By David Dubord
Illustrated by Jim Pavelec
from Black Gate 10, copyright Ã‚Â© 2007 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
They hung like slowly dancing flowers, like gray, black and almond stars suspended from silver threads that stretched up and up into the thick, green roof of the jungle. And their eyes sparkled like stars within stars, all gazing toward the center of the great web. Some of them rocked slowly, pendulum like, and some revolved around the axis of their web line, while others remained as still as the jungle’s morning air before the heat began to rise. All of them remained suspended above the great web, not one of them placing even the merest hair of one of their great legs upon the glistening silken strands.
A breeze spiraled through the trees. Leaves stirred and the spiders swayed ever so slightly from side to side. Lotus blossoms drifted upon the cool clear surface of the pond below the great web. As if the breeze was a signal, the spiders let out more of their lines to slowly lower themselves closer to the web, still cautious not to touch its strands. Then a thin gray leg arose from rocks glistening with mist and moonlight below the center of the web. Another leg arose and delicate claws touched the nearest strand of web, stroked it gently. The great web shivered and vibrated, a sound like the tinkling of glass and bells rose into the night. The legs pulled on the strands as the Mother pulled herself up from beneath, flipped gracefully through the sticky strands, and seated herself at the center of the web, her web. Eight thousand eyes focused upon her.
In the cleft of an ancient Mangor tree, Hasslihh watched the Mother with all his eyes as she stretched her legs and perched in perfect balance. He had not seen her since he was a sacling, not since he had sent up his first strand and rode the wind to his new home. She was larger around, almost, than the pond over which the web hung, her legs as long and strong as the branches of the eldest trees. Her carapace was gray and faded with the passing of many moltings, but her eyes still shone like the newest water drops left by the jungle rain. And she was as graceful as any, striding the web with the barest hint of disturbance.
Hasslihh longed to touch the great web, longed to feel the vibration of its song. He traced the lines that disappeared into the foliage and wondered how far they ran. The spiral of the web grew and revolved and covered the entire clearing as it expanded in perfect symmetry. Hasslihh’s web was small and sad, though he had built and built it since the time of his first molting. He wondered what knowledge lay in the secret whorls of the great web.
The council was about to begin. Hasslihh glanced left and saw Hinjruhn nearby. They had been sacmates and had chewed free together before their wind-flight had brought them down in the same patch of forest. Hinjruhn had fought him for the piece of jungle where the trees grew in near perfect symmetry. Hasslihh still bore fang scars from the encounter, as did Hinjruhn. Hasslihh lost that day, but he found a spot nearly as perfect as Hinjruhn’s close by, and there built his web.
Now and then Hasslihh heard whispers in the webs of the strangeness of his friendship with Hinjruhn. The whispers foretold that the two would fight one day when their webs grew too close together, but Hasslihh dismissed them. He and Hinjruhn, unlike the others, enjoyed the occasional directness of eye-to-eye talk rather than the impersonal trembling of a web line.
Hinjruhn was close to the great web, closer even than Hasslihh. The great web called to Hasslihh and he dreamt of striding its path strands. Hasslihh did not think it could hurt to be a little closer. He let out more strand and lowered to within a breath’s distance of the nearest anchor line.
The spiders raised their legs in a hanging salute to the Mother and she in turn raised herself up on her legs and shook the web eight times.
“I have sent the trembling through the web,” said the Mother, “to call you here to council. It has been many moltings since last we met. The web has grown by many windings of the spiral. There has been no council in my time, nor in the time of my Mother, but now the wind has blown strange tidings into the web.”
Hasslihh listened intently, dangling even lower.
“We do not venture out of the web,” said the Mother, “the web sustains and protects us. We do not travel north where the red dust stirs, nor to the great ocean of grass to the west. Here is where the life is and here we stay.”
The spiders rubbed their legs in agreement, sending a tremor though their strands. The Mother continued.
“Many strange things have drifted into the web since I was hatched, but none as disturbing as the most recent tidings. From the north our brothers under the floor and the great leapers come in numbers. They tell of their hunting grounds shrinking and of the increasing encounters with the two-legged. The web is in jeopardy.”
A large brown spider with the spots of many moltings moved then. He climbed up upon his strand and made a loop, his large, dark spots looking like so many more eyes.
“I too have heard these tales in the song of the web,” he said, “I am nearly as old as you, Mother and I have heard many tales of the two-legged. My spiral grows in the south where they are many, and there the two-legged who call themselves the Yuanwari, fear and venerate us. They leave me offerings in my web, gifts of fat animals. They know of the trickster, our ancient ally, whom they call Kedar, and they know of our strength and our magic. They respect the web. What have we to fear of them?”
