Never had he turned and run so fast. As soon as the words left his best friend’s lips, he made for the place he needed to go. It harbored the only gift that would suffice for such an occasion; a magnanimous gesture for his beloved.
“Where are you off to, Tallow?” his best friend, Hadier, yelled from the porch of his apothecary establishment.
The young Gordel chuckled inside. A typical Gordai response to ask a question when anything abrupt occurred. Besides, Hadier knew exactly where he was headed.
“I’m going after the one!” Tallow hollered back, unable to withhold his giddiness.
He passed dozens, narrowly glancing a few, through the city’s main road, two alleyways and the unguarded entrance. All manner of startled reactions greeted him from folk dressed like they were headed to a university lecture; questions of why he ran, furrowed brows, and the volume of disgruntled gasps the likes he had never heard. He was used to such responses though. From a very early age his parents, his mother in particular, had described him as, “the odd one.” Even though it was meant as a slight, he never took it as a personal gibe. Most of the time he pretended not to hear it at introductions, parties, school and any event they felt it necessary to make such a declaration. No doubt his parents would treat this moment with the same pessimism.
One last, “I beg your pardon,” from a bystander who had to jump out of his way, and he made it outside of the city into the Carophen Fields. The typical sweet smells of lavender, savorna and gardenia flowers had been transformed to a tangy scent by the humid summer day. The road turned from cobblestone to dirt and felt better on his shorn boots. The sole was well past a desperate need of replacing a year ago. Every piece of its leather hide moved along the loose stitching like a worn out accordion.
Excitement grew in him as he thought of how his beloved would smile when she saw the token of his affection. That beam she threw to him on occasion, the one which let him know that she felt as he did—this confirmed by Hadier just minutes earlier. In his heart the question panged constantly. Now it had been chastened. It wasn’t in Hadier’s nature to lie, heaven’s no, let alone embellish. He, like all but a fraction of Gordai, relied on unequivocal proven fact to derive answers. In this, Tallow found the certainty of Phelia’s love for him.
The sea of summer flowers bowed to the right of his final destination, following the road for another thirty miles. His heart panged again as the lush of Cavader Forest came into full view. A carpet of bluebells had blossomed and presented itself like a royal path. The tree trunks looked more like melting chocolate than bark as summer dew drizzled down them. A dark green painted the leaves, rocks and dead stumps throughout—the artists brush didn’t miss a spot.
He slowed to a stop at the edge of the forest. Both boots came off easily and he placed them next to the “Do Not Enter” sign to pick up on his return. Cavader held very little true danger to most and especially one that knew its pitfalls like he did. His feet glided on top of the bluebells as he entered the forest. It felt wrong to leave imprints on such a perfect pattern that weaved its way around every rock, stream, and tree, but only one place held the gift for his beloved. He had combed through the forest countless times, yet never found it. However, he knew today was that day. For love was always a catalyst for such finds.
The sun retreated and the shadows encroached as he walked deeper in Cavader. Its thick canopy let in enough light to see where one needed to go, yet not too much where one couldn’t nap. The heat seemed to dissipate like he had jumped into a river. He took in a satisfying breath of lighter air. The only sounds louder than his inhales were the subtle cracks of trees shifting, and birds and other forests critters scaling branches. All manner of paths had been covered by the bluebells, but he knew the way to his starting point.
He turned sideways and shuffled through a patch of close knit brush. Their dew and sap brushed against his face and clothes. The crisp smell of pine almost overpowered his lungs. He stumbled through the last set of trees into a circular clearing. The bluebells had disappeared, leaving only grass to blanket the forest floor. The overhang of trees gave the clearing a dome shape. In the middle laid his starting point—Cachman’s Compass. It didn’t function like a like a true compass though. It appeared more like a sundial, yet didn’t work that way either. It was a slender, jagged rock that stood about five feet high—almost his height. One long protuberance pointed due south, which gave him all the direction he needed. In the past while exploring Cavader, Tallow would use it as a guide back home or a gauge on where he’d been and where he had left to venture.
The grass felt as soft as the bluebells as he walked up to the monolith. He drew close and inspected his markings; fifteen, each of them pointing to a specific path he had taken. Of course with heading south there were thirty six paths to take if he used it like a compass and broke down each path in increments of five, starting at ninety degrees to two hundred and seventy. Although geography had never been his strong suit, he used basic principles to navigate the forest’s menagerie.
He ran a hand over the rock. Its hard, lifeless surface, a stark contrast to the rest of the forest. He waited for a tremor of sorts to guide his path to the gift he must obtain for his beloved. The wind moved in synch with his heart.
He felt it. The tremor. Sudden . . . subtle . . . yet he felt it. There you are, he thought.
Opening his eyes, his finger moved to the spot. He lifted it and underneath was the mark for one hundred degrees—a fraction south of due east.
