Fear kept my steps nimble. All my life, sentries had guarded these underground tunnels beneath the city of Erania. There was no one now.
My clansmen hid in their nests, on my orders.
Darkness warped my sense of direction as cold shriveled the marrow in my bones.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
I froze. Were those…footsteps? Pressing my back against the chilled earth of the tunnel walls, I waited for the intruder to pass. No one materialized from whence I’d come. Yet the pounding stuffed my ears. Slumping, I realized my heart was to blame.
Another time, I would have laughed at how I leapt at shadows in my own clan home, but not this night. No doubt the one shadow I failed to outmaneuver would belong to an invader, the one footstep I ignored would be the one to crush me, and the one breath I held would be my last.
The people of my clan, the Araneidae, were gentle silk spinners, artisans without armaments.
I was one of the few Araneidae who favored weapons. Ironic I was unarmed now. Habit made my fingers creep down my thigh, but my quiver was absent and my bow leaned forgotten in a corner of my room. I’d been dressed for bed, not battle, when I witnessed first blood spilled.
Those who had been our guardians when my head sank into my pillow, the Theridiidae clan, had attacked during the night. The murderous bastards had betrayed us. Casualties littered the city above. Wounded huddled in the tunnel behind me, lives I had but this chance to save. I’d sent a plea for aid to the one clan cruel enough to stave off the Theridiidae invasion and, I hoped, merciful enough I hadn’t signed my death warrant by exposing my soft underbelly to them.
Gods, I hoped the Mimetidae weren’t hungry.
Light burned ahead, marking the tunnel’s end. Creeping to the edge where dark tunnel met lit square, I scanned the cobbled roads for intruders. I saw none. No shadows danced. No sound carried. All was quiet in this forgotten sector where stone statuary stood as silent sentinels to the night.
Swallowing a bitter lump, I stepped from protection onto the uneven pavers.
Frigid winds sliced my cheeks raw, and my breath hung in clouds suspended before me.
Between one frantic beat of my heart and the next, darkness coalesced and Theridiidae warriors bled from the shadows I’d just deemed safe. Their faces were familiar. They’d been employed by my father. Sightless eyes…blackened skin…the stink of rotten flesh…both dead…
I squeezed my eyes shut, stomach roiling, ready to spill.
“You’re out past your curfew, aren’t you,Lourdes?” The guard’s concern rang genuine until my eyes opened and I caught the eager gleam in his. “Your father will worry.” He presented his arm to me. This morning I would have accepted it without hesitation. “I’ll take you home.”
His companions smirked, confirming my suspicions. They were conspirators as well.
“Thank you.” Winter’s chill kissed my bare shoulders, and I shivered. “I know my way.”
“Do you now?” He stared where my nipples pebbled so hard they burned. “The city at night is a dangerous place.” He rubbed his jaw.
“You’re wearing but a scrap of silk.”
“I forgot my coat.” I forced an embarrassed smile and poised to turn. “I’ll go fetch it.”
He nodded. “I’ll go with you.”
“No.” My voice rang brittle with the cold and my fear. “I mean, I can do it myself.”
“Is there something the matter?” His name came to me. Tyrone. He and his men were Theridiidae and guardians of the wall. They had once been trustworthy. Now they would die.
A bulky male at Tyrone’s right lumbered forward. “Enough. Look at her eyes. They’re all white. Barely a pinprick of blue is left.” He leered at me, leaning closer. “This one—she knows.”
“I’d hoped this could be done humanely.” Tyrone sighed. “Forgive me, child, but this battle must be won.” He dipped his chin at Bulky.
“Calum, she’s yours. Keep her quiet.”
My next move would dictate how my life ended. Here and now, or at a more distant hour.
“I’ve something to occupy her mouth nicely.” Calum reached a meaty hand toward me. I darted aside and he stumbled. A smile tempted my lips. I’m faster. I can wear him down. I can…
I gasped as thick arms circled my waist from behind. Another of Tyrone’s guards had sneaked behind me. I couldn’t breathe. Dots swarmed my vision. No. I would not die this way.
“You’ll like this,” he murmured by my ear. “Or not.”
I struggled in his hold. “I will not speak with traitors.”
“Don’t worry your pretty head.” He licked my pulse. “Calum’s not much for talking.”
This night, neither was I. I was not a warrior born, but perhaps a warrior made.
