Should you find yourself in the village of Mochyndun you might be overwhelmed by the slight savor of pig. What can you expect? They’re everywhere. It’s what the town’s wealth, what little there is, is built on. The king of Beaucro‚t insists upon it so he might feed his soldiers. Oh, they grow other things, like graft, houses, orphaned grandmothers, and because of its location at a major river crossing, queens.
The town is governed like most in that kingdom. She has a municipal president and a couple of councilors, a magistrate, seven reeves–none of whom seem to understand the meaning of justice, a guild master who claimed to have been educated by dwarves, and a pillory manager.
Gus was a lonely little boy. He was worst than a stranger to the village of Mochyndun. He was an orphan.
Well, one family had lowered themselves enough to adopt him. They got a good return for their investment. Their house was never so clean, mending done in good order, and the harvest done without a bead of sweat on their brow. They truly lived like kings because of him.
They fed him only enough to keep him going. If he did not make his own britches, from the hair on his head, he would be doing all of that as naked as a plucked chicken.
Until one day he learned a terrible secret. He was an ulfgard, a werewolf. He was not the only one to learn it that day, either. See, he ran home from the river, one day, with the household laundry on his back. No, not because he was late or needed exercise. It is just that the town dogs enjoyed bullying him, nipping his heals, calling him names. It made the bullying they get, the kicking, the insults, the need to beg for scraps, that much more tolerable. So, they were chasing after him, calling him such rude names I dare not repeat them (your mother might be listening and could get ideas). That’s when he felt the first stage of the first change rip his body apart, and he stumbled from the pain. No, can’t say it is like tearing paper, fabric, or gas. It was like having your skin ripped off after every bone in your body has been broken and your guts shredded.
First, the dogs became quite distressed. He always smelled like they did, and seemed to understand them better than most. Now, he was getting as fuzzy as they while sprouting a tail.
The shire reeve, who was about to scold him for his clumsiness, saw the boy’s teeth and face change shape and ran like Pan himself was hunting him.
By the time Gus could study his new shape–tail sticking out of his loincloth, wolfish paws with fingers, hair everywhere but his belly–the town’s council had rushed toward him. The religious council followed. Then came the guilds’ master (no more needed than that, only three craftsmen in town). The ladies of the, um, entertaining night, followed, then the official gardener and all his little helpers showed up.
Lastly, his adoptive slavers, I mean parents arrived. He could not make himself understood now any better than he could before. In fact, his words came out as gruffs and ruffs, growls and howls, woos and mews, and nothing short of gibberish to their ears.
He understood them, well-enough. They meant to kill him.
“The devil works through the boy,” the religious council said.
“We tried to work it out of him,” his adoptive parents said. “He was just too lazy and head strong.”
“His family made him from poor stock,” the guild master said.
“Send him to the pillory,” the queens said.
“To the gallows,” the shire reeve said. They agreed, he would not live.
“Kill him,” they all said. They made their point by gathering pitchforks, bearded axes, and brands to raze the wolfish boy to the ground.
Um, eh-hem. By the time they were ready he was already at the gate running at top speed for the forest. As best he could, that is. You cannot say it’s easy. You see, while he had mastered the skills of walking and running like a boy, the wolf had only just learned to walk. Four feet, which one leads, which follows? What, you don’t know? If you have to ask, you will want to practice. So, that gives us hope, even to Gus.
Let’s try this as an exercise in futility, or diligence, depending on your karma. The crown kingdom of Beaucro‚t, a subordinate to that of Bloedwendor may have one or two grains of silver. They are so corroded by slime and greed they would be missed even by the most skilled of dwarves.
Take Gryphonton, for instance. Just north and six bridges from her crown seat rests the town of Gryphonton. She claims to be the supreme jewel in the Beaucro‚t crown. I can’t see how. Elevation? She sits atop a moor said by the Great Mage to have been a grave to a mighty dwarf king from before the breaking of Bellirand. If you should ask that’s Dvalin’s tomb, writer of the dwarfish tome none but they should know about. When you point out the mound is much younger than that book on biological engineering you are sure to clean something messy for a week.
As for Gryphonton, her residents are moneyed folk whose grancestors arrived on some airship from the glorious halls of Thularia, who was destroyed by a failed experiment a hundred thousand years earlier, or so. Don’t confuse them with facts, though. Sharp as clubs, almost everyone of them. Except for Georgia, that is.