“A nice round number . . . I should’ve know,” he chuckled to himself.
He wasted no time in heading toward his destination. A ripple like an ocean’s wave rolled through his chest. This let him know he was close to finding it. The milieu of the forest grew crisper, browner and less healthy every few hundred feet. Like a man aging in elapsed time before his eyes, Cavader seemed to wither the deeper he went.
The crunch of dead leaves and branches underfoot echoed in the cavernous wood. He looked across the trees that laid in front of him and they caused him to slow his gait. Their branches gnarled into witch’s fists and their trunks hunched over with gaping holes that made like they stared at him. Although he differed from most of his Mordai kin in almost every way, he bared some resemblance given the fact he carried no weapon or anything that could be used in defense. His sweaty palms opened and closed repeatedly as his breath grew fast and quiet. Doubt came into his mind about this path—about the venture in general.
Never had he see this part of the forest, where brown and black dominated green. His foot sunk into the ground and made a squishing noise. He looked down. The mud threaded between his toes. The foot kept sinking without a sign of stopping. He pulled it out before it was completely engulfed. Thoughts to turn back, to choose another path fluttered through his mind.
A sound came from above. He gazed up. A dark that he had only seen in adolescent nightmares greeted him. Something, a shade lighter than the blackness, moved near the forest’s ceiling. It appeared small, but he couldn’t be sure. I must continue. What is love without risk?
His eyes focused ahead for somewhere laid the object that he must retrieve. Carefully turning around a wall a trees, with hands up ready for something to surprise him, he saw a peculiar sight—a tunnel. One made completely of hardened vines, coiled into a perfect cylinder. Absent of light it taunted his valor. He gripped his shirt like he would another’s in a barroom brawl. His arms shook beyond his control. Still . . . he pressed on.
All ambient noise and light vanished at the first step inside the burrow. He reached out both hands, hoping nothing would touch them. Blind and deaf his feet disobeyed his mind and heart. Their courage carried him while the rest of his body recoiled. Something like needles grazed his skin; imaginary—possibly. He felt the talons of the forest close in around him. He wanted to scream, to run, but his feet held true.
His body dropped and tumbled down. His shoulder jammed against a rock and pushed him left. He rolled to a stop and froze face down in the dirt.
Sound returned, and, a lighter shade of black that felt like the sun. He cocked his head up, dirt still clinging to his cheeks and nose. He exhaled a bellow’s worth of air—there it was. His beloved’s gift, the one that no money could purchase, perched on a dead tree limb halfway between the ground and the canopy. It drew a spire of light—the only light in this part of the forest—which made its heavenly petals glisten. The ambiguous Fastida Larta flower. The flora’s rarity exceeded the wealth of a Dwarf mountain. Its virgin red, deeper than an ocean of blood, made his eyes water. The legends confirmed now, ice, true ice enveloped the entire bulb. The sun, the heat had no effect on it; not even a spec of water trickled down it. If the other legends held true, once he touched it, half would melt and when his beloved touched—the other half would follow.
He wanted to stare at it until thirst took him. His feet, his brave, single-minded feet nudged him forward. His eyes remained on the flower as the rest of his body carried him. The dead branch, which held it, was attached to a tree that looked like it could do battle. Its roots curled up above the ground like a puppet master’s fingers manipulating his marionettes.
Shimmying up them, he stopped at the trunk. A myriad of knots bulged out like fists. He used them as footholds as he ascended. One by one he climbed patiently even though his insides shook with excitement. The tree made a hollow sound with each clamp and step.
He pulled himself up, using all the strength in his arms, to the final branch. He used the trunk top to straighten himself for the tightrope walk out to the flower. He moved slowly, with each foot crossing the branch for the best balance. The tree creaked and dipped as he let all his weight go forward. He halted. The ground below settled as the branch went stiff again.
Lowering himself so that he straddled the branch, he began to pull himself toward the end. The Fastida held firm to a smaller dead limb that extended from the bigger one he now pulled himself upon. He felt it dip with each tug to the outermost edge.
He stopped at the base of the smaller bough. It protruded several feet out of the bigger one. Its frail façade made it clear that it couldn’t handle any of his weight—he would have to reach for the flower.
He knotted his legs around the thick branch to give him a sturdy base for what he had to do next. The Fastida’s red seemed to pulse as he stared at it. His breaths grew short. For you, my Phelia.
He lunged forward. His hand felt the cold of the ice. He grabbed at the flower—nothing but air. The Fastida had deceived him as its true distance appeared several feet beyond his reach now. His legs untangled as all his momentum slung forward. He hollered as became off-balance.
“Noooo!” he screamed as he summersaulted down.
Expecting the ground, he extended his arms as he shot through a thin layer of sticky material. The floor came a second later. All air burst out his lungs. His ribs and hands pulsed in pain. He held motionless for minutes.
