And so the adventures of Willow Rollins roll on. I’ve managed another doodle of a member of the cast and included it below, which you’ll find above the prose, which goes on toward the bottom. Be sure to bring yourself up to speed with Chapter One and Chapter Two if you haven’t yet, and then, by all means, please enjoy the next installment of this very rough draft of a story that takes place in the world of Aeldun. For more of Aeldun’s creatures and peoples, you might check out my first novel, Glimpses of Heather. Be well and travel far!
The Lechari lived in darkness, deep beneath the forest from which they took their name, among stone and root, spinning webs and mixing potions, and rarely dealing with the other peoples of Aeldun. Their secrecy was originally borne of habit more than necessity, but as time marched on those groups unscathed by the dawn of the second age became targets for the power hungry and corrupt, who longed for the return of those potent magics so freely wielded by the Archmagi Ilphaeri. The Sable Sundering had changed Aeldun from a land immersed in a sea of the arcane to one of shallow wells and vernal springs, tide pools severed from the ocean. The Lechari were compelled by their goddess, Eropethi, to remain out of sight for their own safety and to keep the new leaders of the human tribes as distant from true magics as possible.
Now and then a member of the coven would venture into the towns or cities of her own accord, seeking contact with the outside world under the guise of collecting specimens and knowledge. They knew enough to keep their secrets, but just the same they longed to share themselves and be welcomed, so they donned disguises and altered their forms to appear as bipedal as possible, and slipped into crowds to be one with Ael’s other children. These Lechari were called Nisabi by their kin, which meant not self in their whispering tongue. Of those who longed to be Nisabi but lacked the clout or spell forms there were few, and they were often ridiculed for their cowardice or arcane ineptitude, and in turn they eschewed most group rituals and customs and built their own private dens far removed from the scathing remarks of their sisters. It was a lonely way to be and made the want of company – especially of those who had yet to scorn them – all the more tragic and consuming.
Frei Gespinst was just such a woman.
Her home was built into a passage parallel to the corpse sluice, which she had joined through careful digging and reinforcements. The haunts kept their distance thanks to what talent Frei possessed, but she still disliked their moaning groans and rattling bones, which her barriers could not mute no matter how she tinkered with their glyphs. It made her cross at times, but few things that made Lechari cross made them cross for long. Frei was fond of finding distractions no matter the circumstances and at this she truly excelled. In fact, when she was inducted into the coven she barely managed a wincing twitch as her humanity was twisted into Eropethi’s likeness. She was much too busy recognizing her sisters in spite of their heavy white veils, and picking out their notes from among the cacophony of chanting. Frei had taken a moment before she began her recitation when the first changing had completed, and not because it left the body so racked and tortured that breath could not be squandered upon words and the tongue so dry knew nothing of a syllable, but rather due to her interest in the intricate glass mosaics of her God Queen Eropethi, which filled all but the floor of the great nest at the heart of the Lechari web-works. Afterward, as she rose on her six newly formed spider legs with nary a misstep or weak jointed stumble as her sisters each had, the assembly’s awe was palpable. They asked how she was so nimble so soon and she merely smiled, not quite sure why they asked why, and deeply consumed by her own vanity. The vanity would not last, nor would the celebrity of the sure-footed daughter of Eropethi. No one present for her initiation could likely have predicted where she wound up or with whom she took her tea.
Edart Salbeque squinted in the low light, head still aching from where he was struck into dream, and pondered the surreal table setting at which he sat. It was beautifully scaped, complete with Lechari Silk runner embellished with moonstones, a great gold cistern brimming with a hot herbal drink Edart could not identify, and stacked with sweet berry scones Edart recognized immediately as the signature dish of Heplim’s Tea Cozy Inn. He licked his lips and began to reach for the clotted cream, but found his elbow bound to the cherrywood throne. He realized where he was again and the concussion’s fog lifted long enough for him to focus on his table mate, who was busy threading strands of silk into her guest’s cloak. The tear was long and straight and Frei’s stitching fine as any tailor’s could hope to be.
“Not long now, friend,” she cooed. “Drink your tea, it will clear your head.”
“Not long till what?” he slurred. “Until I’m eaten?”
“We have scones to eat,” she said.
“They’re from Heplim. I’d recognize them anywhere. You stole them along with old Mrs. Dabney?”
“Uh, no, I made them. The lady of Heplim gave me the recipe after we took tea. There we are!” Frei held the cloak up and gave it a generous swish. The repair work was almost invisible to her, thoroughly invisible to the average person in the dim light of her den, and completely invisible to Edart who was still very blurry eyed and confused.