Icy adrenaline trickled through my veins. I was half Theridiidae, trained by one of their best strategists, my father. The short stature and delicate build I’d inherited from Mother’s clan meant no one suspected the tricks he’d taught me. Araneidae spun silk ten times the strength of the strongest metals, and my fingertips tingled where my spinnerets loosed a single silken thread.
Prickles coasted along my spine as his hot breath fanned my damp neck.
This new guard held me steady as Calum approached. Closing my eyes, I said a prayer to the gods as I sank my elbow into the guard’s gut. He was tall. When he gasped and bent forward, he leaned over my shoulder. Ours eyes met. His narrowed with thinly veiled contempt. Perfect.
I looped my thread behind his head, jerking down hard enough his chin caught my shoulder. While he was stunned, I whirled to his side, out of Calum’s reach, until I stood at his back and my makeshift garrote sliced his throat. My knee at his lower back gave me leverage.
Using my weight, I pulled until he gurgled wetly and my thread flossed between his vertebrae.
As his final breaths clouded the air, I let go and shoved him from me. His cheek bounced off the stone pavers on impact.
For a moment, quiet reigned as Calum stared at me in disbelief. When his jaw fell open in a roar that shook me to the bone, I used the guards’ momentary shock to slip past them, and I ran.
Heavy footsteps thundered behind me. I’d lost the element of surprise, and Calum was too hulking and too furious for me to fell him without aid. Pumping my legs as fast as I could, I wished I wore pants rather than my frivolous nightgown to this midnight rendezvous.
Lungs ablaze, I savored the burn, let it propel me toward the oblong statuary where I hoped my saviors waited.
Turning a sharp corner, I skittered across the cobbles. A strong arm plucked me up, held me to a hard, male chest. Anise-scented breath hit my cheek. “Don’t move or I’ll kill you.”
When his warm chin brushed my icy shoulder, my shivers wracked me into compliance.
“Hand her here.” A female’s voice I recognized rasped from my right. “Go on, then.”
With reluctance, my captor shoved me toward Isolde, the maven of the Mimetidae clan and my mother’s dearest friend. I held tight to hope that friendship extended to me and my favor.
“Be still, child.” She hid me at her back. “They come.”
Sure enough, voices rose from beyond our hiding place. I picked out Calum and Tyrone, but the others were a mishmash of grunts and shouts. More footsteps fell. They were closer now.
“All right.” Isolde flicked her wrist in dismissal. “Go have your fun. I’ll guard our host.”
My eyes bulged as dozens of Mimetidae crept from the shadows. I hadn’t seen them, hadn’t known they were there. Excitement punched through my fear. Yes, these silent warriors were the ones I needed. Leaning forward, I tracked their steady advance. Isolde allowed it, shuffling aside, giving me ample room to watch them work. I think she’d planned to all along.
She slapped my back. “This, child, is what I call living.” She loosed a war whoop that her clansmen lifted higher, louder, until their bloodcurdling cries filled the chill air.
Theridiidae who had loomed over me, taunting me, were cut down by Mimetidae steel.
I inched closer to the fray, my fingers digging into the statue meant to shield me. Relief swamped me, and I pressed my cheek to the cold stone. Watching their swordsmanship lulled me into a false sense of well-being. Though I was still in danger, I exalted in the momentary reprieve.
“They’re beautiful to watch.” I complimented her clan’s skill, belatedly realizing my gaze had stuck to the same tall warrior, mesmerized by his fluid motions and perfect form. Darkness shrouded his face, and I wished for a moment I could see the expression hidden there. Was his face as flushed as mine? His teeth bared in my same vicious smile? Oh, but that I held my bow.
I took a step as if to join them.
Isolde gripped my shoulder. “Not now, you’ll only get in his way.” Amusement filled her tone, and I had no doubt she’d noticed the male I couldn’t tear my gaze from even to look at her.
When the last Theridiidae was slain, the tall warrior jerked his chin, summoning the others to follow him. They dissolved into shadow, leaving me with Isolde, who turned me to her.
“Gods’ web.” She led me to a stone bench and sat me down. “Put this on before your teeth shatter.” She shrugged off her coat and passed it to me, but my arms shook too hard to ring the sleeves. “Old as you are, you ought to know better than to run around half naked during the northland winter.” With a grunt, she dressed me. “Now, what’s this about?”
“I apologize for the vagueness of my letter.” I was humbled by the fact she’d come at my request without so much as a warning on my part. “I wish I could have gone into greater detail.”
