was it real? If not, would he ever get out of this place alive? Defeated, he dropped down on the nearest rock, and dropped his head into his hands, cursing his own stupidity.

“You cannot give in to them.”

Sinjon looked up to find himself, by some strangeness, back in the road below.  An old man trudged toward him slowly as if every step pained him.  Where had he come from?

“You must fight them.”

He knew that voice.  The man had a red robe draped over one shoulder and there was a cap upon his head with large brown feathers protruding from it; he carried a wind instrument of some sort in his hands; a string of balls trailed down his back.

“It hasn’t been doing me much good, old man.”

“No.” The feathers on the man’s cap bobbed as he nodded.  “And you know even less of them than I.  That’s what failed me, I think: my lack of knowledge.  If I’d known better, I could have made a better choice.  That’s why I’m here — as you are: my stupidity.  My fear led me here.  But you have more bravery than I, which might work in your favor, and a sharp mind.”

Sinjon inched closer.  He was absolutely sure he knew this man.  “What did you fear?”

The man simply ignored the question.  “I made the wrong decision.  And I was betrayed for that failure.”

“So if you could go back and make the right choice?”

“What is the right choice?” the man mused.

This is getting me nowhere. Sinjon turned back to the scene ahead, the terraced hill above.  But the man spoke before he could voice another thought.

“Be wary of them.  Don’t let them fool you.”

Fool, that’s what I am for listening to this nonsense. Sinjon turned back to the man, peering at him warily.  “Fool me how?”

The old fool smiled.  “They like a backbone, remember that.”

He was afraid that was how he had gotten into this mess.  Hadn’t the peasants had enough of their oppressors finally, gotten that backbone this old loon spoke of? How could a similar action serve him, when his friends and family were being dragged to their deaths?

The old fool shrugged in such a way that Sinjon was certain he knew him.  He inched closer, studied the fool’s face.

“Father? Father, is it really you?” Laughing, he pulled the old man into a tight embrace, glad to see a familiar face, despite their history.  “You can’t imagine how wonderful it is to see you! But what are you doing here?” Maybe this was all a nightmare, after all.  Maybe he was on the verge of waking, his father here to herd him out of bed and on to the day’s work.

The old fool shook his head.  “Oh, my son.  I made a grave error.”

“No, you can’t blame yourself for what happened.” Sinjon didn’t know how to soothe his father, whose grief seemed overwhelming.  “We couldn’t have known what was about to explode.”

“No.  I trusted where I shouldn’t have.  His mother is not the only one who lied to me.”

Porter’s mother lied to him.  Thinking the statement over, Sinjon could only come to one answer: Porter must have lied as well. His brother had lied to his own father? Why?  “What did he say that was untrue, father?”

“Learn from my mistake, son.  Don’t repeat it yourself.”

Sinjon frowned.  That was no answer! “What did Porter — ”

“Isn’t this touching?”

Sinjon startled at the voice.  The hag stood behind them, arms crossed, tapping a bony foot impatiently, clouds of red dust puffing out with each footfall.  “Why is he here, hag?”

The hag’s eyes never moved from Sinjon’s father.  “You cannot change your path now, monsieur, so don’t even try.”

Fists clenched, Sinjon advanced on her, determined to rip her scrawny limbs from their sockets if she didn’t begin providing the answers he sought.  “I said, why is he here?”

“Can you not determine that on your own? Because he is dead.”

Dead.  Sinjon shut his eyes.  He had been afraid that was the meaning of this meeting.  And so he must be as well.  The hag had killed him and this was all a senseless trick of the gods.  Had he never escaped Paris? He sank to the ground, devastation squeezing his heart like a vise.  What was the point of piddling about with this hag, the point of this insane quest? Was he going to go tripping off that cliff ahead, just like a —

A fool?

He muttered under his breath, “You’re going about this all wrong.” What would happen, he wondered, if he simply gave in? Would it get him home? Would he find what happened to his brother?  “All right!” He whirled on the hag, holding back the urge to throttle her.  “I accept.  Do whatever you want with me.”

