Warning, arachnophobes! This story is about fighting spiders!
Last Tuesday, in a post about finishing your work, Chuck Wendig wrote "Writing is a journey. Driving is a journey. Sometimes driving means taking the exit — get off the highway, and find the backroads. Drive down the backroads, you might see some unexpected sights. You might see a weird little restaurant, or a pretty bridge, or some guy riding an elk hunting giant spiders with a flaming crossbow." He then went on urge someone to write that story about the guy riding the elk. Well, Chuck, you were wrong on one point--that rider's no guy. But for the rest...here's your story.
Artima looked up from the weapons she tended with the attention a woman lavishes on that which keeps her alive. “What?”
Herbert of Callia always looked like he’d lost his last friend. His expression now suggested that he’d found that friend rotting behind the castle. “The spiders.”
“I thought they killed all of those while you were still learning arms.”
The little man shrugged. Herbert swore he had no dwarf blood, but he was small, hairy, and mean enough she figured that for a lie. “Looks like they didn’t get them all.”
He was also her armsmaster, and Artima knew what he wanted.
“You never taught me how to fight the spiders.”
Herbert sighed. “I never thought you’d need to. But now…Call everyone to the practice courts.”
The horses were restless. Neither Artima nor her companions in arms could see any spiders, but their mounts knew. They rode into battle anyway, horses trembling.
Twenty-seven young knights fought the huge arachnids, which fired blasts of acidic webbing from spinnerets they directed with uncanny force and precision. The knights fought with spears and arrows. The latter kept them out of range of the webs, but arrows seemed to enrage the creatures more than they disabled them.
Then the webbing hit the horses. The animals screamed with the pain, and every horse bolted for the camp, with or without their riders.
Worse, when the knights regrouped to nurse their wounds and those of their mounts, most of the horses ran again. Several knights went in pursuit, and no one was deluded enough to think they meant to drag the animals back.
Artima looked at the shrunken group of fighters. “We’ll have to fight afoot.”
No one looked pleased, but no one actually said they wouldn’t. The creatures had to be defeated, and they had vowed to defend the nation.
Artima found Herbert of Callia. “Tell me everything you know of fighting the spiders. Our knights defeated them once. There must be something we’re missing.”
He looked up from a huge book. “I have yet to discover how it was done. Only that they, too, found that horses couldn’t be made to fight spiders.”
Horses, thought Artima, have more sense than humans.
She mustered the remaining knights and led the charge into the spiders’ lair. The giant creatures waited in the trees above, firing web at the fighters, then dropping onto them with their venomous fangs. Screams of the wounded—both human and arachnid, for the humans battled ferociously—echoed from the hills. Artima fought with sword in her right hand, dagger in the left. The creatures were too close to make use of spear or bow. Her back against a tree, she swung, lopping the head from a spider even as a hot band of webbing shot from above onto her left hand. She dropped her dagger, leaping from under the tree before another strand could entrap her. Pulling a horn from her belt, she sounded the retreat.
Again the little band of fighters—reduced now to less than a dozen—gathered in the clearing by the large fire Herbert of Callia had kindled.
“I know now what you have to do,” he said.
“Not all of you. Just Artima.”
“I say, why?” That was Boris. He nursed a gash on his arm where a web had dragged, searing the flesh as it went, but he was ready to keep fighting. “Tell us what to do, and we’ll all go back.”
Herbert shook his head. “It can only be Artima. You will see.” He looked again at his prize pupil, the only female knight left standing. “You need a mount that has no fear of the spiders.”
“That would help,” she said, not trying to hide the sarcasm. “You have such a horse tied behind a tree?”
Herbert shook his head. “Nor can it fear fire. Flaming arrows will defeat the spiders.”
“Oh, that makes it easier. We’ve dozens of horses that just love fire and spiders.”
“No horse. And only a woman can ride this mount.” Herbert stepped into a thicket and returned, leading a bull elk by the antlers. He seemed to be muttering spells into its ear, which at least made the creature obey.
“Come here, girl!” Herbert of Callia didn’t wait to see if Artima obeyed. He gestured at Boris. “Give her a leg up.”
Artima was glad of Boris’ help. The elk was as tall as her warhorse, and wore no tack. Boris held out laced hands and flung her upward, to land a little too heavily on the bony spine of her new mount.
She muffled a curse as Herbert let go the antler. “He’ll obey your commands,” he told Artima.
She ordered the animal to stand, and it waited calmly while Herbert took a crossbow from one of the other knights, and passed the quiver up to Artimas. She slung it into place while he wrapped the curve of the bow in cloth and dipped it into the fire. When it burst into flames, he handed her the weapon.
The elk ran toward the heart of the spiders’ lair, as Artima pulled an arrow from the quiver and set it alight as well. The men were running behind her, also armed with torches and bows to fire flaming arrows. It didn’t matter. Her mount bore her straight to the enemy, and her bow sang as it burned, firing arrow after arrow into the ghastly creatures, who screamed and burst into flames themselves as her bolts, each catching fire as it passed through the burning cloth, sank into body after bloated body.
When Herbert sounded the retreat, the forest was ablaze. They had only to shoot any that tried to escape the flames.
Artima let the villagers and soldiers, who appeared only after the spiders were dead, deal with the fire. She dropped the charred remains of her crossbow and slid from the back of the elk, resting a singed hand on its neck.
The great beast turned and disappeared into the forest, leaving only a pile of steaming manure to prove it had ever existed.