Bandits of the Black Talon
“Ho there!” Two thick-trunked humans strode through the tavern, pressing their way past patrons like a ship’s prow. They sailed for the sole dark denizen of the far dark corner; a wretched individual who had taken a few too many liberties with a few too many of the serving girls. He was hunched over his table, its rickety frame just stable enough to support his jittery legs. The men fell upon him, one pirouetting him forcefully to face them, “I think it’s about time y…” they halted. Some of the nearby patrons fell quiet and looked on, a contagion that spread quickly though the haze of revelry until most were silenced. It wasn’t the worn and weary face of the wretch, nor was it the miasma of belched up ale that gave them pause – it was the thin rapier blade, shining even in the darkness, now pressed against the taller trunk-man’s throat. The wretch looked as if he might collapse at any moment, but the blade was unwavering; stoic. To his credit, the accosted bouncer was also relatively calm, “P…put it down you fool; you’ll get yourself strung up by the guards if you’re not careful.”
The wretch titled his head, perhaps involuntarily due to its weight and his stupor, before raising the blade an inch, causing his quarry to rise on his toes. He leaned forward then, the shadow skittering from his face, “Bring them.”
The wretch crumbled, his body audibly and unceremoniously finding the floorboards. The shorter bouncer lowered his truncheon and they both gazed down at the creature beneath them. One mused how similar all the drunks looked; how common their malady – the weeping scars of melancholy borne by souls stretched thin by life’s calamities. The other farted and dragged the wretch upward.
Three minutes and a short walk later, three became two as the waters of the nearby Finethread River embraced the drunk. His clothes threatened to pull him to the riverbed, aided by his continued unconsciousness; but the river had other ideas. For hours the fast moving flow took him far away from tavern and ale and truncheon and, little by little, a tree-laden canopy bowed low over the hapless, sodden sod. The Finethread was not quite finished; indeed, it was building up to the main event. It was keen to introduce the creature to all of its favourite boulders until, finally, a particularly jagged specimen jarred the wretch from his slumber. He spluttered and cursed, confused and half-frozen; where was he? What the hell just happened? His head rang, his arms ached and he was both comforted and repulsed by a sudden and fleeting warmth below his waist. Without a clear conscious thought he reached out for salvation, trying desperately to separate himself from the river.
It was the only then that She bothered to pay any notice at all.
Less than one thrashing, cursing and half-drowned minute later, the wretch found the bank. A lucky bend in the river meant that he was all but deposited there; fortunate for him, because it was at that exact moment that his muscles decided to abandon their posts. Flailing fish-like, he managed to turn himself onto his back as the grip of unconsciousness found him once again.
It was a bird call that woke him; something sudden and stark; a fitting liaison for the crisp night. He was sore. Sitting came with difficulty and pain, as did generally existing it seemed. The river ran past his feet and, looking into it, he saw a possible future; one that ended with muddy lungs and seizured silence – a stillness. A destiny given over to the river who had but one prerogative. What fool still breathed air these days, anyway? With oxygen came memory. There was something else, creeping into consciousness… was it… could he hear a voice? A beckoning. It reminded him of the potential for peace, for quiet. The voice seemed to rise from the formerly innocent chatter of the flowing water, calling for him. It would be so easy…
Another bird shriek and the wretch found himself looking back into the forest. He drew himself up and, when his muscles stopped shouting at him, he managed to give them further orders: Walk. Walk. Get up. Breathe. Walk. Dense as they seemed to be, the trees were little shelter from the wind; a biting breeze danced through them in a great rush, seemingly in a hurry to freeze the creature to death. He took off his wet outergarment and discarded it – dimly hoping he wouldn’t regret the decision if he lived to see morning. Without direction and purpose he walked, his boots squelching, his breath heaving, his surrounds growling… his surrounds growling? He stopped, ears pricked. The growl continued and he remembered how much he hated the forest. A moment later he was on his back, above him the snapping jaws of gnarlcat wanted to taste his face. Instead it managed a forearm, and as the wretch cried in pain he scratched and clawed at the predator’s face, thrashing wildly, trying to dislodge the beast. A dim aspect of his mind waited for the others to arrive, to finish what this one had started – death by gnarlcat pack; not bad. None did however, and in the dappled moonlight the wretch saw the aged face of the beast, the blindness in one eye and the scars of battle over its snout – it was an outcast, aged and unfit for a position in the pride. Desperate. That said it was also a killer, and the wretch had little time for sympathy. His drove his shuddering fist again and again into the beast’s spotted hide, with little seeming effect. Very soon it would bite through his arm and finish the job on his skull. As the thought came to him, so did a voice, familiar now… it trickled through the snarls, hidden behind primal growls, “Let it go. Stop fighting. It’s over now. Accept the gift.” The wretch felt a sharp pain in his mauled arm; the snapping of a bone, perhaps? He also felt the stone in his free hand, felt his knuckles press around it, felt the softening of the flesh as he drove it into the gnarlcat’s face. Twice. Three times. The beast wavered, releasing its grip momentarily. Four times. Five times. It stumbled from the human, sauntering drunkenly to one side. The wretch writhed to his knees, raised the rock high and brought it down. This time much more than five times. The gnarlcat stopped moving after the seventh, the front of its skull little more than pulp after the fifteenth.
