The dark was absolute. Petra’s eyes were gummed up.
A close, dense silence—except for the ringing in her ears. Where was the chuckle of the brook?
Why was she lying with her face on the floor?
The smell was worrying.
Her head throbbed, her ribs, her leg—everything hurt. She moved her arm. The ache became brighter. Bolts of pain shot down her side.
Something in her mouth that shouldn’t be. Her tongue told her it was a tooth, now leaning drunkenly. The lip over it was numb.
She touched her face. Where smooth skin should be, her hand met stickiness and matted flakes. She rolled to her back, tried to sit up. Pain lanced from her neck down through one leg. The muscles of her stomach clenched, squeezing her breath out, and her leg began to tremble.
Petra lay trembling in the dirt, in the dark, in the silence, and tried to make sense of it. She put the scraps of memory in order: encountering Otger, the hot words, the regret, trying too late to escape (without fleeing). The stupid, stupid fight. But she couldn’t remember how she’d come to be wherever she was now.
Flakes peeled off her face, clotted, damp. Not skin—dead leaves. One eye would open, the other would not. It throbbed. She pressed it experimentally and hissed with pain. At least there was still an eyeball in there.
Opening her good eye did nothing to dispel the dark.
Something under her leg rolled and made a mellow clonk. She knew the timbre of that sound. Her staff was a comforting connection to the world she knew.
That smell—what was it? Like sulfur and vinegar and stale piss.
It took three tries to sit up, with rests between. Each time, the muscles of her stomach seized and stopped her breathing. After some minutes she was sitting awkwardly with her knees drawn up and her head bent against an inward-tilted face of rock.
Then came a scrape and a rustle—a deliberate noise.
Petra dug frantically in her coat pockets, found a spider light. But where were the matches?
A low staccato tapping, a noise that sent a shock through her, like ice water.
The tapping and the smell … a spider. She nearly whimpered with terror.
Matches—inside pocket. With fingers stiff from cold, she fumbled at her coat’s top button. She tried to tear it off, but the pain made her head spin.
The tapping stopped.
The top button was undone. She started on the next.
The tapping began again, closer now.
Her stomach muscles clenched fiercely and her breath came in whistling gasps as she fought with the second button. She could hardly feel her fingers.
Now that one was out. She tackled the third.
Closer came the tapping, a rapid double beat. The spider was drumming on the ground with its feet. From the vibrations, it could map the space and find its prey. Why hadn’t it smelled her? The cold. The cold had dulled its senses.
The third button was out.
Ignoring stabbing pain, Petra forced her arm down to the inside pocket where her matches were. She opened the packet with trembling fingers, pulled out a match and dropped it. Piss! The second followed it to the ground.
She held onto the third and struck it. Light flared.
She dropped that match too when she saw its flame reflected six times in the eyes of the spider that stood not a dozen feet to her left. From the darkness came a thuppety-thup as the spider ran a few feet closer. Then the tapping resumed.
The image etched in Petra’s mind, like crags outlined by lightning, was of a portia, ugliest of spiders. A mass of fuzz and bristles covered its body and upper legs, but its lower legs were skinny and bare, like eight small stilts. The creature was probably half her weight, but looked a lot bigger. A portia preferred to eat other spiders, but would not disdain to eat a human girl if it could catch one.
Petra’s breath and fingers shook. The fourth match flared, and she held its flame to the wick of the spider light, then set that down beside her.
The spider regarded her with unblinking, onyx eyes.
She unsheathed her trail knife. She’d paid attention to spiders in school, and knew a few things about portias. They were usually smart, calculating, and cautious—like Otger Brok. They didn’t rush into things. But they were stupid in the cold. She could see snow clotted among its leg bristles, and a dewing of water on its back. That’s why it hadn’t attacked yet. Strange that it was awake at all.
The portia had stopped with two legs raised. After a moment, it walked backwards to a narrowing of the space. It disliked the smell of the spider light.
The portia waited, too.
In the candle’s dim light, Petra could see that she was in a narrow space between tilted rock faces—a split in the rock. The split was widest at the floor. Seven feet above, it narrowed to a crack about eighteen inches wide. Snowflakes drifted between tangled roots. That must be how she’d got here: she’d fallen through a crack concealed by scrub. She was inside the rock on which she and Otger had fought. At one end of the space was the portia’s nest, a stiff sack of matted web and litter. At the other, narrower end, stood the portia.
She’d fallen into a spider’s hole, and Otger Brok had left her there to die.
The portia watched Petra and waited.
It can wait a long time, thought Petra. Hours and hours. Days, even. Portias don’t care about time. It can wait until I fall asleep, or die of cold and thirst.
But it wouldn’t have to wait that long. Her candle would last only half an hour.
Why hadn’t it bitten her while she lay unconscious? A portia had only one natural enemy: another portia. Perhaps it had thought Petra another of its kind, a bigger one come to devour it. Startled by her sudden arrival, the spider had fled—then returned. Returned from where?