When the bodily shock wore off, he turned over and sat with his elbows on knees, looking up at the giant hole he created. A puncture, in the outline of his flailing body, let in fingers of light to the pit he now found himself trapped in. Unsettled dust floated across the thin rays. The Fastida stood glistening, unaltered by his pitiful attempt. He sighed and struggled to stand up. Dusting his clothes off, he scanned the pit to see if any way out existed. The darkness prevented him from seeing any footholds or exposed roots he could use to climb.
“Well, you’ve done it this time . . .” he said to himself.
“Are you talking to me?” a deep raspy voice came from deeper within the pit.
Tallow jumped back into the wall, his hands clung to a sticky thread-like substance. “Who said that?” he yelled as he tried to free himself.
“It is I.” A scrapping sound like the dragging of a corpse came from the other end. “The owner of the domicile who’s roof you so rudely collapsed.”
Tallow squinted, trying to see an outline of whom he was talking to. No use—the pitch was too dark. “I do apologize for that, sir.” He cleared his throat of the dust. “Why don’t you step into the light so we can have a proper introduction,” he said, sounding as transparent as it was.
“It would take far more than one step for me to accomplish that. I rather like the dark—it suits me . . . besides, I don’t think you’d like me.”
Tallow tugged at the threading and still his hands would not come loose. “Don’t be silly. Why wouldn’t I like you? I like everyone.”
The being in the dark chuckled, sounding raspier than his voice. “Nobody likes me . . . I take no offense. It is in everyone’s nature to fear us . . . nothing personal.”
“Well, I’d like to meet you and if you’d help get me free because I seem to be stuck, I could pay you for the trouble. Not a lot mind you. I don’t have much. A shem or two.”
The sound of pebbles and dirt trickling down came from the side of the voice. “Afraid I can’t cut you free, Gordel. You see that would be counterproductive to the purpose of your visit to my abode.”
Tallow’s brow furrowed at the odd statement. What purpose could it possibly serve? He didn’t like the tone coming from the shadows.
“Why can’t you help me get free, friend? I must be on my way. I’m expected at a very important dinner tonight. I can’t . . .” His thoughts went to Phelia. Her ocean eyes and winter skin made his chest tremble. This dinner was the most important of his life. “I can’t be late.”
“Oh but you’re not late. You arrived just on time.” The scraping sound returned. It grew closer. “You are the guest of honor for a reservation of one. It may just be a while before the feast.” The light reflected off a collection of bristly hairs. A bulbous head as dark as soot with eight lifeless eyes came into focus. A mouth, covered in slaver, hung open beneath a pair of sharp fangs. “I apologize for the wait, but you see someone else had already made a reservation.” The spider hacked and something shot out its mouth.
Tallow backed into the wall as the object rolled to a stop at his feet. The skull of what could have come from a Man or Dwarf looked up at him. It was scraped clean of skin, muscle and nerve like the inhabitant of an hundred year old tomb. Its vacant sockets stared holes through him. They bade his fear to drop him to his knees.
“Don’t fret, Gordel. All my guests are treated to the highest standards.” The spider’s chuckle sounded more like iron grating against iron than a laugh.
“I won’t hardly make a meal compared this poor fellow. We Gordai are mostly skin and bone.”
“This fellow Dwarf was quite tender. You would pale in comparison to the fine dining I just undertook . . . but I never waste food like my good mother demanded.” The beast’s legs stretched to their precipice, his head almost pierced his own webbing at the top of the pit.
It settled down into a crouched position, its forearms sweeping away all rocks. Tallow coughed on the dust it stirred up, unable to brush it away. A smell of dried blood and moldy bones came with it. He bit down on his lip to keep his teeth from chattering.
“Don’t get quiet now, Gordel. We have some time before . . . well . . . you know. How can I make your stay more pleasant?”
His first instinct was to ask to leave again, but his better judgement halted it. Still, he could not fathom this creature would eat him or it hadn’t completely sunk in. Best not anger the beast with a request he would not grant.
“Is there any way I can sit. My legs are weary.”
The spider made an apologetic gasp. “My gracious yes. Where are my manners? The webbing will stretch enough for you to sit.”
Tallow let his weight drift down and sure enough it extended far enough for him to sit with one leg crossed over and through the other.
“Thank you . . . spider,” he said flatly.
“Please, call me Havish. And what should I call you, young Gordel?”
“Tallow,” he replied in the same tone.
“Ahhhh Tallow. A good name you were given. Never met a bad person with a good name.”
“T’was my great grandfather’s name—on my mother’s side.” It felt odd to converse with a spider, especially one who planned to eat him in a matter of time—or so he said.
Yet perhaps Havish has a sensible side that one could appeal too, Tallow thought. He does speak, he knows of the Gordai and cursed himself for a lack of manners. Perhaps this is the way he keeps himself entertained, since it seems like he rarely leaves his home.