The sun set quickly as if the world had spun like a top.  There was no moon, no light to tell him where he stood, or why.  Sensation only remained: of chill; of silk; of the tug of buttons being worked, and he opened his eyes to see his brother smiling at him as he buttoned up his fine shirt.

The brother Sinjon hadn’t seen since before the Terror.  “Porter?”

“Yes, it is I.  You’re drunk aren’t you?” Porter continued his work, more buttons tugged and slipped into buttonholes.  “Just like at cousin Pierre’s wedding.”

Pierre.  Pierre too had been taken away in the wave of arrests this summer.  Sinjon vaguely wondered what had happened to him.  Had they all been dragged through this medieval nightmare? He shuddered to think what was to come.

Porter gave a look Sinjon didn’t understand, smoothed the shirt, gently slapped his cheek and stepped away.  “No time for drunken questions,” he laughed.  “Your final task awaits.”

“My final –” But what was his brother doing here? What had his father about Porter? Something about a trick?

No matter how many questions Sinjon put to him, Porter answered none, herding him out into a hallway.  Lights of a deep amber lit the corridor. The walls and the statuary seemed to writhe in skittering undulations. An undertone of high-pitched hisses filled the air, like that of angry roaches, and Sinjon wondered when his mind would clear.  The place simply could not be so bug-ridden; surely someone would have seen to such an infestation.  At the far end of the hallway, Porter turned his attention to the two cloaked guards, speaking some strange form of what Sinjon assumed was Ancient Greek; he cursed himself for never paying attention to his lessons in the language.  What had they said?

One of the guards nodded in answer to Porter’s query, his hood slipping. Sinjon caught a glimpse of gray skin like stormy skies and eyes that glowed like the bright orb of the full moon.

Sinjon felt a hand on his back, colder, bonier, larger than his brother’s, shoving him through the doors the guard opened.

Torches lit a room that seemed like a cavern; niches and deep grooves were cut into the natural stone of its walls.  Studying it in the low light, Sinjon stumbled, and the flagstones gave way beneath his touch, as if it were made of pliant pillows.  Something crawled across his hand, black as pitch, eight-legged, winged, fanged.  The force of his disgust had him on his feet, even as the monster’s teeth broke his flesh, gorging itself on his blood.  Sinjon yelped in agony, cursed, shaking his hand wildly.  But he couldn’t dislodge the monster.  After several long seconds, it pulled its teeth free and languidly blinked up with myriad eyes and an expression he could only describe as a smile.

Porter reached over and plucked the creature away. He studied it as if he were truly musing over a new species of butterfly, while the creature nuzzled its fuzzy head against his palm.  “Aren’t you,” Porter cooed to the creature, “the dearest thing?”

Sinjon watched the creature turn its gaze on him and bare its teeth, eager for another taste of his flesh. Sinjon jammed his hand into his pants pocket, and tripped as that huge, invisible hand urged him forward with a shove and an deep-voiced order, “Move!”

“Yes, let’s.” Porter set the creature down in one of the crevices in the writhing wall.  “She waits, and you’re late.”

Up ahead, something akin to a jury box stood, accommodating the most horrible creatures: some seemed like headless masses of flesh, shapeless bodies oozing something orange and purple as if they suffered grotesque sores.  Others had an intricate lacing of stringy, red sinew roping their skeletal bodies; he could see blood and gore running behind the grotesque lacework, and felt his stomach lurch in disgust.

Ahead, a terrifying, gigantic spider-like creature waited, leaning upright against a podium: its four lower legs were cocked in a relaxed stance, its four upper legs resting against the podium. Before the creature stood the hag, her stringy hair curled into a hairstyle that resembled nothing so much as a rat’s nest.  Her white dress was streaked in blood, undoubtedly as a sick evocation of their first encounter.  No, it wasn’t simply streaked, Sinjon realized: the dress was bleeding as if was an injured, living thing.

“Ah, the bridegroom,” said the monstrous spiderlord behind the podium.  “We can begin.  Take your bride’s hand, sir.”

