Emma awoke squished face-first into the wall. The house sat dark and silent, a trace of wood smoke in the air from the fireplace. Kimber’s breaths puffed into the back of her head, and Da’s snoring resonated in the room. Despite a rather desperate need to use the privy, being pinned to the wall by the weight of her family and the weight of her fear kept her from squirming. She shut her eyes, but made no effort to go back to sleep. Leg twitching, she tried to concentrate on anything but the pressure wanting out. She could wait until her parents woke up in another few minutes. Going outside, alone, in the wee-early morning didn’t have to happen. She didn’t have to go out to that horrible little building where that creature grabbed her.
I’m being silly. She exhaled. It’s dead.
The down-stuffed mattress shifted and the pressure squeezing into her lessened. Tam yawned. Sensing an impending wet finger in her ear, Emma opened her eyes and looked up. Sure enough, the boy perched on his knees and hovered over, reaching for her. At the sight of her watching him, he grinned.
She drew in a breath, intent on telling him to wait for Mama, but exhaled without a word. She pushed herself up to sit. Kimber’s mouth hung open, her body limp. She’d sleep through a goblin war. Emma slipped out from under the blanket and scooted off the foot end of the bed. Tam climbed over Mama, then Da, and jumped to the floor.
Emma took his hand and walked him into the rear alcove, past all of Da’s things hanging on the pegs. As always, Tam stared at the swords with adoration, though he didn’t dare touch them. He’d made that mistake once, and the way Da bellowed scared them both. That his anger came from worry Tam would hurt himself took the sting from the shouting. She reached up and unlatched the back door, opening it with a firm shove.
The early sun blued the horizon in the east, the light too far away to yet lift the gloomy night from their home. The back door faced west. Widowswood resembled a smear of black paint beneath an indigo sky. Pale wood on the face of the outhouse caught the glow of the morning rising behind the house, making it appear charged with magical energy.
Emma froze, staring at the little outbuilding. The Banderwigh’s dire glare returned to her thoughts, followed by the memory of her scream, and the lantern she’d thrown in panic.
“Ow,” said Tam.
She relaxed her grip on his hand. “Sorry.” It’s gone. It’s dead.
Freezing stones underfoot hastened her steps. She managed to resist the urge to break into a full run, but did slip inside with him before he could lock the door in her face again. He didn’t even try, content to deal with his morning needs while she stood with her back turned, one eye hovering over the little moon slit in the wood, watching for threats.
By the time he finished, Emma bounced in place.
“Why are you scared? It’s dead.” Tam tilted his head.
She hugged him. “I know. Just bad dreams.”
He stood by the door while she sat; fear and unease leaked out with her discomfort. A distant cry of a dying bear (Da’s yawn) made her smile. He came tromping down the stone path and rattled the door.
“Almost done,” said Emma.
She stood and adjusted her nightdress. As soon as she got up, Tam unlatched the door. Da put a hand on both of their heads, ruffling hair, and stepped in. Emma dragged Tam to the water pump on the way to the house to rinse their hands.
Inside, Mama puttered about with Kimber, setting the table for their morning meal. It felt strange not having Nan here, but Emma refused to let herself think about it. Everything returns from whence it came, said Nan’s voice in her mind. She knew the day would come, but she wanted to at least be grown up first.
“Why the face?” asked Mama.
Emma took a seat at the table. “I miss Nan.”
“That woman’s going to outlive me,” said Mama. “She’s got a few tricks up her sleeves.”
“Nan’s got big sleeves,” said Tam.
“I hope she doesn’t join the spirits until I’m someone’s mama.” Emma looked down. “I’ll be too sad if I’m still little.”
“Oh, Em…” Her mother walked up beside her and stroked her hair. “When you grow up, some things become easier to understand, but it doesn’t hurt any less. Don’t worry so much. Ralithir’s watching over her.”
“Who?” asked Emma.
Mama smiled. “The Raven Spirit. You’ve heard of Uruleth, Ylithir, and Strixian, but there are many others. Nan’s close to Ralithir. He’s quite tenacious, a survivor, just like your grandmother.”