“I never knew my grandfather on either side. To be honest, no spider actually does though. I was one of eighty seven in my mother’s first clutter and it would have been quiet a feet to get us all the way to our grandfather’s domicile.”
Tallow feigned interest by raising his unwieldy eyebrows, but then a truly harrowing question popped in his mind. “There are eighty seven of you in Cavader Forest?”
Havish sighed and shook his head, almost sounding like a normal person. “Sadly no. Would be a better place if eighty seven of us called it home.”
Tallow restrained an involuntary snort before he could offend his captor.
“In a spider’s clutter it is competition from day one.” Havish cleared his throat, sounding like a few bones jostled loose and went down his gullet. “There is limited food to be passed around. It turns brother verse brother, sister verse sister, you catch my meaning. The strongest don’t always win, but usually they do. You must be fierce, clever, and above all ruthless for your own survival that first year.”
“That sounds horrible.” Tallow chimed in with his honest opinion.
“Ohh . . . it is . . . it is. Looking back on it now, one thinks if there could have been another way. But, after all, we are spiders. We need to learn how to end life. Besides, all of us would have died if there was equal sharing.”
Tallow nodded slowly. Havish made a point that one couldn’t refute—although that training early in life played right into his current predicament.
“How many made it?”
“Eleven of us made it out. Most have perished since. I believe one or two still call this forest home. I’m too old now to go find them.”
Tallow’s eyes drew to Havish’s foremost right leg. It started shaking after the spider had finished talking. Like a chain reaction, starting at its claw, the vibration traveled up the hair riddled leg to its body and then like a newly formed river it made its way back down. An odd thing. Havish didn’t seem to notice, which meant it could have been involuntary.
“Tell me about you, young Mr. Tallow. Do you have any siblings?” The spider broke his focus.
“Not as many as you, but, yes, three of them. Two brothers and a sister.”
“That sounds like a good mix. Two and two. Balance is the key to life.”
“I’m not sure many Gordels would agree with you there.”
“Maybe not all would, but if you had kept yours earlier, you would be back home instead of falling through mine.”
Tallow went to respond sardonically, but stayed it. Instead he simply nodded in defiant agreement. He wanted to say, “No being should trick another like you did.” Or, “how can you talk to me like a friend, like we should get to know one another before eating me?” He felt his face get flush and his body temperature rise. He took a deep breath and realized it wouldn’t help. Just keep him talking and maybe he’ll fall asleep or change his mind.
Before Tallow could respond, Havish beat him to it. “Did you get along with your brothers and sisters?”
It took a second for Tallows temper to calm before responding. “They got along with each other. Not with me so much.”
“Oh . . . what does that mean exactly?” The massive spider scooted forward a foot.
Each part of his body seemed to make a different sound in the process.
“Ever since I can remember I was different from them—and my parents as well.”
Tallow smiled cleverly as the spider seemed to be genuinely interested. So he continued with the truth. “To understand that, you would have to know about Gordai culture. We are a community of explorers. Not in the physical sense of traversing mountain tops and cavern depths. Instead we explore: questions of the mind, questions of purpose, questions of science, and all manner of things. Thinking and discovery are the most heralded in our race.”
The spider made a, “that makes sense,” sort of noise.
“My parents and siblings all fell into one of those categories. I . . . unfortunately did not.” The blood returned to his face as the deep-seeded resentment of his past came to the surface. While they were testing chemical compounds and debating for hours about the meaning of consuming nourishment to survive, I wrote poems, explored the vastness of the written word and tested it on any girl who struck my fancy.”
“It sounds like that could have been troubling.”
Tallow shook his head and looked down. His pants and feet were covered with stains and dirt. “It was as if I didn’t matter to them. No matter how well I did in my studies, I was a good student in most subjects, they knew I was different and never gave me more than a pat on the back. They saved the especially generous praise for my siblings.” A grief that laid dormant for nearly a decade awoke inside him.
His body began to shake as sadness and anger mixed within him like a beer and liquor—a dangerous brew. He looked up at Havish to stall the descent into that misery. The spider’s expression was as grim as one could get without a proper face.
“I imagine that would be tough in your world.” Havish replied, seeming truly empathetic. “Yet you had your poetry and your words. Did that offer you comfort?”
“It did and still does to this day. However, my poems and the pursuit of love has led me here. Perhaps Mother and Father were right, ‘love is always doomed from the start.’”
“Myself and any other spider for that matter have never experienced the notion of love that you bipeds describe. I always thought the Gordai and we were similar in this.”
Tallow let out a single syllable laugh through his nostrils. “You’re right . . . as a whole they don’t believe in love. But I do. I’ve seen it, felt it, let it drive me mad. It’s the most wonderful and most terrifying thing in this world. I want to spend the rest of my years exploring that with my beloved, Phelia . . . that’s why you have to let me go!” he screamed the last few words that startled him as much as the spider.