She had intelligence, fair looks, and a headstrong will for a girl her age. None really cared about the first. Most who cared about the second had to await her father’s favor. Why? She is twelve, if you want to know why. As for the last, well, that was really the only thing people seemed to notice, after how pretty she looks. They seemed quite entertained by it all, though. They just loved pointing it out, what a pain in the, um, burro she was. She could not seem to keep to her spinning and weaving and music and everything else that makes a girl good.
That did not include design improvements to the bridge. A girl dose not an engineer make. They built it their way, using years of thought and education they had slept through to make it all happen. The, um, bridge fell apart after the next month’s sweeping rainfall. They thoroughly blamed her, of course, for it. She was meddling in affairs that were no business of hers, after all.
The plan for keeping the goats out of the gardens would not do. I mean, how is a fence going to help? Giving the animals what they want in a place where no one loses would not do at all. Ha! When they complained about the absence of milk, meat, and wool sweaters because they had slaughtered them all, they declared her at fault for meddling in affairs beyond her.
The year the crops all failed across the valley they surely blamed her for it simply because they could think of no one else. After all, had she been a good little girl she would not have displeased the gods. The fact that she had not been born yet didn’t count.
No, wait for it, because it does get worst.
See, the king had a son. The boy thought he was the gods’ best answer for everything, especially women. The thing is, he was such a jerk the only girl he could take to bed, at thirty, was his own hand. That didn’t stop him from trying, or boasting. Don’t get me started on his father, who was in a worst condition because his hand was sleeping with someone else. Um, a lion bit it off, who found the taste very disturbing.
The brilliant king had come up with a plan that he thought quite useful. None in his court or staff, of course, would disagree because he would hang them, quarter, and behead them, in that order. Or worst, he’d demote them. See, he heard about this girl, Georgia, one his son had his eye on. He ordered a marriage with the promise of a promotion to–da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da (sorry, too many da’s in there)–‘in-law to the king!’ Only the king’s son and two-hundred brothers, cousins, in-laws and lap dogs would be superior to that.
Well, as exciting as that prospect was to her father–an associate guild master with black and blue thumbnails–she would have nothing to do with it. Especially after the prince blew his nose into his hands and then went to kiss hers. Ew? Disgusting, you say? You have no idea. It had other odious odors, too. It smelled like he never washed after using the water closet. Ever.
Well, her father would not hear her protests. She said she wanted better: he spoke of duty, and what did a girl know of love, anyway?
Love? She did not say anything about love, only hygiene. Loathing is what she felt. The strength of her repulsion lead her to do something drastic enough that instead of dressing her for a wedding the ladies of court looked in the closet for her. Then hunted for her in the chest, under the bed, then the kitchen.
By the time they drew lots to see who would report the theft of the blessed bride-to-be she was miles from the city gate, and just waiting for her breath to catch up.
She did not just run off, you see. The girl had a plan, the only one a slave could legally use. She would kill herself. She had a small dagger, sharp and ready and just didn’t want anyone to put her back together again. Then, just as she started to walk again it occurred to her that none might know how to do that without making it worst, for everyone.
That made her smile, the image of her stitched back together, an ear where her fingers should be, nose next to her bellybutton. You get the picture.
Ariadne was unusual for a spider. Well, besides being the biggest spider this side of the carboniferous era, and that is unusual enough. To look at a picture of her you might not think so. Fuzzy feet, she has all those eyes, and all those feet, and teeth, and fuzz. Did I forget to mention the feet?
Well, if I were to take you to her lair you might get a better idea of her oddness. See, once a very long time ago–what? No, this happened longer ago than your grandmother’s childhood. No, longer than the stone ages, or the ice ages, nor since you took your last bath. This was before anyone looked human, or gnomish, or dwarfish or elvish were walking around. Maybe my kinsmen, the earliest trolls, were cultivating the vast woodlands the rest of you would love to destroy. This was long after the dinosaurs died out. Okay, a few ragged edges remained of that species that didn’t fly off when you walked up to them.
Where was I? Ulfgard? No, elves? Not that either. Um, tergon or dragon? Not quite right either. Oh, right, spiders. A very long time ago this fellow was trying to build the biggest, bestest, baddest weapon the universe has ever seen just so he could have an extra lump of coal in his fire place. Ariadne is the last of one set of such experiments that research and development had rejected because of their preference for ambush, rather than out right attack. Well, that is all fine and dandy for us because now we have someone interesting to put into our story. That person is a 254-year-old spider the size of your Labrador. She is the last because she was too hungry on her wedding night and, um, ate her husband before the date was finished. So, she had no children. Sad, I know, but there you have it. She is the last one. Now you see what can happen if you go to bed on an empty stomach.
