“Stop struggling,” came a high-pitched voice from a bit ahead of me. “You’re throwing off Xychli’s balance. And it’ll only make the silks that much harder to get off once we reach camp. Just lay still like your little pet, there.”
How to describe the gait of a giant spider? It’s a bit like riding three horses, all at once. It was nearly black as a moonless night, the barest hint of light in the gloom overhead. At the pace we were going, though, I think it was best I could not see where we went, or just how close we came to some of the columns and spikes of stone. It was frightening enough just feeling them brush past.
I could not see Sera next to me, but I knew she must be there, as the bracelet and lead were tangled in the spider silk bindings. Her panic had smoothed out after the voice above us spoke, and I tried to share her calm. I felt the mental equivalent of a hand squeeze bubble through the bracelet.
“Hold on to your stomachs.”
It was the only warning we got before the spider gathered itself and leapt. It did not land running in the same direction, and there was a terrifying moment of weightlessness followed by a sickening slide off the things’s back as it ran upwards.
Several cries echoed from around us, as did more than one high-pitched laugh.
Mine and Sera’s fall was arrested with a sharp jolt and we swung, back to back, dangling from the silken cocoons.
The spider’s gait changed again, and I felt the tension change on the silken strands from which I dangled. Sera and I kept rising, at a slower, steadier pace. From the chorus of voices chanting in unison, it seemed like we weren’t the only ones being hauled upward.
Half a dozen hands gripped my shoulders, and a few more cradled my head as I felt the reassuring pressure of hardwood at my shoulders. More heaving and hoisting, and Sera and I were both hefted from over the edge, to lay for long moments, savoring the stability of sturdy wood, planks and beams, beneath us.
A pale whitish-blue light sputtered into being above us, a small lamp, I saw, one of several being held aloft at the edge of the crowd that had gathered at the platform.
“Well, now,” said the familiar voice of our captor. A sharp-chinned halfling squatted between mine and Sera’s heads, leather boots and gloves creaking. “Before I welcome you to the Loft, some rules. No running. For obvious reasons. No shouting. It hurts the spiders’ ears. They’re skittish, and tend to bite whatever frightens them. It’s a prettier death to just jump from the edge, trust me.” Small white teeth shone as the halfling smiled. “No fire outside the kitchens. Are we clear, or should we simply shove you right off the edge and save ourselves further trouble?”
“Pysk, what have I told you about bringing home strays?” Another high-pitched voice, but this one layered and rounded with years, came from within the crowd.
I craned my neck, and saw a stooped halfling woman, with hair like flowing platinum under the strange lamplight. Though she sported wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, those eyes shone brightly, gleaming the deep blue of sapphires. They matched those of young Pysk. They were narrowed, the aged brow above them wrinkled, with annoyance, rather than age.
The elder halfling swiped at our savior (or was it captor?) with her walking stick. “Go with the others and sort through you were able to get from the governor’s patrol. And don’t forget to feed Xycli and the rest of her pack. Can’t have them getting into the stores again.
“And the rest of you,” she said, glancing back at the gathered figures. “Don’t you have chores and such that need doing?”
She lifted her cane, but the crowd dissolved before she could bring it down on the platform between her feet. One halfling remained, a small dark-haired youngster with pale gray eyes, holding a pyramid-shaped lamp.
The elder halfling crouched, a small blade in her hand, and with a few steady, firm slashes, the spiders’ silken wrappings fell away. She tottered along the platform, freeing the rest of the group.
“Forgive my nephew,” she said. “And accept my welcome to the Loft. I am Grelda, this is Lylian.” The lamp-bearer gave a small curtsey.
“I already know who you are,” she said, raising her hand as Ana made to speak. A smile very much like that of our savior quirked at one corner of her mouth. “You have no doubt had a very long night. Come, and we will talk over a late supper in the kitchens. There is stew. Some bread. It is simple fare. Lylian, be a dear and fetch your cousins to carry the Syharwehrven.”
“We’ll get them,” Gilliam said. He reached for one of the twins, but straightened when he caught Aurora’s glare.
“The chains,” I said, giving my own a rattle.
The warrior gave a start. “I’d almost forgotten about these,” he said. He gave his wrists a few turns and the shackles fell away, but not before Demarra’s had already hit the planks with a clatter. The Darra clucked her tongue at him.
“They’re dwarven make,” Gilliam said. “A bit higher quality than I’m used to working with. In the past,” he added, at Ana’s frown. He turned to Varis. “Remind me to tell you about the sultana who had a thing for—“
He had to duck as Ana threw her set of manacles at him.