Havish’s head drew back. “I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” he yelled again.
“If I let you go then I go hungry. There’s no telling when my next meal would come.”
“There will always be something.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not for five or six days. Maybe even a few weeks. It’s just like back in the clutter—you must learn to kill and do anything to survive.”
“So all other life besides your own is worthless?” Tallow’s voice raised. “Killing innocent things to sustain your own life. That’s a splendid way to live,” he said sardonically.
“It is our way.” Havish retorted. He sounded finite and as if they discussed their favorite flavors of tea or something insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
“What about changing—evolving your way? Or better yet, what about seeing that I went to all the trouble of traversing the labyrinth that is this forest dozens of time before finding the only flower that would do and risking my life to retrieve it. Isn’t that worth saving? Isn’t that worth one life? So you can say, ‘I believe in something more than kill or be killed.’” Tallow hadn’t realized that he now stood and had taken as many steps as the webbing would allow toward his captor.
Silence, for what seemed like minutes, swirled between them. The lances of light withdrew like the shadows from a dying fire. The floating dust disappeared and he could only see the faint outlines of Havish’s face. Before the light dimmed to dusk-like, the spider’s foremost leg on his left side shook like the right one did before. A second later another one did—then another. Four legs shook in an odd sequence. Almost as if they had fallen asleep and now awoke.
“Your words are profound, young Gordel. I believe most would be moved to let you leave. I’m sorry though. I am too old to let a meal go. It is not within me to grant this.” As the last word left his mouth, a clap of thunder broke out from the sky hidden above the forest cover.
“Afternoon thunderstorm is coming. Best back as far away from the hole in the roof. The rain will find its way in here,” the bear-sized spider said as he pushed with his front four legs, the ones that had shaken awake, backing himself into the hidden cavern he had emerged from earlier. His lethargic body scrapped against the ground until its faint outline turned to blackness.
The water trickled down the leaves of the towering trees above and made their way into the pit. Tallow stood as his hair and clothes soaked them up. The dirt beneath his feet started to turn to slop. He disliked the rain. But today, he couldn’t even feel it. His plea, true words—not one of them an embellishment or fabrication—fell on deaf ears. No tit for tat, no discussion for his life. If there was any other time when one could feel so powerless, he couldn’t fathom it.
A swirling vision of Phelia danced into his head. Her onyx eyes, the one that could paralyze a Gordel if he wasn’t prepared, gazed into his. Earlier today his truest friend gave him the most wonderful news; she had denied the arranged marriage to the son of the Duke. Unlike most royalty’s spawn, he was intelligent, kind, respectful and accomplished completely on his own. Tallow thought it certain she would accept, begrudgingly of course, but accept nonetheless. The Gordai as a society would look at it as foolish and a great insult to such a man and his family. Their bloodlines were some of the most noble of the race. She apologized profusely and assured that it was not his qualities that she disliked; yet it was due to the fact her heart belonged to another so she must decline. The Duke’s son, which grace had been etched in his palms, released her from their families’ oath.
Upon hearing this news, Tallow knew what he had to do. He could not afford a ring and his mother had promised their family’s to his older brother. He had to find the elusive Fastida Larta, present it to her on bended knee, and ask for her hand in marriage.
He ran a hand down his hair and face, whisking the water off the surface. As cold seeped into the den it stiffened his body and brought the injuries from his fall to the surface. He didn’t care. The pain of missing the dinner, being taken from a lifetime of joy with Phelia raptured his heart. His head slung down as a vision of her standing outside her door, waiting for him in the starlight as the steam from the food died out, drove the naked blade of hopeless deeper into him.
He did not fear death. He did fear the way in which Havish would devour him, yet it came second to the fear of his absence destroying Phelia. How long would she search for him? How long would she dig for answers to why he never came home that night? Would she turn away all available suitors, both unworthy and respectable, till she passed the age of child-rearing—till her looks faded? In decades would children walk by her home on a dare saying, “I was brave enough to knock on the door of the old witch?” Two lives would be taken this eve, but only his would be merciful. Phelia now faced the long road of existence alone, without answers or companionship. All the decisions that required husband and wife fell on her alone now.
The mud and webbing sloshed underfoot as he walked back to the wall and cover from the rain. He leaned back and the damp mesh clung to new spots on the back of his head and forearms. Thunder like glass shattering crashed again. Water ran from the middle of the pit to all edges. He disregarded it, sitting anyway.
With clothes soaked and darkness engulfing everything, he stared at the puddles growing for hours.
He remained still, unthinking, paralyzed by pain, capable of nothing more.
It could have been minutes, possibly an hour before he realized the rain had stopped and splinters of light crept back into the pit. The Fastida shone as bright as gold high above. Both his legs trembled as he stretched them out. His right foot bumped the Dwarf skull Havish spat out earlier. He recoiled as its damp boney sensation came across his toes.