Well, she had found something to help her quest for food, a bag of sweet jelly beans. Are they magic? I really cannot say. After all, what is magic? Is it pulling a skunk out of your hat? Would you want a cart that pulls itself? The glory of another sunset after a bloody and terrifying battle?
She came into her possession fairly enough. A woodsman came with his two sons. He cut the tree down, sat enjoying his lunch with his boys, and she ate them, all. So, you see, they died and left her everything. Now, the beans attract bugs, deer, even bears. Only word gets around, even in the woods. Only a king would be stupid enough to think that bag of beans was there for his own pleasure. No, it would not work on a fool. Ever try to fool a fool? Even if they don’t see you coming, you are likely to miss.
So, there is Gus, drifting through the woods, in his wolf-shirt, sniffing at the stench under his nose that seemed so interesting and offensive at the same time. He did not know what it was, or why it attracted him so much. He just wanted to understand what it was.
And eat something besides berries. Berries are good, don’t get him wrong, there. Best yet, they do not run away laughing at you when you hunt them. A wolf, however human, wants something else, too.
The mice and squirrels just laughed at his hunting skills. The birds either chattered and gossiped, or insulted him with more rude names. Except the jackdaws, who just flew in panic to their king to keep them safe. He tried to remind them that wolves cannot climb trees. This just as Gus dropped from a branch after a pheasant flew off.
The fish didn’t see him coming, with wolf paws that can hold those slippery little, ah, got you. That was a good day of hunting. What he really wanted, though, was a cure. If he had been cursed then could he get cured?
At least he had several clean nights of sleep without being awakened to do meaningless chores his mistress preferred her own children not have to worry about. Shame, that, they were in their twenties and still unemployed. How does that work?
The strange part, of course, he went to sleep in wolf-skin and woke up in boy skin. At first this was surprising–he could really turn back. Then, this was embarrassing, because his loincloth was loose, askew, and revealing. The beavers thought that was hilarious.
Gus thought that troubling, until he realized something. The animals did not mind about all that, not really. They didn’t wear anything they didn’t have at birth. Who else would worry about it, the trees, flowers, and nuts? So, he tightened up, listened to the grumbling in his belly–angrier than normal today–and enjoyed another feast of sour berries.
The sun dropped from the sky when the wolf side of him demanded his turn under the wind. Not that there was much of a choice, only drop his britches there or get them torn some more. So, he loosened the front and waited. Then wondered why his tail wagged like that. Was he happy? He never experienced much of that, so it was new.
Gus traveled east, the way that scent might be traveling. None need worry about why. It gave him something to focus on as he tries to survive.
The sun left longer shadows and the dusk painting the skies with her rosy fingers for the evening. Gus started looking for a river to wash in and a clean patch of sheltered grass to sleep on. He enjoyed the bath, and started rolling down a place to sleep on when he heard sniffling. The noise startled him, at first, fearing the mob had finally caught up with him. When he looked through the thicket, he saw a girl.
Well, not just any girl. She was crying. Really, she looked the way he felt. Um, if she were a boy, that is. Of course she wasn’t, and he noticed the differences quite quickly. She had already taken her cloak off, and was opening her tunic. Wow, he had never seen that, before. Yet the dagger stuck into the log she sat on created questions he’d never though of before. She wasn’t hunting, did not have anything to cut. Yet, he seemed to understand she was dropping her tunic to clear the way for trouble with that knife.
Ah, to kill himself. If he could pull it off, he would surely be free of the curse. Yet he felt sad for this girl. Why would she find this satisfying? What does she need a cure for?
How he could say any of that when he could only talk in barks, growls, whines and moans, he would not know. While he sat there thinking about that he watched the last finger of light peak through the clouds and shine onto a fancy looking bag resting on a tree stump. It looked like a sack filled with glowing jewels. It mesmerized him. He was just right to see it amused the girl, too. That gave him an idea. Maybe he could buy the knife with them, save her life, then use it on himself. Later, he could do that when his nature shaped his hands for it.