Kimber set a basket of rolls on the table. “He’a trickster, an’ he brings omens. Like ta warn ‘bout death ‘an he comes.”
Emma shot her a look. “What?”
The outhouse door clattered closed.
“To some, yes.” Mama took Kimber’s hand.
“The men’d come ‘round ‘da house’d always talkin’ ‘bout him.” Kimber looked down as if she’d done something wrong. “Ia’s sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Emma smiled. “I thought only druids knew about the spirits.”
“Oh, that man knew about spirits alright,” said Da as he tromped inside.
Mama gave him a scolding look. “Come on, our turn.”
Emma kept quiet as Mama took Kimber out to the privy. Da fell into his seat at the head of the table. He collected a few slices of bread, some cheese, and a bit of fruit on his plate, but didn’t move to eat anything yet. Emma followed suit. Tam as well, though Da rapped on the table when the boy stuffed an apple wedge in his mouth.
“Wait for your mother and sister.”
He nodded, but kept chewing.
Within a few minutes, the entire family―aside from Nan―gathered around the table for the morning meal. Mama and Da chatted about their plans for the day, which consisted mostly of her making the rounds in town to offer what help she could here and there while Da grumbled about having to stand watch for the upcoming festival. People from tiny outlying villages had already started arriving in the town of Widowswood in anticipation of the Feast of Zaravex. Eoghn’s Inn had only three rooms left, and his barn had filled with other travelers too poor to pay for a real bed. The town elders worried about pickpockets and thieves, so Mayor Braddon had ordered the Watch to keep patrols at all hours.
Emma bit her lip. She’d mentioned it once within hours of returning home from that awful night, but in all the excitement of being found alive and unharmed, her parents had forgotten. When a lull came in Da’s grumbling about Braddon, she spoke up. “I need to go into the woods today.”
Da almost choked on a bit of bread. “What’s that, Em?”
Kimber glanced at her with a mixture of curiosity and worry, while Tam grinned from ear to ear, seeming under the belief he’d be going with her.
“Remember I said I’d made a deal with the Spider Queen? I have to visit her and collect silk to bring to Marsten.” Emma turned a bit of cheese in her fingers, staring at it. As much as she had to keep her word, the last thing she wanted was to be anywhere near enormous green spiders.
“You’re not going into the woods, Emma.” Da bit off a hunk of bread and chewed it. “After everything that happened, how could you even think about wanting to go off into the woods? Absolutely not.”
Mama smirked at him.
“But, Da… I have to. I gave my word. You always say that a man’s only as good as his in… umm, int-eg-ri-tee.” She quirked her eyebrow at him, wondering if she’d said it right. At his bemused grin, she smiled. “I know I’m a girl, but I have integrity too.”
“Do I have a teg ritty?” asked Tam.
Mama covered her mouth, laughing.
Da fought the urge to smile as he fixed her with as serious a face as he could summon. “That is very noble of you, but the simple fact is that I am not going to permit my ten-year-old child to wander into the woods in search of emerald creepers large enough to cart her off for a mid-day snack.”
She shivered. Her mind leapt back to the moment the Queen had started to cocoon her out of instinct.
“See, look? You’re shaking at the mere mention of the word ‘spider.’ Enough of this talk.” Da picked up a bit of apple, and tossed it in his mouth with some cheese.
A sense of purpose welled up within Emma, chasing away her fear. She grabbed the table and leaned forward. “Da, the Queen thought I was lying to get away. I promised her I would keep my word. Bringing silk to the town will also keep the spiders from attacking people.”
Kimber and Tam munched away, their gazes shifting across the table to Da.
“If these spiders can be reasoned with, why hasn’t anyone done so before?” He shot a sidelong glance at Mama before sighing at Emma. “Don’t be naïve. I haven’t the faintest idea how you got away from their nest in the first place. I’ll not risk losing you to that again.”
“Spiders are tricky, Liam.” Mama nibbled on a bit of melon. “Even Iskarun has little sway over them. Neither Mother nor I ever considered trying. I never thought the wildkin whisper would work on them.”
Emma blinked. “Why wouldn’t it?”
“The magic for speakin’ to animals,” said Tam. “Spiders are bugs.”