The adrenaline pushed the human to his feet, the rock dropping to the forest floor. He stepped back, slowly edging away from the corpse of his once deliverer. The smell of blood and damp swirled around him, pistoning in and out of his furious nose. A few more steps backward and the ground disappeared. Instead of being dragged forward by a rushing river, the wretch was drawn downward by the pull of gravity; it seemed no matter how he travelled, he always seemed to find all of the rocks in his path. First there was the steep embankment, and then there was the hole. Sodden earth rose up on all sides, tree roots snaking in and out of the naturally formed walls. An oddly shaped patch of canopy and sky looked down on him. It was nine, maybe ten feet deep, and the wretch’s back was pressed awkwardly into muddied bottom. His breath rose above him like a geyser, visible in the cool night. Despite his odd posture, and the unfortunate way in which he arrived, he was strangely comfortable. Serene even. His eyes stared blankly upwards, watching the few stars that could be seen between the branches. That was when he heard the voice again; still soft, still comforting, still familiar, “How lucky you are, Thomas Cross. How lucky you are.” There was something else shining at the top of the hole; a thin, silver strand. It seemed to grow longer all on its own, lazily dancing with the wind. It was a few moments before the wretch saw the owner of the strand, and apparently also the owner of the voice, “Few are as lucky as you, Thomas Cross.” A silver spider, the size of an arrowhead, lowered itself slowly into the hole. Its abdomen was bulbous, its legs long and spindly, its voice gentle, “Few have their wishes granted, as you will.”
Thomas was breathing heavily; it came out like a wheeze, his voice like a whisper. All he heard was breath, but what he wanted to say was that he didn’t know what the spider was talking about.
“Solace.” The spider seemed to read his intentions and finished its descent on Thomas’ leg, placing a comforting leg on his nearby hand.
Thomas’ breathing slowed. He ran the word over in his mind; comfort; consolation; relief; succour. Peace. His eyes focussed on the arachnid, which eyed him back, pitifully, “I can grant you this wish, and only this.”
Thomas looked away; he mumbled something. The spider prodded,_ “Speak up Thomas. Just say the word.”_
Thomas looked back, “No.”
“No?” The spider was puzzled. “This is your chance Thomas. You’re…”
The spider crawled up Thomas’ arm, its needle-like legs deftly manoeuvring around his split flesh and broken bone, “Poor, poor Thomas Cross. There is nothing to fear. It won’t hurt. In fact, you won’t feel a thing. Let me help you.”
“No!” Thomas’ voice was more insistent now, almost angry. The spider looked hurt, as hurt as a spider could look, and Thomas felt the need to explain, but couldn’t.
“Well, what about this? You could fall asleep – you want to sleep, don’t you? You don’t have to say yes, just let sleep take you and I’ll do the rest.”
If spiders could sigh with indignation, this one would have, “I’m only trying to help. You want this.”
Thomas writhed as best he could, hoping to dislodge the arachnid, “Thomas! Stop. You’re being childish. By morning another gnarlcat, the frost or your wounds will finish you. Let me ease your suffering.”
“I said ‘leave’!”
“Fine.” The spider’s tone was terse as it began to climb back up its strand. About a foot later it rolled around and looked back down at him, “If you think that dying alone in a hole somehow makes you more worthy of her, I can’t say I follow that logic.” It started its ascent once again, “You’re a fraud Thomas Cross. A pale reflection of nobility and an undeserving man. Enjoy oblivion.”
And with that, it was gone, disappearing over the lip of the hole. The old, damp air in the hole suddenly felt heavy. Thomas breathed deep, wondering momentarily how many more of those he had. The comfort he’d felt when he’d first landed had evaporated; taken, it seems, by his nosy visitor. He shifted his weight and the pain of his muscles and bones had almost become comforting. Almost. What did that stupid spider know, anyway? It didn’t know him. It sure as hell didn’t know her! Who did it think it was, lecturing him on how to die? Thomas had spent so long thinking about the subject he could likely have written a book on it – a very long, woeful, cliché ridden and self –aggrandising book, in dire need of an editor. She was dead. Murdered. He… well, he knew his part in it. The point was that there no longer was a point. To any of it. The content of his character had been measured and found wanting. A great hole of wanting; all consuming, in fact. Stupid spider. She was dead, and the clear course of action was to give up on life. There. That was it, laid out. The final equation.
A moment of stillness.
No. That wasn’t it. She was dead, yes, and it was his… he played a clear part in the death, yes… and to die, to sleep… was that the answer? Why didn’t he slink back into the river? Why didn’t he just let the gnarlcat feast? Obnoxiousness aside, the spider could have made his peace possible, so why? Why was a clear desire for oblivion hampered at the final post by some innate saboteur? What was he not telling himself?
A new voice came then, and it too was familiar. It was his own. He spoke a truth meant for no one but himself, and after he had ingested it he found his arms moving; he felt his shoulders leaning; he felt his chest heaving. In time he felt the cool embrace of the night air, free at last from the heady confines of the hole. After he had laboured just far enough out of the maw to avoid a repeat visit, he rolled onto his back. The spider looked down at him, only this time it only had two legs and no abdomen, “I knew you’d get there.”
Thomas’ breath slowed, the wind blew, and sleep found him again. He woke a day later in a very different part of the forest, his wounds all but gone. There was the sound of voices not too far away, and the smell of something cooking. Thomas realised that he was starving and got to his feet, following his nose toward a nearby camp…