The idea gained a fresh spark as they looked on. Look at that cricket. He carried a bouquet of parsley and marigolds, singing a sonata for a girl. Well, any girl, really. Okay, not any girl, she had to be one that looked like his mother, mostly. He would sing, jump to a new place and sing some more. This time he had landed, you see, on the bag, kicking up some dust. He took in a breath and his sonnet rose to operatic quality. That made him happy. So happy in fact, he took another breath to sing a new chorus. And, um, disappeared, bouquet and all.
Okay, that was peculiar. Were the gems magic? The bug certainly seemed enchanted by them. Did he just vanish? Will he reappear?
Well, from her advantage the girl had other questions. She looked at something that filled her with alarm. So, he followed her gaze, and learned why. What he saw, a bit larger than he–and then counting the legs–was a gray and red colored spider, sipping on a cricket like it was a Bloody Mary, garnished with parsley and marigolds.
Terrifying as that was he decided to get that bag of gems and give it to the girl. Why? Well, he would never know sitting on his tail, would he? He had never felt this bold in his life. Like that scent that interested him so much, he just wanted to know what it was all about.
So, he sat on his wolfish haunches, tightened his britches, and took a breath. Why tighten his britches? So they do not get torn, thought I said that. He thought this should be easy enough. Just run up to the thing, snatch it up, and be out of there in no time. The spider was, after all, still eating, right?
Ha! He had never really dealt with spiders, not very much. All those eyes, trip lines, and a knickknack for ambush. His only allies would be a full stomach, and neither of them would have had one in a very long, long time.
Well, he crouched down, started at a slow, cautious creep he had learned from the town cat. He sped along, stopped, looked at the spider, then at the girl–who seemed less easy with the nearby wolf and the spider. Then, he would run, stop and look, run, stop and look again. Yes, my young gnome, that cat taught him so much he did not realize. Then, run faster, leap into the air, and wham! He missed as he stumbled over a trip line and tumbled into the nearby bushes. When he looked back, he could see the spider collecting her silk for mending.
She seemed just a little disappointed in the results, and crept into a hole under a log.
Did that mean she was giving up? Did they ever give up? Was food the only thing that distracted them long enough to catch them off guard? Could you catch them off guard? Did I mention the eyes?
Well, he spent a few minutes thinking about all of that, trying to get his courage to sprout and grow again.
What do you mean he should act his age? He is, I tell you! How brave were you in the presence of a giant spider when you were ten? I thought so. Gnomelings.
While he was there thinking about his choices, one presented itself to him. He was looking at his thoughts as if he had written them on his fingers. Yes, fingers, they weren’t quite wolves’ paws, nor quite like he could walk on two feet. He has fingers, though fuzzy, with long, curvy, black, dog-like fingernails. His thumbs dangled quite high on his leg, yet it still looked more like a thumb than a dewclaw. First, he picked up a twig. Then he selected a twig with some leaves, Then a rock. Tossing that was funny, because it leaned to the left of the tree at which he aimed it. Honestly, he did the same when he tried that a year ago when that cat still wanted him at home.
The experiment and exercise were a success. He looked up at where the spider used to be. They saw nothing. Then he turned to the girl, who was now very interested in the wolf who could pick up and toss a rock or two. He studied the bag of magic treasure. It rested on that tree stump. Next to the bag rooted a rusty ax with the ruined handle. All just as it had for many years, now. The ax did not seem usable.
He looked around, surveyed everything with his eyes; the trees, the shrubs, the sound of wind rushing through the coloring leaves above them. He took in the smell of humus, the snow on the nearby mountain peaks, the berries–that made his stomach grumble–the sweet smell of honeysuckle coming from the girl. That reminded him of the girl. She made his body tingle, his heart swell. He wanted to make her happy, just once. Don’t ask him. He does not know why. He’s only just become that old.
Again, he looked around. The spider’s nest only had litter and dusty webs all around it, no spider. He could see the ragged tatters of webbing throughout the drying canopy, but no spider. Yet he was sure she was there, somewhere, waiting. By now she surely knew about the girl.
He took one last inventory of the wooded clearing and ran for the sack. After so many days of walking and running you are bound to expect him to have mastered that by now. Honestly, he still had much to learn, though, given it had only been two weeks, and the wolf only gets out half the time.
He ran, his aim was good, he leaped, and felt a tug on his tail.
A tug, a jerk, and he was softly rolling into a patch of smelly mushrooms filled with human skelitons. He glanced back just long enough to see a lasso disappear into the tree above the stump, a fine selection of his tail hairs drifting free through the air.