“They’re not ‘spiders,’ Mama. They’re emerald creepers.” Emma held her fingers about an inch apart. “Spiders are this big. Maybe the creepers are something else an’ just look like spiders.”
Da blinked at her, looking impressed.
Mama smiled. “You needn’t worry about it. I’ll bring them once I’m back.”
“Oh, wait just a moment.” Da raised a hand at her. “You’re going to bring all three children into Widowswood to”―he coughed―“talk to spiders? Those creatures have been a menace since before my father was Tam’s size.”
“They’re only mean because no one tried to understand them.” Emma leaned back in her chair and gnawed on a bread crust. “The Spider Queen was surprised I talked to her.”
Da drummed his fingers on the table. “I… No. Not all three of them. Emma, you are serious about wanting to go near those things? You’ve been terrified of them since you were five.”
She sat up and steeled herself. “Yes, Da. I have to keep my word. They won’t hurt me.”
He waved a hand about in resignation. When Mama smiled, he threw half a slice of bread back on his plate and clapped the table. “Alright then. We’ll go first thing after we eat.” He pointed at Tam. “You’re staying with your mother today.”
Tam frowned at his plate. “I’m not ‘fraid of spiders.”
Emma closed her eyes, forcing herself not to tremble. You haven’t seen one up close.
“Ia’s stay wif Mama?” asked Kimber.
“Aye. I know you’ve spent a lot of time in the woods, but those spiders live deeper in than you’ve gone.”
Kimber nodded. “They’as carry me off inna bundle as easy as pie.”
Emma squeezed the sides of her chair. Nerves prickled at her belly, but she forced herself to finish off two more apple slices and a piece of melon. Soon, she helped collect plates. Kimber took the scraps out back for birds and animals to forage while Tam flopped in front of the fireplace with Stick Knight and Shrub Dragon locked in their endless battle.
After handing the plates to Mama, Emma wandered over to the bed and traded her nightgown for the blue dress Nan had surprised her with. It fit much better than her old one, stopping a little above the knee, and didn’t have a single rip. As soon as the soft material slid over her body, a feeling of calm settled her nerves. Her grandmother hadn’t mentioned anything about magic, but she had to have put some in the dress. The garment possessed a comforting energy stronger than what should have come from simply knowing Nan made it. She tied a lighter blue strip of cloth around her waist as a belt, missing the weight of Nan’s dagger… but with Da taking her, she didn’t need a weapon.
She padded to the front door, waiting as he donned his boots, brigandine armor, belt, broadsword, and satchel. As always, Mama gave him a small bundle. Despite his non-belief in magic, he still accepted her potions, though Emma wondered if he’d ever used them or just took them along to humor her.
Her parents exchanged a kiss, and he walked outside.
Mama winked at her and nodded toward the door. “Best go before he changes his mind.”
Emma smiled. She hurried out to where he waited in the middle of the dirt path and took his hand.
“If you’re to be going into the woods, we’ll need to see about getting you some proper boots.”
Emma looked down and flexed her toes. “I don’t need them. I’m a druid.”
He chuckled. “Be that as it may, sharp rocks don’t care who steps on them.”
Emma tilted her head. “Elfs don’t wear boots.”
“Elves… and of course they do.”
“Nan says they don’t wear clothes either.”
Da coughed. “There are different kinds of elves. The ones your grandmother is thinking of don’t usually leave their forests. Civilized elves like the Ilmari and the Astari aren’t so different from us.”
“Oh.” She swung her left arm while happily walking at his side toward the edge of Widowswood. The interior looked dark, but held none of the fear she’d come to associate with it. “The forest is happy today.”
“Is it now?” He smiled.
As they approached the tree line, Emma closed her eyes. Linganthas, guide my step.
A faint tingle spread over her. She smiled. Mama taught her how to ask the spirit of trees and vines for protection. For a while, even the sharpest thorns or thickest brambles wouldn’t harm her. She decided not to waste her breath trying to convince Da she could step on the sharpest rock and not cut herself. He would just think she made it up.