By God, this must be a nightmare! But he could not, no matter how hard he tried, wake himself.   Taking in the hellish scene he blurted, “The bargain was never sealed; I never agreed to it!”

“You need not agree,” Porter laughed.  “Father made the agreement.  My father.”

What was this damned agreement? To reside forever in this nightmare? To marry the hag? To exchange his soul for theirs?

This was not the way a family treated one another, of that he was sure.

And there it was, once again.  The thing that separated them: they obviously still disdained Sinjon’s birth.  Though they had claimed to love him, whenever it suited their purpose, Porter and their father were fickle with their familial regard.  But to think that Porter would hold it against him in such a dire situation as this made him want to lash out at his brother.  When he finished here, and returned home, he would.  For now, he turned back to the hag, and the spidery thing.  “She cannot hold me to an agreement I never made!”

“I think they can.” Porter’s voice lowered, but his hiss was just as venomous as the hag’s as he warned: “You really have no idea with what you deal, so silence yourself, you fool! You’ll only make it worse for us!”

The unexpected warning suddenly clarified something for Sinjon: Porter knew what was happening here; seemed, despite his warning words, almost comfortable with these monsters.

How?

Sinjon understood things like tarot, though it was little more than a pastime, but this . . . this was far beyond such small magic.  It was darker.  Or was it just theatrics?

Thinking back, he realized Porter hadn’t been dealing in simple theatrics: he’d seen wicked books tucked beneath piles of his brother’s discarded documents; strange midnight visitors; a wispy flash of white mist trailing down darkened staircases, vanishing into the night — things Porter seemed reluctant to share with his family.  Had these things helped him escape the Terror? What had he promised in return for his personal safety?

Sinjon was sure he knew, and the bile rose up in his throat at the realization.  Had Porter hated him so much that he would sacrifice him to these . . . these monsters?

He would definitely be dealing with Porter once he got free of this nightmare.  If he did — if it were even possible.  “What is my third task?”

Porter exchanged a worried glance with the hag.  “Yes, there was another puzzle,” he said.  “But you’ll never decipher it.”

Sinjon’s eyes narrowed fractionally.  “Whatever it may be, don’t you think I have the right to attempt it?”

Porter waved a hand to the hag.  “All right then, what was the meaning of her style of — ”

The hag slanted a glance at him, hissed, cutting him off.  “You are not worthy of posing the questions, Porter.” And then she turned her ghostly gaze on Sinjon again.  “What was the meaning of my style of execution?”

“I already answered the question concerning your execution, Madame.” He crossed his arms. What could bravado hurt? They were already set on destroying him.  “I won’t cover that ground again.”

“Then answer me.” The spiderlord’s voice hissed through the hall like the hot oil used in battle, ages ago.  “Her execution had a meaning, human.  What was it?”

The winged things zinged around his head, darting in, nipping at his cheeks and ears, stinging like a thousand bees.  Sinjon waved his hands, trying to drive them off.  “Leave me be!” he hissed, clapping his hands over his face to protect himself.  “How can I come to a conclusion if you refuse me time to think?”

“Someone as learned as you, brother,” Porter chuckled, “should have this answer quickly, regardless of any distraction.”

One more wave of his hands, and he darted toward the doors, only to be stopped by the guards.

“You cannot leave unless you answer our questions,” the spiderlord roared.

“But I don’t know what you want!” Sinjon spun back, exasperated, exhausted.  “Do you mean she wished to die as St. Peter did? I don’t know!”

Porter shook his head.  “Pathetic.”

“Me or them? Or yourself?” Sinjon growled back.  “And why should I care what you think, brother? You who entrapped me here!”

Porter clucked his tongue.  “Such a thing to say to me.”

“Go to hell!” What was the meaning of her execution? She was a hag; did they hang her as a witch? No, it had to be more than that.  Cards flitted through his mind like falling dominoes.  “She was happy to be executed.  Maybe her death brought me here to this — ” He almost gagged on the thought.  That was the truth of it, then.  He had been set up all along! What had his father said? Fight them.  Hadn’t he done so already? “And my father made the decision that led me here, in ignorance.  I suppose, somewhere along the way, I made similar missteps.” He crossed his arms and glared at the hag.  “But in my defense, for the sketch of the effigies, I didn’t have all the facts, did I?  Is that what you wanted to hear?  Give me the cards, then.  I’ll lay them out, myself, and whatever they say, I’ll abide by.”

The hag clapped her hands like a joyful young maid.  “Even if they insist on marriage?”

Sinjon gulped.  It seemed useless to ask the gods for help any longer, but the prayer formed in his mind unbidden.  “Even if.  Do we have an agreement?”

“Yes.”

“It is not yours to make the terms of the agreement, hag.”

Sinjon was shocked by the spiderlord’s words, and even more surprised to see the hag bite down on her retort and wave a hand at the spiderlord in acquiescence.  The hierarchy here became clearer to Sinjon; she may be a monster, like them, but there was someone she must bow to.  Would it mean anything in his favor?

“Ignore your brother’s paltry attempt at a question.” The spiderlord said.  “You understand now.”

Sinjon blinked astonishment. “You devised these questions.”

The spiderlord nodded.  “You interested us. But I am tired of this game. I will give you one more chance, since –” he glared at the hag  “ — the rules were not followed to the letter.” It stepped down from its perch, approaching him on eight strong legs, and reared up before him.  The thing had a single card caught on its spindly front leg. “Take it, human! And tell me what you think you see.”

Sliding forward cautiously, Sinjon reached for the card, pulling it free of the spiderlord’s leg with a slight pop.  Stepping back to a safe distance — wondering what a safe distance was, with a monster able to dash after him in no time flat — he peered at the card.

There, a woman sat in a circle of eight swords, wringing her hands — or perhaps she was praying.  It was a different image than those with which he was familiar, but he thought he discerned its meaning; a quick glance to his surroundings focused the message.  But he gave a puzzled look, guessing that a snap answer might cost him.   “I’m not sure.”

The hag waved a hand.  “Of course you’re not.  Tell him, Porter, what do you see here?”

Sinjon glanced from the hag to his brother, feeling quite concerned. His brother wasn’t as proficient in the tarot as he.  He wondered what would happen if he offered him some sort of prompt. Porter hated him; he had offered no help here, had led him straight into this trap, made a sacrifice of him.  But Sinjon felt, after all, the moral obligation to the brother he had grown up admiring.  The thought of simply standing by and watching his brother fail — and to what result? — didn’t sit well with him.

But as the spiderlord’s eyes narrowed on him, the thought died where it germinated.

Porter peered at the card, then with a wave of his hand, said, “The poor woman’s about to face the executioner, of course.” Eyes narrowed, he smirked at Sinjon.  “At the hands of the Terror?”

The crowd erupted in loud jeers.  Sinjon turned back to the spiderlord.  “May I offer you another interpretation?”

The spiderlord waved its spear-like foreleg.  “By all means.  What do you think it represents?”

Sinjon pondered the painting, half his awareness upon the strange audience around him.  What did it mean that the spiderlord had tired of this? What was it offering him? Was this yet another trap? He peered at the card: a woman entrapped in a circle of eight swords.

Panic skittered down his spine, but he bolstered himself, standing a little straighter.  “It would seem like a cage, but when I look, I see she needs but to take one step aside, and she’ll find the door that releases her from her predicament.” He peered at Porter.  “This is what I see when I look at this card.  But she, and perhaps you too, are too blind to truth, dear brother.”

The hag whirled back, glaring at the spiderlord.  “You betrayed me! And you — ” She turned on Porter, closed her hands around his throat.  “You told me he wouldn’t know what these images meant!”

Ignoring her, the spiderlord moved slowly closer to Sinjon, drawing his attention. Sinjon took a step back as it approached.  But it halted in its tracks, and pointed a foreleg to the door.  “You may leave, human.”

Porter spluttered and protested, “But he doesn’t understand!”

Behind Porter, Sinjon could see the twin doorkeepers pulling the doors wide.  “Ah, but he did!” the spiderlord said.  And his myriad, startling eyes narrowed on Porter.  “And you, sir, did not.”

The hag bared her wicked teeth at Porter.  “You know what this means.”

The crowd roared in anger.  Sinjon backed towards the door, pausing as the winged things began alighting again on the back of his hand.  This time, they refrained from sinking their teeth into his flesh.  One even seemed to bow. And then the little sprites flitted away, one by one, landing on Porter’s shoulders, hands, wrists.

This isn’t right. He simply couldn’t leave his brother to whatever agony they had devised.  But before he could speak up, the door guardian was suddenly at his side.  “You alone see the wise path.” He shoved him towards the doors.  “Go, now.  And be thankful you have a mind left!”

Sinjon stumbled, fell to the writhing floor, sliding down, down into the muck.   He struggled to pull himself free, but every move seemed to pull him further into the void.  The stuff seemed to move sluggishly, heaving along as if it were going to vomit him out.

He burst through the mucky surface and found himself standing in the churchyard. Before him, a gate of eight swords, the eagle sitting atop it, whole, majestic, blinking down at him. Beyond that, the lane, the carriage.  His carriage driver called a greeting.

Was this simply another trick? Hesitantly, Sinjon considered it.  Had he really come this far for nothing? Was this what Hell was, simply a house of cards, an unending nightmare?

Only one way to find out.  He reached for the gate, breathing a sigh of relief when it swung easily open.  As he stepped out into the lane, the sun shining brightly down, the sweet wind blowing across the road seemed all too real to believe.  The servant’s hand came down on his shoulder.  “Are you feeling better, sir?”

Sinjon smiled.  “Yes.  And, I think it’s time to be on our way, don’t you? And I think I’ll sit up with you, if you don’t mind.” He glanced back warily at the tree, but it was green, leafy, vibrant, and only songbirds alighted in its branches.  “I’ve spent more than enough time in the dark.” He nodded to the lane ahead.  “Let’s be on our way.”

 

Glossary

The Eagle: Lleu of the Skillful Hand, as he suffered after the betrayal of his wife Blodeuedd; from the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion, otherwise known as Math Son of Mathonwy. Here represents the betrayal by a loved one, and the suffering that brings; also the potential to rot and die, there; also the potential presented by Lleu’s later skills and intelligence.  Intelligence Sinjon needs to survive here.

Esus: Celtic god of harvest; worshiped in ancient Gaul.

Sequana: Gallic goddess of the Seine River.

Tarot cards depicted here — the Fool, the Hanged Man, and the Eight of Swords — are from the 15th century Sola Busca deck and the Rider-Waite deck.

 

[Julianne Draper can’t remember the first time she fell in love with the Arthurian tales, nor the exact moment she wrote her first story (she thinks it was when she was eight or nine, and consisted of something about a faery courtship in her front yard), but her parents say she’s always told stories.  She can only point to a somewhat late discovery in high school when she was introduced to Michael Moorcock’s beloved hero Elric, inducting her into the wonderful world of Romantic heroic writing. That early influence was bolstered by her pursuit of degrees in literature and art history, and by devouring the works of many authors from the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, such as Michael Moorcock, Isaac Asimov and the late Marion Zimmer Bradley (specifically for her love of all things Celtic). Her short fiction has been published in Twisted Dreams, and Crossed Genres‘ “Posted Stories for Haiti Relief” Project, while her non-fiction has been included in The Scarlet Letter, the newsletter of the Tampa Area Romance Authors. On occasion, she has even been known to pen the odd poem. She spends what little writing time she has away from her fictional worlds reviewing books for fun on Café Pearl, and on The Examiner site, where she reports on the local literature scene as the Tampa Books Examiner. She has also edited the popular e-zine Nolan’s Pop Culture Review. She is a Pro member of the Romance Writers of America, and a member of The Tampa Area Romance Authors, and her first novel is currently in the works.]

 

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