He focused, cooled his breath, felt his heart pounding in his chest. He looked at the girl, the bag, the branches above the stump. Gus stood on all fours, formulating a strategy for what to do next. Then, he shook his head as dust and litter fell on it. He took a breath and was about to shake again when a large clump of moss fell on his rump.
He realized he was in trouble. She had not been idle. She had years of experience and tons of desperation on her side. He just had desperation and a wish to make a girl he did not know happy. Now his life was on the line because of all of that! He didn’t think, just jumped forward. He stopped thinking about the bag, his funny feet, the girl. He just wanted to live. Why? Just moments ago he was willing to buy a knife to kill himself. But now!?
He jumped, dove for the space under a log, and kept going.
So did she. No, the space was far too small for her bulk. That did not keep her from jumping over it. Rather than pouncing on him she watched him scramble for a bramble. That won’t do, so she shot him with her web. Missed.
Missed! She never missed! She missed the next two times she shot at him. With the fourth, however, he tripped on one of her lines, and she lassoed his foot to keep him from running off.
He noticed, of course he would. He had spun around, and was desperately tearing at the rope, trying to get free of it. He noticed, just then, she was dragging threads behind her like a drunken sailor fresh from the privy, having not checked for dangling paper in his britches. That gave him inspiration.
She had just shaken the last rope free when he shot back for that space under the log. She laughed at him, silly didn’t he know she knew that was there?
When she shot at him, though, he had jumped over that log, then up a tree to a branch, Where he turned to look at her. I should say here that all those clever insults he had heard while hunting squirrels came in handy. He repeated them, changing them to fit the situation.
With a mouth shaped like a wolf and all she heard was moaning and groaning. Still, she understood well enough. This little whelp was laughing at her. Her! The queen of all spiders and biggest of them all, he laughed at her?
She shot him. Only he had already jumped clear of the branch. She watched him leap onto a rock, wagging his butt at her. That only angered her even more.
She ran, climbed a tree, and shot at him three times while jumping at him. Oh, you should have seen her sail through the air, the grace, the arch, the ease with which she flew at him, shooting, missing, slamming into a stray branch, then another.
She was not finished, though.
He was running for a patch of dog willows.
She shot a fresh web to a tree just above that patch and swung across the meadow. She displayed all the grace of a hungry athlete, flipping and flaunting all her skills while shooting webs and climbing and singing her happy song of the meal she would soon engorge herself on.
She swung, she shot, he would jump out of the way. What was he trying to prove, dinner and a show? She shot, flipped, sure she would pounce and win her dinner. Only he had run under her and called her ‘scaffold’. Scaffold? What does that mean? Is it supposed to be funny or insulting?
She shifted her trajectory, pushed off a tree trunk, bounced off a rock, and flew with all her skill and grace for the spot he was at, panting, catching his breath.
At last, dinner.
Only she landed in a hammock of her own threads. It consisted of bundles of her best, and stickiest ropes. First, she tried to climb down. Except the threads spread her legs out about as far as they could and still be attached to her body. The threads would not let them move more than an inch or so. Then, the hammock started to roll. That was helpful, let her bring her legs in. Her web stretched them unnaturally far for her comfort.
Well, now, the ropes she wrapped herself in, tied, glued, and bound her far better than she could bind any of her prey.
Um, there is a reason spiders like to ambush their prey. They have not much endurance when it comes to exercise. So, after all that running and flying about she was at the bottom of her reserves. Mind you, they were already depleted when the hunt started. So, she relaxed, rested, and watched as the wolf plucked the bag of jelly beans off the stump, and carried them to the girl.
The girl seemed to understand, and accepted the gift. She struggled to make it look like she was enjoying them, rock hard and stale as they were. That is when they watched the wolf grow, um wider, thinner, and his legs change shape into arms and legs.
Then he stood up on his feet, looking at the girl with a warm, happy, nearly breathless smile.
The girl watched that with mild alarm, him changing from wolf to boy. She had heard stories about the ulfgard, how they would eat people as the king would command. This wolf, um, boy might not be interested in her like that. Just interested in her in another way.
She smiled, and blushed. It was obvious she was trying not to look down.
Well, he noticed that, looked down, and blushed. All those days of not worrying about it and today he should have. He gathered the front edge of his loincloth and tucked it in.
After returning a sly smirk to the girl, he did the most insulting thing he could dare. He turned to the spider, and curtsied. He then snatched the knife from the log and tucked it, carefully, into his waist. After all, he had just risked everything to keep her from killing herself. All he needed was for her to try it now.