“Take your time, Claire,” The captain of the guard coaxed the young woman. “Start from the beginning and try to remember every detail.”
She nodded her blonde head submissively and tentatively brushed her bangs behind her ear. “It started like we do like every fortnight. We meet up in a clearing about 10 minutes walk from here. Rehtu brings old bottles of ale or wine for us to drink and we light a big bonfire…”
* * * *
Several of the others had already arrived to the small grove when Claire arrived. The wood was gathered to the side, the bonfire was lit, and it appeared that Kytel was already into Rehtu’s purloined booze. She took a seat next to Rehtu and smiled sweetly at him when he slipped his arm around her waist.
“So my brother just came back from the south with today’s caravan. Down there are these giant spider monsters called Raknar.” Sani commented as she waited for the bottle to reach her. Claire shuddered; she hated spiders.
“Oh, I’ve heard of them,” quipped Kytel before belching. “They’re like the size of a horse or something.”
“As if that wasn’t enough, my brother says they can spit venom too, almost twenty feet!” Sani continued.
“No way!” Rehtu protested. “I thought it was webs they spit out.”
Claire didn’t like Rehtu’s attention going away from her, especially over something as gross as giant spiders. She pouted and pulled on his sleeve. Her subtle demand for his attention failed though, as he kept his focus on the discussion.
“Spider’s don’t spit webs, you Waxhead.” Kytel laughed. “They use their butts or something for that.”
“I’ve got an ‘or something’ for you right here!” Micki joked with a lewd gesture, standing up. “And I need to go shake it in the bush. Be right back.”
“Don’t be so vulgar, Micki!” Claire scowled at the young man, taking offense at his behavior. He just laughed as he moved out of their line of sight and into the brush.
“I’m just glad that none of those nasty things are up here.” Sani went on, twisting a curl of her hair around a finger. “Can you imagine how our guards would handle it? I bet they’d all run away scared.” The group chuckled as a half-full bottle of old ale was passed around.
“That’s not a nice thing to say,” chastised Claire, ready to take offense at anything after Micki’s behavior. “My uncle’s a guardsman!”
“I’d be afraid of anything that could see in the dark like those things can.” Rehtu admitted. He draped his arm loosely over Clair’s shoulders and gazed into the forest. “I wonder what’s taking him so long?”
“Micki!” Kytel called out, “If you shake it more than twice, you’re playing with it!”
But only silence answered him. “He’s pranking us.” Rehtu claimed, though it sounded almost like a question to Claire.
“What if he fell and hurt himself or something?” asked Sani after a few more silent moments.
Kytel snatched up a burning branch from the bon fire. “Ugh, what a buzz kill. Let’s go find his sorry ass before he gets lost or something.”
“I don’t want to go out into the dark,” whined Claire, trying to cover up her fear. She hated the woods, she hated the dark, and the only reason she came to these get-togethers was to be with Rehtu.
Rehtu smoothed her hair gently before standing. He spoke softly in her ear, “Just sit tight here, we’ll be back in a minute.”
She heard them thrash into the bush in the same direction Micki had gone. Their boisterous laughter gave her a small amount of comfort as she watched the flames of the fire dance with the shadows of the trees.
Suddenly Claire heard Sani’s scream pierce the night. Kytel broke through the brush and stumbled back into camp. He turned to look at her as he shouted, “Run, Claire! Get out of here!”
From the same break in the brush lept a giant mass, hurtling itself at her friend. It’s body reflected the firelight with an oily gleam, revealing eight huge, chitin-clad limbs.
* * * *
Claire could not recall how she was able to find her way back to the village in the darkness, or anything else she experienced during her short journey. She did remember someone wrapping a blanket around her, the cocooning effect causing her to scream.
“Has Rehtu come back to the village yet?” she asked with fragile hope in her voice.
“I don’t know, but I will go ask the other guardsmen. Perhaps he’s returned while we were talking.” The Captain did not have the heart to tell her that they had already found the mangled remains of her four friends in the vicinity of their small clearing.