Sunlight weakened soon after entering the trees, making the air cool. Damp ground squished with each step, lofting the fragrance of moss and dew. Emma took a deep breath of it, savoring the majesty of nature, and had nary a care toward enormous green spiders in her mind. They followed a trail of rich brown pine needles and soft earth for some time. She couldn’t stop grinning at him. Da had believed her. He went with her. Having him at her side filled her with confidence.
Snapping and crackling accompanied her father’s march, and he wound up letting go of her hand to keep his balance as they crossed a thick patch of undergrowth. Emma kept going for six steps before she noticed he’d fallen behind. She glanced back to find him staring at her in shock.
Da raised an eyebrow. “Do you even know where you’re going?”
Emma looked down; the weeds came up to her thighs, yet nothing had snagged on her dress or her skin thanks to her magic. She grinned. “I was going to walk into the woods until I found a spider and ask it where to go.”
He chuckled, and forced his way past the bramble, again taking her hand. As they continued, he seemed to notice how the foliage flowed around her while his armor snagged and tore at the growth, and stared as if entranced at the effect of the plants moving.
“Stryxian, please grant me the Wildkin Whisper,” said Emma, holding her arms out and desiring the ability to speak to animals.
Da started to say something, but clamped his mouth shut at the appearance of four tiny nimbuses of spectral white light at her fingertips. The glowing spheres whirled around her arms and careened into her chest, bursting in a shower of delicate, but faint sparkles. His astonishment faded to a prideful smile. He patted her head and stroked her hair.
Emma grinned up at him and spotted a sparrow.
“Excuse me,” she yelled, directing her voice at the bird.
Da blinked at her and suppressed a chuckle.
“What?” The sparrow ruffled its feathers and glided to a nearer branch. “Did you just speak?”
“Yes.” She waved at it. “I’m looking for the spiders. The big green ones. I need to talk to them. Do you know which way they are from here?”
“Dangerous for you,” said the bird. “They will eat your kind.”
Emma nodded. “I know they used to, but I’ve made an agreement. They won’t hurt me.” A tremble ran down her back. I hope.
“This way then, silly child.” The bird glided across their path to another tree.
“You’re whistling,” said Da.
“The magic lets me talk to the sparrow.” Emma gestured at it. “He’s going to show us where the spiders are.”
She headed toward the bird, following as it moved in a series of gliding hops from tree to tree so she could keep up. Eyes skyward, she barely noticed the passing of terrain save for a patch of cold mud and a soft bed of pine needles.
“Emma, don’t go so far ahead,” called Da from a frightful distance behind her.
“I’m sorry,” yelled Emma. She spun to look back at her father forcing his way past a snarl of bushes up to his waist.
The bird shifted on the branch. “He makes as much noise as ten bears.”
Emma giggled into her hands.
He reached her in a few minutes and took her by the wrist, a hold that said she wasn’t to run off again. The sparrow led them past a moss-covered boulder half the height of the outhouse and curved on one side. Carved symbols marked the flattest face, partially hidden beneath the thick carpet of green.
“What’s that?” Emma pointed.
“An old runestone. There’s a few of them here and there in the forest. Most of the townspeople think they mark burial sites, but it’s wizard’s work.”
She stared at it, wide-eyed. “Is it dangerous?”
“It’s a rock.” He chuckled. “If there’s any power in it to do anything at all, only a wizard could use it.”
“How do you know it’s a wizard and not a druid, like Nan?” She brushed her fingers over the markings as they passed it.
Da watched the bird for a few seconds. “Astounding how that critter seems to be waiting for us.”
“He is waiting for us.” She poked him in the side with her free hand.
“Druids don’t often write things down. Usually if there’s markings, it’s a wizard… or worse.” He cringed as soon as he’d said it.
“Worse?” She glanced down at sudden loud crackling along the ground and sent grateful thoughts to Linganthas at the sight of a dried-out vine with three-inch thorns receding from her path. “Are wizards bad?”
The sparrow took a long gliding swoop, following a tunnel formed by dozens of trees lined up in neat rows.
Emma pointed. “That way.”
“Being a wizard doesn’t make someone bad any more than carrying a sword makes a man bad. By worse I mean necromancers… or sorcerers. One traffics with the dead, the other with demons. You’re too little to worry about them yet.”