“I got the gist. That’s what matters.” She frowned at me. “What’s happened to Reine?”
Sightless eyes…blackened skin…the stink of rotten flesh…both dead…
I exhaled, spitting out the words before their taste choked me. “Mother is dead.”
“I thought as much.” Isolde lowered her head. “How did she pass?”
“She fell ill this morning. Her hand was cramping.” My throat closed. “She brushed it off, said it was old age catching up to her.” I finally voiced my fear. “I say she was poisoned.”
“Have you any suspects?” She backtracked. “Or better yet, any proof?”
“I saw a young male leaving my parents’ room—a guard, or so I assumed. Mother and Father were expecting me last night, so I thought perhaps he was meant as an escort.” I crushed the flash of memory too late. I inhaled long and slow. “Before I reached their door, he shoved me aside and fled. By the time I heard the alarm, I’d found…”
“You don’t have to say it.” She waved me into silence. “Your father was Theridiidae. I’d wager Ennis taught you to recognize signs of envenomation in case you or your siblings carried his genes. An accidental bite is a hell of a way to lose young.” She exhaled through her teeth. “Wait. If Reine—Ennis’s gone too, then?”
“Yes.” They were a nested pair, and their life threads were joined. “He followed her.”
“Gods, Reine.” She stared at the sky. “I’m going to miss you.”
Seconds ticked past while she gazed upward, her cheeks glistening in the moonlight.
I broke the silence, answering her earlier question. “Father taught me the signs.”
“Then you know they were poisoned without a doubt. I trust your judgment.” She scrubbed her face with her palms. “What do you want?” She pegged me with a hard stare. “Say it straight. Our swords are coated with the blood of your enemies, my enemies now. What’s next?”
My fingernails bit into my palms. “The Theridiidae must be driven from Erania.”
She nodded. “Done.”
“We’ll need protection.”
“You’re to be the new Araneidae maven.” Her pause was thoughtful. “You’ve no partisan?”
“No.” Heat tried to thaw my frozen cheeks. “I’ve been somewhat…sheltered.”
Isolde whistled. “Well, that’s good luck on my part.”
I gave no response.
“All right, fair enough.” She rolled her shoulders. “You’ve stated your terms. Now you’ll hear mine. In exchange for declaring ourselves the Theridiidae’s enemies, clearing your city and guarding your home, you’ll wed a male from my clan and outfit each of my clansmen in Araneidae armor.”
My mouth fell open. “That’s outrageous. I’m not wedding a Mimetidae.”
“You’re too good for us, eh?” She laughed. “How’s this? I want that armor. It’s nonnegotiable.” Her eyes shone with new light. “You carry out the binding ceremony with a male of my choosing. During the month before the next new moon, I promise your new partisan will give you the gift you want most. If he doesn’t, then you’re free. No wedding. No strings.”
“What can he possibly offer me?”
She snorted. “You mean that you can’t afford to purchase yourself?”
I had the grace to blush.
Isolde leaned in and bared her teeth. “He’ll give you revenge.”
Saliva pooled in my mouth, the promise of my parents’ killer brought to justice the sweetest temptation she could have offered. Armor I could afford to gift the Mimetidae. The use of my body, I’d give that up as well if it meant keeping my people safe. The rest I’d ponder later.
Though Isolde regarded me kindly, her gray hair and wrinkles making her grandmotherly in appearance, she was a renowned warrior in her own right. She led the Mimetidae after all. If she wanted, she could take what she desired from me with the same ease the Theridiidae could.
Instead, alliance hung in the frigid air between us. Join our clans. Start anew. Take revenge.
“I’ll agree to the binding, and I’ll outfit your clan with our finest armor, but if your clansman fails to avenge my parents’ death by the new moon, I won’t wed him. If he fails, then your clan must remain and safeguard us until I find a partisan of my own choosing.”
Her smile was slow in coming. No doubt she had weighed every angle before saying, “Agreed.” She stood and grabbed my arm, hauling me in the direction I’d come from, where the tunnels began. Waving her hand, Isolde waited until a male appeared at my elbow. “Take her home.”
I took a step before facing her. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. We bargained. We each got what we wanted. It was a fair deal.” She cocked her head to one side. “Know this. I want results, the same as you.” Her toothy grin made another appearance. “The faster your clan is bound to mine, the faster our swords will lift in your defense.” Her expression turned earnest. “I want to help. Gods know I do, but I can’t afford to pay favors when I’ve empty pockets. We’ll reclaim your city, protect your people—”
“—but not until after the ceremony,” I supplied.