“Where is she now?” Edart glanced about, searching for a bundle of webbing in the shape of the elderly baker or a pile of bones wearing an apron.
“I don’t know.”
“You monster! What did you do to that poor woman?!” He tried to stand but fell short as his head spun and his elbow caught again on the chair.
“I made scones with her.”
“By Ael, you terror!” Edart glared at the pile of pastries with fresh revulsion. “Those aren’t berries, are they?”
“They are.” Frei looked at him, quite puzzled.
“You, you said you made Mrs. Dabney into scones!”
“No, I didn’t. I made them with her. She and I baked.”
“Baked. Baking. The process of cooking breads and cakes and such. You really should take some tea, friend. I am very sorry you hit your head. It can be hard to navigate the tunnels with a heavy fellow in your arms.”
“Heavy?” the stout man looked down at himself with fleeting offense and then returned to his previous concerns. “You didn’t eat Mrs. Dabney?”
“Eat. Eating. The process of mastication and ingestion.”
Frei blinked at him. Edart reconsidered his snarkiness and hoped he hadn’t confirmed his place on the menu, then Frei erupted in laughter, merry and light like bird calls in spring, and was again a mesmerizing beauty to him. He laughed as well. They went on laughing for quite a while and began to eat and drink. Their mirth echoed through Frei’s chamber and out into the sluice where it bounced about briefly before becoming lost to the ancient stones.
After a fourth scone and third cuppa, Edart was feeling much better. His spirits had been lifted by good company, quality medicine, and the realization that his arm wasn’t bound to the chair by anything more sinister than his sleeve. All told he felt a bit silly for how terrifically terrified he had been at first. Frei was polite and generous and quite interested in Edart’s life and business, a pleasure Edart had not enjoyed from anyone but those who desired to undermine his reputation or undercut his prices. If one could find themselves smitten with a half woman half spider who lived deep beneath a very haunted forest and practiced arts no top-side arcanist could properly describe, then smitten Edart was.
“Why,” he ventured delicately, “do you and yours live so far out of sight?”
“We’re not welcome up above. Monsters we are,” she stated with no hint of embarrassment.
“Many of Aeldun’s creatures are uniquely configured. The Darundi tower above us Lostmen and are heavily scaled and fiercely taloned. The Rethazi swim beneath the water and feature myriad colors, some akin to those venomous reptiles they keep as pets. And the Wildkin, well any number of them are so variable in size and adornments one might think them demons at a glance.”
“True,” Frei said thoughtfully. “Though we do not fear them nor they us.”
“No, sir. It’s your kind from which we hide and who shudder with revulsion if we share their roads.”
“Tragic, that is,” Edart tried to flirt.
“I suppose, but we have ways of returning for a time,” she replied, aloof but still courteous, and Edart was reminded of one Willow Rollins with whom he had only tales of failure in the romantic sense. He further wondered where the bespectacled lass had gone and his face told Frei he was deeply deep in thought.
“Where did you go, friend?” Frei asked.
“No place,” he said with a smile.
“You worry for someone. Tell me?”
“Oh, it’s not worry for her well-being. She can more than take care of herself, you see. Sometimes she gets a bit distracted but she never forgets what it was she planned to do.”
“You’re fond of this woman?”
“Not like that.”
“Not like what?”
“Not intimately fond.”
“There is fondness that forgoes intimacy?”
“Yes,” he chuckled. “With this one especially.”
“Go on?” Her curiosity was piqued and she leaned toward Edart, almost looming, her tendrils of white hair threatened by crumb and teacup.
“The Evening Swan is beloved by many people in Chaldoryn and Aeldoryn and in scattered towns throughout the land. Her good deeds are great and many, and the lives she’s touched innumerable given the scope of her heroics. However, few know anything about her person, and ergo many are fond but none – so far as I can tell – have enough personal connection to claim the fondness is intimate. Another intriguing matter is how fond the Swan is of those she saves.”
“She sounds imperceptible and so quite, quite intriguing. I should like to meet this bird.” Frei smiled wide and menacingly but it was clearly an incidental result of her pallor, height, fine sharp features, dark backdrop, and the skittering of her multi-jointed black spider legs.
“I’m quite sure you will, friend. In fact, knowing her as well as I have managed over the years, I dare say she’ll arrive very shortly.” Edart sipped his tea and smiled, gloating over how right he thought himself, yet not truly knowing just how right he was.