“Yes, Da.” Emma shifted her attention back to the sparrow. Since he didn’t want her to know about such things, she figured they were quite bad indeed, and she did not want anything else to give her bad dreams.
He gave her a look of surprise. “That’s it? You’re not going to beg to know?”
She shrugged. “I’ve got enough nightmares.”
He chuckled. “And yet here we are, walking right to your worst one.”
Emma trembled. “Yes, I know. But you’re with me, so I’m not scared.” She took two more steps. “Much.”
The sparrow tweeted at her. That she could no longer understand him implied they’d been walking for over a half hour or more. She concentrated on the spell again and beseeched Strixian for the Wildkin Whisper.
“Sorry. The magic faded. What did you say?”
Da chuckled at her. Emma smiled; to him, she sounded like Mama whistling at the trees.
“The creatures you seek are that way. Be careful, little one.”
“Thank you.” She curtsied at the bird.
Da glanced around. “We’re pretty well deep in the woods. I hadn’t expected you’d drag us this far in.”
Emma pointed at a section of woods darker than the rest. With all the trees tilted this way and that, she couldn’t quite say for sure if she’d been here before. Of course, running in terror from the Banderwigh hadn’t left her any time to take in the scenery. Another minute of walking led them to a modest stream where a narrow log lay across. Most of the bark along the top had flaked away, exposing yellowed wood dotted with patches of green algae. Thick cattail weeds sprouted from the water, which looked too deep for swimming.
“I’m sorry, Da. I don’t remember where I was. I couldn’t see much in the dark and I was scared.”
He took a knee and hung his hand on her shoulder. “Are you sure you want to come back here so soon?”
“I promised.” She pointed ahead at traces of white amid the branches. “Look, there’s webs in the trees.” His hand at her shoulder squeezed.
She winced, but kept quiet. Sure enough, large swaths of spidersilk hung in the boughs far off the ground, higher than the roof of their home. Several cocoon pods implied birds, squirrels, and other small creatures had met their doom. Da stood and grasped her wrist again. Emma swallowed hard, but forced herself to walk forward.
At the stream, she stepped up onto a fallen tree, which formed a natural bridge. Da kept hold of her arm as she walked heel-to-toe over the narrow span. The wood bent lower with each step, dipping her to the ankles in icy water at the midpoint. Da trudged across, knee-deep, sloshing and splashing as loud as an army of boar. She jumped to the bank on the far side, skipping the last several feet of wood covered in beetles.
Her toes sank in gooey webbing along the forest floor not ten paces later, though the patch had lost much of its stickiness to age and weather. She kept on, despite the rising torrent of worry twisting her breakfast about. The flavor of melon and cheese burbled at the back of her throat. Da grasped the hilt of his broadsword.
“Da, no.” She stopped and looked up at him. “Don’t make them think we’re here to hurt them.”
“I don’t like this.” He narrowed his eyes at the trees. “It’s too quiet. No birds. Nothing’s moving. Feels like we’re walking into an ambush.”
Emma peeled her foot away from the sticky mass and stepped on clear dirt. “I-its f-fine.”
He let go of her arm and pulled her into a hug. “You’re trembling, child. That’s it, we’re going home.”
She clung to him, staring past his armored gut at the forest. A large mound near a tiny creek caught her eye. Amid dozens of head-sized rocks embedded in the dirt, a huge patch of spidersilk surrounded a cave opening. She pointed. “There! I remember that cave.”
He pivoted to look.
“That’s where I came out.”
“If we’re right on top of their damn nest, there should be hundreds of them coming after us.”
“Maybe they sleep in the day?” Emma blinked. She leaned back and held her arm up for him to grab. “We’re here. I have to try.”
He grasped her hand and set her back on her feet.
She pulled him over to the cave, on the far side of another shin-deep creek. The frigid water had her teeth chattering in seconds. Emma stopped at the cave mouth, terrified by the silk-covered walls. The last time she passed this opening, she’d been so scared she’d thrown up. That same fear churned a warning deep in her gut. She held her stomach and took a few deep breaths.