She nodded an affirmation.
Despite the way my stomach knotted, I set my jaw. “Can you secure the sanctuary?”
“I can and will.” Her gaze lifted to the stars. “I’ll see to your parents’ arrangements.”
“Thank you, but I’ll see to them myself so long as you’ll guard my stewards.”
“Consider it done.”
Another gesture brought several males forth. I noticed the tall warrior was not among them. Scanning each face, I wondered which was meant for me. I decided it didn’t matter. I could afford no fanciful notions of courtship now.
“Have your chosen at the sanctuary in an hour.” I gave her my back. “Don’t be late.”
She slapped her thigh. “No cold feet on this one.”
Her merry cackles echoed as I marched down the tunnel’s gullet and toward my fate.
Silk whispered beneath the soles of my bare feet. Each step down the aisle carried me closer to the podium, and the cleric and the destiny I couldn’t avoid. I was the eldest daughter of the Araneidae clan heads, and the youngest maven ever appointed. My reign had begun in blood.
News of my parents’ death had traveled fast. On its heels came the realization I alone controlled the purse strings for the richest clan in the Araneae Nation, and I was unbound to a male, placing me and my clan in mortal danger. This farce of a binding was my only hope.
Exhaling a shaky breath, I continued my procession with my head high and eyes forward.
My steps slowed as I noticed the barren walls. I had no cause to visit the sanctuary during winter, when the ornate tapestries were packed for the season. Their absence robbed the space of its comforting presence. Woven with the life threads of nested pairs, the tapestries were a treasure greater than gold. They were also the reason I ordered my cleric to remain belowground and guard them rather than preside over the ceremony. I wished for my cleric, but theirs must do.
Isolde’s warriors ringed the room. Their armor held a dullness to match their expressions, both having lost their shine long ago. The tallest among them stood two heads above my height of five feet. His black hair brushed broad shoulders, and his eyes, the fierce green of new growth in spring, tracked me with predatory interest that raised gooseflesh. He seemed…familiar to me.
Mimetidae picked their teeth with the bones of their enemies, after said enemies were spit-roasted and eaten. My palms sweated as I wondered which of his hungers heated his gaze.
Once I reached the cleric’s feet, I knelt. I bowed my head, but not before I glimpsed twin shrouds spun from the same saffron-colored silk as the runner rolled down the center aisle. Araneidae gold, my clan color. There was no mistaking that shade of dye, no comfortable illusion I could retreat behind, no escaping the fact my parents lay there, lifeless and gone from this world. Reining in hot tears, I stared where my hands clutched the silken fall of my gown. I was golden and glorious. Even my dark hair shimmered with glittering ribbons and adornments, all woven by the males of my clan.
Amazing what could be accomplished in an hour, when lives were at stake.
Rhythmic pounding in my ears unsettled my stomach. I closed my eyes and wished I could block out the sound of the battering ram slamming home against the sanctuary’s barred doors. Frustrated beyond patience, I coughed into my fist and hoped the cleric took the hint and began.
He didn’t. Instead, he gestured toward Isolde, and I glanced where she lounged on a bench in the first row. Smoke spiraled from the corner of her mouth courtesy of the rolled tube of paper pinched between her lips. Embers flared red at the end before she stood and stamped out the light with her boot heel.
Though my lip almost curled at her crassness, I honored the manners Mother had taught me.
“Isolde, Maven of the Mimetidae clan,” he addressed her. “You’ve come bearing a gift?”
Her weathered face split wide in a grin. “As a matter of fact, I have.” She turned to her right, and I followed her seeking gaze until it lit upon the face of the same tall warrior I’d admired. A jerk of her chin summoned him forward. “I offer my youngest son, Rhys, as partisan.”
I gaped as he approached. He was my gift? I’d known her plan, but I hadn’t realized…
He stopped at my side. His fingers drummed the hilt of his sword, which made the worn scabbard tap his muscular calf left bare by his ivory ceremonial kilt. I glanced between Rhys and the cleric, who nodded encouragement as he asked, “You would serve as this maven’s partisan?”
My gaze flew to Rhys’s face where I read grim acceptance. “I will serve her.”
Regret tightened my chest, but I tamped it down. Both of us were prisoners of fate now.
Copyright © 2012 Hailey Edwards
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication