The Ballad of Rika Strong-Arm - Episode 5
Into The Woods
I had never been much of a walker before. Sure, I would go for hikes in the summer, or wander about town, aplenty… but I had never spent 8 hours a day just walking. Thankfully, we weren’t in any real hurry and took a half-hour break every two hours or so for the first few days.
The road was nice, if a bit dull. Hard-packed dirt with grass on either side that seemed to stretch on forever. The city behind us shrank to nothing on the first day, but the forest grew ever larger. I was surprised to find that we had been seeing the treetops of the tallest trees in the heart of the woods, as the smaller trees came into view over the horizon. Those massive old trees in the deep woods must be nearly as tall as mountains, to loom so large in the distance.
By the fifth day, my feet had grown tough enough to go six straight hours in a row, eating as we walked, and I felt like we were really getting somewhere then. The trees had been spotty at first, just one or two growing in the grassy fields, but soon they began to crowd toward the road. It felt like we were joining a group meandering in the same direction. There wasn’t a definite line where the forest began, there just seemed to be less sunlight making it through the trees to the road. All too soon, the sky disappeared entirely behind the canopy.
I found the forest charming, at first. Full of birdsong, the occasional pleasant breeze, and our easy chatter; it was a nice walk. Amelia was in the middle of telling me a story about the time she had been caught robbing a merchant riding on his camel when she stopped suddenly.
I faltered and looked around. I couldn’t see anything important. Just trees, and some bird doing what looked like a mating dance. Then, I realized that it was not perched atop a branch as I had thought but seemed to be hovering in the air.
That wasn’t right. It was too large to be a hummingbird, and its body was moving too awkwardly to hover anyway. Then I realized what was wrong.
The bird was caught in a spider web. Invisible strings kept it held firmly in place as it wriggled and writhed pitifully, unable to escape the trap. Its wings were spread wide, head cocked awkwardly, and one leg tucked in close while the other was stuck out. I moved toward it to go help, but Amelia stopped me with a hand.
The spider struck like lightning and began spinning the bird. It became a white blob in seconds and disappeared behind the bulk of the monstrous creature. I shuddered and walked away. Amelia followed shortly after, a silence hanging in the air between us.
“So, what did the merchant do?” I asked, hoping she would pick up her story where she’d left off.
“I’ll tell you later. We should keep our eyes open for now” she cautioned. I nodded my agreement and tried to see if there were any invisible traps ahead of us. Unsurprisingly, I did not find any.
Amelia walked slightly ahead of me, scanning the road thoroughly, and waving a stick in front of her. I kept my hand on the hilt of my sword, ready to draw at any moment. I worried that Amelia could hear the pounding of my heart as we walked in eerie silence.
I had been paying so much attention to the road, that I was caught completely off-guard when we walked into the clearing. The sun was far lower in the sky than I had expected, and I suggested we stop for a late lunch. It was closer to dinnertime, but that didn’t matter much. Amelia agreed, and we sat down around an old firepit left in the clearing by other travelers.
The food in our packs was well-suited to travel, but it wasn’t very enjoyable to eat. Everything was dried; tough and chewy. Still, it would not spoil on us. Amelia was better at building fires than I was, so I started to unpack our shelter from my bag.
I fought my way through a strip of meat as we put the tent up, giving my jaw as strenuous an exercise as I had my feet. It was nicely seasoned, but the pepper made me want to cough and sneeze. Though the spring thaw had already set in, the night was growing cold.
I had expected that we might snuggle under the blankets to fight off the chill, as we had several nights already, but I was wrong. Tonight, one of us was to always stay outside the tent, awake and aware. We’d never really kept thorough watch before, as we were both full-blooded humans who needed eight hours of sleep a night. Luckily, we had stopped early this time.
Amelia took the first watch, and sleep came easily to me. Though my feet had learned to endure the strain of our journey, it did nothing to alleviate my exhaustion. Unloading cargo from a ship required an entirely different sort of stamina than this endless trek. I don’t remember dreaming, just waking up to Amelia’s gentle touch.
“Come on, it’s time for your watch” she yawned. I stretched and pulled a deep breath through my nose. How could four hours have passed already?
I got up and buckled my sword belt into place and strapped my shield to my arm. Honestly, by this point, I hardly even noticed the weight of it dangling from my left arm. I went outside to stoke the fire, glad for the fallen tree in the clearing that some previous adventurer had thought to cut into campfire logs. I would have paid them for their services if I could. Then again, I had no money or way of knowing who had done the good deed.
I don’t know if you’ve ever stayed up for several hours in the middle of the night after being woken up suddenly, and then had to stare into the darkness and hope you never see anything… but it’s not a great experience.
Sitting there, next to the fire, I could hardly see into the trees at all. Everything was shadow, and it all seemed to be moving in unnatural ways. I got up and moved to the rim of the light, walking a long, slow, circle around the camp. It was easier to see into the woods here, where the light wasn’t so bright. Still, nothing but shadow.
I tried swinging my sword a few times, practicing the techniques that Fynn had taught me. I was clumsy, for sure. The weight of the shield on my arm was new, and the sword I was swinging was much heavier than the wooden mop handle. Even Frost’s saber hadn’t been this heavy.
Once I had adjusted to the weight of my gear, I found a rhythm for my technique. My form was a little stiff and my motions were sluggish, but I found some confidence with my weapon. I figured we had decent chances for survival. I headed back to the fire and added a log, the other one had burned most of the way through, and then I sat there and listened.
The wood crackled as the fire licked at it, gaining purchase in the dry fibers, and the wind whistled gently through the branches of the trees. I could hear the fluttering of wings through the air but could see nothing in the black sky. Crickets chirped, owls hooted, and Amelia snored softly in the tent. Sometimes, she would cry out in her sleep and make a motion to stab someone. I wondered what things she had lived through, to inspire such horrible dreams.
I woke her when the sky had turned a steely gray, the early morning twilight before the dawn, and went back to sleep in the tent. My dreams were frantic and frenzied, full of scrambling creatures that swarmed.
Amelia woke me again, the sun was making her way across the sky already, and I got ready for the day. I had not been enjoying my cloak of spiders I was wearing in my dreams. We traded places once again and I found it much easier to scan the nearby woods this time around. The trees seemed so much friendlier in the light.
I spent much of the morning trying to find a good stance with my shield. Fynn had taught me to place my sword between my opponent and myself. The shield wouldn’t offer much protection in that stance.
I realized that I could use a hand-to-hand stance with my shield before me and still stay able to strike confidently. Bandits beware, Rika is armed.
When I sat down, I removed the shield from my arm and spent the rest of the morning working on my story. Rika and her pirate companion, her true name revealed to be Amelia (original, I know), were now scouring the island for materials they might construct a raft with. Learning to twist rope was their biggest project, as they would need a lot of it. Having stripped most of the trees on their beach of usable fiber, they were charting a star map of the island as they searched for more trees.
It was hard to move the story forward. The stakes were too low, and I couldn’t figure out how to raise them. How much challenge could trees offer?
Movement in the periphery of my vision startled me from my work, and I snapped my head up to pay attention. A spider roughly as large as a medium-sized dog was creeping into the tent. I could have screamed, but my voice stuck in my throat. Instead, I jumped to my feet and drew the sword from its scabbard.
The monstrous spider stopped mid-step and began to backtrack out of the tent. I stuck my blade deep into its abdomen and wrenched it away from the tent. Unfortunately for me, this did not kill the creature.
It whirled around on its eight legs and pounced on top of me. My sword fell from my grip and clattered on the hard-packed dirt of the forest road. I kept a firm hold on the two forelegs trying to draw me in for a bite and fought against the predatory arachnid pinning me down. I found myself wishing I had kept my shield where it was supposed to be. I couldn’t catch enough breath to call for help, all my focus was on not dying.
The spider went limp suddenly and collapsed on top of me in a heap. I screamed then. I screamed and shoved it off me, shuddering and shaking as I scrambled away from the hideous thing. Amelia pulled her rapier from the corpse and cleaned her blade. She was not looking at me, she was looking at my journal sitting near the smoldering firepit.
“Please, do not write when you’re supposed to be on watch, Rika” she said in a shaky voice.
“Yeah. Sorry” I panted, “I won’t do that again” I assured her. It had been too close a call for both of us. Amelia kissed me quickly, letting me know I was forgiven. We were both still learning so much.
“Good. Let’s get some breakfast, pack up, and get the hell out of here” she said with a smile failing to mask her fear, “the sooner we reach Tarethia, the better” she said, eyeing the trees warily. Wait… that didn’t make sense.
“I thought we were in Tarethia?” I said, confused.
“We are in the Tarethian Forest, the elven kingdom” she explained to me, “Their capitol city shares the same name” she added. I nodded silently and began to pack up our camp. I would not mind eating on the road today.
After an hour of walking, we ran into trouble. Again, we had been travelling quietly, on the lookout for any likely ambushes, when Amelia’s stick stuck in place. She let go, and it hung there in the air over the road. We looked to one another with a wince.
I drew my sword, took a deep breath, and sliced through the webs. The strands became visible as they fell on the road, picking up grit and dust, and Amelia bent down to scoop a handful of dirt. I didn’t understand why until she tossed it ahead of her. Most of it never reached the ground. I gawked, amazed by the number of webs blocking our way. Could it somehow be safer to abandon the road right now?
Amelia pressed ahead, slicing through the webs cautiously, and I followed quickly behind her. We were moving much slower now, but we couldn’t spot the lurking danger around us. I wanted to scream, to cry in frustration, but I kept my breathing steady and even. There was no way making that much noise could improve our situation. Perhaps, these webs were unattended, and nothing was noticing the change in tension. Didn’t spiders react to tugging and bouncing, not the strands breaking? That sounded right.
As though I had cursed us, Amelia’s blade caught in the webs. Her rapier simply did not have the weight of my arming sword and lacked the dual purpose of cutting and thrusting. Her weapon was made for quick piercing jabs in vital locations. She pulled on the blade, struggling against the webs. I cut her free with a sweeping slash, but the damage was already done. A spider the size of a carriage appeared out of the undergrowth as though it had formed there in an instant. Had it been there all along?