“I’ll be right back.”
His hand tightened on her shoulder. “You’re not going in there alone.”
She curled her toes in the dirt and bit her lip. “She might be angry.”
“Angry spiders be damned. I am not sending my daughter into a spider nest alone. In fact, I’m about to pick you off your feet and march straight back home. I have no idea why I even agreed to this.”
“You trust Mama.” Emma held her breath until she couldn’t tolerate another second of it, and let it out in a long gust. “Okay.”
She stepped toward the cave opening, cringing in on herself as spidersilk brushed her skin. Her father peeled it down without ceremony and had to stoop to fit in the tunnel.
“This does not bode well. Not enough room in here to ‘round a sword.” Da hesitated for a few seconds, muttering something she couldn’t make out. “You’re sure about this, Em?”
“Y-yes, Da.” She brushed webbing from her face and fluttered her eyes. “They won’t hurt us.”
Da shook his head, frowning, but he chuckled. “May Belloch grant the rest of the Watch your courage.”
Skittering and scratching echoed off the passage walls, and for a second, a faint sour smell crossed her nose. Emma stared at her feet, barely able to breathe through the fear of stepping on something venomous, hairy, or just plain disgusting.
The cave curved to the right at enough of a bend, permitting only about a fifteen-foot view ahead. Each step deeper thickened the amount of sticky white gauze clinging to the walls. With the exit a mere spot of light at her back, the dirt underfoot gave way to a complete carpeting of silk. Only a hint of its former glue remained; an unsettling peeling sensation ran over her soles as she walked.
A massive dark green bundle of hair appeared out of nowhere, a rearing, hissing spider as tall as Da. Emma fell back into him, too petrified to scream. Droplets of venom as big as her fists glistened at the tips of wicked black fangs longer than Nan’s dagger. Da emitted a startled gurgle and pulled her back.
“Oh… Apologiesss, little egg-layer,” said the spider. It lowered its chelicerae into a more humble pose. “Forgive my sssudden appearanccce. It isss my duty to protect our home.”
No longer rearing, the spider stood eye-level with Da’s chin.
Emma wanted to scream, cry, curl up into a ball, and suck her thumb―but fear paralyzed her.
“By Belloch’s beard…” Da cleared his throat. “I’ve never seen a spider that large… It’s the size of a bloody wagon.”
“Come, little one.” The spider backed up. “The Queen awaits.”
“Em?” Da shook her. “Em?”
She looked up at him, mouth agape. It took her a second to comprehend the shape in front of her was a person, and another to recognize her father. She clamped on to him, trembling.
“I think we should take that luck and get out of here.” He pulled her up to her feet. “I don’t know why that thing just hissed and scurried away, but we―”
“Da… It’s okay.” She closed her eyes, cheeks hot as her heart pounded. “It scared me when it jumped out. It’s like you… a guard. It didn’t know who we were until it saw me.” She wanted so badly to let him carry her home, but anyone the spiders killed would be her fault. “The Queen’s waiting.”
“Oh, I’m sure she is.” He scowled.
She found her nerve again and tugged at his arm. He shook his head, but followed. Emma crept ahead. The curve straightened in a minute or two, allowing her to see the massive sentry spider’s backside. Hundreds of smaller emerald creepers, some as small as Da’s hand, swarmed around the walls and ceiling. Tiny whispering voices chittered her name over and over, most sounding shocked she’d returned.
“Uhh,” said Da. “There’s gotta be thousands of them.”
“If you w-want to w-wait h-here…” Emma couldn’t stop shaking. “Y-you c-can. I-I’ll be r-right in t-there.”
His fingers dug into her shoulder, a little too hard.
She whined. “Ow. Da…”
“If you’re going in there, I’m going in there. The only reason I’m not dragging you out of here now is how they seem to be almost… welcoming you. Spiders shouldn’t be acting like this.”
Wincing, Emma reached up and pulled his hand from her shoulder to her forearm. She gave him a grateful smile despite her worry of how the Queen would react to having an armed man with her, even Da.
She focused on the creepers. “This is my Da. He won’t hurt any of you.”
The collection of whispery voices silenced. All the spiders stopped moving, rotating to face them.