Staring at the head, something came to him. He reached out both feet and cradled it. Scooting it back toward him, he picked it up. The top portion of the skull on the right side had severed from the jaw and teetered on its lone connection. His stomach squirmed as he clasped the inside of the mouth. The teeth felt hollow and gritty. He pulled the jaw one way and the rest of the skull the other way. The snapped like a wishbone as they separated. He smiled at what was left. Discarding the cranium, he lifted the remaining piece. The right half of the jaw split from the left; a part of the backend, near the wisdom teeth, had splintered off, forming a sharp dagger-like edge. It couldn’t have been more than five inches long, but it offered enough of a blade to cut the webbing and, if it came to it, stab Havish in the eye or another vulnerable spot.
A small light, like a diamond in a bed of coal, cut through the hopelessness inside him. The webbing limited his movement, but he was able to get his right arm behind his back and start to saw at it. The strands made soft plucking noises as they severed, like a lute strings snapping. He felt the tension on his arms loosen. No sign of Havish came from the other side of the den.
Some of the stands had gotten tangled together. The webbing was strong as a single filament, but felt like a rope in winter when bonded together. If one arm could get loose it would be enough to gash Havish when he came in for the kill. A discordant sound chimed out as one of the tangled strands holding his left arm severed. Only a couple more held the appendage back.
The familiar sound of Havish’s underbelly scrapping against ground came from the blackness. Tallow halted his sawing immediately, for he didn’t know how much the spider could see as he made his way back. The jawbone remained in his right hand. Three scrapes and Havish’s head came into view. Just his front four legs clawed at the ground and pulled him forward into the light, easing into a crouch. The third one on his left side started to shake like the others. Tallow still didn’t know what it was; a normal spider movement, a sign of old age, or nothing but a tick?
“You look like you soaked up the entire storm, young master Tallow.” Havish’s raspy voice burped out.
Tallow gave a half-hearted smile at the jibe. “It seemed to come down in all directions.”
“Yes. Yes. The trees seem to send it here and there.” The spider cleared his throat. “Are we feeling better than before . . . up for talking?”
Tallow had to keep him distracted somehow so he could get his left arm free. Conversation might be the only thing that could keep him from noticing him sawing behind his back.
“Indeed.” he said it in a way he almost believed it himself. “I had some time to think and I can’t blame you for what you’re doing. I wish I was not the recipient. However, it’s like you said, its either you or me.”
Havish cocked his head slowly, seeming to study Tallow. For what purpose, he did not know. “A rather pragmatic way to look at it,” the spider finally replied. “A surprise coming from you.”
He was right. Tallow now saw the irony in the statement he just gave. For any other Gordel this made sense, but for him, it was counter to everything he stood for. He had to think of something quick to make Havish trust his response.
“Grief . . . and acceptance has a way of changing one’s perspective.”
“And your beloved?” Havish retorted.
Tallow took in a breath that when released could send a ship into the sea. “I will miss her more than anything on this earth. Yet I am unique to my kind in that I was blessed enough to feel love—even if for just a short while.”
Havish’s third leg on the right side started to shake as he looked down on him. Tallow’s body tensed like ice had shivered down his back as the answer to that riddle reveled itself. Havish started to talk, but Tallow’s mind raced, too busy to listen. He knew when large animals such as the spider ate, they tended to eat more than what was necessary because they didn’t know when their next meal would come. This could cause one to become excessively sluggish. Havish’s front legs doing all the pulling, his underbelly dragging on the dirt, his age—it all made sense now. Six had awoken and only two remained. As his body returned to normal—so did his appetite.
“. . . that is why I think your kind is so remarkable and yet so complicated.” Havish finished what he was saying and Tallow came back out of his head. “Tallow? No response?”
The Gordel looked up at him, eyes batting multiple times a second. “Yes. Yes. I think you nailed it there.”
“Good . . . I always prided myself on being able to define others. It’s—.”
“Say Havish, how did you come upon the Fastida Larta?” Tallow interrupted the spider on purpose. “They’re very rare and yet you have a perfect specimen.”
Havish chuckled and nodded his head. “The entire story is far too long tell. It would take a fortnight to finish it. I’ll give you the Gordel-sized version,” he said, looking up at the flower.
Tallow started sawing the instant the spider’s eyes left him. Pluck by pluck more of the webbing split.
“My travels as a young one took me too many places. I let the wind bade me to new destinations—figuratively of course.” All eight of Havish’s eyes remained on the Fastida.
Tallow feigned a laugh to keep his captor’s attention elsewhere while he sawed. “Of course. Of course.”
“I found myself, through a myriad of adventures, close calls and battles, to gruesome to detail, settling in the Saltlands in the west. I found a cave with ample amount of moisture to sustain me during the summer months. Solitude and comfort were my top primacies at the time.” Havish’s gaze came down back to Tallow.