I began to hack my way forward, moving as quickly as possible, fighting with the webs that clung to my feet as I stepped on them in my hurry. Amelia reached into my bag and pulled something out. A flash of light and heat behind me said she must have grabbed a fire stick and ignited it with a swift blow against the road. She took the lead and burned the webs in front of us away, making significantly more progress than I had managed. I turned to keep an eye on the spider and felt my knees buckle. Had I not found my sea legs recently, I would have fallen then and there.
It was coming for us. Massive and spindly, with wicked fangs that waited to pierce my flesh. It lashed out at me, and I did everything I could to deter it.
My earliest training sessions with Fynn came to mind as I fended off probing strikes from the massive forelegs of the creature. I was blocking deft jabs, reading feints, and adjusting to the distance between myself and my opponent. Were it not a fight for survival, it could have been fun. As it was, I was terrified.
Seemingly tired of my ability to block it and cause minor damage to it, the spider moved off into the woods. I sighed in relief, but Amelia did not lessen her pace. If anything, she was moving faster now, swinging the fire before her like a broom sweeping dirt into the corners of a room. I tried to tell her the danger had passed, but she shushed me.
Without warning, Amelia dove to the side as the spider dropped out of a tree on top of where she had been. I found myself acting purely on reflex, thrusting my sword into the hideous face of the monster. It reeled back and rubbed legs against its mandibles, a loud rumbling coming from it. It shot up the side of a tree, and I turned to find Amelia.
The fire stick was lying in the road, spitting and fizzling as it burned, with its handle just out of her reach. She had dived right into a web when she dodged the spider. I ran over and cut her free. She stooped over to grab the burning flare, and I sheathed my weapon. Amelia’s sword was in a bush. I picked it up without thinking. Something touched me.
I dropped her sword on the ground. It was covered in spiders. I shook them off me and did an awkward dance as I shuddered. Amelia scoffed at me, scared the spiders from her weapon with the fire, and then stood up. I was about to turn around, but my feet jumped six feet in the air without telling the rest of my body about it first.
The massive spider had snuck up on me and grabbed the webs trailing from my boots. It yanked me off-balance and grabbed me with four of its legs.
The world blurred as I spun terrifyingly fast. My arms tucked to my sides, and then I dropped to the ground. I saw stars when my head hit the road.
The next thing I remember is Amelia dragging me along.
“Hey,” I said groggily, “I’m awake. What’s going on?” I asked and tried to get my feet under me. Amelia dropped me and fell into a sitting position.
“Oh, thank the gods” she sighed, “I don’t know how much farther I could have dragged you” she smiled at me. I looked around at the trees. They looked different. They were larger, much larger, and way more spaced apart than where the spiders had been. I couldn’t see any webs in the trees.
“Did it ever come back?” I asked, reaching for my waterskin. I needed something to drink.
“No. They left us alone once he ran off” Amelia shook her head as she had a drink for herself.
“What happened?” I asked when I found my breath.
“You dropped your sword”
“I remember that”
“I picked it up and slashed two of his eyes while he was busy with you. He dropped you and ran off at that point. I think you hit your head” she said with a shrug. I felt like she was right.
“And you’ve been dragging me ever since” I finished the tale for myself, rubbing at the raised bump on my scalp. Amelia snorted and shoved me playfully.
“Yeah. It’s been a pain” she teased.
“I bet. How did you handle the spiderwebs?” I asked. I couldn’t picture her dragging me and clearing spiderwebs. She frowned slightly.
“I had to leave you alone and burn every section before I could drag you through it” she said, taking another drink. I followed suit. My head was beginning to feel a little better.
“Just remember, for next time, that a spider’s weakness is the eyes” I joked, wiping my mouth.
“I think everyone hates losing an eye, Rika” Amelia said, rolling hers.
“I can’t even imagine losing three” I smiled. She sighed and stood up. Instead of making camp, it looked like she wanted to keep walking. The sun had set some time ago, it was dark already.
Wait… it was dark. But I could see. How was that working? We didn’t have any fire or light with us.
“Where are we?” I asked her. She grinned.
“The outskirts of Tarethia. If we push for a few hours, we can sleep in real beds tonight” she said, picking up the pace. I matched my stride to hers. Wow, she could be quick when she wanted to.
“Where is the light coming from?” I asked. Amelia shrugged.
“It doesn’t come from anywhere… it’s just, kinda always there. You get used to it”
“So, it’s magic?”
“No, Erica” she huffed, “Monstrous spiders and air that glows are just perfectly natural phenomena” she said sarcastically.
. . . I thought spiders were natural phenomena.
“Wait, the spiders are magical?” I clarified.
“No. They’re monstrous because magic is in the air” she explained. I wasn’t sure the answer really qualified as an explanation though.
“So, they are magic spiders” I concluded. She looked a little disappointed in me.
“Only if you and I are magic people, you twit” she patted my cheek and turned her attention back to the road. I rolled my eyes. Magic was confusing.