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With a Tangled Skein

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With a Tangled Skein

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Author: Piers Anthony
Publisher: Del Rey, 1985
Series: Incarnations of Immortality: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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(36 reads / 9 ratings)


When the man Niobe loved was shot, she learned that she had been the target, in a devious plot of the Devil's. Hoping for revenge, she discovered, too late, how intricate his scheming was, and that he had managed to trap her son and her granddaughter, Luna. Niobe's only chance to save them was to accept a challenge by the Prince of Deceit--a challenge to be decided in Hell and in a maze of Satan's devising!


Niobe was the most beautiful young woman of her generation, with hair like buckwheat honey and eyes like the sky on a misty summer morning and a figure that was better imagined than described. But she had her trifling faults, such as an imperious nature fostered by the ability to use her beauty to get her own way, and she was of only average intellect. Also, though she did not know it, she had been marked for a more difficult destiny than she had any right to dream of.

"But, Father!" Niobe protested prettily. "Cedric Kaftan is but sixteen years old, while I am twenty-one! I couldn't possibly marry him!"

Old Sean raised a pacifying hand. "Some rivers are harder to cross than others, and some boats smaller. These are not easy times, my daughter, for Ireland or the world. He belongs to an excellent family, farmers and scholars, and they take care of their own. His age is immaterial."

"Immaterial!" she snorted. "He is but a child! Father, you do me wrong to marry me to one who is so young!"

The man's jaw tightened. He had the power of the patriarch, but he preferred to have harmony. "Daughter, I did not do you wrong. It is true he is young, but he's growing. He will be a match for you when I am dead and gone."

"Let him be a match for some little snippet his own age! I absolutely refuse to put up with this indignity!" Her eyes seemed to brighten with her anger, becoming as intense as the midday welkin.

Sean shook his head ruefully, not immune to the luster of his child. "Niobe, you are the bonniest lass in the county, and nicely talented on the loom, but perhaps the most headstrong, too! Twice you have balked at excellent matches, and I was weak enough to let you. Now you are becoming embarrassingly old for a maiden."

That shook her, but she fought back. "Oh, pooh! A fat old moneybags and an ugly aristocrat! You call those matches?"

"Wealth is not to be sneered at, and neither is aristocracy. You could have had a very easy life, or a very noble one. Such marriages are not easy to come by."

"Why can't I have a handsome, virile man of twenty-five or so?" Niobe demanded. "Why burden me with a child who probably doesn't know his nose from his--"

Her father's glance stopped her before she went too far. She could only balk him to a certain extent, however softly he might speak. "Because the war has drawn away such men, so that none remain here who are worthy of you. I will not give you to a peasant! You will not marry beneath your station. Cedric is qualified and financially comfortable, thanks to an inheritance, and--"

"And he's growing," Niobe finished with disgust. "And I'm growing--sick of the very notion! I won't marry such a child, and that's all there is to it."

But that wasn't all there was to it. This time Sean's foot was firm. Niobe raged and pleaded and cried, to no avail. She was very good at crying, for her name meant "tears," but her father was impervious. He was determined that this match be consummated.

And so it was. The banns were duly published, and the wedding was held in early summer, when the groom got out of school. Everything was accomplished according to form, but Niobe hardly noticed; she was too chagrined at being married to such a youth. She wouldn't even look directly at him. As the ceremony concluded, he at least had the wit not to try to kiss her.

Thus they found themselves alone in a cottage, which was his inheritance. It was in a glade near a swamp-- pleasant enough by day for those who liked that sort of thing, but sinister by night. That was perhaps part of the idea: a couple was supposed to be bolted inside during darkness, huddled together for warmth and comfort. There were great romantic possibilities; the locale was conducive.

Niobe had no trouble resisting conduction. She wrapped her lovely self up in a voluminous quilt--a wedding gift--and slept on the bed. Young Cedric lay beside the hearth, where there was dwindling radiation from the embers. As the quiet chill of the night intensified, neither stirred.

So they spent their nuptial night, the woman and the boy, in silent isolation. In the morning Cedric got up, stoked the ashes in the fireplace, and went out to relieve himself and fetch more wood. Niobe woke to the sound of an axe splitting billets of wood. It was a good sound, for the morning air was chill indeed; soon there would be physical warmth.

Or would there? She remembered that a fireplace was an ineffective way to heat a house. A good stove put six times as much heat into the surrounding air for the same amount of wood burned. There was a stove here; she would see to it. She might not be a genius, but she was practical when it suited her purpose. For one thing, she needed warm hands to operate her loom properly.

She wrapped her coat about her nightrobe and went out to use the outhouse. There was an old catalog beside the wooden seat, half-used, and a bucket of ashes. It was an efficient system, she reflected, for this was the classic place for reflection; one could read each page of the catalog before using it, or simply stare at the pictures. The mind was edified while the body was cleaned. The ashes were to sprinkle over the refuse, cutting down on the smell, and of course there was a ready supply of them at the house. The refuse was periodically toted to the garden for compost. It was an old-fashioned system, but a good one; nothing, really, was wasted. Still, she would have preferred a modern city toilet.

She emerged in due course, shivering in the cold, but she paused to watch Cedric at work. He was not cold at all; the effort of splitting heated him. She had to admit he was good at it; he set each billet of wood on the chopping block and halved it cleanly with a single blow of the axe, so that the pieces toppled to either side. He was a boy-- but a big boy, with a fine ripple of muscle as he swung the axe. His blond hair jumped as the axe struck, and a muscle in his cheek tightened momentarily. A bonnie boy, indeed!

He saw her and paused. "You're cold, Miss Niobe," he said with a rich backwoods accent that, like Niobe's form, is better imagined than rendered. "Here, take my jacket till I get the wood in. I'm too hot anyway."

"Don't call me miss," she protested. "I am, after all, your wife." It grieved her to say it, but it was a truth she could not deny, and honesty required that she not attempt to. A marriage, however ill-conceived, was a marriage.

"He paused, half-startled. "Uh, sure, I guess so. But you know, ma'am, it was none o' my notion to get married like this; I'm not even through school."

"She might have guessed! "It wasn't my idea either," she said. "At least not--"

"Not to an ignorant kid!" he finished with a rueful grin, "Come on, now, take the jacket before you freeze your toes off, miss--uh, ma'am." He approached her, jacket extended.

"Just a moment," she said, constrained to assert her independence even from this. "You look a lot more comfortable than I am. Give me that axe."

"Oh, that's not no woman's work, ma'am! I'll do it."

"That isn't woman's work," she said, annoyed by the double negative.

"That's what I said!" Then he paused, embarrassed. "Oh--you mean the way I said it. I'm sorry. I'm just a backwoods boy, ma'am, and sorry you had to get stuck with--"

"What's done is done, Cedric," she said firmly. She wrested the axe from his grip, knowing he could offer no effective resistance to her because she was an adult. She set up a billet and swung at it--and caught the very edge of it. The blade caromed off and plunged into the ground beside her right foot.

"Uh, ma'am, please--" Cedric said, worried.

"No, I can do it!" she said, hauling the axe up again in a wobbly trajectory.

He jumped to intercept her. "Let me help you, ma'am, no offense."

"You're afraid I'll break the axe!" she accused him.

"No ma'am! I'm afraid you'll chop off a toe, and I'd sure hate to have anything like that happen to a foot as dainty as that."

She relaxed. His diplomacy was effective because it was unschooled. "So would I! I did come close, didn't I? All my incidental studies about trees, and I never split a single blivet of--"

"Billet, ma'am," he said quickly.

She had to laugh. "Of course! I don't use the language as well as I supposed!"

"Oh, no, you talk real fine, ma'am," he said. "Now you take the handle like this, see, and--" He reached around her to put his hands over hers, setting hers properly on the handle. His hands were larger than hers, callused and strong, seeming too big for his body. She wondered whether boys, like puppies, had outsized paws if they were still growing into them. If so, Cedric would in due course be a young giant.

"How is it your hands are so rough, when your family is scholarly?" she asked thoughtlessly.

He snatched his hands away. "Oh, you know, fighting," he said, embarrassed.

Copyright © 1985 by Piers Anthony


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