The Gordel halted mid-saw of a fibrous strand of webbing. The determined look he held melted into one of grave interest. “What happened next?” The words jumped out of his mouth soaked in excitement.
“Well, the cave provided too much solitude. It would be weeks sometimes without any living creature falling in or coming close enough for me to snatch. In time I had to come out and search in the open—a rather difficult thing for something of my size. A spider was not built to hunt in such a way.” Havish shook his head like a father would at a son’s youthful ignorance. “Anyway, during one of my searches I came across a succulent blue flower called the Lucid Larta—a cousin to the Fastida. It gets is name because when vagrants, thieves and all manner of vagabonds who hide out in the Saltlands to avoid whatever doom had been set upon them, they would get thirsty and consume the floret, trying to get it bits of moisture.” The spider’s head turned up toward the Fastida again and chuckled.
Tallow, who watched him like a gargoyle, immediately took to the webbing again.
“My gods they were in for a rude surprise. Over a period of days they hallucinated to the point of complete delirium and eventually died of dehydration, hunger or some careless accident like walking off a cliff. Unfortunately, the flowers toxins left them inedible and deprived me of an easy meal.”
The tendon finally snapped, a little louder than expected. Tallow stayed his hand and watched Havish for a reaction. The spider didn’t even flinch as he looked up at the Fastida.
“All that to say, I was curious about this venomous bulb. In order to keep it undamaged during extraction, I dug around its base until I reached the roots. Then I noticed the oddest thing—there was something attached beneath them. I uprooted the entire thing and I’d be damned, the Fastida was connected several feet below the soil, encapsulated in ice just as it is now.”
The final strand plucked like the last keystroke in a dramatic piece. Tallow’s right arm shifted forward. Havish’s memory and eyes came back to the pit a hair after Tallow replaced his arm. His spirits plunged from their precipice down to their depths as the spider’s seventh leg shook awake. Time was not on his side. He had only one arm free and would need both to counter the creature. He had to try and get Havish to talk again or focus on something else.
“Isn’t that remarkable?” the spider asked.
Tallows eyes widened instinctively. “Truly it is. Who would have known that?”
“It is a secret that few can unwind. One can only reveal it to another who is deemed trustworthy enough not to recount its origin.”
Tallow paused, unsure of what this meant for him. “Why . . . why would you reveal it to me then?” he asked seriously.
A look of confusion grew out of Havish’s face. His fangs curled in and head cocked to the right. “I believe we already covered that,” the spider spoke slowly with a hint of question in his voice.
Without warning, the eighth leg shook, causing tremors to travel through the spider’s entire body. Havish let out a primal gasp as each: hair, pincher, fang, leg, and his belly, his abdomen, and face all jolted as if a lightning bolt infused them with life. Just as quickly, Tallow knew why Havish had told him the origin of the Fastida—because dead men break no oaths.
Tallow rose to his feet slowly, never taking his eyes of the spider. “I suppose I’m not the first one to hear this story?”
All the parts of the spider that had lifted settled like a raptor landing in its nest. The beast moved freely, lightly, as if a pack had been removed from its back. It was the burden of too much meal.
“No you are not, Tallow of the Gordai.” Havish replied. “Whether it be at the end, beginning or the middle of our conversations, it is always revealed.”
“Which means your mind hasn’t changed?”
The once docile legs stabbed at the ground as Havish moved toward him. Power, vitality still remained in the old arachnid. “There is no decision to be made here. What’s done was done for purpose. You followed temptation to a place you should never have ventured, reached beyond your grasp, fell because of your greed, and now will be taught the lesson of your fault. My reward is to live.”
“How can death be a suitable punishment for my actions? I sought the only gift that would show my affection for my beloved. There was no pride or visions of wealth in my decision. I did not walk aimlessly into the forest and stumble upon the pot of gold that is the Fastida. Month after month I searched for it. Tracking all my routes. Risking everything in the pitch black of Cavader to find it. You see, your reasoning if folly!”
“Don’t tell me about reason!” Froth spewed from Havish’s mouth as he countered. “In your own words you recount your misguided scheme. Your parents, your brothers and sisters all realized it. The whole of the Gordai know it. I was born into it. Love is a fairy tale! It is water in the desert—always a mirage. There is only survival. The strong persevere and use the weak as their fuel to live life to its apex. Be done with your poetic ways and accept your fate!” The spider eliminated the gap between them in a thunder clap.
Tallow swung his arm around his back and lashed at Havish with the severed jawbone. The spider pulled back but the weapon caught the side of his face, cutting deep into the tough skin. Havish hollered as he jumped back to the middle of the pit, out of reach. Tallow stood with arm outstretched as blood dripped from the boney dagger. The webbing still held his left arm close to the wall. Everything inside told him to fight. To give everything he had to defend himself. Even if this fight would leave him an inch from death, he could still make it for dinner to use his dying words to tell Phelia that he wished to marry her.