The Mother plucked a discordant note in the great web with one of her long legs. Other spiders formed loops as the old brown had done. Hasslihh had felt the vibrations of the two-legged himself, had even caught a few in his web, and he agreed with the brown. The two-legged were small and weak, and though they had a certain cunning of their own and could sometimes wield the magic, they were often blind to the plainest snare. But the Mother plucked another chord.
“You are old. This is true,” she said, “but are you not a web builder? I can feel the weakness in our web. Tales of the two-legged are not all I feel. Have you not felt the falling of the trees? The jungle shrinks in the north daily. Trees are falling in great numbers. Our most distant anchors have already snapped. Do you not plan for the great wind that will break your strands?”
“A strong web can brave the greatest wind.”
Hasslihh was young, but he had weathered many storms in his web. He agreed with the brown, but something disturbed him. Like the Mother, he too had felt the falling of the trees. He lived further north, closer to where the red dust swirled and that was where the trees were falling. He failed to pay them any heed. Perhaps he himself was blind to a few snares.
“There is more than wind,” said the Mother, “the ancient spiral tells of the coming of the Great Fire as once it did before, and no web, no matter its strength, can stand against the fire. Do these vibrations we feel foretell of the first tendrils of the Great Fire?”
The old brown had no answer for that. The others hung still on their strands; hardly a filament stirred. One by one the dissenting spiders undid their loops and straightened their web lines. Finally the old brown did as well.
“Tell us what me must do,” he said.
“We must consult the Grandmother.”
Hasslihh had never felt such a shiver in the great web. The wind seemed to die away, leaving the jungle leaves still as an unbowed strand. Hasslihh barely dared to dream of treading near the Grandmother, as easy snare the moon in his tiny web.
“The Grandmother is gone,” said an orange and black.
The Mother plucked two web strands.
“Not so,” she said, “the Grandmother is where she has always been since our beginning. She is in the sky, spinning her great web amongst the clouds, snaring the breath of the wind for the trickster to play with. One of us must go to her. One of us must dare the snares of her web.”
The web jangled then in a babble of quivering strands. Dew and rainwater shook from the web and disturbed the clear stillness of the pond below. Hasslihh thought he felt another tree fall in the distance and knew somehow that the Mother was right. He inched closer to hear more.
“I have spun a powerful magic,” said the Mother, “I have used the secrets of our alchemy and interwoven it in the strands. Who carries this bundle can climb to the roof of the jungle, send up a single strand like a sacling and float up to the second roof of the sky.”
The Mother reached down then to the rocks of her den. She pulled up in her gray legs a tiny bundle that glowed with blue light in the darkness. The light sparkled in her eyes and in the eyes of the gathered spiders. The jangles began to cease, and though a few loops formed, the vast majority of the strands were straight.
“Who will go?” said the old brown.
No answer reverberated in the web. Eight thousand eyes peered at each other, but none answered the question.
Hasslihh grew excited. He curled and uncurled his legs as he thought of the deed, to brave the Grandmother’s web, to fly above the world. He wanted to leap forth and be chosen as the one. In his excitement, he moved too close to the web and one of his legs stuck fast. Before he could think, he lost his center and flipped around, his own strand tangling with that of the great web. He struggled, and his caught-vibration drew the attention of the Mother.
“Hasslihh,” said Hinjruhn, “pull free.”
Hasslihh saw Mother rise up on a path strand and begin to climb toward him. Though old, she was still very fast. He cut his strand and tried to untangle himself. The Mother drew nearer.
“I am in her web, Hinjruhn,” said Hasslihh. He saw how close the Mother was and that he could not free himself in time.
Hinjruhn spun out more line. He reached down and tried to pull Hasslihh free. Hasslihh pulled as well and the two of them hung there as Hinjruhn’s line grew taught and thin. The Mother drew closer, eyes glittering. Far, far above, a branch snapped and Hinjruhn tumbled into the great web, his anchor gone. He came to rest on his back, stuck in the great web. His legs pointed at the roof of the jungle and thrashed without pattern.
The Mother was upon them. She looked first at Hasslihh, then the gaze of all eight of her eyes turned toward the larger morsel of Hinjruhn. She leapt forward, fangs out and long with age. Hasslihh watched his friend’s legs stop thrashing and his eyes slowly cloud over. The Mother pulled the carcass free and began turning him over and over, spinning a thin veil of silk around him until he was nothing more than an oblong bundle ready to be devoured.
Regaining his senses, Hasslihh took that time to free himself and sling a web strand back up into the trees. When he had pulled a safe distance from the great web, he formed a sad and tiny loop.
The Mother looked up from her meal.
“He was in my web,” she said.
“He was my friend,” said Hasslihh.
“He was in my web.”
Hasslihh looked around and saw no other loops. He slowly straightened his line and let his legs dangle as lifelessly as Hinjruhn’s.
“Since you have such a penchant for treading in other’s webs,” said the Mother, “I think perhaps you are suited for the journey into the sky.”