Behind the portia was darkness.
She lit a match. The flame danced in the spider’s eyes. Deep in the shadow behind it lay drifted snow—a way out. But the portia did not seem inclined to move.
Petra pulled her staff into her lap and began to whittle. She cut a notch in the wood near the ferrule, fitted the edge of the knife’s guard into it, then scored the wood with the edge of the pommel. At that mark, she cut a second notch, so that the knife handle could rest snugly against the wood. Around the top third of the staff was a grip of waxed twine. This she cut loose. She gave the spider a hard look, then set about lashing the knife to the end of the staff. To make the lashing firm, she had to endure a shock of pain with every pull. With a last hitch, the work was done, and she’d made herself a spear.
“Okay, bug,” wheezed Petra. “You’re gonna wish you’d stayed in bed.”
Then she found that she couldn’t stand. It hurt to try, and the parallel walls were too steeply canted. She had to approach the portia on her knees, which didn’t help her confidence. The makeshift spear was too long for the confined space, and felt clumsy in her hands.
The portia attacked.
Thup, thuppety-thup went its stilt-legs. It dodged nimbly around the business end of the spear, running partly up the slope of talus against the wall. Petra had just time to snap the spear sideways and strike its legs. The legs folded and the portia rolled over the shaft to land on its back. While it struggled to right itself, Petra yanked the spear back and jabbed at it. So much of the spider was bristle that she’d no idea whether she struck anything important. The spider sprang backwards, spun, then vanished into the gloom.
“Oh, shit,” said Petra, shakily. Now the spider would wait outside for her to stick her head out. She raised the spear to lean on it.
As she knelt there, a shower of snow and pine needles fell on her neck. She had only an instant to glance up before the portia, which had climbed silently though the crack above her, let go and dropped.
It happened too fast for thought. Petra jerked on the spear to put the tip between herself and the falling spider. With a crunch, the knife blade punched into the portia’s thorax, right between its spayed out legs. Impaled on the blade, the spider thrashed, its juices spraying out, its hooked feet whacking and scratching at her head. The spear toppled and the spider on the end of it thumped into the dirt. Grunting and gasping, Petra thrust the spear into the tangle of bristles and legs over and over until it stopped twitching.
She had to curl against the wall until her stomach muscles unclenched.
Petra walked through the camp gate as tall as she could and carried her spear as a warrior would. She might have lost a fistfight with Otger, but she’d beaten her first spider, and of that she was proud. She’d stuck its head on the tip of the spear as proof.
Her bruised and bloodied appearance drew a small crowd. “What happened?” they asked. “Who did it?”
“I fell in a hole and a portia attacked me,” was all she said.
They sent for her mother.
Beyond the circle of concerned faces lurked a boy with a dirty coat and staring eyes and a face as grey as the fog. Otger Brok.
No one but Petra noticed him. Well you should stare, she thought. You left me for dead in a spider’s lair, and here I am back like a risen one. I know what you are, Otger Brok, and you know that I know. For Petra, that was satisfaction enough.
When her mother arrived to scold her with questions, she leaned on her staff and looked ill. She didn’t have to pretend. Her mother had no choice but to take her home.
The sloping canvas glowed. The light dappled as a raven flashed by.
The comforting shush and thrum of a breeze over the storm roof, and the bleating of sheep. It was quiet in camp. No voices.
Petra lay in a dreamy half-doze, luxuriating in the bed’s warmth and the scent of mountain flowers. Her mother had put sprays of them in jugs around her partition. That was different.
She tried to sit up. The muscles down her front and around her ribs contracted painfully. She breathed gently to relax them. Of course, Otger Bloody Brok, damn him to a jugger tank. But for now, she was too comfortable for the thought of Otger to distress her.
Something else tugged at her memory. Something important.
She touched the poultice on her eye. Remembering the eye was enough to add its aching to the rest. There was a gap where the leaning tooth had been. Genna had given her something for pain, then yanked it out. Luckily, the lost tooth was from the bottom on one side—not too obvious. Her lower chest was wrapped in bandages. That felt strange. A fractured rib, Genna had said.
A gentle squeeze to her left breast made her grimace and huff. Gods piss on him. Her breasts didn’t make a big target, but he’d got her good anyway.
Something fearfully important tugged at her memory. Part of her brushed it aside, would not allow it to come forward to ruin her peace.
The spider? She’d beaten a portia in its own lair. That was a memory to relish, not to fear. For a moment she basked in the anticipation of ducking into the school tent, her trail skills indisputably proven, like Kas—
Memory crashed through, a brutal realization that hit Petra like a fist. She sat up, the clutching pain making her groan. She stared in horror at the ghastly sunlight, the stupid flowers. She listened to the deathly silence of the camp.
The relief party had gone without her.