Havish’s left foreleg rubbed at the wound. His eyes beamed at Tallow. After a moment the bleeding stopped.
A deep laugh wound out of the spider as he peered over the leg protecting the gash. “That tinker will not stop me,” he said through spurts of laughter. “Surprise was your best weapon. Now it’s gone.”
“Maybe so, but I will take a few of your eyes before I die.”
“I have too many as it is. I will engulf you!”
Tallow’s body shook as he held out his dagger. Inside, he shook twice as hard. He could not intimidate Havish, cause him to be frightened. The dark revelation swayed over him; sooner or later the spider would get what he wanted.
Tallow lowered his arm and sighed. “Please, Havish. I do not wish to scar you. You will get what you seek.” His head lowered as the weight of his impending death pulled him down to the grave. “I only ask for the time to tell Phelia that I cannot stay. To free her from the burden of ignorance caused by my absence for the decades to come. Allow me this so that only one life will end today. Grace me like you have never graced another . . . in time I will return to honor our agreement.”
Havish scoffed. “You think me a fool? That I would let you go on this errand and you would come back out of some misguided sense of morality? If this is your belief, and I obliged, then we are both cretins unworthy of another breath.”
The tears welled behind Tallow’s eyes as his heart rattled his entire body. “I will return, Havish . . . I will. I swear on the life of my beloved Phelia and the children she would have bore us. I swear on the wisdom of the Gordai and the name of my father. I swear that if I lose my nerve and remain in my home for safe keeping that when you grow impatient and trudge down our cobbled streets to my abode, I will not run again. Grant me this so that I can set my Phelia free so that my heart’s debt will be paid. Do this and I will ask no quarter again.” Tallow’s body remained standing but felt like plummeting.
A mark of silence struck them both. Each stared into the other’s eyes, perhaps waiting for the other to concede. The chainmail of grief lifted from Tallow. His body rose slightly as any sliver of fear—the fear of death—dried up.
“Strength behold strength.” Havish finally spoke. He lowered his foreleg from the wound. Red swelling ridged on both sides of the cut and blood caked between. “This idea of love has made you strong . . . given you the power to fight back. Never have I been wounded by prey.” He rubbed the cut.
“I have known many Gordels in my years. All of which cast a look of indifference when the moment came for me to end them. I felt great pity on these folk—for how could life offer so little to be callous when it came time to part this world? I feel sorry for you on this day, Tallow . . . yet for a different reason. I believe this Phelia makes your world grander. That it is not some ruse that life has enchanted you with.”
Havish sighed. “Go . . . enjoy each other until you must give yourselves to the soil. However, never let me catch you again. Or I will know you are too foolish to have deserved this chance.”
The spider reared back and slammed its front six legs into the ground. A creaking sound came from above and drew Tallow’s gaze. The branch, along with the flower dropped down into the pit. The Fastida rolled to Tallow’s feet as the wood stuck into the dirt and anchored against the wall with only two feet to the top—and freedom.
A mash of plucking sounds shook Tallow out of his stupor. Havish had cut the remaining strands of webbing holding him back. Tallow looked down at the Fastida and back to his captor.
“How can I repay you?” Tallow asked with all sincerity.
“Never return. The forest grows darker with every season. Something stirs beneath it, attracting darker creatures than I.”
Tallow simply nodded. He gently picked up the Fastida and put it under his arm, squeezing tight enough it to stay put, but loose enough to not possibly crack the ice.
He ran up the branch and hopped up the gap to freedom. Pausing, he looked down in the pit and gave a sad smile as Havish looked back at him. He was glad to be free, but he couldn’t help but feel that his words had cost the spider more than a meal. Perhaps Havish was ignorant to higher degrees of living like true love—now he would have to face the dark of life knowing what he had missed.
He made it just before the dishes were set on the dinner table. Phelia’s and his embrace had never been grander when he opened the door. They married the following spring under tulips. They raised seven children in a house that remained warm in the white of winter. After ninety years of marriage and one hundred and eight years of life, Phelia died in Tallow’s arms while dreaming of their great grandchildren. Tallow and the rest of the family grieved properly. Then they celebrated for knowing such a wonderful Gordel.
After all the family had gone back to their daily lives and Tallow sat alone in his chair near the hearth, he decided there was one last thing to do. He gathered a pack and set out to the open road. He entered Cavader and followed the final mark on the compass that he made some ninety years ago. Following it to the pit, he looked up and saw another Fastida sitting on the edge of a branch. He carefully lowered himself down into his former prison and waited for his captor. An old and hobbled spider, now gray as stone, finally exited its cavern. They greeted as old friends, smiles graced their wrinkled faces. They talked until nightfall and fell asleep looking at the stars seeping through the canopy. Neither awoke the next morning, yet a debt had been repaid . . . and friends they remained.