“What are they doing?” asked Da.
“I just told them you were my father and you’re not here to hurt any of them.”
Emma stepped forward―two inches―and froze. After a breath, she forced herself to take another step, also about half the length of her foot. Little by little, she navigated the cave. The last span of tunnel before the opening, a corridor as long as her house, contained dozens of spidersilk pods. Some held the silhouettes of goblins. One had a deer leg protruding at the bottom. Many likely wrapped rabbits or similar-sized creatures. Dinner-plate-sized spiders on the walls and ceiling shifted to keep watching them, though none said another word. The darkness above glimmered with several thousand spots of red glowing light, in clusters of eight.
Da muttered prayers to Belloch, his favorite among the gods, the patron of warriors, asking for courage.
That her father, the master swordsman, seemed every bit as worried about spiders as she did triggered a nervous giggle she couldn’t stop, but it made walking easier.
“You are.” She reached across her chest and gave his hand a squeeze. “You’re scared of them too.”
“In a tight cave, with sharp fangs at every turn, critters all over every surface… I’m on edge.”
She smiled up at him.
The sentry spider squeezed itself past the end of the tunnel. His enormous body compressed more than she expected possible, fluffing back out to full size once he’d entered the central chamber. “My Queen, the human hatchling isss here.”
Emma swallowed and attempted a smile, though she felt certain the expression on her face looked more of a grimace than happy. The feeling of walking on squidgy, sticky, padding reminded her of being trapped like a fly not too long ago.
Easily ten times the number of spiders as lurked in the cave occupied the giant room. Emerald creepers of all sizes, from babies no larger than a woman’s hand all the way up to the wagon-sized sentry, milled about attending to various spidery tasks. Some toted prey into storage areas, others tended to egg sacs, and a continuous flow of spiders entered and left from a network of tunnels closer to the surface. Curved walls stretched upward as high as a four-story building, teeming with an uncountable number of darting green furry creatures. Hazy sunlight leaked in shafts down through a tangle of roots and webbing near the top, where several dead birds dangled.
In the center of it all stood the largest spider in Widowswood; at least, she had to be. The Spider Queen made the sentry look like a puppy. Some peasant hovels would be small if placed next to her. Several creepers as big as her brother crawled around the giant spider’s abdomen, picking among spear-like hairs and clearing away scraps of roots and old web.
A tunnel behind and to the Queen’s right stuck out in her memory. That passage led to the trap chamber where she’d fallen. Emma looked away from it.
“What is thisss?” The Spider Queen loomed forward, waving her two foremost legs in the direction of her father. “You bring a mercccenary into my nessst?”
“I am sorry.” Emma dropped in a deep curtsey. “He’s my Da. He means no harm. You know I am only a child. I would not have been allowed to return if he did not come with me.”
The Queen shifted her weight side to side, mouthparts moving in a flurry. Emma gulped; spider eyes betrayed no emotion or intent a human mind could read. Was she angry? Thinking?
Lightheaded, Emma tried to slow her breathing. She looked down, hoping the Queen would take it as a sign of respect. “I promised I would return to honor our agreement.”
“I did not expect to sssee you again.” The queen took a step closer; a leg the size of a small tree appeared at Emma’s side. “You sssuprissse me yet again.” Da leaned back when the gargantuan arachnid moved yet closer, as if sniffing him. “Thisss one hasss not claimed the blood of any of my children.” She grumbled. “I did not ssspecccify you were to return alone.”
Emma’s stomach bubbled. She let a relieved sigh out her nose. “The man who trades in silk has agreed to only accept the silk I bring him. He will not pay others for silk they collect from hunting.”
The Spider Queen backed up a few paces, rotating side to side. She waved her forelegs about. “You are a hatchling… and an egg-layer. Humansss do not obey their egg layersss. You have been deccceived. I knew you would not be lissstened to.”
“What?” Emma forgot her fear and approached. “What do you mean?”
“Humansss are prowling around to the north and wessst. I sense their ssstepsss. They ssseek to harm my children for sssilk.” The Queen lowered her body, her mouthparts less than an arm’s length from Emma, but her form still towered over her. “Thisss, I do not think isss your fault, ssso I ssshall not ressscind my decccision to allow you to live.”
