The Cave Dweller
(Part 2 of 2)
By John Outram
About the author
AT THE CAVE ENTRANCE, waving his lantern as yet another weary trapper
mounted the pass. Ongur waited inside, honing the edge of a Pictish
tomahawk. If a stranger was so incautious as to sleep before Tamsin
could work her spell, a sharp rap from this weapon would render them
still, and live or dead they could all go down the pit. Tamsin sat in
her corner, tight lipped, watching all through her big brown eyes.
The man Mohab lured to the cave was a tall fellow, maybe six feet and four inches, and broader across the chest even than Ongur. He wore the buckskin jacket of a trapper without a shirt, and a dozen barbaric charms of bone and feather around his neck. Long blond hair flowed unkempt around his shoulders, but unlike most grizzled, bearded trappers passing eastward, his face bore the smoothness of youth. Indeed, he might have seemed a mere boy but for his massive size and the fierce glare of his blue eyes. On his back he carried a pack of heavy furs and a hunting bow; at his right hip, opposite the usual hunting knife, was buckled a scabbarded sword. Setting down his load, he announced his name as Kavlar.
“Well, then, sirrah Kavlar, welcome, welcome, and have some broth with us,” Mohab fussed as he introduced his companions. Kavlar eyed them all suspiciously, Tamsin no less than the others. He was armed well for a fur trapper. Apart from bow, sword and knife, he wore a throwing knife in each boot and one in a bracer strapped to his right forearm. Watching him warily, Ongur kicked his tomahawk out of sight behind some blankets. This was not a man to be taken in a straight fight.
Mohab went on as before, urging Kavlar to set himself down, offering broth and biscuit and firewater, all of which Tamsin was sent to find. But Kavlar would not sit until the bargain had been made, seeing that the laws of free hospitality were not to be observed.
It seemed he had little need for trade. A small bag of dried meat at his belt would furnish him with rations until he reached Matraban. He had no need for traps or alum, on his eastward journey, even if he decided to return to the Elk River.
“Six days ago I found my partner, Alleas, with his throat cut. Our camp had been raided and our goods scattered. Some of our best furs had been taken, yes, but the salt and alum were trampled in the dirt. How do you read that?” he asked. “Savages would not have done so, nor trapping men, even such as murder their own kind.”
Kavlar glared from one face to another, defying them to answer the riddle.
“To be sure these are dangerous times,” said Mohab solicitously. “What manner of men would commit such a crime, out here in these innocent woods?”
“Two white men and a renegade Pict,” replied Kavlar coldly. “I tracked them upriver for ten miles, caught them as they made camp. They killed my partner and stole my furs, so I showed them no mercy. It only struck me later that they had come a long, long way for a little murder and larceny.”
“Some men are desperate criminals, “ said Mohab. “Tamsin, bring our guest some of this excellent firewater, and some broth. If we cannot tempt you to any other trade, sirrah Kavlar, then a night’s bed and some victuals in exchange for news from the Elk River sounds a fair exchange.”
Kavlar nodded curtly and consented to sit by the fire. The girl brought out the jug and three cups, then busied herself with cooking the meal while the men talked. Like Leainne before him, Kavlar drank cautiously, letting Mohab get merry and garrulous while remaining alert himself. Soon the patch-coated trader settled down on the ground, and within seconds he was snoring. Ongur, too, stretched himself out, but he did not sleep.
“Mohab carries a fine knife in his belt,” said Kavlar as Tamsin came to refill his cup.
“You think so?” she replied with a smile. “He bought it from a Keldish trapper, in return for some alum and provisions for Matraban.”
“If you want to see something fine,” she whispered, “follow me when Ongur is asleep.”
“He seems asleep now,” replied Kavlar, glancing at the half-breed, whose eyes remained tight shut. “Lead on, girl.”
She took his hand and led him to the narrow split in the cavern wall. Taking a torch from its bracket, she beckoned him through the gap.
“Where are we going?” he asked, unbuckling his sword belt to make the passage easier. Though broad across the shoulders, Kavlar was lithe and limber, and with his scabbarded sword in his hand he slipped through almost as easily as she.
“You’ll see,” she replied with a toss of her hair. She turned back at the edge of the chasm and, on impulse, pulled him close and kissed him full on the lips. He was a handsome lad, after all, better company than she had enjoyed in many years, and she toyed with the idea of sending him to the pit later rather than sooner.
As she drew away from the kiss, Kavlar seized her by the arm and pushed her back against the cavern wall. His blue eyes blazed in the torchlight and the look on his face was grim.
“Leainne did not sell that knife,” he growled. “If you know what’s good for you, girl, you’ll tell me what they did to him.”
“You’re hurting me!” she gasped, but Kavlar’s expression clearly showed that had been his intention. “It’s what I meant to show you. We cross here. You’ll have to let go my hand –“
Reluctantly, Kavlar released her from his iron grip and watched suspiciously as she crossed the rope bridge. When she reached the far side he made to follow, one hand on the rope and another holding his sword.
“I warn you now,” he threatened, “if you try any tricks I’ll –“
She pulled the pin loose. Kavlar swore in his own tongue as the supports gave way, pitching him sideways. Tamsin chuckled as he teetered on the edge, and then his long arm lashed towards her, seizing her hand to pull himself to safety. Panicking, she tried to throw him off, and his greater weight pulled her over the edge of the cliff. For a moment they hung in space, and then, still locked together, they plunged into the abyss.
Kavlar braced himself for a bone-shattering
encounter with the rocky
floor of cave. For a moment it was a relief to find himself enmeshed in
a soft, sticky web – but when he realised he was stuck fast he was less
pleased. With effort, he managed to work his left hand free, at
the cost of further entangling his right. The girl was still shrieking.
Her torch was hanging from a strand of the sticky material Kavlar had
broken in his fall, and still burned brightly enough to illuminate
They were in a bat cave – even without the torchlight Kavlar would have recognised the stink of guano and the sound of their twittering flight echoing from wall to wall. The cave was vast – the circle of torchlight revealed no walls, only an arch of stone crusted with stalactites, from which the web was suspended on one side. Web it was indeed, though larger than any Kavlar could have imagined. Here and there were bats entangled in its mesh, and spiders the size of cats crept up to them and sucked their blood.
Kavlar did not love spiders, but he had never heard of a man coming to harm through one. As far as he could tell he owed his life to the thick web stretched across the pit into which Tamsin had dropped them. He had fallen on the thickest part, and it bore his weight easily. She was caught further up, suspended upside down with her skirt around her shoulders. She was sobbing hysterically, babbling through frothing lips. Plainly she was more afraid of spiders.
His sword had come loose from its scabbard in the fall. Like the torch, it was entangled in a single strand of silk as thick as a rope and coated with a strong glue, and it dangled a short distance from his hand. He stretched as far as he could, and the web yawed threateningly. A strand snapped and the sword dropped a few inches further from his grasp. Tamsin screamed and began to thrash about.
“Hold still, girl!” he snarled. “Don’t be scared of a few big spiders.”
Tamsin stopped struggling and her screams subsided to a pathetic whine of terror. Kavlar reached more carefully for his sword, but again the web yawed. The taut strands trembled and sang to a peculiar rhythm. Kavlar felt his blood run cold.
“Tuonetar’s black teats!” he swore. “In what pit of hell was that thing spawned?”
With the benefit of the torchlight, he saw what Leainne had only guessed at in the darkness, and the sight was more hideous than anything his imagination could have conjured. Lurking in the shadow it had been a nameless menace, but now it rushed out suddenly and enveloped the girl in its grasp. It was the size of a buffalo, a vast, bloated body supported on eight long legs that bore it with the speed and agility of a leopard across the silken strands of its web. Six eyes gleamed from its loathsome head, set in the forequarters above its six-inch fangs which it sank into the exposed flesh of Tamsin’s leg. She groaned and then went limp and quiet as the venom took effect.
Kavlar reached again and again for the sword that lay tantalisingly beyond his grasp, while the creature drew yards of sticky grey silk from its underside with which to wrap the girl. Only when it was satisfied that she was bound fast did it turn its attention to the man stuck fast in the belly of the web. Kavlar glanced at the torch, still burning below him. Once it had burned away he would be helpless in the dark, unarmed, bound and blinded. That he was unarmed and bound had not entirely dampened his fighting spirit – he had fought clear of such traps before, though never in the face of such a loathsome and deadly foe.
It came down slowly and deliberately, probing with its forelegs, instinctively aware that this was not helpless prey but another dangerous hunter. Kavlar held his breath and waited. Tamsin’s torch flared suddenly as the strand that bound it caught fire, and then it dropped into the empty space below. As the light disappeared, Kavlar saw the spider coming for him, fangs unsheathed and dripping venom. The web dipped with their combined weight, and Kavlar made one last desperate lunge for the hilt of his sword. Then the darkness closed around him, and the Waren war-cry echoed from wall to wall, sending the bats swirling in a frenzy.
Ongur climbed across the face of the mountain at
dawn to see what had
fallen through the cracks from the monster’s lair. He waved his torch
to chase away the baby spiders, each as big as his hand, that had come
down to feed on the insects that crawled in the thick layers of guano.
The rock narrowed above him so that their mother could not creep
through – in any case, he knew she disliked the light. The bones of
bats and other creatures crunched under his feet. He kicked away a
human skull, of which there were more than a few, for she had got the
taste for human flesh long before he and Mohab had found this place.
Sometimes it took months for the bones to come down, but heavy items
like weapons and wallets usually came down quickly.
He came across Tamsin’s body almost straight away. Her face had that distinctive colour he had seen on the faces of the spider’s victims before, though he was surprised to see that her blood had not been sucked from her. He glanced upwards, and saw a tangle of spindly legs poking through the gap.
“I guess you got careless, girl,” he muttered.
“Tamsin?” asked a voice behind him. “Or the spider? Which will you miss the most?”
Ongur turned and raised his axe, but he had hardly begun to bring it down when Kavlar’s sword ripped through his guts. The Waren pushed the sword in as far as it would go before wrenching it clear. Ongur writhed and groaned for a while and then lay still. It was a cleaner death than he had granted his many victims.
Kavlar wiped his blade and looked around him. Bats were still swirling in the morning light, disturbed by the intrusion of men into the vast and intricate system of caves that was their home. Thousands upon thousands of bats roosted in the vastness within, more living creatures than inhabited the greatest and most crowded cities of the world. That huge source of living flesh had caused the birth of a freakish race of spiders, and one more freakish and huge than all the rest. Now she was dead, and Kavlar hoped the world would never spawn another. But monstrous as she was, he considered the men who preyed upon their brethren of the wilderness more monstrous still.
He caught Mohab at breakfast. The robber-trader greeted him with a smile, ignoring the blood and grime on Kavlar’s skin and inviting him to join him by the fire. Once he was within striking distance, Mohab drew his staghorn-hilted knife and struck low and fast. Kavlar stepped aside and clubbed the man down with the pommel of his sword. He snatched up the knife and looked at it carefully.
“It was the knife that gave you away,” Kavlar said calmly. “Leainne always said he would never sell it. I wondered why…”
He took hold of the amber pommel and twisted. With a little effort, it unscrewed from its silver bindings, and revealed that the hilt was hollow within. Kavlar tipped out a handful of bright yellow grains.
“So that was his secret,” he smiled, essentially to himself since Mohab would not live to share it. “There is gold in the Elk River. A hundred men between here and Matraban would kill for the secret of where it was found. It was Leainne’s misfortune to fall in with men who would kill just for a knife with a fancy handle.”
He lifted Mohab by the hair.
“And it was your misfortune to fall in with me,” he smiled, “If she was still alive, I’d drop you down the pit and let you see to what death you sent others. A cut throat is too good for you. Maybe I’ll just hamstring you and let you crawl back to Matraban. What do you say, my friend”
Mohab just groaned.
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