Emma gulped. “Thank you, Queen. I don’t know why they’re hunting spiders again.” She stomped. “Marsten said he wouldn’t.”
“What’s wrong, Em?” whispered Da.
The Queen made a series of contemptuous noises and chattered at other spiders too fast for the Wildkin Whisper to translate.
Emma twisted about to look at her father. “She says there’s men trying to kill spiders again. Marsten said he’d make up a story about the spiders being too dangerous and he doesn’t want to risk people going into the woods anymore.”
Eight or so spiders scurried around by the outer walls, collecting wads of discarded silk and bundling them together.
Da rubbed his short beard in a few seconds of thought. “It might not have anything to do with Marsten. Giant spider silk is a valuable commodity in the arcane circles. Wizards can make all sorts of things out of it… a bundle like what you showed up with before is worth more than our home to the right people. If Marsten stopped paying trappers, they might try to go around him and sell the silk directly in Calebrin. I could try to convince Braddon that counts as poaching. The Watch could look into who’s prowling around.”
Emma sighed. “I told Marsten I couldn’t get any more silk if anyone hurt the spiders.”
“What isss your soldier sssaying?”
She drew a breath to correct the queen, but held it. She sees us as soldiers and egg-layers. Maybe there is no way to explain it? “Da said the humans who are snooping around might be from far away and don’t know about me. He’s like your sentry; he guards our nest. They are going to look for the other humans and make them go away so they don’t hurt your babies.”
The Spider Queen stared in silence at Emma for a frightening minute before rising to her normal height.
“I promise.” Emma balled her hands into fists at her side. “I wasn’t lying to get away.”
One spider, easily large enough for Emma to ride, darted over and dropped a mass of silk beside her. The spherical wad had to be three feet across. Da gawked at it.
The Spider Queen prodded the bundle toward her with one leg. “Take it. I ssshall trussst you for the time being. Sssee that you keep your word, human egg-layer hatchling. But know thisss―we are watching.”
“Thank you.” She curtsied again before hugging the ball. Emma adhered to it on contact. She grunted, unable to get her arms free or peel it off her chest. “Da… I’m stuck.”
“Well I suppose you won’t drop it, then.”
The enormous spider shifted to regard Da for a few seconds before rotating away and crawling off up the wall to a hollowed-out nest space. Once inside, she settled in and gazed down on them from two stories up.
Emma grumbled, pulling at her hands. Memory of being caught in the web got her heart beating fast. “This isn’t old silk.”
Da bowed at the Spider Queen, put a hand atop Emma’s head, and guided her toward the cave. “Let’s go home before this encounter becomes any stranger.”
Too annoyed at being glued to a ball of silk to remember to be afraid of spiders, she plodded along behind him until a tiny voice cried out from the floor.
“Eek! Watch where you’re putting thossse giant feet!”
Emma stopped short. An eight-inch emerald creeper flailed four of its legs at her and poked her in the ankle twice.
“Sorry! I can’t see with this thing.” Emma waited for the little one to dart off before continuing. “Da?”
“I’m right here, Em.”
She followed the sound of his voice, struggling to peek at the floor and half-shuffling to avoid stepping on any unwary spiders. After several arduous minutes, she emerged from the cave into a fresh breeze and sunlight.
Fear fluttered in her belly, but rather than throw up, the surge of relief at walking out of the spiders’ nest alive for the second time drained all the strength from her limbs.
“Da, can we rest? I’m tired.”
He grasped her right hand and gingerly peeled her arm free, spinning her away from the gummy wad. She rubbed her hands over arms to chase away the icky feeling while he hefted the bundle.
“We shouldn’t stand around with this much silk. Half the thieves in Calebrin would kill someone to take it.”
Emma froze. Her gaze shifted from distant trees to her Da’s belt buckle, then climbed inch by inch to meet his. “K-kill?”
“Yes, Em. This is worth a foolish amount of kingscoin to the right people. Fortunately, those people are in Calebrin… and not out here in the woods.”
She exhaled with relief.